The mystery of the one God in three persons
|Icon of the Holy Trinity, by Andrei Rublev
It is very appropriate that the feast honoring the Holy Trinity occurs the Sunday after Pentecost. On Pentecost we heard Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit would guide the disciples ‘into all truth.’ In the early centuries of the Church, God’s people examined the Scripture and meditated upon the Lordship of Jesus and his prayer to his Father. In examining Scriptures such as the ones we will read today, the Church was guided by the Holy Spirit into the mystery of the Trinity – one God in three persons, the Son being made human for the sake of the world.
We confess the Athanasian Creed every Trinity Sunday. This creed was first used in the early sixth century. It can be intimidating because of its length and because of the condemnations of those who do not hold to the Trinitarian faith. However, these very condemnations indicate just how important the Church believes faith in the Trinity to be.
The creed was written in order to counter many errors in understanding the Trinity. Chief among these beliefs was that the Son was a creature of the Father, the first of his works in time. While this would seem to guard the uniqueness of God, the creed insists that the unity of God is seen in the relationship of three eternal ‘persons’ (an imperfect translation of a Greek word, hypostasis.)
These three persons share one divine essence or ‘being,’ and in their unity of love are coeternal and coequal.
For if the Son of God is truly eternal with his Father, begotten, not made, then in his incarnation God himself has entered into our existence: in Jesus, God himself has become a human being and lived a human life. Some believed that God could not become a human being, and even among those who did, there was disagreement about the particular mode of his humanity. Were these disagreements mere theological hair-splitting? Not according to the Church, which held to the argument ‘What has not been assumed cannot be redeemed.’ If God the Son does not assume humanity, then his obedience to his Father and his acceptance of death do not count for us. But if Jesus takes up humanity for the world’s sake, then we are truly brought into his eternal life and given a share in the Spirit which he shares with the Father. We too may pray to his heavenly ‘Abba,’ his Father, believing that we are his children and Christ's brothers or sisters.
Do we have trouble understanding the mystery of the Holy Trinity, or do we have doubts? Does this mean we are among those who are ‘condemned?’ We take comfort in the fact that even the most learned and subtle theologians of the Church cannot fully exhaust or understand God’s mystery. I personally agree with Pastor Frank Senn, a renowned historian of creeds and liturgy, who writes that a lack of full understanding is not what is condemned in the Creed. Rather, it is the outright rejection of the Trinitarian faith by those who do understand it (perhaps especially by theologians responsible for teaching the faithful) which is condemned.