Trinitarian Worship

Christians baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit because they follow Jesus, who in Matthew 28 told his disciples to do so. Christians sometimes open or close services of worship according to Paul’s words at the end of 2 Corinthians 13: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14). Christians sometimes sing the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy!” ending the first and last stanzas with “God in three persons, blessed Trinity!”

Before prayer, we might follow an old Celtic habit and say:

I am bending my knee
in the eye of the Father who created me,
in the eye of the Son who purchased me,
in the eye of the Spirit who cleansed me.

One more example: The 1994 Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland has a prayer of confession that goes like this:

Count us not as nothing, O God;
Count us not as nothing, O Christ;
Count us not as nothing, O kind Spirit,
nor abandon us to eternal loss.

O God, O Christ, O kind Spirit. Here we can see that God is not only the name of the whole Trinity but also the proper name of the Father, as in the first article of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in God, the Father almighty.”

Indifference or Annoyance

For many Christians in many services of Christian worship, references to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are received with either indifference or annoyance. They are received with indifference by Christians who worship on autopilot. They go through the motions. They pray, they sing, they half-listen to half the sermon, they stand and sit on cue, but their minds aren’t focused on what they’re doing, and so they can’t recall later what they prayed, sang, or heard. To them, the names Father, Son, and Spirit are just comforting static, part of the expected noise you hear in church. Father, Son, Spirit; faith, hope, love; covenant, kingdom, gospel—it all mashes together at the end of the day.

Trinitarian language may also sound annoying to those of us with feminist sensibilities. Father, Son, Spirit. It sounds as if God comprises a bachelor father, his single son, and their agent. Two-thirds of God is pretty masculine-sounding, so in some worship settings, sensitive leaders and planners will have alternatives at the ready:

Count us not as nothing, O God;
Count us not as nothing, O Christ;
Count us not as nothing, O kind Spirit,
nor abandon us to eternal loss.

God, Christ, Spirit. Or, of course, Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier.

Feminine Images

Hymn writers in recent years have also used feminine images in references to God. I’m thinking of a text by Herman Stuempfle Jr. that says “Praise the God of all beginnings, birthing primal space and time.” And I’m thinking of Harris J. Loewen’s hymn “O God, Great Womb.”

I might have thought these feminine images to be a recent novelty. Once upon a time Christians sang “O God, Great Father, Lord, and King.” Now they sing “O God, Great Womb.” We used to think that God, the Father Almighty, created heaven and earth out of nothing. But now that feminism and panentheism are in the air—we now have these new birthing images that suggest the emanation of the world out of the womb of a mothering God.

But the fact is that images of a mothering God are very old. You can find them in medieval Christian mystic writing, such as Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. You can also find such images in the Old Testament book of Job. In Job 38 the sea bursts from God’s womb, and God gives birth to the frost and the ice (a perspective that helps me through tough winters in the state of Michigan). So if a birthing image is a change, it’s a change back.

In planning my role in worship, I will enrich my trinitarian vocabulary beyond Father, Son, and Spirit. But I will not correct Jesus, who taught his followers to say “Our Father in heaven.” And I will not correct the gospel of John or the Apostles’ Creed, which tell us of Jesus Christ, “his only Son, our Lord.”

In, In, In, One, One, One

In John 17, Jesus claims that his hour has come. He’s only one chapter from the place where Judas and the soldiers will meet him with their torches and weapons. He is in grave peril, and what does he do? He prays for his disciples. He thinks of them and prays for them. He thinks even of the next generation of disciples who will be gathered through evangelism, and he prays for them too. Protect them, he prays. Holy Father, protect them.

Sanctify them. Unite them. Fill them with joy. Let me be in them, and you in me, and they in us. Let them know your love, which has been my own life’s blood from before the foundation of the world.

Jesus says, “My prayer is not for [the disciples] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20–23).

Trinitarian Hospitality

In, in, in, one, one, one. Gregory of Nazianzus, followed by nearly all the Greek and Latin fathers, reflected on this mysterious “in-ness” that partly constitutes the Trinitarian persons’ oneness. They developed a doctrine of the perichoresis, or interpenetration of the persons of the Trinity. The idea, especially on the Greek side, is that each person envelops the other two. At the center of the universe, self-giving love is the dynamic currency of the trinitarian life of God. The persons within God exalt each other, commune with each other, defer to one another. I know it sounds a little strange, but we might almost say that the persons within God show each other divine hospitality. Each person harbors the other two at the center of the person’s being. In a constant movement of overture and acceptance, each person envelops and encircles the two others.

Supposing that hospitality means to make room for others and to help them flourish in the room you have made, I think we could say that hospitality thrives within the triune life of God and then spreads wonderfully to the creatures of God. When Jesus says, “that they may be one as we are one,” he is the one who spreads the hospitality as a mediator, a person who “works in the middle.” We ordinarily think of Jesus Christ as the mediator of redemption, but I think we can say that those mysterious places in the New Testament that speak of creation happening “through Christ” reveal that the mediator of redemption is also the mediator of creation. In either case, Christ is the person who works in the middle.

Implications for Worship

If self-giving hospitality lies at the center of the universe within the Holy Trinity, that has real implications for our worship.

We will offer prayer to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, deeply aware that we do not have just one listener. Prayer is not one-to-one. It is one-to-three. Moreover, as Romans 8 reveals, when we pray into the triune life, we are praying into a center of hospitality. As we pray, the Spirit intercedes for us. As we pray, Jesus Christ intercedes for us. The Spirit’s intercession is full of sighs too deep for words. I take this line of Paul’s thought to derive from the lament tradition in the psalms.

Laments in the psalms are full of sighs and groans and outright complaints. In his book Rejoicing in Lament, J. Todd Billings observes that the psalmists were never tempted to attribute God’s inactivity in the face of trouble to some limitation on God’s love or power. God’s failure to stop disaster was not because God’s hands were tied, or because God was impotent or deficient in love. Oh, no. The psalmists do blame God for seeming to be far away, for failure to stop enemy attacks. God was perfectly able to act and had all the power and love necessary to act, but simply didn’t do it.

And now the Spirit of God sighs and groans in lament about the state of the world, perhaps about sickness and social injustice and the rape of a good creation, whose oceans contain hundreds of square miles of floating plastic junk. We pray into a triune life that is alive with overture and acceptance, with groans and sighs, and with the intercession of Jesus Christ, who is fully human as well as fully divine, who has shared our lot, who has known mockery and indifference and betrayal and death.

We pray into a communal life. For all we know, angels and archangels hear our prayers too. For all we know, saints and martyrs hear our prayers too. We do not pray one on one. For all we know, we pray one on millions.

Respect for God the Holy Trinity means that we must keep our persons straight when leading congregational prayer. We do not start a prayer by addressing our heavenly Father and later thank him for becoming incarnate or for being poured out at Pentecost. According to the doctrine of trinitarian appropriations, this is inappropriate to do.

We will offer prayer to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, deeply aware that we do not have just one listener. Prayer is not one-to-one. It is one-to-three.

Trinitarian worship will include trinitarian blessings. I mentioned the end of 2 Corinthians earlier: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” But here’s an alternative from the Celtic worship tradition:

May the everlasting God shield you
east and west and wherever you go.
And the blessing of God be upon us,
the blessing of the God of life.
The blessing of Christ be upon us,
the blessing of the Christ of love.
The blessing of the Spirit be upon us,
the blessing of the Spirit of grace.
The blessing of the Trinity be upon us,
now and forevermore.

There is such beauty and richness here: the God of life, the Christ of love, the Spirit of grace, the blessed Trinity, now and forevermore.

In a piece in Reformed Worship titled “Trinity Matters,” Diane J. Strickland suggests that worship leaders and preachers simply name the Holy Trinity at least once each service. Rev. Strickland prefaces her sermons by saying to listeners, “I speak to you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And after the final word of good news in her sermon, she will say, “In this, as in all things, glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit” or, in deference to sensitivities about all this masculinity, “Glory be to God, and to the Christ, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen” (RW 51, March 1999).

When we Christians celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we want to remember Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, or, more specifically, to memorialize it, celebrate it, and ritually reenact it. We want Jesus Christ to be actually present as the host of the meal but also as the substance of the meal, so that as we eat and drink we receive Christ himself for nourishment and strength. We want God the Father to unite us as we gather. And we want to praise and thank him for these blessings.

All this is gathered up in the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, customarily prayed before each celebration of the Lord’s Supper:

Holy Lord God, by what we do here in remembrance of Christ, we celebrate his perfect sacrifice on the cross and his glorious resurrection and ascension; we declare that he is Lord of all; and we prepare for his coming in his kingdom. We pray that through your Holy Spirit this bread may be for us the body of Christ and this wine the blood of Christ. Accept our sacrifice of praise, and as we eat and drink at his command, unite us to Christ as one body in him, and give us strength to serve you in the world. And to you, one holy and eternal God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we give praise and glory, now and forever. Amen.

The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving clarifies that the Lord’s Supper is actually a trinitarian celebration. The “Holy Lord God” is the object of our prayer, the one who will unite us as we celebrate. The Lord Jesus Christ is the substance of the meal in the bread and wine. And the Holy Spirit is the one whose action gives us Jesus Christ as the substance of the meal.

Worship Implications of Perichoresis

I wrote earlier of the trinitarian perichoresis, that each divine person harbors the other two, envelops them, offers them hospitality. The holy life of God is alive with mutuality and reciprocity.

This idea is fruitful for Christian worship in wonderful ways. When a worship leader pronounces a benediction in the strong name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, the leader is conscious of the resonant triune life that is all in-ness and oneness. Similarly, a leader invokes God’s blessing on the broken hearts in every pew. As Dallas Willard wrote in The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, the people being blessed are “the flunk-outs and drop-outs and burned-outs. The broke and the broken. The drug heads and the divorced. The HIV-positive and the herpes-ridden. The brain-damaged, the incurably ill. The barren and the pregnant-too-many times or at the wrong time. The overemployed, the underemployed, the unemployed. The unemployable. The swindled, the shoved aside, the replaced. The parents with children living on the streets... The lonely, the incompetent, the stupid. The emotionally starved or the emotionally dead” (p. 123–124).

These are among the ones to whom the worship leader says, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” In other words, you might be broken and broken-hearted, but the balm for your wounds will come upon you in the form of healthy, hospitable, trinitarian life.

Meanwhile, our practice of baptizing in the threefold name reminds us of the covenant promises God gives to a community in which the benefits of Jesus’ work keep piling up. In baptism God publicly marks defenseless children as members of the covenant family. As God is a society of love, a triune family of joy and warmth, so the Christian community—the community for whom Jesus prayed that they may be one as he and the Father are one—is an analogue of the holy Trinity. We too are to have a common will, a common word, a common work. We too are to have common knowledge, love, and glory.

So in baptism, the church is saying to baby Adam or Sarah:

Little one, though you know nothing of this yet, you are not just your parents’ child. You are not just a “Johnson” child. You are a child of creation, of exodus, of the promised land. You are a child of exile and return, a child of incarnation, atonement, of death and resurrection, of Ascension and Pentecost. These are your events, little one, because you are a child of the community that came into being through these events, that centers memory and hope on these events. Today we publicly mark you as an heir of these great events and as a member of the family of God that came from them.

As the people of God envelop and enfold each other, so we envelop and enfold you, placing you right in the center of the community where God’s blessings abound. We will surround you, little one, to faith, hope, and love. We will feed you with nourishing teaching and exemplary modeling of patience and compassion. We will tell you the stories Jesus told. We will pray for you and we will pray with you. If you get in trouble we will not withdraw, but redouble our efforts to envelop you, to harbor you, to welcome you.

Shame isolates. If you ever shame yourself, we will redouble our efforts to crowd out your shame with our acceptance.

One of the main promises of God for a baptized child is that God will envelop them in a Christian community that is alive with hospitality. All the forces within this community combine to nudge the child toward the center where Jesus Christ dwells. All the teaching, all the preaching, all the singing and praying and witnessing, all passing of the peace, all celebrations of the Lord’s Supper, all modeling of Christian virtues within the communion of the saints—all of this combines in a powerful centripetal force to nudge the child toward the center, toward Jesus Christ. The promise of God in baptism or dedication is not salvation. A baptized or dedicated person might break covenant. She might repudiate her baptism or dedication. But to break covenant, he has to break through all that centripetal force that wants to hold him at the center.

In fact, as Richard Mouw once pointed out to me, there is a kind of “baptismal politics” according to which we make common cause with those with whom we share the sacrament of baptism, whether infant or adult. Their concerns are our concerns, their joys our joys. If any of them should be discriminated against by others who take either sacrament with us, we oppose such injustice not merely because it is unjust, but also because it is a desecration of the sacrament.

If the inner life of God is all about inclusion, all about hospitality, then it’s fitting for Christian worship to mirror this divine reality in all the ways we can think of. For example, we may select worship songs and hymns that come from all over the world, from every tribe and tongue and nation. We are blessed by being hospitable to the people who write and sing them. Jonathan Edwards famously wrote that we sing our praise instead of just saying it because singing is a way God customarily uses to start human hearts. We show hospitality to hymn and song writers from all over the world, and they end up moving our hearts. This is a circle of blessing we don’t want to miss.

Many people live with a disability, either visible or invisible. In our sanctuary architecture, in our provisions for people hard of hearing, in the training of our greeters, in our prayers and sermons, we will make provision for people with disabilities. It’s part of our reverence for a Trinitarian God in whom each of three persons harbors the other two at the center of their being.

I’m imagining a church keen on evangelism, but somehow that doesn’t stop them from being keen on social justice as well. Their pastor preaches straight and clean against racism, for example, and the church has joined a league of churches that presses authorities on prison reform and on human trafficking in slave sex and slave labor.

Evangelistic zeal and social justice fervor: each is an expression of the congregation’s prayer and hope that people created in the image of the hospitable God will be released from what is trapping them in misery and isolation, and will find themselves thriving within their union with Jesus Christ.

I’m imagining a church with broadly intergenerational worship. Three or four generations of Christian believers thrive in this congregation as they worship together and learn from each other. Three or four generations weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice, and always they send out search teams to gather the lost and bring them home to Jesus.

This church is thriving. You can tell when you come through the doors on a Sunday morning that these people want to be there, and the way people greet each other gives you the sense that they met somewhere during the week too—or if they didn’t, at least they wished they had—because they find themselves drawn toward each other like magnets. Old and young and middle-aged are together, as well as teens whose life can be so wobbly for a while (you know, the teens who write to an advice columnist and say, “I’m fifteen. Can you help me?”).

These teens come to church in an expectant frame of mind. They’re not sullen. Maybe they’re a little shy, but even in their shyness they get right in there and help with the food setup. One of them reads Scripture for the sermon and does so with such intelligence that you know this young woman is either a biblical genius or else has been superbly coached. Two teens play first-rate trumpet during the service, and two serve as greeters before the service begins. The young guy who greets me says, “Good morning. I’m Trevor. Welcome to First Church.”

Once upon a time, this church had done the traditional children’s sermon in the middle of the service, but now they have moved on. At the point where they used to have the children’s sermon, the older members of the congregation now join the pastor in blessing the children, and the children then bless all the rest of the congregation. And I begin to imagine the power and beauty of that blessing given and received across the generations.

As I witness the goings-on in this church’s life, I notice that people in this church take children seriously. They respect them. They uphold the dignity of children who are agents of God’s blessing to a whole congregation.

When children grow into young adults and go away to school, the youth ministry folks keep track of them and write to them. They send care packages to them around the time of their exams—care packages that include homemade goods baked by some of the senior citizens of the church. When the young adults are back in church on holiday, the pastor welcomes them inside worship and asks members of the church to greet them.

What a church! There’s life in this church. There’s power in this church because the Holy Spirit is breathing life here. Scripture, song, prayer, and fellowship; evangelism, teaching, nurture, and proclamation; hospitality, encouragement, outreach, and pastoral care—all these things happen every day, every week, every season of the church year because it seeks to model its life after the loving hospitality of the Holy Trinity.

How is Christian worship trinitarian? By regular use of trinitarian greetings. By baptizing in the triune name. By use of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving at the Lord’s Supper emphasizing its trinitarian foundation. By regular invocation of the threefold name. By pointing to the divine perichoresis in every aspect of its life and worship we mirror the heart of God, the triune hospitality.

Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., is president of Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.