This was the short/written version of my sermon for Trinity Sunday, 27 May 2018.
When it comes to religion, this is the question behind every question. The very concept of ‘theology’ is precisely the matter of exploring this question. Who, or what, is God? Every religion and philosophy has its own process for working through its theology. As far as we are concerned, Christianity is a religion of revelation.
We do not believe and teach that our faith is something that was, or even could have been, figured out by any person or group of people, nor that it can be decisively proven to others. Rather, we believe what we believe because of God’s direct action and activity in revealing himself to us. For, if God was someone we can figure out on our own, he cannot be that impressive. The infinity of the divine must condescend to us if we are to know anything sure about it. That is what God has done, time and time again. As the epistle to the Hebrews begins, “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (1:1-2).
Old Testament Theology
Our OT lesson from Exodus 3:1-6 tells us of one such encounter. Regarding the burning bush:
- It is a theophany; an visible manifestation of God’s presence. The miraculous fire that doesn’t burn, the voice, the angel, each are indicators of divine activity.
- Many see here the pre-incarnate Christ. There are several instances in the Old Testament of “the Angel of the LORD” speaking as if he were God himself. This has often been interpreted to be specifically God the Son, taking the appearance of man, who would later take on the very flesh of man in the womb of the Virgin.
- For example, St. Athanasius taught from this passage that God the Word revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush to foreshadow his eventual incarnation. He’s called the Angel of the LORD because he is the angel or messenger of the Father who reveal’s the Father’s will, and what’s more, he is the Father’s will, his only-begotten Son.
- There is here also a possible picture of the Trinity. God the Father speaking, God the Son appearing like an angel, God the Holy Spirit as the fire.
- On a side note, the instruction that Moses take off his shoes was a warning concerning God’s holiness. It was a temporary command, not one that would be mandated for all proper worship of God. This concern for the approach to God’s holiness would soon be resolved with the establishment of the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, and finally in the person of Jesus Christ.
Later in this encounter, beyond what was read this morning, God’s name is revealed to Moses: “I am”, “I exist”, etc. This is a word that is as difficult to pronounce in Hebrew as it is to translate into English. For centuries we’ve used the name “Jehovah” to approximate God’s Name, but that not only uses the wrong vowels but also mangles the consonants from the original language. For the majority of our Bible translations we’ve simply stuck with “LORD” or “Lord GOD” in all capital letters to denote when God’s name is being used. This is in accord both with Jewish tradition of never pronouncing the Name aloud, as well as early Christian tradition in using the translation “Kyrie”, which is Greek for “Lord.” Complications aside, its approximate meaning is “I Am,” in various possible tenses. This is very important for understanding who God is: God is the One Who Exists. Everything else is derivative from that.
I also want to bring to your attention part of the Shema, a Jewish prayer drawn from the introduction to the Decalogue, and other places: “The LORD your God, the Lord is one.” When you combine this with the name “I Am”, you get what theologians call the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity. This doesn’t mean that God is simple to understand, it means God is simple in the philosophical sense: he is not made up of parts, but is a single unity. God has no body parts, he has no organs or biological systems, no gender, no cells, or any physical matter which can be analyzed and separated into more basic components. Intangibly this is still true, God is not made of emotions or ideas or ingredients.
- God is one, first and foremost.
- Everything else (love, holy, just, wisdom, creator, etc.) are attributes of the One Who Is. So, while we can study or meditate on these things individually, we cannot truly understand God as any of them on their own. They are attributes of the One, not parts of a whole.
- Along these lines, throughout the Old Testament, God is revealed to be like many things to his people: a Shepherd, a king, a father, a husband.
- All of these things are made more clear and real in Christ, who says that he is the Good Shepherd, etc…
New Testament Theology
Okay, so mentioning Jesus brings us into a tricky situation. We now have two, plus the Holy Spirit for a total of three, apparent ‘faces’ of God that coexist and interact. This is no more a challenge to the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity than the fact that the One God has many attributes and names or titles. But it does merit further consideration and searching of the Scriptures for us to make some sense of it. The word that we eventually came up for it is “Trinity.” God is three-in-one and one-in-three. It feels like a paradox to us mere mortals, but it’s simply the only way to preserve the divine simplicity he revealed in the past, and the multiple faces that he hinted at in the Old Testament and showed us most clearly in the New.
Thus the doctrine of the Trinity: one God, three faces, or persons. The Father is God. The Son is God. The Holy Spirit is God. And yet they are not three gods, but one God. The Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct from one another, yet are one being. They aren’t parts of God, but are each fully God.
This is a point where other religions that preach one God really attack us.
- Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians, Oneness Pentecostals, etc. often use knee-jerk arguments to catch us off guard: “why so complicated?” or “how does X and Y reconcile?” These are primarily emotional arguments, anti-intellectual. They have failed to wrestle with the text of Scripture and receive the help of Christians who have come before. And so instead they have invented doctrines that they claim are simpler and more honest with the text of Scripture, deceiving themselves and planting the seeds of doubt in true Christians who listen to them.
- What they, and we, need to understand is that the doctrine of the Trinity is not an invention of the early church, nor even an invention of the New Testament. It is merely a clarification of what God has always been revealing about himself to his people throughout history.
- Another classic example: the Trinity is present in Genesis 1’s creation story: the Father speaks, the Son is the Word that creates, and the Spirit “hovers over the waters,” ready to enact the Word. Could this be interpreted differently on its own? But it’s not on its own; it’s bound up with the rest of the Torah, and the Old Testament, and with the New Testament, into one Bible. With the mounting evidence of the entirety of Sacred Scriptures, there is no other interpretation left: according to what God has revealed to us therein, God is Trinity in Unity, and Unity in Trinity.
This makes for an important side note: never listen to the testimony of one witness in defiance against all others. If one person teaches something in contradiction to the continuous line of Christian teachers before him, you know he is a false prophet. If one passage of Scripture seems to teach something in contradiction to other parts of Scripture, then the interpretation is wrong. This is a simple and basic warning, but even the most intelligent people can fall into it. All you have to do is nurture a profound respect for a particular person, or an insistence on a particular interpretation of a favorite Bible verse, and boom, you have a gateway opened up to land you in a cult of someone else’s or your own making. Always, always, check your teachings and ideas with the teachings and ideas of others!
What do we do with the doctrine of the Trinity? First and foremost, we know God. It is the most marvelous gift of the Christian faith and religion that we might know God, not from afar, but intimately. Even though God is beyond our ability to know him fully, beyond our comprehension, it is a precious thing that he shown us himself so closely that we’ve actually had to invent a word to describe him. We believe the doctrine of the Trinity not simply because that’s what the Early Church and the Bible tell us to believe, but because that is the closest estimation we have of God’s very identity. If you would love God, you must know God!
And the close second, this enables us to worship God. Just as you must know God in order to love God, so you must also know God in order to worship God. Oftentimes, when it comes to religion, people want to emphasize something else: one might want to talk about the Gospel, one might want to talk about the Church or “community,” one might want to talk about justice, or another, the love of Jesus, or another, human perfection in the divine. But all of this is literally meaningless unless we deal with the very first question: who is God? If you don’t know who God is, how can you talk about being saved, or joining his community, or imitating his justice, receiving his love, or becoming holy?
The greatest beauty of Christianity is that we are a people who know God. We recognize that God is “incomprehensible,” that we cannot completely wrap our minds around him; even all of heaven and earth cannot contain him. Yet we gratefully receive his gift of self-revelation. “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. That Son, Jesus, reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:1-3), and ten days later sent his Spirit that we might “taste the heavenly gift, and become partakers of the Holy Spirit” (Hebrews 6:4).
Ultimately, this is a divine mystery: that is, we know it to be true, though we cannot understand it completely. At the end of the day, let it simply be said, “the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.”
Let us pray:
Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.