No Triangulation in the Trinity
For preachers, Trinity Sunday is perhaps the most feared Sunday of the year. It exposes us. It shows our deepest, most hidden (and maybe even treasured) heresies. For how does one talk about God—the divine—using human words—human symbols, subject to human error and finitude?
Ever try to explain the mathematical concept of infinity to a kid for the first time? Where do you even start?
You think, ah, numbers; so you say, “Okay, think of the largest number you can imagine. Can you imagine a trillion?”
Then you write out the number for a visual, a one with twelve zeroes following it, with a comma before every group of three zeroes.
Then you say, “So, what happens when we add one to a trillion?”
And the astute child answers, “Uh, well, I guess we get a trillion one.”
And you clap your hands and dance a jig and otherwise express your amazement at this special child’s display of absolute brilliance.
But then you mess it all up by asking, “So, what happens when you add one to infinity?”
And, naturally enough, the astute child answers, “Uh, well, I guess you get infinity one.”
But instead of clapping your hands and dancing a jig, now you say, unwisely, “Nope. You still have infinity.”
And now the once astute child is left standing there scratching his head, confused, despondent, miserable, wretched, or worse!
But you’ve just tried to explain an abstract concept beyond all numbers by using concrete numbers.
Well, such is the preacher’s task on Trinity Sunday: to try to explain an abstract concept that is beyond our finitude and limitations only to leave us all, in the end, scratching our heads, confused, despondent, miserable, wretched, or worse!
But what if we do something a little different this year? What if, instead of trying to shed a little more light on this difficult-to-see topic, I don’t try to explain it? What if, instead, I ask us simply to accept it—to accept that the trinity, one god in three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, just is?
I mean, after all, this is our confession of faith, our creed. We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life. One god in three persons.
So, what if the trinity is our starting point, our premise? What sort of conclusion might we draw?
Well, let’s try it and see where we end up.
So, God is trinity. This is our starting point. God has always been and God will always be triune.
Another way to say this is that God in trinity exists both inside and outside our world, or, both inside and outside our dimensions of time and space.
So, let’s go back to the beginning. No, let’s go back to before the beginning. In the beginning, the Bible says, God created the heavens and the earth. It stands to reason, then, that before the beginning—before any heavens and earth were created—God still is.
Now, I’m not trying to give some big lesson in cosmology here, saying that I have all the answers, that you better believe in a literal, six-day creation or you’re not saved; or that evolution debunks the Bible; or that, for crying out loud!, only the Big Bang theory makes any sense.
Rather, I’m trying to remove everything but God from the picture. I want us to envision God entirely alone—entirely by God’s self, if you will—before any part of creation was created. Picture God alone, outside of our physical dimensions of time and space.
And, when you do, yes, even then and there—even outside of time and space—God was, is, and will be triune.
This is our premise.
Now, what kinds of inferences might we draw from this picture of God existing by God’s self, outside of space and time?
I can think of at least three.
The first inference is that God is, was, and always will be in relationship. And I’m not talking about with us! God is in relationship with us, sure. But outside of time and space, God alone is in relationship with God’s self. This can’t happen if God is simply one god in one person. But our premise is one god in three persons.
A second inference builds from the first: since God is in relationship with God’s self; and since God is three persons, God is community.
“Two’s company, but three’s a crowd,” the old saying goes. This is because it’s much easier for two people to get along than for three.
An episode from my boyhood comes to mind. I had a best friend growing up. His name was John. John and I met when we were four, in YMCA Indian Guides (a name that wouldn’t fly now). We were close friends through high school, till we went our separate ways in college.
One Saturday we found ourselves together at a park, playing. But there was a third boy there too, an older boy—we were maybe 9 and he was more like 14 or 15—a boy neither of us knew. This third boy came up to me, said hi, introduced himself, and said, “Hey, that boy over there called you a liar.” And he pointed at John.
A few minutes later I noticed this older boy pull John aside, whisper something to him, and point at me.
A few more exchanges like this took place and before we knew what had happened John and I were exchanging blows. Yeah! Fisticuffs!
After a few minutes we stopped our fray and asked each other why we were fighting. When we realized why, that this older boy had been the cause, we looked for the instigator but he was gone.
Point is, two persons get along just fine; but bring a third into the mix and things can get nasty in a hurry. The psychological term for this is triangulation.
But the trinity of persons in God gets along just fine, in triune relationship, without triangulation. This is community the way it’s intended.
The third inference to draw sounds extremely familiar: God is love. God exists in perfect relationship and community. Each person of the trinity gives and takes exactly what he should, balancing self with others, a finely tuned triad. And what is such harmony but love?
Love is and was and always will be.
Theologians through the millennia have put together these three concepts—relationship, community, and love—summarizing them with a fancy theological word: perichoresis. Peri– is a prefix meaning “around,” like in the words periscope and perimeter; and choresis is where we get the word chorus from, meaning (originally) “dance.”
The word perichoresis, then, assigned uniquely to the trinity, signifies an extremely complex divine dance, where each person of the trinity knows his part and the parts of his two partners; each giving and taking just enough and not too much. Perichoresis is continuous relationship, community, and love. And it is beautiful.
And because these things exist beyond all time and space, we can say they are attributes of God: a part of who God is. Relationship, community, and love have always been; just like God has always been! They are not human inventions.
But when we return to the physical world we know of time and space; to our created order; to our day and culture; to the particularities and peculiarities of our day-to-day lives, we can sure mess these things up, can’t we?
Relationship, community, love—these are attributes of God passed on to us humans. We tend to mess them up, yeah! But don’t lose hope. They’re gifts from God! And when we grow in these areas, the result is beautiful.
And so here is the conclusion we reach: relationship, community, and love are attributes of God.
And this is why I’m a Christian.
There are many religions out there that make a lot of sense. Have you ever wondered what if you’d been born into a different family, or in another part of the world? Would you have accepted the religion of that culture over Christianity? Where would you be today?
There’s a lot of talk in our culture about all spiritual roads leading to God. I don’t know. Maybe this is true. Who am I to say? If God is above all else a god of love, as our New Testament claims over and over; if love truly wins, then, yes, I can make room for this idea in my thinking.
But here’s the key point for me: what makes Christianity shine above all other religions is love. Only in the Christian, trinitarian understanding of God can love be an actual attribute of God—a part of who God is.
You can’t say this about the other great monotheistic religions of the world. In both Judaism and Islam, God is simply one god in one person. Outside of time and space, one person has no other to love, no other to be in relationship or community with. Love must therefore be a creation of God, not an attribute, existing only within the realms of time and space, not outside or beyond them.
The same could be said for the various sects claiming to be Christian, like Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. They don’t believe in the trinity, but only in a god of one person, a god who by nature does not possess as an attribute a love toward the other, a love that is outward.
Moreover, you can’t say that love is a divine attribute for the pantheistic religions of the world.
Hinduism has more than 300,000 gods. Yet it is ultimately reduced to one impersonal, apathetic prime mover, unable to love another.
It is similar for the Greek, Roman, and Norse pantheons. In each case, there is a multitude of divinities; yet created by earlier forces; which in turn were created by earlier forces still; and so on until at the beginning there was only one, dispassionate, unmoved and unmoving mover, incapable of outward love.
You can’t say that love is an eternal divine attribute for the Buddhist either. Indeed, the Buddhist understanding of divinity is fundamentally at odds with the Christian understanding, more atheistic than anything else.
And, perhaps it goes without saying, love cannot be a divine attribute for the Atheist. There is no god for the Atheist—with the possible exception of the self, or the human animal. But even the Atheist can’t deny that we catch glimpses of love all around us in our world. So, the Atheist must ask, where does love come from? If the harsh theory of natural selection is all that governs us human animals, as most Atheists maintain, where can an other-focused love fit in at all?
For all other religions, love can only ever be a human invention. It is only the Christian religion that understands love to be a part of who God is.
So, too often on Trinity Sunday we preachers try to argue a case for the trinity. How can we be sure there even is a trinity? How can we prove that one god exists in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? How can we even begin to understand this idea? And so, too often, we try to explain using words and analogies that are always and everywhere subject to finitude.
But if we just accept the doctrine of the trinity, that we don’t know how or why but the trinity just is, then we end up at a remarkable place. God is love. Love is, has always been, and always will be. It’s not a creation. It’s not a human invention.
And it’s why Christianity makes sense.