Why the Trinity?
There is a threenesss to Christian worship. We read in our Gospel reading today the command to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). In Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan river the voice of God is heard and the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove (Luke 3). There is a threeness about Jesus’ baptism. From Paul we receive the blessing “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you” (2 Cor 13:13). There is a threeness to Christian worship.
Some might this this is a bit strange. The first Christians were all Jewish. They never actually believed they were a part of a new religion. They believed they were a part of a further development of Judaism. To them the Messiah has now come, but they still considered themselves Jews. One of the things that set Judaism apart from other religions that surrounded them was that they believed in the worship of only one God. The Ten Commandments begin with “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me… for I the Lord your God am a jealous God” (Ex 20:2-3, 5). We read in Isaiah 45:21-22, “…there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me. Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other”. Monotheism was foundational to what it meant to be Jewish. The early Christians had no sense that they were giving up on worshipping one God and one God alone. There was no sense that they now included 2 other Gods to worship alongside the Jewish God. No, they remained worshipping the one God of the Jews.
But, then we read in our Gospel, “When they saw [Jesus], they worshipped him” (Matt 28:17). In the Gospel of John when Jesus appears to Thomas, who doubts the resurrection, he falls to the ground and says, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). He worships Jesus. In the letter to the Colossians we read that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God… all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col1:15, 16-17). Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians the line, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited” (Phil 2:6). Paul is saying Jesus is God. There are many other parts of the New Testament that speak about Jesus as being equated with God. This is present right from the beginning of the Christian movement.
Jesus worship was a part of following Jesus from the very beginning. We even see this in ancient graffiti from around the first century to sometime in the 200’s. There is a drawing on a wall that has the inscription “Alexamenos worships his God” and there is a crude drawing of a man on a cross with the head of a donkey and a man is before this image worshipping. It is making fun of the Christian, obviously, but it tells us that these early Christians were worshipping Jesus.
The Holy Spirit is also equated with God. The Holy Spirit is spoken of as a person (not an impersonal force) and does the things that God does- participating in creation of the world, sanctifying, creating anew at baptism and the resurrection, revealing God, giving light and life, dwelling in the saints as in a temple, joining believers to the Son, being internal to God as a human’s “spirit” is to a human being, and doing all that God does in general. If the two options to choose by are ‘creature’ or ‘God’, it would seem counter-intuitive to say of a being that performs such actions is not God. The theologian David Yeago says,
“Since the spirit does what the Father and the Son uniquely and divinely do (reign as Lord and give life), then the Spirit must be what the Father and the Son are; he must be ‘god’ in the exclusive Old Testament sense”.
From the beginning there was a threeness about Christian Worship. The Trinity really seems to have come from the experience of the early Christians with God. They encountered Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and they were aware of directing prayer to God, the Father of Jesus. God was revealing himself to these followers of Jesus and as they encountered God they saw both a unity and a Threeness.
They didn’t see three separate Gods, which would have made them give up being monotheists and their Jewish roots. But, they also weren’t willing to give up this Threeness that they experienced as they met God. It took Christians years of reflecting to try to resolve this tension and what they came up with was the trinity. It was a way to say that God the father did not leave heaven, and become Jesus the son, meaning God is no longer in heaven. Jesus is God the Son. But God the Father remained did not stop being God the Father on Christmas when Jesus was born.
Yes, this is complicated stuff, but we are peeking into to the reality of God. We should not expect to completely grasp the details of the eternal God. Really what the idea of the Trinity does is it gives us language to talk about God. It helps us to know when we are talking about God and when we have stopped talking about the God Jesus showed us. If we start talking about three Gods, then we have stopped talking about God. If we talk about God the father as being God and Jesus is a kind of angel, but not God, then we are no longer talking about the God Jesus revealed to us and which the first Christians experienced. The language of Trinity is to give us language to talk about God. It is a guideline for speaking about God. When we ask “what is it?” We say “God”. When we ask “Who is it?” we say “Father Son Spirit”
This might sound to some of you like a bunch of pointless theology best left to professors in ivory towers, but there are real consequences to not having a Trinitarian God. If we set aside the Trinity the scriptures would fall apart. We wouldn’t know what to do with the scriptures that speak about Jesus as being divine. We wouldn’t know what to do with scriptures that speak about the Holy Spirit as being a person and as doing the actions of God. So the trinity helps us hold the scriptures together.
If we gave up on the Trinity we wouldn’t know really how to understand the cross. It would become a kind of divine child abuse rather that as God’s self-sacrifice to show the world his love. It would become a horrific and pretty pointless act. How does an ordinary human being dying have an effect on us 2000 years later? Lots of people die. If the cross is God’s self-sacrifice then we have been given a power revelations of God’s love for us. Furthermore, if God hasn’t been revealed in Jesus then we are still in the dark about who this God is. Jesus might have been a wise teacher, but if he was not the incarnation of God and so there remains a wide chasm between creation and God.
The biggest consequence for me is this. Without the Trinity love would have to be something God learned by creating. Love needs an “other”. Love needs a recipient. Before creation a non-Trinitarian God does not know love. But, a God that is a Trinity would have persons to share love with from all eternity, and so from all eternity God can have as a part of God’s very nature Love. In John’s first letter “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8). He doesn’t say “God is loving”, though he is, but it is deeper. He says “God is Love”. That means love is central to God’s nature. That could not be true of a non-Trinitarian God.
It might seem to be a bit of a strange teaching, that God is both one and three- One in nature, and three in persons. But, this teaching comes out of the church’s encounter with God. The teaching of the Trinity is the result of the church struggling to find words to describe their experience. The God they encountered had love right at the very core of who He is, from all eternity. There was never a time that God did not love, even before creation. God bridged the creator-creation gap to reveal himself to us as one of us- as Jesus. He came to show us who God is through Jesus Christ. To show us how much he loves us he spread his arms to embrace us even letting us kill him on a cross. He made himself vulnerable to show his care and willingness to sacrifice to show his love. Even now he is with us through his Spirit. Humble and unseen, he is working in our hearts to draw us closer to him inch by inch challenging us and comforting us.