This coming Sunday is one of those extremely rare moments in the course of the church year. It’s a Sunday that raises some difficulties for me. First, it’s one of the very few times in the Christian calendar that a Sunday is named for a doctrine, rather than for a biblical story (Easter, Pentecost, Christmas, and the like). And second, it is unusual in that it presents problems for the shapers of the lectionary, since (in my view) the Doctrine of the Trinity is not actually proclaimed in the biblical texts.
Indeed, we might well argue that the texts which are selected for this coming Sunday (Genesis 1, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13, and Matthew 28) are actually being asked to undertake work that they weren’t intended to do, and that they can’t actually do without significant violence being done to them. None of them were created with a view to being foundations for a doctrine that was developed some centuries later (in the case of the New Testament texts) or, indeed, a millennium or more later (in the case of the Hebrew Scripture passages).
And further, the two passages from Hebrew Scripture were actually written well before the time of Jesus, long before the Church came into being, centuries before Christian doctrine was developed in the height of the neo-Platonic speculative theology of the late Roman Empire. They were not shaped with such doctrinal expressions in mind; in fact, they were, and are, sacred texts in another religious expression, Judaism—which, although we Christians claim it as the context from which our faith evolved, nevertheless is a distinct and separate faith tradition.
Setting these two passages of scripture in the lectionary for a Sunday when the focus is on a Christian doctrine is anachronistic and invites us, unless we think carefully, to do violence to the text in our interpretation of them within that doctrinal context. In the normal,course of events, placing a narrative or piece of poetry from ancient Israelite religion alongside texts from the New Testament makes some sense, insofar as our understanding of such passages must always be informed by the heritage bequeathed by Hebrew Scripture texts. But setting such ancient texts as resources to interpret the fourth- and fifth-century doctrinal perspective is quite unhelpful.
Perhaps we should have readings from Origen, Athanasius, and Augustine, for Trinity Sunday? But the fact is, that we have texts from Genesis, the Psalms, Paul, and a Gospel, for this Sunday. What do we make of them?
Genesis 1, the story of the creation of the world, is most likely offered for Trinity Sunday in Year A because the opening verses refer, in turn, to God, a wind, or breath, from God sweeping over the waters, and the activity of God speaking in order to bring forth elements of that creation (Gen 1:1–3). It is not too difficult to read that with Christian spectacles on, and see the presence of God the Creator, the Word of God, and the wind, or breath, as God’s spirit. So numerous Christian interpreters have pressed upon their people, for centuries.
However, arguing that this provides the foundation for the full Christian doctrine of the Triune God does severe damage to the intentions of the passage, at least as we may understand them if we read the text carefully. There is no suggestion that these three elements are persons who are interrelated into one being. There is no indication that they are related, other than the fact that the breath and the speaking are activities of God. That is in no way unusual or extraordinary.
Indeed, if we think some more about the God who is described in these opening few verses, we would recognise that there are a number of other activities undertaken by God, or manifestations of God’s being, that are reported in the various scrolls of the Hebrew Scriptures. As well as the voice (speaking) and the wind (breathing), there are other aspects of the person of God which are said to be active: the mouth, the hands, the fingers of God. Such quasi-independent activity is not limited to two entities alone. The notion of a three-in-one person is nowhere to be found in these scripture passages.
So we need to read Genesis 1 in that much broader context. In addition, we need to be aware of the other “personifications” of the deity that appear in Hebrew Scripture. The ruach—the spirit of God—is, of course, active in calling prophets (1 Sam 10:6, 16; Isa 42:1; 61:1; Ezek 2:2; Dan 5:14; Joel 2:28–29; Mic 3:8; Zech 7:12).
Alongside the spirit, Wisdom, Hochmah, takes on her own persona and role in the wisdom literature; she is the “master worker” who works with God to create the universe (Prov 8:22–31), so that “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; by his knowledge the deeps broke open, and the clouds drop down the dew” (Prov 4:19). It is wisdom who “cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice”, teaching God’s ways to the people (Prov 1:20–23; also 8:1–9). The psalmist affirms that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps 111:10). Wisdom is God at work in creating and in teaching.
In the narratives telling of the years wandering in the wilderness, the Glory of God, the kabod, appears regularly. When the people arrived at the edge of the wilderness, “the Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night; neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people” (Exod 13:21–22). This manifestation is identified as “the glory of the Lord” (Exod 16:10).
On arrival at Mount Sinai, “the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days … the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israeli” (Exod 24:16–17). In rabbinic literature, this phenomenon is given the name shekinah—a further way of describing the manifestation of divine activity. The Shekinah is yet another manifestation of the divine which becomes personified over time in Jewish traditions; not a separate person, rather an expression of God’s being.
Yet another rabbinic term for divine manifestation is the Bat Qol, the voice of God. This takes the many statements in scripture about God speaking, and attributes quasi-personal firm to the voice of. God. The term Bat Qol literally means “the daughter of the voice”, as if simply by speaking, God generates a personality or a being from that process.
There is much discussion in rabbinic literature about the role and function of the Bat Qol. It was thought that the Bat Qol had been active in biblical times, even though there is no explicit statement of her activity in Hebrew Scripture. A common view in rabbinic literature is that the BatbQol became the way that God communicated with humanity after the end of the prophetic era.
Also in later rabbinic discussions, even Torah itself—the teaching, or instruction, of God which was given in “the Law”—is personified and seen to be active in and of itself. So along with word and breath (or spirit), there is Wisdom (Hochmah), Glory (Shekinah), Bat Qol, and Torah, who are active expressions of God in the developing Jewish tradition.
Psalm 8 is also offered by the lectionary for Trinity Sunday in Year A; and it is also offered by the lectionary on this day in Year C, as well as for New Years Day in each of the three years. It is a logical companion piece with the Genesis story of creation, which is reflected in verses 1–2 and 7–9. In the middle of the psalm, the place of humanity is in focus; here the emphasis is on the relationship that humanity has with the deity (“a little lower than God, crowned with glory and honour”, v.5) and the responsibility of “dominion” that is given to humans over animals, birds, and fish (vv.7–8).
Perhaps the connection for this Sunday is with the element in the doctrine that lays claim to Jesus as not only human, but also divine; the connection point between the divine realm and the human world? But there is no specific pointer towards Jesus, naturally, in this psalm, and no indication that there was any need for any enhancement, so to speak, of the way that humans related to the divine, beyond that which is set out in this psalm. So it really doesn’t provide a biblical pointer towards understanding the doctrine of the Trinity.
to be continued in a further post …