The Sunday after Pentecost Sunday is identified as Trinity Sunday. It is the only festive Sunday in the church calendar which is based on a theological doctrine, rather than a biblical narrative.
Our church year is structured around happenings—events from the stories recorded in the Bible, events like the day of Pentecost (last Sunday), the resurrection of Jesus (Easter Sunday), the death of Jesus (Good Friday), the temptation of Jesus (first Sunday in Lent), the baptism of Jesus, and the birth of Jesus (Christmas).
Christmas and Easter, and the seasons of preparation leading up to them, are grounded in biblical stories. Epiphany, after Christmas, and and the long line of Sundays after Pentecost, offer a focus on a string of biblical narratives, drawn from the Gospels, the Letters, and Hebrew Scripture books.
Trinity Sunday is resolutely doctrinal, dogmatic, oriented towards the construct of a belief system rather than the story of a flowing narrative. It stands out as remarkably different from the overall flow of the seasons of the church year.
Certainly, the Trinity is an organising principle for our beliefs, and for how we talk about God–but it is not the only one.
There are various passages in scripture, for instance, where God is described in ways that are outside the categories of the “doctrine of the Trinity”. Scripture is a wonderfully diverse collection of documents, with a wonderfully wide range of images, titles, and ideas describing God. A “triune God” is one, but by no means the only, deduction to be drawn from scripture.
God is our creator, our helper, the one who redeems, the one who nurtures. God is imaged as a warrior, and as a nursing mother; as a caring shepherd, and a tower of strength. God is judge and God is victim, the Passover lamb and the advocate sent by the Son. There are many names of God, many images of God, in scripture. Father, Son, and Spirit, is just one way that God is envisaged.
So, whilst Trinity Sunday should be celebrated, each year, as an invitation to ponder the mysteries of the nature of God, there is more to be said. Rather than this Sunday being an invitation to step back into a past era and hold fast to rigid philosophical categories of another era, can we see the Trinity as an excellent example of the church’s contextual theology and missional engagement with the wider community?
In the fourth to sixth centuries of the Common Era, what better way to articulate the Gospel in that time, than to locate it within the intellectual context of the late Roman Empire, when Greek philosophical thinking was in a resurgence and neoPlatonic concepts provided the dominant framework for rigorous thinking?
Three persons, consubstantial, of the same nature, co-eternal, co-inheriting, all makes sense in terms of the philosophical context of the day. That was how they thought and wrote, so analysing and describing God in terms of ‘persons’, ‘substance’ and ‘essence’, was utilising the tools of the time.
Viewed contextually, then, in their own time within history, the affirmations about God as “triune” make good sense. I value the concept of the Trinity as a fine example of good, honest, contextual theology.
Trinity Sunday provides us with a new missional opportunity for our own context. The missional task that we face as we reflect on the Trinity, is to follow the example provided by the contextualised development of of doctrine by the church fathers.
So, this Trinity Sunday, I would hope we might be inspired to find ways, in the contemporary context, where we can talk about God and bear witness to our faith, using concepts that are understandable and ideas that are enlivening. (That’s certainly what I will be speaking about on Sunday.)
If we want to talk about the divine delight in deep relationships and God’s desire to relate fully to our world, then concepts of incarnation, God coming “down” to earth from his heavenly home far away, hypostatic equality, co-inherence and perichoresis, just won’t cut through in the contemporary era.
We need to move beyond this way of understanding God, from so many centuries ago, and begin to create our own language and our own ideas for bearing witness to what we know in God. All of those terms made sense, way back in the past. They don’t speak in the same way to people today. Merely repeating ancient speculation and debate will not suffice.
The Gospel is surely that God’s generous self-outpouring is evident in a range of actions which foster justice and in a variety of deeds which demonstrate compassion; in loving relationships and in living the values of the kingdom. We need to express this in a diversity of ways.
For that, we can be thankful, and affirm, that this is the God in whom we place our trust.