This past Sunday was Trinity Sunday, the day in the church year set aside to focus on the nature of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity is widely misunderstood, even among Christians, and it is vastly under-appreciated. It is the subject of many jokes among preachers who sadly dismiss the Trinity as some esoteric teaching that they are not able to understand, let alone explain.
But the Trinity is not about theological hairsplitting and academic irrelevancies. The Trinity is the reality of God, and the full expression of the doctrine of the Trinity was the great triumph of the Christian Church after four centuries of battling against heresies which threatened to destroy the faith. Those heresies still war against the truth in the form of such teachings as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, the New Age Movement, the Da Vinci Code, and revisionist teaching in the liberal Church. These are spiritual counterfeits to Christianity that deny the Trinity. And Islam, which misunderstands and rejects the Trinity, has attracted all too many Christians who do not know the powerful truth of their own faith.
The word “Trinity” doesn’t appear in the Bible, but the truth and reality of the Trinity does. A friend of mine likes to say that the word “grandfather” doesn’t appear in the Bible either, but the concept sure does. The word “Trinity” isn’t in the Bible, but there are more than 75 passages in the Bible which speak about the Trinity, not least the Great Commission of Jesus in Matthew 28: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
The great Oxford theologian Alister McGrath put it this way: “The doctrine of the Trinity wasn’t invented—it was uncovered…[It] is not some arbitrary and outdated dictate handed down by some confused council—it is the inevitable result of wrestling with the richness and complexity of the Christian experience of God.”
Now it is true that we cannot fully grasp, let alone fully explain, the Trinity. We say that the Trinity is a mystery, and it is. A mystery in the theological sense—not in the crime drama sense—is something we do not fully comprehend. But saying something is a mystery doesn’t mean we don’t understand any of it. It means that we do not understand all of it.
Of course not! God is the infinite, omnipotent, creator of the universe, the creator of our very minds! Any god we could fully grasp and explain would be some two-bit deity of our own making, not the ultimate and fathomless source of all existence.
If you deny the Trinity, you fall into one or another destructive, false teaching. Bishop Fitz Allison entitled his wonderful book on Christian doctrine, The Cruelty of Heresy, because teachings that deny the truth are cruel; they give people only a false gospel that cannot offer hope, cannot heal, cannot save.
If someone asks you to explain the Trinity, don’t feel defensive. It is the wonderful nature of God who is loving community even within Himself. There is a depth and richness of the relationships among the Trinity that you can’t fully define and explain any more than you can explain the love in your family.
Here are a few resources that might be of help in exploring the doctrine of the Trinity:
• The recently released Anglican Church in North America Catechism has a great deal on the Trinity and the nature of God in Questions #38-88. The Catechism can be downloaded here.
• A short video and prayer can be found in the New City Catechism Question #3 here.
• An attempt to explain the Trinity to a seven year old is here.
• A lighthearted take on St. Patrick and bad analogies for the Trinity (like the shamrock), from the folks at “Lutheran Satire,” is here.
So dig in, and delight in the truth of our great and glorious Triune God!
Faithfully yours in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. John A. M. Guernsey