Back in the days when I was lecturing in theological education, one of my colleagues told me the following story from a training institution where he had previously taught. One of his students had come up to him and had asked with great enthusiasm whether, on Trinity Sunday, she might be permitted to choreograph a liturgical dance representing the Holy Trinity as part of the college’s worship. Keen to encourage such creative initiatives, my friend agreed.
When it came to the actual performance, however, the watching congregation were left somewhat bemused. The thing that they found both challenging and perplexing was not that the dancers who were representing the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, all happened to be female. That wasn’t a problem at all. The problem was that there were only two of them.
Now call me a hidebound old traditionalist if you will, but I can’t help feeling that there is something a tad non-negotiable about the number three where the Holy Trinity is concerned. But this story does actually raise a very interesting question which is this: why does Christian tradition describe the Almighty as one God in three persons (rather than two, or four, or for that matter, seven). And more importantly still, why does it matter?
I have to say that it really troubles me when I encounter clergy (as I do from time to time), who really can’t be doing with the idea of the Trinity, dismissing it as being too difficult, too boring, too complicated, or too irrelevant for Christians in the twenty-first century to be bothering about. Because for me, nothing could be further from the truth.
Indeed, I am in full agreement with one of my great heroes, the 16th century poet, priest, and Dean of St Paul’s, John Donne, who firmly believed that the purpose of the doctrine of the Trinity was not to make the idea of God more complicated, but in fact to make it simpler. He wrote this: ‘God being infinitely one hath manifested himself to us in three persons to be the more easily discerned by us and the more closely and effectually applied by us.’ And he was right.
I would like you to set aside for a moment any thought of the complicated philosophical debates that the early Church had on the subject of the Trinity, and think instead about scripture. Because it is in scripture that we encounter God the Father, Creator of all things; it is in Scripture that we encounter God the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. And it is in scripture that we encounter the Holy Spirit, who is at work everywhere, inspiring and empowering and encouraging people to do God’s will. Sometimes these three are spoken of as if they were distinct (the Son prays to the Father; the Spirit empowers the Son); at other times they are spoken of as if they were one and the same (as when Jesus tells the disciples, ‘Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father’). And yet there is no carefully honed doctrine of the Trinity, nor any clear explanation of how all these things fit together anywhere in the Bible. At the very end of Matthew’s Gospel the Risen Lord commands the disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – but that kind of formula in scripture is very unusual indeed.
So, going back to John Donne for a moment, how does the Trinity make the idea of God easier for us to grasp?
Because a God who was purely mighty and powerful might easily seem remote from us; difficult to love; wholly separate from the complex and broken reality that is the stuff of our daily lives – were it not for the fact that he also makes himself known to us as the Son, who came to earth and dwelt among us; who experienced the reality of human life, with all its sorrows and hardships, and did so on precisely the same terms on which we ourselves experience them (‘Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows’).
And the experience of God the Father, and God the Son would be incomplete without God the Holy Spirit: the Spirit who blasts through our lives when we are least expecting it, who disturbs our complacency, and overturns our priorities, and sets us ablaze with the love of God; the Spirit who brings us comfort when we are afraid, who strengthens us when we face tasks that feel beyond us, and who prays for us, and prays within us.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our understanding of God is impoverished and distorted unless we can rejoice in the richness and the fullness of the Trinity. Without all three we would fail to do justice to the Christian experience of God throughout the centuries, in its wholeness and completeness: God the Creator; God the Redeemer; God the Sustainer. God is so much bigger than any single model, or image, or experience, could ever hope to encapsulate. And the Bible points us in that direction, because it reflects the lived experience of the people of God, who encountered God in all of these realities, and yet never feels any need to offer us a neat and tidy explanation of how.
A friend of mine who was a school chaplain for many years, tells a wonderful story about how she was once struggling to explain the Trinity to a class of young girls, and was getting increasingly bogged down in the technicalities – when much to her astonishment, one of the eleven year olds in the group suddenly came to her rescue. ‘The Trinity is easy’, the girl said; ‘God made us, God’s like us; God’s with us.’ Which says it all, really.
But finally, to return to the question that I asked at the very start of this address – what is the significance of the number three in all this? And it seems to me that the answer to that question resides in the fact that the Christian God is a God of love.
Because love can only exist in relationship. So it is hard to see how an all-powerful God, perfect, complete, timeless and unchanging could, alone and in isolation, be a God of Love. And yet a relationship that involves only two individuals can end up being exclusive and inward looking. But a love shared equally and profoundly between the three persons of the Trinity, between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, is a love that has a quite different momentum; for it is a love that is full to overflowing; a love that spills over and floods the world. And a love that is that powerful, and that generous, and that boundless, cannot help but transform our lives too.