The Trinity
Irrelevant or Essential?

Published in Fellowship Magazine, March 1999. Reproduced here with permission.

On one of the most emotional and memorable days of my life, I gained a keen insight into how divided the human heart can be. I had returned to England to bury the ashes of my Father and traveled with his younger brother to the small town in Lancashire where they had received their upbringing. After having completed the ceremony, my uncle and I drove a few miles to the city of Manchester to watch an international soccer match. However, this was no ordinary game as it was between England (the country where I was born) and South Africa (a country in which I had lived and was forced to leave). Even more poignant was the fact that we were there at the invitation of my cousin-in-law who is the coach and manager of the England team. He graciously gave us tickets with seats next to the England substitute players.

As is the custom at international games, we all rose to sing the national anthems of the teams. When they began to play the South African anthem "Nkosi Sikelela Africa", I raised my arms and sang loudly. The England players sitting next to me wondered what on earth I was doing. Why was I singing (loudly) the anthem of the opposing team? When I sang "God Save The Queen" with similar gusto, they looked aghast. One of the participants asked my uncle, "Who is he?" My uncle replied, "Donít worry, heís Canadian!" Throughout the whole of the game I was torn between two nations that I loved very much. I cheered for both sides when they scored and felt a tremendous sense of exhilaration in such an emotionally charged atmosphere.

I believe that the Early Church felt exactly the same way when it came to debating the two natures of Jesus Christ. The earliest Christians loved their Lord but could not fully understand how this very human Jesus of Nazareth could be God. This belief is wonderfully summarized by the theologian Karl Barth: "Godís revelation in Jesus Christ, is compelling and exclusive, helpful and adequate, because here we have not to do with a reality different from God, nor with one of those earthly or even heavenly realities, but with God Himself, with God in the highest, the Creator of heaven and earth. When in countless passages the New Testament speaks about Jesus of Nazareth as the Lord Jesus whom the Church recognizes and confesses to be Jesus the Christ, it is using the same word which the Old Testament expresses by ĎJehovah.í This Jesus of Nazareth, who passes through the cities and villages of Galilee and wanders to Jerusalem, who is there accused and condemned and crucified, this man is the Jehovah of the Old Testament, is the Creator, is God Himself."

The difficulty of explaining this belief was heightened as the Gospel spread from its Jewish roots into the Gentile world, where philosophers and thinkers contemplated the paradox of the Christian message. For example, it was inconceivable to the Greek philosophers that God could become a human. They believed that God was changeless and, therefore, if He had become a human person, He would have needed to change as He encountered the world. Similarly the Jewish community could not believe that God was a human person and that to claim such a thing would be blasphemous. The early Christians were torn and in response to the criticism of their beliefs, some schools of thought decided to stress the divinity of Jesus and down-played His humanity (Alexandria). Others placed greater emphasis on the humanity of Jesus (Antioch).

By the beginning of the fourth century A.D., the Christian community felt under pressure to resolve the issue. Some of these forces came from outside the Church and were politically motivated, while others were from within. For the sake of the unity of the Church, something had to be done. It was during this time that the doctrine of the Trinity developed. It was essentially a means whereby the church could explain the person of Jesus Christ and at the same time know the nature of God. At the council of Nicea in 325 A.D., Jesus was described in the following way: "The only Son of God, Eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light of Light, True God from true God, Begotten, not made, Of one Being with the Father, Through him all things were made" (See Voices United p.920).

In the fear of the church developing a binitarian (two persons) creed, Nicea also mentions the Holy Spirit as the third person in this Godhead. After much development by thinkers such as St. Athanasius, the Church finally concluded that the Trinity was the best expression of God and that He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. At the church council in Constantinople in 381 A.D., they finally defined God as "three co-eternal and co-equal persons, one divine essence." Therefore, it would be wrong to either merge the three persons into one without recognizing their differences, or divide them up so as to lose their unity.

The question we need to ask ourselves is whether the doctrine of the Trinity is relevant for the Church today and what is at stake if we jettison our belief in its validity. Had you asked me 15 years ago whether the Trinity was an essential doctrine, I would probably have said "no." I would have agreed with Emil Brunner that the Trinity is not a central biblical motif and, therefore, should not be preached. However, in recent years I have come to see its importance and I do so for four reasons.

In recent years an old idea has re-emerged, namely, that the historical Jesus was not really divine but simply described as such by the early Christian community. The consequences of making such a distinction are enormous and have a major impact on the whole of our faith. If Jesus were not divine then nearly all our worship is idolatrous. The Old Testament writers made it abundantly clear that to worship anything or anyone other than the Lord is idolatry. Indeed, the worship of the One God distinguished the Chosen People from the surrounding cultures that worshipped a multitude of gods.

If Jesus is not one with the Father, then the Christian community has simply made Jesus to be another God and we are in error. However, if Jesus is, as the Trinity suggests, one with the Father and the Spirit, we can still sing the words of the Christmas carol "God of God, Light of Light" and "O come, O come Emmanuel" with a clear conscience. If the Trinity is true we are also free to celebrate the Lordís Supper as an act of worship and baptize people into the faith in the name of "the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit." However, if the doctrine of the Trinity is wrong, then we should avoid all such blasphemous and idolatrous acts.

We must remember that the early Christians did not simply imagine Jesus to be God-like. Rather, they came to this belief because of the Easter message that Jesus rose from the dead. We cannot talk about the Trinity or the divinity of Jesus in isolation from that one central act which validates the Gospel. Because the Gospels and Epistles were written after the resurrection, even the birth narratives were influenced by the message of Easter. The Trinity, therefore, is dependent on the Easter message and that is why at this time of the year we should worship the Risen Christ.

Of all the doctrines of the Church, the Trinity is the one that speaks most clearly about the love of God. For the Christian, love is not a concept or an idea but is a practical and tangible expression of Godís will for humanity. Johnís Gospel expresses this so clearly, "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now abide in my love" (John 15:9). According to John, the love of God is revealed in Jesus Christ and from the inter-relationship of the Father with the Son through the Spirit, we derive our understanding of love. In the light of this relationship, love took on the form of sacrifice and self-giving. God the Father gave His Son for us. This is agape and it is precisely this love which we should show to one another and the world. This is a radical departure from the fuzzy and sentimental expressions of love, which are often bandied around in greeting cards or self-help books. This agape is a love, which bore a cross for the sake of others. Take away the Trinity, and the love of the cross becomes a kind gesture or a mistaken act of selfĖabasement.

According to the doctrine of the Trinity, love is also incarnate in a full human being. The writer of Hebrews expressed this as follows, "We do not have a High Priest [Jesus Christ] who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we areóyet was without sin" (Hebrews 5:15). Therefore, we see the love of God in a true person, not in a superhuman. As St. Irenaeus put it, "The Word of God, Jesus Christ on account of his great love for us, became what we are in order to make us what He Himself is."

Unfortunately, the Third Person of the Trinity is often ignored and we forget that in our talk of Jesus, there is the One who bears witness to His Lordship. I believe that the Holy Spirit is not just a force or a power, but the presence of the living God. It is this Spirit who unites us in the bond of love, convicts us of our sins and gives us the grace to live in communion with God. True Christian fellowship is not something which is created from an ideal but is a divine reality. All of this stems from the relationship which exists between the three persons of the Trinity. Because they represent a divine community, believers are invited to participate in that fellowship through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

As we celebrate Easter, we remember that it is through the Holy Spirit that Jesus was declared to be the Son of God through his resurrection (Romans 8:11). Therefore, we can only come to that knowledge of the resurrection through God the Holy Spirit.

If, as some suggest, God is merely a Creator who left the world to its own devices and is no longer involved in creation, then the Trinity must be a false doctrine. However, if we believe that God is intimately active in the world to direct and strengthen us then, I would suggest that belief in the Trinity is essential. I make this claim because the Trinity lets us see that God can be simultaneously both above the world and present in it. This is clearly demonstrated when Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. God the Son is pleading to God the Father to be relieved of his impending suffering. Here we see God both apart from the world and in it. Christians, therefore, have no problem believing that God is at work both in Heaven and on earth or that God is deeply concerned for the welfare of the world that He loves so much.

This belief is enhanced by the scriptural claim that the Son participated in the creation of the universe (Hebrews 1:2, Colossians 1:16-17). The importance of this is that through Christ we might see the purpose and the value of creation. The purpose of creation is that humanity, which was created in the image of God, might know and love God. This is also why God came in person to deliver the message that all of creation might glorify the creator. It is precisely this Creator who calls us to value His creation. We do this by taking care of the earth, and also by distributing its resources to help the poor, assist the weak and love the dispossessed. We make this affirmation because that is what Jesus demands of us. The naked, the prisoner, the stranger and the hungry are to be cared for because that is a divine command from the Son. Remove the doctrine of the Trinity and this becomes simply a kind suggestion.

I realize that the Trinity is often discussed in a complicated manner. I often feel humble before its greatness and like the Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker feel "that our safest eloquence about Christ is our silence." Nevertheless when either the divinity or humanity of Christ are being questioned, the Trinity acts as a corrective to those who want to stress one nature over the other. At times such as these, we need to reaffirm that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Such an approach must not be a test of dogmatic orthodoxy, but simply preserve the very things we Christians hold dear.

Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling is senior minister of Timothy Eaton Memorial Church in Toronto.

See also A Recovery of the Doctrine of the Trinity" by Rev. Victor Shepherd