Resurrecting the Trinity

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Do you ever wonder if maybe, just maybe, doctrine is dead? Not dead in the sense of not true, but more in the sense of Paul Tillich’s “dead symbols” — a symbol that no longer communicates the revelation it once bore.

I have a hunch that may be the case with a number of our cherished doctrines. Whether Incarnation or atonement, Christology or soteriology — we’ve turned these once lively terms into things to be professed rather than living parts of the Christian story that we confess because they have the capacity to affect us, to make a difference in our lives

If this is true of Christian doctrine in general, it is particularly true of the doctrine of the Trinity. The exception may be academic circles, where Trinitarian theology is all the rage (think “perichoresis,” Rublev’s icon, etc.). But when it comes to the local congregation, I suspect the Trinity is on the ropes. This isn’t because the average Christian isn’t smart enough to understand the Trinity. (Truth be told, no one really understands the Trinity.) Rather, it is true because the doctrine of the Trinity no longer touches us; it no longer holds meaning for us in any tangible way.

My friend Andy Root, author of the recent The Promise of Despair,
once said that he thinks a good sermon should bleed a little. It needs to touch on something that is real, even painful, about human life. If we aren’t speaking the gospel to genuine brokenness, Andy contends, we aren’t preaching the gospel. I think there’s a clue here that may help us resurrect the Trinity as a living doctrine. I’m not sure I have figured this out yet (it is the Trinity, after all), but I’ll try to tease out at least one lively implication hoping that may spur you on to your own insights.

The doctrine of the Trinity is, as we all know, about relationship. I think this is what makes it routinely mundane and potentially catalytic. It can feel mundane because we all know relationships; after all, we’re all in relationships. Once we accept as mystery the central and confusing element of the Trinity — how can God be three persons in relationship, yet one God? — talking about the triune God as being in relationship feels a little ho-hum. So God is in relationship like we are in relationship. What’s the big deal?

But the big deal is precisely that God is in relationship in a way that we are not in relationship. Or, better, God is in relationship in the way we were intended to be in relationship and are invited to be in relationship even now. The relationship of the three members of the Trinity is not only a relationship of equals, three persons sharing themselves fully, but also a relationship of complete and free interdependence.

This all can get confusing very quickly, I know, but bear with me. One helpful route in is to start with the significance of the number three, as in the three persons of the Trinity. No, not significance in terms of any hidden mystical qualities, but rather what happens when you add a third to a pair. Parents know this all too well. The third child isn’t just one more than two, it’s a whole new sibling equation. There’s something about the very presence of the third child that upsets the natural pairing of the first two. Two can play on a see-saw, the third demands a whole new game.

Our world, to get at it another way, is incredibly binary — it is composed of pairs, pairs that go together, define each other, and ultimately are defined by and over and under each other. Just about everything we know we learned in contrasting pairs; yes and no, up and down, hot and cold, circle and square. Of course, we didn’t learn it quite this way; it was a more pronounced contrast, as we understood that a circle was not a square, no was not yes, and so forth. Later we learned who we are in the world in the same fashion, with the same binary and opposing contrasts attached: I am boy not girl, white not black, rich not poor, and so on.

Binary is okay for learning contrasts, but as we can already see by the few examples we’ve chosen, each member of a binary pair defines itself over and against each other. Which introduces the element of power. Think, for a moment, of the temptation in Eden — to know the difference between good and evil. To be able to discriminate — in both senses of the word — is to wield power through definition and position. And so the two grasp for independence from God and stumble into a world where they only know who they are in relation to who they are not. In this light, Adam’s complaint that it was the fault of the woman, and Eve’s that it was the serpent, is the history of the world writ small.

But the Trinity is not like that. The three members of the Trinity do not — cannot –define themselves over and against each other but in, with, and through each other. We do not define the Father as the One who is not the Son and who is not the Spirit (a typical set of binary power plays). Rather, we understand the Father in and through the Son and the Spirit. Or, even more radically, God the Father cannot be Father apart from Son and Spirit. It is Son and Spirit that give context for, make sense of, even make possible the Father. This mutual, free, and shared interdependence is a wholly different kind of relationship than those that govern our world.

The Trinity therefore not only holds out a possibility beyond our broken, binary relationships, but actually invites us into the sharing and interdependence of the God who is Three-in-One. In Baptism, we are invited to know who we are not in terms of what we aren’t, but rather in terms of how much we are loved. We come to know who we are, that is, in terms of whose we are, the treasured possession of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Nor is this a casual invitation. Indeed, if we are to believe the biblical drama and its witness to the depths to which God will go to draw us into the Trinitarian embrace, then we might suspect that just as each member of the Trinity is necessary to complete the other two, so also are we necessary to complete the Trinity. Seen this way, baptism conveys a profound “worthiness” beyond anything we might seek and beyond anything our binary world can confer.

I know this is hard stuff to think through, Working Preacher. let alone preach. I don’t pretend to understand it all (perhaps another plus of the Trinity — it keeps us humble!). And I don’t blame you if you go another direction this week, but if you venture into the murky theological terrain of the Trinity — or whenever you touch on doctrine — we will all gain if you can show us how this doctrine actually bleeds a little, witnessing to the crucified and risen One who, by the power of the Spirit, makes manifest the love of God for us and all the world.

Thanks for your good work.

In Christ,

PS: If you’re interested in reading a review of Andy’s book click here.
And if you want to hear Andy and me discuss his book on Liveblog radio click here.