January 2017 Credo
In 1989, the British Council of Churches published a collection of essays with an interesting and arresting title: The Forgotten Trinity. The authors of these essays – prominent theologians in the UK – lament the neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity by the modern Church.
To be sure, the Trinity is given special mention at strategic points in Christian worship. The Church baptises her new members in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit in obedience to the Great Commission set out in the Gospels (e.g., Matthew 28:19). And at the end of the service, the minister often blesses the congregation by using the Pauline benediction (2 Corinthians 13:14) with its trinitarian formula.
But beyond these specific rituals and allusions, very little attention is given to the doctrine. By treating the doctrine of the Trinity as little more than a theological appendage, evangelical churches appear to be following in the footsteps of their liberal counterparts.
The doctrine of the Trinity must never be seen as an optional extra.
In his book entitled Wrestling With Angels Rowan Williams writes perceptively that ‘Trinitarian theology, in so far as it is concerned with what “kind” of God Christians worship, is far from being a luxury indulged in solely by remote and ineffectual dons; it is of cardinal importance for spirituality and liturgy, for ethics, for the whole of Christian self-understanding’.
Thus, far from being a doctrine that should be relegated to the far margins of orthodoxy Christianity, the Trinity must be placed at the very centre. In fact, we may say that it is the article upon which the Church stands or falls in the sense that without it there can be no Christianity.
The doctrine of the Trinity is based on God’s revelation, the divine self-disclosure, and not on the Church’s metaphysical speculations or imaginings.
Together with Israel, the Church professes that there is only one God. The formal form of this profession can be traced to the famous Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 which declares: ‘Hear, O Israel, our God, the Lord is one’.
The monotheism of Israel is further underscored in the Decalogue, especially in the first commandments which says: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me’ (Exodus 20:1). This commandment is reinforced by the categorical prohibition and condemnation of idolatry that immediately follows it (Exodus 20:4-6).
The Church has always embraced and defended the monotheistic faith of Israel that is rooted in and shaped by the revelation of God in the Old Testament.
But as the Church reflects on the significance of Christmas and Pentecost, she begins to see that the one God she professes and worships is triune. For at the first Christmas, the eternal Son of the eternal Father (John 1:1-2) ‘became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14). And at Pentecost, the third person of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit was poured out to empower the Church to be Christ’s witness in the world (Acts 2).
Thus, through the revelation of God in salvation history, the Church realises that there is no plurality of gods – there is only one God, and all other claimants to deity are imposters and fakes – in a word, idols.
But on the basis of the same revelation, the Church also realises that the one true God is plural, or more precisely, triune.
In the one God, there are three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – who are co-equal and co-eternal. Each person is the whole of the divine essence and is therefore fully God. Thus, the Father is fully God, the Son is fully God and the Spirit is fully God.
Yet each person is distinct from the other in the sense that the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Spirit. But because each person is fully God, each person possesses all the divine attributes. As the great fourth century theologian Athanasius has so insightfully put it, everything we say about the Father (that he is omnipotent, omniscient, sovereign, etc) can be said about the Son, except that the Son is Father.
The concept of God as triune – as Being-in-Communion – is unique to Christianity. And this has led some of the most eminent theologians of the Church like Thomas Aquinas to conclude that knowledge of the triune God is possible only by divine revelation.
The doctrine of the Trinity therefore distinguishes the Christian concept of God from all human conceptions of deity. It rejects polytheism, so rife in the Greco-Roman world, and insists that there is only one God, not many.
But the doctrine also insists that Christian monotheism must be distinguished from the ‘bare’ or ‘generic’ monotheisms that we find in Islam and some versions of philosophical theism. God cannot be reduced to a simple monad, either of the Platonic or Islamic variety.
Yet, the Christian concept of God brings together the one and the many. The one true God is a relationship of three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who are of the same essence (Greek: homoousious).
In guarding this precious truth concerning the being of God, the Church has resisted all easy solutions and opposed all metaphysical and philosophical compromises. In the process, she has also exposed and rejected numerous erroneous conceptions of God.
These battles were fought because the Church believes that the doctrine of the Trinity is of primary importance. It is not an optional extra.
The doctrine of the Trinity tells us something true about God, based on the divine revelation. The doctrine can thus be described as an exact tracing of the being of God.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.