A schoolgirl said to her teacher in a religion class, ‘I believe in God, but I don't believe all this stuff about trinities and things.' The teacher replied, ‘Think for a moment about what God is. Write it down'. The girl wrote, ‘God somehow started it all. He has something to do with Jesus. And he's still around.'
God becomes known to us in three ways. God is the creator, without whom nothing would exist. We know God supremely and most fully in Jesus Christ, the human face of God, God in so far as he can be contained in a truly human life. And the God whom Jesus shows us is still with us and in us. The facts of Christian experience force us to confess that the one God exists primarily in three ways, which Church sums up by the doctrine of the Trinity, the three ‘persons' in the one Godhead, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (also often referred to as Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier). This way of speaking does not explain the being of God but is the best human language can do to point to the mystery of who God is.
Naming the Mystery of God
The Church of Ireland, in common with most Christian churches, shares in the worship of God the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit. Yet many people, believers and non-believers alike, find the doctrine of the Holy Trinity perplexing. What does it mean to affirm that God is three persons in one God? In one sense, a perplexed response is appropriate, since the language in which the doctrine of the Trinity is classically expressed - ‘three persons in one substance' - was designed specifically both to name and to protect the mystery of God.
A mystery, however, is not the same as a puzzle: puzzles end when solved, whereas mysteries are lived with. Perplexity at the doctrine of the Trinity should signal that we are in the presence of mystery, and not that we are confronted by a complicated mathematical puzzle. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is intended as an invitation to explore the mystery of God, and not as a puzzle for clever people to solve.
How did the doctrine of the Trinity come about?
It is to the history of the early church that we must turn in order to witness the emergence of the doctrine of the Trinity. A great deal of early Christian literature - including the New Testament - employed Trinitarian-sounding language, such as ‘Father', ‘Son,' ‘Word,' ‘Spirit', but this is not yet fully developed.
As it reflected on the theological significance of Jesus Christ, the church struggled to acknowledge a number of realities. It affirmed the central Jewish belief that there is only one God. This is the religious tradition within which Jesus of Nazareth lived. Yet, without diluting their commitment to this central belief, early Christian writers confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. And at an early stage, when speaking of Jesus, Christians deliberately echoed the way in which the Old Testament speaks of Israel's God (e.g., Lord, Word, Spirit, Wisdom, Son of God, etc.). A further influence on the church's reflections was its experience that the Holy Spirit of God had been poured out on all God's people ‘Then afterwards I will pour out my spirit on all flesh...' (Joel 2.28).
This was a complex, and not always attractive, period of struggle within the church. Non-doctrinal factors were often to the fore in the church's deliberations. Yet in 381, when the church met at its second General Council at Constantinople, it reached two vitally significant doctrinal decisions. First, it restored the phrase ‘of one substance with the Father' in its confession of the Eternal Son in the church's creed. Second, confessing the Holy Spirit, the Nicene (or more correctly, the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan) Creed attributes full divinity to the Holy Spirit: ‘...who with Father and Son is worshipped glorified...' These phrases in the creed, which remain a central part of Christian worship, express the church's teaching on the Trinity.
The Holy Trinity in the Church's Life and Doctrine
Prayerful acknowledgement of the Trinity abounds in the church's liturgy: the liturgical year traditionally runs from the season of Advent through to its climax at Trinity Sunday; new members are baptized ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit'; psalms and canticles conclude by glorifying Father, Son and Holy Spirit; sermons are frequently delivered ‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit;' and the blessing pronounced by priest or bishop at the end of an act of worship, is ‘the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.' Those who worship in the Church of Ireland traditions are familiar with the invocation of the Holy Trinity. What do we mean by using these ancient words in today's liturgy?
Abundant Trinitarian language in liturgy does not entail great familiarity with the doctrine. This is not surprising. The church's most important statements of belief - its creeds - are deliberately brief and are concerned primarily with excluding a small number of beliefs considered dangerous to the Christian faith. Where do we find a clear statement of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity? Neither the Apostles' Creed nor the Nicene Creed uses the word ‘trinity:' indeed, whilst the Church confesses God as Trinity, it has never given official sanction to any particular account of this doctrine. Hence, the church has always had a rich range of Trinitarian confession in prayers, hymns and other aspects of its liturgical life.
The Mystery of the Triune God
Anglican Christians name the mystery of God as Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In doing so, we anchor our religious language in a particular tradition which was shaped by centuries of prayerful reflection on the person of Jesus and the church's experience of God. This doctrine reminds us, as Christians, that the mystery of God is revealed to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and it invites us to explore this gracious mystery as disciples of this Jesus.