Yes, I graduated from seminary, and yet I still have a couple more classes I’m finishing up. One of them is going through the documents, Creeds, Confessions that define the theology of my denomination, the Reformed Church in America. I’m having to write a bunch of reflections on differents aspects of these writings, and I offer them here.
Every way of understanding the world involves creeds and confessions. “Creed” comes from the Latin word meaning “I believe”, and a Confession from the Latin for “acknowledge”. A Creed or Confession, then, is simply a distillation of what you acknowledge and believe. There’s nothing weird or particularly “Catholic” about it.
From Creeds to Trinity
If you are a Christian, no matter which part of the family you call home, your beliefs almost certainly fall in line with what have been called the “Ecumenical Creeds”, which are the oldest and simplest articulations of the Christian essentials. They include the Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds.
Now, if you were going to start writing out the core of what you believe, where would you begin? The interesting thing about these Ecumenical Creeds is that they are built entirely, both in foundation and structure, around the doctrine of the Trinity. Why?
If there is one way in which theology itself could act as an apologetic for Christian faith, one would surely turn to the doctrine of the Trinity. It is, perhaps more than any other belief in Christianity, the one that needed to be revealed to humans.
Or, to be more accurate, it needed to be a response to God in the world. No human could (or has ever) come up with a comparably confusing doctrine. And yet, it was not dictated to humanity, but rather embodied among us. The Christian Church had to put into words the truths that the apostles simply experienced as their reality.
The Trinity is a response to the work of God in the world in Christ.
From Jesus to Trinity
Historically speaking, Jesus is the starting point of this doctrine of the Trinity. One could start with affirmations of Jesus as rabbi, and then prophet, all the way to Jesus as Lord, and move these seemingly innocuous statements into the depths of the Trinity: if Jesus is Lord, and yet prays to His Father and sends God’s Spirit as his own, what on earth (and heaven!) does that mean about the nature and essence of God?
This is why the Trinity becomes the core of Christian doctrine. If the earliest Scriptural and traditional proclamations of Jesus’ identity are true, then these truths work retroactively in our logic to have implications on God’s own nature.
In the writing of Creedal affirmations, the early Christians started with Jesus, and built on increasing implications for the Divine and their responses to errant theological ideas, thus giving us Ecumenical Creeds structured around the Trinitarian nature of God.
From Trinity to Jesus
Speaking theologically, Trinity becomes the core doctrine because it is the starting point for all God is and does in the world. All that God works in Christ is the telos of the overflowing love of the Trinity that led to Creation. Therefore, all we know of God in Christ is the result of God’s Trinitarian Nature.
How is this so? God exists in community and love. It is a pulsing, all-consuming dance from eternity past. It is out of the overflow of this love that God creates, with the intention of bringing all things in communion with himself. Through sin, death, time, and history, the Trinity works in and for the world to bring it and its creatures into oneness itself.
Therefore, every aspect of Christian belief and life anchors itself back into the Trinity as its starting place. Because of the Trinity, God is active in the world through the Church, Scriptures, Sacraments, and Spirit. Because of the Trinity, we can have confidence that what God began in us and the world will come to completion as the end for which God made all things is tied to the very nature and character of a loving and communing God. Because of the Trinity, we can hold fast to a community of believers—even through pain and trial—because it is imbued with the life of a God who himself exists in Community.
The Trinity roots us in a God who is both Sovereign and Providential over all things, while also being with us in our humanity and our very hearts.
Understanding the Trinity
Too often, we can talk about this in such a way that it seems like there are four entities at play: each Person of the Trinity and then some fourth essence that represents the unified Godhead. To me, this is a bigger version of the historical heresy called Modalism that thinks God is one but just appears in three different “modes”. Orthodox Christians disagree with this, and yet sometimes they talked about the Trinity as if God jumps between two “modes” of either being Trinitarian or Unitarian.
We need to remember that God has revealed himself as Trinity. We must always think of him as the one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Many different analogies have been used to describe the Trinity, and each has its strength and weaknesses. Personally, I really like a sociological analogy I recently heard: we can experience the common, singular human “essence” in a room full of many different humans, while each individual being is still their own person. There is no substance called “humanity” that exists apart from humans. “Humanity” is simply a term to describe the one-ness that exists amongst different human persons.
There is no Humanity apart from Humans, just as there is no God apart from the Trinitarian Persons.
This has been the case from Eternity past. We talk of the Father “begetting” the Son and the Spirit “proceeding” from the Father and Son, but this dance has been eternal. There was no “start” to this begetting and proceeding, and I even wonder if there may not be some interdependence that the Father has on the other two Persons.
[image credit: photo from the wedding pictures of some of my dearest friends]