We seem to sing it better than we conceptualize it. We can muster a hearty rendering of “Holy, Holy, Holy,” probably pondering more about the “early in the morning” wording than the theological verities. I am speaking of the blessed Triune God, of course, whose threefold cadence shapes Christian identity. Some theology is better sung.
Once a year in the liturgical calendar we celebrate Trinity Sunday. It falls the Sunday after Pentecost, the day when we rejoice in the outpouring of the Spirit. The Spirit has been active in creation and redemption since the beginning, however; Pentecost is not the first introduction of the Spirit into God’s great saving project. Rather, Pentecost connects the Spirit with the work of the Risen Christ, and the Spirit empowers the church to complete the works of Jesus in service to the Reign of God.
As Christian doctrine developed in early Christianity, it is understandable that the church had to make clear both the divinity and personal nature of the Spirit in order to construct a fully trinitarian understanding of God. Teaching (dogma) about the Spirit and the Trinity were intertwined from the beginning, and they remain so. Early theologians strained language and conceptual frameworks to speak of the relational God who, while not literally three persons, makes known the divine presence in three distinctive ways. The doctrine of the Trinity creates a structure for how we speak of God.
This mystery unfolds throughout the texts of Scripture. From the evocation of creation, to the elusive messengers from God who visited Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18, to the conception and ministry of Jesus, to the early proclamation of the resurrection, to the vision of the Apocalypse, we see a growing perception of God as Trinity. At times Father, Son and Holy Spirit appear in the same verse, e.g., Matthew 28:19, but usually the roles are delineated in a complementary arrangement.
Trinitarian theology is the key to understanding how God can be both transcendent and immanent, with us yet beyond us, made after our likeness in the incarnation, and source of vitality not only in the church, but in all of creation. The Triune God draws humanity into the deep communion enjoyed, the perichoretic movement of God’s self-giving and communication.
Many Christians think it is a dispensable doctrine, something of negligible concern akin to angels dancing on the head of a pin. Far from it! It is a practical doctrine that is “not just something that Christians think; it is also something that they do, in the words of David Cunningham, author of These Three Are One.
The ecstasy of God’s inner life — freely shared with the world — is the model for human community. The capacity to stand outside of self (ek-stasis) in the service of another construes new identity and possibility. Each member of the Trinity pours out life into the others, and these relationships are mutually empowering. The Trinity practices hospitality, diversity and generativity, and God beckons us to live into this pattern.
Clearly, there is little hierarchy in the Triune One. Each seems eager to deflect glory for the sake of the others.
Above my desk in my home study is Rublev’s beloved icon of the Holy Trinity. Over the years, as I have prayed before it and meditated on its depiction of deep communion, I have felt the pull of the Spirit drawing me into the trinitarian hospitality it portrays. Although the three figures lean toward one another in love and attentiveness, there is an open space. It is as if the beholder is invited to pull up a chair to the nearside of the table in the foreground and enter the intimate conversation.
The Trinity is not a closed circle; it is a welcoming dance where God creates space for beloved humans, even all of creation, to participate. Jürgen Moltmann speaks of the “open, inviting Trinity.” By this he means that God is drawing all into the unity and dynamic movement of the continuous fashioning of creation, which requires human agency.
This practical doctrine shapes Christian prayer, also. We pray to God in the name of Jesus through the presence and power of the Spirit. The Spirit prompts prayer in accordance with the will of God; Jesus promised that the Abba would be responsive to intercessions offered in his name; and the merciful Father/Mother delights in “giving good gifts” to those who ask (Matthew 7:11).
We could not begin to understand baptism and communion without a trinitarian framework. These initiating and sustaining practices of the church find their grounding in the Sending, Coming and Abiding presence of the Triune God.
So as we sing our praise to the Trinity in this liturgical season, let’s remember that doxology may be the best form of trinitarian practice. And so we join with all the saints and angels in adoring our God, blessed Trinity.