June 11, 2017, What’s This Trinity Thing All About? – guest speaker Carroll Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000028
About 15 years ago, when I was beginning a stint of teaching, I got to teach a course in modern algebra, one of my favorite subjects. There were about 35 students, all math majors. I was enthusiastic and I assumed they were too; I was maybe a bit too enthusiastic. A few weeks into the class we were getting into some complicated stuff and I made the remark, “Isn’t this fun?” From the back of the class a student replied, “Personally I would rather be driving nails through my foot.”
Now all of us here are Christian, so in a sense we are all majoring in theology. But just like that algebra class of math majors, some of you may not feel as enthusiastic about the subject as I do. There are the people who like thinking all the time and the people who prefer doing all the time, and I guess I am one of the thinky type people. Well today is Trinity Sunday and this homily is going to be about the doctrine of the Trinity. But I will at least try to give the homily so that you don’t want to run away and drive nails into your feet. I want to describe how the doctrine of the Trinity came about.
First you need to understand where theology comes from. It is not a prescription for what you are supposed to believe, though modern people sometimes think of it that way. It is more nearly a prescription for what you ought not believe. Doctrine was developed as a warning, like the way we put guard rails along a highway when there is danger going off the road, a chasm or something that might injure you. The early church formulated doctrine as a way of warning people off ideas that would undermine their faith.
But there is another source of doctrine and theology. The first and great commandment: you shall love the Lord your God with all your mind. Not all Christians are called to be thinkers, probably not many of us are. But to the limit of your abilities, thinking about God and thinking about the Bible is one of the ways you can love God. Nonetheless, in the early years of the church the pattern was this: the great doctrinal statements were forced on the church by some kind of crisis facing the church. People didn’t tend to notice the crisis until someone came along who started teaching ideas that would destroy the Christian faith. And that’s what happened in the early part of the 300’s. Christians had held to certain basic beliefs from the very beginning without analyzing them very closely and that can cause trouble if there are thinky people about. The conundrum was this: Christians believed in three absolutely essential ideas:
1. There is only one God, who created everything else.
2. It is right to worship God the created, but really bad to worship any of the things God created. Worship of any created thing is idolatry, whether the emperor or a golden calf or a beautiful work of art.
3. We worship Jesus.
These had all been central to Christian faith from the very beginning and no one particularly noticed there was any difficulty until a thinky man named Arius started trying to figure it all out. He concluded by rigorous logic that Jesus couldn’t be God because then there would be two gods. Therefore Jesus was one of God’s creatures, therefore He could not be worshiped. All Christian worship from the beginning had been idolatry.
The storm broke in Alexandria, in Egypt, where the bishop of that city led the fight against Arius and his teaching. At his urging an Ecumenical Council was called in which bishops from all over the world were invited to hash out the question in Nicea. They came from all over the Roman Empire and outside it as well. It was the first time in history such a council was possible because the Roman emperor, Constantine, had become a Christian. Christian faith was no longer persecuted. It was legal. It was even set up by the state as the primary religion of the Empire. Ultimately that council did hash out the question and wrote it down in what we call the Nicean Creed, which we say together every Sunday as part of our service.
But it was a tainted victory. Constantine himself had decided to attend the council. He knew nothing about theology and not much about the Bible; too busy ruling the world. He didn’t care which side won the debate. What he wanted was unity. He was trying to make Christianity the glue to hold the Empire together and that would come to nothing if Christians became divided. Constantine was the first world leader to use the Christian faith as a political tool.
The problem was that shortly after the Council of Nicea, Constantine had a change of heart. He called Arius back from exile, and started promoting Arians as leaders in the church and persecuting those who taught the Trinity. And so the sword of the state that had helped establish this fundamental doctrine soon turned against it. The sword of the state has always been an unreliable ally to the Christian faith, and still is.
The main hero during the time of persecution of trinitarians was a man named Athanasius. He was born in southern Egypt. He was a black man and a very short man. His enemies called him the Black Dwarf. He was an assistant to the bishop of Alexandria and attended the Council of Nicea as a secretary. Shortly afterward, at the age of 30, he became bishop of Alexandria himself and continued in that office for 45 years until his death. He became bishop just as the persecution of the trinitarians was begun in earnest. Of his 45 years in office, he was exiled five times for a total of 17 years. Some of those exiles were spent hiding in the desert with the Christian hermits who had become quite numerous. Once the authorities sent soldiers to arrest him during an Easter Vigil service, but he somehow escaped them. Once he was fleeing by boat down the Nile, standing at the back of the boat, when a military vessel chasing him pulled up right behind them. “We looking for Athanasius. Have you seen him?” the centurion cried out. “Yes. He is right in front of you. If you go faster you’ll catch him for sure.” So the ship of soldiers passed him and hurried on up the river.
During his years in exile and in his office in Alexandria, Athanasius wrote extensively about why the doctrine of the Trinity was so important. Most historians as well as his contemporaries credit his careful argument with convincing people of the importance of the doctrine. But it wasn’t just his writing. It was also his exemplary life. He was loved by the people and was known everywhere as a devout and holy man. Athanasius is also credited with fostering the monastic movement, which was just beginning at the time.
Athanasius did not live to see the doctrine of the Trinity vindicated. He died just before the Council of Constantinople, but the new expanded version of the Nicene Creed that they wrote was called by his name. The Athanasian Creed is found on page 864 in the prayer book.
Now you probably all know the basic statement of the doctrine of the Trinity. We believe in One God who consists in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are distinct from each other and yet they are not separate. The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God, but there are not three gods. The Father is not the Son, and the Father is not the Holy Spirit, and the Son is not the Holy Spirit, and yet they are one and the same God. The important thing to realize here is that the doctrine of the Trinity was never meant to be an explanation of God. It is more like a description of how it is proper to talk about God. It is more like the guard rails along the highway that way you that you are in danger. If you find yourself thinking that there are three gods, you have gone too far. If you find yourself thinking that there is no distinction between the Son and the Holy Spirit or that there is no distinction between the Father and the Holy Spirit, then you are drifting into dangerous territory. There have been many misguided attempts to explain the Trinity but they are all no good. The doctrine of the Trinity is not, and was never meant to be an explanation. You can’t understand the Trinity, but you can use it for what it is: a guard over your faith.
There is a dangerous modern tendency that the doctrine of the Trinity should warn us against. There is an idea floating around that there is a God of the Old Testament who is different from the God of the New Testament. Do we believe in two gods then? It sounds like it sometimes. Mostly, though, I think we are drifting toward believing in something even worse, that the Father and the Son are in conflict, that they disagree on how to relate to people, that the Father wants to punish us for bad things we do and the Son is all kindness and is going behind the Father’s back to get us off the hook. It is kind of hinted at in that hymn, “What Wondrous Love Is This?” where it says “When I was sinking down beneath God’s righteous frown, Christ laid aside His crown for my soul.” Whatever the author of the hymn meant, it sounds like he was saying that God just wanted to smite us but Christ circumvented Him. Please do not let yourself be deceived into thinking such a thing. This is a belief in a God with multiple personality disorder. This is the idea of the Schizophrenic God. Do Christians worship a God who would be better off seeing a psychiatrist? Of course not, but we just kind of drift into it, like a driver who is half asleep might drift into the wrong lane. This is what the doctrine of the Trinity should help protect you against.
Most cults have their beginning by rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons, the Christian Scientists, and there are many more who have branched off from Christian faith. Sometimes they imply that the doctrine of the Trinity is ridiculous on the face of it, that egg-head theologians came up with this absurdity just to put one over on the common people and keep them confused and under control. But the history is otherwise. The followers of Arius were the emperors, the rulers, the nobles, the philosophers and the intellectuals. The followers of Athanasius were the common people, the poor, the hermits of the desert who gave up all worldly possessions to devote themselves to prayer. The doctrine of the Trinity is not an elitist plot to take over the faith. It was the opposite.
Meditate on the doctrine of the Trinity, not so you’ll understand all about God but so you’ll recognize impostors. “My sheep know my voice. They will not follow a stranger.” The doctrine of the Trinity helps us to recognize God’s voice and follow Him. We are God’s little children and the advice your mother gave you is still good advice. Do not be lured to climb into some stranger’s car. Nothing good will come of it.
So to conclude. May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.