By Beth Newman
Being a teacher of theology has given me a rather distorted sense of priorities. I suppose that whatever one’s line of work is, though, it will cause some such skewing. My husband once worked in a shop that made industrial valves, and he will occasionally trespass on the property of others to see whether his handiwork is part of their gas or water line. So I realize that there are some questions that are major for me that are minor for you. But you ought to care.
Take, for example, the doctrine of the Trinity. I’ve been asking around lately among family and friends about what they’ve been paying the most attention to lately. The answers are personal (children, health, finances, etc.) or relate to that part of the public life dominating the headlines at any given moment: the political conventions, the most recent hurricane, the biggest ballgame (Go Deacs!).
No one says, “the Trinity.”
It’s easy to understand why. The concept of a “Three-in-One” God outrages common sense. Any analogy seems strained at best. The one I remember from Sunday school involved trisecting and reassembling an orange.
Some scholars have argued that the doctrine is more the result of the invasive influence of Greek philosophy than scriptural evidence. Others see it as the outworking of patriarchal assumptions corrupting Jesus’ simple message of love and justice.
For the ordinary believer (whoever he or she is) the biggest obstacle is that simple observation that the doctrine of the Trinity seems disconnected from the daily living of our lives in a way that “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so” does not.
The fact is, however, that without the Trinity there is no way for any of us to know that Jesus loves us. Furthermore, generations of Christians have understood the Trinity as naming the most concrete reality of our existence.
Scripture describes key moments in Jesus’ life in Trinitarian terms. Jesus comes up from the baptismal waters and the Spirit descends upon him. God says, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.” Jesus ascends a mountain with Peter, James and John. He is transfigured before them, his clothes becoming “dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9:3). Elijah and Moses (the prophet and the law) appear and from a cloud God says, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him!”
We could read these as events simply happening a long time ago, or as invented elaborations by the Gospel writers. If we did, the Trinity would indeed remain irrelevant to our time and place. But if we read Scripture as a word spoken to us, then we can see that God’s Triune engagement with the world is still going on.
What difference, then, does the Trinity make in our daily lives of work, school, children and so forth?
We can begin by saying that in and through Christ, we are God’s adopted children. As the early church emphasized: “what Christ is by nature (the Son of God), we are by adoption.” That is, we share communion through the Spirit with the Father and the Son. God is not a distant God, disconnected from our daily lives, but one who has fully adopted us through Christ. Our biological families may have deeply wounded us or even abandoned us; our adoption by the Triune God heals these wounds.
Another early church theologian (Gregory of Nazianzus) states, “What has not been assumed, cannot be healed.” This means that Jesus became fully human in order to heal humanity from the inside. As we’re battered about in our daily lives — by worries, feelings of worthlessness, anxiety, egoism and other sins — we can trust that God gives us (through confession, forgiveness, prayers, worship and so forth) the healing grace we need to live faithfully.
Finally, in contrast to all that divides and ruptures human relationships today, communion with the Triune God in the Spirit is a uniting force. Pentecost is God’s gift to the church today, an ongoing reality in which the Spirit can create paths toward reconciliation in surprising ways.
In the final analysis, the Trinity is a description of God apart from which life as a Christian makes no sense.