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How is God a Trinity?

F. Earle Fox
Sermon at St. Luke's Reformed Episcopal Church, Santa Ana, CA,
Trinity Sunday, 6/7/09,

How is God a Trinity? How can God be both three and one at the same time? All the creeds were written to help establish the nature of God as triune, one in three. Christians began talking about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit because of the ministry Jesus had among them.

God had been known as father in Old Testament times, but limited to father of the people of Israel as a whole, rarely of individuals. Jesus claiming God to be His father was blasphemy to Jews, and part of the reason for His being crucified.

Jesus changed all that, showing us that God was indeed His own Father, who wanted be our personal father as well. God can be our father, not by nature, but by adoption and grace. We must be born again. It is not enough to be born of our human parents, we must be born into God's family, as Jesus said to Nicodemus, born of the Spirit.

So there we have it: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

An Analogy

Christians were immediately challenged by the Jews and pagans as to whether we Christians were monotheists or tri-theists. Christians responded that we are monotheists. We do not believe in three gods, three divinities. But we believe that God is in some sense three, corresponding to the three different ways in which Christians had experienced the presence and activity of God in their lives.

One Church father (name?) came up with an analogy. In Roman theater, the actors wore large masks (which you often still see on theater advertising or on playbills) to indicate the various stock characters of the play: hero, villain, lady fair, old witch, etc. Those masks were called in Latin, personae (plural) or a persona (singular). So, this Church father said, it is something like that. There is only one actor (in the Creeds, one substance), but he can represent himself in many different ways (in the Creeds, three personae). That caught on and we have kept the word "person" ever since to indicate the trinity in God.

But, as with any analogy, it has its limits and can be used inappropriately. And, indeed, as languages do, the word changed over the centuries to mean now something quite different. We now mean by the word 'person' a whole, unique individual. But God is not three unique individuals. That would be tri-theism, three deities.

I suspect that many Christians are (unawares) practicing tri-theists, praying as if there were three divinities. So there is much misunderstanding about the matter. How are we then to make it more clear?

First we must look at the creeds, which is where the matter was hammered out in the early Church. We have the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. They each point to a triune God. The Athanasian Creed goes to great lengths to say that God is both one and three, but, there is little in Christian theology which helps us understand how three can be one without creating a self-contradiction.

Sometimes we are left with puzzles, what look like contradictions, and so just have to live with a paradoxical situation, looking for resolution as we are able.

In Imago Dei

I want this morning to suggest some notions which might help lead in the right direction, emerging right out of Genesis 1, the creation story, where we are introduced to the Imago Dei, the Image of God. We are informed of an extraordinary fact, that we humans are made in the Image of God. And not only that, but that we are made in the Image of God -- male and female. What's this all about???

There is a small hint in Genesis 1:26, where we learn about being made in the Image of God. We read: "Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image...." "Let us..." Why the plural? No one knows for sure. But it does suggest the possibility of the Trinity having an internal conversation, as some have surmised.

Well, males and females are different down here, so there must be something differing but compatiable in God of which we males and females are an image. That is a logical conclusion difficult to avoid. If we are like God, then God must be in some sense like us. You cannot have a likeness going in only one direction.

There are several aspects of personhood which we assign to the image of God. God is rational, conscious, powerful, intelligent, and so forth. But the only aspect of the Imago Dei mentioned in the Bible is this passage which refers to gender. And, there is no place else in Scripture where God refers to "us" in a conversation. God is saying something! "PAY ATTENTION TO THIS!!" God is underlining something.

Definition of 'God' 

The Bible does not define terms as one would in a philosophical essay, like philosophers might do. The Bible is a narrative, a story, the story of God's relationship with the human race, how He created us, how we rebelled and were separated from Him, spiraling downhill toward self-destruction, and then, most of the Bible, what God is doing to rescue us from ourselves.

So there is no definition of the word 'God' in the Bible. But it is clear nevertheless what the Bible means by that word. In order to be God, you must be two things: you must be the Creator of all that is, and you must be the Sovereign Lord over all that is.  If you are those two things, you are God. If not, you are not.

So, we have Creator and Sovereign. Creator - God sustains us with provision for our lives, gives us the ability to be ourselves - stability of being. The power of being is spiritual power. And then Sovereign - God is Lord, the "deciding one", He defines the direction & meaning of life. Sovereignty is spiritual authority - moral stability. Spiritual power and spiritual authority -- two separate and distinct aspects of God, but necessary and complementary. So we are to trust & obey: Trust His provision, His power, and obey His authority, His word, purpose, intelligent design for our lives.

Male & Female in Imago Dei

To get right to the point, God is telling us that in making us in His image, He is assigning to women the role of Creator, the life giver, spiritual power, and that He is assigning to men the role of sovereignty, spiritual authority.

We receive our sense of security and being first from our mothers who carry us safely in the womb and then give birth. They are, from the infant's point of view, the life-givers. Do we not say of the Holy Spirit in the creeds, "lord and giver of life"?

And men are to be the spiritual leaders of their homes and families. The Hebrew word for father, AB, means "the deciding one'. Fathers are to point the child out into the world with wisdom, good moral decisions.

You might say that mothers usher their children into the world, pointing on to their father. Fathers call their children out from their mothers, pointing them on into the wider world. Mothers and fathers are on opposite sides of the child relationship.

Thus, mothering power of being is different from the fathering authority of righteousness. They are two different roles, different enough so that God divides them between two different individuals, fathers and mothers, in the human race. Only in God, perhaps, can they safely be united in one Person as Individual.

Both men and women can occasionally take either role, but God, it seems, means us to major in our gender-specific role. The point is that human parents are God's way of introducing Himself to us as infants. He gives us to parents who are persons made in His Image. But God is the real Parent, and that is why Jesus tells Nicodemus (as we read today) that in order to see the Kingdom of God, we must be born again. We must be born into the family of God where we receive our moral direction from God Himself, and where we receive our ability to be ourselves, our power of being, from God Himself.

In that somewhat puzzling passage about Jesus in the Temple at 12 years old, when Joseph and Mary come to retrieve Him, they ask why He has done this to them, Jesus replies, "Do you not know that I must be about my Father's business?" By the time He was 12, Jesus knew who was His real Father.

I suspect that that is a model for us. We should know by the time we are 12 that our human parents are the launching pad for greater things, that we are to be launched toward God, our true parent. Born again.

There are, then, two stabilities which any creature must have to be a secure person, the stability of being and the stability of moral direction -- the two stabilities given by Godly parenting. We must know who we are and where we are going. Those two stabilities are what we lose in the Fall, and what we regain in salvation.

A Distinction within God

What has that to do with the Trinity?

The distinction between creator and sovereign is an essential distinction within God. They are separate and distinct aspects of any personal being at all, including of you and me, but supremely of God Himself. The Creator aspect of God cannot be identical with or confused with the Sovereignty aspect of God. They are different aspects of personhood in our modern individual sense.

Mothering is fundamentally different from fathering -- but the two are absolutely necessary and complementary to make a larger whole, a whole, individual person.

God is Sovereign because He is Creator -- since only the Creator of something can give the reason for the being of that thing. Only God can tell us why we exist because only He is responsible for our existence. And our reason for being is the foundation of all morality.

So, one can say, in that sense, that God the Creator is not the same as God the Sovereign, yet both are one and the same God.

The Son 

But that is only two personae, only two separate and distinct but wholly and necessarily complementary aspects of God. How is the Son a part of this Trinity?

The idea of an incarnation, so far as I know, was unknown and unmentioned in all of pre-Christian Judaism. There is in Jewish thought of a Messiah no expectation that God Himself would come to redeem and restore Israel. As the disciples themselves show right up to the end, they expected a human conqueror chosen by God.

But almost immediately after Pentecost, the early Christians caught on that Jesus was indeed the Son of God, and that the Holy Spirit was a new kind of presence of God among them. And, they came to understand that these three were one God acting in different modes within their lives -- for which the word 'persona' seemed the best way to make the point to Jews, pagans, and indeed among themselves.

But the Son did not come into being when the Incarnation happened.  He, as the creeds insist, and Scripture attests, was from eternity in God -- eternally begotten.  Christians began to identify the various incursions of God into the lives of the early Hebrews in the Old Testament as the presence of Christ.  The Son of God was talking to Moses at the Burning Bush.  The Son of God was meeting with Adam and Eve in the Garden to walk and talk in the cool of the evening.

The Son of God is, as it were, the face of God turned toward His creation. The Son of God is God relating to His creation, representing and embodying to us the fullness of God. That is why Jesus could say things like, "If you have seen me, you have seen the Father". And, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No man comes to the Father but by Me." Apart from the trinity, this is absurd, if not insane.

That was not Jesus being self-centered and ignoring all the supposed other paths to God. The Son is the Self-revelation of God to the creation.  We will never see the Father or the Holy Spirit.  So, as a logical fact, we can come to the Father only by the Son.  There is no use arguing with logical facts.  You always lose.

A perhaps helpful analogy: just as you cannot ever see the Holy Spirit or the Father, just so, you will never see my spiritual power, my ability to be me, and you will never see my decision-making, my moral authority. You see those aspects of the Imago Dei in which I am made only as incarnate in this body which you know as Earle Fox. You can get to know in a personal way Earle Fox only through this body. 

Ourselves, the Trinity, & Salvation

We are all made in that triune Imago Dei, with that same triune inner being.  We all have a fathering side, moral/spiritual authority, our deciding ability; we all have a mothering side, spiritual power, our ability to be ourselves; and we all have our incarnations of those aspects of ourselves, our bodies.  Our bodies are what make us able to perceive each other as individual persons, and therefore to have personal relationships, families, communities, Kingdoms. 

The only God we will ever see and touch, perceive with our five senses, is Jesus, the eternally begotten Son of God, either first in the Incarnation, or in the Second Coming -- which will be also an Incarnation.  But, if we see Jesus, we are seeing the Father. And if we obey Jesus, His word, we will know our own being to be the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life.

And in that very activity, we are having restored those two great parenting stabilities: our power of being, and our moral direction.  We will know who we are, and where we are going.  We will know ourselves to be renewed creatures in Christ -- trusting and obeying.  We will know ourselves to be children of God, headed for His Kingdom.

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Date Posted -  06/07/2009   -   Date Last Edited - 09/15/2012