I once heard someone say that the most popular time for pastors to leave town is Trinity Sunday. How true that is, I don’t know. What I do know is that during fifty plus years in the pews I have never heard a comprehensive sermon on the subject. I suspect my experience is not unique.
Few would deny that the Trinity is one of the most (if not the most) important doctrines of the Christian faith and also one of the most misunderstood. Whether or not homiletical avoidance is to blame, it is regrettable, because no other doctrine tells us more about God and ourselves.
The Nature of God
Were it not for the Trinity, St. John’s claim, “God is love,” would be little more than glassy-eyed sentiment. Love without an object is frustrated, unfulfilled, and incomplete. Thus, a loving but solitary God is a God who is contingent, a God who must create to satisfy his yearning, and, finally, a God who is less than perfect.
On the other hand, a God who exists in a community of uncreated “One Anothers” is a God who is complete in and of himself from eternity to eternity. For him, creation is not a divine necessity, but an extension—an extravagant extension—of who he is.
Although Scripture lays out no explicit doctrine on the Trinity, it contains numerous references to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit working in concert. For example:
In the Annunciation, Gabriel tells Mary how the Spirit will come in the power of the Father to produce the Word made flesh in her.
At the last supper, Jesus promises the disciples that the Father will send the Spirit to remind them of his teachings.
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul reveals that spiritual gifts come from the Spirit, in service to the Son, according to the sovereign purposes of the Father.
Then there is Jesus’s rebuke of the Jews (“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him”) that, when combined with his response to Thomas (“No one comes to the Father except through me”) and Paul’s message to the Corinthians (“No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit”), reveals that personal salvation is the synergistic result of the Father’s initiative, the Son’s atonement, and the Holy Spirit’s promptings.
Scripture bears witness to a Godhead of three Persons united in will and purpose. One of those purposes is the creation of beings designed for union in the divine community. For instance, notice how man’s tripartite nature of mind, body, and spirit relates to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the following verses:
“Who has understood the mind of [Yahweh]…?”
“The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God…”
“The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”
It is sufficiently amazing that God has made us for communion with him. It is more amazing, still, that he calls us into partnership with him through the “Greatest Commandment,” the Great Commission, and the Cultural Commission—three (!) directives aimed at expanding his community and uniting it cruciform, vertically with the Godhead, and horizontally with fellow man.
The second part of the Greatest Commandment—to love others as Christ loved us—is a summons to work for the sake of others, that they might experience the joy of knowing God and living in harmony with his creation. But only a disciple can know God, and only a world managed by caring stewards will be conducive to the flourishing of nature and mankind. Thus, fulfilling the Greatest Commandment requires that we take up both the Great Commission and the Cultural Commission.
To help us toward those ends, God established three (!) institutions: the family, the state, and the Church, each with its own sphere of responsibility. When each institution fulfills its unique calling, while respecting the others, it creates the conditions necessary for individuals to experience communion with family, neighbors, communities, creation, and God.
Sadly, the cruciform community for which we are created and called is becoming less and less apparent. Instead of a growing sense of community with our fellow man and God, we are becoming more individualistic, both socially and morally. While this may seem unremarkable, what is interesting is one place where it has become evident.
Citing a study on language usage, columnist David Brooks noted that since 1960, individualistic words such as “personalized,” “self,” “standout,” and “unique” have eclipsed communal words like “community,” “collective,” “share,” and “united.” In other studies he cites, researchers found that moral terms such as “virtue,” “decency,” “conscience,” “honesty,” “faith,” “ought,” “evil,” and “prudence” have declined in use over the years.
What these findings tell Brooks is that as society “has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware” resulting in “certain forms of social breakdown.” I would flip his causative chain to say that our moral breakdown has led to our social breakdown and the pathologies associated with our atomization from God and neighbor. It is a trajectory that can be traced back to the beginning.
Once God proclaimed, “It is good!”, Satan took to tearing asunder what God had put together. By sowing the seed of distrust, Satan successfully pitted man against God. Then, in quick succession, he turned husband against wife, brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor, son against father, man against his own nature, and, eventually, mother against her child.
If God can’t be trusted, nobody can—not our government, not our churches, not our families, no one. Our loss of faith not only isolates us from God, it isolates us from tradition, generational wisdom, shared values, and each other, creating a balkanized society of competing “others” where even the enwombed child represents a threat to our well-being.
Over the last forty years, the “fruits” of atomization have included the escalation of divorce, fatherless homes, single-parent families, sex without marriage, marriage without children, children unattached to their biological parents, and the loss of two billion (!) children worldwide to abortion. What’s more, personal dissatisfaction, disappointment, and depression are at record levels in an age of technological, medical, and economic progress unprecedented in history.
The doctrine of the Trinity informs us that this is not the way it was meant to be. Because God, the Source of being, is social, we, made in his image, are social, too. For this reason, the joy, peace, and fullness for which we were created will be experienced only to the degree that we are united cruciform, to him and each other. It also means that when we work to restore what Satan has torn asunder—our relationships with God, spouses, neighbors, and nature—we fulfill the divine directives of love, discipleship, and stewardship.
If you are interested in how the triune nature of God is woven into the fabric of creation from the cosmic scale to cosmic scale, you can read it here.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Holy Trinity” painted by Pietro Novelli (March 2, 1603 – August 27, 1647).