Trinity Sunday

June 19, 2011
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Reading 2: 
Psalm 8
Reading 3: 
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Reading 4: 
Matthew 28:16-20
By Paul S. Nancarrow

 

I once heard a Christian theologian explain the difference between dogma and doctrine as being that dogmas are required for belief,  part of the very definition of being Christian, while doctrines are “teachings about believing” that are always partial, provisional, and subject to correction and refinement. Given that, he went on to say that Christianity really has only two dogmas: that God was really incarnate in Jesus, and that God is Trinity. Understanding God as Three-in-One and One-in-Three, as a unity of differentiations, as essentially relational, is central to the Christian Way. And yet it is one of the most troublesome, poorly understood, and generally politely ignored of all Christian precepts. Immanuel Kant wrote “From the doctrine of the Trinity, taken literally, nothing whatsoever can be gained for practical purposes”; and countless Christians before and since have been happy to agree, regarding the Trinity as an arcane bit of intellectual speculation that can have no bearing on the concrete work of living a Christian life. Process theologians as well have wrestled with the teaching. Some process theologians have tried to map the traditional three Persons of the Trinity onto Whitehead’s ideas of the Primordial, Consequent, and Superjective Natures of God; others have found these attempts less than convincing. Some have argued that, while it makes some sense to speak of the three Persons as three ways God relates to the world (eg, Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier), in Whitehead’s metaphysics it would be hard to account for three distinct personal threads or hypostases within the one ever-concrescing actual entity that is God, or even within God as a personal society of occasions as envisioned by Hartshorne; that is, they allow for an “economic Trinity” but not an “immanent Trinity.” Many preachers in churches today, when faced with the task of proclamation using these texts assigned for Trinity Sunday, turn it over to their junior pastors, or choose to preach on the Great Commission or the story of Creation, without explicitly facing those stories’ troublesome Trinitarian implications.

Yet according to these very texts, the dogma of the Trinity is specifically not a matter of idle or arcane speculation, but is rooted and grounded in the texture of Christian experience. Matthew concludes his good news about God in Christ with this story of the disciples encountering the Risen Jesus on a mountain in Galilee, when Jesus sends them out to “make disciples of all nations.” This discipleship is specified in terms of two components, baptism and obedience to “everything that I have commanded you.” These components can be understood sequentially, with baptism being the rite that initiates disciples into the Christian life in the first place, and Christian life in the second place consisting in continual obedience to Jesus’ commands. This makes of baptism more than just a formal rite, but a kind of enacted capsule summary of the character of Christian life; it also specifies Jesus’ “commands” as more than a list of rules and regulations, but as the qualities enacted in the rite that are to be instantiated anew in the actual occasions of the disciple’s ongoing life. In fact, in the canonical gospels Jesus issues very few commands; he gives a great deal of moral teaching, and he offers expansive interpretations of the Ten Commandments (as in, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount), but he uses the words “command” and “commandment” very sparingly. The best candidates for “commands” of Jesus are the two he links in the “summary of the law,” to love God with all the heart and mind and soul and strength, and to love the neighbor as the self; the gospel of John is unique in adding a third, “new” commandment, to love one another as Jesus loves, that is, with the same quality of love Jesus himself exemplifies. The life of discipleship is to “obey” or to commit to these three loves; committing to these three loves is the action undertaken in the sacrament of baptism; and baptism is “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The triune formula, so rarely used in the New Testament though clearly attested in the early church, is here linked quite explicitly to the experience of the Christian life of love under the condition of baptism.

The threefold love of Christian experience is spelled out with greater specification in the Epistle reading, in Paul’s closing blessing to the church in Corinth. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you,” Paul writes, connecting a certain mode or quality of love with each of the Trinitarian Persons. With Jesus Paul connects “grace,” Greek charis, denoting love that is a gift, free, unconditional, and unearned. This is the quality to which John points in his “new” commandment that followers of Jesus should love as Jesus loves. Stories of Jesus in the gospels show him manifesting charis-love in the way he freely accepts all who come to him, in all their particularity, knowing their hearts, knowing them as they are and not merely as greed or fear or ambition might project upon them, offering them commensality regardless of their “deserving” or “not deserving” social or moral station. When Jesus’ followers love one another as Jesus loves them, it is this grace or charis-love that they experience.

Attributed to God in Paul’s blessing is “love,” Greek agapē, which, in the Hellenistic Judaism in which Paul was trained, when predicated of God as it is here, carries important connotations of a love that is chosen and willed, an intentional disposition to seek the good of the other, and to be faithful in that disposition through any and all circumstances. It is thus the mode of love that is best exemplified in election and covenant, first in God’s election of Israel, and now in God’s election of the redeemed among the Gentiles through the covenant in Christ. For those now accepted into God’s covenant-fidelity love, the experience can be expressed formally as redemption from bondage to sin and inclusion in the inheritance of the saints (Colossians 1:12), which we may further gloss in process terms as feeling with greater relevance the qualities prehended from the lives and examples of previous covenant-members, so that those prehensions become important constitutive factors in the new occasions of the faithful, and thereby open new propositional feelings toward the embodiment of good aims and divine ideals. In emotional terms, the effect of this faithful redeeming love is described with great poignancy in Romans 7:15-8:2. The liberating experience of agapē is distinct but not divided from the experience of the free gift of charis.

Third in Paul’s blessing is the appropriation to the Holy Spirit of “communion,” or koinōnia in Greek, which is fellowship-love, the love that is felt in common in the web of relationships in the Christian community, the love that makes of each member more than he or she would be alone. We saw in the commentary on Pentecost that the Spirit can be thought of as the power of building relationships of diversity-in-unity and comprehension-of distinctions, and this is in keeping with attributing to the Spirit the work of koinōnia-love. It is worth noting that the Spirit is neither the object nor the subject of koinōnia-love, but is as it were the enabling medium, the active matrix in which such love is originated and sustained and fulfilled. In the doctrine of the Trinity as it was more fully developed after the New Testament period, one way of speaking of the three Persons was as “the Lover, the Beloved, and the Bond of Love between them”; it is that same quality of love-between that is indicated by koinōnia here, and the same recognition that the Spirit is not known in itself, but in the relationships it empowers. It is a mode of love distinct from, but still clearly related to, the charis and agapē that are also experiential realities of the Christian life.

The baptismal formula in Matthew and the closing epistolary blessing in 2 Corinthians show us that the experience of divine love as threefold was a central element of Christian life from its earliest times. But the dogma of the Trinity developed specifically to say that the “threeness” of the divine is not simply an artifact of human perception, nor a divine accommodation to human limitation (the heresy of modalism), but is in some sense a feature of God’s own being. In classical Trinitarian thought, the issue was not only one of metaphysical speculation, but of soteriology: because it was believed that in Jesus we have what Schillebeeckx later called “the sacrament of the encounter with God,” it was important that the experience of God given in following the Way of Jesus is an encounter with the real God, and not just an appearance or accommodation of God; if not, then we have not encountered the real God and we are not really saved. If the experience of God given in the Way of Jesus is threefold, then that threefoldness must therefore somehow be true of the real God. We can add to that from process thought the Whiteheadian dictum that “a thing is what it does”: so if God does in the world in a threefold manner, then there must be at least some sense in which God is threefold. At the least we can say that the distinction-without-division of what Paul calls agapē and charis and koinōnia is a factor in the way God experiences what it’s like to be God-of-the-world. Grace, love, and communion must be thought of as patterns of feeling and activity that are ingredient in God’s self-constitution, because they are discernible in God’s constitution in the world.

With this in mind, we can look at the first reading, the first Creation story from Genesis, and see in it all three patterns of love in God’s creating activity. From the void, undifferentiated tehom God creates by introducing particularities: God particularizes light from dark, open space from chaotic plenum, dry land from salt sea, living things from inert soil, and so on. At each stage, God grants a distinctive way of being, a suchness, to the creatures, that they should be as they are and have their particular place in Creation; and this is analogous to the charis-love of particular acceptance and commensality exemplified in Jesus. (We may note here that in traditional Trinitarian theology, while the First Person is often designated Creator, the Second Person, the Word, is the active creative agency “through whom all things are made.”) Furthermore, the particularized creatures are not left in isolation, but are set in dynamic relationships: light and dark are not left as mere opposites, but are set in the dynamic alternation of day and night, providing the reliable, faithful frame in which all the rest of the story happens; land and sea are related by coastlands and shorelines; sun and moon and stars, particularized from “light-in-general,” are set in patterns of relative movement that mark out times and seasons and years; plants yield fruits which carry their seeds, animals have the fruits for food, and in turn carry the seeds to new growing places for new generations; and so on. This work of weaving diverse individuals into common patterns of life, building webs of life-giving relationships, is the work of koinōnia-love appropriated to the Spirit, which broods over the Creation and gathers the whole under the shelter of its wings. Finally, the agapē-love of faithful disposition to seek the good of the other is reflected in the way that, at the end of each stage of creation, God pronounces it good, and in the later stages blesses the creatures and gives them instructions for how to live out their blessing — not unlike the way God gives Torah to Israel and “all that Jesus commands” to Christians as instructions for living out their covenant blessing. It is this covenant-instruction aspect of God’s creative work in the world that is picked up and praised as the theme of Psalm 8. The three patterns of love, which Paul and Matthew and later Christian writers identify as Trinity, are thus evident in God’s creating activity in the first story of Creation.

I’ve argued here that the dogma of the Trinity is not just an intellectual puzzle left over from the days when Christian theology was beholden to Hellenistic philosophy, but is instead an abstraction drawn from actual, concrete Christian experience. If so, then it can take on the role of any abstraction in process thought: it can feed back into concrete experience as a kind of guide or template for eliciting into prominence certain elements in feeling, which otherwise would not be felt so prominently, so that they can have greater importance in the concrescence of new occasions. Christians who look for the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit are likely to see them in the world, because they are paying attention to feeling-cues that others might not be paying attention to. Christians who look for grace and love and communion because they are the traces of God being God are likely to experience God as presently active in the world, because they are eliciting into prominence feelings of the divine that others might well be ignoring. The dogma of the Trinity, in itself certainly abstract, nevertheless can help constitute concrete Christian experience; and thus, contra Kant, it does offer something to be gained for practical purposes. For those who accept Paul’s blessing and commit to Matthew’s baptismal formula and look for God’s threefold love at work in the genesis of the world, the dogma of the Trinity becomes a means for becoming a more conscious and intentional created co-creator with God in the ongoing work of particularity and relationship, through which the cosmos becomes. The dogma of the Trinity, as a guide for Christian experience, invites us into grace and love and communion as concrete ways to participate in the Adventure of the Universe as One.