June 3, 2012 is Trinity Sunday. Yesterday’s post gave a useful way to explain the divine mystery of the Holy Trinity to children and new believers.

The Revd Matt Kennedy, Rector of the Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, New York, warns us about heresies concerning the Holy Trinity. What follows are excerpts from his Trinity Sunday sermon from 2010, ‘God’s Self Disclosure’ (emphases mine):

… let me start out by saying two things: 1. The Trinity is not something we made up. Concepts humans make up are very tidy. They may be complex like the combustion engine or the personal computer, but once you get the system everything falls into place. The Trinity is not tidy. It is not a practical, relevant, human-friendly system that once understood will make everything fall into place. That’s because the Trinity is not a human concept thought up by humans for humans. It’s the word humans use for God’s own nature that he has revealed to us. Everyone here can understand the basic facts about the Trinity because God has revealed these basics in a way that is fit for our finite minds, but we’ll never “get God” like we might “get” computers or mechanics, because God is infinite and we’re not.

Which brings me to the second thing: self disclosure is an act of love … the Creator of the Cosmos who owes us nothing and who needs nothing from us, reveals himself to us. Don’t sit back as if the Trinity is some dry dusty esoteric doctrine. It is God’s self disclosure. He’s inviting us to go deeper and to love him more. Christianity is a revealed faith not an intuitive religion. Christians do not take a mystical self-guided journey into the great cosmic yes. God reveals himself to us through his word. That’s an unwarranted unmerited immeasurably valuable gift. How stupid and selfish to be bored by it.

I’ve found that starting with what the Trinity is not, makes it easier to grasp what the Trinity is. So let’s start with four of the most common misunderstandings
Modalism: A couple of months ago someone in ST suggested this analogy for the Trinity. “Just as a single man can simultaneously be a son to his father, a father to his son, and a brother to his sibling so the one God can be Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” God steps into various roles depending on the circumstances. Sometimes he is the Father, other times, the Son and still others the Holy Spirit.  This is called Modalism.

Take a look at the gospel lesson this morning in John 16:13-15.
“13…when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. 15All that belongs to the Father is mine.” 

Is there anything in this text that would conflict with modalism? In verse 14 Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will glorify the Son. That requires two distinct persons. The Son and the Spirit are distinct and operating in relationship to each other at the same time. This relationship is impossible unless there are two distinct persons. In verse 15 Jesus mentions the Father. The Father shares everything with the Son: relationship. One person is not jumping into three roles. Three persons are relating simultaneously to each other. You see the same thing in the gospel accounts of the baptism of Jesus. Simultaneously Jesus, the Son, is baptized, the Father speaks “This is my beloved Son” and, the Holy Spirit descends as a dove. All three, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, present and actively relating to one another. The New Testament is full of these kinds of events and from them we learn, God tells us, that the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, and the Spirit is not the Father or the Son. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are distinct…they are not the same Person.

Arianism: Well then, some will say, if Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct, then they can’t all be God because there is only one God. So only the Father is God. Jesus is like a powerful avatar or spirit being. And the Spirit must be like the force in Star Wars, this spiritual energy field that the Father emits. Arius, a famous heretic, taught something like this in the early 4th century but its back in vogue in liberal mainstream protestant circles where Jesus is often depicted as being a super spiritual human so in touch with God that the divine becomes manifest through him—kind of like the Buddha but without all the fasting.

It’s clear enough that the Father is God. But scripture clearly identifies Jesus as God as well.

1. In John 1:1 we read: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the word Was God”. Well who is the Word? Skipping down to verse 14 of John 1, “and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”  Obviously Jesus is the Word.
2. Jesus himself claims to be God. In John 8:56-58, Jesus has this exchange with Jewish Authorities “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” “You are not yet fifty years old,” the Jews said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!” “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” Those last words “I Am” or “ego eimi”, are the words used in the Greek Old Testament to translate YHWH. The Pharisees understand very clearly what Jesus means because in v. 59, they try to stone him for blasphemy.
3. And finally, Jesus accepts the kind of worship that belongs to God alone. What did Thomas’ say when the risen Jesus showed him his wounds?  “My Lord and My God”. And how did Jesus respond? “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”(20:29) The apostles claim Jesus is God, Jesus claims that he is God. Jesus accepts the worship only due to God

Tritheism: So are we saying that there are three Gods? Muslims and JWs believe that we are. In Isa 44:6 we read: “This is what the LORD says…I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God.” Does the confession that the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God in the New Testament undercut that basic Old Covenant truth? Not at all. The truth that there is only one God that is reaffirmed in the New Testament. Paul writes in 1st Timothy 2:5: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus”. And James in 2:19 writes: “You believe that there is one God? You do well. Even the demons believe and shudder”  So the very apostles who proclaimed that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God just as strongly proclaimed that there is only One God.

Tripartism: Well, maybe God is like a giant peace sign with the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit coming together as the three sections or parts. That idea doesn’t hold up either. One example will suffice. In Colossians 2:9, Paul writes “9 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” The fullness of the deity, all that God is, Jesus is. The Son is not part of God, the Son is fully God and, on the basis of the texts we’ve already looked at, we must say the same is true for the Father and the Spirit
So here’s what we have so far: Scripture reveals, that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are distinct persons, not the same. Scripture also reveals that the Father is fully God, the Son is fully God, and the Holy Spirit is fully God. And Scripture clearly reveals that there is only one God. How do we put this together? On the surface it seems like a contradiction but God does not contradict himself. So we are called to harmonize what he reveals.
That’s what the doctrine of the Trinity accomplishes. God is one in his nature or his essence, his being. God is three in Person …

So why is this keeping this straight important? …

Letting the Trinity go is one of the fastest ways to fall into spiritual danger. Almost all of the heresies—the lies about God that lead people away from the truth, away from Christ—that’s what heresy does, that’s why its so dangerous—at the root reject one or more truths about the Trinity …

It’s less common today for children in Christian schools and at home to learn about heresy. There are several and supposedly newer ones actually derive from the original. As Kennedy mentioned, Arianism is flourishing in ‘liberal’ churches. It certainly is in the Church of England. Jesus is the great socialist collectivist ‘teacher’. Although our churches have crucifixed and commemorate all the great feasts, sermons are reductive socio-political editorials. How many converts did the clergy of St Paul’s Cathedral make during Occupy, which ended — for now — a few months ago? It’s doubtful they made many with their social gospel. Their public pronouncements had little to do with Christ and everything concerning redistribution of wealth by the notional 1%. How sad.

Perhaps they have problems understanding or believing in the Trinity? Now that we have celebrated Pentecost Sunday and Trinity Sunday, let us ensure we remain true to Scripture and Christian doctrines. Heresy really does take us away from the truth of Jesus Christ.