This coming Sunday, we will be celebrating Trinity Sunday in worship, and hearing from biblical passages which our ancestors in the faith have assumed to provide some “biblical basis” for the Doctrine of The Trinity.
I’ve blogged before about my views on the Trinity (see “Do you believe in the Triune God?” – An Informed Faith (johntsquires.com) and The missional opportunity of Trinity Sunday – An Informed Faith (johntsquires.com)) … so this is lucky number three post about the three-in-one!!!
This year, I’ve been musing on the words of my colleague, the Rev. Dr Peter Walker (Principal of United Theological College in Sydney). Peter has contributed a fine set of commentaries and questions for the week leading up to this Sunday, for With Love to the World, a daily bible reading resource that I edit. In reflecting on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday, Peter writes:
“The church has pursued its curiosity about the identity of Jesus, with the aid of the Holy Spirit and the biblical witness, for two-thousand years. John’s contribution is critical. With John’s help, the church has come to believe that the relationship of Jesus to the One who sent him is even deeper than what might be named as the sensitivity of a son or daughter to their father or mother. So, too, the relationship of the Spirit is more profoundly entwined to God than is captured by ‘Advocate’.”
I’m accepting of the notion that the way God relates to others—Jesus of Nazareth, the spirit of holiness, the woman of Wisdom (Prov 8, also offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday), and even to each and every human being—can’t be fully contained within one title or one phrase or even a single proposition. So we need multiple terms, multiple ways of envisaging how God relates to us, as well as to Jesus and Spirit, and shouldn’t be limited to just one way (or a small, finite set of ways) to describe that relationship.
Nevertheless, we have biblical passages that have been “used” throughout Christian history to provide the “building blocks” from scripture for the systems and doctrines that human beings have devised, over time, to explain and interpret the nature of God and the ways that God relates to us. So I think that it is incumbent upon us to deal with those scriptural passages in ways that are sensitive to the original intentions of the documents in which they appear, and cogniscent of the dangers of overwhelming these texts by placing upon them layer after layer of later speculative and systematising thoughts.
I like the turn of phrase that Peter uses—our “curiosity about the identity of Jesus”—and have been thinking about how we might foster that curiosity, as we engage with the biblical texts that are offered—and perhaps, also, as we resist the path into an “easy acceptance” of what those who have gone before us have decided that these passages must mean.
I think Peter exemplifies very well this open attitude towards the biblical text, in dealing with John 16:12-15. He writes, “The phrase of Jesus in v.15a [“all that the Father has is mine”] is unconditional: all things of the Father, whatsoever, are also of the Son. The divine Word, born to flesh, is one with God. And the Spirit, whom Jesus says takes and declares ‘what is mine’ and therefore the Father’s (v.15), is also one with God. ‘Father’ is John’s preferred term for God, ‘son’ his preferred term for Jesus. This gendered, finite language is pushed to its limits, of course, in any attempt to describe the infinite glory of divine life.”
That last sentence identifies one of the critical issues relating to the notion of Trinity in our own times. The strongly-gendered language reflects the hegemony of patriarchal power in society, both at the time that the scriptural texts were being written, and in the centuries when “The Church Fathers” undertook the work of interpreting, collating, systematising, and theorising, in relation to the nature of God—to say nothing, of course, of the way that patriarchal dominance has continued into the 20th century, and has, in so many ways, resisted the challenges brought against it from the 1960s onwards into the 21st century. We need to recognise its limits and be willing to explore beyond those limits.
There is still work to be do to re-gender our language, both about God, and about us as human beings. There is work crying out to be done to deconstruct the patriarchal power structures of our times and, alongside that, to reconstruct an understanding of people, and of God, that is not limited, constrained, and diminished, by slavish adherence to language and concepts that held sway in past eras. If we really are in the post-Christendom era, as many now propose, then we need to be willing to enter into this process and to embrace the unexpected, challenging, and enlivening results that we will experience.
Peter concludes his comments on John 16: “Through Word and Spirit, divine life has and is unfolding among us and throughout the world while still enfolded, all the while, in the Creator. How fortunate we are to have the Spirit of truth as our guide as we seek to bear faithful witness to the wonder and work of God.” That might be the best gift that we have from our focus, this Sunday, on the Trinity: a deep and abiding awareness that our perception of “the divine life” is growing, deepening, expanding, transforming, as we faithfully undertake our witness to God, insofar as we know God, in our lives.
We don’t have to rest content with the “God as Father” language, nor even with “Jesus as Son” (although his maleness is not in dispute). We don’t have to limit ourselves to the ten, or twelve, or 42, or however-many names of God we can discern within the Bible; nor do we have to limit our understanding of “the person and work of Jesus” to eight key Christological titles and seven main theories of the atonement (or whatever numbers we find to be relevant).
Our explorations can canvass both the various scriptural passages and the ongoing patristic and medieval and reformed and enlightenment and contemporary formulations of God as three-in-one and more … and canvass them in ways that uses them, not as limitations on what is approved or orthodox, but rather, as springboards to wider, creative, exploratory thinking.
So may that be our experience this Sunday, when “Trinity” swims into view in our worship services and bible readings.