When I was a child, my congregation sang the first verse of the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” as the worship introit every Sunday. Because the congregation sang the verse by heart, I learned it by ear only. For many months I sang:
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee.
Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty,
God in three persons, bless eternity!
It wasn’t until we sang the whole hymn from the hymnbook one Sunday that I learned the last two words were actually “blessed Trinity!” In the musical “slush” of congregational singing, I had searched among the religious words I knew and decided “bless eternity” had to be what everyone was singing around me. “Trinity” was not in my vocabulary.
Now, as a congregational minister in the Presbyterian Church in Canada and former denominational worship executive, I worry about the place of the Trinity in our worship and ministry. I wonder if the theological slush of congregational life in North America has left many ministers and congregations without a trinitarian vocabulary and doctrine actively shaping, challenging, and anchoring our faith. “Bless eternity” or “Blessed Trinity”? Does it really matter?
Where Have We Been with the Trinity?
While it may be difficult currently to generate anxiety about this issue, a mad gallop through church history shows us that trinitarian theology and the specific naming of the Trinity were large issues in the church’s first centuries. Questions about Jesus Christ and his place in the Godhead resulted in various heresies among those calling themselves Christian. Was Jesus Christ equal to God? Was he equal but existing independently of God and the Holy Spirit? Who was preeminent? Was Jesus Christ the actual incarnation of God or a reasonable facsimile for the purposes of salvation drama? These are still important questions for formulating our faith and discipling new believers.
As time passed, believers were divided into groups by the way they answered these questions (and others). Eventually creedal formulations, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, became the litmus test of Christian orthodoxy. They explicitly declared beliefs about the relationships within the Trinity.
Where Are We Now with the Trinity?
We are still very much a creedal people. This is how we establish ourselves within the historical stream of Christian faith. Trinitarian theology has been the sieve from which heresies and errors in doctrine are revealed and discarded from that “stream,” guiding us to the most consistent and true expression of our faith.
Thus the specific naming of the Trinity, especially in the ritual life of the believing community, has always been a link to Christian orthodoxy for a worshiping body. At the moment of Christian baptism the minister says, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” This trinitarian formula is found in the “Great Commission” (Matt. 28:19-20) and has long been a cornerstone of our faith.
But we can no longer assume that all Christians adhere to this ancient formula—either to its exact words or even its trinitarian content. Indeed, a Roman Catholic bishop recently invalidated the “baptisms” of some people because the priest used a trinitarian formula other than “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Reports from other denominations include baptisms done simply “in the name of God.”
Contemporary alternative worship services and seeker services too rarely present a trinitarian God to worshipers. I heard one minister (who championed these worship services) tell a worshiper “not to worry about it” when he asked about the Trinity. The minister could have said something like, “That’s an important question, but it will take some time to discuss it,” but he chose to make light of the inquiry. Traditional reference to the Trinity has become, in some quarters, an optional or contentious ingredient of our public witness.
Inclusivity, an issue we have often come to through the revision of hymn texts, has also impacted our life with or without the Trinity. Soon the conscious decisions of worship leaders to speak of humankind, or men and women, instead of mankind or men, were broadened to include everyone who had been habitually left out of our public verbal worship. And so, for example, we added “girls and boys” where we might have spoken only of adults. Then our hymnbook task forces cast their nets across geography and culture to include the music and texts of races and cultures seldom explicitly included in our vision of the Christian family. It has been one of the most contentious, frustrating, exciting, and liberating times of our life together in Christ. But what, in the context of this amazing time, can we do with “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”?
Some abandon the familial terms in favor of names such as “Maker” and “Redeemer.” Others argue that such functional nomenclature cannot communicate the relationship between the persons of the Trinity. Nevertheless, many are making the attempt. Hymn writer Brian Wren, for example, has written a good text for the doxology that ends “Creator, Word, and Spirit, One” which has caught on in some congregations. But such attempts raise some important questions. Can we reshape the formula without fully examining its theological significance for defining and shaping congregational ministry?
In this article I use the traditional formula to name the Trinity. This is not to be construed as a singular commitment to an exclusive trinitarian formula. Far more important today than the question of using the traditional formula to determine Christian orthodoxy is, I believe, the concern about whether large numbers of congregations are, in fact, engaged in trinitarian ministry at all. There are many people who believe in God as Father, in Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit. It is not clear to me that these people consciously believe in the Holy Trinity—one God in three persons. Yet it is trinitarian faith that sets our religion apart. The God we worship chooses to be God in a completely unique way. That uniqueness is part of the way God gifts the church. We need to rekindle our capacity to receive that gift.
The Capacity to Receive the Gift
We can begin by ensuring that the Trinity is named at least once in every worship service. Discussions with ministers reveal that this is not necessarily a safe assumption. After preaching a sermon once at a conference attended by other ministers, I was asked, “What is that thing you do at the beginning and the end of your sermon?” I could not imagine what he was talking about and nervously wondered whether I had some irritating physical habit I was unaware of. “That thing you say—the Father and Son thing,” he added. I realized that he was referring to, “I speak to you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”—the words I say before I preach—and “In this, as in all things, glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit”—the words I say after I’ve preached. I expected many questions about my sermon, but not this one. I explained that I always state the authority under which I preach as I begin a sermon and the “end goal” of my preaching when I finish. Then I asked what they did. Most replied that they said a prayer. But more interesting than this was the fact that most of the clergy never used the trinitarian formula in worship unless they were baptizing.
Worship leaders need to become sensitive to the need for the Trinity to be named in the ritual life of the believing community. And then we must move beyond ritualized speech to integrate trinitarian theology into our personal and corporate faith.
Trinity Sunday (the first Sunday after Pentecost) provides a preaching and teaching opportunity on this topic. What would you preach and what would you teach? Answering those questions is something that takes a lifetime of living with the Holy Trinity, serving the Holy Trinity, loving the Holy Trinity, and worshiping the Holy Trinity. Here are three reflections on what the Trinity’s presence with us means.
Who’s in Charge Here?
Most people like someone to be in charge. But unlike our society, which chooses leaders by the ultimate claims of strong over weak, God has refused a hierarchical ordering of the three persons of the Trinity. Apparently God’s way works just fine. The Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit are all equal within the Godhead.
Do we follow God’s example, or do we give some member or members of the Trinity a more privileged place? When our need to have someone in charge meets the Trinity, it often translates into a utilitarian approach to the Trinity that ultimately reveals a hierarchy of importance. Let us examine ourselves. What kind of a God do we think we require? How might the equality of the three persons challenge our own leadership? How might we be supported by it?
Chosen in Christ
Within the Trinity we see the most remarkable testimony to our salvation. God is not just the God of one or another ethnic or social group. Equal with the Father is the Son, Jesus Christ. The ministry of Jesus Christ came as a light to the Gentiles. Jesus Christ lifted the separation that kept a barrier between those who were originally chosen and everybody else. When the Bible speaks about Gentiles becoming heirs (see Paul’s letter to the Galatians), it reveals that Christ’s divinity is equal to that of the other persons of the Trinity, and that Jesus’ ministry is in full agreement with the electing will of the Father. We are not “poor cousins” with a functional but lesser savior than God’s own self.
As we consider our ministry in Christ, we’re inspired by the realization that the message we share, the gospel we preach, leaves no “leftovers.” The integrity of the gospel of Jesus Christ is known in the integrity of the Trinity itself. When we ground our ministry in the Holy Trinity, we draw on this integrity.
I Love You—and You
The Trinity affords us a remarkable picture of love. The dualism of “I-thou” love is set aside. It is not enough for the Father to love the Son and the Son to love the Father. The ultimate rule of dualistic love, where two is company and three is a crowd, is ended. It becomes possible for love to open to another that is truly other. So the tyranny of dualistic love that governs a great deal of congregational life is broken by trinitarian ministry. The Trinity makes community possible. It makes ministry possible.
A New Heresy—A New Faithfulness
These three ways of being the church—without hierarchy, without barriers, in true community—are subversive acts in a world given over to the worship of other gods who espouse the claims of strong over weak, of one ethnic group over another, and of I-thou love. Ministry that is undergirded by trinitarian theology becomes free in mission and brand-new in purpose. It insists that our primary theological base is neither hierarchical, individualistic, nor parochial. When we lose this undergirding theology, we are left with an impoverished ministry where we bow to the very forces the gospel has overcome.
The result is a new heresy of our presence in the world. I can’t help but wonder if part of the church’s struggle to be the transforming presence of Christ’s body in the world is futile because it has strayed so far from its trinitarian base, and this may be true no matter how many times “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” are said in worship.
Yet we must begin somewhere. You can begin by looking at your personal piety and examining the place of the Trinity within it. Have you opened a place in your heart, mind, and spirit, for the Holy Trinity—one God in three persons? Then look at your community worship. What indication is there in a regular worship service that the congregation is trinitarian? In what ways do you celebrate the three points outlined above? Get a group together to talk about the Trinity. What do they think is important about the Trinity? What does it mean to them and to their congregation’s ministry? What questions do they have about the Trinity? In what context does your congregation hear or speak a trinitarian formula? Is it always the same one? What options for the formula do you use?
When we talk about the Trinity, we are talking about God, not merely a concept. In this respect, then, it does matter whether I sing “Bless eternity” or “Blessed Trinity.” Trinity matters. Rekindling our capacity to receive this gift to the church begins by knowing and using the vocabulary of the triune God.
The art depicting the three Persons of the Trinity was created by Brother Placid (Lawrence) Stuckenschneider, O.S.B., a liturgical staff artist at The Liturgical Press in Collegeville, MN. He has two published collections: More Liturgical Art for the Liturgical Year and Even More Liturgical Art for the Liturgical Year. To order, call 1-800-858-5450, or fax 1-800-455-5899.
For a brief, excellent book on the Trinity, read Worship, Community, & the Triune God of Grace by James B. Torrance (InterVarsity Press, 1997). Torrance, professor emeritus of systematic theology at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, explodes the notion that the doctrine of the Trinity may be indispensable for the creed but remote from life and worship. The Reformed tradition has stressed the prophetic (preaching) and kingly (head of the church) offices of Christ, but has neglected the priestly role of Christ as “the leader of our worship” (Heb. 8:2), the one “who unites us to himself by the Spirit in an act of memory and in a life of communion, as he lifts us up by word and sacrament into the very triune life of God.”