Letter from the Vicar (June 2012)
Week by week and day by day in Church worship speak we use expressions associated with the Holy Trinity. We invoke the Trinity, we baptise in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit, we bless using a Trinitarian formula. Our worship is saturated with the language of the Trinity. So what’s that all about? And, even more important, does it make any sense?
For traditional Christianity underlying the language of the Trinity is the belief that there are three persons in one God. This belief is not found in the Bible, it arose gradually over a number of centuries. Vigorous debate led to the emergence of the doctrine of the trinity. Two fundamental principles directed this debate and in many senses determined its outcome. First, it was felt that the divine names, Father, Son and Holy Spirit could not just be alternative names for the same reality. Their roles in the stories of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, and also in the continuing story of the Church’s life and worship, required that they must somehow be separate realities. But, second, it was equally insisted that there could not be more than one God or differing degrees of Godhead. So it was felt that the only solution was the doctrine of the Trinity, three persons in one God.
For centuries since the doctrine was developed it was believed in a fairly literal way, though most Christians have accepted that in reality a full understanding of this idea is beyond our grasp. In recent centuries, however, it has been subjected to the scrutiny of modern thought. So what value has this talk of the Trinity today? The first thing that I would say is that all religious language belongs to the category of metaphor, of symbol, even, one could say, of poetry. The Trinity belongs to this realm, as do all other religious ideas. Having said that I do believe that the symbolic language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit does offer invaluable guidelines to Christian thought about the nature and purposes of God. For Christians the expressions Father, Son and Holy Spirit describe three ways in which God is most directly accessible to us. We encounter God, first, in the sheer mystery of existence, second, in the transforming power of the historical figure of Jesus and third, in the inwardness of profound human experience. To put it another way we encounter God as creator, redeemer and sanctifier. But none of these ways operates in independence of any of the others. All are connected. This Christian experience of encounter with God is given its doctrinal expression in the concept of the Trinity.
Traditional Christian theology has wanted to go still further. It has asserted that this experience of threefoldness reflects a truth about the very being of God himself. It gives us knowledge about the interior life of God himself. But I question whether we really can go that far. Aren’t we then pushing out beyond symbol and metaphor and pretending that we can enter into the very mystery of divinity itself? I wonder whether it is possible for us to attain to that kind of knowledge. This does not mean, however, that we should give up using the language of the Trinity. In fact this language, as well as expressing something powerfully true of our experience of God, underlines and emphasises the divine mystery. For when most of us think of the idea of the Holy Trinity our most immediate reaction is that of wonder, amazement, even bafflement. And that is how it should be. For God is a mystery and we should never presume that we can come to know his inner reality. The idea of the Trinity after which our church is named and whose festival we celebrate this month is one means by which we can acknowledge our humility before the mystery which is God.