The Trinity and Paul – some thoughts

Trinity Sunday – 2015

Romans 8

Marian Free

In the name of God who created us, died for us and enlivens us. Amen.

The Apostle Paul gets a lot of bad press. From the time the author of 2 Peter wrote: “There are some things in them (Paul’s letters) hard to understand”, there have been those who accuse Paul of being difficult, culture bound and chauvinistic. As a Pauline scholar I would of course, contest all such negative comments and claim them to be misrepresentations at worst and misinterpretations at best by those who have not taken the time to study and understand the genius that is Paul[1].

I am not saying that the letters of Paul are immediately transparent, or that there are not some parts that require a certain amount of effort to understand, but I would claim that what Paul has to say is absolutely essential for our understanding of the gospel and that he says it in a way that is quite masterful and compelling.

One of the difficulties that we face when we read either Paul’s letters or the gospels is that they were written in the first century for a first century Mediterranean audience. The letters are even more specific. Paul was not writing for our edification. In fact I think that he had no more idea of his letters being turning into Holy Scripture than we would imagine that our assignments in theology would one day be accepted into the canon.

Paul was writing to specific situations that had arisen in communities that had come to faith as a result of his teaching or, as is the case with Romans, a community that he wished to visit. His intention was not to write theology but to set the recipients straight on matters of faith or behaviour. The communities to whom he wrote consisted by and large of people who had had no grounding in the Jewish faith and who therefore had considerable catching up to do in order to begin to understand the gospel.

What I find remarkable is, that in this context and within twenty years of Jesus’ death, Paul – who never met the earthly Jesus – was able to distil the significance of Jesus’ life and teaching and to give them a meaning that continues to inform us today. The gospels give us the story of Jesus (albeit with interpretation). Paul, writing considerably earlier, tells us what it all means. In so doing he foreshadows ideas which later scholars turned into theology and into doctrine.

Take the notion of the Trinity for example. Over the centuries much ink has been spilt in trying to elucidate the nature of God and what it means for God to be both one and three. Paul simply assumes a Trinitarian God – Creator, Son and Spirit. This is particularly evident in Romans 8:9-11. “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” Paul is making an argument about life in the Spirit, but in order to do so he also speaks of God and Christ as if they were all one God.

In verse 9 Paul speaks of “being in the Spirit” because the “Spirit of God dwells in you” and adds “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. He goes on to say “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you”, “the Spirit dwells in you.” The Spirit incorporates believers into the life of Christ that in turn incorporates them into the union between Christ and God. It seems that it is perfectly natural for Paul to think of God as the one who raised Jesus from the dead, as Jesus and as Spirit and that as a result he is able to use the expressions interchangeably.

The notion of God being known as God, as Spirit and as Word is not new to Paul. Genesis 1 introduces the Spirit in the form of ruah or breath and in Ezekiel (37:5) it is God’s ruah (breath) that brings life to the dry bones. The same Spirit animates Ezekiel, transports him to the valley of bones and will give life to the people of Israel. (This is not dissimilar to Paul’s idea that it is the Spirit that gives life to the believer (Rom 8:11)). Proverbs introduces Wisdom (sophia or logos) as co-creator with God. So in the Judeo-Christian from the beginning of creation there has been an implicit notion of the complex nature of the One God.

It would be the Incarnation that would give this idea flesh both literally and figuratively. God in human form proved much more challenging than the less concrete ideas of God as breath and wisdom. How could Jesus be both human and God? How could Jesus be pre-existent? Where did the Spirit fit in all this? It would take the church close to four hundred years to express the idea of the Trinity in theological and doctrinal terms that were universally accepted[2] and many more centuries for scholars to continue to explore and name what it means for God to be both one and three and how to express this without diminishing one of the persons of the Trinity.

For Paul and the early church the nature of God was not something to be intellectualized or argued. It seems to have been taken for granted that God could be known as Father, Son and Spirit, the one who sent Jesus, the one sent (Jesus) and the one whom Jesus sent (Spirit), the one who raised Jesus from the dead, Jesus who was raised from the dead and the Spirit.

Instead of worrying about how the Trinity works and which analogies are heretical or not, let us take a page out of Paul’s book and assert that God simply is – Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

[1] When I speak of Paul’s letters I refer to the seven letters that are considered genuinely Pauline – Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon.

[2] Some would claim imposed was a better word.


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