The Holy Trinity

by Crossings

John 3: 1-17
The Holy Trinity
analysis by Robert C. Schultz

This Saturday’s guest theologian is Robert C. Schultz, Seattle, WA. He offers us a comprehensive look at the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, linked to the pericopes for Trinity Sunday, May 25, 1997. Bob & I were colleagues at Valparaiso University beginning in 1957. We’ve been co-conspirators on some Law/gospel ventures in the past. Bob is godfather of our first-born…. You get the picture. Bob’s “take” on the Trinity is Gospel-grounded, something you don’t find everywhere these days. 
Peace & Joy! Ed

A homiletic meditation on the lessons for the festival of the Holy Trinity, May 25, 1997.
Isaiah 6: 1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8: 12-17a; John 3: 1-17. 
The liturgical context of the sermon is the doctrine of the Trinity, a most basic doctrine of the faith. The Old Testament lesson and the psalm describe efforts to visualize the reality of God. The New Testament lessons assert that God is best described in terms of God’s relationship to people, not in terms of our cosmological source or in terms of our coming into existence, but rather in terms of becoming what we are not by nature: the children of God. This requires a new birth. The New Testament texts describe God at work in this process as one God. John 17:11 defines this oneness as the ultimate model for the oneness of the church.

I frequently read that one can not preach a doctrine. I think however that all textual preaching must be definable in terms of a doctrine. Richard Caemmerer in Preaching for the Church laid out a pattern of preaching that provided a focus on the whole doctrine of the church over the course of the church year.

The doctrine of the Trinity has two foci:

  1. Whatever terminology we use in describing God, the primary focus is always on the unity: there is one God and that God is one.
  2. Jesus reaffirms this unity in his prayer that the church may be one even as he and the father are one.

The doctrine of the Trinity was formulated in the context of neo-Platonism which asserts that we become like the things we know and love. Therefore God, if he is to remain uncorrupted, can know and love objects outside himself only through a process called emanation. [Ed: Emanations = radiations from the Godhead through intermediate stages moving toward the world of matter.] These emanations of God will be corrupted by knowing and loving sinners and by contact with the world, but God himself is not affected. One analogy is that the image in a mirror can be broken without affecting the reality of the source of the image.

The doctrine of the Trinity rejects the neo-Platonic assumption and all its variations by asserting that God relates to and loves the world without endangering his deity. Father, Son, and Spirit are so far from being emanations that their relationship within God is known only to God and therefore inexpressible in human language. We always encounter the whole God, who loves the world.

I would emphasize that the issue in the oneness of God is whether God can love the world and still be one God. Other functions of God constitute no threat to oneness.

Neo-Platonism was the dominant cultural force in the first centuries of the church. The dominant religious experience was that of the mystery religions. This was also true of the Jewish community which the church encountered in the Hellenistic world, for example, in Philo in Alexandria. The mystery religions focused on gaining new life by regularly returning to sexuality as the source of life, to processes of dying and being recreated. The religious description of this process was in the myth of a struggle among the gods.

The assertion that God loves the world denies the basic neo-Platonist assumption that we become like what we love. Examples of similar assertions–that we must reject someone lest we become like that person, or that we must become like that person in order to love that person–abound in the current and past history of the church.

Since relationships to others can cause conflict–even in the tightest groups such as the pagan pantheon, the family, and the church–we have no parallel to God’s [unconflicted] oneness in our own human experience apart from our encounter with God. Our language is therefore always unequal to the one-ness of God and to the doctrine of the Trinity. For us, one-ness–even in our own individual persons (identity and integrity)–is always a goal that is unachievable either over time or in any moment of time. This is equally true of any group or system (for example, family or church) that we experience apart from God. Consequently we have no metaphors or analogies to use in our discussion of God and all theological statements are therefore inadequate to the reality which they seek to describe. The prayer for the one-ness of the church in John 17:11 is no plea for some undefined unity but rather unity in loving the world like the unity which God has.

The Athanasian Creed, one of the three ecumenical creeds claimed by the Augsburg Confession, describes some of the formulations which point to the unity of God and rejects others which inevitably destroy this unity. This doctrinal creed is seldom used liturgically. The Roman Church does not use it. Among Lutherans, it is used only (but not always) by the Missouri Synod (TLH, pp. 4 and 53, thanks to Arthur Carl Piepkorn) on Trinity Sunday; SBH did not include the creed in the pew edition, and the Book of Common Prayer (1979) includes it in small print on pp. 864-865.

There is a strong theological tradition in the church stemming from St.Augustine that redefines the one-ness of God by asserting that God only loves God. This position has been made very popular in our time by Karl Barth, whose doctrine of God is more modalistic than Trinitarian. In terms of the church’s own experience of becoming one, the parallel is to the church loving only itself and then loving only one’s own subgroup within the church. Congregations can easily define their task as serving themselves and their members. “Want to be loved? Become a member.”

The parallel to the oneness of the Trinity in the life of the church is that the church-that-is-one-as-God-is-one loves the world. This love is the power to give people a life that they did not have before, the life of the children of God. This does not constitute returning to the womb and undoing the failure of conception and birth, but rather in receiving a life that is nourished by the love of God.

Like Nicodemus’ fascination with the womb, our world is fascinated with looking back to the beginning of the cosmos. Science is doing wonderful things. One frequently hears assertions that we will really understand who we are if we are able to understand where we and our universe come from. The Divine Watchmaker is gone; the Big Bang has taken its place. There are starry-eyed discussions of our molecules being the dust of exploding stars and comets. In contrast, the gospel offers the opportunity of our present reality being transformed by coming into a new relationship to God, by being born again of water and the Spirit.

Romans 8: 12-17 describes this new life in terms of freedom from slavery to the flesh, suffering with Christ, and being glorified (= crucified and dying) with him. This is beyond any single sermon but rather the theme of much of the church year.

Isaiah 6 gives us a very personal unique experience of the hiddenness of God that we are not intended to repeat in our own lives. If we read the text further, it describes the sending of a prophet whose message is intended not to be heard (although that may have been prophetic hindsight).

The Psalm gives us an experience of God in the numinosity of natural phenomena.

John 3 gives us an experience of God as loving the world and of ourselves as being born again through the water and the Spirit. This experience of new life is described in more detail in the passage from Romans. Nicodemus’ question as to how this happens is a variation on the difficult to answer “Where do babies come from”, that is, “How are people born again.” We best learn that answer by becoming part of the process by which God brings about a new birth.

In Romans 6, Paul describes us as slaves to sin who have been set free. I experience this slavery on many levels, for example, when I try to love myself, love my neighbor, or find love for myself. Paul describes the Christian’s experience of this slavery in detail in Romans 7. I try to love and end up doing something different. I can not do what I want. The Christian also experiences freedom from this slavery and the struggle between slavery and freedom but this comes later. This parallels John’s description of two births, the birth from my mother which is an ongoing reality of my life and not undone by the new birth from water and the Spirit.

Here are some basic reasons why I need to be born again: I experience my slavery when I try to love myself. I also wish to understand my own needs and to respond to those needs effectively. I am unable to do this in any dependable manner. I can usually learn more about my own needs and an effective response in conversation and interaction with someone else. I am not free to love myself. I might like to be a different person but the most sophisticated self-help has its limitations. I can not trust myself.

I also experience my slavery when I try to love others. I sometimes understand, sometimes misunderstand, their needs. I sometimes provide a helpful, sometimes a useless or damaging, response. The greatest danger is that in my effort to respond, I am constantly threatened by my tendency to confuse my own needs with theirs and the response that will be effective for them with something that I think would meet my own needs. My efforts to love my neighbor can be dangerous for my neighbor. I misunderstand my neighbor’s need and assume that something will be helpful that actually turns out to be destructive. The best protection against this danger is our mutual awareness that the helper’s knowledge is limited and that the responses that can be relied upon are also limited. I am not fully able to understand my neighbor’s need and am at best able to respond only in limited ways. Sometimes the responses that I am convinced are the best turn out to be useless or harmful. I need to protect myself from becoming too deeply involved in my neighbor’s need and my neighbor from my over-involvement in his or her need.

When I seek out others to meet my needs, I often make bad choices. At the human level, I get involved in relationships that are not good for me. At the level of ultimate relationships, I serve and trust false gods. I live under the illusion that I am free in making these choices but like the infant who believes that she or he has chosen perfect parents, my choices and freedom are amazingly limited. In fact, I can never know whether I am following some religious or secular variation on the Heaven’s Gate pitch, spending my life and getting nothing in return.

Whatever level of success I think I have achieved, my capacity for loving myself, for loving anyone else, and for being loved by other people is absolutely limited by death.

One very common way of responding to this difficulty is by condemnation. Sometimes I condemn myself for my own inability to love my neighbor or myself. Sometimes I condemn my neighbor for having problems that are beyond my capacity to help. Sometimes, for being unwilling or unable to use what I think will be helpful.

This is one example of the slavery to sin described by Paul and John’s one-birthed life. The symptoms vary with my age, the stage of my development, and the conditions in which I live.

In this situation, no one is helped by more effective condemnation. What is needed is that we are loved with more understanding and with more effective responses. I need someone who will understand me better than I can understand myself and my neighbor better than I can. I need better love than is available in the human community.

We may think that the love of God is now the obvious solution. The neo-Platonists didn’t think it obvious, didn’t think God could risk loving us. Ultimate reality is always abstract, uninvolved, working through a random sequence of chances that some forms of life will be fit to survive; in another roll of the dice, in another universe, that could all come out differently. There never is any relationship to ultimate reality except through chance. In the Hellenistic world at its best, the love of God could come to us only through something better than ourselves but less than God, some form of emanation, some Logos, some Spirit, which could be contaminated by involvement in this world; the more involved, the less God.

The doctrine of the Trinity rejects this basic assumption. God is deeply involved in the most ungodly realities of this world without ceasing to be God. Whatever terminology I use–Ground of Being; God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier; Father, Son, Spirit; Mother, Daughter, Wisdom–I always encounter the one God whose one-ness transcends my language. The good news that this one God loves the world points beyond any human analogy.

This is the good news of John and Paul: The Son becomes involved in one human life and death without ceasing to be God; indeed being declared to be God by this experience. The Son becomes involved in the same flesh to which I am enslaved and subject to the death that sets a final limit to all of my efforts to love. I can therefore trust in God as present with me and involved in my life and my death.

The historical context of the early church was primarily a neo-Platonic variation on the Heaven’s Gate gnostic theme. Ancient mystery religions offered initiation into the mystery of life through replicating the process of creation and seedtime and harvest, or through exploring sexual potential more deeply. More commonly now, natural scientists moonlighting as preachers, assure us that we are made of the dust of stars or comets. I recently heard a very sober scientific voice on PBS assure me that as soon as we know where we came from, that is, unravel the Big Bang to its source, we will know who we are. There is some truth in all of this just as there is much to be learned from sex and amazing experiences possible through the use of drugs. However, all pleasure carries the threat of addiction and slavery and is subject to the slavery of the flesh and death; the most accurate knowledge of the past leaves radical uncertainty about the future.

Trust in God as loving me is thus both contrary to much of my own personal experience and unprovable by any rational process. That is, faith is created neither by experience nor by rational reflection. How do we come to believe? John uses the analogy of being born again, Paul of dying and being raised. Both are baptismal metaphors (Paul’s connection to baptism is in Romans 6).

There is risk in trusting God. All of this love and trust, new birth and dying with Christ, sharing his suffering as God loves the world, and thereby being glorified with him, may be a widely accepted delusion. As Paul says, then we are the absolutely most miserable people. There is risk in this trust and no certain pay-out.

However, we have been caught up. Birth and death are events that happen, events in which we are passive participants whether or not we fathom how they happen. This is also true of faith or being born again as the work of the Spirit. However, the effect is radical, namely, the meaning given our lives as children of God and the experience of freedom to begin to live in a different way. Paul describes it as being free from the slavery to sin, as suffering with Christ, and as being “glorified” (I think in the comprehensive Johanine sense) with Christ. The description of this experience and the way in which we live it out in daily life, finding new ways of loving ourselves and the world because we ourselves are loved by God, is the focus of the lectionary texts for the coming Sundays of the church year.


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