I’m gonna be honest, I’ve always found the doctrine of the trinity a bit much to stomach. How did a statement at the very end of Matthew’s gospel [link to Matthew 28:16-20] and a couple of other references in Paul’s letters develop into such an abstract formula, the precise wording of which has historically led to all sorts of blood shed?
When, at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says farewell to the disciples, telling them to go out and baptize “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and of of the Holy Spirit,” do you think he had all that abstract theology in mind? I doubt the disciples were thinking, “oooh, that is so homoouosios,” or “wow, that was really hypostatic!”
homoouosios: (Greek) one being [read more]
hypostasis: (Greek) three persons [read more]
hypostatic union: fully human and fully divine
Even in divinity school, when I took an entire class on the trinity and learned the meaning of those terms, I continued to have my doubts. No matter how much I may understand intellectually the ins and outs of trinitarian theology, I wonder, is it getting in the way of something more immediate, more real?
For instance, one theologian I happen to really like says that “baptism into the triune name” demonstrates that “beginning the Christian pilgrimage does not simply mean to respond to God’s summons but to enter into communion with the triune God.” (Miroslav Volf, God’s Life in the Trinity, 3) But let me ask, does this sort of language sound like anything that any of us in or out of the church have ever experienced? What exactly does it mean to commune with the triune God? And what does this have to do with baptism?
Rather than approach this question from some sort of theoretical basis, it may be more useful to look at the historical and social origins of trinitarian language. What’s interesting about Matthew 28:16-20, is that the trinitarian formula appears in the context of baptism, the first ritual to be performed by the early Christians.
In the ancient world, baptism was always done in the name of “A” god. When Jesus commanded the disciples to baptize in three names it was totally unheard of, especially for the Jews, whose strict monotheism insisted that their god was the one and only god of all creation. In fact, this was one of the most important distinctions between the Jews and other religions. Jewish monotheism arose out of the revolutionary character of the biblical narrative which diverges from other ancient mythology by refusing to worship not only multiple gods, but specifically gods which require the sacrifice of a victim. “The Bible rejects the gods created by sacralized violence,” and exposes the demand for victims “as a purely human abomination.” [see Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightening, 119-121].
This contrast is evident in the violence of many ancient mythologies, in which gods rose to power by slaying other gods. For instance, in ancient Babylonian mythology, the upstart god Marduk rose to power after he slew the older goddess Tiamat. In a world steeped in violence there are always new gods rising to power. And sadly, little has changed since then. For instance, during the Cold War the nuclear bomb was exalted in a sense, actually establishing peace between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, but only after the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Or today we could say that Americans have replaced the god of industry with the god of consumerism. What is remarkable about the Jews, is that throughout the entire course of their history they stuck with one god and in the process the Jews came to understand that their god actually sides with the victims of the violent gods!
But this created a problem for the Jews. They evolved a concept of divinity which maintained an absolute division between their god and the gods of sacrificial violence. [Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightening, 121] That is, over the course of their long relationship with Yahweh they came to understand that God has no part in human violence. But over time the commandment not to shed the blood of victims was misconstrued as a strict demand to separate themselves from any form of contamination by those other gods, leading them to commit the very crimes they were supposedly avoiding: the condemnation of others.
Jesus appeared to be just another upstart in the pantheon of pagan gods. When the first Christians began baptizing in three names, it appeared they were violating the separation between God and sacrificial violence and reintroducing paganism. [Girard, Satan Falling, 121-122] The most extreme monotheists went so far as to insist that perpetrators be immediately stoned to death. This is illustrated in the Acts of the Apostles, when Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is executed:
When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. [Acts 7:54-58b]
As he died, Stephen repeated Jesus’ words on the cross: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” [Acts 7:60]
Why, when it was so dangerous, did the Christians insist on three names instead of one? They must have experienced something so powerful that they were willing to risk death. New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado says that the early Christians must have had repeated encounters with “the exalted and risen Jesus including visions of him sharing the glory of God and participating so directly and fully in God’s glory and majesty that their early devotional practices were the only appropriate response.” [Hurtado, One God, One Lord, 117]
But again the language “exalted and risen Jesus,” “the glory and majesty of God”? sounds like the same old tired religious language. My response is: someone please break this down for me! Or as my friend Sharon used to say, “Could you translate, I don’t speak that language.”
Hurtado seems to think that the disciples saw visions like Stephen’s of Jesus and God sitting on a cloud in heaven with the Holy Spirit hovering just over head. Obviously all the great renaissance artists thought so too, but for some reason that explanation strikes me as kind of hokey. Not to mention: how am I supposed to commune with the three of them when they’re hanging out in heaven? The gap seems a bit too wide…
Hurtado actually points us in an interesting direction. Looking at Paul’s conversion experience Hurtado claims that “Paul…’saw’ the crucified Jesus in a body radiant with the bright glory of God.” Whatever Paul experienced, it was so powerful that it transformed him from one of those extremists who persecuted Christians, into their most passionate spokesperson. What’s significant is that this was not an isolated incident. Indeed, Paul’s conversion was framed by two other events, which brought Paul face to face with what could be described as the “triune” God.
Its probably no accident that Paul’s vision sounds similar to Stephen’s. And in fact, Luke, the author of Acts, says that Paul witnessed Stephen’s death. He may even had a role in it, since Paul himself admits that he wanted to destroy the Christians [Galatians 1:13]. Shortly after Stephen’s death Paul asked to be sent to Damascus to punish more Christians, possibly intending to stone them too. He never accomplished his task. Instead the very people he intended to arrest, took him into their home and cared for him. In both instances, at Stephen’s death and in the home of the Christians, Paul experienced the act of forgiveness, with the effect that all the rigid walls of his monotheism collapsed as the power of forgiveness literally bowled him over - the gap closed and Paul was drawn into relationship not only with the victims of his intended violence, but with what could only be described as the triune God. Jesus’ act of forgiveness on the cross, revealed the true nature of the One God, not by excluding sacrificial violence, but by freeing us from the need to condemn others.
Sadly, however, it didn’t take long for the Christians to repeat the same mistake. A good deal of blood was shed in the fourth and fifth centuries over the correct interpretation of Jesus’ relationship with the Father. Could it be that the church’s emphasis on trinitarian doctrine has replaced the real life experience of forgiveness: that which freed the first Christians from the violent deadlock of monotheistic thinking?
Even arguments which rely primarily on scripture to prove or disprove the doctrine of the trinity ultimately fail because they are unable to reproduce the revelatory experience which led the first Christians to proclaim a triune God.
For a fun debate of the trinity on YouTube including hip hop [Link here]
So after all this discussion, what does it mean for us here and now? Is it possible that like the Jews, who tried to protect themselves from the gods of violence through rigid divisions, our society erects structures to prevent people from getting too close?
After all, proximity with others who are different from us, all too often leads to conflict. With the result that in North America, the privacy of the individual has become for all intents and purpose a sort of sacred order. We don’t dare talk to each other in the check out line at the grocery store or in the mall.
Jesus’ forgiveness on the cross bridges this gap in human relationships. Without forgiveness, human beings have no choice but to rely on some sort of rules of separation, rules which inevitably alienate us from each other, and even from God. Forgiveness frees us, at least momentarily, from the need for rigid divisions because there is no reason to protect ourselves from the violent response of the other, because forgiveness never lashes back. Instead it invites us to let go of OUR violence of exclusion and enter into proximity with each other, it allows us to love.
I like to imagine that when the early Christians welcomed someone into community through the ritual of baptism, the power of that love flooded the empty and unbridgeable space between people, a gulf which previously had been full of isolation and alienation.
It must have been similar to that feeling which overwhelms people when they first fall in love, something so powerful that some are willing to die for it. Except that in the case of romantic love, those first ecstatic feelings all too often give way to distrust and resentment, leading eventually to conflict and even to divorce. On the other hand,
the unconditional nature of Jesus’ forgiveness can remove all barriers, but only if we accept it into our relationships, over and over again. When we allow the act of forgiveness to truly penetrate our awareness, all the reasons we perceive others as a threat to our ways of doing things, suddenly dissolve. We don’t have to feel threatened by the person at the cash register or in the car that just cut us off at the intersection. We may even feel a connection with that person. This is the reason for baptism in three names: in an ever repeating act of forgiveness it brings us into relationship with those we would otherwise exclude.
The last thing I want to share is a personal story:
I had a really nasty argument with a very close friend. Our relationship was becoming more and more conflicted as we were unable to remain close without becoming jealous and competitive with each other. It seemed the only choice was to put some distance between us. Somehow we must have known that wasn’t the right thing to do, for one of us, and I can’t remember which, forgave the other. And in that moment I had the most profound sense that god was present with us. It was a mutual experience. All the divisions collapsed - those between heaven and earth, god and humanity, but most importantly between the two of us.
It was a moment of unexpected transformation, possibly of the sort that the first Christians experienced when they realized that the man they had all condemned to death had forgiven them. In trying to communicate this experience to others, I’ve found that the name “God” just isn’t enough. I guess I’ve finally gained some understanding of what my class on the trinity couldn’t teach me. -Sue Wright