Category: Trinity Sunday

Triune Blessing — Lectionary Reflection for Trinity Sunday (2 Corinthians 13)

Perichoresis by Faithdance 
2 Corinthians 13:11-13 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

11 Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. 12 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. 

13 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

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        Trinity Sunday offers a challenge, especially to non-creedal churches that don’t prescribe its observance or even require a trinitarian understanding of God. That is true for me, as a minister within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Although I affirm the doctrine of the Trinity, there has always been a certain uneasiness with the doctrine within the denomination. Alexander Campbell, for example, had what looks like a trinitarian understanding of God’s nature, but refused to identify himself as trinitarian or use the word Trinity to speak of God. While I’ve written a small book on the Trinity for my denomination, I know that a significant number of my colleagues would disagree with my assessments and suggestions. Nevertheless, I will persist in my advocacy of the value of the doctrine of the Trinity for the church.

If we look only to Scripture for guidance on this matter, we are left with hints and intriguing formulas, like the one found in the final verse of 2 Corinthians 13, but we won’t find a fully developed trinitarian doctrine present in Scripture. But, as Karl Barth notes the Church Fathers and Reformers knew that to be true, but they also recognized the doctrine to be present in the words of Scripture. In other words, it is a reflection of good interpretation of Scripture [Church Dogmatics 1/1 309-310].

Here in 2 Corinthians 13, Paul concludes a letter that deals with difficult issues within this community. Now that he’s bringing the letter to a close, he appeals to them, asking that they agree with each other and live in peace, reflecting the presence of the God of land peace. The suggestion that they greet each other with a holy kiss is probably not appropriate at the moment I write this reflection, as we are being encouraged strongly to keep physically separate from each other due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But a warm greeting, even at a six-foot distance, is appropriate. Good interpretation here doesn’t require us to agree on every matter of doctrine or even practice, but it does ask that we be of one mind when it comes to the center of our faith, that would be Jesus as the Christ.

I would like to use this reflection to consider the concept of the Trinity as the Christian way of understanding the nature of God. Augustine wrote at length on the Trinity, and in his treatise On Christian Doctrine, he writes this classic statement:

The Trinity, one God, of whom are all things, through whom are all things, in whom are all things. Thus the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and each of these by Himself, is God, and at the same time they are all one God; and each of them by Himself is a complete substance, and yet they are all one substance. The Father is not the Son nor the Holy Spirit; the Son is not the Father nor the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is not the Father nor the Son: but the Father is only Father, the Son is only Son, and the Holy Spirit is only Holy Spirit. To all three belong the same eternity, the same unchangeableness, the same majesty, the same power. In the Father is unity, in the Son equality, in the Holy Spirit the harmony of unity and equality; and these three attributes are all one because of the Father, all equal because of the Son, and all harmonious because of the Holy Spirit.  [Saint Augustine. OnChristian Doctrine (With Active Table of Contents). Kindle Edition.]

There was for a time a sense that the Trinity was an outmoded doctrine. It seemed to make God rather complicated, and besides preachers and even professors have had a difficult time explaining it. Then along came Karl Barth who reaffirmed its importance and value to the church. For Barth and those he influenced, directly and indirectly, the conversation centers around the confession that Jesus is the Christ, and by that he means the Word of God incarnate. This is not the place for a full-blown discussion of the Trinity. On that, I suggest reading my brief treatise The Triune Nature of God: Conversations Regarding the Trinity by a Disciples of ChristPastor/Theologian (Energion, 2019).

                For our purposes, especially at this moment in time, I’d like to highlight the relational nature of the Trinity as expressed in the doctrine of the social Trinity. While this perspective risks a slide into tri-theism, it is worth the risk to think in terms of God’s nature as relational. Thus, human relationships reflect the internal relationships that is God. Jürgen Moltmann is one of the most influential theologians to advance the idea of the social Trinity. He makes use of the doctrine of perichoresis. He writes here of the interrelationship of the three persons of the Trinity:

An eternal life process takes place in the triune God through the exchange of energies. The Father exists in the Son, the Son in the Father, and both of them in the Spirit, just as the Spirit exists in both the Father and the Son. By virtue of their eternal love they live in one another to such an extent, and dwell in one another to such an extent, that they are one. It is a process of most perfect and intense empathy. [Jurgen Moltmann. The Trinity and the Kingdom (Kindle Locations 2544-2548). Kindle Edition.]

As I reflect on Paul’s closing statement, there is a relational quality that reflects the concept of the social Trinity. Note how Paul uses the words grace, love, and communion. These are all relational terms. The idea of the social Trinity suggests that human relationships reflect the relationship that exists within the Godhead. What is key is the affirmation that this relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is eternal. Traditionally, it is assumed that each member of the Trinity is always present together, though as Moltmann suggests, this is to be understood in terms of perichoresis. Some theologians have envisioned this as a dance in which the three persons are engaged with each other. Catherine Mowry LaCugna notes that while the philological evidence for this idea of dance is not great, it is an effective metaphor. She writes:

 

Choreography suggests the partnership of movement, symmetrical but not redundant as each dancer expresses and at the same time fulfills him/herself towards the other. In interaction and inter-course, the dancers (and the observers) experience one fluid motion of encircling, encompassing, permeating, enveloping, outstretching. There are neither leaders nor followers in the divine dance, only an eternal movement of reciprocal giving and receiving, giving again and receiving again [LaCugna, God for Us, pp. 271-272].

While there might be questions concerning this metaphor for understanding the internal relationship within the Godhead, and as to whether the Triune God wishes to invite creation into the dance, as for me, without being overly dogmatic, I can envision this description of God’s nature. I can also envision God inviting humanity/creation into the dance.

          Thee key for us is not only in relationship to God’s internal nature, but how we can understand ourselves within this conversation. Might we, if we exist as the image of God, reflect God’s relationality in our own human relationships? LaCugna writes that “mutuality rooted in communion among persons is a non-negotiable truth about our existence, the highest value and ideal of the Christian life, because for God mutual love among persons is supreme” [LaCugna, God for Us, p. 399]. To live the trinitarian life is to live “together in harmony and communion with every other creature in the common household of God ‘doing all things to the praise and glory of God’” [LaCugna, p. 401].

                While the doctrine of the Trinity is not an easy concept to digest, and it can easily end up leading dwelling in abstractions, it can also serve as the foundation for living together in the church and beyond. It is a vision of God’s nature, one that envisions God being in communication with creation, bringing wholeness and healing to broken people and communities. Considering we livin in a moment of brokenness, when the nation is more divided than we’ve seen in years, when a pandemic and the continuing challenge of racism and its presence in all parts of the community, including the police, we need to hear a word like this.  So, may “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you” (2 Cor. 13:13).

Holy Wisdom – A lectionary reflection for Trinity Sunday (Proverbs 8)

Wisdom, Prudence, and Knowledge

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31  New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

 
8 Does not wisdom call,
    and does not understanding raise her voice?
2 On the heights, beside the way,
    at the crossroads she takes her stand;
3 beside the gates in front of the town,
    at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
4 “To you, O people, I call,
    and my cry is to all that live.
 
22 The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
    the first of his acts of long ago.
23 Ages ago I was set up,
    at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24 When there were no depths I was brought forth,
    when there were no springs abounding with water.
25 Before the mountains had been shaped,
    before the hills, I was brought forth—
26 when he had not yet made earth and fields,
    or the world’s first bits of soil.
27 When he established the heavens, I was there,
    when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28 when he made firm the skies above,
    when he established the fountains of the deep,
29 when he assigned to the sea its limit,
    so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30     then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
    rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world
    and delighting in the human race.
 
 
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                Pentecost Sunday, which celebrates the sending of the Spirit, is followed by Trinity Sunday. Now that we have the Spirit on board, we can attend to the question of the Trinity as a whole. That is, how do we fit all the pieces together as one God in three persons, blessed Trinity? As a Trinitarian, who understands the challenges presented by the doctrine, I’ve wrestled with the question. I even have a book due out any minute that explores the idea in conversation with my own denominational tradition that is by intention non-creedal. That fact—being non-creedal—always makes for an interesting Trinity Sunday.
 
The lectionary invites preachers to consider a variety of biblical texts for any given Sunday, including readings from the Hebrew Bible. The question for us this week is whether we can find allusions to the Trinity in the Hebrew Bible. We must do this while recognizing that Judaism, like Islam, is a strictly monotheistic tradition. The ancient church, using such devices as the allegorical method, found those allusions, but I’m not sure a Jewish reader would always agree. Nevertheless, Proverbs 8, which celebrates Holy Wisdom, is the chosen first reading for Trinity Sunday in year C. So, what should we make of this witness? What direction might we go with the passage on Trinity Sunday?
 
                As we consider the question, I confess to being a Trinitarian who believes that a faithful reading of Scripture reveals a Trinitarian vision of God’s nature. Nevertheless, we must be careful with how we handle texts like this. While Proverbs 8 speaks of Wisdom in elevated terms, using female descriptors, which lends itself to broadening our conception of God’s nature (moving beyond the traditional masculine vision), this particular text poses a distinct challenge. That is because, while it speaks of Wisdom calling us to pay attention to its witness, it also speaks of Wisdom as the first act of God’s creation not as being divine in any recognizable way (vs. 22). The doctrine of the Trinity, on the other hand, insists that the three persons of the Godhead (three hypostases in one substance) are eternal and uncreated. That goes for the Logos as well as Wisdom (Sophia), but the witness here is that Wisdom is the first act of creation. So, we should be wary about using this passage to inform our Trinitarian visions, even if this passage does lend itself to considering the female dimension within God’s nature. Indeed, as Liza Anderson notes, Arius used Proverbs 8:22 in reference to the Logos to affirm his premise that Christ is a created being.  She writes: 
 

Given that subsequent ecumenical councils commit us to a belief that the Spirit is likewise uncreated, a simple identification of the biblical figure of Wisdom with any of the three Trinitarian Persons seems impossible to sustain. There are still all kinds of interesting things to do with that feminine personification of Wisdom; the Russian tradition of sophiology as expressed by Bulgakov and others offers examples. But there is no easy way to conflate it with the Holy Spirit that doesn’t simply result in subordinating the Spirit to the Father and the Son.  [Liza Anderson, “Translating the Trinity,” Covenant (March 28, 2019).]

 
While the passage is suggestive, and the idea of the divine nature of Wisdom is present at points in canonical Scripture and in non-canonical texts, with this warning from a historian of the early church, it might be best if we don’t delve too deeply into conversations that take more space than I have in this essay. So, perhaps we should consider other ways of reading this passage that might prove spiritually beneficial.
 
The reading begins with a depiction of Woman Wisdom as a street preacher, calling out to all who will listen, to follow her lead. This picture of Wisdom standing at the gates calling out to any who will listen comes after the author of this part of the book of Proverbs (chapters 1-9) describes both the allure and the dangers offered by the strange or loose woman (Proverbs 7). This opening section of Proverbs (chapters 1-9) depicts a father sharing wisdom with his son (a perfect Father’s Day allusion?). The key to this bit of wisdom is the contrast between the loose woman who represents folly and the righteous creation of God who offers the boy Wisdom.   
 
With the reading prefaced by the picture of Woman Wisdom standing at the gates of the city beckoning all who will hear to follow her, we come to verse 22. We might start by affirming the premise of verse 22, that Wisdom is the first act of God’s creation.  The writer of this poem lifts up Wisdom’s role in the creative process. She was there from the beginning, before anything took form, from the sea to the sky to the land. But what was the role she played?
 
Cameron Howard suggests that “Wisdom was God’s joyful companion,” a vision revealed in the fine two verses of the passage we have before us. Joy is the operative word here regarding Wisdom, so we might consider that, as Howard suggests, “to walk in the straight and righteous paths of Wisdom, then, is to connect with this same primal joy” [Connections, pg. 3-4]. This idea that Wisdom is God’s companion as God engages in the work of creation emerges from an alternative reading of verse 30. The NRSV speaks of Wisdom being the “master worker.” However, it is also possible to read this as “child.” If we read it as “master worker” or architect, then how should we understand the reference to God taking daily delight in Wisdom? Is it in terms of the work being done or something else? If we go with “child,” then Wisdom is that companion with whom God shares the joy of creation? Whatever the case, God takes delight in what is created, as does Wisdom. Indeed, Wisdom rejoices in the inhabited world and in the human race itself. All of this goes back to the pronouncement in Genesis 1 that the creation is good.
 
                So the message of the day is really one of joy. Let’s rejoice in the beauty of creation, including human life. It is good and blessed. Such joy should lead us to a commitment to care for creation. As Leanne Van Dyke suggests, “A Christian vision that looks out onto our world with the eyes of Wisdom constantly sees opportunities for participating in God’s own intentions and plans. God is not a Creator gone missing. God is intimately related to each and every creature” [Connections, p 5]. Such a vision, one that motivates us to social engagement, brings with it a sense of joy. Again, Van Dyke writes: The church certainly better fulfill its mission to communicate the gospel to a jaded world with winsome cheer and joyful delight rather than judgment and blame” [Connections, p. 6]. It is true that prophets are known to talk turkey about things in the world, and that is sometimes needed, but a constant harangue doesn’t get us far. Joy, on the other hand, it has more to offer.
 
                Trinity Sunday highlights God in God’s fullness, however we have come to understand that fullness. In celebrating God’s fullness, we acknowledge God’s role as Creator. Knowing that God takes delight in the creation, of which Holy Wisdom is both the first act and the partner, we can sing boldly: “All creatures of our God and king, lift up your voice and with us sing; Alleluia, Alleluia!”

Image attributionMaster of the Cité des Dames, active 1400-1415. Wisdom, Prudence, and Knowledge, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56953 [retrieved June 10, 2019]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Othea%27s_Epistle_(Queen%27s_Manuscript)_02.jpg.