The Rev. Dr. Robert MacSwain
When I was a MDiv student at Princeton Theological Seminary, I attended an Episcopal parish that was going through a rector search. In its parish profile, All Saints’ Church, Princeton, made a statement that has always stuck with me. The document said:
The deliberate, intentional aim of the parish and its leadership has been to become a church where the religion of the Father (catholic) and of the Son (evangelical) and of the Holy Spirit (charismatic) would flower in a seamless unity. How well we have succeeded in this is a matter of judgment. But whether among the clergy and laity, it is probably fair to say that catholic, evangelical, and charismatic have learned to work together in authentic interdependence and mutual affection.
The document then defined what it meant by those three terms, “catholic,” “evangelical,” and “charismatic.”
What I initially took away from this statement, however, was the realization that, in fact, when it came to liturgy, theology, and devotion, different groups of Christians were often focused on one specific divine Person of the Holy and Blessed Trinity, perhaps to the exclusion or at least diminishment of the other two Persons.
Catholics (which here encompasses Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and many Anglicans) often focus on the Person of the Father, evangelical Protestants often focus on the Person of the Son, and Pentecostals and charismatics often focus on the Person of the Holy Spirit. So, catholics are deeply impressed by God’s awesome majesty, evangelicals are in love with Jesus, and charismatics are preoccupied with the dramatic gifts of the Spirit.
This statement from All Saints’ Church reminds us that in thus focusing primarily on a single divine Person of the Holy Trinity, whether they are aware of this or not, catholics, evangelicals, and charismatics run the risk of not being fully, truly, deeply trinitarian. In other words, most Christians are probably functional unitarians, rather than trinitarians, and they therefore either have a religion of the Father, or of the Son, or of the Holy Spirit, but not all three at once.
By contrast, a fully, truly, deeply trinitarian Christianity would embrace all three divine Persons, and would thus be catholic, evangelical, and charismatic, all at once, without fearing that somehow these emphases were in conflict with one another, or that one emphasis could only flourish at the others’ expense. After all, the doctrine of the Trinity is of one God in three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, coequal and coeternal. Likewise, being simultaneously catholic, evangelical, and charismatic is to commit oneself to a truly trinitarian faith. That’s why the baptismal formula says “and” rather than “or”: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
There is another side to the ditch. If most Christians are probably functional unitarians, most Christians are also probably theoretical tritheists. That is, if you were to ask them to explain how they understand the trinitarian nature of God, they would effectively tell you they believe in three Gods rather than one. They may not come right out and say they believe in three Gods rather than One, but that would still be the operating assumption of how the three divine Persons exist and relate to one another. So if most Christians are probably functional unitarians and theoretical tritheists, then it seems that the doctrine of the Trinity is not working very well. Either that, or we theologians are not working very well. The truth is, it’s probably a bit of both.
So what can we do about it on this Trinity Sunday? To begin with, there’s no question that the doctrine of the Trinity is hard to understand — but then so is quantum physics. When it comes to the Trinity, Christians believe that we are not just making this stuff up, and so are not therefore free to believe whatever we want, but are rather seeking to interpret the full range of information we have about God.
David Cunningham, in his book These Three Are One: The Practice of Trinitarian Theology, writes that the doctrine of the Trinity emerges not out of sheer philosophical speculation but out of reflection on the biblical narratives: especially the stories about Jesus’ life, death, and Resurrection, and the descent of the Holy Spirit, which we celebrated last Sunday on the Feast of Pentecost.
According to Cunningham: “The doctrine of the Trinity is, at the most fundamental level, an attempt to account for these phenomena. Christians believed that (1) God remained all-powerful and transcendent, and yet (2) Jesus, who died and was raised by God, was somehow also God; moreover, (3) the Spirit, poured out on the Church, is also God, and yet (4) there is only one God.” It was the challenge of somehow holding all four of these beliefs together that eventually led to the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity as Three Persons in One Substance.
Now, good theology doesn’t always equal good preaching, so rather than dwelling on these technical matters I want to return to the common tendency for Christians to focus on one divine Person to the exclusion or diminishment of the others. How can we avoid that? How can we be catholic, evangelical, and charismatic all at the same time, and thus be fully, truly, deeply trinitarian?
I think in three ways. First, we need to get over our fear of certain labels and inhabit the reality they really represent. Those very terms “catholic,” “evangelical,” and “charismatic” are so loaded with negative associations that they inevitably produce visceral reactions in those who focus on one to the exclusion of the others, and who may even define themselves as one to the exclusion of the others. But those negative associations are themselves produced by that very exclusion! To be catholic is to belong to the universal Church, to be evangelical is to bear the good news of Christ, and to be charismatic is to be full of the Holy Spirit. Understood properly, these are all good things, and they are not remotely incompatible or in competition with one another — just like the three Persons of the Trinity.
Second, we need to deepen our understanding of each of those three Persons and their relation to one another. Much creative work has been done on this very topic. For example, the Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff sees the Father as the mystery of tenderness and fount of being, the Son as the mystery of communication and principle of liberation, and the Spirit as the mystery of love and the in-breaking of the new. There is a lively discussion regarding the use of non-gendered terms for the Father and Son such as “Source” and “Word,” and interesting debates over the proper pronouns for the Spirit. Trinitarian theology is in a state of great ferment at the moment, and it is an exciting and challenging topic to engage with.
Third and finally, we need to see how the most basic aspects of our Christian life such as prayer and worship are in fact the work of the Trinity in us. We do not think the Trinity so much as we live the Trinity, and the Trinity lives in us. I will thus conclude with some remarkable meditations on this topic by Austin Farrer, in his essay “The Trinity in Whom We Live.” He says:
In the pursuit of such high mysteries our thought is lost; and yet the Trinity is no mere conjecture about the heart of Heaven. The Trinity is both the meaning and the setting of that love which the Father has actually bestowed upon us. We need have nothing to do with the Trinity as a cool speculation about the necessary nature of the Godhead; it would be idiocy to place such confidence in theological reasonings as to evolve it by rational argument. The Trinity is revealed to Christians because they are taken into the Trinity, because the threefold love of God wraps them round, because it is in the Trinity that they have their Christian being. Every time I worship or pray or make the least motion of the heart toward God, I stand with the divine Son in the face of the divine Father, the mantle of his sonship spread around me, and the love of the Father overflowing from him to me in the grace of the Holy Spirit.
God above us, Father from whom our being descends, on whom our existence hangs, to whom we turn up our face, to whom we stretch out our hands:
God beside us, God in a human like us, Jesus Christ in the world with us, whose hand lays hold of us, presenting us, with yourself, to God:
God within us, soul of our soul, root of our will, inexhaustible fountain, Holy Spirit:
Threefold Love, one in yourself, unite your forces in us, come together in the citadel of our conquered hearts.
The Rev. Dr. Robert MacSwain is assistant professor of theology and Christian Ethics at The School of Theology, University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee.