On the Trinity
While writing this reflection, I found myself wondering what am I doing? Why am I writing about the Trinity?
After all, this subject matter is among the most difficult and dangerous of all in Christian theology. No shortage of ink has been expended in writing about the Holy Trinity. Likewise, there is no shortage of vicious episodes, starting with the emperor Constantine, which should make one shudder before contemplating the subject.
Because of these concerns, I found myself deeply drawn to the sentiment stated by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in the concluding sentence of his famous Tractatus Logico Philosophicus: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”
Quite often, I have found great wisdom in this phrase, and yet I betray this sentiment as I dare to take up the daunting task of speaking about a subject which must be pass over in silence – the subject of the Holy Trinity.
So, let us, for a moment, hark back to the world of the ancient Greek thinkers who painted a picture of the world on the canvas of reality with the strokes of colourful ideas. To this day we are in debt of these thinkers.
Plato, one of the most important of them all, pointed out that our reality is divided into two worlds (Republic). On the one hand, we have a world of everyday visibility. The world we see, smell, hear, feel, and touch. This is the world that is always changing, which is why he called it the world of “becoming.”
On the other hand, there is the true world, the ideal and invisible world, but nonetheless absolutely real. This is the world of unchanging “Being.” In this world, everything is perfect. The world of Being is the world of ideal “Forms,” is the world of perfection. But, on the contrary, everything that is visible is imperfect and inferior. This is because everything we see – chairs, table, tree, mountains, sea, river – is a photocopy of the original copy that remains in the invisible world of unchanging Being.
Now, if everything in the visible world is based on its original copy in heaven, then there is a problem as far as Christian faith is concerned. For traditional Christianity celebrates the creation of the world is out of nothing (not ex nihilo). But this was not how the Christians initially thought. In fact, in the beginning, the church leaders used Plato’s idea to explain the genesis of the world. Theologians such as Clement and Origen held tightly to Plato’s idea.
But comes the fourth century Christians rejected this view as fragile and imperfect. They believed that God had created everything from absolute nothingness. Human being is not a photocopy of the perfect “Being” in heaven. It is not simply a matter of drawing distinction without a difference. Instead, God is distinctly different, a wholly other from the fragile humans. God and humanity are not akin, as in Greek thought. Humanity is eternally separated from God.
Parallel to this view, Christians knew that Jesus had saved them by his suffering death. Slowly but strongly, a thought emerged that somehow Christ has enabled them to cross the gulf that separated God from humanity. The question was how had he done it? Did Christ belong to the divine realm, a domain of God alone? Or he belongs to the fragile created order? Which side of the divine chasm did Jesus belong?
It was these questions, asked by Arius, a charismatic presbyter of Alexandria, that gave birth to the dogma of Trinity.
Somewhere around 318CE Arius posed a challenge that was impossible to ignore. He made his case in the following way. If Christ was God, then he could save humanity. On the other hand, if he were truly God then how could he really suffer on the cross, for God the father is impassible. God cannot suffer. God is beyond suffering, claimed Arius.
Arius did not deny the divinity of Jesus. He simply claimed that Jesus was a lower grade of God – a demi-god. This implies that he is neither fully God, nor fully human. These views were subversive, they issued a new challenge to the church authority.
Another charismatic figure rose to the challenge. His name was Athanasius. In his book On the Incarnation, Athanasius carefully deals with the questions put forth by Arius. He rejects the idea that Jesus could be a demi-god, claiming that such ideas are not consistent with the gospels.
In response, Athanasius offered an early form of Trinitarian view wherein the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were one but at the same time distinct from each other. In the end, Athanasius had the upper hand, although he would not be alive to witness the victory. In the year 381 AD, the church accepted the Trinity as generally understood today. It became the official belief and teaching concerning the nature of God.
One would think that the final nails are driven into the box of orthodoxy. But even though the Trinitarian camp received most of the votes at the 4th century Ecumenical Councils, the minority Christian groups, who lost the vote, did not disappear. And, even among the majority, there were diverse interpretations of the orthodox creeds.
Subsequent Christian community did their best to reflect on their experience of God from the limits of their time and place. And we can give thanks to God for their efforts.
But today our challenge is the same as it has been for people of faith in every age. We are called to reflect about God as best we can on the basis of our personal experience, while taking into account the wisdom of the past.
For example, we may, find it insufficient to limit our language about God to the classic Trinitarian formulation of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” In doing so we will not be alone. Limiting ourselves to an exclusive formulation of God would be inadequate reflection of our twenty-first century experience. Instead of giving up on it, we need to bring many names for the Trinity.
We are lucky, there is strong precedent for this in the Christian tradition. In the 4th century, St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo, in Algeria, listed twenty different formulations for the Trinity in his book De Trinitate (“On the Trinity”).
Perhaps, the most famous example of St. Augustine’s twenty attempts at alternative Trinitarian language is: “Lover, Beloved, Love.”
In this system, God is the Lover and Jesus is the Beloved and the Spirit is Love. Holy Spirit is the bond of love between God the Lover and Christ the Beloved. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Lover, Beloved, Love.
What Augustine shows us is that the concept of the Trinity is far from being an intellectual obstacle. Instead, it is a relational framework opening us up to the mystery of God and the mystery of creation. To God the Lover. To God the beloved, revealed in Jesus Christ. To God, the Love, whose work continues through the work of the Holy Spirit among us.
The Holy Trinity is neither a definition of God nor a description of God. It is instead a description of the human experience of God. We experience God as the source of love beyond any human limitations and we call that God “the Father.” We experience God in the community as the ultimate experience of love, and we call that dimension Holy Spirit.
We experience the love of God coming to us through the lives of others, and, for those of us who are Christians, coming to us uniquely through the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and we name him “Son”.
In no manner, we have defined God. We have defined only what we believe is our experience of God.
In a way, Augustine leaves the ball in our court. It is our turn. It is up to us to reflect on our experience of God in this world. The Holy Trinity is not the final destination but only a point of departure to delve deeply into this chaotic and broken world to discover God’s beauty in the most surprising people and places.
We are reminded not to limit our language about God to the classic Trinitarian formulation of the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Instead, to bring many names for God, many names for the Trinity.
For through the Holy Trinity, we make sense of the God we experience as real and the God to whom we are drawn.