Joseph M. McShane, S.J., is associate professor of religious studies at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 17, 1989, p. 522. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Trinitarian images ground Christian faith, love and hope by providing for the experiences of separation and distance in Christian life, while insisting on a unity with God that transcends all temporal and spatial boundaries.
The Lord created me at the
beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of old. . . .
When he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not
transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations
of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the sons of men [Prov. 8:22, 29-31].
Both Jews And Muslims see the Christian doctrine of the Trinity as a blasphemous insult to the one God beside whom there can be no other. Much Christian piety is functionally monolatry, worshiping Jesus as Lord in such a way that both the source of Jesus’ being, God, and the Spirit are neglected. Christian feminists protest that the traditional trinitarian formulation, Father, Son and Spirit, should be rejected because it perpetuates the symbolic domination of males as the true image of God.
The classical language of trinitarian theology, three distinct persons of one divine nature, has been logically puzzling since the great controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries. On the one hand, it underscored the deity and the special redemptive mission of the Holy Spirit. On the other, it provided terms in which post-Nicene church fathers would argue over the relationship of divinity and humanity in Christ. Though the technical language of trinitarian theology is a foreign tongue to most Christians, the confession of God as triune provides the framework in which other Christian beliefs cohere.
Even its earliest advocates recognized that trinitarian theology did not speak the language of Scripture. But they did insist that Scripture points toward a trinitarian theology as the appropriate representation of its account of God. Church fathers often appealed to the liturgical practices of the church, its baptismal formula (Matt. 28:19) and its doxology (Rom. 11:36) as evidence that the trinitarian confession belongs to the roots of Christian faith. The link between baptism and the Trinity led St. Augustine to begin a sermon on the Trinity with Matthew’s account of Christ’s baptism.
The separate representation of the Son, who comes for baptism; the Dove descending from heaven; and the divine Voice makes the distinct persons of the Trinity clear to our imagination. Yet all three are inseparable in the divine works of creation and redemption. Thus St. Augustine would have theological difficulties with some feminists’ proposal to replace traditional trinitarian language with the functional categories of creator, redeemer and sanctifier. The Trinity is not an organizational chart for getting the divine jobs done. The church fathers all note that Scripture is often very fluid in attributing manifestations of the Spirit as divine power to the Father, the Son or the Spirit.
Turning from the patristic tradition to the readings of the lectionaries for Trinity Sunday, we find a somewhat different focus on the meaning of Trinity in Christian life. Taking a clue from St. Augustine, we may ask ourselves what these readings suggest to the imagination about the Triune God. Many of the lectionary texts evoke images of angelic beings who surround God in the heavens (Isa. 6:1-8; Rev. 4:1-11) The threefold "holy, holy, holy" in the heavenly praise to the Lord’s glory (Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8) has often been read by Christians as a trinitarian formula. Modern scholars treat the prophet’s vision in Isaiah 6 as a scene from the divine council. Yahweh and the angels have replaced the older images of the high god and his court.
Both Isaiah and Revelation commission prophets to speak words of judgment in the divine court. We see that God is not alone in heaven, isolated from other beings and the world of humans. Instead, we find a vast array of creatures beside God. Worship and praise for the creator bind the heavenly world together in holiness. Some churches read Proverbs 8:22-31 as a poem that takes us to the beginning of God’s creation. The female figure of God’s Wisdom comes forth before anything else in the universe. She witnesses the order of creation, working beside the Lord like a skilled laborer. The Lord rejoices in her as she rejoices in all of creation, including the human race. This image of creation is very different from the mechanical putting-it-together activity that we might regard as part of making something. Creation is shared. It is an object of beauty, order and delight.
These visions of God in the heavenly court and God’s assistant Wisdom challenge the modern technological and power-oriented images of creation. God’s creative rule forms the focal point of the heavenly community of praise, beauty and joy. It is not primarily the expression of domination or an isolated will to power. Trinitarian theology affirms that the communal elements of these visions describe more than a heavenly court. They point to the deepest nature of God as an us, not an isolated I.
The readings from Romans 5:1-5 and John 16:12-15 point to Christian experiences of salvation that reflect the distinction of persons in God. Christ has brought us peace with God as well as the hope of sharing the heavenly community envisaged in the images of God’s glory (Rom. 5:1-2). St. Paul begins the passage with faith and concludes with hope and love. Love, a gift of the Spirit, provides the certainty of Christian hope. Present experiences of suffering and endurance contribute to Christian hope; they do not undermine faith. Romans 8:31-39 picks up the theme of separation from God. There the crucified Christ, now risen with God, is affirmed as the source of the love which overcomes all human or cosmic threats to unity with God.
The dangers of separation appear in John 16:12-15 in the context of Jesus’ departure. The Spirit’s work in the community will continue Jesus’ words to the community. Just as Jesus had received everything from God, so the Spirit’s activity represents that of Jesus. Trinitarian images ground Christian faith, love and hope by providing for the experiences of separation and distance in Christian life, while insisting on a unity with God that transcends all temporal and spatial boundaries.