Chapter 12: What about the Trinity?

Dear Mr. Brown: Letters to a Person Perplexed about Religion
by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Chapter 12: What about the Trinity?

Dear Ted Brown:

I cannot adequately express the gratification which your letter brings me. You have definitely decided to be, as you say, an "out-and-out Christian." You have made your decision known to the college chaplain, and already you have undertaken at his suggestion certain responsibilities in the Christian organization on the campus. Good work! Needless to say, I am delighted.

I am glad also that my last letter was helpful to you. You say it cleared away your fear that being definitely a Christian would shut you in, and close the doors against seeing and welcoming the truth in other faiths. Of course not! Never identify religious conviction with religious prejudice! Some people seem to think that if they are not hard and fierce against those who differ with them in religious opinion, they have no convictions. That is a fatal mistake. In World War I a Roman Catholic chaplain went out under fire into no man’s lands to minister to a dying boy. When the boy saw him, he said, "Padre, I don’t belong to your church." "No," said the chaplain, as he knelt beside him, "but you do belong to my God." That is one of the rightest things ever said. It involved no surrender of conviction. It rather affirmed the conviction that behind all our imperfect and varied concepts of deity there is one God, the Father of all men.

Gandhi, for example, was a Hindu, but he did not let that fact shut him in. Listen to him, speaking before a school in India: "I say to the seventy-five per cent of Hindus receiving instruction in this college that your lives also will be incomplete unless you reverently study the teaching of Jesus. . . . The message of Jesus is contained in the Sermon on the Mount, unadulterated and taken as a whole. . . . If, then, I had to face only the Sermon on the Mount and my own interpretation of it, I should not hesitate to say ‘Oh, yes, I am a Christian.’" If, in all our religions, we had more men like Gandhi, grateful for the discovery of truth in other faiths, how much better a world this would be! I am counting on you to be a Christian, your convictions growing stronger with the passing years, but with a hospitable spirit that welcomes truth wherever it comes from, and that feels with Malachi, "Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another?"

Now to the special problem in your letter. You recall my writing you that, when you definitely decide to be a Christian, that does not mean that you are to stop thinking and asking questions. You cordially agree with that and proceed to ask me a whopper. The doctrine of the Trinity troubles you. You write that when in church they sing "God in three persons, blessed Trinity," you cannot honestly sing it -- you just wonder what it means. How can three persons be one person? And the phrase "Holy Ghost," which some clergymen commonly employ, shocks you. The idea of "God in three persons" is difficult enough, without compounding the difficulty by calling one of them a "Ghost." Until now you have not given much thought to this strange doctrine, but, if you are going to be a Christian, you think you ought to know something about what the Trinity means.

Let me first express my sympathy with your confusion. As I shall make clear later, I find profound and vital truth in the experience which lies behind the dogma of the Trinity but, at the same time, I think more nonsense has been written about that dogma than about any other item of the Christian creed. I sympathize with a facetious remark of one theologian who said that the Trinity is a doctrine which, if a man does not believe it he is sure to lose his soul, but if he tries to understand it he is sure to lose his wits. And I heartily agree with you that the continued use of "Holy Ghost," instead of "Holy Spirit," is indefensible. This is one of the worst examples of the way some clergymen, who supposedly care about communicating the gospel to the present generation, fail to do so because they insist on using an obsolete and confusing vocabulary.

Having said this, however, let me defend the old creed-builders from one charge, which apparently is in your mind. They never said that God was one person composed of three persons. Not only would that make no sense but it would involve tritheism which they always -- although not always successfully -- strove to avoid. This mix-up which puzzles many people today is due, in large measure, to the changed meaning of the word "person." With us a person is a personality -- a self-conscious being with powers of intellect, emotion, and volition -- and to say that three personalities can add up to one personality is, of course, utterly incredible. In Latin, however, "persona" did not mean what we mean by person. "Per" and "sono," as you can see, mean "sound through." A "persona" was a mask, with a megaphone mouthpiece, which actors wore, let us say, in the Coliseum, and through which their voices sounded to the thirty or forty thousand spectators. Each "persona" was molded and painted to represent a different mood or character, so that in a given play one person in our sense could wear several "personae" in the Latin sense.

So, said the old theologians, God is one "substantia," one essence and being, but in Christian experience he appears in three "personae," plays three parts, unveils himself to his children in three characters -- Father-Creator; Christ the Revealer; the Spirit, our indwelling Friend and Comforter. To be sure, so brief a statement oversimplifies the tortuous labors and controversial disputes, which for some four centuries accompanied the formulation of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. I am not going to burden you with the story of that theological endeavor to read back into the very structure of deity the three "characters"--Father, Son, and Spirit -- in whose revelation of the one God those early Christians rejoiced. But I do want to clear away the supposition that they were mathematical idiots -- as I have heard some preachers make them out to be -- asserting that three persons equal one person. What they said was something entirely different: that one Supreme Being had revealed himself as three "personae." Moreover, the best of them said that very humbly. Gregory of Nazianzus was involved in one of the early attempts to formulate a definitive doctrine of the Trinity, and he wrote, "It is difficult to conceive God but to define Him in words is an impossibility. . . . In my opinion it is impossible to express Him, and yet more impossible to conceive Him." And Augustine in his notable book, Concerning the Trinity, said that we speak of three "personae," not because it should be said, "diceretur," but in order not to keep silent, "taceretur."

So we come to what seems to me the basic matter. What was it that made a man like Augustine feel that the Trinity was a subject which it was impossible to keep still about? The answer to that question leads us back behind the Trinity of speculation and dogma to the Trinity of experience. That is where, in the New Testament, the whole matter started. Nowhere in the New Testament will you find the word "Trinity," nor any speculative doctrine about it, but you do find "the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit." That is not dogma but experience -- a benediction which Paul prays may bless the Corinthian Christians, a threefold approach to the understanding and appropriation of the Divine, or rather a threefold revelation of God in all his fullness. If one thinks of God only as the Father-Creator, he can be a long way off; if one thinks of God only as the Father-Creator revealed in Christ, the Historic Character, he can be a long way back; but when one perceives God as the Father-Creator, revealed in the Historic Character, and now become the Divine Spirit in us, our unseen Friend and abiding Companion, that is an experience to sing about.

I wonder if an analogy will help. There are three ways in which a man might know Beethoven. One man might know Beethoven the composer and be an expert student of his works. Another man might know Beethoven the performer, hearing him play and rejoicing in his skill. Another man might know Beethoven as an intimate friend, living in his home as a comrade and companion. Beethoven has three "personae," he reveals himself in three characters -- composer, performer, friend. But what if a man could know Beethoven all three ways at once! Then he would indeed know him, and the crown and consummation of that whole experience would be that Beethoven the composer and performer had become his friend.

Make what allowances you will for the imperfection of so human an analogy, in some such way the New Testament Christians experienced God -- the cosmic Creator, our Father, revealed in the Divine Christ, and become their indwelling Friend. That is not dry speculation. That reminds one more of poetry than of theology -- Elizabeth Barrett, for example, pouring out her love for Robert Browning: "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." That is what those early Christians said of the Divine: "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways -- Creator, Character, Comforter." That was not speculative dogma. That was a vital, transforming, exhilarating experience trying to express itself, and finding words inadequate.

So, as you see, I find rich and vital meaning in the Trinity of experience. I do not think of it first of all as a doctrine to believe in but rather as a revelation of truth to live by. God, transcendent and immanent, above all yet in all; God, forthgoing in the sublime and challenging character of Christ; God, no abstract essence only, but the Spirit who can strengthen us with might in the inner man, so that, as Paul dared say, we "may be filled with all the fullness of God"-- if one is going to believe in God at all, what richer, more comprehensive, and sustaining idea and experience of him can one imagine than that?

Naturally the theologians were not content with the Trinity of experience. I often wish they had been. They felt the need of rationalizing their threefold distinction of "hypostases" or modes of being within the Godhead. Before they were through they had argued, quarreled, invented dogmatic formulas, and issued creedal pronouncements for nearly four centuries, and the speculative debate is still going on. This perhaps was inevitable, but it certainly carried the faith and life of the Christian Church a long, long way from its origins. It is a far cry from Paul’s benediction -- "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit"-- to the Athanasian Creed, with its hard dogmatism, its overconfident survey of God’s nature into three clearly defined acreages, and its arrogant conclusion: "He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity."

I never read the Athanasian Creed without shame. How some theologians can take a vital experience, kill it, botanize it, reduce it to a dry-as-dust theory, and then threaten with hell anyone who disbelieves their formula! My friend, Dr. Cyril Richardson, professor of church history in New York’s Union Theological Seminary, has forthrightly said what many of us long have felt:

My conclusion, then, about the doctrine of the Trinity is that it is an artificial construct. It tries to relate different problems and to fit them into an arbitrary and traditional threeness. It produces confusion rather than clarification; and while the problems with which it deals are real ones, the solutions it offers are not illuminating. It has posed for many Christians dark and mysterious statements, which are ultimately meaningless. . . . We are confronted in the New Testament with three dominant symbols of God. These we call and should use to express deep Christian concerns. But we should avoid supposing that they do not overlap, or that they imply three distinct persons in the Trinity.

My most revered teacher of theology was William Newton Clarke. He felt so strongly the difference between the Trinity of experience and the Trinity of speculation that he thought they should not be called by the same name. "Trinity" he reserved for the New Testament experience which I have been describing, and he used the word "Triunity" for the dogma of God’s inherent threefold nature. He had his doctrine of Triunity which, so it seemed to me, came perilously near the edge of tritheism, and in his book, An Outline of Christian Theology he had a fairly long section explaining it. One day two or three of us students said to him that the Trinity of experience was to us real and understandable, but that we could not make any sense out of what he called Triunity in God. Dr. Clarke’s answer was humble enough. "Sometimes," he said, "when I read what I have written about Triunity, I think that I have said something; and sometimes I think that I haven’t."

Personally, I am willing to leave the matter there. The experience of God portrayed in the New Testament is sufficient for me, and I am sure that your Christian faith and life need no help from any speculative theory of Triunity.

Before I close this letter, let me share with you my concern about the way many American church people think of God. Ninety-five per cent of Americans, we are told, believe in God. But what kind of God? Creator of the cosmos? Yes. Good? Yes. Lord of a moral order where what a man sows he reaps? Yes. Moreover, Christians would bring Christ into the picture and would agree that he was God’s self-revelation. But there many stop. They have a duality, not a Trinity. God the Father-Creator, revealed in the Historic Character -- period. Their religious experience lacks the present tense -- the Holy Spirit in them, cleansing, sustaining, empowering. Paul once came to Ephesus and, finding a group of Christian disciples there, he said to them, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed? And they said, ‘No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’" That is the situation with many church members today. They may never have doubted God’s existence. They may have accepted the first chapter of John’s Gospel with its explanation of Christ in terms of Greek philosophy, as God’s "Logos," his forth-going-ness. But as for God an inward resource of strength, as for praying, "Spirit of God, descend upon my heart," and having the prayer answered, as for understanding what Paul meant when he said, "The Spirit of God dwells in you," they know nothing of that. And yet that experience of the immediately present and available Divine Spirit is the very climax and culmination of New Testament Christianity.

Where is the sun? Ninety-three million miles away, comes the quick answer. No! The sun with its light and warmth is also here and, should it stop being here, all life would vanish. So I believe in God the Creator and I see his likeness revealed in Christ, but to think of him only as behind the cosmos and back in history is to lose the vital meaning of personal religion. That comes much closer home:

Speak to Him, thou, for He hears, and Spirit

with Spirit can meet --

Closer is He than breathing, and nearer than

hands and feet.

Because this vital, inward, spiritual fellowship is absent from the lives of many formal Christians, they find themselves reduced to one major technique in living -- trying hard. Well, trying hard is important, but many of the finest attributes of character cannot by trying be achieved. Happiness, for example, personal radiance. Robert Louis Stevenson was right: "A happy man or woman is a better thing to find than a five-pound note . . . and their entrance into a room is as though another candle had been lighted." Possessing a radiant character is about the most gracious way in which any man can serve his fellows. Can you think of anything much finer that could be said of anyone than was said of St. Francis Xavier by a companion on one of his terrific missionary journeys? "Sometimes it happened that if any of the brothers were sad, the way they took to become happy was to go and look at him.’’ To be that kind of person is a choice gift, but it is not to be achieved by trying hard. Pull your best on your spiritual bootstraps and see if you can lift yourself into a contagiously radiant character! No! That comes from deeper sources. Paul had that gift. He was a shining soul. If you asked him how he achieved that, can you imagine him saying, I tried hard? l am sure that his answer would run like this: "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace." What we call the Trinity was to Paul not primarily theology; it meant a vital, transforming, illuminating experience.

In another realm one of the problems in personal counseling which I most dislike to face is a youth, mastered by a bad habit, who has no resource except trying hard. On a winter day in the Niagara River below Buffalo a bird of prey lighted on a floating carcass and began to feed. It intended to depart before the rapids broke. Surely it proposed to escape before the thunder of the Falls was near. But when now peril was at hand, it stretched its wings and tried to fly -- in vain. Its talons had frozen to the carrion it fed upon. That is an analogy of a familiar experience. Men’s talons freeze to the carrion they feed upon, and one sometimes watches them try to escape until it fairly breaks one’s heart to see. Well, Paul cried once about his sin, "Who will deliver me from this body of death?" He certainly was delivered to become one of the most emancipated and triumphant characters in history, but one cannot imagine him attributing his victory primarily to trying hard. Listen to him: "The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and of death."

I suppose that some theologians would say that I am not talking about the Trinity as they mean it. But this saving experience of a threefold relationship with God is the New Testament’s meaning. To be sure, in the King James Version, the First Epistle of John contains these words (5:7): "There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one." But no subsequent version contains that verse, because it appears in no early manuscript, and it is rejected by scholars as being a late addition. It does reveal, however, the shift of emphasis which took place in the early centuries of the Church from the Trinity of experience to the Trinity of doctrine. With regard to the latter I leave you to your own devices, if you are at all interested in it, but I surely want you to grasp the meaning and deepen your experience of the New Testament’s threefold understanding of God.

Most cordially,