Picturing the Trinity



Not every preacher follows the church year slavishly in their sermons… but those who do and are preparing for this coming Sunday may well be considering picking an easier subject, or as Colin Morris used to suggest, feel themselves developing psychosomatic sore throats… It’s known as Trinity Sunday and has stretched more than a few preachers’ abilities to reflect theological truth to breaking point… As someone once said, “Trying to explain the Trinity is like trying to describe the sound of three hands clapping." Three persons in one? It’s the single doctrine that unifies Jews and Muslims in opposition to the Christian understanding of God… and even some strands of Christianity don’t buy it fully…
Yet no matter what some revisionist theologians and populist writers of recent years may say, the Trinity was not dreamed up by a church council a few centuries after Christ, it is woven in and out of the whole of the New Testament, including the words of Jesus in the Gospels, and it does find echoes in the Old Testament…
But there is no definitive statement or illustration of this teaching in Scripture… leaving preachers clutching for illustrations in the world around us, like the tale of Patrick and the shamrock… which has been criticised not only because it is as fictional as the story about him chasing the snakes out of Ireland, but also because it doesn’t reflect the diversity found in what the Bible teaches about the Father, Son and Spirit…
More recently those of a scientific bent have tended to use the picture of ice, water and steam… Three manifestations of the same substance… And there are definite pluses to this image… After all Jesus talked about offering “living water” to one thirsty woman… And there is something to be said for the parallel between steam and the all-pervasive Holy Spirit… But the idea of God the Father as cold, solid and unbending is one that I personally find unhelpful… And far too close to some people’s misunderstandings of a frigid, unforgiving God…
Still using the image of water, but slightly more helpful, in my opinion, is one offered by the theologian David Cunningham of God, Father, Son and Spirit as source, spring and stream. A deep and eternal source of grace bubbling up to the surface of the earth through an unfailing wellspring, which overflows in cool, clear water full of oxygen and nutrients, tumbling over and transforming rocky, barren places and bringing life across the landscape, until it finds maturity in a broad, deep, slow moving river... Of course this too has its limitations... What is the ocean in relation to the source, spring and stream?


But for me, there is something to be said for a doctrine of God that cannot be easily summed up in a simple illustration or adequately understood by even the finest of minds. Because a God like that, wouldn’t really be God at all… We aren’t called on to fully understand God… Simply to trust… in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.





This is a combined and condensed version of 2 Just a Minute's produced for Downtown Radio this week...

Comments

Gary said…
A perplexing theme - thankfully the Rector is preaching this Sunday! While no illustration is perfect, I think i would steer clear of the ice, water, steam one - it sounds a bit too much like modalism for me.

The question is - what passage to preach from?!
physics and chemistry geeks will tell you that there are certain conditions of temperature and pressure where ice, water and steam can exist at the same time... can't remember what it is... have to look it up when I get home... But at that point the illustration becomes "non-modalistic" but given that I have frequently heard this being used to talk to children about the trinity, this may be a little above their heads... I'm not actually preaching this sunday morning myself (Children's Sunday, with a visiting speaker... I'm not daft) so I haven't looked at the lectionary readings for this week.
itonically the "Triple point"... Didn't look it up... It came to me at about 3.30am this morning!

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