The Trinity — The sign of God’s continuing transforming grace
A Christian teacher of my acquaintance says he would judge that belief in the Trinity is the fundamental belief-basis of the Christian Faith. This seems not to be a fashionable thing to say these days. People seem to be saying that when something is difficult to understand or visualise, or when it all seems rather abstract, it really can’t matter that much. And yet, those who do say such things are being inconsistent. Physicists and mathematicians are expected to know how important it is to get the reaction equations right, even when these are entirely invisible and abstract. You wouldn’t want to be anywhere near a nuclear reactor designed by someone who didn’t think these things were important. That is partly why independent scientists find it so hard to get adequate attention paid to their proposals; the scientific community cannot bear to think they haven’t already got everything just about right. So although not every Christian is a theologian, every Christian should regard the importance of getting and keeping things right theologically very highly indeed. The life of a disciple of the Lord might be very seriously affected by theological error; like a nuclear reactor, one’s Christian life could even explode, or deteriorate dangerously and die. We should never fall into the trap of assuming that theological statements that may be difficult to grasp, are not important anyway.
I have no doubt that Trinity Sunday was placed where it is in the Church’s Calendar, on the Sunday after Whit Sunday, to provide a sort of summary statement of the truths that the Church has been proclaiming from the beginning of the Church’s year in Advent. Throughout the period of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany the Church has proclaimed in various ways the truths of the Father who created mankind and sends His Son into the world. Through Lent, culminating in Holy Week and Easter and Ascensiontide, the Church has been proclaiming the truths of the Father’s Son, who came into the world to rescue and atone for it, indeed to take into the Godhead our very manhood, so that we might be reconciled to the Father. At the same time and culminating in Whit Sunday, the Church has been proclaiming the truths of the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised to send his followers to strengthen and defend them after Jesus Himself had ascended to the Father. Jesus promised to send this Counsellor from the Father, even the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father. The New Testament writers know the Father to be God, and they know the Son, Jesus of Nazareth, to be God, and they know the Holy Spirit, too, to be God. They could not possibly have referred to them in the way they did, if they had not believed this. The “Athanasian Creed” declares that Christians “ … worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; not dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one: the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.” The doctrine of the Holy Trinity summarises the truths, both that the Persons of the Godhead are differentiated (Jesus for instance prays to God His Father, and promises to send the Holy Spirit after He departs from His disciples), and that they are a Unity of one Godhead (Jesus for instance speaks of Himself as I AM, an Old Testament name of God). There are still very active in our time religious groups claiming to be Christian, who teach either that Jesus was not God or that He was “a God”. These groups would fail the test of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The teaching of the Holy Trinity is a sign of what is altogether new because of the facts of God’s grace in Christ and because of the teaching of Jesus. Its existence is indeed a great sign that when Jesus came, the world has never been the same since, and humans have begun to think in an entirely new way. Without the Incarnation, if God had never been made Man, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity could never have arisen. It could not have occurred also, without the Passion of Christ, His rising again, and the sending of the Holy Spirit from the throne of grace.
The Old Testament in a number of places implicitly recognises the differentiation in the Godhead, for instance when the young prophet in Isaiah 6 verse 8 hears the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for US?” As in Genesis 1 verse 26, in the Godhead there is a company of Persons. We need also to note that God’s influence in this vision upon the young Isaiah was one of transforming grace. Isaiah’s first reaction to the vision was one of despair that as a person morally compromised in word and thought, his eyes had even seen the Lord of Hosts. Then in the vision, the fire of the burning coal, that he might have expected to destroy his compromised lips in judgement, indeed cleansed not just the lips but the mind. From God’s altar his guilt was taken away and his sin forgiven. The English Standard Version translates the Seraph’s words as “Your sin (is) atoned for.” For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. For those who are given the grace of Christ, He fulfils the sign of the coal from the altar, and their guilt is taken away and their sin atoned for, and they also are charged to be sent to the people of their time. We like Jesus Himself are to “speak of what we know and bear witness to what we have seen”, as He said to Nicodemus (John 3: 11) and like the testimony of Jesus Himself and like the testimony of Isaiah too, our testimony may not for the most part be received. Yet our duty to bear that testimony is the same in essence, though the circumstances will be different, as the duty that HM the Queen has carried for 60 years to be Defender of the Faith. The theology to which we are called to witness may be belittled, laughed at and derided, just as has the testimony of the great servants of the past such as St. Irenaeus and St. Athanasius, been derided and belittled. But such truths as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity are part of the essential and ageless testimony of the Church, the arsenal of the Holy Spirit. Our charge is to make sure that these teachings live on in our minds and hearts and those of succeeding generations, that they may continue the Spirit’s role of renewing in divine grace the human thought even of our own time and of the times to come, so that man may not perish, but may have eternal life.