This is my sermon for Trinity Sunday 2016 at Grace Anglican Church.
Introduction: theology & history
We’ve just read through the Quincunque Vult, commonly known as the Athanasian Creed. St. Athanasius was a hero of the Faith; he lived in the 300’s during one of the critical moments of Church history when Christianity was just becoming legal and popular, and all manner of false teachings were beginning to flourish and spread. Athanasius mostly had to deal with the heresy called Arianism, based on the teachings of his contemporary, Arius, who taught that “there once was a time when Christ did not exist.” Arius said that Jesus was God, but just that Jesus was not always God. In the beginning was God the Father; the Son of God comes later. The more the Early Church teachers and leaders reflected on this and the Scriptures, the more they realized that this just wouldn’t do. If Jesus really is God, as the Scriptures and liturgy had been proclaiming ever since the time of the Apostles, then he must always have been God, because God is eternal. If Jesus really is God, he must be co-eternal with the Father.
So as these theological ramifications were being worked out, the subject of the Holy Spirit also came into the picture. The term “trinity” was coined in the generation before Athanasius, and was quickly adopted as the best word available to describe the Godhead. Much ink was spilled in those early centuries over how to explain this Trinity without falling into paradox and contradiction. How can we talk about three things: the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, and yet be talking about one God? The standard Creed, written in Nicea in 325 and revised in Constantinople in 381, which we normally say together every Sunday, assumes the doctrine of the Trinity, but doesn’t really explain it. And so today we’ve read this “Athanasian Creed” instead. Despite the nickname, it was not actually written by Saint Athanasius, but by his successors in his honor.
Introduction: ordinary faith
Now, perhaps you’re feeling a bit wary at this point – Fr. Brench is about to go into this long confusing theological thingy and I’m not going to have any idea of how this is going to be useful or important in my life. Well, you’d be half right. We are going to be diving into some real theology this morning, but I hope that its relevance and usefulness will remain clear throughout.
Because, first of all, looking at the doctrine of the Trinity is really the most foundational answer to the big question: “Who is God?” This may not be a question that non-Christians directly ask you very often, but it is often assumed in the way they evaluate us. Whenever there is even a hint of interest or curiosity in faith and religion, the unspoken question is “who is God?” And it’s one of the most important questions that anyone could ever ask! So it’s something we should give some thought to before we get put on the spot!
In actual conversation, though, you’re probably more likely to be asked a slightly different question: “Who is God to you?” This is the question of a pluralist; someone who does not have a defined belief system worked out, and is open to many possibilities of gods, even contradictory ones. Unfortunately, sometimes Christians ask this question too. “I like to think of God as love” one will say. “I like how God is so holy and just, smiting the wicked in the end,” another will answer. Very easily we can latch on to one aspect or image of God, claim it as our own, and rewrite both our theology and our Bible according to that one favorite thing. Even otherwise healthy churches fall into this mistake sometimes by talking about “Jesus-only” to the virtual exclusion of the Father and the Spirit. We have to remember that the question “who is God to you” is a movement towards inventing a god in our own image, rather than respecting the fact that we were made in God’s image.
Starting on His terms: what & who is God?
So let us approach the subject of the Trinity on God’s own terms instead of our own. His revelation of himself through the Prophets and Apostles, definitively collected in the Scriptures, and mulled over by the Church for these two thousand years, have much to offer us. The most important starting point to the vast majority of God’s people, both before Christ and after Christ, is the oneness of God. We are a monotheistic religion: The LORD is God, there is none other. Established in Deuteronomy 6 and repeated by Jesus in Mark 12, the most important commandment of loving God with all our heart, mind, and strength is prefaced by this theological statement: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” There is one true God.
As a result, when we talk about the Father and the Son and the Spirit, we have what we call the unity of substance. This teaching can be found throughout the Scriptures in many forms. Psalm 33:6 says, “by the Word of the Lord were the heavens established, and all the power of them by the Spirit of his mouth.” Here we see that the Word and Spirit are coordinate realities; the work of God is accomplished through both. Another hint, indeed one of the most important Trinitarian references in the entire Bible is in Matthew 28:20, where Jesus instructs us to baptize people “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Given how fundamentally important Holy Baptism is, the fact that Jesus puts his Father, himself, and the Spirit on an equal footing here makes it clear almost from this alone that the three are one-in-the-same God.
With the “what” of God being established as one being, we can now turn to the “who” of God: a trinity of persons. Perhaps this picture (called “the shield of the Trinity”) can be helpful to explain this.
The one God is in the center of the picture. Above it you see that the Father is God. Below it you see also that the Son is God and the Spirit is God. But when you consider the Father or the Son or the Spirit on their own, they are not the same as one another. Somehow, despite their unity of substance, having the same Being, the three are distinct from one another. This has generally been explained as follows.
- The Father is ingenerate, the source or fountainhead of deity. Relationally speaking, the Father is the starting-point for understanding God.
- The Son is begotten of the Father (John 1:14, 1:18, 3:16, 3:18).
- The Spirit proceeds (is breathed out) from the Father (John 15:26). This gets tricky because in the Creed we’re used to saying that the Spirit proceeds “from the Father and the Son.” This is standard in the Western Church but rejected in the East. Although the Gospel of John says the Spirit only proceeds from the Father, the phrase “and the Son” is added because the Spirit is sent into the world from the Father through the Son. A number of times the Spirit is called “the Spirit of Christ” in the New Testament.
An Illustration used by St. Gregory of Nyssa can help put this another way: one torch passes the same fire to a second, and a third torch. Thus you have one fire, yet three torches. A caveat must be added, though, that the ‘lighting’ of the second and third torches is not an historic event, but a relational description. This is why we say the Son is eternally begotten of the Father. There never was a time when the Son or Spirit did not exist; they are equal with one another and the Father in every aspect of Godhood.
How to talk to God (or talk about God)!
Hopefully this helps you make greater sense of the Athanasian Creed. It takes what I’ve explained and spells it out in greater detail. It also uses very strong language at the beginning and end because it was written during a time of enormous controversy as many people were preaching a false Christ, rejecting the divinity of the Holy Spirit, dividing the Trinity into three gods, and other such faith-killing errors. Our reception and use of this Creed is not a scare tactic, as if failure to understand it and sign it results in our damnation. Rather, we use it as a teaching document and a reminder that if we reject the teachings of Christ and his Apostles, we are rejecting the very source of life that God has provided for us.
And, as if knowing better who and what God is isn’t enough for us, we can benefit from the doctrine of the Trinity in other ways.
First of all, grasping the basics of the Trinity helps us to pray. Jesus taught his disciples to pray “Our Father.” Many Christians today insist on completing their prayers with “in Jesus’ name, amen. The New Testament epistles teach us to pray in the power of the Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity brings this all together: we pray to the Father, in the name of the Son, enabled or empowered by the Holy Spirit. Many of our Collects are very formulaic about this: they begin by addressing God the Father, and then end with the phrase “through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end.” Again, it’s the same dynamic of prayer at work, and we’re affirming the simultaneous Three-ness and Oneness of God while we’re at it.
Additionally, having this basic grasp of the Trinity is helpful in telling others about the faith. There is a lot of misunderstanding about the Trinity in the world around us. Muslims, especially, have been known to make grossly inaccurate pictures of the Trinity in an effort to undermine Christians’ faith and convert them to Islam. In college I saw a pamphlet with a picture of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus with the caption “Holy Trinity Or Three Gods? Find out more at the Muslim Students’ Association.” Jews, also, criticize Christianity for straying from the faith of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob because we “also” worship a Jewish man named Jesus. Again, they don’t understand what we’re talking about. And from another direction, Atheists sometimes mock and ridicule Christians. Among the many points of our beliefs that are misunderstood and misrepresented is the Trinity, such that some assert that we claim that Jesus is his own father. Of course this is nonsense, Jesus is the Son of the Father; although both are God, the Father is not the Son. When we get lazy and simplistic, other people treat us accordingly. Now, sure, people who want to mock us will always find something to mock us about. But it does us no favors to feed the flames of their scorn.
So even though the Trinity is one of the most confusing doctrines in all of Christian teaching, it is something for which we give thanks. There’s something comforting about the fact that God is more complicated than we can handle. It’s almost a proof of his reality, that He is beyond human comprehension and we can only understand his Trinity-in-Unity from a distance. It keeps us both intellectually challenged and intellectually humbled. There’s always more to say on the subject, but we’ll leave it at that for today. Let us give thanks to God for his great gift of self-revelation, that even though we can’t fully understand him, we can still know him, and know that he perfectly understands and knows us!