The Strong Name of the Trinity

By John Mason Lock

Today is the Feast of the Holy Trinity. It is not the day in which the doctrine of the Trinity should be reduced to palpable images or figures. No doubt you’ve heard of the ice, liquid water, and water vapor image as a metaphor for the Trinity. In a children’s book on the Trinity I came across, the author states that the Trinity is like an apple, which has a peel, flesh, and core with seeds.

But when we speak of the three persons of the Trinity — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost — we are not speaking of different parts of God, or in the case of the water metaphor, of changing states or masks of God. One of the most helpful phrases on the doctrine of the Trinity comes from what is called the Athanasian Creed, which historically, together with the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, was considered the basis of Christian confession.

The Athanasian Creed states in part, “the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.” To confound the persons is to blur the distinctions between the three persons of the Trinity and their role in salvation history. That which makes them distinct is their relation to one another: the Son is begotten of the Father; the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.

On the other hand, to divide the substance is to emphasize the differences of the persons to such an extent that the result is a belief in three gods. The Triune God is one Lord, one Almighty, one Being that is not created, one Being that is eternal. This one phrase uproots most of the images of the Trinity that will be heard from pulpits today: “We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.”

The purpose of the feast day becomes more clear when we consider where it falls in the course of the Church year. The Church year begins with Advent around the first of December. Advent anticipates the second and first comings of our Lord Jesus. His nativity is celebrated at the end of Advent with the 12 days of Christmas. Epiphany — the manifestation of Jesus as both God and man, especially to the wise men — follows in January and February.

In the next season, Lent, we recollect our Lord’s temptation — in which he faced and overcame all the temptations common to man. The climax of Lent, of course, is Holy Week and the commemoration of our Lord’s last days, his crucifixion and triumphant Resurrection on Easter Day. Forty days after Easter Sunday, we remember that Jesus ascended into heaven, where he intercedes for us and from where he sends his disciples the Spirit.

Ten days later, on Pentecost, the Church gives thanks for the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and Church. From Advent to Pentecost we remember the events by which we confess that God entered into history to save humanity from sin and death. The crown of these successive events is Trinity Sunday.

Do we have Trinity Sunday now because we are turning from events to ideas or philosophy? Not at all. Trinity Sunday follows this yearly retelling of salvation history in order to remind us that our belief in a Triune God is shaped and formed by God’s self-revelation in these saving events.

For example, we confess our Lord to be God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, because we are confronted by the reality of Jesus: a man, yes, but a man so unlike his contemporaries, so unlike us, that he stands out in the Gospel narratives — from birth to crucifixion to Resurrection — as more than perfect man, being perfect God as well. Even the best of men do not claim to have power over spiritual evil, to heal and raise the dead and even to forgive sins. This man Jesus also claims that God is his Father in a way unique and exclusive to him. If untrue, this is the worst kind of arrogance or perhaps insanity, but if true, we have to reckon with this man, this perfect human who is also the only begotten Son of God.

We also confess the Holy Spirit to be the third person of the Trinity because we are confronted by the Holy Spirit. According to the Bible, we know the invisible Spirit because we have a desire to love God and others and because we have a desire to do that which God commands. The Spirit leads us to Jesus, transforming us into disciples of Jesus. The Spirit can speak to us in a still, small voice in our hearts, or be manifested in powerful and dramatic ways, as the Book of Acts witnesses.

All this leads one to conclude that the Spirit is not it, but thou, a personal presence even as Jesus was personally present with his disciples. So, you see, the doctrine of the Trinity is not really the speculation of philosophers who have discovered something new about God; the doctrine of the Trinity is the natural and logical result of reflecting on the saving events we’ve commemorated during the past six months.

Why does the doctrine of the Trinity matter? Isn’t it enough simply to believe in God? A hymn that is often sung on Trinity Sunday is known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate — it’s Hymn 268. The text traditionally attributed to St. Patrick is a statement of faith in God as a sure protector from all the evil that we encounter in this life. The words are a figurative breastplate for the Christian who devoutly recites them. The hymn opens with these words:

I bind unto myself today
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same
The Three in One and One in Three.

Each today, when we wake up, we do not know what will to happen to us. Some days, maybe even many days, are predictable, but there are a lot of days that are filled with twists and turns, interruptions and accidents, at least from our limited perspective. Each day can often feel like an obstacle course. The conviction stated in St. Patrick’s Breastplate is that we can face this obstacle course through the strong name of the Trinity, and here is where we come to the reason why the doctrine of the Trinity is so important.

The doctrine of the Trinity is important and the Trinity is invoked in the Breastplate of St. Patrick because the doctrine of the Trinity, that God is a trinity of persons, Father, Son and Spirit, recalls for us the saving events wrought by the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that God the Father so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. The doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that Christ has given himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savor. The doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that our Lord has ascended into heaven and has sent to us another Comforter to lead us into all truth and to bear witness with our spirit that we children of God.

The Trinity is invoked in St. Patrick’s Breastplate because we are to live our lives in the context of these saving events, our Lord’s Incarnation, baptism, and temptation, his Passion, crucifixion and Resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. We are to see the birth of a precious child in the context of the birth of God’s son in a stable in Bethlehem. We are to see our awakening to the things of faith in the context of Jesus’ baptism as he opens the way for our new, spiritual birth; we are to see our temptations and failures in the context of our Lord’s temptation and his victory over that temptation, a victory that we share in, inasmuch as we belong to him.

We are to see our death and mortality and the death of our loved ones in the light of the cross of our Lord Jesus, who by his death has taken away the sting of death. We are to see our hope for a future, greater life in the context of our Lord’s triumphant Resurrection and his ultimate defeat of sin and death. It is, thus, no surprise that the second verse of the Breastplate continues with these words:

I bind this day to me forever
By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation;
His baptism in Jordan river,
His death on Cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spicèd tomb,
His riding up the heavenly way,
His coming at the day of doom
I bind unto myself today.

The alternative to seeing our lives in the context of the saving events worked by the Holy Trinity is startling: without his blessed Passion and precious death, without his mighty Resurrection and glorious Ascension, without the coming of the Holy Ghost, our lives become unmoored, a meaningless sequence of events that tend toward chaos, decay, and destruction; sorrow after sorrow, we move from amusement to amusement in order to anesthetize our loneliness and spiritual emptiness.

On the other hand, our lives find their true purpose and meaning in the life of the Trinity and in the light of the redeeming work of the Trinity. In our confession of the Trinity, we embrace and find our lives in the life of the Trinity and in the confidence of this faith in overcoming every trial, temptation and evil of this life.

I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
By Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

The Rev. John Mason Lock is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Red Bank, New Jersey.

Countdown to GC80 Opening Gavel


Online Archives