“He therefore that would be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity”
My text comes not directly from the Scriptures but from the Scriptures credally understood, from the Athanasian Creed, to be more precise, itself one of the three catholic creeds of the universal Church. It is rarely used and yet it speaks most wonderfully and profoundly to the central and essential mystery of the Christian Faith as well as to the spiritual nature of the great religions of the world. It is all about the Trinity, about God revealed in the witness of the Scriptures as Trinity, the three-in-one and the one-in-three, God as Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The important point is that the Creeds come out of the Scriptures and return us to the Scriptures within a pattern of understanding – an understanding above all else about God. We cannot not think God. In the Christian understanding thinking God means thinking the Trinity.
This is the essential insight of the Christian Faith but it belongs as well to the deeper meaning of all of the great religions of the world. As the great nineteenth century German philosopher, Hegel, observes, the Trinity is adumbrated – shadowed forth – in some way or another in all of the great religions of the world. At issue is how do we think the Trinity?
The Trinity is the fullest possible statement about the spiritual reality of God: God in his self-sufficient majesty and truth. This is a day where we stand on our heads, as it were. We are enveloped in mysteries which we strive to think knowing that we are struggling with what is inescapably beyond our grasp and yet cannot not be thought. Such is worship which is why the lesson on this day is from The Book of the Revelation of St. John the Divine. It presents us with a vision of heaven but even more with a vision of worship, the worship of the whole of creation. It is in worship that our humanity achieves its greatest dignity and highest honour. Our souls are made apt for worship. We are made for worship and for worship, in the language of Isaiah which John deliberately recalls here, of the thrice-holy God, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Worship is about thinking God.
Think about that for a moment and realize how much that runs counter to our culture and church. It is not simply about us and about what pleases us as if entertaining ourselves and making us feel good about ourselves was the aim and purpose of the Church. No. It is first and foremost about God and only then the discovery of things about the truth of ourselves in God. Such is the true meaning of worship: God and us in God.
The First Article of the Thirty-nine Articles stresses the same point that this day and liturgy celebrates: God as Trinity. “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things, both visible and invisible,” it states in the opening sentence. We are made aware of some awesome ideas – principles – which go to the essence of a spiritual understanding of all reality as situated in the divine nature itself. Note, too, the Trinitarian aspects of this statement about the spiritual nature of God: God as living, true and everlasting; God as without body, parts, or passion; God as infinite in power, wisdom, and goodness. Note, too, that only then is reference made to God as Maker and Preserver, in other words, God in relation to all things, both visible and invisible, all things that belong to creation both visible and invisible, to us and our world. The point is that this idea follows upon and depends upon the mystery of God in Himself signalled in the previous clauses.
What is presented in the first sentence of the First Article of Religion is a way of thinking God that is common to many of the religions of the world, especially to Judaism and Islam, the other two monotheistic religions of the world. It would be possible to extend these concepts, mutatis mutandis, to Hinduism and Buddhism, but without collapsing them simply into a western way of thinking. At least, there is the possibility of such a way of thinking. This runs the danger of a kind of Christian overreach, perhaps, even a kind of Christian arrogance, yet it belongs to the nature of Christianity to be engaged with other religions through its distinctive spiritual features. The ghetto churches of contemporary Christianity have forgotten that Christianity emerges out of the confluence and interplay of Jewish religion, Greek philosophy and culture, and Roman law and order. It belongs to Christianity to engage the world in which it finds itself; in short, to engage in respectful dialogue and discussion with other religions including, it seems to me, the various religions of atheism. Atheism in its most philosophical expression is unthinkable apart from religion and, especially, the Christian religion.
Challenging as it may be, this is what we are required to think especially on this day. I would be remiss in my duties if I did not point to and underscore the importance of the Trinity and its connection to our world and day and, not least to ourselves, as spiritual creatures who are made in the image of the Trinity. The First Article goes on to identify the specifically Christian understanding which in some sense undergirds the more generic spiritual and intellectual understanding stated in the first sentence. “And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” Therein is the essence of the Christian Faith.
And yet so often downplayed. Why? Because we struggle to think analogically which means to think upwards rather than thinking downwards. It is the very opposite of the reductive thinking that so often troubles the natural and human sciences. Our challenge is to think into the mystery which is revealed. That is why we have this lesson and this Gospel. They emphasise the mystery of revelation. The mystery is not in what is concealed but in what is revealed, being born anew, as the Gospel puts it which means being born upward into a spiritual understanding. We have to think our way into it. The language of Godhead, persons, substance, power and eternity are connected to the names of God as Father, Son and Holy Ghost. They are primarily and essentially theological terms, terms which belong to our thinking God as Trinity.
“Behold, a door was opened in heaven,” John tells us, and “immediately,” he says, “he was in the Spirit.” That is the whole point. We are ushered into the communion of God in prayer and praise, engaging with the “four and twenty elders,” themselves symbolic of the books of the Old Testament, and with “the four living creatures,” themselves symbolic of the four Gospels of the New Testament. We are gathered into the primary and essential activity of prayer and praise. We find the true meaning of our humanity in that activity. We forget this at our peril because it means forgetting who we essentially and truly are.
The article of religion is challenging, to be sure; the Athanasian Creed even more so. What is the challenge? To think the truth of the images revealed in the witness of the Scriptures. The Athanasian Creed is quite intriguing on that score because it signals the philosophic nature of all revelation. Something is made known in and through various images about God in relation to himself and to us. What the Athanasian Creed makes clear is the necessity of thinking through two contrasting approaches. What are they? Negative and positive theology: the one is about distinguishing God absolutely from everything in the created order – God is not this; the other is about connecting God to things in the world – God is like this – but without collapsing God into the world. Thinking the Trinity is about thinking through the images in an ordered way. It is about stepping through the open door and stepping into a way of thinking and loving and being.
The language of person and substance is theological language purposively developed as a way of thinking about God in his majesty and awe and wonder. They are the terms which help us to make sense of the many and conflicting images about God and our humanity in the Scriptures. Without them, the Scriptures become a confused repository of images, a jumble of ideas from which we pick and choose what pleases us. What is lost in that approach is any understanding of God and any sense of the Scriptures as well. The Creeds, in other words, belong to the challenge of thinking the Scriptures and, even more, to thinking God as revealed in the witness of the Scriptures.
“He therefore that would be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity”
Fr. David Curry
Trinity Sunday, 2015