Once more: on preaching on Trinity Sunday

In reposting my articles from previous years about Trinity Sunday and preaching on the Trinity, I have been led once more into some fascinating conversations, as a result of which I would like to ask three questions in relation to mystery, community, and calendar.

Michael Sadgrove, former Dean of Durham Cathedral, has just posted his wonderfully lyrical sermon from 2008. I think it is an excellent example of preaching with a poetic touch, and it makes me want to preach more poetically even as Michael himself finds Michael Curry’s wedding sermon makes him want to preach more dynamically. The final paragraph is particularly inspiring:

In this morning’s gospel, the risen Jesus says farewell to his disciples with the words: ‘all authority in heaven and on earth is given to me’.  It is the climax of the gospel, the culmination of all that St Matthew’s story has been leading up to.  ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’.  It ends as it began – with the angel’s promise to Joseph that the child would be called Immanuel, God-with-us. The narrative has travelled far since then.  But the promise is the same: that Yahweh the high and hidden one, who is beyond all words and images, the creator of the world and the holy one of Israel, is in our midst, present to us forever as grace and truth.  This is God the mighty and eternal who calls worlds into being and loves us into life.  This is God the compassionate and merciful, who bears on his heart for all time the sorrow and pain of the world.  This is the God enthroned in majesty who answers the longings of the ages and shows us his glory.  This is God who is Trinity of persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit to whom be all might, majesty, dominion and power now and to the end of time.

(From a rhetorical point of view, you might want to note the use of repetition and expansion, alliteration, and binary pairs.) But on his way to this moving conclusion, Michael makes two claims: first, that the Trinity is mysterious; and secondly that such mystery should lead is into silence rather than words.

On Trinity Sunday, we realise the impossibility of ever doing God justice by talking about him. We ask too much of language when we expect it to carry this deepest mystery of all:

                       words strain, / Crack and sometimes break under the burden,
                       Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place.

I can barely comprehend the mystery of another human being, my own self even, let alone the mystery of God…‘Of that whereof we cannot speak, we must be silent’ said the philosopher Wittgenstein.  It’s holy ground that we tread today.

Now, I don’t want to get into a philosophical discussion concerning the impossibility of our understanding God. But I want to ask two questions: does the Trinity contribute to the incomprehensibility of God, or to the revelation of God. And should this lead us to speak of him less or speak of him more?

On the first, we see in the New Testament a dynamic of development from Jewish monotheism into a dyadic understanding where the person of Jesus is incorporated into the identity of the one God:

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so–called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (1 Cor 8.4–6)

and this is extended to include the Spirit:

But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (2 Cor 3.16–17)

But for Paul and the other NT writers, this is not seen as a great mystification of God, but a clearer revelation, and this points to the different way in which they speak of the Trinitarian nature of God. In recent years, we have felt we needed to focus on the Trinity as a description of God’s inner life, and we are left with very few words. But Paul and the apostles talk of God the Trinity in his outer life, in the way that God relates to the world and the way that we experience God. (The technical terms for these two approaches is to speak of the ‘immanent Trinity’ and the ‘economic Trinity’.)

And for the NT writers, this new understanding leads them not to silent contemplation, but to the speech of testimony.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. (1 John 1.1–2)

Michael Sadgrove is quite right in saying that love needs to lead us to action—but it appears that the revelation of God as Trinity in the person of Jesus also leads us to some kind of speech and explanation.

The second sermon posted in response to discussion came from Baptist minister Peter Thomas. It is of a very different kind from Michael Sadgroves’s (it might actually be a talk rather than a sermon), but there are some important things in it that I like very much—most especially Peter’s focus on the unity of action of Father, Son and Spirit:

The Father raises the Son to life, the Father gives the Spirit to the Son and the Son pours out the Spirit on the Church.

Peter rejects tritheism (think clover leaves and fidget spinners) and modalism (think ice, water and steam) and articulates well the biblical dynamic of the Trinity. But there is one point where I would want to dissent, which is his appeal (commonly made) to the love dynamic in the Trinity as a pattern for human relationships. That cannot be the case: the relationships within the Trinity can never be either analogy for or motivation towards our relationships with others, since the persons of the Trinity are not persons as we are persons. Different people have different minds and wills, and (as Michael Sadgrove points out), other people are in a deep sense ‘mysterious’ to us. When we love another, we are involved in loving an ‘other’. None of that is true for the ‘persons’ of the Trinity, since (in orthodox belief) they have one mind, will with one will, and act as one. That is why (John 17.21–23) notwithstanding, the call to love in the NT has as its pattern not the love of God for God, but the love of God for us.

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4.9–11)

Where does that leave us? I think with Michael Roberts’ rather helpful summary of the Trinity as articulated by Athanasius, in three words and ten letters:




We start with God OVER us as creator and Father and then move to God WITH us, or if you prefer it in Aramaic Emmanuel. As in Jesus we have God in human form who wandered around Palestine for some 30 years. Here is God with us. And thirdly, move to God IN us, the Holy Spirit who was sent by the Father (and the Son) on the first day of Pentecost to be IN us as Christians leading and guiding us.

All this is very brief and clearly needs expanding, but it gives a good and simple framework for understanding God as Trinity.

Notice that, one again, we are firmly in the territory of the ‘economic’ Trinity, and have avoided all speculation about the ‘immanent’ Trinity—that is, we focus on the dynamic of God’s revelation to us and engagement with us as Father, Son and Spirit. Peter Thomas summarises:

If somebody famous has not yet said that “the mystery of the Trinity is not a truth to be understood but a reality to be experienced” then I hereby claim that quote for myself, and will retire on the profits of the books I shall write on the subject.

I wonder if we get too hung up about the Trinity on Trinity Sunday because we misinterpret the purpose of the calendar, and treat it as though it were a syllabus for discipleship. So we cover the incarnation at certain times of year, then the crucifixion, then the resurrection, and ascension and the gift of the Spirit—and so on. But rather than being a syllabus, I wonder if it more functions as a periodic assessment, a little like an MOT in stages, ensuring that we incorporate these doctrines in our preaching, rather than asking us to focus on these alone at these times alone.

Surely our preaching should always be Trinitarian—for if it is not, it is not Christian preaching. All our preaching should treat God as the subject of the story, and focus on God’s initiative and purpose. All our preaching should (implicitly or explicitly) see Jesus as the focus and climax of God’s purpose and Revelation. And all our preaching should that our response to what we have heard must be enabled and empowered by the Spirit of God at work in us—else we are just worshipping the human will. (How many times have you and I encouraged or urged a certain response to what we have learned, and have not mentioned the work of the Spirit in us? If so, our preaching has not been Trinitarian and so not been Christian preaching.)

Whatever you say tomorrow, may God the Father direct you, God the Son equip you, and God the Holy Spirit empower you and breath life and grace into your every word.

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15 thoughts on “Once more: on preaching on Trinity Sunday”

  1. I am uneasy about your separation between, so to speaker, love between the Persons of the Divine Being, and our love as persons for one another. Yes, we should take care about pattern, acknowledge difference between Person and (human) person and note the one will and mind of God, but where does our ability to love as persons, to make love personal come from, if not from God?

    God is love and does not only show love to us. May we learn nothing, imitate nothing from the God who is love as well as the God who shows love? In particular, when Jesus the Son is described as “close to the Father’s heart” (John 1:18), might we presume this refers to the intimacy of Father and Son in mutual love? If we do, is that a pattern for intimacy in human love for those among whom the Spirit dwells, noting that the beloved disciple “was reclining next to [Jesus]” (John 13:23)? Both verses, as I am sure you know, use the same Greek word, kolpon/kolpe.

    • Peter, thanks for your thoughtful comment—but I am slightly puzzled by it, and my puzzlement I think indicates the dynamic of modern discussion.

      You ask: ‘where does our ability to love as persons, to make love personal come from, if not from God?’. Well, of course Christians have always thought that—but I think mostly they have thought that our capacity to love comes from God’s love, as demonstrated by God’s love for us and the creation. There is no need, in this understanding, to see the intrapersonal love of God as either necessary for or the model of the love we have for others.

      I think the reading you suggest actually pushes the texts you cite out of shape—and misses their point. Since Jesus is ‘close to the Father’s heart’ in intimacy, the point here is *not* that he dwells in his love, but that he knows the Father and so is uniquely qualified to ‘make him known’—which is what the verse goes on to say. The same is true of the Beloved Disciple; because of his intimacy with Jesus, he is uniquely able to make him known to us, which he does in writing the gospel, so we can believe that ‘his testimony is true’ (John 21.24).

      Both these verses sit within the paradigm of testimony which is central to the gospel’s claim.

  2. Ummm … Ian – today it was suggested that God is love because the members of the Trinity first loved one another! I don’t think I would have picked up on that misconstrued view without first reading your blog here.

    • In a sermon you heard? I think to preachers trained in recent theology it sounds obvious; I have a suspicion to many in the pews it sounds odd.

      There is a wonderful parody in Bill Bailey’s Half Troll stand up routine.

      ‘I think our interests in threes might come from the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. God, he’s God, Jesus is God, and the Holy Spirit is er, um, harrumph, er… What? The divine Spirit of the Lord, who impregnates the Virgin Mary, and then is reduced to light clerical duties? Try explaining that to other religions. Three divine essences, giving and receiving love—but not in a gay bishop way—and all of Islam says ‘Nah!’, Hinduism says ‘Huh?’ and Buddhism says ‘Shsh!’

      It’s very funny.

  3. Hi Ian,

    You wrote: ‘the relationships within the Trinity can never be either analogy for or motivation towards our relationships with others, since the persons of the Trinity are not persons as we are persons. Different people have different minds and wills, and (as Michael Sadgrove points out), other people are in a deep sense ‘mysterious’ to us. When we love another, we are involved in loving an ‘other’.

    While it’s true that God’s relational union cannot model union between separate individuals, Jesus prays that His followers may be united through forbearance, patience, humility, sacrificial deference and love to transcend those differences of mind and will (John 17:21)

    Nevertheless, we need to recognise the doctrinal meaning of ‘person’.

    Before he became Pope Benedict, as a cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger wrote one of the clearest expositions on the Trinity that I’ve ever read: https://www.theway.org.uk/endeanweb/ratzinger%20on%20persons.doc

    He wrote: ‘Thus it was Tertullian who gave to the West its formula for expressing the Christian idea of God. God is “una substantia-tres personae,” one being in three persons. It was here that the word “person” entered intellectual history for the first time with its full weight.’

    ‘It took centuries for this statement to be intellectually penetrated and digested, until it was no longer a mere statement, but truly a means of reaching into the mystery, teaching us, not, of course, to comprehend it, but somehow to grasp it. When we realize that Tertullian was able to coin the phrase while its intellectual penetration was still in its infancy, the question arises, How could he find this word with almost somnambulant sureness?’

    Most expositions of the Trinity focus mostly on scripture and reason, whereas Ratzinger highlights the importance of ‘prosopographic exegesis’ as a key development within Christian tradition:
    The answer to the question of the origin of the concept “person” is that it originated in “prosopographic exegesis.” What does this mean? In the background stands the word prosopon, which is the Greek equivalent of persona. Prosopographic exegesis is a form of interpretation developed already by the literary scholars of Antiquity. The ancient scholars noticed that in order to give dramatic life to events, the great poets of Antiquity did not simply narrate these events, but allowed persons to make their appearance and to speak. For example, they placed words in the mouths of divine figures and the drama progresses through these words. In other words, the poet creates the artistic device of roles through which the action can be depicted in dialogue. The literary scholar uncovers these roles; he shows that the persons have been created as “roles” in order to give dramatic life to events (in fact, the word “prosopon,” later translated by “persona,” originally means simply “role,” the mask of the actor). Prosopographic exegesis is thus an interpretation that brings to light this artistic device by making it clear that the author has created dramatic roles, dialogical roles, in order to give life to his poem or narrative.

    And concerning its application to Christian doctrine, we read:
    ‘First, the concept “person” grew out of reading the Bible, as something needed for its interpretation. It is a product of reading the Bible. Secondly, it grew out of the idea of dialogue, more specifically, it grew as an explanation of the phenomenon of the God who speaks dialogically. The Bible with its phenomenon of the God who speaks, the God who is in dialogue, stimulated the concept “person.” The particular interpretations of Scripture texts offered by the Fathers are certainly accidental and outdated. But their exegetical direction as a whole captures the spiritual direction of the Bible inasmuch as the fundamental phenomenon into which we are placed by the Bible is the God who speaks and the human person who is addressed, the phenomenon of the partnership of the human person who is called by God to love in the word. However, the core of what “person” can truly mean comes thereby to light. To summarize we can say: The idea of person expresses in its origin the idea of dialogue and the idea of God as the dialogical being. It refers to God as the being that lives in the word and consists of the word as “I” and “you” and “we.” In the light of this knowledge of God, the true nature of humanity became clear in a new way.’

    ‘To summarize we can say: The idea of person expresses in its origin the idea of dialogue and the idea of God as the dialogical being. It refers to God as the being that lives in the word and consists of the word as “I” and “you” and “we.” In the light of this knowledge of God, the true nature of humanity became clear in a new way.

    What Ratzinger states next is central to the doctrine of the Trinity. It’s that, in His essence, God is relational, which means that before the dawn of creation, God is love. The Father eternally pours forth perfect love in His relational self-giving, who is the Son (cf. the wisdom prosopograhy of Prov. 8:22-31):
    ‘In this context, theologians argued, person must be understood as relation. According to Augustine and late patristic theology, the three persons that exist in God are in their nature relations. They are, therefore, not substances that stand next to each other, but they are real existing relations, and nothing besides. I believe this idea of the late patristic period is very important. In God, person means relation.

    Relation, being related, is not something super-added to the person, but it is the person itself. In its nature, the person exists only as relation. Put more concretely, the first person does not generate in the sense that the act of generating a Son is added to the already complete person, but the person is the deed of generating, of giving itself, of streaming itself forth. The person is identical with this act of self-donation.’


    • Thank you for this David…and especially for:
      “What Ratzinger states next is central to the doctrine of the Trinity. It’s that, in His essence, God is relational, which means that before the dawn of creation, God is love. The Father eternally pours forth perfect love in His relational self-giving, who is the Son (cf. the wisdom prosopograhy of Prov. 8:22-31)…”

      If I’ve got my head round this (and I concede that I might not have done!) then I think I have come to understand it via a simlar conclusion. Unless God is in essence relational /love, then is not the consequence of not being this a dividing of the persons as if they are three ‘separates’ held together by love?

      In this sense is the love God then not a model to follow but a reality to be drawn into by the Trinity? This love is not a pattern but it is the source of divine love to pour into us and through us.

      Ian H

      • ‘Unless God is in essence relational /love, then is not the consequence of not being this a dividing of the persons as if they are three ‘separates’ held together by love?’

        Exactly. And whereas, at best, human individuals are ‘separates’ held together by love, the ‘persons’ of the Trinity describe God as relational in His essence.

        As Rev. Robert Barron explained in the Spring 2006 Habiger Lecture: ‘In most forms of metaphysics, both ancient and modern, and in accord with common sense, substance is privileged over relationship, the latter viewed as a modification of the former. On Aristotle’s reading, for example, substance comes first, since substance coincides with the basic category of being, relationships, derivative of substance, come definitively second. But in light of the Trinitarian formula, we see something completely different: at the most fundamental level of existence, substance and relationship utterly coincide.’

        You wrote: ‘In this sense is the love God then not a model to follow but a reality to be drawn into by the Trinity? This love is not a pattern but it is the source of divine love to pour into us and through us.

        I agree, but I would urge you to read Rev. Barron’s entire lecture here: https://www.stthomas.edu/media/catholicstudies/center/habiger/misc/Barron_spring2006.pdf

        Concerning St. Augustine’s City of God, he reflects on its critique of Rome and relates it to modern Western beliefs, especially when he writes: ‘to discover what a society worships is to discover what it values most highly, seeks to imitate, and considers ontologically basic

        He continues: ‘Does this final Augustinian argument have a resonance today? Many contemporary theologians—Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, Graham Ward, Michael Baxter to name just a few—hold that Augustine’s disagreement with Rome remains extremely instructive in regard to our engagements both theological and political.

        They think that we have largely lost sight of the properly subversive quality of the Biblical revelation that God is love and that all creatures exist in the measure that they participate in the divine love.

        The modern nation-state, they tend to argue, resting as it does on fundamentally Hobbesian foundations, grows up out of a metaphysical vision at odds with that of
        authentic Christianity. And one of the principal tragedies of our time, they continue, is
        the co-opting and positioning of Christianity by the nation-state. Conforming to the
        banalities of a civil religion, the Christian churches lose their prophetic edge and ratify a fundamentally Deist conception of God and an antagonistic understanding of social relations.

  4. There has been much on the Trinity on Alastair Roberts blog, including “essence” and modalism.
    This may be somewhat simplistic for thoroughbred theologians, but Mike Reeves book “The Good God, – enjoying Father, Son and Spirit)” is sufficient for my understanding, and his teaching through UCCF. The headings of the chapters give a clue:
    Chpt 1 What was God, doing, before, creation? John 17. He pushes it further in
    Chpt 2 Creation: the Father’s Love Overflows
    Creation was in furtherance of the pre-existing love of the Father for the Son, to spread and share that love. ” the living God of ecstatic, self-giving, overflowing love.” (p270 He quotes Barth “The eternal fellowship, between Father and Son, or between God and his Word, thus finds a correspondence in the very different, but not dissimilar fellowship between God and His creature. It is in keeping with the Father of the eternal Son, the One who speaks the eternal word as such: it is wholly worthy of Him, that in His dealings ad extra (outwards) He should be the Creator. (Church Dogmatics 111/1 p 50)
    Chpt 3 The Son shares what is His.
    Excerpts: ” The Father so loves the Son that He desires to catch us up into that loving fellowship he enjoys with the Son… I can know God as he truly is… (who can 0 treat me as he treats his Son.” (p53)
    (p56) “We become partakers of His (Christ’s) anointing – Heidelberg Catechism, 32
    ” The Spirit takes what is the Son’s and makes it ours …But now the Spirit of sonship rests on me. the same words apply to me: in Christ, my high priest I am an adopted beloved, spirit-anointed son… and ware “loved them even as you have loved me -John -17.
    Chpt 4 The Christian life: the Spirit beautifies
    Chpt 5 “Who among the God’s is like you, O LORD?”
    As a lay Christian, I couldn’t recommend the book more. There is so much more along the above linesIt has deepened and enhanced my understanding and relationship with our Triune God.
    My simple understanding is that just the fullness of the Godhead dwells in the Son, the fullness of God dwells in each person of the Trinity as One – God is Spirit. But maybe that is heresy.
    Reeves also deals with “mystery” as meaning something that was previously unknown, which is now made known. (Think Agatha Christie, “mysteries” – my words)
    A recent challenge by an atheist was to be able to explain the Trinity without reverting to the defence that it is a mystery.
    Similarly, as we know, Jehovah’s Witnesses will always “doorstep” you with a disbelief in the Triune God, even claiming that they are Christians.
    But, as always, I stand to be corrected.

    • I’d love to hear the atheist explain the aroma of coffee to someone who has never encountered it. Just for some semblance of parity (though I recognise that God is somehwat more complex than coffee).

      • Agreed, Paul.
        However, this particular atheist is vehemently robust, soaked in scientism and will accept nothing but material evidence, following the likes of Dawkin. Coffe aroma is grounded in a scientific olfactory response, experience. But he is unsettled by thinking adult conversions to Christ, by the Spirit of God, and any talk about the experience of being drawn into fellowship of the Trinity. Only by the Spirit will he be convinced.
        JW’s – a friend, now a Christian, who came out of JW’s, but whose wife remains a JW, had great difficulty in accepting the Triune God. Of course, the Spirit is only energy, like electricity, power, to them. They are thrown when it is pointed out, through scripture, that Holy Spirit can be blasphemed, which is unforgivable. And comes to dwell within a believer, to raise them with Christ is incomprehensible to them.
        They are also thrown by John 1. Their NWT bible has it that the Word became “a god”. They accept that there are true and false gods -that Satan is a god of this age (a false god) and that Jesus is a true God (they’d be loath to say otherwise – but he really is only an example to them). They are therefore are accepting that there is more than one true God – an embarrassment to them as they are adamantly monotheists.

        • Hi Geoff,

          For ‘door-stepping’ JWs who deny the Trinity, I’ve always read Heb. 1:10-12 (which is a direct quote from Ps. 102:25-27) and asked them to explain who it addresses and describes. Of course, they say Jesus, but distinguish Him from Jehovah.

          I also read Ps. 102 from their New World Translation and ask them who it addresses and describes. Invariably, they reply, ‘Jehovah’.

          Then, I ask them why the same worship of Ps. 102 can address and describe both Jesus and Jehovah.

          Typically, there’s only a few minutes between their dumb-founded realisation about the scriptural evidence of Jesus’ deity and a hasty exit.

  5. Ian, you really can’t beat the Trinitarian theology that we get from the Scriptures, which describe the action of God (Father?) sending forth the Word (Jesus) on the breath of the Holy Spirit – all combining to bring Creation into being. All very simple but not simplistic. I guess we humans always need an explanation – even in the face of the Divine Mystery that is God.

    I also like the idea of the love within the family of the Trinity being the origin of the human love that Jesus exemplified and spoke about – as the charism by which his disciples would become known.


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