Not a Babushka Doll

Today is Trinity Sunday in the church calendar. It is the Sunday after Pentecost and its purpose is to celebrate the Trinity. The church colour for today is white or gold. Today marks the beginning of the longest season in the church calendar, one that runs for 23 weeks. The Sundays after Trinity Sunday are called 'ordinary Sundays' in the traditional church calendar.

The doctrine of the Trinity is not often the subject of teaching on a typical Sunday. One of the most critical foundations of the Christian church, it is also one of the most difficult to comprehend. Guy Nuffield and Nathaniel Van Cleave, in their Foundations of Pentecostal Theology say, '(W)e do not expect to reduce (the Trinity) to logical formulas, any more than we would attempt to transfer the Pacific Ocean into a teacup. We do study the doctrine, however, because it is the centre gem of divine revelation.' 

Although the word 'Trinity' never appears in the Bible the idea is there. Paul, when farewelling the elders of the church in Ephesus, said, 'Therefore, take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood' (Acts 20:28, NKJV). This scripture refers to God, Jesus ('His own blood') and the Holy Spirit. This is but one of many references in the gospels and other books of the New Testament.

The idea is also in the Old Testament too. The opening words of the Bible are, 'In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth' (Gen 1:1). The Hebrew word that is translated 'God' is Elohim which is plural. The Hebrew word that is translated 'created' (bara) connotes an act by a singular divine being. The Hebrew Adonai, which is also translated 'God', appears numerous times. When God gave Israel the law he said through Moses, 'Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God is one LORD (Jehovah our Elohim is One Jehovah). In contrast to ElohimJehovah is singular and is God's personal redemptive name.

Why God did not simply say He was triune right from the beginning has been speculated upon by many theologians. The most logical explanation is that God, in His wisdom, did not reveal Himself in this way because Israel was surrounded by peoples who worshipped many gods. It might have been simply too hard for Israel to comprehend that God was a three-in-one being. The one and only true God did not want Israel to simply add Him to the other gods! Thus, He progressively revealed Himself as a triune being until the early Christian church was established.

The idea of the Trinity was settled at the First Council of Nicea in 325 AD, confirmed at the First Council of Constantinople in 381 AD and formalised in what we know today as the Nicene Creed. This creed, or a translation of it, is recited in churches around the world every week. It is remarkable that the Nicene Creed has remained intact for over 1,600 years. Only occasionally there has been dissent, and there are now a few small denominations that are non-Trinitarian.

Theologians have wrestled with the issue of how to describe the Trinity. Two approaches have some currency. One is based on the difference between a being and a person. The argument is fairly simple and goes like this. I am a human being. This is my essence (Greek ousia). I am also a person (Greek hypostaseis). I am one being and one person. God is one being and three persons. Apologists like Ravi Zacharias explain the Trinity in this way. The other approach is to use the concept of a dance - perichoresis (from the Greek peri, which means 'around', and chorein, which means 'to give way' or 'to make room'). This term refers to a dance in which there are (at least) three partners. They dance in circles, weaving in and out, going faster and faster while remaining synchronised in perfect rhythm. Eventually, they are dancing so fast that they appear as just a blur, indeed, as one. The Trinity is like this dance. It is a dance of harmonious relationships in which there is mutual giving way or making room. C S Lewis and, more recently, Tim Keller have described the Trinity in this way.

Can the Trinity be described as a kind of babushka doll where, when one doll is pulled apart there is another inside? Definitely not! In no sense is one person of the Trinity smaller or inferior to the other. They certainly have different roles, but they are co-equal as the persons of the one being or the partners in the perichoresis.

What is it that makes the Trinity possible? The answer is: LOVE. But, love is a topic for another blog.

Questions for discussion

  1. Find a copy of the Nicene, Apostle's or Athanasian Creed. Identify the idea of the Trinity in its phrases.
  2. Which of the characterisations of the Trinity above do you identify with best?
  3. Why is the babushka doll not a good illustration of the Trinity?
  4. Do some research and identify one or two denominations that are non-Trinitarian.
Rod St Hill