Article 1: Of faith in the Holy Trinity Sunday 22 September 2019 9:45 and 11:30am
By porthkerryandrhoose, Sep 23 2019 07:38PM
What descriptions have people used to explain the Trinity to you in the past? Have you found them useful in helping you understand the three-in-one nature of God? I’ve variously heard the Trinity explained as being like a shamrock (three leaves in one leaf), the three states of water (ice, liquid and steam) and a candle, flame and smoke. Whilst these may be reasonable visual analogies, they don’t really tell us anything about who God is, or the nature of God.
Perhaps you remember this phrase from the Athanasian Creed, or similar phrases from your confirmation classes or RE classes in school: ‘For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son: and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one: the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.’ Three persons, all equal, none lower than another, but one God. The Athanasian Creed places belief in a Trinity in unity at the heart of our salvation: ‘So that in all things, as is aforesaid: the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved: must thus think of the Trinity.’ The core of this faith in the Holy Trinity is set out in the First Article of Religion agreed by the Anglican church. It says:
There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
This statement raises questions about faith in the Trinity in unity that Christians through the years have attempted to answer. Firstly we’ll look again through our Bible passages this morning to see how we can know from Scripture that God is indeed three-in-one. We’ll then look at some of the questions that this raises: What are the most important attributes or characteristics of God? How can the Son and the Spirit be equal to but different from the Father? Can God suffer? If so, in what sense?
Let’s look again at our reading from John’s gospel. Here, we see Jesus name each person of the Trinity and show how relationship between God and humans requires each person of the Trinity. Our access to God the Father is through Jesus, God the Son, through, as we see in v12, believing in Jesus and doing the works he has been doing. These works include proclaiming the good news that God will save his people, healing the sick and feeding the hungry. And Jesus promises in v13, ‘And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.’ This is the most important thing – that God is glorified through the works that Jesus and those who believe in him will do. As well as access to the Father, Jesus promises to send the Spirit when he returns to the Father. As we see in vv16 and 17, Jesus says: ‘And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever – the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.’ Just as the world failed to recognise Jesus as Saviour, so it also fails to recognise God the Holy Spirit. But those who believe in Jesus will recognise the Spirit as coming from him – God always with us.
Paul also demonstrates in our reading from Ephesians that our relationship with God is through each person of the Trinity, as he writes in v18 ‘For through him (Jesus) we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.’ Paul goes on to explain how Jesus binds us to each other too, calling us ‘fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundations of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.’ (vv19-20). And he reminds us that we have God within us in v22 ‘And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.’ So, we can know that God is indeed three-in-one because Jesus himself has told us. We can believe and trust in him because as John records Simon Peter’s words in ch6 vv68-9 of his gospel, ‘You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.’
And so we come to our questions. Let’s think firstly about the most important attributes or characteristics of God. We can take some characteristics from the words of the First Article. God is the maker and preserver of all things both visible and invisible. We have a creator God, who created the universe and everything in it from nothing, not making it out of something pre-existing. The language of the Article places the Son and Spirit, as well as the Father at the heart of creation – we know from Genesis ch1 that the Spirit of God hovered over the waters at the moment of creation and John’s opening chapter of his gospel states that the Word – Jesus – was with God in the beginning. God has infinite power, wisdom and goodness. God’s infinite power means that he has sovereignty over all things. It’s impossible to escape God’s rule – and sometimes we try hard to do so. The writer of Psalm 139 recognised this as he questioned God: ‘Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?’ So how is God’s power different from the corrupt power of this world? It is because God’s power is exercised in both wisdom and goodness. God’s wisdom and goodness ensure that his power is used for what is right, what is good and choosing and using the resources at his disposal – including us, the people who believe in him – to achieve this.
Our second question ponders how the Son and the Spirit can be equal to but different from the Father. Father, Son and Spirit are equal because they all share the substance, or being, the power and the eternity of the one God. God reveals himself as I AM – the ultimate and absolute being. God can act anywhere and at any time because his substance allows him to do so. But the persons of God don’t act independently from each other, because there is only one God and the three persons can’t be separated from each other. As Jesus said in John’s gospel, ’Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.’ (14: 9) and in 10: 30, ‘I and the Father are one.’ Yet, the three persons of our one God are distinct. The Son and the Spirit derive from the Father. God the Son, in his earthly, human form, sent by the Father as John records in v14 of his opening chapter, ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ And God the Spirit proceeding from the Father, as we heard in our gospel reading today in v16: ‘And I will ask the Father and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever – the Spirit of truth.’
Then we have the question of whether God can suffer. This may seem an odd question to arise from looking at the Trinity. It comes about when we consider the phrase in the First Article: ‘one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions. The first thing to remember here, is that we are talking of the divine being of God. A body has parts that can be separated or divided, or suffer harm in other ways. Neither of these things is true of God, so in saying that the divine being of God has no body, then by consequence he is also indivisible and impassible. It is this impassibility of God that has been questioned, perhaps more often in recent times – the notion than in fact must be able to ‘feel our pain’, to suffer alongside us. Anything else would make God cold and remote, according to this argument, not the loving Saviour Scripture has revealed to us. Yet, the impassible nature of God does not make him remote from human concerns, rather it insists that his power and sovereignty cannot be diminished by suffering inflicted from outside himself. God cannot be weakened by anything that might call into question his power to save us, or deflected from his purpose by knee-jerk emotional reactions. Additionally, it is wrong to assume that a Saviour must share the suffering of the person being saved. After all, a doctor does not have to have the patient’s illness in order to cure the patient. No, God alleviates our suffering, overcomes it and will eliminate it, caring for our pain without having to endure it himself. This is what makes him our Saviour rather than a fellow sufferer. But, you might say, Jesus came into the world to suffer and die for us. Yes, that’s true. But it was because his divine nature cannot suffer that Jesus took on human form, making him capable of experiencing pain and death. We believe that the divine person of the Son of God suffered and died in his human nature and so it is in that sense that we can say God suffered and died on the cross. Remember that Father, Son and Spirit share the divine being and the Father and the Spirit did not suffer and die for our sins. Core belief in God’s impassibility is not meant to obscure or diminish God’s compassion, rather to safeguard his ability to bring victory out of suffering and new life out of death.
We meet our three-in-one God as three distinct persons in the scriptures, which reference Father, Son and Spirit, yet in those same scriptures we see how the three work in unity as one divine being, none separate from the other and none less divine or powerful than the other. We see our God who creates and sustains life, who has infinite power, wisdom and goodness. And we see a God whose divine nature cannot suffer, yet in his love for us he took on human form to suffer and die so that we could be saved from our sins. Finally, we can be in relationship with this God through each of his persons: children of the Father through belief in the saving power of the Son and obedience to him, with the Spirit with us and in us forever.