How often we repeat the words “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost (or Holy Spirit)” – the so-called “doxology”. But how often, I wonder, do we think about the meaning behind that familiar phrase. It should remind us that the God we worship isn’t just One: but rather One in Three, Three in One – in other words, the Holy Trinity.
The feast of the Most Holy Trinity has long been seen as the preacher’s least favourite Sunday. How are we to go about explaining the doctrine of the Trinity, which must be one of the most complex aspects of our faith? The Creed which was written by Saint Athanasius (which is that creed headed, in the Prayer Book, ‘quicunque vult’) sets out the Church’s understanding of the Trinity, saying that “… we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the substance … the Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Ghost uncreated …” It goes on to say that Father, Son and Holy Ghost are also incomprehensible and eternal – and yet they are not three uncreated, incomprehensible and eternal, but One. And so it continues, becoming ever more mystifying.
According to John Wesley, the writer Jonathan Swift said that “all those who endeavour to explain the Trinity have utterly lost their way … and have hurt the cause which they intended to promote”. Wesley went on to say, in his sermon on the Trinity, that there were many aspects of the natural world which could not be fully understood – such as the nature of light, and what causes the force of gravity. Why, then, should we worry about not understanding the Trinity? Now to modern ears that’s a dangerous argument. Today we have far more confidence in the power of science to explain the world around us than in Wesley’s time, over 200 years ago. People therefore tend to think that if we can’t explain something, it’s probably not true. So if a religious belief – doctrine - can’t easily be explained, people are far more inclined now than when Wesley was preaching to conclude that there must be something wrong with it. Scepticism starts to prevail over faith.
But we mustn’t accept unthinkingly the idea that science is all-powerful. There are many things science still cannot explain. In fact science still doesn’t fully understand light – how, for example, photons of light can behave both as particles and as waves. And we still don’t know exactly what the force of gravity consists of. We can measure it, and predict its effects, but its essential nature remains a mystery. In the same way, then, we would be wrong to abandon the idea of God as Trinity just because we can’t fully understand it.
However, you may say, why believe in something which isn’t mentioned in the Bible? It is true that the word ‘Trinity’ is not found anywhere in the Bible. A few theologians have argued that this is a serious problem, but they are in a minority. The idea of God as Trinity is actually the end-product of a long process of working out the implications of what the Bible says about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. That process of clarifying who God is took around three centuries. It wasn’t straightforward. It made use of concepts drawn from Greek philosophy – such as ‘substance’ and ‘begotten’ – which are used in ways that seem alien to us today when we repeat them in the Nicene Creed. The process also involved some quite heated conflict. One part of that conflict was the famous dispute in which a priest from Alexandria named Arius argued that Christ – the Son of God – was not equal in status to God the Father, but subordinate to Him. The conclusion reached was that Christ and his heavenly Father were in fact of equal status. Not long afterwards it was concluded that the Holy Spirit must also share in that equal status. The result was the doctrine of the Trinity.
That is more or less how the doctrine of the Trinity has been left over the last 1,600 years. Each time we say the Nicene Creed – which was a result of that period of debate in the fourth century – we remind ourselves that God is not just One, but is a Trinity – One in Three and Three in One.
But isn’t all this too full of theological nuances for the busy modern Christian, who just wants to believe in God, follow Jesus and become a better person? It may be difficult; but belief in the Trinity, for a Christian, is not merely an optional extra. Let us see why this is so.
(i) First – let’s say we decided to believe only in God the Father, with Jesus and the Holy Spirit somewhere in the background. We would have a creator God; a source of all that is. We might see him as transcendent – beyond time and space, but rather distant and impersonal. Or we might see him as immanent – God all around us, everywhere in nature and in other people. But it is difficult to see how such a God would communicate with people. He would depend on individuals who claimed to have particular religious insights, or who set themselves up as God’s spokesmen. Or else we would have to look for the inevitably ambiguous signs of God in the world around us. So it’s not enough to say that we have a general belief in a rather mysterious and ill-defined God.
(ii) Let’s look at a second option: to believe in Jesus, but to leave God the Father and God the Holy Spirit on the edge. We see Jesus as a good teacher, and worker of miracles. However, he soon becomes no more than that; and we end up worshipping someone who was just a very good man. The eternal, cosmic, creator God becomes just a hazy blur. Some people, moreover, go too far with the idea of Jesus as a personal friend – resulting in a pseudo-intimacy which can be almost childish, and which prevents us from becoming spiritually mature.
(iii) Third – we might believe primarily in the Holy Spirit, with less emphasis on God the Father and God the Son. We might join one of the many “New Age” religions, for whom the Spirit is a form of power, a force for good, which has its roots within us and in the world around us. It then becomes our task to open ourselves up to this power. Such religions, though, tend not to be good at giving guidance as to what is right and what is wrong. Morality takes second place to personal freedom and spiritual self-expression. Alternatively, we might join one of the Pentecostal churches. These do tend to be biblically based. But there can be a risk that the Holy Spirit and his gifts are seen as the most important – or even the only important – aspect of one’s Christian life.
I hope you can see the sort of results which follow if we don’t believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit in equal measure – if we believe mainly in one of the three at the expense of the other two. Our faith becomes unbalanced. The theologians of the fourth century (the Fathers of the Church) had very practical – as well as theological - reasons for defining God as a Trinity in which Father, Son and Holy Spirit had equal standing. For whether or not we ever fully understand the mystery of the Trinity, that equality, that balance, should be reflected in our faith. A faith in God the Father - Creator both of cosmos and of atom; beyond the universe but also within it. A faith in God the Son – divine but also human, mortal for a time but also conqueror of death; the Way, the Truth, the Life; Redeemer and Judge. And a faith in God the Holy Spirit – Counsellor, Comforter, Advocate, fount of love, source of prayer. A faith, then, in Father, Son and Holy Spirit united in their timelessness and changelessness, but distinct in the various ways in which the world experiences their love. And so each one of us is united with all orthodox Christians who have gone before us, when we proclaim our faith in the Trinity by declaring the Nicene Creed with confidence, saying “I believe”.