Three in one, and one in three?

Icon of the Hospitality of Abraham (the Trinity), Andre Rublev

I am very grateful to Sam Tudor, who has been an intern on the Diocese in Europe Ministry Experience Scheme 2021-22, based in both Geneva and Gibraltar, for his reflection this week. It is two-fold. Sam begins with the problem of conceptualising the Trinity, but then moves on to exploring the lectionary readings for Trinity Sunday (Proverbs 8.1-4,22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5.1-5;
John 16.12-15)
. I have unashamedly chosen for the primary illustration for this blog, the much loved (including by me) icon by Andre Rublev which paints the Trinity in the hues of the angels who visited Abraham in Genesis 18. However scattered around the rest of Sam’s blog are a couple of the (to my mind) stranger attempts to ‘represent’ the Trinity that Christian artists have come up with over the years, as well as pictures of two of the many churches in our Diocese dedicated to the Holy Trinity.

I apologise to regular readers that there has been a gap of several weeks in the appearance of this blog – though I am gratified that it was noticed (!). I hope that normal service will now be resumed. I also hope that Sam Tudor’s willingness to offer a contribution may encourage others of you with links to the Diocese in Europe also to come forward.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

Trying to explain the inexpressible mystery of the Holy Trinity has stumped almost all interested parties for the past 2000 years. Yet the natural human desire to grasp or visualise concepts has meant that people have still tried. John Wesley opted for the image of three candles producing one light. Others have brought in the example of snow, water and steam to explain three things that are the same in essence but different. I have even heard one preacher decide that the Mars Bar is the best analogy for the Trinity. Nevertheless, all of these images and attempts fall short because it is in the nature of the Trinity to be a mystery. Unfortunately, this blog post cannot be straightforward, however I urge you to plough on as easier pastures can be found after some theological confusion.

Trifacial Trinity, Cusco School, c 1750

Before we consider what our lectionary readings may tell us about the Trinity, it is worth safeguarding ourselves from the various Trinitarian heresies that the Church has rejected. So, let us dip into the early Church. There are two basic ends of the heretical spectrum that we will try to avoid: the heresies that overstates the division between the persons of the Trinity and the heresies that understates the distinction between the persons of the Trinity.

Tritheists and Partialists are two groups who overstate the division between the persons of the Trinity. Tritheists argue that there are three gods in the Trinity, each person being a separate god. This is clearly against Christian monotheism. Partialism then argues that each person of the Trinity is a different ‘part’ of God who is only wholly God when all three persons are together. This undermines the simple unity of the Divine. So we cannot overstate the divisions of the persons of the Trinity.

Then on the other side of the spectrum, there are Modalists believing that each of the persons of the Trinity are simply different “modes” of God; the Father is not really distinct from the Son, nor are they really distinct from the Holy Spirit — they are all merely terms used for God doing different things at different times.

Poland, a wood carving of the Trinity

If we are not confused yet, we come on to Arianism. Arianism caused enough of a controversy that it sparked the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) and the original form of the Nicene Creed which we still use today. Arius taught that the Son was less divine in some sense than the Father. In response to this, we say in our Nicene Creed that we believe that the Son is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father”. It then took another 56 years for another Council to agree that the Holy Spirit was also equally divine. So the Son is not the Father nor the Holy Spirit, yet all three are equally God and cannot be divided.

The Trinity, depicted in a medieval Book of Hours

It is worthwhile to glance at the Athanasian Creed. It has not made it into the rites of Common Worship because of its dubious authorship, however it is a very careful and full expression of the doctrine of the Trinity within the realms of orthodoxy.

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In all of the lectionary readings for Trinity Sunday, we see the various persons of the Trinity at work. In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he states that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” This shows the Holy Spirit as God’s continuing presence here on earth that mediates God’s love for us all. Additionally, our Gospel reading adds the Spirit’s role as a guide in all of our lives. In the week after Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first Apostles, it is fitting to remember the importance of this third person of the Trinity.

Psalm 8 speaks of God as Creator which is associated with God the Father (although, of course, the whole God created). However, God the Father is not the only person of the Trinity associated with creation. In Proverbs 8 we hear of Wisdom acting “like a master worker” (a translation that is much disputed) in the act of creation. Now, compare this image of the “master worker” to the Son in the Nicene Creed through whom “all things were made” and you can see some clear overlap. There has therefore been a long tradition of relating the Son with the personified Wisdom. So God the Son played a role in creation. Our Gospel reading also affirms the equality of both the Son and the Father. Paul’s letter to the Romans then speaks of the role of the Son, incarnate in Christ. “[W]e have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”. Christ, the second person of the Trinity in flesh, gives us peace by restoring our relationship with God.

The Cathedral dedicated to the Holy Trinity, Gibraltar

Despite the complexity and ineffability of the Trinity, there are a disproportionate number of churches dedicated to the Holy Trinity in our Diocese (including our Cathedral and one of our Pro-Cathedrals).[1] Why would we dedicate so many churches to an obscure and ungraspable doctrine? The Honorary Archivist at Holy Trinity Church, Geneva, has informed me that the Holy Trinity was chosen for the dedication of the church as an attempt to remain neutral. Various saints have different implications in different countries and so the dedication to Holy Trinity avoids any risk of offence to the visitor. This makes sense when we remember our status as guests in Europe. Incidentally, this also explains why there are many other neutral church names in the diocese such as Christ Church, All Saints and Holy Cross in our diocese. Of course, many churches in our diocese have taken a different approach and emphasised our Englishness by dedicating churches to St George as well.

The pro-cathedral in Brussels, dedicated to the Holy Trinity

The Holy Trinity is only an unbiased choice because it is at the core of our Christian faith. Since the 4th century it has been something all Christians agree on. We have touched on how the Nicene Creed came out of debates about the Trinity, and it is one of the wonderful things about Christianity than in any Christian church you step into on a Sunday morning, there is a strong chance that you will recognise and be able to join in with the Creed. When we proclaim the Creed, we do not simply say it as individuals, we proclaim it with the whole body of Christ spread out on earth.

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[1] The Episcopal Church’s cathedral in Paris is also dedicated to the Holy Trinity

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