Today in the life of the Church we celebrate what is known as Trinity Sunday. Sometimes jokingly called Curate’s Sunday, or Assistant’s Sunday, when cowardly rectors avoid this difficult doctrine, it is not for the theological faint of heart. Though we may not often think of Trinity Sunday as a “high holy day,” it is one of the seven “biggies” – along with Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, All Saints’, Christmas, and Epiphany – the Principle Feasts of the Church Year.
Trinity Sunday, approved for the western church by Pope John XXII in 1334 (think about it, that’s some 200 years before the schism between England and Rome), Trinity Sunday is the only Principle Feast to be named after a Dogma of the Church.
Now, before we can get into much of a detailed conversation about the Trinity, I think we’re going to have to revisit, redefine, and reclaim some words that may have taken on some unnecessary baggage for some of us. So let’s see if we can’t clear the air and start from scratch with some of these heavy hitting theological terms.
First, let’s start with that dirty word “dogma,” and more specifically the difference between doctrine and dogma. The word doctrine simply means teaching, or instruction. “Doctrine is distinguished from dogma because, unlike dogma, it is not an officially promulgated teaching of the Church.”
Now, I will be the first to admit that words like doctrine and dogma sometimes carry the theological appeal of a root canal: we know we need it, but it sure is painful. No one, I think, likes to be described as dogmatic. We prefer to talk about faith as a spiritual journey or pilgrimage; spirituality as a process, not a destination. After all, we’re Episcopalians. We like to keep an open mind.
Technically speaking, however, dogma has little to do with whether one is open or closed minded, conservative or liberal. Dogma is simply a generally accepted, authoritative teaching of the Church.
An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church (which is a great quick-reference for theological terms) defines dogma this way: “The term (comes from) the Greek word dokein, which means ‘to seem.’ It designates doctrine which has been considered by an authoritative body and promulgated as officially established teaching. It ‘appears to be good’ to that body, and there ‘seems’ to be no objection to it. Dogma is, hence, definitive and normative for future thought (note, it’s not the end of future thought, but rather normative for future thought). The chief matters so approved in the church include the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, which were defined by the first four general councils (during the first five centuries of the church). Virtually all Anglicans recognize these councils as ecumenical and authoritative. The judgments of these councils consequently rank as dogma.”
To oversimplify the term, dogma is just really, really important teaching the majority of the church has agreed upon.
Another word that often gets bandied about in discussions regarding doctrine and dogma is that nasty word “heresy.” It’s a word that, used carelessly, can be flung around to describe anyone who disagrees with us – (“Adding sugar to your grits!? Well, that’s just heresy!”). Historically speaking, however, heresy was much more specific than general disagreement. Traditionally defined, heresy “was the sin of a baptized and professing Christian who denied a defined doctrine (or dogma) of the faith. Heresy is distinguished from apostasy, the abandonment of the church by one who denies the church’s teaching; and from schism, the fracturing of the church’s unity for reasons other than disagreement in basic doctrine.”
Heresy was often the result of some theologian or another attempting to say more than could be said about God. Heresy, in this view, was not the open minded exploration of faith, but rather, a too-narrow explanation of that which cannot be defined. In my study of Church history, I have consistently found that Orthodoxy was, more often than not, the broader, more inclusive position; and heresy was the more narrow, exclusive view of the faith. When we proclaim the ‘mystery of faith’, we proclaim paradox. Heresy, however, often involves the rejection of paradox and mystery. Simply put, we tend to get into trouble when we over explain that which is incomprehensible.
Now, just in case I’ve lost some of you, let me offer an example of how dangerous a faith defined too-narrowly can play out in real life. One historical heresy that ran rampant in the early centuries of the church was called Modalism. This was a school of thought that sought to explain the mystery of the Trinity in terms of sequential modes in which God operates. To make a gross oversimplification of a complex teaching, first God operated in the mode of omnipotent Creator, God the Father. Then God revealed himself through the incarnation, operating in the mode of the divine human being – Jesus Christ. And finally, God is now known to us in the mode of Spirit, the Holy Spirit dwelling within and amongst us. Too sharp a distinction between the action of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, unnecessarily divides the Trinity according to how God acts in the world. And this is where metaphors like water-ice-vapor, Neapolitan ice-cream, and three-leafed clovers often fall short in comprehending the mystery of the Trinity.
The implication of modalism is that God the Holy Spirit is somehow separate, and distinguishable from God the Father, or God the Son; that God operates in different modes, and therefore is not one, but three – a type of divine tri-polar disorder.
Again, I would understand if you began to wonder what practical import all of this theological meandering meant, but consider the implications of this in your own life. Are you only a son or daughter when you are with your parents? Are you only married when you are with your spouse? Are you only a Christian when you are in church, or when you’re actually acting like one? Do you cease to be who you are simply because you are not doing it?
Let me offer an even more specific example of how parsing ourselves apart into neat and tidy categories can be problematic. Last year when I started running with a training group, initially none of them knew that I was a priest. One morning, a few weeks in, one of my running buddies was shocked to discover I was a clergyman. I don’t know whether he was embarrassed about the crass joke he had just cracked, or if he was shocked that I laughed at it,
but he said to me, “I had no idea you were a priest.” A bit embarrassed, I responded, “Well, not on these runs I’m not. Out on the run I’m just Brad.”
Almost immediately I regretted what I had said. Of course I was just Brad. Of course I was just part of the training group. But by taking off my collar and lacing up my running shoes did I cease to be a priest? Of course not. When my running buddies would talk to me about divorce or deployment, when they would talk to me about what they did or did not like about church, or about their scary brush with cancer I could not help but run along side them as a priest.
On another occasion, in the midst of a 20 mile training run, one of these running buddies of mine was going on and on about this or that portion of the bible that left him confounded. This was all in relation to a difficult family situation he had been dealing with, so it was not just some abstract intellectual argument. It had turned into a spiritually significant conversation with depth and substance, but suddenly he paused and said, “But I’m sorry to bother you, I know you told me that you’re not a priest when you’re running.”
When we divide and parse our selves apart, we do damage to the integrity of our whole personhood. I am not just one thing at a time, and neither is God. You, too, are more than your work alone. You are more than your family of origin or your income bracket….you are complex and multifaceted, most healthily integrated into one complete and whole being. God is not three, God is one. And the Trinity is one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A mystery revealed, yet incomprehensible.
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury – and quite an accomplished theologian in his own right – once said, “[The doctrine of the Trinity] is the ‘least worst’ language we have found for talking about something very disturbing and inexhaustible.”
There is something charmingly English about criticizing that which we most love. Just as when Winston Churchill famously stated “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried.”
“The doctrine of the Trinity is the ‘least worst’ language we have found for talking about something very disturbing and inexhaustible.”
But then again, who would want to exhaust God? How tragic to think that everything has already been understood, all truths already unearthed.
There is deep and profound meaning to be found in paradox. The mystery of the Trinity is better understood in relationship than in theory, and that enigma is all part of the allure. Whether we are talking about the Trinity, the vast expanse of interstellar space, or the depths of your own personhood – there is yet more to be revealed. As Jesus once said to his disciples, he says to us today: “I still have many things to say to you, to guide you into all truth.”
In the name of the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Rev’d Bradley J. Landry
St. Paul’s – San Antonio
Trinity Sunday (2016)