Today is Trinity Sunday. I am not going to try and offer you a comprehensible definition of the Trinity. The Trinity is a mystery that must be accepted by faith if one accepts it. What I do want to do is look at the development of our statements of faith, our creeds, and explain how and why those statements, in particular those statements about the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit became a core assumption of the faith of the Church.
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen
We know an amazing amount about the ancient religions coming out of Mesopotamia and Egypt, the two areas that most influenced our early spiritual ancestors. Most of these stories involve one or more divine couples who give birth to other gods, create the earth, sometimes from fragments of vanquished gods, and who control the cycles of nature. It was common to worship and make sacrifices to multiple gods to appease them and get them to do what you wanted.
Abram, later renamed Abraham, left that world and set off on a journey in an effort to please one God with whom he had a personal relationship. Abraham was not monotheist in that he believe no other gods existed, but he was what we call henotheist, there was only one God worthy of his worship. This belief in “one God” is shared by all the religions that claim Abraham as their spiritual ancestor.
During the time of Moses and the ten commandments, the children of Israel, the people Moses brought out of Egypt are given the commandment “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 20:2) and when the teachings of Moses was summarized in a final sermon in Deuteronomy the Shema or the creed of the Jewish faith was given as “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord” (Deut. 6:4) following that is the commandment “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deut. 6:5).
The prophet Isaiah makes a truly monotheistic statement “Turn to me and be saved all the ends of the earth! For I am God and there is no other.” (Isaiah 45: 22)
That God is the creator of heaven and earth is attested to in scripture beginning in Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” However, one of the Gnostic beliefs that was floating around by at least the second century was that the demiurge (lesser god) that created the earth was in fact evil, that all flesh was evil and that the Supreme God was a purely spiritual being. The result of this belief was two extreme responses – rigid and severe asceticism because the body was evil and hedonism because the flesh didn’t matter. This statement says Christians do not hold that belief.
Almighty (Shaddai in Hebrew, Pantokratōr in Greek) appears as a title for God throughout the Old and New Testament.
The title Father is what Jesus called God and indicates a parent child relationship. This was a departure. I am not aware of anyone addressing God as Father before Jesus. God’s name that was given to Moses was considered too sacred to speak and God was normally referred to as Adoni, Lord, a title indicating both allegiance and subservience to God. Paul speaks of Christians being adopted “…so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Gal 4; 5-6). He also uses the term adoption in Romans and Ephesians. Through Jesus we enter a parent child relationship with God, the creator.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father.
Adoptionism was an early belief that held that Jesus was a normal human that at some point in his life became a god (not the God), in particular at his death or at his baptism because he was such a good person. God adopted him as his Son. It is a belief that continually resurfaces, possibly because there are various passages in the New Testament (in particular in Mark, the writings of Paul, and Hebrews) that, taken by themselves, can be interpreted in that way, but clearly Matthew and Luke do not hold that view and John’s opening paragraph annihilates that idea.
God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God begotten not made, of one being with the Father. Through him all things were made.
A variety of ideas about who Jesus was floated around in the early church.
Arianism denied the divinity of Christ. Jesus was believed to be more than human, but nevertheless, a creature created by God and not God. Jesus was less than God. The Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and those embracing a theology called Modernism are modern day Arians. Episcopalians and others who embrace the Nicene Creed are not Arians. We believe Jesus’ statements in the Gospel of John – “if you have seen me you have seen the Father” (John 14: 9) and “the Father and I are one.” (John 17:11).
For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
The Virgin birth is a doctrine held in the Nicene Creed. The story comes out of the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 1: 18-23). Matthew quotes a passage from Isaiah 7:14 from the Septuagint. “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” Much controversy has come up in recent years because the original Hebrew word denotes a young woman and not necessarily a virgin. Most scholars agree that the original meaning of the text was contemporary to its writing indicating that within just a few years – before a child that was possibly already conceived had been weened certain events would happen. When Jewish scholars, before Jesus was ever born, translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek, they selected a Greek word which means virgin. They may have had Messianic understandings about this passage already. Certainly Jesus gave Old Testament scriptures new meaning by indicating that they were talking about him, so it is reasonable the writer of Matthew should see God’s hand in the translation to the Greek and believe the virgin birth was real and prophesied by Isaiah. The Septuagint was in wide usage during the first century.
Another belief called Docetism, stated that Jesus was divine, but that he was not human. They thought he just looked human, but that he didn’t really suffer and die on the cross, it just appeared that he did. Docetism denies the Incarnation. Episcopalians and others who affirm the Nicene Creed believe in the Incarnation. Jesus is fully human and fully divine. How that can happen was argued and fancy Greek philosophical terminology was applied, but the reality is our mortal brains does not have the understanding or the language to completely grasp this concept. We get close, and then by faith we accept even that which we do not fully comprehend.
Those who affirm the Apostles and Nicene Creeds, which we as Episcopalians do when we participate in Morning or Evening Prayer, the Eucharist, a Baptism or Confirmation affirm a belief that Jesus was fully God and fully human. We don’t have to understand how that could happen. It is not something we can prove, though we can show how the early church supported the statement, but it is a statement of faith.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures;
One of the most historically accepted facts is that Jesus really existed and was really crucified under orders of Pontius Pilate. What happened next can be neither proved nor disproved, but the New Testament relates that he was buried and in three days rose again. . Paul states, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in tern had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared too Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Cor 15: 3-8). The Old Testament, the scriptures of the early church, mentions three days in the story of Jonah (Jonah 1:17) and the whale, that Jesus says is the only sign that will be given and also in Hosea 6:12 three days is mentioned with respect to resurrection.
He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.
This is a statement about Christ’s Ascension and his future and eternal reign. This statement ties Jesus to the Jewish understanding of Messiah as king, but like in Isaiah’s vision, not just of Israel, but of all the universe.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.
It could take hours to get into all the nuances of the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament God’s Spirit is experienced in the Ruach, the wind or breath of God that hovered over the waters of creation. God’s spirit fell upon specific individuals and left some like Saul who was gifted with the Spirit at his coronation, but God removed the spirit from him due to his disobedience. Last week we heard about the Spirit at Pentecost again exhibiting itself as a mighty wind and enabling the communication of the Good News despite the variety of languages spoken and understood by those present.
The Trinity is the sum of all that we do and do not believe about God as God has been revealed to us through the Old Testament stories of God’s interaction with the people, through our understanding of the person of Jesus and his relationship to God, his purpose on earth, and his eternal purpose, and the Holy Spirit as reveal in scriptures and experienced by Christians throughout history up to the present and beyond. Augustine tried to define it succinctly describing the Trinity as the lover, the beloved, and the love between them. I could throw a lot of Greek Aristotelian terms at you, but I’m not sure I could explain the nuances of the words in a way that makes any sense. The Trinity is a mystery that requires a leap of faith, the mathematics don’t add up, but then God is beyond definition.