The Trinity – heresy and orthodoxy

Trinity Sunday 2014

Matthew 28:16-20, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Marian Free

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

 My childhood memories of Trinity Sunday are of my Father returning from church complaining about the sermon and in particular the use of bad analogies to try to make the Trinity more accessible for the lay people. Of course, as a child, I never really understood my Father’s problem. I liked the idea of tricycles and other tri-fold objects being used to help us get inside the concept of a God who was both three and one. As I preacher, I find it tempting to use simplistic images, but I am saved by my Father’s voice in my head and – from now on – by a humorous look at the problem as presented on Youtube by TheLutheranSatire.[1]

As the clip points out, the best way to speak about the Trinity is that established as long ago as 381 in the form of the Athanasian Creed[2] that explicitly states that God is both three and one[3]. Trying to oversimplify the issue leads to misunderstanding, confusion and even “heresy”. At its heart the doctrine of the Trinity tries to come to grips with the biblical language for, and understanding of, God. It is a difficult and even dangerous exercise because as Thomas Aquinas stated: “we know that God is, but not what God is”. What we are doing in creating any doctrine is trying to find human language to describe what is utterly unknowable. As a result any attempt to describe or to capture God will always be finite and limited. In fact, if God could be captured by human thought or language, God would not be God. That said human beings, however limited and finite have, from time immemorial, experienced something completely other, something outside this physical and material world that somehow is engaged with and impacts on the created world. In the Judeo-Christian experience the relationship with and impact of the utterly other is related in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures – the Bible.

It is from this record that theologians have found the raw material for the Trinitarian expression/experience of God. It is true that the Old Testament does not provide any evidence for plurality in the Godhead and would have utterly rejected any suggestion that God was other than one. The Old Testament does however use language that is later used by the New Testament writers to capture their experience of God. For example, in the Old Testament, the language of breath, or Spirit, occurs in the very first chapter when God’s spirit moves upon the waters (Genesis 1:1). In fact the spirit of God plays a large role in the Old Testament – it comes on Moses and Saul, Elijah and Elisha and on the prophets. It is never a separate entity, but always the spirit of God. Other “Trinitarian” language that is found in the Old Testament is that of God as Father (albeit as Father of the nation of Israel). Word and Wisdom are said to be present with God at creation (Proverbs) and even though they do not indicate plurality, they open the way for such language to be used of Jesus and to suggest pre-existence (John 1 for example).

Turning to the New Testament, the conclusion of 2 Corinthians provides evidence that Trinitarian language was applied to God as early as the fifth decade of the Common Era. Similar language is found in the “Great Commission” at the conclusion of Matthew, which was written probably in the 80’s. Paul regularly uses different terminology for God interchangeably. So, for example in a few verses he can speak of the law of God and the law of the Spirit of life (Romans 7:25, 8:2). Shortly afterwards he speaks of the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ and the Spirit of God who raised him from the dead (Romans 8:9-11 – God, Christ and Spirit).

Long before theologians put their mind to discussing the nature of God, the early church seems to have had an experience of one God in three persons. Long before the Council that produced the Athanasian Creed, early believers were using language that implied that they thought of God as both one and three. In those early years of the church, there appears to have been no attempt to create a doctrine or a creed to defend this understanding of God, nor is there a clear line of development of the idea. The simple fact is that the early church was convinced that Jesus was God and that the Spirit was God and that they could hold this belief without damaging their confidence that “the Lord our God is one”.

There will be those among us who will struggle to read theology and to come to terms with non-heretical ways of speaking about the Trinity. Most of us will be content to accept the unity and Trinity of God as a part of the incomprehensible mystery that is God and we will be satisfied that the God whom we know and relate to as Father, Son and Spirit, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier is both one and three –“yet there are not three Gods, but one God.”


[1] The fourth Lateran Council put the problem in this way: “Between God and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying greater dissimilitude.” In Hunt, Anne. Trinity. New York: Orbis Books, 2005, 3.

[2] p 487 of the Green Prayer Book

[3] Council of Constantinople


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