Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday… yes… that day in the church calendar when clergy up and down the country have to preach on the Trinity. Although we should be drooling with excitement at the prospect of being told about the glorious Trinity, I can’t help but notice that to many it seems rather burdensome and irrelevant.
After all, isn’t the Trinity just something dreamt up by the Church because it’s the best way we have to describe our God? Perhaps on Trinity Sunday, as some clergy climb into their pulpit, they are cursing those who ‘dreamt up’ this Trinity idea, which has now become a rather inconvenient burden.
The Trinity is a bit like…
On Trinity Sunday I was in a lovely church and the preacher was indeed preaching on the Trinity. Rather than hearing the delights of the glorious Trinity proclaimed, unfortunately it seems as if a great deal of Trinity Sunday sermon time is used up by attempts to explain what on earth the Trinity is! The general approach to the Trinity seems to be that it is first and foremost a ‘problem’ or a ‘mathematical conundrum’ that doesn’t really make sense. After all, how can one be three!?
We’ve all heard them though, haven’t we? Illustrations of how one can be three? The sermon I heard on Sunday used a few. The Trinity is a bit like a shamrock, because it is three bits coming out of one bit. I also heard that the Trinity is a bit like the sun – because there is the sun, the light and the heat. And of course, we couldn’t miss the classic – that the Trinity is a bit like water, because it can be water, ice or steam, but it’s all the same really.
But does that actually help us? I think it is actually wholly unhelpful! So why do we give these illustrations to try to explain how one can be three? Well, what we are trying to do when we do that, is to cram the Trinity into a mono or single person doctrine of God. Why doesn’t it work? Because our God is completely different to the single person God that we might find in Greek philosophy or Islam.
Three Persons in unity
So what can we say about the Trinity? As we have seen, to start with a single person God and then attempting to cram the Trinity into it doesn’t really work. But wait… how about if we start with a Trinitarian doctrine of God and then we can speak about how the persons are in unity?
You see, the three persons of the Trinity are united in love. In fact, that is what they have always been. Jesus, in a heartfelt prayer, tells us that the Father has loved him before the creation of the world (John 17:24). That is why we get the explicit statement of who the Trinity is in 1John 4:8: ‘God is love.’
So if we go back to the illustrations of the Trinity as water, or a shamrock, or the sun, then we can begin to see how it is not helpful at all. Water cannot love steam, and steam cannot love ice. Likewise for the shamrock and the sun. These illustrations are wholly unhelpful because their primary purpose is to attempt to solve the ‘problem’ of how one can be three. They don’t actually tell us anything about the Trinity and certainly don’t involve love or relationship, but instead strip those things away only to replace them with the varying functions of a single person God.
But how much more wonderful is the Trinity than that! A community of three persons in an eternal cosmic dance of love. The Trinity, who help us to understand who we are; who image to us how we should love; who are the reality of the lover/beloved relationship.
Our God is not a single person God. Our God is not even a single person God who mutates into different states. Our God is radically different to that! Our God is three persons united by an eternal love.
Check out Mike Reeves’ three part series on the Trinity (I have used a few of his points in this post). In the first talk, he also explains how the Trinity is not three Gods.