Why the Church needs to recover a teaching of the Trinity that is relevant today

Patrick Comerford

The comedian Brendan Grace has given us the urchin-like Dublin street child he names ‘Bottler.’ He once told of a confirmation in a Dublin church, involving a pompous bishop and poor little Bottler.

The bishop is presented with the children about to be Confirmed and asks each in turn a question from the Catechism: ‘Who is God?’ … ‘Who made the world?’ … and so on.

When he comes to Bottler, he asks the poor child to explain the Trinity.

The child snuffles and shuffles, scratches and sneezes, looks around, and finally spits out an answer in rapid fire.

It is so quick, and so mumbled that the bishop asks again: ‘Tell me about the Trinity.’

Once again, Bottler mutters and mumbles in a speed and an accent that the bishop fails to grasp.

He asks a third time.

Bottler repeats in rapid-fire mumbles, but now he is unnerved and the answer is bawled out at greater speed.

The bishop is perplexed.

Having failed three times, he exclaims with exhaustion: ‘I don’t understand.’

‘You’re not supposed to,’ Bottler spurts out. ‘It’s a mystery.’

Today is Trinity Sunday. And sometimes I wonder if as theologians and priests we have made the Mystery of the Trinity a concept that is beyond the understanding of children and adults alike.

The Book of Common Prayer may have compounded this by encouraging the tradition on Trinity Sunday of using ‘The Creed (commonly called) of Saint Athanasius, also known as the Quicunque Vult,’ on Trinity Sunday (pp 771-773).

To appropriate a saying by the writer Dorothy Sayers, for many Christians the Trinity is incomprehensible, and has nothing to do with daily life.

But the starting point, and the finishing point, like so many other parts of life and belief in the Church, would be much easier if we began and finished with love.

The late Professor Thomas Hopko (1939-2015) of Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary has argued that if God were not Trinity, God could not have loved prior to creating other beings on whom to bestow God’s love.

This love or communion of God as Trinity is extended to us in the communion of the Church. It is not just the Trinitarian faith into which we are baptised, but the love and fellowship of the Trinity.

Throughout the Church, the concept of the Trinity often appears irrelevant, because of poor teaching in many churches and what may be a prevailing anti-intellectual climate.

Because of this, too many of us on Trinity Sunday are reduced to explaining away the Trinity as a ‘mystery’ that we need not to grapple with.

There is a general decline in the Trinitarian character of worship, theology and life in the Church today that parallels a decline in rigorous intellectual thinking. This is mirrored in the decline in social emphasis in our time, typified in the claim by one politician some decades ago that there is no society, that there are only individuals.

But we can only be human through our relationships; we can only have self-respect when we know what it is to respect others.

The Church is primarily communion, a set of relationships, exactly as we find in the Trinitarian God. Christianity is not a private religion for individuals; personal piety is only truly pious and personal when it relates to others and to creation.

Today, the Church needs to recover a teaching of the Trinity that is not divisive and yet is relevant, that shows how the Trinity is a communitarian, inclusive, embracing, co-operative model of God.

Sometimes, because of poor teaching, people are in danger of being left with the notion that the Trinity is a concept invented by men, male leaders on their own, at later Councils of the Church.

Yet our Epistle reading (Roman 5: 1-5) is one of the great and succinct Trinitarian passages in the New Testament. Here, the Apostle Paul writes that union with God comes through faith, and Christ is our entry point to God’s grace.

Similarly, in the Gospel reading (John 16: 12-15), we have a succinct Trinitarian passage, when Christ promises the disciples at the Last Supper that the ‘Spirit of truth’ is coming as gift from God the Father.

In our Old Testament reading (Proverbs 8: 1-4, 22-31), we have a beautiful image of Wisdom like a town crier calling out aloud at the gates and through the streets of the city, proclaiming the good news of God’s creation, and the role of the Holy Spirit in that creation.

In this reading, Wisdom is personified as a woman. She pre-exists the world. She was present at creation, as a witness, she came to know God’s secrets in creating the heavens and the earth, she was ‘beside him’ at the time of creation, had an active role in creation.

It all reminds me of the creation account in Genesis 1, where the Spirit of God hovers over formless void and darkness (Genesis 1: 2; cf John 1: 32).

Authoritarian or monist models have dominated the Church for centuries, providing male, authoritarian images of God. But in the New Testament and in the Early Church, the words used for the Spirit (pneuma, πνευμα), wisdom (Sophia, Σoφíα) and the Holy Trinity (Aghia Triadha, Αγία Τριάδα) are neuter and feminine nouns.

Monist models of God help to confirm men, particularly men with power in the Church, in their prejudices. The Trinity is inclusive rather than exclusive of human images.

During the Nazi era, the German theologian Erik Peterson (1890-1960) argued that monist theologies tend to legitimise absolutist and totalitarian political and social orders, while Trinitarian theologies challenge them.

The Trinity means that as humanity is created in the image and likeness of God, then it is not just as individuals that we reflect God’s image, but that when we are a community we are most human and most like God. In the true community, each is valued, each takes account of the other, each has an equal place, contribution and voice. True community cannot concentrate sole authority, privilege and infallibility in one gender alone, let alone one member.

A recovery of the reality implies respect for diversity and seeks a communal form of unity that respects, desires and even encourages diversity in the community of faith.

Compared with the great social and political challenges facing the Church, discussing the Trinity may seem to many as relevant as debating the number of angels on the head of a pin. Yet the Trinity is not only the archetype of all created reality, but without a fuller understanding of the nature of the Trinity, the Church will never be able to apprehend the truth of the infinite goodness of God.

The love and joyful dance of the Trinity is at the heart of our understanding of God’s love for us and for creation, of our fellowship and communion with God and with one another, and of our understanding of the ministry and mission of the Church.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Sermon preached on Trinity Sunday, 16 June 2019
 Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry.
The Readings:

Proverbs 8: 1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5: 1-5; John 16: 12-15.

Patrick Comerford blog 16 June 2019