Recall this familiar bit of biblical dialogue:
Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they answered him, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” So Jesus asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, ‘For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal…So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. And yet they are not three gods, but one God…all three Persons are co-eternal together and co-equal. So that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.’”
And Jesus responded, “What?”[i]
That’s not the way you remember that passage of Holy Scripture ending, is it? Well, in case you’d missed it, today is Trinity Sunday. This is the one Sunday of the year on which we explain the doctrine of the Trinity and extol its virtues. This is the day in which the junior-most member of the clergy staff is always assigned to preach. That is, unless the dean fails to pay close attention to the calendar and accidentally assigns himself on Trinity Sunday. And thus, here we are.
Later in today’s service we will recite the Nicene Creed, as we do each Sunday. But for centuries there was a tradition that on this day, and on this day only, churches would recite in its place the Athanasian Creed, which is almost as old, and which spends the vast majority of its verbiage explaining the doctrine of the Trinity. In fact, it is the words of the Athanasian Creed that I placed on the lips of St. Peter at the outset of this post. For three quarters of Christian history, the Athanasian Creed has been, more or less, the definitive explanation of the Trinity. But it leaves us unsatisfied. It describes the “what” of the Trinity—that there are three persons, but one being in God—but it doesn’t explain the “why” of the Trinity.
There is a hilarious YouTube cartoon that church geeks share every Trinity Sunday, in which St. Patrick attempts to explain the Trinity to two Irish peasants.[ii] Patrick compares the Trinity to ice, liquid, and vapor, three different forms of the same water. He then compares the Trinity to the three leaves of a clover, each of which is distinct but part of the same flower. But the peasants, who turn out to be much more learned than they look, quickly debunk each of Patrick’s analogies as heretical. (I have linked the cartoon to my blog, in case you’re interested in seeing it.) Finally, St. Patrick himself retreats in frustration to the Athanasian Creed and asserts what I have already quoted to you: “And yet they are not three eternals, but one Eternal…So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. And yet they are not three gods, but one God.”
Is that the best we can do? If so, it may seem to our brothers and sisters in other religions that our claim to the Trinity is little more than a parent’s exasperated argument to her child: “God is Trinity because I say so!” Worse yet, we may begin to question why we believe it ourselves. That leads me to wonder whether we’re approaching the question of the Trinity in the best possible way. Maybe instead of trying to explain it, we should focus on why it matters. Maybe we should ask, “What difference does it make that God is Trinity?” Is it so we’ll have some point of reference when we make the sign of the cross? Is it so we don’t have to end our prayers with a doxology “to whom it may concern?” I think it’s more than that. I think it matters.
Less than a decade ago, we were reminded just how much it apparently matters to a lot of people. In 2007, first-time author William P. Young self-published his novel, The Shack. As anyone who read The Shack knows, it was a book sorely in need of a good editor, but it also became wildly popular. In its first year of publication, The Shack sold a million copies. In its first five years, it sold eighteen million copies.[iii] Some people loved it, while Megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll hated it and said so publicly. Regardless, people read it voraciously. I read it twice.
Do you remember The Shack? Did you read it? More than anything else, The Shack was a novel that took seriously the doctrine of the Trinity. Its sales, I would argue, demonstrated that people are not only not ready to give up the doctrine, but rather hunger for it.
In the novel, the main character has an extended vision in which he finds himself living in the household of the Trinity. God the Father is portrayed as an old African-American woman. God the Son is a rugged, L.L. Bean-styled Jesus. And God the Holy Spirit is a wispy, sprite-like Asian woman. These portrayals stretch the imagination and led to some of the controversy. But by emphasizing physical, gender, ethnic, and age distinctions, The Shack also underscores the differences in the three persons who together are the one God.
Importantly, The Shack doesn’t ask how it is that God is Trinity so much as why God is so. The Shack is all about why the Trinity matters. It is worth noting that author William Young understands his orthodoxy. From the mouth of God the Father, Young says, “We are not three gods, and we are not talking about one god with three attitudes, like a man who is husband, father, and worker. I am one God and I am three persons, and each of the three is fully and entirely the one.” Young knows the doctrine, in other words. But beyond that, Young has God say, “If I were simply One God and only One Person, then you would find yourself in this Creation without something wonderful, without something essential even: love and relationship. All love and relationship is possible for you only because it already exists within Me, within God myself.”[iv]
That’s key. Don’t miss it. Throughout The Shack, the main character witnesses the ways in which the three persons of the Trinity are, in fact, in relationship with one another. He witnesses the Father, Son, and Spirit interact, laugh, listen, and cry. This is not the Deist God, detached and alone. These are not three stone faces, impassive aspects of an impassive God. They are three persons in relationship. They are active in their care. The three persons of God love one another.
Another older and even more famous depiction of the Trinity is Andrei Rublev’s fifteenth century Russian Orthodox icon. It renders the story from Genesis 18, in which three angels visit Abraham and Sarah. They are three, but they speak as one, and throughout Christian history these three angels of the Lord have been interpreted as a vision of the Trinity. Bishop of Chicago Jeffrey Lee describes Rublev’s icon this way:
“They are pictured seated at the table provided by the hospitality of Sarah and Abraham. The figures appear lovingly inclined toward one another. They seem to be peacefully attentive to one another, distinct persons in a dynamic communion of love, engaged in a holy communion that is radically open…We [the viewers] are [thus] invited into a transforming relationship with God and one another. Ultimately we call this eternal life.”[v]
You see, love is not a static thing. It’s not something that can be captured and displayed like a moth on a corkboard. Love is like energy. It is dynamic. It is a thing that, by its nature, always moves and flows. And thus, for us to say that God is love means that, within God, love must move and flow. God cannot be love, and therefore God cannot be love for us, unless within God there is a “dynamic communion of love.” It is from the relationships within God that love spirals and emanates out to create us, and it is from those relationships that we find our own models for how we can and should love one another. Bishop Lee goes on to say, “There is no healing [in our souls] apart from…the self-giving required to be in relationship with other persons.”[vi]
The main character in The Shack has had his life upended by a horrific tragedy, and he has retreated from his relationships. He has become an emotional recluse, withdrawing from those who might share his pain and their joy. He has become the one detached and impassive, cut off from the flowing energy of love around him. And that is why he is granted a vision of the Trinity, not to explain it to him or convince him of its truth, but to reveal that in God’s very self there is dynamic communion: connections; relationships; the giving and receiving of the love from which all things are created, healed, and redeemed. In God’s self there are three persons conjoined in love. His vision of the Trinity reveals why it so desperately matters. God is in relationship within God, which is how and why the love that is God flows so freely in heaven and on earth. It flows among us, even here and now in this place, and it is the power that heals our deepest hurts. That is why God is Trinity. “Love and relationship,” God says in The Shack, “All love and relationship is possible for you only because it already exists within Me.” Living into and sharing that love, as Bishop Lee says, is what eternal life is. It is the gift that precedes all gifts, and for it, thanks be to God.
[i] I’ve adapted this from a joke found on the internet.
[iv] Young, William P. The Shack, 101.
[v] Lee, Jeffrey, “Toward a Theology of Wellness,” in All Shall Be Well: An Approach to Wellness, edited by William S. Craddock, 20-21.
[vi] Ibid., 21.