The Song the Angels Sang
"Firmly I believe and truly, God is three and
God is one." There in a nutshell you have the most distinctive and most
perplexing of Christian doctrines, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
I want here to consider first of all where the idea of the Trinity
came from, and second why it is still important for us.
It is not surprising that the first Christians believed that God is
one. They were all Jews, and had been brought up to recite twice daily
Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One. (Deuteronomy
The amazing thing is that they went beyond this and insisted that God
is also "three".
How can such a thing have happened? Not only did it go against the
teaching of their Hebrew Bible, but it also created difficulties when,
from the second century onwards (before the New Testament was put
together), Christians began to express their faith in terms of Greek
We tend to think of the Greeks as having dozens of gods like Zeus and
Apollo and Aphrodite. In fact, serious Greek thinkers in the tradition
of Plato were as insistent as were the Jews that ultimate divinity had
to be single and undivided.
So why did Christians, almost from the beginning, believe and teach
that the Father, Son and Spirit were distinct yet all divine?
No one can say for certain. But it seems to me that the only
convincing reason is that personal experience drove them to it. Their
experience of Jesus in his earthly lifetime, and their experience of
having their own lives transformed after Jesus was no longer with them,
combined to convince them that the Son and the Spirit were not simply
agents of God or symbols of God, but actually were God�s own self.
Whatever the reason, they were faced immediately with a problem. How
could they justify such a radical departure from the plain teaching of
their Jewish scriptures that God is one?
Well, they made a start by looking again at the those same scriptures
to see if there were any clues. And their search was soon rewarded. In
the very first chapter of the very first book of the Hebrew Bible they
And God said, Let us make man in our own image� (Genesis 1.26).
Why "Let us"? Why "our image"? Surely it should be "Let
me make man in my own image"? But it definitely says us
and our. So who is God talking to? We thought he had created the
universe all on his own. There must have been someone else.
They kept searching, and found another possible answer when they came
to the Book of Psalms. There they read:
By the Word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the host
of them by the breath [Spirit] of his mouth. (Psalm 33.6)
In the light of this verse, there are now three possible answers to
the question, "Who created the universe?"
Answer one: God (as it says in Genesis 1). Answer two: the Word of
the Lord (as it says in Psalm 33). Answer three: the Spirit of the Lord
(as it also says in Psalm 33). So perhaps after all it is not impossible
to consider that the creator is in some sense three as well as being
I know that this sounds terribly far-fetched to us. But desperate
situations call for desperate remedies, and the early Church was
desperate to find biblical backing for its religious experience. And
that experience led them inescapably to the belief that Jesus who had
spoken God�s word directly to them, and the Holy Spirit who had invaded
their lives in the wake of Jesus� death, were not merely agents of God
but were God�s own self.
Once the idea took hold that there was a "threeness" about God, other
scripture texts could be found in the Hebrew Bible to support the idea.
Take the great vision of the Lord enthroned in majesty, reported by the
prophet Isaiah. What was the song that the angels sang to worship God?
"Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts". Well there you are. Holy, holy,
holy; one, two, three; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Still far-fetched, you say. But it brings us closer to home. At most
celebrations of the Eucharist the threefold "Holy" is used to address
God at the most solemn part of the service. Why do that if we do not
make some sort of link between the Eucharist and the angelic vision of
Like it or not, we are heirs to the interpretation of the Bible by
those first Christians.
So much for the way the doctrine that "God is three and God is one"
came about. But why do we still celebrate it? Why might it still be
important to us today?
The most obvious answer is to say, "It is important because it is
true." Well, yes. It is true. But we believe lots of things to be true
without making them the single most distinctive doctrine of our creed.
And we believe lots of things about God without insisting on them to the
point that they drive a wedge between Christianity and every other
religious tradition in the world.
For that is what the doctrine of the Holy Trinity does. Against all
religions who say there are many gods, Christianity insists there is
only one. And against the other monotheistic religions - most notably
Judaism and Islam - it insists that God is three.
So what is it about the doctrine of the Trinity that makes it
important enough for Christians to claim that every other religion in
the world has got its teaching about God wrong?
I hesitate to give a one-sentence answer to such a momentous
question, but here goes. The doctrine of the Trinity is essential
because it rules out any and every attempt to over-simplify what we mean
by "God" and "religion".
If philosophers and scientists try to reduce God to the cause behind
the universe, they may have accounted for the first person of the
Trinity, but what about the second and third?
If "Jesus people" try to reduce religion simply to following the
teaching of the sermon on the mount, they may have accounted for the
second person of the Trinity, but what about the first and the third?
And if "charismatics" try to put all the emphasis on spiritual gifts
such as healing and speaking in tongues, they may have accounted for the
third person of the Trinity, but what about the first and the second?
It is because the doctrine of the Trinity is so perplexing that it is
so important. It is a constant reminder to us that God is not an object
that we can analyse and explain. God is beyond our understanding. We can
and we must use all our intellectual powers to seek and to know God, for
there lies the answer to the mystery of human existence itself.
But the Trinity ensures that we shall never fool ourselves into
thinking that we have solved the mystery. In the end, the best - and the
least - that we can do is to worship the mystery in whose image we are
made and, like the seraphim in Isaiah�s vision, cry, "Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord."
That is why the doctrine of the Trinity remains central to the