By Sarah Coakley
“For God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Rom. 5:5)
This is Trinity Sunday — the professional theologian’s moment, par excellence. But how on earth to expound a doctrine that everyone agrees cannot be read out of the biblical text, and worse, seems to threaten all normal canons of coherence? For how can three “persons” nonetheless be “one substance,” as the historic creeds insist? And how can such technical terms as these even begin to capture the rich reality and experience of Christian salvation?
Perhaps it may help to start by exposing some ways of thinking about the Trinity that are not likely to yield illumination, which nonetheless may still lurk insidiously in our semi-conscious realm. By a sort of koanic process of exposing and then denying what is obviously absurd we may perhaps then be able to start again, and from a more promising direction.
And probably no one spoofed the doctrine of the Trinity along these lines better in the 20th century than Dorothy L. Sayers, crime writer (of Lord Peter Wimsey fame), playwright, poet, and resolute woman in an era largely hostile to feminism. Here is her account (in her delicious little text, Strong Meat) of what a catechetical enquirer about the doctrine of the Trinity might learn in the worst theological circumstances:
Q.: What does the Church think of God the Father?
A.: He is omnipotent and holy. He created the world and imposed on man conditions impossible of fulfilment; He is very angry if these are not carried out. … He is rather like a Dictator, only larger and more arbitrary.
Q.: What does the Church think of God the Son?
A.: He is in some way to be identified with Jesus of Nazareth. It was not His fault that the world was made like this, and, unlike God the Father, He is friendly to man and did His best to reconcile man to God [see the “Atonement”]. … He has a good deal of influence with God, and if you want anything done, it is best to apply to Him.
Q.: What does the Church think of God the Holy Ghost?
A.: I don’t know exactly. He was never seen or heard of till Whit-Sunday. There is a sin against Him which damns you for ever, but nobody knows what it is.
Q.: What [then] is the doctrine of the Trinity?
A.: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the whole thing incomprehensible.” Something put in by theologians to make it more difficult — nothing to do with daily life or ethics.
Note how Sayers so brilliantly exposes the theological flaws that she plans herself in due course to answer. The Father is a distant divine dictator; the Son is his divine subordinate and underling (although human as well, and thus at least potentially more sympathetic to our needs); and the Spirit — well, it seems hopeless to try and indicate what that is and why you need it at all. When you add all these together and stir, what you get is nothing but incomprehensible nonsense with no obvious applicability to ordinary life.
Now these are all real questions to be raised, and exposing the theological mistakes in the answers given here is precisely what the early Church was also concerned with. It did indeed struggle with whether the Father was greater, or somehow more mysterious, than the Son (its answer, ultimately, was no — but what the Bible said could have been taken in either direction); it did indeed struggle with how to characterize the Spirit — as a subordinate divine force, or as a true third “person” fully equal to Father and Son (its answer, eventually, the latter — but again, the biblical witness was ambiguous); and it did indeed strain to express how three could be one, while having to admit ultimately that numbers here were being used in a rather strange and unique way.
But here’s the point: what ultimately propelled the arguments about the Trinity in the early centuries was underlying the very experience of salvation, which begins with what Paul in today’s epistle memorably calls the unique “gift” of the Spirit outpouring divine love into our hearts. So although Paul does not of course deliver a fully developed doctrine of the Trinity in the late first century, what he does show us is the key spiritual entrance point to this mystery without which, frankly, we might well dismiss it from the outset as incomprehensible nonsense. To expound what is going on in Romans 5 is thus to begin to answer Dorothy Sayers’s spoof. But how so, exactly? Three brief points come to mind:
First, if you leave the Holy Spirit till “third” and then declare that you’ve no idea what it even is, the battle for the Trinity is already lost. According to Paul it is the outpouring of divine love in the Spirit which touches our deepest core and draws us via God into God, into that intimate space of love where the Spirit moves eternally between Father and Son and yet also ceaselessly deflects that love outward to the world. This is the fundamental gift, the donum, that God gives us in inviting us to participate in his life through baptism. It is, as Augustine puts it later, appealing to this very same text from Paul, a matter of the Spirit ecstatically “inflaming” us with “love for God and neighbour” (de trin XV, ch. 17). Without this way in, the way of the Spirit’s gift, the Trinity can mean nothing to us.
But secondly, without this entry point we can have no true understanding either of what it is to embark on the lifelong adventure of growing into Christ — not merely investigating him as a past extrinsic figure, note, but becoming what Paul calls progressively melded into the logic of the Son’s death and resurrection. Only such a journey, surely, can explain what Paul describes in this same passage as the strange propulsion from “suffering” to “endurance” to “character” to “hope.” The ordering is significant and initially deeply puzzling: how can hope ever come out of suffering? Answer, only in the disposition of the heart cracked open to the Spirit and so conjoined with the death and resurrection of the Son. Here, God’s love “does not disappoint us.” And thus here we relate most deeply and profoundly, contra Sayers’s spoof, with “daily life and ethics.”
And so thirdly, in this mysterious life that we share as Christians through the Spirit, and in Christ, the lingering Freudian nightmare of a Father God as distant threat or “dictator,” is finally challenged and overcome. Here is a Father not as patriarchal threat but as the deepest source of my own reality, closer to me than I am even to myself, as Augustine memorably put it — and in a mode of fatherhood precisely not as isolated potentate but as living divine relationality, inextricably deflecting and giving, going out and returning, suffusing the whole world with the precious creative gift of the “mind of the maker,” in whose image we are made.
It was this vision of the Trinity, ultimately, that gave Dorothy Sayers also the courage to answer her own wonderful spoofing questions and to affirm her own belief in a God known disarmingly, ecstatically, creatively, as triune. It was this vision of the Trinity that gave her the courage to go on: as academic outré, as creative imagination, playwright and poet, as mother of an illegitimate son who never even knew he was hers until after her death: here was someone, to say the least, fully alive to the problems of “daily life and ethics,” and who yet became persuaded that the Trinity supremely enabled and explicated her own sense of creativity “in the image”:
Q.: What then is the Trinity?
A.: Something put in by theologians to make it all more difficult?
I will not deny it — this is difficult, but not for the reasons suspected. For the existential shift from suspected nonsense to mysterious and transformative disclosure is a journey that can only start with the full acceptance of God’s love “poured into our heart by the Holy Spirit.” It is this reality to which this feast recalls us; anything else is “life and ethics” unfolding from this divine gift. Accept it and live into the life of the trinitarian God.
The Rev. Dr. Sarah Coakley is a visiting professorial fellow at the Australian Catholic University (Melbourne and Rome).