Sunday, June 11, 2017

A Unitarian Take on the Trinity

            Perhaps no doctrine has so confused me as the Doctrine of the Trinity.
A stained-glass portrayal of the Trinity from Notre Dame.
Don’t get me wrong. I like reading about it. I like adding up the arguments for and against. I know the history of the doctrine—both its highpoints and its very sad low points. But in the end I don’t know. And I wish we could just let the coercion go and have a good discussion. Theology, at least when it comes to debateable matters (and Trinitarian doctrine has always been debated) ought to be a playground. What follows is a sermon on my take on the Trinity. I offer it as a “maybe.” It is trying to follow Jesus that seems much more important. Though wondering about the Trinity is fun.

Words Are Slippery

I usually stay home on Thursdays and Fridays in order to write a sermon. It’s quiet at home. Irene tip-toes around me a little bit, to make sure I don’t start complaining about how noisy she is. There are few interruptions. I can usually concentrate.

But this past Thursday it didn’t work out that way for me. You see, James Comey was testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee about Trump’s contacts with the Russians.

This might seem very boring. But I’m a dual US-American citizen, and so Trump is my president too, so I’m interested. You understand. Anyway, as I wrote my sermon, a small browser window kept beckoning me to pay attention to Comey’s testimony, instead.

What struck me about the hearing was how slippery words are. Comey, for example, used the word “liar” of Trump, several times. Trump’s son immediately tweeted back that his dad wasn’t a liar. Trump himself tweeted that Comey’s testimony absolutely exonerated him. Commentators argued about what would count as a lie and what wouldn’t.

The word “hope,” came up too. At some point in a private dinner with Comey, speaking of the FBI’s investigation into General Flynn, Trump said to Comey, “I hope you can let that go.” Some Senators said that Trump’s statement was merely a polite suggestion. Others, including Comey, took Trump’s statement as an order. This would mean that Trump could be charged with judicial interference, an impeachable offense. So, what does “I hope,” mean? Words are slippery, difficult, troublesome things.

Homoousios – One Substance

Which is true of the key word in today’s sermon too. You see, few words are as slippery, difficult, and troublesome in the history of Christianity as the word “Trinity”—and one other word, a Greek word which, in our ancient creeds, describes how the Trinity works, homoousios.

This is the brief background. The Israelites believed that there was only one God, Yahweh. Saying so was revolutionary in a world where nearly everyone else believed there were many gods, one behind every bush and under every stone. Monotheism was a great Jewish insight.

Christians wanted to hold onto that insight. But they also had very high—divine, some would say—opinions of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This was a problem. Christians, in fact, wanted it both ways. They wanted to say that there was one God, but one God who was three persons—the Trinity. Listen to the creed. "Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, the Holy Spirit uncreate. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Spirit incomprehensible." And, Jesus is “of one substance (homousios) with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his humanity.”

Well, remember how I said the meaning of words is slippery and difficult? So, the more the church fathers—they were all men—tried to insist on particular, narrow definitions of one God who was three unique persons, the more they fought with each other. They fought each other about the Greek word, homoousios, which we translate, “one substance.” Jesus and God and the Spirit share on substance, but were three persons.

Homoiousios – Similar Substances

Some theologians, however, preferred the word “homoiousios” in the creed. Just one letter different. Homoousios: one substance; homoiousios: similar substances. The orthodox homoousios party feared that by suggesting that God was three persons of similar substance, you ended up with three Gods. That would be the end of monotheism.

We can, today, hardly imagine how intense these disagreements were. The fights about whether Jesus was God or not, and whether there was one God or three or some other alternative, rocked the Roman Empire to its core. Over hundreds of years, between the writing of the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, people sometimes rioted in the streets. Emperors fired and hired bishops who fled for their lives from one end of the Empire to the other. Each side wrote popular songs in favor of their view, and singing the wrong song in the wrong crowd could get you killed. Bishops and theologians were beaten and burned to death in places like Alexandria.

And even after the debate was settled, through the whole history of the church, Christians who wanted to explore other than orthodox one-substance homoousios opinions on this matter—Michael Servetus during the Reformation, Donatists, Socinians, and Unitarians—were regularly burned at the stake, sent to prison, exiled, beaten, or shunned. Often. It did no credit to church or to the political regimes that used the church.

Why fight about one word? Well, originally it mostly had to do with Constantine’s desire to unify his empire by unifying the church. He did so by insisting on “homoousios” at the Nicene Synod in 325 AD. The church, which had lived with multiple opinions before that, was forced into a straight-jacket by the Empire—and an emperor who was recently converted and only dimly really understood the Biblical and theological issues.

Scripture Never Attempts to Define the Trinity

What do we make of this history? Well, two things, briefly.

First, although you can see how the Bible’s many contradictory texts make the whole matter of the Trinity a potential landmine, the Trinity itself is not an issue in scripture. No one argues for or against it. For the first three hundred years of the church’s history, most people who were not theologians shrugged when it came to trying to understand who God was to God.

Jesus’ Prayer for Church Unity

The most meaningful commentary on the issue, from my perspective, is the last prayer Jesus prayed with his disciples, according to John 17. Jesus prayed, “"May they”—Jesus meant the disciples and the church—“be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me" (John 17:21).

It seems that for Jesus, his mysterious relationship to God was a metaphor for how all Christians should relate to each other. Jesus hoped that just as he was one and in the father, so Christians would be one and into God and each other.

This key Trinitarian text, in other words, is hardly exact doctrine. There is no homoousios or homoiousios in it. There is no attempt to explain how the Trinity—a word that does not even appear in the Bible—works. There is just the hope that we folks here at our church  could be as “into” each other, as loving to each other, as Jesus was into God and us both.

What Does the Trinitarian Struggle Mean for Us?

One final thing.

It took 350 years for the doctrine of the Trinity to find its way into the ancient creeds. And since then, it has remained controversial. People have struggled to make sense of the creeds, to explain the creeds in ways that don’t seem silly. Very few theologians and philosophers, after all, even believe that there even is such a thing as “divine substance” that God is made of. That notion is a holdover from Greek philosophy that today’s philosophers and scientists don’t hold to anymore. So, the language of the creeds is itself very dated—like the notion that the world was created in six days. Some people—we usually call them Unitarians—have struggled to explain who Jesus was without resorting to the creeds and parsing every potential Biblical text to fit the creedal template. Me for example.

I think this long struggle of arguing for and against the Trinity, or some other description of who God is, mirrors the personal struggle we all have to figure out who God is. If the church has struggled why shouldn’t we, too?

And if the church’s struggle teaches us anything, it is that the use of sanctions and violence, political pressure and slippery words to pin something down that can’t be pinned down is very counter-productive. It flies in the face of Jesus’ prayer for love and unity. Why should the church split and fight and kill over words not even found in scripture, over concepts that no writer of scripture thought important enough or pressing enough to even give us a fulsome and satisfactory explanation of? The very paucity of commentary on the Trinity, in scripture, is our best guide for how seriously to take the Trinity today, at least as an article of faith.

No, individual Christians should be allowed wide latitude here, and the church should avoid conflict. The whole notion of a Trinity is interesting. It, or something like it, is a wonderful metaphor, as in Jesus’ prayer. But the healthy church does not have to try to pin it down beyond that. When it comes to the Trinity, the healthy church is a curious, big-tent church rather than a coercive church. We should focus on loving each other rather than on insisting everyone agree on a single systematic explanation.

We Adore the Mysteries of the Godhead

Words, whether political or theological, are slippery things. And, at least when it comes to Trinitarian theology, rather than try to pin them down, better to follow the advice of Philip Melanchthon, an early and esteemed Protestant reformer, who said: "We adore the mysteries of the Godhead. That is better than to investigate them."


  1. John, a good perspective on something beyond our comprehensive ability.

    Yes, interesting to explore as long as we can be comfortable knowing that our best efforts will never define the whole. Like space exploration, though we can journey far and see even further, we accept that there is still more beyond our present capabilities.

    The divisions that have followed our failed abilities to comprehend, and thus define, the Trinity are violative of the unity Jesus desires among His followers. Moreover, the divisions, even when memorialized in eloquent manmade creeds and doctrines, strike me as humanly egocentric. In other words, understand and believe as we believe and understand or have no fellowship with us.

    Though faith conservatives often take issue with the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous because of the (modernized) 12-steps reference "God as I understand Him," I think "as I understand Him" is appropriate. After all, who among mortals can fully comprehend or understand that which is incomprehensible?

    Your understand, compression, and even your firsthand experience of and with God added to my own God understanding, comprehension, and experience create a better and more complete knowledge of that which cannot be comprehended in total.

    God as I understand Him (male gender notwithstanding idue to Bblical references to "Father") along no with "Trinity" as best as I can understand the incomprehensible works for me just fine.

    1. Thanks, Carl, for your graciously stated thoughts.

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  3. My response to questions about The Trinity is "I see that as a lot like quantum entanglement". Pretty good chance that will end the conversation, but if not it might lead to an intriguing conversation about how we can have evidence for a mystery we don't understand...

    1. Faith is going as far as you can with the facts you have, then jumping the rest of the way. We have only (some) evidence and a lot of mystery, though. A long jump!


What do you think?