Anyone who has ever tried to explain the Christian faith either to someone outside the faith or to someone trying to learn the faith has had the experience of getting to the doctrine of the Trinity and then wondering what to say. It is convoluted and contradictory and leaves most people just scratching their head wondering what the heck it’s all about. To Jews and Muslims, it’s blasphemy, and to everyone else just nonsense. God is one, we say, but we know him in three “persons”—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, each of whom is fully and completely God, not a junior God or an apprentice God or an assistant God. Yet, don’t make the mistake of thinking that we believe in three Gods, because we don’t. We believe there is but one God. So you see how it goes; we can keep using the word “but” infinitely, going back and forth between One and Three—one but three, three but one, one but three, three but one—until we’ve driven ourselves completely around the bend and over the hill.
About 300 years ago some New England Congregationalist Puritans had thoughts along those lines and decided to do something about it. They formed the Unitarian Church, and got rid of all reference to the Trinity; God is one, and that’s it. Virtually all the mainstream historic Christian bodies—Catholic and Protestant—officially subscribe to Trinitarian doctrine, but most of their members couldn’t really tell you why, and just quietly ignore it. If any of us should set out to design our own perfect religion from scratch, there’s no way we would “invent” the Trinity. We would come up with something much simpler. This is possibly why we have Islam in the world today; a plausible case can be made that Islam began as a Christian heresy. Islamic doctrine certainly contains nothing quite so convoluted as the Trinity.
But there’s my point: Nobody would invent the Trinity, so in all likelihood, nobody did invent the Trinity. But if the Trinity is such an unlikely doctrine, where did it come from and why should we keep it? Were the Unitarians onto something we should pay attention to?
First things first. Where did the doctrine of the Trinity come from? The short answer, of course, is that it came from God; it was revealed by God. But that’s really too short of an answer, because it just raises another question: Precisely how did God reveal himself to be “trinity of persons in unity of being?” Now, that’s an interesting question, and the answer is equally interesting. It didn’t happen overnight. There’s no single verse of scripture you can point to and say, “Aha! There’s the Trinity!” We could try, but there are lots of smart people who could point out several reasons why we would be foolish to do so. Rather, belief in the Trinity evolved over time, beginning in the New Testament era, but not really reaching fully-developed form until the middle of the fifth century, some 400 years after Jesus walked this earth. Gallons of ink and buckets of tears were spilt—to say nothing of sweat and blood—as the Church collectively discerned and tested and re-discerned and re-tested her insights and conclusions regarding what God has disclosed to us about his essential being.
“Ah!” you might be thinking, “You’ve just raised another question: Just how did the Church discern the doctrine of the Trinity over a period of 400 years?” Well, as you might imagine, there was a good bit of vigorous debate and discussion. Lots of people wrote lots of books and letters and delivered lots of speeches and sermons to lots of meetings and councils. But my main answer to the question, “How did the Church discern the Trinity?” has nothing to do with professional theologians splitting hairs and parsing words. Rather, it has to do with lots of ordinary Christians praying and worshiping. The beliefs that we proclaim today about the Holy and Blessed and Undivided Trinity are not the exclusive property of bishops and theologians and seminary professors and church councils; they belong just as much to acolytes and Sunday School teachers and ushers and sextons and preschoolers who say their prayers at bedtime. We worship God as trinity in unity and unity in trinity because that is the God whom we have come to know together in our prayer and in our devotion and in our faithful celebration of the Holy Mysteries of the Eucharist across two millennia of Christian community.
In the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer, there’s a section on Prayer and Worship. (If you want to look at it later, it begins on page 856.) One of the questions is, “Why do we praise God?” And the response is, “We praise God, not to obtain anything, but because God’s Being draws praise from us.” God’s being draws praise from us. Do you find this as astonishing as I do? The implication is that we have no choice in the matter! If we have even the slightest contact with the Living God, if we have even a momentary glimpse of the Maker of Heaven and Earth, we will praise God. Praise will flow out of us the way water flows downhill, the way iron filings rush to the pole of a magnet and cluster around it. It’s a veritable law of nature. We praise God because God’s Being draws praise from us.
For two-thousand years now, ever since God the Father sent God the Son to share our flesh and walk this earth, and ever since the Son returned to the Father and unleashed God the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts and guide our minds and loosen our tongues, Christians have regularly had praise sucked out of them by the experience of gathering in cathedrals and parish churches and monastery chapels and private homes for the purpose of daily corporate worship. Christians have had praise sucked out of them by the experience of gathering around the Lord’s Table on the Lord’s Day to share in the Lord’s Body and Blood. Christians have had praise sucked out of them as they have discerned the presence of their Lord in the faces of the homeless whom they have sheltered and the hungry whom they have fed and the sick and imprisoned whom they have visited and the dispossessed on whose behalf they have sought justice. Christians have had praise sucked out of them when they have seen hardened sinners repent and return to the Lord, addicts freed from dependency, marriages and families healed from the wounds of decades and generations.
Why do we praise God? We praise God, not to obtain anything, but because God’s Being draws praise from us. And when you spend a lot of time praising God, you learn a few things. And one of the things we as the Church have collectively learned over these twenty centuries of praising God together, is that the God who draws praise from us is one God in three Persons, each of them fully and completely God, co-eternal and equal in glory, yet not three Gods, but one. We have learned that the Son is eternally begotten from the Father and the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds. We’ve learned a few other things as well, but I think you get my drift!
You know, my wife, Brenda, has been married to me to almost 46 years. I’m sure there are a lot of things that are true about me that she wishes were not true, and a lot of things that are not true of me that she wishes were true. But when she tells me she loves me, the husband that she says she loves is not the husband she would concoct her for herself if she had the chance, but the actual husband whom she knows. None of us would invent the doctrine of the Trinity. The Triune God is not the God we would concoct for ourselves if we had the chance. We proclaim and praise the Trinity, not because the doctrine is neat and tidy or self-evident or elegant or otherwise appealing. We proclaim and praise the Triune God because that’s the God we have come to know through our experience of worship.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost: As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.