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The Beginning of the Trinity

June 7, 1998, 7:00 pm & 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Trinity Sunday
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Pastor Emeritus

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15;

Someone once described the difference between Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church and all of the other Protestant churches in New York City this way: if Trinity Sunday and Mother's Day were to coincide, while the sermons in most of the other churches in town would laud motherhood, the Madison Avenue Pulpit would wrestle with the majestic mystery of the Trinity. Though this is not Mothers' Day, it is the festival of the Trinity, the day set aside in the Christian year to think about God as God, as well as God for us, and therefore time, once again to wrestle with the majestic mystery of the Trinity.

Trinity is not a biblical term; no biblical writer used it. Yet, the doctrine is biblical, or the church would not continue to hold to it. We see some of the traces of its beginnings in the lessons today, especially the gospel, consequently the sermon title: “The Beginning of the Trinity. In four short verses Jesus talks about the unity of himself with the Father and the Holy Spirit. He begins by saying everything which belongs to the Father has been given to himself. Then he says that he has much more to tell the disciples about himself, but they cannot bear that knowledge now. Never mind, when the Spirit of Truth comes, he will take what belongs to Jesus and declare it to Jesus' followers. In other words, it will be up to the Spirit to guide them into the truth about Jesus. For now, it is enough to know that there is a unity between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Paul also points to the beginning of the Trinity in the epistle lesson today, telling us that you and I have peace with God [the Father] through our Lord Jesus Christ, and continue to experience God's love in our lives because it is being poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Though Paul has not put it together in a coherent doctrine of the Trinity, its beginnings are there. A good Jew, Paul is firmly rooted in and shaped by the Old Testament conviction that “The Lord is God, the Lord alone.”1 But he has also experienced Jesus Christ as Lord, and God's Spirit testifying to that Lordship. Paul's point is that all three are at work to bring us into a relationship which brings joy and peace.

As the writing of the New Testament comes to a close, the church is beginning to wrestle with the implications of all of this, trusting the Spirit of Truth to lead them into the truth about Jesus. The question is: what does it mean to call Jesus, not only God's Son, but also Lord and Savior, and the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Lord? Convinced of God's unity, the church searches for ways to give witness to the fact that we experience God present in Jesus Christ so powerfully that Thomas could confess “my Lord and my God,”2 and, we experience God's presence through the Holy Spirit. As the church began to baptize in the three-fold name of God -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit --its preachers and teachers began thinking hard and carefully about the relationships between the three.

One of the things they had to struggle with was that they were confessing Jesus as Lord. Lord, is of course, God's name, the one God gave Moses at Sinai.3 Yet, before Thomas confessed it and the church used it, Jesus regularly used the divine name for himself. Read the gospel of John carefully. Almost every time Jesus says of himself “I Am,” he is speaking the Divine Name, which by then was blasphemy to utter. Think of it, “I am the bread of life, the good shepherd, the vine, the light of the world, the way, the truth and the life,” and most baldly, “Before Abraham was, I am.”4 Jesus is using the name of the Lord for himself. What is this relationship between the one Jesus calls “Father” and Jesus himself. Is Jesus the “Father's” created Son as you and I are created children of God? Is he like the wisdom spoken of in our first lesson, one more part of creation? Or, was he of the same “substance” or “essence?”5 To put it more plainly still, was he of the same “stuff” as God. Is he God born out of God, or simply the first one in God's order of creation?

Yesterday, in the Inquirers seminar, I drew the distinction between a begotten and adopted child, which was the way the argument was structured in the second and third centuries. I spoke of our two daughters and our foster son. We love them all, but Larra and Rebecca are of the same stuff, possess the same DNA. Jim, our foster son, as beloved as he is, possesses another's DNA. The church of the second through fourth centuries was divided over the notion of sonship, part coming down on the side of adoption, the other on the side of “only begotten,” and argued to the point of schism, making the contemporary debate over human sexuality seem mild. Finally, the Emperor Constantine decided it was time to resolve the controversy and in 325 convened the ecumenical council at Nicaea. The council was guided by what Jesus had said in today's lesson: “All that the Father has is mine.” In a moment we will confess the creed, which defined Jesus as God from God, or God out of God -- the preposition can be translated both ways -- Light from light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father, through whom all things were made.

Jesus and the Father were part of the same Lord. So too for the Spirit. The Holy Spirit, the present tense of God, was also “the Lord,” as the creed says, “the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father through the son.”6 This Spirit which appears across the pages of the Old Testament beginning as that wind which brudingly blew across the face of formless chaos in the first chapter of Genesis, or that gust of life-giving breath first breathed into the Adam's nostrils, transforming him from clay to flesh and blood, or that power inspiring prophets, raising up judges, and resting on Kings, that Spirit is also the Lord.

And so there is a unity: it is the Lord. All of those names which come from what the Lord does -- creator, redeemer, sustainer, friend, vindicator, liberator, rock, light, higher power, source of all that is, -- each of those names is a function of the one Lord. I want you to notice something that you may not have seen until now. Most of the names used for God across the pages of scripture can be used quite interchangeably both for the Father, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit. Each is creator, for Father, Son and Spirit each participates in creation. Each redeems, each sustains. For creating, redeeming and sustaining is a function in which each participates. That is why, by the way, the contemporary attempt to avoid using masculine language for God by reverting to a trinity of “Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer” is faulty theology. In using functional terms appropriate to any of the three, it fails to describe the uniqueness of the relationships between them, and, fails to describe the uniqueness of each of those relationships to you and me. And that is the point behind all of this business of the Trinity -- it has to do with relationship.

But within that unity of the Lord there are also three distinct relationships. There is only one God, but a tripartite identity that is relational and distinct: Father, the source of life, and two issues, the Son and the Spirit. Each are totally related to and dependent upon one another as the Lord, yet each is also unique, so unique we speak of each as a “person,”7 a “mode of being,” a “face,” or “manifestation of the Lord.” They are not three separate Lords, three separate Gods. Rather, they are three separate and unique relationships within the same entity. Historically the church has explained this, by analogy, noting that it is possible for one thing -- object, concept or human being -- to have three different relationships. I am a son, a husband and a father, all three are different relationships, yet, each is connected to me as the same person. I am the same person in each of those relationships, though my interaction with my parents is different than my interaction with my wife or our children. St. Augustine's famous analogy is of the mind with its three unique characteristics of memory, intelligence, and will. Each is a part of the mind, but each acts in its own unique way as all three are involved in the process of thinking about oneself.8 Another human analogy is the one we most use about ourselves: body, mind, spirit; we are three, but only one. Remove any one of the three and we would cease to be. Yet, each is so unique that we think of it as a distinct entity. Another is our three-fold concepts of mind, heart and will; we have minds to know, hearts to love, wills to act. This human trinity is analogous to the Divine one of Father, Son and Spirit, three dimensions, three faces of the One Lord.

The equilateral triangle is still the best symbol I think. Whether you focus on the points or the planes, each is related to the other, but each has its own purpose. When you look at it, you see how it is possible for one reality to have three different, yet interrelated and dependent parts, each with a specific relationship to us.

And this, finally is the point to the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity is not a mathematical speculation about God. Nor is it an attempt to create three Gods. It is rather a confession that you and I encounter God in three unique forms of personal existence: God the Father: the ineffable mystery behind all creation who is its source, and who, from the beginning has sought not only to be our creator but to interact with us, and enter into relationship with us; God the Son, the higher power, who entered creation in human flesh to reveal his deep desire for relationship with us, and who would not abandon that pursuit even when we tried to destroy him; and God the Holy Spirit, the One the Father sends forth in Jesus' name, through the Son, to be present to us now, not only to comfort and sustain us, not only to extend the Son's presence to us now, but to continue to speak to us, and lead us more fully into God's truth about the Son. This is the God we worship.

In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, let us stand to confess the faith of the church in the Nicene Creed.

  1. Deuteronomy 6:4-5, this ancient creed of Israel can be translated “the Lord alone” or, “the Lord is one.”
  2. John 20:28
  3. Exodus 3:14
  4. John 4:26, 5:36, 6:35, 6:41, 6:51, 7:28-29, 8:12, 8:23, 8:28, 8:58, 9:5, 10:7-14, 10:36-38, 11:25, 14:6, etc.
  5. These two words, though often synonymous in English, come from two different language groups: Greek (essence) and Latin (substance). Though they mean roughly the same thing in English, they are far more nuanced in their original.
  6. Note that the Western adaption of the creed -- never accepted by the east -- added “and the Son.” Nicaea defined the Spirit as proceeding from the Father only. Today most theologians agree that the formula which best expresses the biblical witness is that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father through the Son.”
  7. It is important to remember that the word “person,” (persona), when used in the Latin version of the Creed, did not bear the same conception of individuality as the word does today.
  8. Augustine On the Trinity, 10, as cited in John H. Leith's Basic Christian Doctrine, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), p. 49

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