Thursday, May 19, 2016

Dancing with the Trinity

A little change from my normal political diet. This time, I want to  try to explain the Trinity and dance with God as I am doing so, since dancing lies at the heart of the Trinity.

As I have written frequently, Christians, Jews, and Muslims have much in common. They are all children of Abraham.Unfortunately, there is also much that divides them. Two major doctrines, in particular, separate Christians from the other two Abrahamic faiths. One is the two natures of Christ. According to Christians, Christ is not only fully human but he is also fully divine. In contrast, Jews and Muslims claim that Christ is only human. Muslims admit that he is a special prophet, but he is not divine. 

The other major doctrine is the Trinity. I want to examine this doctrine briefly in order to help clarify it a little and to promote better understanding between these faiths. This is not intended as a theological treatise but merely as a post in this blog. Nevertheless. I do hope to elucidate this distinctively Christian doctrine a tiny bit. This post is inspired  by Trinity Sunday, which is the first Sunday after Pentecost. This is the only Sunday in the church calendar that celebrates a doctrine. In 2016, it happens to fall on May 22.

How should this doctrine be understood? The traditional teaching is: the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. But the Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit, the Son is not the Father or the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father or the Son. There are three Persons, but only one God. There are not three Gods, but only one God. The divine math is simple, although confusing: 1+1+1=1.

It's no wonder that so many of the early church councils were called to formulate a correct understanding of the Trinity. In fact, the doctrine of the Trinity seems to be almost incomprehensible, so that it seems possible merely to confess it, but hardly to celebrate it. The doctrine of the Trinity seems much too dry, too confusing, and too distant to celebrate. Thus, the Trinity is ignored even by many Christians. That is sad, since they are unable to describe this doctrine to others, especially Jews and Muslims for whom the divine math is especially difficult to understand.

In my teaching for many years, I have often tried to explain this doctrine to those who claim that Christians worship three Gods. "How can one God be three Persons?" they ask. This doctrine is not explicitly spelled out in the Bible. In fact, the word Trinity is not found there at all. The term was the invention of an African theologian named Tertullian. The early Christians arrived at this doctrine when they applied their God-given reason to the revelation which they had received in faith.

In the story of salvation, creation is usually attributed to the Father, redemption to the Son and sanctification to the Spirit. Although they are distinct as persons, neither the Father nor the Son nor the Spirit ever exists in separation or acts in isolation from the other two persons of the Godhead. But the inner relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- in such a way that each of them is fully and equally God, yet there are not three Gods but only one -- is incomprehensible to the human mind. It is, and always will be, a mystery, not in the sense of a “who-done-it?", but rather something which finite minds are incapable of understanding.

The story is told of the great philosopher and theologian Augustine of Hippo, who wanted to understand the Trinity and be able to explain it logically. One day as he was walking along the sea shore and reflecting on this, he suddenly saw a little child all alone on the shore. The child made a hole in the sand, ran to the sea with a little cup, filled her cup, came and poured it into the hole. Back and forth she went to the sea, filled her cup and came and poured it into the hole. Augustine went up to her and asked, "Little child, what are doing?" and she replied, "I am trying to empty the sea into this hole." "How do you think," Augustine asked her, "that you can empty this immense sea into this tiny hole and with this tiny cup?" To which she replied, "And you, how do you suppose that with this your small head you can comprehend the immensity of God?" With that the child disappeared.

Perhaps it would be easier for Christians if God had revealed his triune nature more clearly in the Scriptures. Yet God has provided clues about himself from the very beginning. The Genesis account does not say, “Let me make humankind in my own image,”but “let us make humankind in our own image according to our likeness.” From the beginning, he is the God who exists in community. The triune nature of God assures us that he is the Creator, the Word, and the Spirit  and that all are involved in creation. God creates communally. There are many other clues as well.

Why did God reveal the mystery regarding his very nature in this way? The importance of this doctrine lies in this: we are made in the image of God; and therefore, the better we understand God the better we can understand ourselves. What does the doctrine of the Trinity tell us about the kind of God we worship and what does it say about the kind of people we should be? Here I have two points to make.

First, God does not exist as an isolated individual but in community, in relationship with many others. In other words, God is not a loner or a recluse. For Christians, it means living in relationships as well and shunning every form of individualism.  The Trinity shows us that three is community, three is love at its best. Two is not enough. A marriage is not a family. It is only two people who are living together. Not until a child comes along does it become a family; then it becomes a community, just as the Trinity is a community.

Secondly, human beings become fully human only when they are in a relationship with others and, although they may not realize it, with God. In that way, life becomes trinitarian. The doctrine of the Trinity challenges us to adopt an I-and-God-and-neighbor principle. Christians are commanded to live in a relationship of love with God and other people. Then, and only then, can we truly express our humanity. God intended human beings to live in community, as is clear from the Genesis story, when God created a helper for Adam and they both had a relationship with God -- a relationship that mirrored the relationship that exists within the Trinity.

The interrelationship between Father, Son, and Spirit has been expressed by Christian scholars using the term “perichoresis.” That’s a Greek word that can be translated as "dancing around." I like the implications of God the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, engaged in a divine dance, interacting with one another, expressing their love for one another, and complementing the work each has to do. Each Person of the Trinity is engaged in a loving dance that includes all the work of all the others.

Salvation itself -- being made right with God -- proceeds from the Father who is incarnate in the Son; all this disseminated through the work of the Spirit. God’s work involves more than taking individuals to heaven when they die. God’s work is to restore his kingdom on this earth, so that all of God’s creation can know his shalom -- the peace that says all things are as God has intended them to be. God sent Jesus to bring the shalom of God to the entire creation. Today God sends Christians out into the world. Whatever work they have to do in this world, they do it from the standpoint of the triune God who has created, redeemed, and enabled them.

Don't think about the Trinity as just a doctrine, but rather as three Persons who love each other and who also love us. As followers of Jesus, the Son, we are loved by the Father, and inspired to love by the Spirit. All three persons of the Godhead are at work in our lives, in the life of the Church, and in the life of the world. As we live in new awareness of God in all God’s expressions as Father, Son, and Spirit, our spiritual lives will deepen, our vision of God’s kingdom will expand, and the work that God has chosen for us will take on a new vitality and urgency.

This image of the relational dance of God is wide enough to include us and all created things. Non-relational images of God do not allow such room, but the loving dance of Father, Son, and Spirit offers us and all creation the divine space in which to live into the fullness of our identity as children of God. The shared love of the Trinity inspires us to love all created reality. Thus we must be concerned for the environment. Climate change is real, and as humans we must accept responsibility for it.

There is a beautiful artistic depiction of the welcome that God gives into the life of the Trinity in a Russian Orthodox icon originating from the 15th century: Rublev's icon of the Holy Trinity. It depicts the story of Abraham welcoming the three visitors who represent God. The three figures in the icon are shown as angels seated at an altar table. They have identical faces, but their postures and clothing differ as though we are looking at the same figure shown in three different ways.

The way in which the figures relate to one another makes this icon so compelling. The Father looks to the Son gesturing toward this Word made flesh, Christ gazes back at the Father but points to the Spirit, and the Spirit opens up the circle to receive the viewer. Between the Spirit and the Father in the Trinity icon is an open space at the table in which the viewer is brought to sit in communion with the Godhead. Here we see an image of God’s relational circle into which we are welcomed: the Father sends the Son, the Son sends the Spirit, and the Spirit welcomes us to the table. It is a lush image of how God relates to himself and to us.

This triune God, who made himself known in the Scriptures, invites us to this relational dance. It might be a lot easier for everyone if we had a God who was a bit easier to peg down, but that is not the case. Instead we have a triune God who is difficult to explain. He reveals himself not in the minutia of doctrine but in community, in bread and wine, and in water. It is especially in the waters of baptism that we can swim in the crazy, beautiful promises of the triune God who welcomes us into the swirling dance of his love that led to Christ's sacrifice on the cross for the sake of the world.

Perhaps the Trinity is not such a dry, dusty doctrine after all, but one that bathes us with the love of God. The loving Trinity models community and inspires people to love those who are all around them, whether nearby or faraway. May that drive Christians to love Jews, Muslims, and those of other faiths or no faith at all. If this explanation has helped everyone to understand the Trinity a little better, then that is a bonus.



  1. Dancing with God? Like David did? A foxtrot, perhaps??!! 😀

  2. No my friend, God is NOT three persons. God is ONE person Jesus Christ our Lord and only God (Jude 1:25).
    Jesus made it clear that He is the Father, saying 'I and the Father are ONE' (John 10:30).
    If the Father is another person, then they are TWO, but Jesus said that He and the Father are ONE.
    Consequently Jesus and the Father are not TWO.
    Even, if Jesus and another person called Father are in union with each other, they still would be TWO, but Jesus said, that He and the Father are ONE.

    And mathematical, 1+1+1 does NOT equal 1. It equals 3.
    Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is ONE (Mark 12:29), consequently He is NOT THREE !
    Kind regards Paul