The Trinity: doctrine of the Church


Scripture, Trinity Sunday Part 2.  Matthew 28: 16-20 Nigel Bunce


The Trinity is a doctrine of the Church. Doctrines are concepts that the Church instructs Christians to believe. However, there’s no mention of the Trinity in Scripture. Indeed, I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that the Great Commission (which is what we call today’s reading) was probably added to Matthew’s Gospel later.

The threefold baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was not part of the earliest Christian practice. That’s because the doctrine of the Trinity did not get completely formalized for three centuries after Jesus lived and died. Acts and Paul’s letters make clear that the only requirement for baptism in the early days was belief in the saving power of Jesus Christ.

I’ve heard it said that anyone who preaches about the doctrine of the Trinity simply exposes the fact that they don’t understand it. Personally, my best opinion is to treat the Trinity as a “holy mystery’ and leave it at that. But I will dive in anyway.

God in three Persons, blessed Trinity

Paul opened our service by singing verse 1 of the hymn Holy, holy, holy. “God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.” The three “Persons” are God, the Father-Creator; Jesus, God’s only Son; and the Holy Spirit, Advocate and Comforter. Legend has it that St. Patrick used the shamrock, with its three leaflets on each leaf stem, to exemplify the idea of three Persons in one God.

Another ‘model’ that tries to illustrate the ‘holy mystery’ is that of a three-sided pyramid with windows. They probably have frosted glass, to stop you seeing too clearly. God is inside, but you choose which window to peer through. Some people choose to look through the “God the Father” window. Others prefer the “Jesus” window; and still others, the Holy Spirit. Or more likely, we favour different windows at different times, depending on our spiritual circumstances.

There is also the relational model. Pastor Skye Jethani described it as a party involving the three Persons. This image says that we believe in one God who is actually a community of three persons. So, it’s as if when God’s table is ready at a restaurant, the hostess calls out, “God, party of three. Your table is ready.”

Thus, we imagine Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as separate Persons. But they exist in perfect unity and harmony with each other. In John’s Gospel, Chapter 14, comes closest to saying it that way. Jesus told the disciples, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” That’s not quite the same as saying that Jesus and the Father are a single Person.

But this is hard stuff to understand

But ultimately, I personally think that the main problem with the concept of the Trinity is the way that the Gospels present Jesus. For example, the famous piece in John 3: 17. “God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world …” Yes, it’s clear that the Father and the Son are different Persons. But it’s hard to jettison the idea that a son cannot have coexisted with a father since before time. It just isn’t that way in ordinary life.

And it’s even harder to get the earthly image out of one’s mind when Scripture refers to Jesus as God’s only-begotten Son. Begetting clearly means to procreate. That’s exactly the position that Arius, a noted Christian in what is modern-day Libya, took in the early 4th century. Arius proposed that Jesus was God’s first creation. And many North African bishops agreed with him. 

The Nicene Creed

That caused a huge uproar in the Church. Besides the Arius controversy, there was also the problem of making it clear that Christians worship one God, not three different gods.

The matter was settled (sort of) by the Church Council at Nicea, which declared Arius to be a heretic, and also formulated the Nicene Creed. The relevant part reads thus. “I believe … in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God; begotten, not made. Being of one substance with the Father , through whom all things are made …”

The relevant phrases against Arius are these. Begotten of the Father before all worlds. Begotten, not made. Being of one substance with the Father. Take that, Arius. And that. And that.

So there you have the doctrine of the Trinity. The official Trinitarian formulation. But remember that the Nicene Creed is a human document. It was written by a group of bishops who did their best to come up with a definition of the Trinity. It’s complicated and not easy to understand. Personally, I’ll stick with my own idea. The Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is a holy mystery. And I’m OK to leave it at that.