Last month, on the Modern Church Facebook page, a commenter asked ‘What would be the Modern Church position on those that deny the doctrine of the Trinity?’
The important thing to remember about the Trinity, when it comes to whether or not a person ‘believes’ in it is that it is a description, a rough sketch even, but one which took a couple of centuries to complete and then only with much anguish and shedding of blood.
Theologically, and at the very least, it serves as a helpful delineating boundary between the idea of the living God who saves humanity from itself and ideas of God rooted in Greek philosophy or Eastern religions. In the case of the former, we think of Deism – God is somewhere ‘up there’ or generally ‘around’ as a sort of benign force that set everything in motion and then left us to get on with it. In regard to the latter, when properly understood (insofar as it is possible to understand any concept of God), the Trinity differentiates Christian belief about God from various forms of polytheism. The Trinity is not tritheism. All of these lightly sketched out definitions of a complex doctrine give pause for thought when it comes to whether or not a Christian should be required to ‘believe’ in the Trinity in the way we might believe other challenging doctrines.
In his response to the same question, Jonathan Clatworthypoints us to two aspects of this definition; the economic and the social, but there is a third, the ontological. Each of these three classifications is a way of trying to describe how God exists and acts in relation to the human race and how God acts in relation to the world within the time frame of history. Briefly stated, the economic is the prophetic activity of God in the events of human history – how God works into them for better or, perhaps for worse. The social concerns the relational essence of God’s being, portrayed as three Persons who are co-eternal and of ‘one substance’. The co-eternal nature of God, as it pertains to Christ and to the Holy Spirit is of especial significance in relation to discussions about the Incarnation and the pre-existent Word, or Logos, and hence to the divinity of Christ. The issue of whether or not Mary was technically a virgin at the time of Christ’s conception has little bearing on this.
The relevance to the Divinity and co-eternity of Christ with the Father and the Spirit lies in its affirming that the holy Child was conceived by the power of the eternal Holy Spirit (also known as Wisdom or Sophia in the Old Testament). The other important factor in relation to the co-eternity of Christ with the Father, and to his divinity, is the significance of the moment of the Incarnation itself, a moment in time when God chooses to engage directly in human history and to do so by being intimately tied to the physical reality of a human body, formed like any other human body.The co-eternity of the Holy Spirit relates more specifically to the third definition of the Trinity; the ontological, or ‘Being’ of God. For the purpose of this very brief discussion, we could interpret the ‘Being’ of God to be another kind of intimate union of God with human beings, one which pertains to the very essence of each person’s own humanity – to the ‘ground of their being’.
Jesus himself never mentions the word Trinity. Instead, he emphasises his own unity with the Father. ‘I and the Father are one’ (John 10:30) ‘If you have seen me you have seen the Father’ (John 14:7 and 9). He speaks of sending a ‘paraclete’ or ‘comforter’ after his resurrection (John 14:26 and 16:7) and he also speaks of his own spirit, although it is not always clear that we are to understand this in the way we understand the third person of the Trinity. When he yields his spirit to the Father on the Cross, it is probably safe to assume that he simply allows his earthly life to be taken from him.