The Trinity: Sense or nonsense?

It’s exactly forty years ago since I was ordained as a Deacon in the Church of England at Gloucester Cathedral on Trinity Sunday 1970. This year Trinity Sunday falls on the 30th of May and I don’t find it any easier to find something helpful and relevant to say about the doctrine of the Trinity now than I did as a raw young curate all those years ago.

Think of some of the words we’ve traditionally used in church: ‘Three persons in One God’; ‘We acknowledge the glory of the Trinity and worship the unity’: and so on. The net result is that many people think we believe – not in one God – but in three. It’s almost as if I had three phones on my desk – a black one, a red one, and a green one. I pick up black to speak to God the Father, red for Jesus, and green for the Holy Spirit. Three phones – three persons of the Trinity.

Now that’s absolute nonsense. God is God.

Let’s try another approach. Think of it as a company – Trinity Enterprises. At the top are three persons: The Chairman – God the Father; the CEO – Jesus; and the Sales Director – the Holy Spirit. How does that work out in practice?

The Chairman is there in the background – but the workforce never actually sees him – he’s always in the boardroom. The CEO – the boss’s son – spent some time on the shop floor, but he’s now back at Head Office and rarely seen on the ground. The Sales Director – the Holy Spirit – again never seen by the workforce but always available on the phone. In fact he’s regularly trying to get through to the sales force, but they don’t often pick up the phone.

Well I could go on, but – like all analogies – it begins to break down – it doesn’t quite work. Because we know that – in fact – there’s only one God doing all the jobs in Trinity Enterprises. It’s just that we sometimes find it easier to use the word ‘father’ (or these days maybe ‘mother) for certain parts of our relationship with God. Sometimes it’s easier to think of a human being – Jesus. And at other times of God as the Spirit.

And then we start making things more complicated by saying things like: ‘We are the body of Christ’ – meaning that we – the Church – are actually God in human form. That the Holy Spirit is alive and active in the Church. And that we can all talk directly to the Chairman – God the Father – whenever we want to.

In the end, though, all the pictures which our simple human minds have invented to describe God are totally inadequate. And what does that tell us? We just have to accept that God is just too great and wonderful for us to get our heads round. We can’t tame God. We can’t make him (or her) fit our ideas. We can’t make God in our image and – above all – we cannot control God.

But Christians throughout the centuries have realised that – in spite of all our inadequacies and limitations – God does take the initiative and reach out to us in a great many ways.

Our feeble attempts to understand and describe that are what’s know as ‘theology’. My small collection of theological books fills two bookcases, but that’s just a tiny fraction of what’s been written over the last 2000 years by very clever men and women.

But believe you me – even the cleverest theologian is no closer to really understanding the doctrine of the Trinity than you and me. If pushed – and I’ll probably be accused of heresy – I would say that what makes sense to me goes something like this:

God is one. He has given each of us the potential to become like him/her. We will never achieve that full potential in this life, but one human being did. Jesus was a human being just like you and me. God was made real in him because Jesus grew closer and closer to God – so close as to be totally identified with God. The potential was fully realised – meaning ‘made real’. So perhaps it makes sense to talk not of ‘the divinity of Jesus’ – but rather ‘the divinity in Jesus’. And the Holy Spirit? That’s the way God communicates with us now. But it’s all God. Not three separate beings. Just one – and not limited by our human ideas.

The Church has tried desperately to tie God down – to define him – and to say that unless you subscribe to our interpretation then you’re not part of the real Church. And that sort of thing has led to the divisions which have marred the life of the Church from the very earliest days.

So I would say – sit lightly to the doctrine of the Trinity. It’s there – it’s part of Church tradition. But I don’t think God really worries about whether we can say – and mean – every word of the creeds, the Westminster Confession, or any other human formulation. What really matters is accepting the invitation to follow Jesus in achieving as much as we can of the potential to be fully human – and fully divine – which exists in every person.

(If you found this interesting or helpful, please pass on the link to others.)

11 Responses to “The Trinity: Sense or nonsense?”

  1. 1 David May 26, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    Well we shouldn’t fing the doctrine of the Trinity too much a headache.I have a phone.It has a camera, I can talk on it and it could play music. My radio plays a tape, a cd and can be tuned into 104.7FM on a Sunday morning when some bloke is rabbiting on.
    Simples! But thank goodness God thought of it first.

  2. 2 siobhan falkus May 30, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    Hi Geoff,

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your ‘explanation’ of the Creed. My understanding of theology could be written on a postage stamp and still have room for the Lord’s prayer, but I did find your take on it really helpful. The ‘fog’ is still there, swirling round, but did part a little whilst checking your blog!! Thank you. Go well and have a great trip.

    Best wishes ‘The Falki’!

    PS I look forward to further ‘interpretations

  3. 3 josie November 8, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    Clearing out the clutter of years – mostly paper. Came across your address from about 1988 (!) and thought I’d google you. So did.

    Re Trinity – I found Sara Maitland’s plait as useful a picture as any – same substance, a unity, three strands, and if you take out any one strand of the three it ceases to be a plait because it falls apart. Otherwise the trinity symbol as used in Celtic art, which is somewhat like the three blades of a wind generator only fatter. Maybe that’s why I like wind generators.

    I’m very much a has-been these days, and hugely enjoying life at 80, learning new things all the time. Frank Pagden (remember him?
    Radio Leeds) has hit 80 this year too.

    Going to read the rest of your stuff now. J.

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