Friday, June 05, 2009

On Teaching the Trinity

This post is dedicated to Pr. Charles Lehmann

Trinity Sunday is coming up, and I do not envy the task of those who intend to preach on the topic for two reasons. One, the Trinity isn't the easiest of concepts to explain. And two, having explained it, it isn't that easy to apply that lesson to one's congregation.

Now I should stop and say I have no right to tell anyone how to preach, of course. But in musing about this, I think there might be an elegant and rather straightforward way of solving both. And I offer it as a suggestion to consider.

First, let me step back and tell you my own experience with this annual exercise. Most priests, with a few very notable exceptions, begin by explaining that understanding the Trinity is very hard and it's ok if we don't get the Trinity as many Saints didn't. Ok, fair enough, but after a while this sounds like a cop out.

It is true that the Trinity over the years has developed very specific terminology. This partly because we began to really understand the Trinity by telling Arius, Nestorius and others what the Trinity is not. Indeed, Eutyches got so carried away with his passionate defence that his defence itself slipped into heresy. So very specific terminology has been developed to describe the Trinity. This can make the subject intimidating to the people in the seats, as well, I am sure, to those doing the edifying.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a wonderful section on the Trinity, and this is certainly one approach to teaching it:

The dogma of the Holy Trinity
253 The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons, the "consubstantial Trinity".83 The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire: "The Father is that which the Son is, the Son that which the Father is, the Father and the Son that which the Holy Spirit is, i.e. by nature one God."84 In the words of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), "Each of the persons is that supreme reality, viz., the divine substance, essence or nature."85

254 The divine persons are really distinct from one another. "God is one but not solitary."86 "Father", "Son", "Holy Spirit" are not simply names designating modalities of the divine being, for they are really distinct from one another: "He is not the Father who is the Son, nor is the Son he who is the Father, nor is the Holy Spirit he who is the Father or the Son."87 They are distinct from one another in their relations of origin: "It is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds."88 The divine Unity is Triune.

255 The divine persons are relative to one another. Because it does not divide the divine unity, the real distinction of the persons from one another resides solely in the relationships which relate them to one another: "In the relational names of the persons the Father is related to the Son, the Son to the Father, and the Holy Spirit to both. While they are called three persons in view of their relations, we believe in one nature or substance."89 Indeed "everything (in them) is one where there is no opposition of relationship."90 "Because of that unity the Father is wholly in the Son and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Son is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Son."91

256 St. Gregory of Nazianzus, also called "the Theologian", entrusts this summary of Trinitarian faith to the catechumens of Constantinople:

Above all guard for me this great deposit of faith for which I live and fight, which I want to take with me as a companion, and which makes me bear all evils and despise all pleasures: I mean the profession of faith in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. I entrust it to you today. By it I am soon going to plunge you into water and raise you up from it. I give it to you as the companion and patron of your whole life. I give you but one divinity and power, existing one in three, and containing the three in a distinct way. Divinity without disparity of substance or nature, without superior degree that raises up or inferior degree that casts down. . . the infinite co-naturality of three infinites. Each person considered in himself is entirely God. . . the three considered together. . . I have not even begun to think of unity when the Trinity bathes me in its splendour. I have not even begun to think of the Trinity when unity grasps me. .92

Some of the best ways I have heard priests preach the Trinity is to start, essentially, with this and perhaps put it in simpler language if necessary (although I do think that sometimes things are too simplified at times.)

The next step is to proceed with the Catechism and highlight the Trinitarian Mission in the world.

In other words, this is a good and adequate way of proceeding; no one could find fault with it unless is strayed a little too far into technical jargon.


All of this though, it seems to me, can be even more easily summarised (perhaps after one goes through a similar exercise as above). God is love and God is koinonia. There has never been a time in which those statements have not been true. And they are not two separate things in so far as, in many ways, they are true because of each other. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit exist completely and entirely in a perfect communion (koinonia) with one another, because they are all the same God (think of the implications of 2 Cor 13:14: "the grace of Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the koinonia of the Holy Spirit be with you all"), and it is a koinonia of love, because God is love (1 John 4:8). The most powerful homily I ever heard was delivered by a visiting Dominican priest on this very line.

The strength of this summary is that it is then easy to apply to the congregation. We were all created in God's image. What does this mean? Well, the implication is clear, we were created to be creatures of His Love and to seek out koinonia, koinonia of love. The Trinity is therefore something we should seek to emulate in our lives: the perfect love the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit have for each other, and the perfect communion/fellowship that exists between the Persons because they have the same ousia, that is, because they are all equally God, the God who is Love.

UPDATE 1: As I was on the bus home tonight I realised that I had completely forgotten other important elements.

1. The Catechism's approach before those quotes is important too:

234 The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them. It is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the "hierarchy of the truths of faith".56 The whole history of salvation is identical with the history of the way and the means by which the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, reveals himself to men "and reconciles and unites with himself those who turn away from sin".57

236 The Fathers of the Church distinguish between theology (theologia) and economy (oikonomia). "Theology" refers to the mystery of God's inmost life within the Blessed Trinity and "economy" to all the works by which God reveals himself and communicates his life. Through the oikonomia the theologia is revealed to us; but conversely, the theologia illuminates the whole oikonomia. God's works reveal who he is in himself; the mystery of his inmost being enlightens our understanding of all his works. So it is, analogously, among human persons. A person discloses himself in his actions, and the better we know a person, the better we understand his actions.

2. And this then brings to mind the necessity of the Trinity. A good teaching moment is to point out that this economy of the Trinity in Creation is a necessity, and not just for belief. If we seek to emulate the love and communion of the Triune God, we must also appreciate the way in which this love and communion turns into the economy of Creation, and especially the Economy of Salvation.

UPDATE 2: Pr. Lehmann, to whom this post is dedicated, asked me in the combox (and in before that when I was musing but not posting) to assess his sermon. Now, normally I read Pr Lehmann's sermons as they are posted. But this time I did not. I am even more glad of it now than before, because my post would have devolved into a "response" to his sermon rather than a general statement.

I do quibble with one thing rather stridently. I am sorry Pastor, but the God the Jews worship is not a false god. For this would mean that Christ was presented to a false god in the Temple, and when he celebrated the Passover, He did so in the name of a false god and so on. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob is my God too. Now, I happen to believe their understanding of Him is incomplete, but that doesn't mean they worship Baal, or Odin, or Amaterasu or anyone other than the same God I do.

I also find it a little sad that he must explain "catholic" to Confessional Lutherans. Now, while I have my own view on their "catholic" status, it is a fact that Luther taught that their movement was, literally, more catholic than the Pope. I'm sorry, Pastor, but I couldn't help but pick up on that.

I also think he spends too much time dwelling on things that are "off-topic," such as his long footnote on the deeds of which we will be asked to make an account. It seems to me that while the Athanasian Creed is by far the greatest explication in prayer form of the Trinity, it might not be doing all the job he wants it to, if a good third of his sermon is devoted to defending it.

As an aside, I pray the very same Creed at every Mass during the Offertory.

If I seem to be saying his sermon was bad, forgive me. There is much to admire in his sermon when he actually gets back to talking about the Trinity itself. Against this rubric he seems to do a pretty good job of explaining the Trinity. There's also an application to the lives of his congregation by way of love. And so, I think, as I said, when it gets to the actual point, he does a good job.

I end this update by apologising to Pastor Lehmann for my harsh words. But I hope he will understand that in order to give him my assessment it must be honest. Still, at the end of the day, who am I to assess anything of his? He's perfectly free to answer correctly: nobody.


Pr. Lehmann said...

Good thoughts, and the quotation from Nazianzus is sublime.

So, now that you've mused, how does my preachment for two days hence measure up?

Ogden Chichester said...

Before I answer that question, I realised two things I forgot to mention. ;)

Pr. Lehmann said...

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not the god of modern Jews. The god of these Jews is Satan, and they are his servants (Rev. 2:9 refers to ancient Pharisaism of which modern Judaism is the heir).

I am speaking in the present tense. I am not speaking of Old Testament Israel or those faithful Israelites who were contemporary with Christ's earthly ministry.

Pr. Lehmann said...

Regarding side issues:

I would normally not spend a lot of time on "catholic" or point out how the creed is based in part on Matthew 25.

However, I must teach my people where they're at. I dare go "over their heads." You start where they are and you move from there.

Not every Lutheran congregation has had the same teaching and not every group of people has been taught the same level of content.

Next year, I'll need to do less of what I have to do the day after tomorrow, but the day after tomorrow what I wrote is necessary.

Ogden Chichester said...

That is something we passionately disagree on. Jews, as a group, at no time worship Satan. What individual Jews or Christians do I cannot speak to. Indeed there are some among those who call themselves Christians who say they are so, but who worship Satan, or Mammon, or whatnot.

But as a group it is most categorically the case that Modern Jews have not stopped worshiping the same God. It seems to me terribly indefensible. No Jew consciously wills to worship anything than the God, God Himself has commanded him to worship; i.e. God Himself.

218 In the course of its history, Israel was able to discover that God had only one reason to reveal himself to them, a single motive for choosing them from among all peoples as his special possession: his sheer gratuitous love.38 and thanks to the prophets Israel understood that it was again out of love that God never stopped saving them and pardoning their unfaithfulness and sins.39

219 God's love for Israel is compared to a father's love for his son. His love for his people is stronger than a mother's for her children. God loves his people more than a bridegroom his beloved; his love will be victorious over even the worst infidelities and will extend to his most precious gift: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son."40

839 "Those who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the People of God in various ways."325
The relationship of the Church with the Jewish People. When she delves into her own mystery, the Church, the People of God in the New Covenant, discovers her link with the Jewish People,326 "the first to hear the Word of God."327 The Jewish faith, unlike other non-Christian religions, is already a response to God's revelation in the Old Covenant. To the Jews "belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ",328 "for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable."329

840 and when one considers the future, God's People of the Old Covenant and the new People of God tend towards similar goals: expectation of the coming (or the return) of the Messiah. But one awaits the return of the Messiah who died and rose from the dead and is recognized as Lord and Son of God; the other awaits the coming of a Messiah, whose features remain hidden till the end of time; and the latter waiting is accompanied by the drama of not knowing or of misunderstanding Christ Jesus.

I do not believe they understand correctly, but I refuse to claim they worship Satan; along that route leads blood libel, pogroms, and so on.

Jews do not worship Satan. Period.

Ogden Chichester said...

Regarding side issues ...

I just hope you remember not to judge my people for being poorly catechised if your predecessors themselves could not do the job for your people. Moreover, your congregation, I daresay, are not alone.

After all, even RJN has to explain to his own (former) people what the title of his "How I Became the Catholic I Was" means ... because he confesses, it was not taught to him either. And I suspect, again, he and your people are not alone. (As indeed, neither are mine.)

Pr. Lehmann said...

I agree with the Apostle John and with our Lord Jesus Christ who both say unequivocally that one cannot honor the Father without honoring the Son.

Modern Judaism denies that Jesus Christ, son of Mary and son of the eternal Father, is God, and thus they place themselves entirely outside of the cross and under the wrath of God.

This places them firmly in the synagogue of Satan.

Ogden Chichester said...

More on the Jews:

As Holy Scripture testifies, Jerusalem did not recognize the time of her visitation,(9) nor did the Jews in large number, accept the Gospel; indeed not a few opposed its spreading.(10) Nevertheless, God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues-such is the witness of the Apostle.(11) In company with the Prophets and the same Apostle, the Church awaits that day, known to God alone, on which all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and "serve him shoulder to shoulder" (Soph. 3:9).(12)

Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this sacred synod wants to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies as well as of fraternal dialogues.

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ;(13) still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.

Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.

Besides, as the Church has always held and holds now, Christ underwent His passion and death freely, because of the sins of men and out of infinite love, in order that all may reach salvation. It is, therefore, the burden of the Church's preaching to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God's all-embracing love and as the fountain from which every grace flows.


Ogden Chichester said...

I think it a far cry to equate getting it wrong about Jesus to actively bowing down in an assembly and crying out "Dear Satan, I sure am worshiping you!" I do not hold invincible ignorance them, nor does God forget His Promises to the Sons of Israel.

They get it wrong about Christ, but that does not to me equate to active worship of Satan.

Ogden Chichester said...

*invincible ignorance against them, it should say ...

Pr. Lehmann said...

They get it wrong about Christ, but that does not to me equate to active worship of Satan.

Actually, that's exactly what it equates to:

"Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also." 1 John 2:22-23

Ogden Chichester said...

Sorry, I do not see that as saying that Jews of their own volition intend to worship anyone other than YHWH. No Jew, none, goes into a synagogue intending to worship anyone other than YHWH.

You tell me that the old Jewish lady who knows nothing of Christ, and certainly not enough to actively deny Him, goes into a synagogue and goes "Satan, I intend to worship YOU!"

Your quote condemns those who know Christ and then reject Him.

Consider this.

You find someone who says "I reject Christ"

And you gasp in honour, but he goes on "The Christ I reject is a sea urchin who interferes with shipping lanes." You tell me this person rejects the same Christ you and I do?

Some individual Jews might know enough about Christ to validly reject Him as you say; certainly there are those who call themselves Christians and deny Him in various ways.

But I'd like you to find me one Jew, any one Jew, who actively intends to worship Satan instead of YHWH, and then show me how that one Jew imputes that to his whole co-religionists.

Ogden Chichester said...

*Gasp in horror, of course

Ogden Chichester said...

same Christ you and I worship ... you can tell I am incensed, I am making many more mistakes than I normally do. ;)

Pr. Lehmann said...

The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.

I have no doubt that the Jews who are actively worshiping Satan intend to worship the very God whom they've been denying for the past two thousand years.

Intention does not equal reality.

I'll just take Saint John's word on what's actually going on.

Ogden Chichester said...

As I said to you privately, St John is being twisted here to mean we must hate.

You are stating categorically that they of their own will actively worship Satan. I find that to be libelous.

Show me one verse where it much more explicitly says what you have to otherwise twist Scripture to say. As NOSTRA AETATE put it none of what you say follows from Scripture.

Pr. Lehmann said...


I think Saint John is perfectly clear. To say that Jesus is not the Son of God is to be antichrist. Modern Judaism fits the bill. Whether modern Jews know it or not, they are actively worshiping Satan (as all who deny Christ do).

This does not mean I hate Jews. I love them. I want them to repent. I want them to come to faith in Christ. I am a member of the church body in the United States with the longest standing continuous missionary effort that specifically exists to reach the Jews, for crying out loud.

I hate anything that sends anyone to hell. That's why I want Jews out of modern Judaism.

Without Christ, hell's the only possibility, and I don't want that for ANYONE.

Ogden Chichester said...

Again, I hold and affirm that salvation can only come from actively accepting Christ and His Gospel. The Law alone cannot save. Satan has clearly mislead all those who have not yet accepted Christ.

But I absolutely reject that all Jews everywhere actively worship Satan with sufficient knowledge and full consent of their wills.

Getting it wrong about Jesus does not equal active worship of Satan. It certainly doesn't lead to salvation to reject Him, but again only God can know if they had enough and correct knowledge to reject Him.

I mean for Heaven's sake, the Jesus so many of them rejected for so long wasn't one you or I recognise. He was the son of a Roman Soldier who performed sorcery and dueled with people in the sky. Sure, I reject him too, cause that's kind of kooky. And that's what I mean about being misled.

I mean really, there are enough sins we do in our lives that send us to Hell without having to be falsely accused of one.

Pr. Lehmann said...

Unbelief is active worship of Satan. Everyone worships something, and the true God, the Holy and Blessed Trinity, is the best option, and Satan is the other. There are only two.

There's no such thing as passive worship of Satan. Ephesians 2:1-3 makes it clear that all worship of Satan is willful (walking) even if you don't know that's what you're doing.

Modern Judaism is a religion of Satan, plain and simple. It fits perfectly Saint John's description of antichrist.

That's all I have to say.

Nur 'n Huend said...

Ihr habt beides Unrecht jedoch wichtiger ist es in den Himmel zu kommen als Recht zu haben. Freut euch doch darueber.

David said...

Uh, Lehman.

Sh'ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad

Here oh Israel, the lord is my god, the lord is one.

The most important prayer in Judaism, and as a Jew, I can tell you we don't worship satan.


Pr. Lehmann said...


When you pray that prayer, the true God does not hear you. You cannot worship Him apart from His Son.

Satan delights in such prayer because it keeps you firmly in His grasp.

Ogden Chichester said...

If nothing else, this discussion has given me a new topic to blog about today: a commentary on 1 John, especially 1 John 2. After all, if it is being made to serve a purpose, let's see if that stands up to scrutiny.

David said...

Pastor, are you jealous that we have the covenant with G-d, and we're his chosen people?

It's ok if you are.

Pr. Lehmann said...

I'm not jealous. You abrogated the covenant when you rejected its fulfillment in Christ.

I have the covenant. I am part of the Israel of God, just as every Christian is.

Ogden Chichester said...

This view (that Pr. Lehmann is advancing) is called supercessionism. If you remember, David, I did a talk about this on the forum we belong to. If you want I can link you to it.

Anonymous said...

Israel had a covenant with God, but they have not held to it in 2000 years. There is no Temple, not sacrifices, no atonement.

Hamilton said...

supersessionism is an insulting name for covenant theology, designed to create a gag reaction. We do not believe that the church supersedes the Jews, but merely that the Jews have rejected Christ and thus rejected God, since Christ is God. You cannot have the Father without the Son.

Ogden Chichester said...

See my next post about this whole idea that somehow all of the Jews rejected Christ.