Monday, June 5, 2017

Why Trinity?


Yesterday was the last day of the Easter season, and we celebrated the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Also, at St. John's in Decatur, Alabama, it was our bishop's visitation, and Pentecost seemed like a perfect time to celebrate baptisms and confirmations with him. Little did I know, however, how theologically Spirit-focused and Trinitarian our time together would become.

If you know Bishop Kee Sloan, you know him to be a thoughtful, funny, lovable man who tells excellent stories. He can preach for half and hour and no one seems to mind because he is such a gifted story teller. Despite all of the rich gospel-centered theology that comes through in his stories, Kee Sloan is not a theologian in the classical sense. Sure, he understands incarnational theology and the Chalcedonian definition and theories on atonement, but he doesn't ever talk about them as such. He'd rather tell a story that involves a camper from a special session who taught him what it means to have the divine spark within a human being. So when Kee Sloan, in the middle of a parish-wide forum, began to explain the filioque clause of the Nicene Creed, you could have knocked me over with a feather.

To make a long story (and an even longer speech by the bishop) a little bit shorter, suffice it to say that Bishop Sloan asked the audience for questions and one person asked about the possibility of a new prayer book and Bishop Sloan took that opportunity to say that one item up for discussion was the filioque. He then proceeded to get his ecumenical councils a little mixed up. (I was impressed that he remembered that the first one was in 325.) But eventually he got us to see that the filioque was symbolic of something that had separated East and West for a long time. In that strange and surprising digression, he made what I thought was a rather profound statement: "It turns out that whether the Holy Spirit proceeds just from the Father or from the Father and the Son is a pretty big deal." Considering that his sermon had nothing to do with the origin of the Spirit, I thought it was pretty impressive that he chose that liturgically well-timed topic.

It does matter but not because we should care which version of the Creed is included in the next prayer book. What is the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit? Arius, the archheretic of the third and fourth centuries, argued that there must be a "when" when the Father was but the Son was not. Because of his ardent monotheism (a very good thing, indeed), Arius refused to accept that the Son was of the same substance as the Father. Even if the Son existed before all of creation, the Son was still a creation of the Father, he argued. Otherwise, we end up with two gods, and we cannot have two gods. The Spirit wasn't all that important to Arius or anyone for the next several decades, but one could ask the same question of the Spirit. How do we make sense of the three-in-one? Even if we give up our attempt to make sense of it, how do we even approach, worship, acknowledge the three-in-one?

It matters. That we worship a God that is three persons in perfect unity makes a difference. It changes everything. It transforms our understand not only of who God is but also of how God is. God is relational. If God is relational it is who and how God has been from before time and forever. Otherwise, we are forever doomed as beings with no real, substantial relationship with God. God cannot be affected by the created order, but God can and does have a meaningful relationship with us because God is always relational. God is love. That love must have an object, and it must have had an object--a direction and a flow--even before time itself was created. That God is love necessitates a multi-personal conception of God, and, if God is love, God is not only two persons but three in that that love must be returned with perfectly equal, perfectly unitary love. We call it "Father, Son, and Spirit," but, since God is love, God is not only the two objects united in perfect love but also the love that is between them.

Without the Trinity, we lose access to the divine life. It becomes only a myth to be beheld forever at a distance. The Trinity invites us into the love of God. With that approach, we cannot say that the Spirit proceeded from the Father without also saying the Spirit proceeded from the Son--not in a hierarchical statement that subordinates the Spirit to the Son as well as the Father but in a way that reflects the genuinely Trinitarian nature of the Trinity. No, I don't think that the Roman Church should have changed the creed without calling a genuinely ecumenical council, but I don't think the filioque as a theological text in and of itself is all that big a deal.

This Sunday is, of course, Trinity Sunday. This is the week when preachers are given biblical passages that hint at the existence of the Trinity without ever stating it. Why? Because the Trinity wasn't a concept until after the entire Christian Bible was written. How are we to use the creation account of Genesis 1 to preach a non-Jewish concept? How can we take Paul's sign-off words to the Corinthians as evidence of a doctrine he never professed? How can we take Jesus' command that his followers baptize converts to his way in the name of Father, Son, and Spirit and preach a true theology of Trinity even though Jesus never declared himself and probably never thought of himself as fully God? How do we preach the Trinity without violating the integrity of those passages and authors? We let our understanding of who God is and how God is shape the way we hear those passages. Although none of them necessitates a fifth-century or later understanding of the Trinity, that understanding shapes the way we think of our createdness, our relationship with God, and our commission to bring others into the way of Jesus. That's the task (challenge? joy?) of the preacher this week--to proclaim the centrality of the Trinity without changing the readings we are given. I just have to figure out how to do that in a sermon that lasts less than half an hour because I suspect it won't be the wonderful storytelling that our preacher offered us this week.

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