When we consider the emerging ideas about God we find in the pages of the Bible one puzzle is why the notion of a Trinity was so late in its formation. It is true that the Trinity was hinted at by Jesus, although in all honesty, even here we cannot be sure in an objective sense since Matthew was writing his account years after Jesus had done his teaching, and writing at the very time when the Trinity was beginning to be discussed and formulated. A further complication is that Jesus seemed to be anxious not to have the perception of himself conflated with the idea of God. “Why do you call me Good?” He is recorded as saying, “Only my Father in Heaven is Good.”
So then what should we make of this idea of three in one. We get our first clue when Matthew and Paul start talking of the persons of the Godhead. The Greek word meaning person they choose to use is the same as the word used to describe the masks worn by actors in Greek plays. The highly stylised Greek dramas would identify different types with different masks – yet it was always clear to the Greeks at least, that the mask was only the outward label. By using the mask term for person we get a hint that these are only the outward signs of the complexities underneath. Focussing on the mask would not be expected to tell you everything about what lay underneath.
Another clue comes from the timing. Virtually nothing about the Trinity was written up to the time of Christ, yet in the time after Christ, the notion of the Trinity re-occurred and eventually took centre stage.
Historically all the new understandings of what it means to talk of God came from times of crisis. When the Jews fled from Egypt, when the Kingdom started to show signs of breakdown, when they were under siege or appeared to have wandered far from their religious and cultural roots – that was when the prophets spoke. The oldest writings in the Bible reveal a very rudimentary notion of what God meant. In the early years the Jewish God was seen as just one God among many tribal competing Gods. At one stage on their journeys they even carried this tribal God in a litter and when Moses presented his ten commandments there was frank acknowledgement of the other Gods around them – hence the commandment – thou shalt have no other Gods before me. As the experience accumulated – the idea of God began to grow. The notion of a universal God – for all and even more extraordinary – a God guiding the whole creation where the human race was only a small part, was much slower in arriving.
This is not to say that whatever creation meant to the Jews meant that the reality behind creation itself was any different to what it is today. The Jews’ perceived world was simply very much smaller than it is to educated people today. To the Jews there could be no perception just how vast or old the Universe is – or what wonders there were at the atomic and sub-atomic level. So their God was accordingly limited by their understanding. As their experiences and crises accumulated – so their perceptions of God began to change and grow.
In times of stability and ease, there is of course no need to rethink ideas. But think for a moment what was happening at the time of the birth of the Christian Church. Those early Christians were experiencing a time of total upheaval and change. The traditional Jewish Church had rejected Jesus perhaps because they found his challenge to be threatening. This basically meant that many of Jesus’ early followers had few supporters and no basic Church and community structure that could help them. Even the Jewish Church of the time was under siege because an unsuccessful Jewish uprising against the Romans resulted in effect in the destruction of the Temple and the sacking of Jerusalem – which resulted in the Diaspora – the scattering of the Jews from Israel.
Then too, the Christians needed an understanding that reflected their reality that they not only needed continued guidance – but that Spirit of Guidance could not be interpreted for them by some established hierarchy of priests working with tradition because each of their their fragmented groups were virtually on their own. The traditional belief of the Jewish understanding of God the Father may have been basically unchanged – but suddenly the teachings of Jesus and the notion of life constantly seeking a spirit of wisdom and an awareness that God was continuing to act for them needed discussing and formalising.
The formula they eventually decided upon is what we now call the Trinity. The actual formulation was not finally sorted to the majority satisfaction till the fourth Century when the crisis of the time was a bitter dispute – on a regional basis – of competing beliefs about the nature of Jesus. Although it took many of its ideas from isolated texts in the Bible – eg from the Baptismal formulation in Matthew, it should be remembered that there were many disputes in the first few Centuries about what for example was the nature of Jesus. Was he a wise prophet, the Son of Man, the Son of God – or God Himself?
We should also remember that even today Christians are not speaking with one voice. It is true that most of the mainline Churches maintain the fourth century formula. In its more or less agreed form according to this doctrine, God exists as three persons but is one God, meaning that God the Son and God the Holy Spirit have exactly the same nature or being as God the Father in every way. Whatever attributes and power God the Father has, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit have as well. “Thus, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are also eternal, omnipresent, omnipotent, infinitely wise, infinitely holy, infinitely loving, omniscient.”
Not all agree. The Unitarians famously insist that the Trinity has no real meaning for us today and insist on one God. The Church of the Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) insists that the three persons of the Godhead are separate beings, with one purpose rather than being one in essence. The Binitarians claim two persons but one deity and – and it is clear there are others as well. Some contemporary Christian scholars now talk of the Trinity as an idea that was appropriate for its time ie 4th Century AD – but one that needs further development to take into acount modern understanding.
One problem that should be admitted is that as science has revealed a far vaster universe of unbelievable grandness and complexity, the notion of what was formerly thought to be a creator God with human like characteristics becomes increasingly inappropriate. Even the notion of God as Father takes on new meaning for a society where Father is sometimes no longer the key decision maker of the house. You may have noticed some ministers now like to talk about God as She – to remind us that motherhood is just as important today as fatherhood.
Another problem is that a detailed uncovering of historical fact shows that many of what were considered unique qualities of Jesus – eg God like status, born of a virgin, miracle worker, resurrected etc were claims made for others contemporary at the time. Eg the story of Zororoaster is recorded as having 76 parallels with the story of Jesus. Many contemporary scholars frankly admit that without objective independent sources we cannot ever be certain that the Bible accounts of Jesus are not contaminated with stories borrowed from other traditions.
Thinking of the Trinity as a sort of academic religious formula of mystery would of course be next to useless. Remember the whole point of introducing the formula was to elevate the teachings of Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit to a point where they would provide trusted guidance for decision making in often difficult situations – of the sort faced on almost a daily basis by those in the early Church. Leaving it as an academic formula with its inherent problems is more akin to a character in Alice in Wonderland believing six impossible things before breakfast. On the other hand treating a reaction to the formula as something to be lived, takes Christianity from being a sort of spectator sport to one where we too can respond with confidence to the guidance we find in the words of Jesus as capturing the essence of God – and trusting to the mysterious Holy Spirit to go with us into new territory.
But it is not only not intended as something to be experienced and lived….in my view at least, it may also be a work in progress. We might do well to remember that the notion of the Trinity was established post Jesus and in fact at least a hundred years after the last of the books of the Bible had been written. It was established to meet the changing situation – and here is the important point….the situation has continued to change. As the situation changes should we not rethink whether or not our understanding might also need revising?
Just as science has opened new understandings of the creation part of God so that God the Father now takes on new shades of meaning, so whether we like it or not that part of the Trinity formula has already changed. The sort of response we make takes into account the changes in the sorts of day to day ethical problems which are far removed from those facing the early Church. Even the best of formulae adopted by the early Church don’t excuse us from extracting the essence of Jesus teaching and applying it to new situations like the problems of mercy killing the terminally ill and long suffering in hospital, like dealing with the myriad of foreign religions and finding ways of getting on with an entirely new set of neighbours with very different backgrounds to ourselves, not to mention new responsibilities for problems of distribution of resources in a finite world, genetic engineering, nuclear power, over population – the list is almost endless.
If the Trinity was a formula built to make sense of belief and provide a foundation for action in changing times it should at the very least be seen as a work in progress. As circumstances continue to change I believe there is a case to be made for seeing it as a continuing construction. Do others agree?