The Trinity: What and Why?
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son], who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
The Nicene Creed, written above, is the most widely used profession of faith (creed) in Christianity, and sets forth the doctrine of the Trinity. It was originally composed in 325, debated and adapted for over fifty years, and then recognized as the hallmark of orthodoxy (right belief) in 381 at the First Council of Constantinople.
The word “Trinity” comes from the Latin noun “trinitas” meaning “three are one.” Trinity is the term to describe the central doctrine (belief) of the Christian faith. It expresses the belief that God is one Being made up of three distinct Persons who exist in co-equal essence and co-eternal communion as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Are you lost, yet? Believe me, if we started to discuss homoousios, hypostases, nature and will it would get even more confusing! Don’t worry though, even the most serious students of theology would have to admit the Trinity is beyond comprehension. In fact, the Catholic Church has emphasized that the Trinity is the central mystery of the Christian faith. Basically, our understanding of the Trinity must remain incomplete, even after we have chosen to believe it. Sure, we can use analogies and metaphors to begin to understand but we have to admit any comparison we make is inherently limited.
How can the Trinity be both the central doctrine and the central mystery of the Christian faith? The answer lies in the transcendent God, who is unable to be contained by any box or formulation. God has been present for all of history, revealing Himself more and more, in fresh ways. So, it’s important for us to believe in the Trinity, based upon the historical witness of the Church (the Nicene Creed), while also choosing to be humble, knowing that our perception is significantly limited (1 Corinthians 13:12). With this in mind, it would be good to uphold three basis mysteries- that God is one and in some sense three; that Christ is both man and God; and that although the Spirit is not the Father or the Son, He is the Spirit of both.
If you attempt to look up verses on the Trinity, you won’t be able to find the term in your Bible. The most direct Biblical reference comes in Matthew 28:19, “…go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Another reference appears to be Matthew 3:16-17, where, as Jesus came up from being baptized by John the Baptist, the Spirit of God descended like a dove “…and a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’” Besides these passages, there are many others in the New Testament referring to at least one of the three persons within the Trinity. Further, the early Church Fathers were convinced the Old Testament mentioned the three Persons of the Trinity. For example, many of them asserted the Son was the Divine Messenger in Genesis 16:7, 16:18, 21:17, 31:11 and Exodus 3:2, and that the term “Spirit of the Lord,” referred to the third Person of the Trinity.
Since it’s formalization in 381, the doctrine of the Trinity has been a test of membership. Simply put, if you failed, you would likely be thrown out of the church. For me, this is scary on two levels:
First, even as I attempt to introduce the doctrine of the Trinity, I am confident I haven’t understood the Trinity fully, which, of course, is where mystery comes in. But because this doctrine has so often been used to exclude in the past (see adoptionists, Arians, Nestorians, etc), if I’m honest, I’m a little nervous a non-orthodox statement about the Trinity will result in my community either dismissing me or writing me off. I believe the reason so few of us have heard compelling teaching on the nature or significance of the Trinity is because we are nervous about the consequences of misspeaking. So, instead, we either hear weird comparisons of the Trinity being like your pastor’s favorite fruit or the Trinity is assumed to be a universal faith claim of the Church and we make veiled references to it, never diving into the mystery and beauty of the Trinity.
Second, the idea of weaponizing the Trinity in order to exclude is the exact opposite of what the Trinity embodies. Within the Trinity, we see God as a vibrant unity-in-community of self-giving Persons in relationship. The three Persons are not three independent or identical parts; instead, each Person exists in dynamic relationship with the others, always giving, receiving, loving, accepting and acting. In short, the very idea of Personhood in the Trinity is defined by being in relationship. Extending the concept, my relationships with others aren’t optional accessories; they are what and who I am. As divine imager-bearers, taking the cue from our Triune Creator, no longer can we dismiss or banish those with whom we disagree, no longer can we dominate or demand uniformity.
Instead of ignoring the mysterious Trinity, we have to explore the doctrine together in order to determine what message of healing and reconciliation is provided for us. Modeled upon the relational reality of the Triune God, this exploration must take the form of communal conversation, prayer and Biblical examination. What do you understand the Trinity to be? In the midst of volatile posts, racially charged debates and political rants, why does the Trinity matter?