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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Trinity problem

My sermon for this week was based on John 15:26-16:15.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Despite being raised in a faith that was at least nominally Trinitarian, I never saw much value in the Trinity.  In fact, I remember writing a few papers in seminary in which I expressed my view that the concept and doctrine of the Trinity was entirely unnecessary.

Now a few years later, while I am not still not prepared to say that the Trinity is 'necessary', at least in the hunter-gatherer sense of the term, I can no longer say that I think it is unnecessary.  I admit, I am ambivalent about doctrine to say the least, but I have come to regard the Trinity as a very spiritually nourishing concept.

The Trinity is not Scriptural in basis.  Nowhere in Scripture will you find the words 'The Holy Trinity', and references specifically to 'the Holy Spirit' (of which there are only 2) do nothing to describe the economy or machinations of the Trinity.

However, the concept of God's spirit, referred to as representing  a number of virtues like wisdom, truth, justice and mercy abound throughout Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament Wisdom Books (also called the Sapiential Books) of Wisdom, Proverbs, Sirach, Ecclesiastes, Psalms, Job and the Song of Solomon.

So while not explicitly spoken about in Scripture, the argument has been made that there are ample implicit references.

In the long run, I am not even sure that a Scriptural basis is important.  In the end, as I mentioned in my last post, the Apostles had to deal with a problem.  God, in their time and place, was perceived to be transcendent, a term that describes a God who is 'out there', incapable of being present with us or perceived by us because he is so superior to us.  Transcendent theology describes a God who is cold and aloof, and whose will can never be known, acted upon or carried out.  We are all just basically pawns who are subject to the whims of a God who can only ever be perceived of as capricious.

Then along comes Jesus, and although in Scripture, the Apostles never seem to acknowledge that Jesus is God incarnate, they certainly seem to have figured it out after his Resurrection.  All of a sudden, God was immanent, a term that describes a God who is present with us, who rejoices and suffers with us, who can be known because, at least in the person of Christ, he walked and talked with people in the flesh.

The Ascension caused a problem for the Apostles: God was absent, then God was present, then God was absent again.  But the Apostles didn't feel that God was absent.  Especially after the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon them, they felt very strongly that God was immanent indeed.  The Holy Spirit was the solution to that problem.

The Holy Spirit is tricky, for sure, and it must be said that the Holy Spirit was the 'person' of the Trinity that made me feel in the past that the Trinity was unnecessary.  Perhaps that is because I was raised with the concept of a God who was immanent.  I never had to make that shift from transcendent-to-immanent and back again like the Apostles did.  I have just always felt that the Divine was present (sometimes more present than others), and I suspect that that is the case of most people reading this.  We have never had to compensate for or adjust to such a massive shift in our theologies or worldviews.

But this brings us to our own contemporary problem.  Of what value or utility is the Holy Spirit to us as modern Christians?  Do you and I need the Holy Spirit and why?

I think we do, and let me explain why.

The downside to having a Biblical canon which was agreed upon at the Council of Laodicea (I misspoke in my recorded sermon and said the Council of Nicea) some 1600 years ago is that this leads us to the inescapable conclusion that  God has not spoke in all that time.  No new books have been added, so is that all God had to say or will ever have to say?  God basically stopped talking when John of Patmos put down his pen 1900 years ago?

Far from it.  The Divine continues to communicate with us (or we continue to become enlightened, if you prefer to see yourself as the protagonist in your relationship with the Divine), and the Holy Spirit, although perhaps not the best descriptive term as it leads us organically to personify the phenomenon of communication with the Divine, is nonetheless the term we have inherited to describe it.

In Christ's time, women were no better than livestock, slavery was a totally normal and acceptable practice and gay marriage was apparently not even a thing.  That is why Jesus never spoke about them: he spoke to where society was at the time and place.

But today, women are equal to men (or much closer than they used to be), slavery is outlawed, and discussions around same-sex marriage have come a hell of a long way.  This is the Holy Spirit guiding us towards enlightenment as we are ready to handle it.  The Holy Spirit is that term which is given to the progressive revelation of God's will to us.  Otherwise, we would not have progressed at all since Christ's time in terms of human rights and social justice.

Like I said, 'necessary' is a big word, and I leave it up to you whether or not to apply it to the Trinity and to the Holy Spirit.  What we do need to acknowledge is that faith moves us forward.  It does not keep us stuck in the past, mired with traditions and outdated perceptions of the world, of God and of his peoples.  What is necessary is the acknowledgement that God is always working in our individual and collective lives, and we are guided by his spirit to make the world a better place.

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