Feast of The Trinity - June 4, 2023
Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.
St. Columba's Episcopal Church
Gen. 1:1-2:4a + Psalm 8 + 2 Cor. 13:11-13 + Matthew 28:16-20
Grace to you, and peace, from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ. + I speak to you in the name of the Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.
The Christian theological tradition forever speaks of the Divine as “Revealed Mystery” – a term that holds together the paradox of a God who is known, in and through God’s own sovereign volition to be made known, yet who at the same time is utterly incomprehensible – beyond all thought, all comparison, all imagining.
This tension between a God who is at once revealed in the course of salvation history, yet who remains utterly Transcendent, is already present in the theology of ancient Israel, for whom God (unlike the gods of the surrounding nations) remained invisible, veiled in inaccessible light, and wholly other.
The way in which this otherwise radically transcendent God was revealed, is through two primary attributes reserved by Israel for God, and God alone: That of Creator and Redeemer. Only God creates. Only God redeems. And these two attributes are not shared by any divine pantheon, angelic assistance, or supernatural entities. There is but one God who Creates and Redeems. Then there is a thick, impenetrable line, beneath which is everything else. Unlike the pantheons of the ancient world, with their graduating levels of divinity, Israel’s God was in an utterly unique category set apart from anything and everything else.
And Israel was able recognize the action or work of God salvation history precisely through these two unique attributes – something which Christianity has both inherited and preserved. Notice that the readings from Genesis and Matthew today on this Solemnity of the Trinity, reflect these two characteristics. The story of Creation in Genesis, and the commission to redeem all nations through the preaching of the Gospel in Matthew.
We should not miss the fact that after the separation of light from darkness in the Genesis story of Creation we heard today, God’s very first act is to separate the chaotic waters of the abyss, creating what was imagined as a kind of ‘dome’ of order in which the world could be made to exist. God creates order out of chaos by splitting the ancient waters of the deep.
Genesis 1:2, 6-8:
The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. […] 6And God said, "Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters." 7So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 8God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
Thus, in epic story of Israel’s redemption in the Exodus it should be no surprise that God acts in much the same way: by splitting the sea so that Moses could lead Israel out of the political chaos of slavery into the social order of the Promised Land. We read this in Exodus 14:
21Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and Yahweh drove the sea back with a strong easterly wind all night and made the sea into dry land. The waters were divided 22and the Israelites went on dry ground right through the sea, with walls of water to right and left of them.
Thus, Israel’s God is revealed as Creator and Redeemer because God acted in much the same way to bring about both creation and redemption: by parting the sea, dividing chaos, and creating order. Creation and Redemption, as it turns out, are two sides of the same coin. Yet, if God is totally above the world, how is it that God is manifested in the world. What does it mean to say God covenants with Israel, is present in time and active in history? And this introduces the great tension in theism: How can God be both utterly Transcendent and immanent – ever-present? One would seem to preclude the other. This tension was addressed in ancient Israel in an elemental and decidedly unphilosophical way. That is, by anthropomorphizing God. That is to say, describing God in humanlike terms.
While today we might speak of God’s immanence in quasi-scientific ways: for example, God “pervades every last atom of the universe.” By contrast, in ancient Israel they simply spoke of God in humanlike terms: God strolls in the cool of the evening, God comes down from heaven to survey Sodom and Gomorrah, God has hands and fingers with which he points, and feet with which he walks, and eyes which never sleep, and so on.
But most importantly throughout the literature of the Old Testament God ‘speaks’ his Word (in Hebrew, dabar) and breathes life through his Spirit (in Hebrew ruah). And it is these two concepts: Word and Spirit, that would ultimately open the way for a Christian understanding of the unity of Israel’s God in light of the distinctions of threeness that we call Trinity:
YHWH as Father
The dabar (or Word) as Son
The ruah as Holy Spirit
Wisdom too would play a significant role in the Christian understanding of the one God who is both Transcendent and Immanent, leading Christians to an appreciation that these aspects of God: Word, Spirit, and Wisdom are not additions to the unique oneness of Israel’s God, but are included in the divine identity, much as we might understand light and heat not as separate from the fire from which they emanate, but central to it and extensions of it. And here we begin to detect the raw scriptural ingredients that Christians would draw upon to understand the unique revelation of Jesus Christ. The incarnation opened new ways for the church to understand how the God of Israel is both Transcendent and Immanent?
In the New Testament, the language of Creator and Redeemer which ancient Israel attributed only to God, is suddenly blurred and expanded to include Jesus of Nazareth. For example, in the Gospel of John, Christ is the “Word of God” now made flesh, through whom all things are created and in whom, (according to Paul’s letter to the Colossians), are even now “held in existence.” Jesus is Lord, Savior, Redeemer, and seated at the right hand of the Father. For Israel, NO ONE is seated at the right hand of the Father: there is God, an impenetrable line and then everything else. I cannot emphasize enough the radicalism of this Christian claim. To share the throne of God is to BE God. Let us not miss that radical affirmation!
Thus, the seeds of revelation given us in the New Testament inevitably give rise to what centuries of theological reflection would come to call the Doctrine of the Trinity. Thus, our very scriptures lay the foundation on which Jesus Christ is revealed as the embodiment of divine-human union. Emmanuel—God-with-us—becomes a cornerstone for the development of a Christian theology of God’s radical transcendence and radical immanence.
Just as ancient Israel struggled with this tension, the New Testament witness of Jesus Christ introduced rich theological tensions that later Christian tradition would need to resolve. If God is one, how can Jesus and the Spirit be divine? What does it mean to say that Christ is truly human and truly divine? How can titles and attributes that belong only to God now be used of Jesus and the Spirit: Creator, Redeemer, Lord? The early church addressed these tensions through the development of Christian doctrine.
Thus, the uniquely Christian experience of God now as Father, now as Son, now as Spirit, we call the Trinity culminated only after nearly four centuries in one of the most sublime expressions of Christian doctrine the Church has ever produced: The Nicene-Constantinople Creed whose name is taken from the fact that the creed was written over the course of two ecumenical church councils: Nicaea in ad 325 and Constantinople in ad 381.
This Creed is foundational to Christian faith, with far-reaching but often unappreciated implications in the modern church. Yet it should not be understood as a description of God (which would be idolatry) but rather it serves as a Christian way of modeling our experience of God who, as we noted earlier, transcends description of any kind. The Creed is mystical truth expressed in precise theological language. It is not the end of Christian theology but its beginning, its foundation. And we should not recite it as if it were the exacting language of persnickety dogmatists, but rather as the language of trepidation before the ineffable mystery of God revealed to us in Jesus of Nazareth.
No doubt there has been, is, and will be many dogmatic fundamentalists who would wish to impose the creed upon the church as the final say on the nature of the trinitary God. But this is a perennial problem we have seen many times before in the history of the world’s religions. Recalling again the Book of Exodus, not long after God’s dramatic display of divine intervention at the parting of the Red Sea, we read of the story of the Golden Calf forged by some of the Israelites at the foot of Sinai. This, we should understand is not as much a story of the creation of an idol (as it is common thought of), as it is the manifestation of this perennial temptation is to create God in our own image, to reduce God to a manageable size; to diminish the mystery of God to something we can comprehend.
We all want God to fit into our preconceived thoughts and ideas: to domesticate God, and while we are not doing this with golden calves any longer, we have our own ways of doing so. Let me be clear: We are not to make of our Creed yet another Golden calf.
St. Augustine, for example, who wrote the most well-known tome on the Trinity in the Western Church, entitle De Trinitatis (On the Trinity) wrote in that very same volume: “Si comprendis non est Deus” (“If you can comprehend it, it is not God.”) Likewise, St Thomas Aquinas, again among the most prolific theologians of the Western Church, wrote in his: Summa Theologica: “Whatever can be known or understood is less than God himself.” And again, in his extensive work, De Veritate: he writes, “The essence of God remains forever hidden from us. The most we can know of God during our present life is that he transcends everything that we can conceive of him.”
Thus, if the very framers of our tradition, who wrote endless tomes of theology arrive inevitably at the conclusion that God is ultimate mystery, we must not shrink from the fact that all of our creedal and theological language is not to be understood precise description, but as trepidation before an unknowable, yet revealed mystery.
Thus, to speak of God as “Trinity” (Three and One) is something akin to a Koan: the use of language to establish a logical contradiction. God cannot logically be both three and one in a numerical sense. The attributions are mutually exclusive, forcing us to recognize the profound failure of human language to grasp the divine. Thus, the doctrine of the Trinity is at once an attempt to model the uniquely Christian experience of God as essentially relational even as it forces us to recognize that no language is adequate of God.
Let us not then too quickly toss our ancient creeds aside. Let us not too quickly assume we know better or fall into the trap of segregating the contemplative life of interior transformation from the larger theological traditions which undoubtedly inform it. And should you struggle to comprehend the creedal language itself: its technicality, its historical limitations, its sense of otherness, let that be a challenge to our own propensity to create God in our own image. At let us not assume that we are not vulnerable precisely to that same temptation. We all have our golden calves.
The theology behind the Creed is not just important, it is invaluable. It deserves our careful attention and consideration; it is privileged language in our tradition that our ancestors in faith lived and died for. And it is the product both of lived experience and brilliant theological minds.
Christians can and do certainly know the intimacy of God in Christ without memorizing, much less understanding the nuances of the Nicene Creed, just as certainly, one can enjoy Beethoven’s 5th without understanding the technicalities of music theory. Indeed, one can experience buoyancy while floating down a lazy river, without knowing anything about the physics of buoyancy or the laws of gravity. And is it not true that a well-crafted vaccine is efficacious regardless of whether I understand the science behind it? Indeed, as we will soon discover, one does not need to know the recipe of chocolate almond cake to enjoy eating it!
But before we too quickly throw the dogmatic baby out with the theological bathwater, we might do well to take head of Thomas Merton’s cautionary note: “Beware of the contemplative who says that theology is all straw before he has ever bothered to read any” (New Seeds of Contemplation, 149).
And may the God who is + Three-in One and One-in-Three; Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier; Father Son and Holy Spirit bless you now and always. Amen!