I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
These three verses, which appear in the Lectionary for Trinity Sunday, form a short passage in which we see the three “persons” of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. While this text clearly is not a theological treatise on the Doctrine of the Trinity, it nevertheless presents us with a glimpse of that mystery by which we understand how God relates to us.
Some Christians have a difficult time understanding the Doctrine of the Trinity, which in pure mathematical terms makes no sense. How can one equal three and vice versa? Ever since the Council of Chalcedon declared that God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit are united in one substance and in one single person (εἰς ἓν πρόσωπον καὶ μίαν ὑπόστασιν, eis hen prosopon kai mian hupostasin) we’ve had a mathematical problem on our hands. As a result, the inner workings of our trinitarian God remain hard to pin down.
But you know what? Maybe that’s the point.
Speaking of God
I’ve taught many classes on Christian doctrine, all of which eventually contained some discussion of the Trinity. It can be a difficult thing to express in simple terms, and even the best metaphors don’t quite clear things up. For instance, I’ve often used the metaphor of familial relationship to help people gain a better understanding of the Trinity. I am presently understood as a father to my two boys, as well as a son to my parents and a husband to my wife. I am father, son, and husband. My relating to my family in these three fundamentally different ways, however, doesn’t mean that I’ve undergone some division of self. I’m still me. I still exist as one person in three definite roles. This metaphor can help Christians better understand how one can equal three, but it still falls short of explaining our trinitiarian God. The “three” of which we speak when we discuss the trinity means three persons, not three roles, and it’s inadequate to speak of God in a way that suggests that God simply changes hats when relating to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Another way I’ve tried to shed some light on the notion of a trinitarian God is through the image of an alloy. We might take three different metals and solidify them together into one concrete structure while the properties of each metal are retained. Still, this image doesn’t exactly bear the full weight of God’s relationship to us. How are we ever going to figure this thing out?
It helps, I think, to recognize that trinitarian language is necessarily poetic. We must approach the Doctrine of the Trinity with the understanding that the thing that it describes – God – cannot be adequately described in linguistic terms. The infinite cannot be contained within the finite. As a result, even our best language about who God is leaves something unsaid, precisely because we lack the words to say it. There remains a mystery of God which we are unable to comprehend or describe in the language we speak. The best we can do is render some kind of poetic description, and this is precisely what the doctrine of the Trinity is. It’s not meant to be a full exposition of God’s self, but a symbolic description of how God relates to us in God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we can do.
In a Mirror Dimly?
The Apostle Paul famously wrote, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” It’s a beautiful way of expressing the limits of our human understanding, particularly when speaking of God. There’s a point at which we must simply resign ourselves to the fact that we aren’t meant to understand all things. In the gospel text above from John 16 Jesus tells his disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” How difficult that is for us to hear! There is still truth to be revealed, but we are not ready to hear it! We must simply be content to live in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet”. The reality of God in Jesus Christ has already come to us, but the fullness of God’s kingdom is not yet to be. So too, our understanding of God is left knocking at the door of mystery, but for now the door remains closed to us. The day will come when all will be revealed to us through God’s Spirit, but in the words of Juba from Gladiator, “Not yet… not yet.”
Rather than perceive the ever-present reality of God’s mystery as a loss, why not perceive it as something to celebrate? Albert Einstein wrote:
The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavour in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is. (The World As I See It)
We generally do a poor job of resting in the mysterious. There’s something about the unknown that makes us uncomfortable. Yet, in the mysterious there lies something beautiful, something beyond our reach, something that knows us and knows all things far better than we ever could. It is in that mystery that we live, and move, and have our being.
We call it “Father”. We call it “Son”. And we call it “Holy Spirit”. We may not fully understand that of which we speak.
But that’s why we worship.
* * * * *
First Look is a weekly commentary on the upcoming gospel lectionary texts written by Rev. Lee A. Koontz. It is usually published on Mondays.