The belief of the Christian Church in a Triune God – that the being of God is made up of three co-equal persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit – can appear to many (including not a few within the Church) an altogether confusing puzzle, one that, to those of other faiths especially, seems to contradict the claim to be a monotheistic faith.
The second chapter of the Book of Acts records the dramatic coming of the Spirit upon the disciples in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost
Nowhere in the Bible is the doctrine of a Triune God explicitly stated, but Christians would say it is a valid inference from the accounts of God’s self-revelation in their scriptures. Faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord arose within the monotheistic faith of Judaism, but quite soon became separated as the majority of Jews resisted and rejected the claim that Jesus was their awaited Messiah. For the first Christians, as they pondered the twin events of the crucifixion and resurrection and sought to understand their experiences of God’s ongoing working amongst them, it wasn’t enough to regard Jesus simply as a good man, a gifted teacher, a fearless prophet and miracle-worker. For those who had met him in his earthly lifetime and following his resurrection, and later disciples who reflected on the accounts of his life, ministry and teaching handed down to them, they became convinced that in Jesus they had actually met with God: as St Paul puts it in the New Testament, ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.’ (II Corinthians 5:19) In other words, the one who died on the cross as a sacrifice for sin to bring estranged men and women back to God was none other than God himself.
Alongside all this, the early Christians were also meeting God in their experience of the Holy Spirit’s presence as they prayed, worshipped and witnessed by word and deed to their faith in Christ. The second chapter of the Book of Acts records the dramatic coming of the Spirit upon the disciples in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, a visitation promised to them by Jesus just before his ascension to heaven. With the Spirit’s coming, the Early Church discovered boldness and confidence in the face of opposition and threats from the Jewish authorities, as well as the power to perform miracles and acts of healing just as Jesus had done during his earthly ministry. It was characteristic of Jesus that he had called God his ‘Abba’, his Father, and he taught his disciples to do the same, giving them a prayer we now know as the Lord’s Prayer and opening with the words, ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed (blessed) be your name.’ (Matthew 6:9) This sense of the trinitarian nature of God is reflected in Matthew’s account of the Risen Jesus’ farewell to his closest followers before ascending to heaven: he tells them to make disciples of all nations, ‘baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’ (Matthew 28:19)
Since the birth of the Church, Christian theologians and philosophers have attempted to reach agreement in defining their understanding of the being of God. To do this they have understandably had to use the ideas and understanding of their times, giving rise to statements of belief known as creeds, for example the Nicene Creed dating from the Council of Nicea in 325 CE. One further issue worth remembering is that any attempt at describing the being of God must by definition be limited to human language; we have no other available to us! The result is we sometimes therefore find words being stretched to their limits in trying to express our belief about a Supreme Being who is so much greater than humankind and ultimately beyond our comprehension. In other words, our best endeavours at clarity over the nature of God will never be fully adequate.
Truly, there is ‘complexity in being’ with God, a complexity that defies our best attempts at definition and description.
People can struggle with the notion of Three Persons in one God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The use of the idea of ‘persons’ goes back to ideas taken from Greek philosophy but which may no longer seem helpful to modern thinking. We use the word ‘person’ to identify individual human beings, so we find it very difficult to conceive of God as existing as Three Persons and yet somehow being One. The Church has rejected the notion that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three parts making up one God, or that there is a difference of rank and status between them. As a simple shorthand, it can be said that God the Father is the Creator and Sustainer of the world, that God the Son is its Saviour, and that God the Holy Spirit is the active presence of the Deity in human experience, but the Church insists that all of God is fully involved in all these actions. Truly, there is ‘complexity in being’ with God, a complexity that defies our best attempts at definition and description.
In recent times, some have found help in returning to the concept of perichoresis, an idea derived from the early Greek Church Fathers and which carries the idea of mutual indwelling. There is understood to be movement within the Godhead – some have even imagined a sort of never-ending dance – in which the Father, Son and Holy Spirit pass around each other: in the words of the theologian Jurgen Moltmann, ‘surrounding, embracing, enclosing.’ Each person of the Trinity remains distinct, but knows themselves with, in and through the others. A further possibility presents itself in this regard. When, in John’s Gospel 17:21, Jesus prays on behalf of all his disciples, ‘As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us’, this has been seen, not only as an example of the mutual indwelling of the Father and the Son within God, but also as an invitation for men and women of faith to be caught up into it, to join ultimately in the great dance of heaven. Let it be admitted immediately that this is too fanciful a picture for some, but it surely has resonance in an age when we are relearning the place of diversity, how unity of purpose and action can also come through the recognition and acceptance of difference. In concluding, it’s interesting to note that the ancient doctrine of the Trinitarian God encourages us to think in very similar ways, even if some of its details can still leave us puzzling.