Readings: Proverbs 8:1–4, 22–31, Romans 5:1–5 & John 16:12–15
I’ve heard a lot of people say that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is the most difficult aspect of the Christian Faith to explain to someone. Let’s test that theory shall we? I’m going to read you a definition of the doctrine of the Trinity from Wikipedia. ‘The Christian doctrine of the Trinity holds that God is one God, but three coeternal consubstantial persons or hypostases—the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit—as “one God in three Divine Persons”.’
What’s so hard about that? Three coeternal consubstantial persons or hypostases – that’s pretty self-explanatory isn’t it? Well it might be if you have a doctorate in philosophy, but I would suggest that the majority of Christians (including myself) don’t have one, so I’m guessing that if you’re anything like me, you were probably scratching your head when you heard the phrase “three coeternal consubstantial persons or hypostases”.
I imagine a lot of Christians don’t necessarily concern themselves with thinking about the doctrine of the Trinity. Perhaps a lot of you here this morning might be in that category. You might even be thinking to yourselves, what does it even matter?
I believe it matters because it’s central to our faith. Have you heard of the “Thirty-Nine Articles”? They’re the 39 statements that form the basis of what the Church of England believe in, and which by association, the Anglican Church of Australia also believe in. They were agreed to by the Archbishops, Bishops and the whole clergy of the Provinces of Canterbury and York in 1562. For anyone who has a copy of a ‘red’ Prayer Book for Australia, you can find them on pages 825–834.
The very first article is titled ‘Of Faith in the Holy Trinity’. It reads as follows: “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in the unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
And each Sunday morning we all stand together in church and recite the Nicene Creed. So as I said earlier, the doctrine is central to our faith. But again, you might ask, but what does that matter? What does it have to do with the way I live my life? As I attempt to answer these questions, we first need go back in history to early in the fourth century.
We must remember that Christianity had its origins in the Jewish faith, which was a monotheistic religion, that is, it believed in only one God. Therefore for the early Christians there was only one God to be worshipped. But some leaders within the early church began to assert that Jesus was a second, and separate god.
They agreed with the Prologue of the Gospel of John (1:1–14), which claimed that Jesus was the Logos, or Word of God, through whom the world had been created, but unlike John’s Gospel, which said, “In the beginning the Word was with God, and the Word was God”, these people believed that Jesus was created first by God, and that he subsequently created everything else. As you can imagine, this provoked some serious debate, which resulted in a significant division within the church.
Now, the timing of this debate occurred not long after Emperor Constantine had reunited the entire Roman Empire under his rule. Unlike his predecessors, Constantine had strongly supported the Christian church, and by the time he had unified the Empire, Christianity had gone from being a religion that was widely persecuted by the authorities of the state, to being its leading religion.
Hence, the dispute within the church, threatened the stability of Constantine’s empire, so he convened the Council of Nicea in 325 to resolve the dispute. This was a meeting of over 300 bishops of the church, and from that Council came the agreed statement of faith that became the basis for the Nicene Creed.
Why was this question of Jesus’ relationship to God so important for the leaders of the early Church? Well, it was related to how they understood the notion of salvation. By the time of the fourth century, Christianity was no longer a Jewish religion but a Gentile one. A lot of the Christian churches throughout the Roman Empire had been founded by the apostle Paul, and Paul’s theology had a significant influence on early Christian beliefs.
Paul’s concept of salvation was two-fold. First, he believed that salvation meant being in a renewed relationship with God, which Christians enjoyed in the present age through justification by faith; and second, he believed that salvation meant that our bodies would be redeemed, which would not happen in the present age, but in the final establishment of God’s rule and the arrival of the fullness of humanity.
For Paul, this fullness of humanity, was evident in the risen Jesus. Paul believed that Jesus was like any other human being; he had been born, he had experienced the raft of human emotions, he had suffered, and he had died. But through his death and resurrection, Jesus had conquered death, and enabled all believers in Christ to be rescued from death when God’s kingdom is established on earth.
Paul believed that only God could bring about salvation, and it was his understanding that God was incarnate in Jesus, which allowed him to see Jesus as the one who would redeem our bodies and bring us to that fullness of humanity. Therefore it was critical for Paul, and subsequently the early Christians, to believe in both the humanity and divinity of Jesus.
Well, thank you for that history lesson you might be thinking. But still, what has that got to do with my life and my own personal situation today? In answering that, I would first say that unlike the church of the fourth century, we find ourselves living as Christians today, in a secular world where the very notion of God is challenged, let alone what Jesus’ relationship to God might be.
In some respects then, it is perhaps more important than ever before in the history of the church, that we have a very clear idea of the God that we believe in, so that we can live our lives in ways that can be examples in this world of what God intended humanity to be. Catherine Mowry LaCugna, who was a Roman Catholic theologian, described it this way: “Since God’s very life constitutes all of existence . . .then to be Christian means to participate in the life of God through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit”.
I like to think of the Trinity as God the Creator, Revealer and Enabler. God the Father is the Creator of all Creation; Jesus revealed the very nature of God to us, and showed us how God wanted us to behave and treat each other; and the Holy Spirit is God’s love which, as Paul told us in the Letter to the Romans, has been poured into our hearts, and which enables us to live with love for all of God’s creation.
In just a few moments we will read together the Nicene Creed, which as you heard earlier, was developed to define what it was about God the early Church believed. As we read it, I would ask you to consider and reflect on the following questions:
- What is your own understanding of God?
- How does this understanding of God inform and shape your life and actions as a Christian?
- What does the concept of salvation mean for you?
- And finally, how does this concept of salvation sit for you, in the context of the increasingly secular society and world in which we live?