Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Let’s not underestimate the power of this doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It is not merely some speculative sophistry on the part of idle theologians. Blood has been shed, empires divided, and the first constitutional split in the hitherto united church of Rome hinged on this doctrine. (See Filioque debate). That was just one of many conflicts and councils around this doctrine.
The passion with which the Church has defended the trinity was inevitable. After centuries of defending monotheism as a minority view in the Middle East, the Jewish Christians were committed in blood and brain to the unity of the one God. Add to that the contrast that they had to preserve against their most recent conquerors in the decades before Christ, namely the Greeks and then the Romans with their populous pantheons of gods, and we can understand why, in the Jewish mind, God had to be ONE.
There were just two problems. These Jewish thinking Christians had experienced the divinity of the man they met as Jesus of Nazareth but whom they had come to understand as The Christ of God. As if that wasn’t conflicting enough, after Jesus had been translated back to the non-physical dimension of God being, they then experienced a presence and power so ecstatically and dynamically divine they could only reference that power as Holy Spirit. Game on.
It is my contention as a steeped Wesleyan that a well balanced basis for theological thinking has four legs and not the traditional: Revelation, Reason, Tradition of the patristic model. The fourth leg that is essential, is Experience. I would hold that experience gives the contexture to theology and keeps it from being merely heady armchair speculation.
It was the experience of the church of God – Jesus – Holy Spirit as a divine continuum and union, that led to the formulation of this complex doctrine which was settled into stone by the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. So it has been since for millennia of our history. “World without end”? Maybe not.
Given the fact that so much has happened to our understanding of the world in the last one hundred years (a mere wink of an eye in the history of this doctrine), and given that heretics are seldom burned at the stake anymore, I would like to propose a fresh look at this doctrine, not to change anything but to perhaps expand our understanding in the context of third millennium thinking.
Firstly I would want to suggest that we recognise that Father is often not the most helpful reference for the being that we want to understand as the source of unconditional love. Exposure in our time of the horrors of domestic violence and patriarchal abuse that for centuries been hidden or even worse, condoned leaves some people unable to reference God at all because the referent of Father is so abhorrent. Referring to the first person of the Trinity as The Father and Mother would make things easier, but I wonder if the time hasn’t come for us to speak of that first experience of God as The Parent?
The second person of the Son, is also somewhat limiting because it is my contention and my experience that there is as much blessing to be experienced by realising that a large component of the nature of Jesus is also as brother to the believer. I am not sure how we could verbalise that in the creeds but I would ask that we seriously affirm the Sonship of Christ to the Father and the brotherhood of Jesus to the believer. If the church does not make Jesus more relational as soul-sibling I do believe he loses the impact of his Incarnation.
My final expansion on our statement of the Trinity would be firstly to celebrate that we no longer speak of Holy Ghost, which infantilizes that face of God, but also ask that we perhaps bring Holy Spirit out of the shadows of the Parent and Son/Brother so that we may recognise that Universal Spirit is the very (I am tempted to say “only”) source of life, creativity, and change in the world. As a Christ follower, I cannot conceive of anything good, true or beautiful that does not spring from Holy Spirit. Once again I am not sure how we word-work this into creed, but I do want to plead that we do it somehow.
So that is my expanded understanding of the Holy Trinity: Parent, Son/Brother and Creative Breath of life that is the complexity and singularity we call God.