Matthew 28.19 ... Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my
disciples: baptise them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy
I have yet to meet a preacher who enjoys
preaching on Trinity Sunday. The Trinity remains, to the last, a
theological conundrum - yet we Christians are married, buried, confirmed
and baptised all in the name of the Trinity. What, really, are we to make
of "in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit"?
I remember how as theological students we tried to explain the Trinity
by variously coming up with such aids as a three-coloured national flag, a
triangle, or a three-leafed clover. The idea behind these images was to
point out that the whole wasn't a whole if any part was taken away.
Obviously, a triangle isn't a triangle without three sides, and likewise
the Godhead isn't God with any part of the Trinity missing.
Such mundane arguments may be helpful with the material world, but when
it comes to concepts of God they are woefully inadequate. The problem with
trying to explain the Trinity is that we are attempting to explain what
God actually is, as if God as a trinity truly exists. That might be true,
but I believe it is beyond our knowledge. What we should concentrate on is
why the concept came about in the first place.
The stepping-stones to the concept of the Trinity are reasonably clear.
Jesus undoubtedly thought of God as one might regard a (loving) father,
and thus himself as a son. Equally probable is that he saw his
relationship to God as special, but no more so than that available to
anyone else, depending on their depth of faith. In Jesus' eyes, trust God
completely and you too could have a father/son relationship.
There can be little doubt from the gospels that Jesus had a gift of
outstanding charisma as well as that of healing - gifts which took him way
over the normal boundary of being "one of the crowd". Jesus must have been
very different, but then, people occasionally are. Just occasionally
someone does appear who can move hearts and minds as no other,
infuse their followers with confidence and a zest for life which raises
their expectations onto another plane.
Combine such a quality of leadership with the complex metaphysics of
the first four centuries, and it is little wonder that a god is born,
especially when such a god so tantalisingly tests the hopes and
aspirations of both an ancient religious people, and the philosophical
ideas of the Greek speaking world.
The real turning point for theology about Jesus came when the
previously persecuted faith gained respectability with Rome. The
philosophy of the Greek-speaking world took over. Jesus moves decisively
from man to God. The verses of scripture where Jesus is seen as man and
prophet are subsumed by the (fewer) verses where he is worshipped.
It is a point of interest that even today, Christians will defend the
Trinity with the Thomas confession of "my Lord and my God" at the expense
of Acts 2.22, a "man chosen by God". Most will use Jesus' title of Son of
God rather than Son of Man, even though the latter has greater prominence
in the synoptic gospels. We all tend to choose the verses of scripture
that support our particular stance.
Of course, the Trinity didn't come about purely because it fitted the
Greek worldview of the time. The church found itself with a real
theological dilemma. How could those first disciples have a god amongst
them and a God in heaven? How, after Jesus died and returned to heaven,
could they explain the intense sense they had of Jesus still walking with
them - the road to Emmaus experience?
It may sound cynical, but one could almost say that if the Trinity did
not exist, the early church would have had to invent it. The doctrine of
the Trinity developed to overcome the problem of God being not just
everywhere, but tangibly everywhere, a God who is controlling the universe
and at the same time walking alongside of us. Jesus is gone, but surely he
is still with us.
In short, an incarnational God makes for complex theology. Other major
faiths get around the problem - or rather, don't see it as a problem, but
as a blasphemy - because
- God is in everything anyway (pantheism, Hinduism);
- God is not personal (Buddhism) so the problem doesn't arise;
- God is remote (Islam);
- God has never been truly incarnate (Judaism).
The final irony of this is that there is little in the New Testament to
suggest a trinity to start with. Even when Jesus is worshipped it suggests
it is the power of God within the man being honoured. It is difficult to
directly equate Jesus with God through scripture, even though he may be
"the image of the invisible God", the "first born of creation", and other
Given the mystery of God and his, presumably, complete otherness, even
I find Trinitarian talk helpful. I often say the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus
Christ, son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner") because it is easier to
picture the merciful God as a priest-type figure dispensing his
forgiveness. This is also why the two denominations most able to attract
new converts are the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses. Both in their
literature see Jesus as an easily imagined, gentle yet authoritative, heir
apparent. Their God is very human.
If there is any sense in the idea of a multifaceted God at all, it is
in that each of us has something of God in us. Panentheism (as opposed to
pantheism) probably speaks truer of the nature of God than does
Trinitarian theology, but such thought would rob Jesus of his
particularity, and that is difficult for most Christians.
The Trinity helps people to picture God and to be reassured that he is
indeed concerned for us and able to leave his heavenly realms to help us.
That is a matter of faith and no bad thing. And that is why we go forward:
with faith in God, encouraged by the gospel stories of Jesus, and guided
by the spirit of truth and hope.
Or to put it another way - in the name of the Father, the Son, and the