31 May 2015 Trinity Sunday:
Précis – a talk putting the Trinity into a historical context and explaining what is important about it and what is not.
Readings for the day:
- Isaiah 6: 1-8
- Romans 8: 12-17
- John 3: 1-17
Over the years I’ve heard of clergy mentioning the idea of preaching on the Trinity as a some sort of threat, penance or generally scary thought. So when I mentioned to Lynda that I’d like to talk on the subject I can only imagine the degree to which her eyes lit up. In a whisker she had the contract printed out and had me sign on the dotted line.
The Trinity in its current state is a theory that developed 200 to 300 hundred years after the death of Jesus. In fact thoughts of God and of the way Jesus relates to his father continued to evolve steadily until 325 AD when the Emperor Constantine who had adopted Christianity as his unifying religion came down on one side of a theological debate for the sake of uniformity. In our creeds we actually have a snapshot in time of a theological debate which was frozen for over 1300 years and was the standard against which heresy was judged in the West. It was only at the time of the Enlightenment towards the end of 17C that people started questioning again; but then throughout history we’ve all tended to reinvent God in the light of our own understanding of the world. You’ve heard ME do it with the idea of a God outside time using evolution to achieve species capable of loving each other. To understand the Trinity as a concept however we have to go back to the Judaism into which Jesus was born and understand the environment in which Christianity developed.
In the four accounts we have of Jesus’ ministry there are three strands of material: Peter’s memories of incidents and exchanges during a two year mission as written down by Mark; and a second similar strand coming from John’s memories. The third element are the parables which record the big scale sermons which pad out Mark in Matthew & Luke but they don’t involve Jesus talking about himself. Peter only remembers Jesus talking about himself as ‘The Son’ and to the ‘Son of Man’ whereas John remembers a richer variety – the good shepherd, the bread of life, the light of the world, the way the truth & the life – and there are plausible reasons for that. In neither is there an explicit claim however and in all the accounts Jesus describes himself poetically rather than anything else. We don’t know why. Maybe he was still working it out; maybe he was just careful about lighting the fuse too early, maybe he didn’t want to put people off with outlandish claims or maybe the poetic references conveyed his own understanding that he was ‘of God’ in a way better than an actual description does. Incidentally those words we heard in the gospel reading today – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” and the subsequent verses – are comment from the author rather than quotes. They cannot have been Jesus’ direct teaching: not unless he favoured a passing stranger with a much more direct claim than he did his close disciples.
Jesus died in 30 or 33 AD. The gospels are conventionally dated in a spectrum between 70 to 90AD although I follow a line that dates them earlier (40 to 60AD). Whilst the letters of Paul particularly are from the period between 50 & 60AD. The gospels are a formalising of what must have been passing around by word of mouth whilst those epistles of Paul and the others are specific letters to the early communities of believers encouraging them, dealing with practical problems emerging with the early communities and fleshing out what the faith meant in practice. What came next however was a consequence of a number of factors: the location of Palestine within the Hellenistic (Greek influenced) Eastern Mediterranean conquered by Alexander the Great; the pre-eminence of Greek thoughts within the Roman empire; the fact that Judaism was also highly thought of within the empire; and then finally the missionary efforts of Paul. The Greek philosophies of Plato and Aristotle that so influenced the empire were very different to the ideas of the Jews; but there was inevitably a cross fertilisation of ideas. So after the initial enthusiasm of Jesus’ message had worn off the new Christians had a question: what did understanding Jesus as the Son of God actually mean? Over those first 300 years we see a variety of idea about exactly what Jesus was, what the Holy Spirit was and about how they related to God.
For the very start of this process we have to go back to the time when the Hebrews had split into two Kingdoms. The larger, wealthier Kingdom of Israel had been defeated by the Assyrian empire in the middle of 8C and the 10 tribes carried off into slavery. Many times in the history of the three big faiths – Judaism, Christianity & Islam – big shocks to civilisation have resulted in major changes in theology. In this case by 100 years later there was a trend amongst those remaining Hebrews inhabiting the small Kingdom of Judah, which was Jerusalem and what we now call the West Bank: Yahweh had become the ONLY God rather than being the tribal god of the Hebrews and there was an amount of editing of the Torah – those first books of what we call the Old Testament – to reflect it. Added to that the the Kingdom of Judah picked the wrong side in a fight between Babylon & Egypt and ended up being utter defeat with the elite of society being carted off into captivity, as was standard practice by the Babylonians. That inevitably brought more souls searching. Just one small change that comes out of this period is a split between talking about the essence of God and his manifestation on earth – which is when references to the Glory of God and later the Word of God (translated as Logos in Greek) and the Wisdom of God (Sophia in Greek) – by which time Wisdom and Word meant God’s blueprint on earth. Critically the word Logos was also used entirely separately in Greek Philosophy to mean the principle of order and knowledge in Greek philosophy. So what John was doing in those first verses of his gospel – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” etc – was making sense of Jesus with this concept of ‘the blueprint of God’ in a way that appealed both to Jews and to Greeks. The fact is though that John, Paul and all the other writers accepted Jesus as ‘OF God’ but wouldn’t have seen him AS God. Theirs was a poetic understanding of the significance of Jesus as Son of God.
Over the next few hundred years theologians continued to try and define the unknowable; and the next big change comes around the end of 2C. We go from Theophilus of Antioch writing about God, Jesus as His Word (Logos) and the Holy Spirit as His Wisdom (Sophia) 150 years after the death of Jesus; to Tertullian who first uses the word ‘Trinity’ and who starts defining Father, Son & Holy Spirit as aspects, faces, masks of God at the turn of the century. We’ve now abandoned earlier poetic understandings of Father, Sin & Holy Spirit and replaced them by attempts to DEFINE exactly what the fundamentals of the relationship are. Move forward another hundred years you get to our Nicene creed at the beginning of 4C as an attempt to end the debate about how what is now known as The Trinity relate to each other, and this is the point where Constantine imposes a solution. Interestingly one of the defining elements of Christianity is this fact of having to think in approved ways or risk being labelled a heretic – and it isn’t the case for Jews and Moslems.
OK that was a very long preamble before the main part of what I want to say; but relax – all I have left are two very concise thoughts to take away with you – so you can wake up because we’re near the end 🙂
First what is the significance of the Trinity as a concept? Well if you take a step backwards you can see that the 4C ideas of the Trinity and the 1C ideas about Jesus as the Word of God actually mean the same. Both ends of a 300 year timeline – and everything in between too – are attempts to describe the fact that: God IS; God is as he is in Jesus; and that the God we see revealed in Jesus is a God of Love. In other words: that there is a God whether out there, in here or suffusing the universe; that in the person of Jesus of Nazareth we see everything we need to know about the nature of our God; and that as revealed in Jesus we have an active & interested God and a God who’s primary focus is Love. FATHER, SON and HOLY SPIRIT.
Second, so what does it mean for you and me? That quite simply everything we do in all aspects of our life, both personal and as a community of God, needs to be orientated towards expressing that Love of God to everyone around us. NOTHING else matters; and if we ever encounter a situation when something contradicts the Love of God it is quite plainly and simply wrong. Love IS the defining reality of God’s universe. In the words of the hymn: “when I needed a neighbour were you there were you there; when I needed a neighbour were you there; and the creed and the colour and the name won’t matter, were you there?”