Sunday, May 30, 2010

Love, Grace, and Fellowship

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13.14)

Reactionary Doctrine

Today is Trinity Sunday, when millions of Christians contemplate the mystery of three distinct Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—alive in one Being. And, already, we’ve hit a snag, since calling the Trinity a mystery is like calling Mt. Everest a toboggan run. So preachers will enter the pulpit and do their best to unravel this idea cogently, in 20 minutes or less. (As Philomena points out in her post, Trinity Sunday isn’t called “a preacher’s nightmare” for nothing.) As ministers and priests labored on their sermons this week, one envisions sentences creeping across their monitors and then vanishing with a hard lean on the backspace key. One imagines their ears ringing with the classic Laurel & Hardy line: “Well, that's another fine mess you’ve gotten me into!” Because Trinitarian doctrine is a fine mess, and it’s indubitably one of our own making.

Let’s start with the word “trinity.” It isn’t in the Bible. There’s not even a word we can extrapolate to mean “trinity.” The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit appear together in several places, most famously at Jesus’s baptism, where the Spirit descends as a dove and God audibly confirms Jesus is His Son. We also find verses linking them together, as Paul does in 2 Corinthians’ closing salutation: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” But nowhere does Christ or any apostle so much as allude to the Trinity as a doctrine, let alone explain It at length. The concept of a “triune God” doesn’t gel until the fourth century, when the Nicene Council establishes It as a stopgap against heresy refuting Christ’s divinity. It’s reactionary doctrine, which doesn’t negate its legitimacy, per se. But it sure does make things tough to validate without firm scriptural grounding. How hard is it to convey this teaching? A couple years back, a friend and I stepped out of Trinity Sunday service and she said, “I thought I understood the Trinity. Now I’m not so sure.” That’s a preacher’s nightmare!


Once we digest this information, we’re compelled to ask, “Is Trinitarian doctrine necessary?” As it happens, the Nicene strategy worked splendidly. Insisting God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are substantially the same put an end to internal theories Jesus wasn’t actually God Incarnate, but created by God as the Perfect Human. Since Nicaea, the divinity debate threatening to split the Church has ceased. But it never really went away. Secular thought and non-Christian religions (e.g., Islam, Deism, and the Bahà’í Faith) either reject or minimize the divinity of Christ by casting Him as a prophet, moral example, or messenger—but not the Incarnate God. Thus, while the Nicene success made the Trinity doctrine unnecessary for the institutional Church, it remains necessary for us as individual believers.

Confidence we can be reconciled to God hinges on faith in Christ as the ultimate sacrifice for sin. This work was beyond the ability of any human being, since it would automatically imply merit. If one person were perfect enough to die for everyone’s sin, the rest of us wouldn’t be worthy to receive forgiveness his/her death provides. We’d be right back where we started: trying to earn mercy, not accepting it as a gift. When we strip Jesus of His divinity, we reject God’s grace and love in assuming human form as the offering that ensures it. And when grace and love walk out the door, the Holy Spirit is no longer needed, because It nurtures fellowship with God. How can we fellowship with God when we’ve not accepted the love or accessed the grace enabling reconciliation with Him? This is the core premise of our faith. It’s why we believe. It’s why Jesus repeatedly says He came. While the doctrine may stand on rickety scriptural pilings, the bedrock beneath them is eternally secure. That makes the doctrine necessary and essential for any true follower of Christ.


We stumble over the Trinity by focusing on what It is, rather than how It operates. We concoct simplistic metaphors to decipher Its structure. I was taught to picture the Trinity as an apple. It has three parts—skin, flesh, and core—but it’s still one apple. That did a fine job of explaining the Trinity as an organism. But it shone no light whatsoever on how each component works, or how they work together. Gratefully, I discovered a number of theologians willing to address this and all of them reached the same conclusion. The Trinity’s power exists in the relationships between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They complement one another in action. And, as we’ve seen, no better explanation of their function is found in Scripture than in 2 Corinthians 13.14: the grace of Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

With that, comprehending the Trinity becomes far less difficult. It comes down to instrumentality. God’s love for us activated His desire to be reconciled with us. Christ’s sacrifice opened the bottomless well of grace that entitles us to reconciliation. And the Holy Spirit completes the process by drawing us into fellowship with our Maker. Forget about the Nicene Council’s machinations. Throw the apple away. Hang on to the Trinity for what It makes possible: divine love, grace, and fellowship.

We stumble over the Trinity by trying to decipher Its structure (L) rather than understanding how It functions (R).

Postscript: Great Reading

It’s been a while since I’ve recommended blogs I’ve come to enjoy and appreciate. I’m adding several of them to the blog-roll today, and briefly want to give you a bit of information about them. Each is fascinating in its own way—and all of the authors have kindly graced us with their comments here. Take the time to drop by and say hello. I’m sure you’ll find all them as inspiring and challenging as I have! Alphabetically:

Blue-Eyed Ennis is the handiwork of Philomena Ewing, who writes from Cornwall, UK and continually delights with her refreshing wit, scriptural depth, and keen eye for photography and art.

Kelly describes her blog, Not A Virgin, But Occasionally A Martyr, this way: “A wayward Catholic girl tries not to forget about God.” Her posts cover a wide range of topics, from faith to daily life—all of them open, honest, and briskly written.

TomCat’s Politics Plus leaves no doubt about his views. His tagline: “Overcoming Right-Wing Insanity, One Day at a Time.” He’s got a great sense of humor and stands up for equality (including GLBT rights), compassion, and justice—all of it driven by faith-inspired conscience.

Jan’s Yearning for God is another breath of fresh air. She combines personal items with spiritual reflections in an effortlessly seamless way. What strikes you most about Jan’s writing is its continuity between the day-to-day and the profound. You never know what to expect, but whatever it is, it’s grand.

I want to personally thank all of these fine people for finding time to join us here, and for their terrific work at “their places.” I’m grateful to know you.


TomCat said...

Thanks for the linkage Tim, and the compliments.

Trinity is a big pill to swallow. I understand it this way. The nature of God transcends reality as we understand it. That leaves us with describing it through imperfect metaphor, but the imperfection of our descriptions does not negate the perfection of deity.

Tim said...

You're welcome, TomCat. And I believe you're totally correct about our limitations in describing the Trinity's transcendence. It's beyond us, which is why I prefer faith to fact...

Blessings, my friend,

Philomena Ewing said...

Hi Tim,
Thank you so much for the appreciative compliments and for promoting my blog- I am "chuffed".
(Don't know if you use that expression in the US ?!)
This is a such a vital and thorough post on the Trinity so I need more time to read it thoroughly. Likewise with your post after this one- I am catch up time so will come back and comment on it later. where do you get your inspiration ?

Tim said...

Hi, Phil. You're so welcome. We don't say "chuffed" in the US, but I think it's a grand word and plan to do my best to worm it into the vernacular!

As I mentioned, your post(s) greatly helped me collect my thoughts around the Trinity--so I'm very grateful and indebted to you. It was a tough one, though, and as I toiled away at it, I was tempted almost sentence by sentence to hang it up. That you and Tom and hopefully others found it even intelligible is a great consolation.

Re my inspiration, I can't rightly say. I try to keep my ears open, I guess. Sometimes a thought will leap out of the daily readings. I tend to let it linger and ferment for a while before writing about it. (This is why there's often "lectionary lag" around here.) Other times, a scripture or passage whispers by, setting off a quest of sorts: what does that mean? And then other times, I feel drawn to a topic and start digging. Of course, there are days when the writing becomes a duty--pick something and go for it. But those are often the sweetest times, because they yield the greatest surprises.

The richest inspiration, though, comes from the nudges and insights I gain from something I read or hear--whether in a book, over a pulpit, or on blogs like yours. These sources remind of what the Hebrews writer said, "The Word is alive and active."

Yes, indeed!

Thanks again. I'm always honored and excited by your comments. They add much to our conversation!

Blessings always,

claire said...

I love Paul's quote because it says so much. And what is not said, you say it, you fill it in :-) It is a great post, Tim, a Classic to be kept and go back to.



Tim said...

Thank you, Claire. It's such an immense topic that I feel presumptuous even trying to tackle it. You help ease my mind -- and, as always, make me smile!


TomCat said...

Thanks Tim. Where this not so, faith would be redundant.