Trinity: A Bible inspired Idea in need of a Second Look?
How does the Trinity appear to the modern scientific mind? We live in an age when telescopes can probe the depths of space, looking back in time to many millions of galaxies, many with their million upon million of stars. Many of these stars are hugely larger than our home Sun and each at mind numbing distances from where we live. In that setting, the notion of a kind of creative being which is somehow like a human Father, yet one sufficiently in control to be creator of the entire universe seems bewildering.
To believe that same Father being is concerned primarily with one species living on the surface of what, compared with the entire Universe, is but a tiny speck of a planet, is a hard idea to sell. That this super-human type God should somehow be equivalent – in fact more than equivalent but actually mysteriously at one with a human type son – and also at one with an even more mysterious Spirit that can influence the human species in peculiar ways stretches credulity, particularly when we remember that the minds who first made this statement were much more limited in their understanding of creation than we are today.
I want to suggest another way of approaching this mystery. If we start instead with our perspective as humans and our need to relate to our setting, and particularly to one another within that setting, a more useful question is: how the Trinity idea helps in our present journey? Forget for a moment what lies beyond this world. For now the overriding concern is with the world we inhabit. Our environment, how it affects us and how we need to look after it , and in particular, how faith affects our relationships with those who share our immediate communities and our setting in the wider world.
To have a relationship with creation is captured as a metaphor when we talk of God the father. The notion of a father immediately highlights our dependence and sense of obligation. To portray Jesus as the Son reminds us his teaching is too important to ignore. To love as he first showed love for others is to capture the essence of the gospel. And the Spirit behind these relationships lifts the Christian journey to something above rules and regulations…God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit – three metaphors which together open up some of the possibilities for the relationships we need.
Contrary to popular opinion the Trinity was not clearly defined by the Bible.
If you look at 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 the gospel writers were recording their accounts years after Jesus had done his teaching, and writing at the very time when the Trinity was only 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 one 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. Focusing 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, it dawned on his followers that here was a life that enlightened the other parts of the faith.
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 – you shall have no other Gods before me. When Isaiah is described as having an encounter with God, the plural Elohim is used. As the experience accumulated – the idea of God began to grow.
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 community structure that could help them. Even the Jewish Religion 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 fragmented groups were virtually on their own. The traditional belief of the Jewish understanding of God the Father may have been basically unchanged at the time – 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 the Trinity took many of its ideas from isolated texts in the Bible – eg from the Baptismal formulation in Matthew, don’t forget there were many disputes in the first few Centuries about what 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, although the mainline churches still maintain the fourth century formula, Christians are not agreed in what it means to say the three persons of the Trinity are the same in essence.
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 account modern understanding. One problem I referred to earlier is that just as science has revealed a far vaster universe of unbelievable grandeur and complexity, the notion of what was formerly thought to be a creator God with human like characteristics becomes increasingly inappropriate.
Our Church leaders are not simply outdated when they talk mere of an inspiring and helpful intellectual idea. 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 the Trinity 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 a human expression of God – and trusting to the mysterious Holy Spirit to go with us into new territory.
The next bit I am less confident about expressing in public. I want to say it is not only 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?
It is not just 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 other parts must also respond in our understanding to the changes in the sorts of day to day ethical problems which are far removed from those facing the early Church.
The challenge is to take the essence of Jesus teaching and apply it to today’s 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 those with entirely 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.
This brings us to what I see the real question about the Trinity to be. Either as a metaphor – or as reality, if we are indeed inspired by the idea, what do we now do that is different because of our understanding?
Because our circumstances and understanding change the Trinity seems very likely to be a work in progress. Have we reached a personal view of the Trinity that changes our life?