I hate to admit it but there were times when I was growing up that the doctrine of the trinity was maybe the least important aspect of my faith. I had come to believe in God through wonderful storytelling that communicated the love of Christ and through a few very profound personal encounters with Christ. Whenever I thought of the trinity or the Father, however, those concepts were either mildly comforting, vague, or sometimes disturbing.
I say mildly comforting because my faith had always been rooted in Christ and my understanding of the Father and the Holy Spirit seemed of secondary importance, and only had value in their relation to the love of Christ. This was accentuated by the vagueness of my views of the Father and the Spirit, especially in my understanding of the trinity. I had a very fuzzy notion that “God” was three persons but at the same time there was only one God. Which didn’t make sense to me but I got the feeling that it wasn’t supposed to make sense, and that was an essential part of my faith.
It could also be disturbing at times. I remember frequently hearing that the Father could not be in the presence of sin and therefore had to abandon his Son on the cross, or turn his head away when the sins of the world were laid upon him. This seemed to match what I read about God’s relationship with Israel in the Old Testament. God could not be in the presence of sin therefore anyone who approached him had to be ritually cleansed, and if they came to him in any way that was unworthy they would be killed.
It wasn’t until much later in my life when I started to read theology for myself and follow my own curiosity, that I learned how important the doctrine of the trinity is to my faith. Throughout the history of the church the faithful have always confessed that the nature of the trinity is a mystery. Not in the sense that it can’t be understood but in the sense that it describes something miraculous, life altering, and world changing. The who, what, when, and where of the trinity can be understood it is only the how that we can’t comprehend.
God exists in three persons but we confess only one God because those three persons dwell in perfect unity. There is nothing, except their relation to one another that distinguishes the persons of the trinity, and their relation to one another consists of an eternal, self giving love, that surpasses all knowledge. The reason this is possible, and why the New Testament often refers to the Father as the God of Jesus, is that the Father is the source of the trinity and it is through his willingness to share all that it is to be God with the Son and the Spirit.
Understanding that it is the Father’s willingness to share all things with the Son and the Spirit that makes life possible should have a profound effect on our faith. The Father did not abandon or turn away from his Son on the cross. The cross is God’s message to the world that he will never abandon or turn away from any of his children. This gives new meaning and a deeper revelation of the truth expressed in 2 Corinthians 5:19, “The Father was in the Son reconciling the world to himself, not counting anyone’s sins against them, and he has shared with us the ministry of reconciliation.”
For the American Church the doctrine of the trinity is as important now as it has ever been. We’re in the midst of a crisis and the only answer is rediscovering the ministry of reconciliation. Unfortunately, the way I’ve described the trinity in this post can be threatening to some people, especially those who’ve gained power and feel that the nature of God should reflect their authority. Confessing a God who shares all things, including his power and authority, can sound dangerous to existing institutions and their governing structures.
We must overcome this fear collectively. We must rediscover the beauty, the truth, and the power of the trinity. We must find ways to teach it to our children and allow it to change our lives and our world from the ground up. If you’ve never heard the trinity described this way I would encourage you to seek out and study some of the most influential writers in the early church. Saint Vladimir Seminary Press has a wonderful series of books called The Popular Patristics Series, that is a great place to start. There are, however, dozens of books in this series so if you’re having a hard time choosing I would suggest On the Incarnation by Athanasius.