Friday, June 01, 2012

Love, Suffering, and the Trinity: Reflections on the Readings

This coming Sunday is the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity.  While the Trinity might evoke a “Ho-hum, don’t we know that already …” response from many Catholics, the doctrine of the Trinity is essential to—and distinctive of—the Christian faith and is vital to our daily prayer and walk with God.  The doctrine of the Trinity touches on who God is; if one has this doctrine wrong, one has the wrong idea of God and may in fact be worshiping a god who does not exist.
The Trinity is by no means a dead theological issue, either.  Most obviously, Jews and Muslims protest this doctrine, which they believe destroys the unity of God.  For them, God is monopersonal.

Among groups that share a tradition with Christianity, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitarians, and “Jesus-only” Pentecostals all dispute the doctrine of the Trinity.  Mormons are not, strictly speaking, monotheists: in their view the Father and Son are different gods.  Jehovah’s witnesses are modern day Arians—they believe in one God (the Father) but deny the
divinity of Jesus Christ.  Unitarians are post-Christian theists.

Many years ago, when I was co-pastor of a congregation with a large number of African-American members, we used to hold joint worship and fellowship events with other African-American churches.  While having a joint event at a bowling alley one weekend, I remember being quite surprised to find out, over a basket of chips and cheese, that my colleague, the pastor of the Apostolic Pentecostal church with which we were fellowshipping, did not hold to the Trinity.  That was my first exposure to the “Jesus-only” movement.  I didn’t follow all his explanations, but it seemed he held to a form of the heresy of “modalism”—the Father, Son, and Spirit were modes of existence of the one God, whose name was Jesus.

Contrary to this, the Catholic Church holds God is three persons and one essence.  This seems like a formal contradiction, but it is not: we are not claiming that God is three persons and also only one person; or three essences but one essence.  These positions would be logically impossible.  Still, the Trinity is a mystery.  But mysteries are not unique to theology or religion: in physics, it’s well-known that light is both a wave and a particle.  How can this be?  No one knows, but experiments show it to be the case.  The doctrine Trinity is like that: it is difficult to understand, but nonetheless it is a brute fact.

In any event, the doctrine of the Trinity remains a live issue both with other religions and within the broader Christian tradition.  The Church dedicates this feast day to the celebration of the Trinity, because she knows the doctrine and reality of the Holy Trinity is central to her identity.

1.  The first reading is Deuteronomy 4:32-34, 39-40.
Moses said to the people:
"Ask now of the days of old, before your time,
ever since God created man upon the earth;
ask from one end of the sky to the other:
Did anything so great ever happen before?
Was it ever heard of?
Did a people ever hear the voice of God
speaking from the midst of fire, as you did, and live?
Or did any god venture to go and take a nation for himself
from the midst of another nation,
by testings, by signs and wonders, by war,
with strong hand and outstretched arm, and by great terrors,
all of which the LORD, your God,
did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?
This is why you must now know,
and fix in your heart, that the LORD is God
in the heavens above and on earth below,
and that there is no other.
You must keep his statutes and commandments that I enjoin on you today,
that you and your children after you may prosper,
and that you may have long life on the land
which the LORD, your God, is giving you forever."

The Trinity is a “Tri-unity”: God is both one and three; one essence, three persons.  This reading emphasizes the oneness or unity of God: “The LORD is God in the heavens above and on earth below, and … there is no other.”

God demonstrated to the Israelites that he existed—and other gods didn’t—during the Exodus, by “signs, wonders, and war.”  The famous Ten Plagues were actually progressive demonstrations that the Egyptian pantheon didn’t exist.  For example, the first plague (Nile to blood) showed the Nile was no god; the ninth (three days of darkness) showed the impotence of the supposed “sun god” Amon-Re; the tenth plague (death of the first born, including Pharaoh’s heir) showed that Pharaoh was no divinity.  All the other plagues “de-divinized” lesser gods, as well.

Although this text from Deuteronomy emphasizes the oneness of God, there is a hint of the Trinity even here.  Moses refers to the “voice of God” (=the Word, the Second Person) coming forth from the “midst of fire” (=sign of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person).  Although God had not clearly revealed his triune nature, all three Persons were involved in God’s relationship with Israel.

2.  The Reponsorial Psalm consists of selections from Psalm 33:
R. (12b) Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.
Upright is the word of the LORD,
and all his works are trustworthy.
He loves justice and right;
of the kindness of the Lord the earth is full.
R. Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.
By the word of the LORD the heavens were made;
by the breath of his mouth all their host.
For he spoke, and it was made;
he commanded, and it stood forth.
R. Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.
See, the eyes of the LORD are upon those who fear him,
upon those who hope for his kindness,
To deliver them from death
and preserve them in spite of famine.
R. Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own..
Our soul waits for the LORD,
who is our help and our shield.
May your kindness, O LORD, be upon us
who have put our hope in you.
R. Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.
Two things stand out in the Psalm.  One is the emphasis on the uniqueness and sole existence of the LORD, who alone is the Creator God: “by the word of the LORD the heavens were made; by the breath of his mouth all their host.”  Yet even in this emphasis on God’s uniqueness, the Trinitarian character of God is visible: he creates “by his Word” (the Second Person), and by “the breath (Heb. ruach, “spirit,” i.e. the Third Person) of his mouth” all things came forth.  The Catechism has some excellent comments on the relationship of the “Word” and “Breath” of God:

§703 The Word of God and his Breath are at the origin of the being and life of every creature: It belongs to the Holy Spirit to rule, sanctify, and animate creation, for he is God, consubstantial with the Father and the Son. . . . Power over life pertains to the Spirit, for being God he preserves creation in the Father through the Son.

§689 The One whom the Father has sent into our hearts, the Spirit of his Son, is truly God. Consubstantial with the Father and the Son, the Spirit is inseparable from them, in both the inner life of the Trinity and his gift of love for the world. In adoring the Holy Trinity, life-giving, consubstantial, and indivisible, the Church's faith also professes the distinction of persons. When the Father sends his Word, he always sends his Breath. In their joint mission, the Son and the Holy Spirit are distinct but inseparable. To be sure, it is Christ who is seen, the visible image of the invisible God, but it is the Spirit who reveals him.

The second thing that stands out in this Psalm is the love of God for his people: “the eyes of the LORD are on those that fear him.”  While it may not seem like it, God’s love for other persons and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity are intimately related.  We will discuss how this is below, in the treatment of the second reading.

3.  The second reading is Rom 8:14-17:
Brothers and sisters:
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear,
but you received a Spirit of adoption,
through whom we cry, "Abba, Father!"
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit
that we are children of God,
and if children, then heirs,
heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ,
if only we suffer with him
so that we may also be glorified with him.
Here we see the Trinitarian structure of our personal, intimate relationship with God.  God the Father sends the Spirit of his Son into our hearts.  This Spirit of the Son empowers us to call God “Abba, Father!”—the same name of God that Jesus used in prayer (Mark 14:36).  In other words, through the Spirit, God incorporates us into the loving relationship between the Father and the Son.  We are drawn in the circle of familial love that is God Himself.

As I’ve said many times before, no other religion claims to offer this kind of intimacy with God.

Note how the theme of suffering is included here at the end of the reading: “if only we suffer with him….”  When we are incorporated into the circle of God’s love, it leads to suffering.  The highest love—the Love of God Himself—is the total gift of self to another person.  The total gift of self is painful for finite creatures, because we cannot totally give ourselves without dying.  For us, then—as for the Second Person who became one of us—there is no true love without suffering.  Yet glory awaits.

Meditation on this reading can reveal why the Trinity is important for our lived experience and relationship with God.

If God is monopersonal and Jesus is not divine (=Arianism), then God showed his love for us by this: by creating another creature who came down to suffer, die, and save us.  But God didn’t come Himself.  That’s nice, but it’s hardly extreme love. 

On the other hand, if the different persons of the Trinity are just “modes” of God’s one person (=Modalism), then there is nothing but self-love in God.  God the “Father” and God the “Son” aren’t really different, so the love between them is either an illusion, an anthropomorphism, or self-love.  Self-love is not the highest love—in fact, it may be the lowest.  The implication is that until God created other persons (angels, humans) there was in Himself nothing but self-love, but not the highest form of love—total gift of self for another person (John 15:13).

If God is not a Trinity, he did not have the perfection of love in Himself until he created other persons to love.  So God was imperfect until the world was made.  That creates philosophical difficulties.

But God is a Trinity.  There existed within Himself, without the need of creatures, the perfection of love from all time: the perfect and total gift of self from Father to Son and back again.  The Self they exchange is the Spirit.  Thus, God did not create out of a need to attain perfection Himself, but out of the gratuitous overflow of his love.  And, as St. Paul teaches in this passage of Romans, his desire for us is to draw us into the burning circle of his love.

So there is a very great difference in how we relate to God because he is a Trinity, and if we do not understand or recognize his Trinitarian nature it impairs our union with Him due to misconceptions.  A monopersonal God can be worshiped and even loved; but only the true, tripersonal God can draw us into the flow of love within Himself, making us “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

4. The Gospel is the so-called “Great Commission,” Mt 28:16-20:
The eleven disciples went to Galilee,
to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.
When they all saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.
Then Jesus approached and said to them,
"All power 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,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age."
This reading demonstrates the divinity of Christ, an important sub-doctrine of the Trinity: “They worshiped him.”

Jesus likewise claims the prerogatives of divinity: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given me.”

Jesus exercises his authority by commissioning the Apostles to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” a performative utterance that implies the equality of the Three Persons.

It’s appropriate that these readings meditating on the Trinity conclude with a general command to baptize all the nations.

Baptism confers on us God’s Spirit, which is the Spirit of his Son, which makes us children of God who cry “Abba, Father!” as St. Paul said above.  Baptism, then, is the primary means by which we are incorporated into the circle of Trinitarian love. 

Love, especially God’s love, is diffusive.  Love wants to share itself.  God’s tripersonal love overflowed into acts of creation, and now through the Church overflows into mission to all the nations, that all human persons should share in the familial love of God.

Mission is the flow of Love gushing from the Trinity.


Dianna said...

Do you find it quite interesting that trying to explain the trinity is very difficult, takes up a huge amount of words and energy and never finds the word "trinity" in the Bible itself? While explaining that the Almighty God Jehovah (Ps. 83:18)is the Father of Christ Jesus is quite simple?

Leo said...

Dianna, I find your post quite interesting. You mention that the word "trinity" is not in the Bible while forgetting that the word "Bible is also not in the Bible : ) By the way, the canon of Scripture which you accept is also not in the Bible.

I am also intrigued that you mention that saying that Almighty God Jehova is the Father of Jesus Christ is simple. By this statement, are you trying to deny that Jesus is God? Are you saying he is a creature? If so, you not only do not provide any Scriptural Support (yet you claim it is quite simple), you also are not able critique Bergsma's excellent reflection on the truth of the Holy Trinity. Why cant you critique it? Its simple: You wont be able to deny the truth that Scripture reveals about God. Instead, you quote Psalm 83:18 out of context, dont explain its meaning, or discuss how you are trying to relate this verse to the present discussion. Do you understand Psalm 83??? Are you so sure that it is not you who is part of the "them" being spoken of in verse 18 and throughout Psalm 83? You are so quick to apply it to others, that you may not realize it actually applies to you.

This sort of tactic is used all the time by Jehova Witnesses and yet they are unwilling to engage in meaningful dialogue about Sacred Scripture. Hope you dont belong to JW or a similar sect.

God bless!

De Maria said...

Hm? Are you trying to say that only Theologists who can understand and explain the meaning of the Trinity will be saved?

What is the criteria for salvation in the Bible?


De Maria

Leo said...

De Maria,

To whom are you addressing your questions?

John Bergsma said...

Dear Dianna: I replied earlier, but couldn't prove I wasn't a robot to the satisfaction of blogger.

What I said was:
It might be simpler also to explain light as either a wave or a particle, but it's both, which is hard to explain.

Nonetheless, I don't think light is complicated, but explaining it is not easy.

Often the simplest things are the hardest to explain.

I think the Trinity is very simple, but not easy to describe in words.

De Maria said...

I was addressing my question to you, Leo. I thought you read a great deal into Dianna's message.

I for one am a devout Catholic. Yet I find nothing wrong with someone saying that understanding the Trinity is quite difficult, in fact, impossible. And I also find it quite easy to say that Jesus is the Son of God. Which makes the Holy Trinity impossible to deny. For God is one and if He has a Son who is also God, then we know that God is not a simple unity as was once believed by the Jews.

And so, I ask this question to you or anyone who teaches that the Trinity is essential to our faith. What aspect is essential? Must one be a Theologian capable of explaining the Trinity in order to be saved? Is that the criteria which God has set forth for salvation?

Because if it is, I'm doomed.


De Maria