Today is Trinity Sunday. This is the one Sunday in the year when we are invited to consider, directly, the doctrine of the Trinity. That is, the preacher is called to speak, and the congregation is invited to reflect on, the distinctively Christian doctrine of God. There is no doubt that it is a difficult idea. At best it can be reduced to a familiar paradox: God is one God in three persons. God is never more than one and never less than three. And like any paradox it is not an easy idea to get your head around. So much so that we all know that today is the least favourite Sunday in the Church’s calendar. We all know today is the Sunday which preachers avoid preaching on, if they can. Worse than its difficulty is that the Bible nowhere has anything to say about the Trinity. The Trinity is everywhere in the Bible. God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, permeates scripture. But nowhere does the Bible have a fully worked out doctrine of God as one God in three persons. Nowhere does the Bible directly address how that works, how those three persons might relate to one another and remain one God. But the Trinity is there in the text of the Bible. Sometimes all three persons of the Trinity appear in the same passage. Sometimes, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are spoken of in more or less one breath.
One of those passages is the one from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Here Paul points out:
We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…
And just a moment later he says this is because:
God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
All three persons of the Holy Trinity are mentioned in the space of two, rather long, sentences. Certainly they are mentioned closely enough together so that the passage that contains them can be read in Church during worship. And that is both the point and part of the problem. The reason why we read this passage, or passages like it, on this Sunday, is because it names the three persons of the Trinity. The lectionary sets passages like this for this Sunday exactly and only for that reason. Except this passage is not talking about the Trinity. At this point Paul is talking about something else. What reading this passage on this Sunday does is that it forces preachers to do something I think preachers shouldn’t do; It forces them to use the text as a pretext. That is, they are pushed into using the text as an excuse to say something, which may be good and true and useful, but which the text itself isn’t saying. To talk directly about the Trinity from this passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans is miss what Paul is actually saying.
So what is Paul saying? Anyone who does the work to understand what this passage means is likely first to look at its context. Where do these words fit amongst all the words of the letter. Generally we would note that this passage is a turning point in the letter. It is place where Paul moves from one theme to another. And this is indicated by a typically Pauline device: Therefore. Often Paul moves his writing along by drawing out the consequences of what he has just said:
Therefore since we are justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…
Paul has spent the first part of his letter making it clear how it is faith, trust in what God has done, that makes the decisive difference in our relationship with God. This is his doctrine of justification by faith, which maybe his greatest contribution of all to thinking about what Christianity is. This passage though is a transition from his discussion of justification into his discussion of another of his great doctrines: assurance. Paul is about to go on to talk about how once we have been justified by faith, we can know that we are in a right relationship with God. These verses are not about the Trinity.
Actually the focus of these verses is hope.
…we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ through whom we obtain access to this grace in which we stand and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
It always feels a little odd, given Jesus’ insistence on the importance of humility, to find Paul saying that we can boast! But what Paul means by “boast” is that we can both “rejoice” and “have confidence in” the hope which being restored to God can provide. Paul indeed then goes on to the characteristically Christian reassurance that even suffering is not necessarily a bad thing, declaring:
And not only that but we also boast in our sufferings…
The Trinity is not the only paradox which Christians have to deal with. Perhaps this other paradox begins with Jesus telling us that: blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who are persecuted. If boasting seems odd, it seems even more strange that we should rejoice and have confidence in life’s difficulties. But Paul directs us to what he regards as the moral value of suffering:
Suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us.
And this is the transition in thought which Paul in making. From the idea that faith enables us to endure life’s difficulties and have our character formed in a positive way through what we experience, he can establish that hope doesn’t disappoint us, which is what allows him to move on to his next great theme, assurance. That is what this text is about, and to use it only as an excuse to talk about the Trinity would be to waste Paul’s words.
It is also at this point which the third person of the Trinity makes its appearance. All of this, peace and endurance and character and ultimately hope comes from a single source:
because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Our boasting, our joy and confidence, is made possible because God is present and active in our lives as the Holy Spirit. There is the wonderful image of pouring, of us being filled up with God’s love like a glass being filled to the brim with wine. Paul is not writing about a seemingly abstract theory on the nature of God, what Paul is really interested is the experience, the joyful experience of having faith in God.
So what Paul is not saying is that as Christians we are required to accept the difficult idea that God is one God at the same time as being three separate and quite distinct persons. He is not telling us how God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit might relate to one another. Paul is not working out for us a doctrine of the Trinity. And yet the Trinity is there. What Paul says implies God as Trinity in the way in which Christians have classically believed in it. From what Paul says, we can say something about the nature of God as Trinity. Indeed what Paul says about faith, and peace and hope (his real themes) relies on God being that kind of God.
One of the most important words about God which Paul uses here, and it is easy to overlook, is “grace.” Paul says that it is because of Jesus that:
we have obtained access to the grace in which we stand…
The word grace reflects the character of God (that is God the Father) as “wholly other.” God is utterly different and stands apart from and over everything else that is. God is utterly sovereign. God is completely free and can never be compelled or constrained by what God has made. God owes nothing to us. And yet, Jesus Christ. God only does what God chooses to do, and God chooses to make peace with us through the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is an historical figure. His life and death and resurrection took place in our time and in our space. Except that because it is grace, and God isn’t being compelled by us, Jesus was always God’s choice. Christ is, as the doctrine of the Trinity would insist, co-eternal with the Father. But because this is grace, faith is not something we can achieve by ourselves. Peace with God is not our accomplishment, it is a gift which is given to us. It is poured into our hearts as the love of God. God is utterly different and separate from all of creation, but God is also present in a particular historical moment, but more more than that God remains present and active with us, as the Holy Spirit. Whilst Paul says nothing directly about the doctrine of the Trinity, it is clear that that doctrine describes the only God who can act in the way in which Paul here describes.
Perhaps we should never speak directly of the Trinity. We should probably almost never preach directly about the Trinity. One Sunday a year is probably more than enough. There are much more exciting and interesting and frankly more important things to be talked about, like faith and peace and hope and especially grace. But if we are going speak about those things truthfully and in a Christian way, we cannot fail to talk about the Trinity, at least implicitly. Since it is the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who has made peace with us out of grace which gives us hope and in who we place our faith.
Talking about the Trinity not Talking about the Trinity by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0