WHY DOES THE TRINITY MATTER?

Following Sunday School last week, I asked one of our kids what she learned.

“Nothing,” she said.  (That’s not an uncommon response from lots of kids, but this was strange for this particular child.)

“Nothing?” I responded. “Surely you picked up something?”

“It’s the same thing we heard last year,” she said, “the Trinity, God is three and also one.”

I’m willing to wager that the vast majority of people, like that 9-year-old, are so far beyond being tired of Christian preachers asserting dogmatic truths that they’ve started to feel as if Christianity is nothing more than a wierd code language, and some of us some of the time as part of our commitment to grow deeper and help change the world are forced to listen to words which don’t actually convey meaning.  In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that those who are not in churches and not likely to darken the door of any church are a lot like many within those sanctuaries — wondering about the purpose of their life and how they can help make this world a more just and equitable place and if they care, whatsoever, about what Christians are doing on Sundays they’re probably wondering “Why? What’s the big deal? So what? What’s the point?”

It’s not important whether one understands Christianity.  Take the doctrine of the Trinity, for instance — that God is one and in three persons.  For starters, this is hardly comprehensible.  And, on another level, understanding it doesn’t really matter.  Ask yourself, instead, what difference it makes.  That’s what the world’s asking, and it’s a very good question.

In short, the Trinity makes a difference, a big difference.

The doctrine of the Trinity wasn’t officially settled until the Council of Chalcedon in 381 A.D.  That doesn’t mean that everyone still agreed, but it’s interesting that a lot of years passed between Jesus and this church council.  In that time, there was a lot of wondering and figuring stuff out and discerning and talking but, if you haven’t figured out by now, there was also a whole lot of arguing, screaming, kicking out and fighting.  The story of Christianity, in many ways, is also the story of a big, drawn-out family argument.  Perhaps you’ve experienced or, maybe, started one.  The table erupts into contention, everyone’s involved even if they don’t want to be, and as much as you want to walk away and scream and say “I’m done with all you people!” you don’t.  No, they’re still your family and as much as you don’t know why you love them you still do, in spite of your radically differing opinions about whatever it was that started that argument.

That’s a real gift, the gift of different opinions and arguing parties.  A brief journey through the story of how early Christians wondered and wandered toward a definition of the Trinity might highlight some of this.

In the pages of the New Testament, there’s no doctrine of the Trinity, but there is a threefold understanding of God and in places where the context wouldn’t otherwise demand it.  The Apostolic Fathers of the late-first and early-second centuries, such as Ignatius of Antioch, didn’t concern themselves with figuring out dogma – they were too busy tending the lives of growing congregations – but God is clearly affirmed as creator and Jesus is not only Son of God but also “our God” (as in Ignatius’ Letter to the Ephesians) and a triadic formula is often used.  Justin Martyr and other Apologists of the early second century began to develop an understanding of how the one God can be both eternal and, at the same time, also revealed in the Son.  Using logos — Greek for ‘word’ and ‘speech’ – Justin affirmed that God is one but, just as your own speech comes from within your own mind, so too does God bring forth something of Godself from time to time.  Building on that, Irenaeus (late second century) developed a more thought-out understanding of how the Spirit plays in all of this: there’s an economy in God, Irenaeus taught; God’s nature is one but, at various points, God’s Word (Son) and God’s Wisdom (Spirit) are disclosed.

Irenaeus’ “economic trinitarianism”, as it’s called today, sparked fervor because many felt it denied an essential part of the Christian faith: monotheism.  And in the third century there was a backlash against emergent trinitarian thinking, leading to the belief that there was no distinction in the Godhead.  Into this argument stepped the third-century theologian, Tertullian, who not only affirmed the one-ness of God but, going beyond Irenaeus and Justin Martyr, also showed that in God there are three unique, distinct persons.  Tertullian’s synthesis of Latin and Greek philosophy with emerging Christian doctrines remained central for some time, until in the fourth century a preacher from Alexandria named Arius returned the original fear that all of this denies the belief in one God.  Arianism was so popular that it led, in time, to the Councils of Nicea (325 A.D., figuring out the relationship between the Son and the Father) and Chalcedon (381 A.D., addressing the first question as well as dealing the Trinity).  Both Councils officially denounced Arianism as heresy and proclaimed that the Son is fully God (so we say in the Nicene Creed: “…God from God, light from light, true god from true god…”) and that there are, in fact, three distinct persons in the one God.  This we call the Trinity.

Perhaps this sounds like one of those big family blow-outs in which everyone’s argued about something for so long that someone, at some point, says “What is it we started arguing about again?”, at which the entire table erupts in laughter.  Surely, parts of the story I just told do sound a lot like starting World War III because someone forgot to put out the salad dressing!

But there’s a reason why this conversation got started, and there’s a reason why it turned into an argument and why it took so long to get worked out.  There is a why?, a so what? to this entire story and that is far more important to know than the answer itself.

The Trinity is essentially a very profound and progressive understanding of God.  The desire which fuels all of this is the search for a way to understand with some degree of comprehension that God is both eternal, true, for all time and, at the same time, new and fresh and living.  You know that God is, and if you’ve ever flirted with atheism – or tried it out for a while – you know, I’ll bet, the limits of cutting off all possibility of something beyond, something else, something more to life.  But just because you experience an open-eyed wonder you might not be entirely comfortable with feeling locked into a belief system which seems to assert with dogmatic authority that there are things you must believe about God.  You want to be rooted in something true, something lasting, something real … and yet you don’t want to get stuck.

The reason why Christians stumbled upon the idea of the Trinity is to explain these real-life issues.  The Trinity is our way of explaining how we can be both rooted in God but not bound by that rootedness, tied to something real but not restricted by that tether, not cut-off to the ways in which God is revealing new riches and, yes, challenges.  The Trinity is our way of explaining how we can be both religious and spiritual, both rooted and open.

A catch-phrase for many is that they’re “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR).  Ironically, there are so many ‘SBNR’s that even though it feels to them like something avant garde it’s a lifestyle which is so caught up in the mainstream that there’s no real substance, if anything there’s a palpable absence of meaning.  (It’s not dissimilar to the experience of buying some new fancy outfit that everyone says is the latest in fashion while you also know, as you’re making the purchase, you’re going to dump it in the second-hand shop box in less than a year.)

We are living in a new apostolic age, and it’s much more similar to the early centuries of Christianity than these latter ones.  This is not to say that the answers and the doctrines are invalid or, somehow, less valid.  I am saying, though, that the challenge for us is to get underneath our dogma and listen and respond attentively to the voices and experience of real women and men, people who are really searching and quite honestly struggling to make meaning in a relatively unmoored world.  The democratization of technology and widespread availability of information in our western, internet-connected world has not only led to a greater dissemination of knowledge but also, ironically, a profound disconnect for many with what it feels like to have an intellectual, spiritual home — a native language, a base-line understanding of how the world works.  The challenge and, I’d say, gift is that we live in a world in which people are free and sophisticated enough to ask, with integrity, why? and so what difference does that make?  And when they ask this question they are really, truly wondering and searching and yearning for something that sounds like a refreshing place to lay their spiritual and intellectual heads … but not get stuck there.

This also means that we are free, in fact we are expected to no longer simply give the answers to the test but share with a compelling narrative that our faith is progressive and open-minded, that we are spiritual people who are seeking and, when we stumble upon the Holy, we pause in the presence of a living God.  Because of that, then, we’re unafraid to put down roots and journey deeper into the heart of that mystery, that God who is eternal and true and yet, at once, involved in this world and revealing something new, indeed “new every morning.” (Lam.3:23)

…..

Excerpts from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church on, you guessed it, Trinity Sunday. May 26, 2013.  For the full text, click here.

BY SCHISMS RENT ASUNDER AND HERESIES DISTRESSED

Perhaps it’s an issue between South Carolinians – a vocal progressive minority in the Episcopal diocese and their theologically conservative bishop and, let’s be honest, most likely the bulk of that diocese.  In October 2012, after the Episcopal Church’s Disciplinary Board for Bishops certified that Bishop Mark Lawrence (SC) had abandoned the Episcopal Church “by an open renunciation of the discipline of the church,” Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori restricted Lawrence’s ministry.  Immediately, the South Carolina Standing Committee announced that that action “triggered two pre-existing corporate resolutions of the diocese, which simultaneously disaffiliated the diocese from the Episcopal Church and called a special convention.”  On Nov. 15, the Presiding Bishop offered a pastoral letter to the faithful in South Carolina who wish to remain in the Episcopal Church, a letter which affirmed our much-treasured Anglican comprehensiveness and offered a compelling vision of the contested core at the center of our lively tradition.  That being said, the Bishop of Springfield is also correct to assert that Jefferts Shori offered a fairly one-note legalistic document when a message of nuance and grace and love was best intended. And on Nov. 17, the majority of Episcopalians in South Carolina voted to affirm the actions of their bishop and diocesan leadership and disaffiliate from the Episcopal Church.

BISHOP MARK LAWRENCE
of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina

The issue, as I’m sure it’ll be reported, is going to be about yet another fight between a liberal Episcopal Church and conservative Diocese of South Carolina, or between a left-leaning bunch in the diocese and their right-wing bishop, or between those who uphold biblical faith and others who are theological revisionists.  Yet not one of those interpretations would really get to the core of the issue.

This is about the Christian faith as it’s been received and practiced in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church — and not the ways in which it’s been twisted and perverted by those who talk more often about catholic faith and orthodox theology.

This is about schism — breaking away and setting yourself apart — which in the early church was considered a grave sin and was not at all distinct from heresy; in fact, schism was a vastly more important issue than the latter.  In recent years, I recall the 2008 conversation in the Episcopal Diocese of Quincy (IL) when that diocese voted to leave the Episcopal Church.  The Dean of the Cathedral, which was the single-largest congregation, making up 22% of membership in the diocese, educated the cathedral congregation about the misdirected motives of what he called the ultra-conversative diocesan leadership as well as the benefits of staying, even if one disagrees with the majority, and the spiritual disadvantages of schism. From the Episcopal News Service article of 3 December 2008: The Very Rev’d Robert Dedmon (Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Peoria) “beseeched the synod ‘not to further divide the body of Christ’ by what he termed an ‘impossible and compulsive pursuit’ for a perfect situation. ‘Those who seek moral superiority and doctrinal perfection, like the Pharisees, are going to be deeply disappointed because they are not available to us sinners,’ said Dedmon. ‘Heresy can be remediated, people can change their minds, but schism, once it occurs formally, is never reconciled.'”  In a comment on Kendall Harmon’s blog in Nov. 2011, Dedmon poignantly quipped: “As a Quincy Episcopalian, I can only say, once again, schism breeds more schism, until at last we are all alone.”

From the Greek, schisma, meaning to tear, shism is an intentional separation from the body.  The New Testament records the apparent tendency of some believers to focus on particular theological sticking-points and isolate those issues as the issue — in turn, establishing that those who disagree with them are the false believers.  That’s why there’s no biblical distinction between schism and heresy.  The Greek verb ‘aireomai (from ‘airesis, heresy) means to choose or to prefer, a tendency in theology, according to Karl Rahner, of taking “a truth out of the organic whole which is the faith and, because [one] looks at it in isolation, [one] misunderstands it.”  There is no right theology without right relationship or, in hip seminary-speak, no such thing as orthodoxy without orthopraxis.  That so-called ‘false brethren’ were separating themselves from the body and setting up churches and interpretations of their own in early Christianity seemed an established fact (Acts 20:30, Col. 2:18), and Jesus himself predicted that that would happen (Mark 13:6, Matthew 24:39).  Moreover, the vast majority of New Testament literature is concerned with community formation and ensuring that churches stay together, no matter what, and only when significant brokeness is at hand and the offender is unrepentant shall the bonds of fidelity be severed.  This is a constant theme in the letters of Paul, whose own ministry was constantly undermined by those who came in after he left and un-did what he worked so hard to build, and the Gospel of Matthew, in particular; see Matthew’s entire 18th chapter about community norms and, with specific reference to a process by which offenders should be heard and tried, Mt. 18:15-20.

Outside of the New Testament, the technical term, schism, first emerges in Irenaeus’ c.180 CE polemic, Adversus Haereses, written against the popular gnostic heresy.  “Schism” shows up in book IV, chapter 33.7, and yet that entire chapter is a case-in-point of this larger issue — namely, that relationship with the whole body, no matter whether you may disagree about particular points of interpretation, is an essential ingredient to right belief.  Needing a better editor, the chapter is entitled: “Whosoever confesses that one God is the author of both testaments, and diligently reads the scriptures in company with the presbyters of the church, is a true spiritual disciple; and he will rightly understand and interpret all that the prophets have declared respecting Christ and the liberty of the New Testament.”  Section 7 continues: “[The true spiritual disciple] shall also judge those who give rise to schisms, who are destitute of the love of God, and who look to their own special advantage rather than to the unity of the Church; and who for trifling reasons, or any kind of reason which occurs to them, cut in pieces and divide the great and glorious body of Christ, and so far as in them lies, [positively] destroy it, — men who prate of preace while they give rise to war, and do in truth strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel.  For no reformation of so great importance can be effected by them, as will compensate for the mischief arising from their schism.”

Although some will argue, today, that schism and heresy are two quite different things — heresy having to do with issues of doctrine and schism having to do with relationships — that distinction is nowhere found in early Christian literature.  Further, I’m not certain how that distinction can be maintained with theological integrity, even today.  In the modern era, we’ve seen the Roman Church try to do so with a certain, um, clunky-ness.  The Vatican II document on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, offered a well-intentioned olive branch to the Eastern churches and Anglican Communion, trying to straddle a fine line between welcoming them, even accepting them, but not accepting that they are fully members: “For men who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in some, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church. Justified by faith in Baptism, [they] are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church.”  In this painstaking attempt to distinguish between heresy and schism, I have to say I’m even more confused about my standing in their eyes: I suppose I’m one of their brothers, though an imperfect one.  (Once, I flippantly said to a member of the Roman church, “I guess to you all we’re a bunch of heretics,” to which he replied: “No, you’re just schismatics.”  Honestly, I don’t know which one is worse and neither ‘welcome’ is better.)

The irony in this, for some, is that I, an Episcopal priest and, therefore, schismatic, am writing about the sin of schism.  But my own faith journey led me to accept my Protestant heritage and yet seek Communion in apostolic, catholic Christianity.  For me, it was the Episcopal Church which helped me find a voice and a home in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.  It could’ve been the Roman Church, I suppose, but in the course of my desire to connect my life to an apostolic, catholic body the real issue I confronted was what issues I wanted to struggle with over the course of my life and ministry.  As a Roman Catholic, I suppose, I would struggle with issues of theological exclusion and doctrinal uniformity.  As an Episcopalian, I would struggle with conflicts caused by being too inclusive and, sometimes, doctrinal sloppy-ness.

It really comes down to which issues one wants to struggle with because there is, simply, no one perfect church.  Again, Dean Dedmon of Peoria’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, said it well: ‘Those who seek moral superiority and doctrinal perfection, like the Pharisees, are going to be deeply disappointed because they are not available to us sinners.”  All churches, as all communities of ordinary people, are the places where we work out our relationship with God in Christ by striving for charity and clarity in our relationships with one another and our own self.  Failing to do so and breaking relationships — becoming a schismatic by willful choice — is, then, now and has always been a sad state and, I’d say, a sin.