Posts Tagged ‘Trinity’

One God

June 6, 2020

Trinity Sunday – 2020
Matthew 28:16-20

Marian Free

In the name of God – Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver. Amen.

There is a wonderful scene in a movie adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory. The story is set in Mexico in the 1930’s in a time when Catholicism was banned. An unorthodox priest and the socialist police officer who captures him forge an odd friendship and each in different ways is redeemed. One day over lunch the lieutenant challenges the priest to explain the Trinity. There are three bottles of wine in the basket and, from memory, the priest explains that the wine in the bottles is the same wine even though it is in different bottles. The next morning, when the priest awakes, he is overcome with guilt because the bottle he designated as the Holy Spirit was the one from which the two had drunk thus implying that the Spirit was somehow lesser.

Today we celebrate one of the key feast days of the Church – Trinity Sunday – and yet it is not announced with the colour of Pentecost, the excitement of Easter or the wonder of Christmas. How many of you are present today because you are fired up by the Trinity? Too often in fact the subject matter is skirted over, ignored, or, as my father used to bemoan, simplified to the point of heresy.

The problem is, that when it comes to the Trinity, most of us feel awkward and inarticulate, not up to the task of expressing what we are told (or what we know) to be true. Without necessarily understanding, some of us are able to intuit the threeness of the Godhead, others accept the idea that God is three and God is one because that is their faith, and others come up with poor analogies that don’t really do justice to the concept but in general most of us are aware that we can’t adequately put what we think and feel into words. This is distressing because the Trinitarian nature of the Christian God is what sets us apart from other religions and gives us the richness of understanding God as community. It is sad reflection on who we are because we assert that God is one and God is three and yet most of us find ourselves in a position where we simply cannot explain the Trinity to the curious or defend it against the sceptical.

In the last four years I have had the good fortune to stumble on two books that have helped me to really make sense of the Trinity. When I read The Divine Dance by Richard Rohr , I experienced a clarity that had eluded me until then. As the poem with which the book begins says in part:
“One is Alone
Not love
Two is at best
Face-to Face
but never community
Three Face-to-Face-to-Face
love for the Other and for the Other’s love
A fourth is created
Ever-loved and loving” .
God as community invites each one of us to be a part of that community. Extraordinary as it seems, if God is community, we are included in the divine energy that is God.

This year I came across the book, The Trinity, how not to be a heretic by Professor Stephen Bullivant from St Mary’s University London. I highly recommend it . Bullivant expresses his grief that the Trinity, the central doctrine of the Christian faith, is one that no one (catechists, priests, pastors, Sunday School teachers, theology students, online evangelists) ever talks about. It is, he says, passed over in silence and ignored as something that Christians supposedly cannot, and are not meant to understand (loc 127).

Yet, “the doctrine of the Trinity did not arise out of speculation about God” or from “philosophical thinking” but rather “out of the effort to digest real historical experiences” (Joseph Ratzinger, quoted loc 383). In other words, the Trinity is a concept that tries to capture the fact that the early Christians experienced God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit and used the terms interchangeably and unselfconsciously, without in any way splitting God into three. For example, at Jesus’ baptism God and the Holy Spirit are also present. In the Gospel of John Jesus claims that anyone who has seen him has seen the Father, and that he (or the Father) will send the Spirit. In chapter 8 of Romans Paul refers to the Father, Lord (or Jesus) and the Holy Spirit in such a way that it is clear that he thinks of them as one and the same .

While the Trinity is a unique Christian doctrine, and while it is important that we should not read the Christian experience back into the Old Testament, it can be argued that the Old Testament revelation of God is not singular. Within the very first chapter, God refers to Godself in the plural: “Let us make humankind in our own image” (Gen 1:26). In chapter 18 of Genesis the Lord appears to Abraham in the form of three men, but Abraham addresses them in the singular, “My Lord”. In the Book of Proverbs Wisdom is both separate from God and yet is God and throughout the Old Testament there are references to the Spirit. God is experienced as Lord, as Wisdom and as Spirit without any hint that there are three Gods.

The Trinity then is not a complicated formula devised by theologians or philosophers in their ivory towers, but a word that sums up the lived experience of the early Christians, captures the ways in which God was known in the Old Testament and expresses our own intuition of who and what God is.

Bullivant suggests that the doctrine of the Trinity very simply boils down to three, core Christian convictions:
“1. There is only one God,
2. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is each God,
3. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are not the same.”

So, it is not that hard. When you are challenged, or when you want to share your faith in the Trinity you simply have to explain your experience which is corresponds with that of the early believers and which echoes the experience of the Old Testament writers – that is:
“1. There is only one God,
2. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is each God,
3. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are not the same.”

Have a wonderful Trinity Sunday and may the Trinity be the God whom you unselfconsciously and confidently know and proclaim.


Energy, love, relationship – the Triune God’

June 15, 2019

Trinity – 2019 (some thoughts)

John 16:12-15

Marian Free

In the name of God, lover, beloved and source of love. Amen.

“For Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), a French Jesuit priest who trained as a paleontologist and geologist, love is “the very physical structure of the Universe.” That is a very daring statement, especially for a scientist to make. Yet for Teilhard, gravity, atomic bonding, orbits, cycles, photosynthesis, ecosystems, force fields, electromagnetic fields, sexuality, human friendship, animal instinct, and evolution all reveal an energy that is attracting all things and beings to one another, in a movement toward ever greater complexity and diversity—and yet ironically also toward unification at ever deeper levels. This energy is quite simply love under many different forms.”

The energy, love and relationship that are at the heart of the Triune God are the source both of unity and diversity, similarity and distinction, community and individuality. As much as they are unified in the oneness of God, the three persons of the Trinity are also separate and distinct, bound together in a relationship of love whose energy reaches out to embrace and include all creation. We need not be afraid to be gathered in, caught up by the energy that exists within and that streams forth from the heart of God. For just as the three persons of the Trinity do not sacrifice their distinctiveness in order to be one, neither do we give up that which makes us ourselves when we allow ourselves to be drawn into the oneness of God.The energy that holds the Trinity together is the energy that energizes the world, drawing into God’s orbit all who allow themselves to be captured and captivated by God’s love and in so doing increasing the presence of God in the world.

The unity and diversity embraced by the threefold God demonstrate that unity is not the same as uniformity and that it is often our differences (not the things we have in common) that enrich and enhance our relationships with each other and with the world around us. Contrary to what we might expect those things that set us apart from each other, and from the universe that we inhabit, are ultimately those things that draw us together. Our survival as a species depends both on our interconnectedness with all living (and non-living) things as much as it thrives on those things which make us distinct from the world around us. If we were all the same as one another there would be no need for relationship, nothing to attract us to the other and no energy to engage us in exploring what it is that unites (and what it is that divides) us. Just as opposites attract, and just as iron alloyed with carbon produces steel, so we are made stronger and our lives more interesting by diffence.

The relationship, energy and love at the heart of the Triune God create a model for the ordering of our relationships with one another. Being in relationship does not diminish any one person of the Trinity. Each member retains their distinctiveness while at the same time ceding any claim to superiority or dominance. If each member of the human race was secure in themselves, they would understand that they lose nothing by giving everything for the other. The Trinity that models perfect loving and perfect giving, demonstrates that wholeness in relationship reflects wholeness in personhood and that perfect relationships are partnerships between equals.

As our relationships with one another are built on the mutual respect modeled by the three-fold God, so too our relationships with the natural environment should reflect the Trinitarian nature of God. If our relationship with the universe reflected the love, energy and relationship revealed by the Triune God, it would not be destructive or exploitative but would be one of respect for creation and gratitude for all that creation provides for our sustenance and well-being.

A threefold God is not alone. A threefold God is not liable to dualism. A threefold God is relationship – a loving, dynamic, energizing relationship between three equals, each willing to sacrifice their individuality in order to be part of the whole and yet able to retain a sense of identify and wholeness.

In God who is three and yet also one, we find perfect love and the model for perfect existence.

Life-giving, all-embracing Trinity

May 26, 2018

Trinity Sunday – 2018

John 3:1-17 (The gospel set for the day – not the starting point for this reflection)

Marian Free

In the name of the Trinity – boundless and abundant love, creative and life-giving force, all-giving and endlessly welcoming. Amen.

I have just started reading the novel, Gone Girl. The story seems to be about the disappearance of a young woman who has reluctantly moved with her new husband from New York to an uninspiring town in the mid-west. The novel is written from the point of view of the young woman, Amy, and her husband, Nick. Amy and Nick each have an opportunity to tell their side of the story. This means that while the readers are engaged in the investigation into Amy’s disappearance they are, at the same time, given a glimpse into the unraveling of what had appeared to be a perfect relationship – brought about by differing expectations and by different experiences of family.

Human relationships can be messy, complex and destructive, threatened by insecurity, damaged by carelessness and undermined by unrealistic expectations. The inability of some to form mutually respectful relationships is exposed not only in families, but also in communities, nations and the world as a whole. It is only too obvious that our world is not an harmonious place in which people rejoice in difference and seek the well-being of others. Our fractured and broken world is a place in which competition rules and in which suspicion and fear cause people to look inwards, protecting what is theirs and creating boundaries between themselves and those whom they believe threaten our security and our comforts.

Richard Rohr suggests that the Trinity provides the answer to the problem of relationships with each other, within communities and between the nations of the world. A greater understanding of the relational nature of God – Father Son and Spirit, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier might, he suggests, help us to relate better to God and more importantly to one another. He points out that the Trinity is a much-neglected aspect of our theology. The concept is difficult to explain, and most clergy are grateful for the fact that the Trinity is celebrated only once a year rather than on every Sunday of every year. Rohr quotes Karl Rahner who states: “Christians are, in their practical lives, almost mere ‘monotheists’. We must be willing to admit that, should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain virtually unchanged.”

When I first read that quote, I thought that Rahner was right. I wondered how many of us would be truly distressed if we discovered that God was one and not three at all. We might even be relieved to learn that we no longer had to struggle with the conundrum of a threefold God.

On reflection though, it seemed to me that while we may not be able to articulate the meaning, most of us do relate to God who is three but is also one. God as Trinity is something we know intuitively. Over the course of a lifetime the Trinitarian God becomes part of our DNA. Though we tend to use shorthand when we pray – God, Father, Jesus, Holy Spirit, Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier, we simply assume that when we pray to one we pray to all, when we relate to one we relate to all.

The problem – if there is a problem – is that because we take for granted the threefold nature of God, we may not take the time to reflect on the meaning of the Trinity and to consider what it really means to engage with God who is Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver and we (and perhaps the world) are the poorer for this. Perhaps, if we make an effort to struggle with the relational nature of the threefold God, we will be better equipped to share that mystery with others. If we really grasp what it means to worship a threefold God we might discover that the Trinitarian God is a model for all relationships and a solution to all the problems of our fragmented world.

Last year on this day, I read you the poem that is in the Foreword of Richard Rohr’s book The Divine Dance. I confess that I haven’t read the book to its end, but what I have read has been life-changing and faith-renewing. Rohr has helped me to know God in a new way and my faith is enriched by that knowing. In fact, I don’t think that I am over stating it if I say that I feel that I have found my way to the heart of the Trinitarian God. Rohr has helped me come to grips with the Trinity in a way in which all my academic study did not – indeed could not.

I have come to see that God who is three is relational. God relates to Jesus who relates to the Spirit who relates to God, who relates to the Spirit who relates to Jesus, who relates to God in an outpouring of love that flows from one to another and back again. A constant stream of love that in turn creates an atmosphere of love that cannot help but flow outward from the threefold God to the world – drawing the whole world into a loving and welcoming embrace. The love that each person of the Trinity has for the others is complete and without reserve. Nothing is held back, each person of the Trinity is totally open to the other members of the Trinity. Each person of the Trinity is completely vulnerable – having given everything of themselves to the other persons.

In their love for one another, the members of the Trinity create an energy that is life-giving and dynamic, a creative force that drives and empowers all that is good in this world. God in relationship is generous, self-giving and abundant. God in relationship is not remote and disinterested, but is fully engaged and participatory. God in relationship is fully immersed in the world and invites us to fully immerse ourselves in God. God who is relational has no boundaries, but welcomes us into the very heart of the Trinity that we might be caught up and held in the stream of love that flows between the three. The threefold God is not afraid that our presence (or the presence of anyone else) will contaminate their divinity, but rather has absolute confidence that our being in relationship with God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier will serve to enhance and enrich that relationship and our relationships with one another.

The Trinity models the love that can be the salvation of the world – love that heals and sustains, love that delights in the other, love that gives itself entirely without losing anything of itself and without seeking anything in return, love that embraces difference, love that seeks the well-being of the other and love that refuses to exclude anyone from that love.

God who is one could be aloof and alone. God who is two could be self-contained – each focussed wholly on the other. God who is three is other-centred, inclusive, life-giving and welcoming. The Trinity, God who is three invites us all to be a part of this loving community, to allow ourselves to be loved and to give ourselves in love and in so doing, to contribute to the healing of the world.

Love, Laugh, Sing

June 10, 2017

Trinity Sunday – 2017

Matthew 28:16-20

Marian Free


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

Every now and again one comes across an image or a phrase that brings utter clarity to an idea that until that moment had been clouded or obscure. Such was the case for me when I read a poem by William Paul Young (author of The Shack). In the foreword to Richard Rohr’s book on the Trinity The Divine Dance[1], Young has written a poem that, for me, shone a light on the Trinity in a way that nothing else has. It goes:

ONE alone

is not by nature Love

or Laugh

or Sing

ONE alone

may be Prime Mover




and if Everything is All and All is One

One is Alone


Not Love

Not Laugh

Not Sing





contending Dualism

Affirming Evil/Good

And striving toward Balance

At best Face-to-Face

but Never Community






Love for the Other

And for the Other’s Love







A fourth is created

Ever-loved and loving.

The contrast between One alone and three in community spoke powerfully to me. A God who is alone could be aloof and unapproachable and, without others, may not laugh and sing. A God who is two has the potential to be divisive – one pitted against the other, each competing for attention. A God who is three yet one is a God who is community – loving, playful and joyful, inviting relationship, inviting us into that relationship.

It is easy for us to imagine that a Triune God is the invention of the Christian church, that God who was one, suddenly became three when Jesus entered human history. That, of course, is nonsense. God is God. God doesn’t suddenly morph from one to three just because, in God’s great love for us, God entered into the stream of human history.

God has been in relationship from the very beginning: creating humankind in God’s image, choosing and speaking with Abraham, communicating directly with Moses and with the prophets. God the Creator gave Godself to humankind in revelation over and over and over again long before God gave Godself to us in the form of Jesus. At the same time over and over again, God has created a response from humanity, working within us in Spirit so that we might know and respond to God.

From the beginning of time then God has been known and expressed as Godself, as God’s self-communication and as God’s presence within us enabling us to respond to God. It is only since Jesus’ presence among us that we have named God as three persons – Father, Son and Spirit – only since the early days of the church that we have struggled to form a doctrine to express in words something that we have always known in our hearts, that God is Creator, Revealer and Enabler.

As the poem suggests, this is important – not least of all, because a Trinitarian God is a God in community. A creative, energizing force is not alone or competitive, but is a divine dance of love that knows no division or separation and creates, sustains and embraces us. The relationship between the Father and the Son, the Father and the Spirit, the Son and the Spirit, the Son and the Father, the Spirit and the Father and the Spirit and the Son is such that none are separate, but all three together incorporate the relationship between the Father and the Son and the Spirit.

A God who is relationship both demonstrates relationship – a relationship that is inclusive, self-giving and open – and invites us into that relationship so that as God is one, so we are one with God.

The Trinity is a gift and not a burden. Instead of trying to get our head around the doctrine, the how and why of it all, let us simply rejoice in a God in whose being is Love and Laugh and Sing and who includes us in the loving, the laughter and the song.

[1] Rohr, Richard with Morrell, Mike. The Divine Dance:The Trinity and your Transformation. New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2016, 19.

God is relationship – Trinity Sunday

May 21, 2016

Trinity Sunday – 2016

Marian Free

In the name of God, Earth-maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-giver[1]. Amen.

Whilst in the process of thinking about today’s sermon, I was reminded of the debate around alternate Trinitarian language – in particular the arguments against using the expression Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier in the place of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The heart of the argument is this: that the relational nature of the traditional language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is lost when Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier are used.

Language is important because it both describes our reality and defines our reality. That is, we use words to make sense of the world around us and those words then take on a meaning of their own, which in turn affects how we see the world.

A good example is the use of language to label other people – especially those who are different from ourselves. Up until the 1980s it was not uncommon to refer to a person by their disability. No one thought twice about referring to a person as “a spastic” or “a mongoloid”. In that way a person was defined more by their physical condition rather than by their personality or by their ability. Thankfully that use of language is by and large in the past. Today we might refer to someone as a person with cerebral palsy – acknowledging that they are a person first and foremost. The change in language use helps us to see people differently and helps them to have a self-identity that is distinct from their disability.

Despite dictionary definitions, words do not carry the same meaning for everyone. For example our experience of “Father” or “Dad” can vary from that of a loving, interested caring man, through that of a distant, indifferent man to that of an overbearing or abusive person. Our experience of our own father may determine our own understanding of what a father is. If our experience of “Father” has only been of someone who hurts or belittles us, we might find it hard if not impossible to apply that terminology to God. A woman who has been raped or sexually abused, might have the same difficulty relating to the maleness of Jesus[2]. It can be hard for such a person to believe that a man – even a man such as Jesus can really identify with the experience of a violent or unwanted sexual attack.

A greater understanding of issues such as domestic violence and rape has led the church to embrace a greater variety in the language we use for God and to a lesser extent for Jesus. This has two benefits. First of all it recognises that the bible itself refers to God in more than one way; that God cannot be confined by language; that God is neither male nor female and that while we might attribute human characteristics to God, God is anything but human. An examination of the Old Testament reveals that the language for God is not restricted to Father, but includes feminine and even inanimate language to try to capture the grandeur and ineffability that is God[3]. Secondly, broadening the language for God enables those for whom “Father” does not bring to mind images of gentleness, love and encouragement, to use language that does encompass those characteristics for them.

Of the three-persons of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is the least bound by gender-defining language. This might be because the Spirit is the most difficult to conceptualise and also because the Spirit is never named other than by its nature.

The issue of language is more complex when it comes to the Trinity. An important aspect of the Trinity is the relationship between the three-persons, a relationship of inter-connection that is both a model for and a reminder of our relationships with one another. As members of the Body of Christ, we are invited into relationship with one another and more importantly into the relationship shared by the members of the Trinity.

There are many who argue that if we are to change the language of the Trinity from Father, Son and Spirit we will lose the sense of relationship, mutuality and intimacy that this formula implies.

I am a biblical scholar, not a theologian, but it seems to me that if we understand the nature of the Trinity to be relational it is not impossible for terminology such as Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier to take on a relational aspect. Surely we understand that the Creator is the person within the Godhead to whom we attribute the creation of the world, that the Redeemer is the one who entered the world and was crucified and restored to life for our salvation and that the Sanctifier is the person within the Godhead who enlivens and sanctifies us in the present moment and until eternity. It is not the language that we use so much as the understanding of that language that gives it meaning[4].

In the final analysis, the Trinity is a glorious mystery that invites us into a relationship with a God who is beyond description and of whom we only ever glimpse the smallest detail. The Trinity is a wonderful gift extended to us through the church. It is a shame to waste time arguing over words when we could be letting ourselves be caught up into an experience of God that is impossible to capture and even more impossible to describe.


[1] From a version of the Lord’s Prayer in the New Zealand Prayer Book.

[2] There is a powerful poem written by a survivor of sexual abuse who, when confronted by the image of a woman on the cross, was able to understand that Christ knew her own experience and had been with her in her suffering.

[3] God is depicted as midwife (Ps 22:9), as mother (Is 49:13-15, 66:13, Ps 131:2, Is 42:13-15) and as giving birth (Is 42:15, Jer 31:20, Is 14:1, Ps 77:10; 79:8) not to mention as a “rock” and a “fortress” and other inanimate images in the Psalms and elsewhere.

[4] Attempts to develop inclusive language Trinitarian formulae that are also relational leads to such clumsy language as, “Parent, womb, birth-giver” or “The Parent, the Christ and the Transformer”.

The Trinity and Paul – some thoughts

May 30, 2015

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.

The Trinity – heresy and orthodoxy

June 14, 2014

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

Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver

May 25, 2013

Trinity Sunday 2013

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Romans 1:1-5, John 16

Marian Free


In the name of God, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver. Amen.

The MIddle Ages was a time in which there was a great flowering of spirituality.  After the morbidity and fear of the Dark Ages, in which judgement and hell were predominant religious themes, the spiritual tenor of the Middle Ages was an understanding of God’s love and Jesus’ saving passion. The spirituality of the time was more intimate and forgiving. God was not envisaged as a distant judge but a close and familiar friend.

Many of our favourite and most well-known saints belong to this period of history – Francis and Claire of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen and Catherine of Sienna – to mention a few. The spirit of the age was such that it not only saw the emergence of mystics and saints, but also the renewal of faith of much of the general population. This was demonstrated by the number of people in all walks of life who went on pilgrimages and by the groups of women (Beguines) who, while not entering a religious order, lived together in community.

One of the expressions of spirituality at that time was that of anchorite. Men and women had built for themselves single rooms attached to churches or Cathedrals in which they confined themselves for the remainder of their lives – praying, meditating and reading their scriptures. Julian of Norwich was one such person[1]. Little is known of Julian except that when she was thirty and a half, in 1373 she was ill to the point of death. During this time she had a series of revelations (Showings in her terminology) which she recorded in both a shorter and a longer account. It is through these writings that she is known to us.

The church emerged from the bleakness of the Dark Ages with an image of God that was less distant and wrathful, more forgiving and understanding, full of tenderness and compassion. Julian’s experience of God reflects this trend. Perhaps the most powerful illustration of this is the illustration which imagines God as a mother who may sometimes allow a child to fall, for its own benefit, but who can never suffer any kind of peril to come to her child because of her love. On the other hand, the child, when it is distressed and frightened, runs quickly to his mother (300).

Even though Julian claims to be uneducated, the style of her writing and her knowledge of scripture indicate otherwise. For example, though her language is vastly different, her theology is not too dissimilar to that found in the readings from Proverbs and Romans today (the presence of Wisdom, or the second person of the Trinity at creation, the delight that the Trinity takes in creation and the notion that God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit).

Julian’s homely and familiar relationship with God embraces her understanding of God as Trinity which is expressed in such language as God’s courtesy, that God loves us tenderly and that there is no wrath in God only endless goodness and friendship. The relationship is mutual. Just as the Trinity rejoices in humanity, so the Trinity fills our heart with the greatest joy (181). In fact joy, bliss and delight are words that are repeated in Julian’s description of the relationship between God and humanity. Her experience tells us of God’s confidence in and presence in us: “we are in God and God is in us” (286). When the Trinity created us, he “joined and united us to himself and through this union we are kept as pure and as noble as we were created” (293).

The Trinity, a concept that many of us tend to make hard work of, seems to have been as natural as breathing to Julian. That God is one and God is three, is the basis of her faith. She doesn’t labour over the nature of the relationship, but it is clear from what she writes that she did not think of God in any other way. While she speaks of the individual persons of the Trinity, it is clear that her concept of God is primarily Trinitarian.  For example, she can say: “the Trinity is God and God is the Trinity. The Trinity is our maker, our protector, our everlasting lover, our endless joy and our bliss, from our Lord Jesus Christ and in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (181)

All members of the Trinity are all engaged in our creation and all take delight in humankind and “it is their greatest delight that we rejoice in the joy which the blessed Trinity has in our creation.”(286)  “God the blessed Trinity, who is everlasting being, just as he is eternal from without beginning, just so was it in his eternal purpose to create human nature, which fair nature was first prepared for his own Son, the second person, and when he wished, by full agreement of the whole Trinity he created us all at once.” (293)

Interestingly, though Julian refers to Jesus as “he”, she constantly refers to the second person of the Trinity as “Mother”.  This was consistent with the spirit of the time which, in reaction to the harsh and distant God of the previous generation, discovered in Jesus the love and compassion often attributed to a mother. So for example, Julian can say: “As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother. Our Father wills, our Mother works, our good Lord the Holy Spirit confirms. In these three is all our life: nature, mercy and grace (296).” “And so in our making, God almighty is our loving Father, and God all wisdom is our loving Mother, with the love and goodness of the Holy Spirit, which is all one God, one Lord” (293).

It is too easy to dismiss the Trinity as difficult to understand or explain. Mystics like Julian remind us that it is not a concept to be feared, but to be embraced; to know ourselves known and loved by God – Father, Son and Spirit, Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer and Life-Giver, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.  Three persons, one God whose creative power breathed us into being, whose saving power restored us and whose in-dwelling presence continues to fill us with love and joy.

[1] Colledge, Edmund, O.S.A., Walsh, James, S.J. Julian of Norwich: Showings. The Western Classics of Christianity. New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1978.

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