Problematic ideas: the Trinity and Psalm 8


Scripture, Psalm 8: Trinity Sunday. Nigel Bunce

The Trinity and Psalm 8 are problematic ideas, but in different ways.  The Trinity is hard to get one’s head around.  How are “Three Persons” compatible with “one God”?   In the case of Psalm 8, the problematic idea is that we have to reinterpret dominion over all the Creation as stewardship and care for all of Creation.


Why the Trinity is a problematic idea

On this day of the Church year, we try to get our heads around the problematic idea of the Trinity. As our opening hymn has it. “God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity”! It’s a really difficult concept. And the Church didn’t settle the issue until the 4th century.

The basic problem was, and is, this. Christianity emerged from Judaism, which is strictly monotheistic (one god). My guess is that early Christians, including the Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all saw Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. For them, Jesus had come to bring in God’s Kingdom on earth.  Therefore, it wasn’t a problem.  

However, John’s Gospel gave a different message. Jesus and God the Father are one. Indivisible since the beginning of time. Then later, John had Jesus say that he will return to the Father, who will send the Holy Spirit as an Advocate in his place.

Three divine Persons

That’s what we read last Sunday. It implies three divine figures. God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Talk about controversial!  However, the matter became really vexed in the early 4th century. When Arius, a leading Church thinker from Alexandria, claimed that Jesus was God’s first creation.

God’s first creation? Or actually part of the Creator? It seems like splitting hairs. However, it was a very big deal at the time. Church leaders debated the matter in Nicea, a city in modern Turkey. They took the opening verses of John’s Gospel as their authority:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” They incorporated this concept into what we know as the Nicene Creed.

The Nicene Creed

 It set out orthodox (correct) Church doctrine.  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit became the “Three Persons” of a single divine entity.That’s what we call the Trinity. Church leaders declared that Arius and his supporters were heretics. And excommunicated them. Threw them out of the Church.

Reciting the Nicene Creed became mandatory. It made sure everyone followed the orthodox line. However, several problematic ideas remain. For exmaple, who can say that they really understand the Creed? Additionally, the Nicene Creed was an Affirmation of faith for its own time. Namely, the 4th century.

We 21st century people have to brush aside the problematic idea that Jesus descended from heaven. Because, it implies the ancient view that heaven is a specific place beyond the clouds.

And, what about the resurrection of the body? St. Paul was quite clear that resurrection does not mean our present physical state. If it did, would we be resurrected as youthful or old? What about cremations? When there’s no longer a body/? Or after the physical body has decayed away? And, would we spend eternity in heaven stark naked?

My model for the Trinity

Don’t get me wrong. I like the concept of the Trinity. Just not reciting the Nicene Creed. I imagine the Three Persons of the Trinity like three windows onto the divine. Which is ultimately unknowable.

Sometimes I choose to look through the God/Creator window. Other times I need the comfort of the Jesus window. And yet other times I find inspiration by looking through the Holy Spirit window. It works for me.

Today’s psalm: beautiful but another problematic idea

Psalm 8 is one of my favourites. Because, the psalmist says, God made us just a little lower than the angels. Meaning, that there is a spark of the divine in each of us.

But the psalm also presents a problem. Like the idea of the Trinity.  God gave us dominion over all Creation. All things are “in subjection under our feet”. The same as the writers of Genesis . They imagined God telling the ancient Israelites. “Be fruitful and multiply. Have dominion over all the earth’s creatures”

To these authors, the resources of our planet seemed limitless. It’s different today. Now, we know that we are despoiling the resources of the planet. We now realize that we risk destroying the whole fabric of the planet we call our island home. Not very angelic behaviour.

So what does Psalm 8 mean to us today?

Realizing that it’s our task to reinterpret the Scriptures in each generation? We are still, I believe, just a little lower than the angels. However, our imperative is no longer dominion.

Instead, today’s scientific understanding of ecology requires us to be stewards of Creation. Not to tame Creation. Not to be fruitful and multiply so as to fill it. Instead, we must be agents for the Creator. Who gave us this planet on which we live.

And, on behalf of everyone who will follow us, and the rest of the created order. It is a new time, with new responsibilities. We are still only a little lower than the angels. However, we must now reinterpret the psalm. To care for all of Creation.

The 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich wrote this. “The spirit of God dwells within us, because we are not created by God, but rather of God.” In the context of Psalm 8, it is the idea of unity with Creation, and not dominion over the rest of Creation.

Let me finish on a lighter note

Many years ago, I attended a conference in St. John’s NF. I brought Michelle home a CD of Newfoundland folk songs. One song was about a wonderful Trinity Cake. Mr. Google failed me. I’ve looked, But have never found a recipe for it. If you ever find one, let me know. Amen.