Anglicans Together ...promoting inclusive Anglicanism

Ora et labora

by the Reverend Andrew Sempell, President, Anglicans Together

Three Persons, one God

Since the theological developments of the third and fourth centuries, the doctrine of the Trinity has become a versatile and enduring one, although there have been numerous heresies and controversies concerning both it and its associated doctrines.

It has, on occasions, been so serious that people have been persecuted and sometimes killed because of their beliefs about the nature of God. Moreover, churches have fought each other and split over Trinitarian beliefs; including the great schism between the Western and Eastern churches in the ninth century that was partially over divergent understandings of the Trinity and especially the status of the Holy Spirit. Few doctrines have caused more conflict and division than this aspect of our belief in God; for it is not only about our understanding of God, but also our understanding of humanity and the created order, which in turn leads to the ordering of relationships in society.

This may all seem to be a great overstatement in a modern secular context, given that religious doctrine is rarely talked about in polite society these days and, when discussed, is perceived to be extremely marginal to the lives of ordinary people. Nevertheless, perceptions can often be misleading and sometimes untrue; and we ignore our history and what informs the shape of our beliefs and society at our peril. To understand history is to understand that place from which we have come, those things that shape us today, what should change, and therefore where we might go in the future.

I liken the impact of the doctrine of the Trinity to that of the terra nullius doctrine on the establishment of land ownership in colonial Australia. The use of that legal principle has contributed greatly to the current dysfunctional relationship between the indigenous and post white-settlement peoples of our land, and which is yet to be resolved. Our underlying beliefs and practices, even when unstated, therefore shape our relationships and have an on-going impact on our view of the nature of the world in which we live.

Icon: the Trinity

Icon The Trinity was painted around 1410 by Andrei Rublev. It depicts the three angels who visited Abraham at the Oak of Mamre

Creeds, councils and controversies

The idea of Trinity was an evolving one in the early church and centred on the nature of Christ and God's operation in the world. The doctrine is implicit in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, but it also arose out of the experiences of the early church and its grappling with its understandings of the human and divine nature of Christ. Trinity, however, also resonates with the knowledge of God down through the centuries; as people have experienced God as 'creator' in the Father, 'redeemer' in Christ (or God's presence in humanity) and 'sanctifier' in the Holy Spirit (which is God's continuing action in the world today). All are experiences of the living God and all are valid.

We are aware, of course, that our ideas about God are not exhaustive and therefore accept that we cannot hope to understand everything there is to know about that which is beyond human comprehension. Yet we do need to retain and pass on our collective memory of the nature of God as best we can. This is what the early church did up to the fourth century as it developed the statements of faith now known as the Apostles, Nicene and Athanasian creeds. These have been handed down through the centuries of church tradition to us today.

Part of the problem with theology, and especially doctrine, is that it is always developed in a context. The creeds are examples of this, as can be seen through the emphasis upon the nature of Christ. This reveals a problem in the early church driven by the prevalent Stoic and Aristotelian philosophies of the day that were troubled by the concept of how there could be a combination of divinity and humanity in the one being. The creeds (especially the Athanasian) therefore laboured the point over Christ's humanity and divinity in a way that seems foreign to us today.

An understanding or expression of our beliefs that was once significant can date and therefore needs to be reviewed and/or renewed for another generation. Part of the job of theology then, is to continue to interpret, understand and express the nature of God to each generation in a manner that is both comprehensible and relevant. Even though the language, expression and ideas have changed, the essence of the doctrine of the Trinity continues, and it is this: that God exists as three equal persons (described as Father, Son and Holy Spirit) bound together in a relationship of love.

Fathers and heretics

Of course, not every idea about the Trinity (or any other theological doctrine) should be accepted at face value. While the creeds of the fourth century were being developed, so too were many other untenable ideas about God. These came to be known as heresies and many are still to present today.

Of recent interest has been a heresy that argues there is hierarchy in the Trinity; that is, The Father stands over the Son, who in turns stands over the Holy Spirit. The argument, put forward by a fourth century priest called Arius, is that there is a hierarchy of relationships in the Trinity. Subordinationism, as it came to be known, has been used from time to time to support the idea of hierarchy and status both in the church and the wider community. It was present in the medieval church's suppression of the laity, it helped to justify the practice of slavery up to the nineteenth century, it stood behind the racism of the colonial and post-colonial world, and has been used to support the subjugation of women both in the church and wider society even in our present times.

All of this flies in the face of St Paul's declaration in his Letter to the Galatians, that: 'There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus' (Galatians 3:28). Just as Jesus argued that the kingdom of God requires a different set of priorities from those of the world, so St Paul also recognised the need to overcome division and instead promote the unity that comes through faith in Christ.

You see, if we understand the nature of God in terms of hierarchy then we would also seek to impose this same hierarchy in the natural and human world. However, the proper understanding of Trinity is that there is no hierarchy; instead, there is an equal relationship—three persons who are separate, but also unified. This is the new world order revealed to us through the cross of Christ and to which St Paul points. In the Kingdom of God, we are not to dominate one another, neither are we to dominate creation.

Contemplate the mystery

The idea of Trinity reveals God in and through a set of relationships, and by extension, suggests to us that we too know God through relationships—to know love then is to know God. Some may say 'I don't believe in God', but hardly anyone will say 'I don't believe in love'. If we can accept that God is love, and that God is known through relationships, we may then be ready to contemplate the mystery of the Trinity.

In the end, the Trinity is not merely a theological proposition to be believed or debated, but rather it is an aspect of our faith to be lived. The experience of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit (or Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier), is an expression of the nature of the Christian life. It recognises our experience of God as the origin of life from the beginning of time, as present in humanity in the person of Jesus, and as the breath of life present in the world today. The challenge then is to allow our lives to be shaped by a Trinitarian understanding of the nature of God that brings equality, freedom and love.

'There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus' (Galatians 3:28).

The Reverend Andrew Sempell