What is the Trinity? This was the first question that my theology teacher in seminary asked. As she went around the room, she patiently listened to all the definitions. We should have known something was up, based on the smirk on her face, but as we got to the last person, she thanked us for sharing and began to explain why we were all wrong!
Of course, she had done this before, and as she later told us, it was predictable, because the teaching of the Trinity is so hard! As Ted Peters points out in his book GOD-the World’s Future, the issue has to do with us trying to fit God into a logical construct. As Peters writes, “The mystery of the Trinity is how God can be both one and three at the same time.” This puts emphasis on the number, not the function, and as Peters rightly highlights, focuses the debate and direction on the arithmetic. God is not a mathematical formula. This explanation, while giving a quick answer for some, misses a real understanding and mystery of the Trinity. The mystery is not how can three be one, but rather how can God be ever-present in our world.
Calvin describes the basic understanding of the Trinity thusly: “When we profess to believe in one God, by the name God is understood the one simple essence, comprehending three persons or hypostases; and, accordingly, whenever the name of God is used indefinitely, the Son and Spirit, not less than the Father, is meant. But when the Son is joined with the Father, relation comes into view, and so we distinguish between the Persons.”
In other words, when we speak of God, we are speaking of the essence, the unchanging core that all three persons exhibit. No person of the Trinity is less than the other, and whether we speak of the Spirit, the Son, or God the Father, we are speaking of the same God. But we also understand that each has a distinct hypostasis or individual person; for instance, Jesus being human and the Spirit being breath.
This is the hard part, because it is hard for us to have a parallel understanding of God. As our human logical desires go, we want it to be one simple answer, an answer that conforms to our own self-identity. Just think, it would be virtually impossible for us to separate our essence from our person. But here again, this is where the “mystery” of the Trinity comes in, because once again we are called upon to accept that God is not us, and to see the ever-presence of God in this world.
What was interesting in that class, there was one individual who was from an non-Presbyterian tradition who answered, “The Trinity does not really matter because it is not biblical.” While many theologians, Calvin included, do not find it an “essential” doctrine of faith, it is biblically laid out, both implicitly through Paul’s letters, and explicitly through the “Great Commission” in Matthew 28:19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
So as we celebrate Trinity Sunday this week, we lift up the fullness of God, celebrating the mystery of the Trinity, and growing in the struggles we all have to understand a God that is not always fully comprehensible.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen