The Trinity: what is it, where did it come from?
Soon it will be Trinity Sunday, following hard on the heels of the Spirit as celebrated at Pentecost. But there is something important about the spirit that generally does not figure in the sermons of Pentecost. And it is this missing element that will form the basis of this dialogue. So this dialogue is offering some thoughts designed to challenge and develop our thinking about the Spirit. Is the Trinity really what we think it is? Or are some surprises lurking within?
There is a joke about ministers managing to be ill, take holidays, or be struck temporarily dumb on Trinity Sunday, usually because the various technical explanations of the trinity prove too dense and headache-inducing to tackle. There is an assumption that the complex history of the development of the doctrine of the trinity is just too intricate for the ordinary person in the pew. John and I disagree, and think that the basics are understood enough that we can build on them by engaging in a dialogue about this particular topic.
We should warn you that this is not meant to be an inspiring and enthusing sermon. Rather, through the technicalities of the development of the doctrine, we hope to encourage you to think about our understanding of God, and how we experience God’s presence in our lives.
The first character to open our dialogue is Rufinus, who was present at the council of Nicea in the year 325, when the first formal declaration of the doctrine of the trinity was made by a council of bishops. Rufinus was one of the scribes at the council, taking notes for the eminent historian, Eusebius of Caesarea. Rufinus is full of enthusiasm for what has taken place at Nicea. He is anxious to address you on the topic. He is quickly joined by a mysterious and rather shadowy character, who questions the whole foundations of the Nicean decision on this topic.
RUFINUS: What do we mean when we speak of the Trinity? This is a good question, and one frequently asked by Christians. The answer that you receive to this question will depend upon the person you ask. However, I will attempt a definition of what we mean when we talk about ‘trinity’.
The monotheism of Christianity is rather unique. We believe that God is One; but we also hold that the one God has three distinct “persons”: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This unique threefold God of Christian belief is referred to as the Trinity (from Latin trinitas, “three”).
It is true that the word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible. However, we believe that some of the texts of the bible point to this doctrine – in fact, you have heard a number of them this morning. But while this concept is rather scarce in the biblical texts, there is no reason we should doubt the words of the early church fathers, where it appears often. After all, the word “Trinity” was first used by Tertullian, the great Latin lawyer and theologian (c.155-230). So it already has quite a history, stretching from my time in the fourth century back into the early years of the third century.
We should consider the early councils of the church—and especially the one held at Nicaea under the patronage of our great emperor, Constantine—to be authoritative. In these councils, doctrine is formally and correctly defined by the doctors and fathers of the church. The Nicene Creed declares Jesus to be: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” That is the trinity in essence.
And we can also consider this affirmation:
“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son, he is worshipped and glorified.”
This testifies to the fact that the Holy Spirit came because of the death of Jesus. Jesus promised that when he died, the spirit, the Comforter would come. As Jesus was in the father, so the spirit was in Jesus. You see—it is simple!
SOPHILLA: Now just a minute. This is not as beautifully simple as you claim, at all. There are lots of reasons for questioning this doctrine of the Trinity. For example, as you said, the word ‘trinity’ is not mentioned anywhere in the Bible. And think about it – it simply doesn’t make philosophical sense. It isn’t taught in the scripture of the Jewish people, the Old Testament. These were the scriptures of Jesus, and he never mentioned such a thing. Whoever heard of such strangeness as this ‘one in three’ business?
Further, the idea of trinity is not compatible with monotheism. In fact, this is really why it was invented. The church fathers needed to explain away why they were worshipping two gods—God the Father, the supreme God; and Jesus, also regarded as a God. This would be polytheism. So they threw in the holy spirit for good measure, and came up with this notion of the “three in one”. Lastly, this Council at Nicea was really also about refuting the so-called Arian heresy.
RUFINUS: Yes, that’s right, Arius claimed that Jesus was not one with God the Father, as he was not fully divine—a false view that had to be dealt with.
SOPHILLA: Have you ever noticed how doctrine is always developed when there is an alleged heresy at large?
RUFINUS: Well, this is the way that good ideas are shaped and refined. However, I will ignore this polemical statement and take up your earlier point. You may be right about the word ‘trinity’ not being biblical, but I have to point out that the concept is found indirectly in various statements in the Bible. The three figures of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are associated in such great New Testament passages as the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19); and in the apostolic benediction: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14). And this idea explains the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and shows how this idea fits with monotheism. And anyway, it should not be expected that the nature of God is going to make sense to us humans. We have to allow room for some complexity.
SOPHILLA: I do not believe that Matthew intended this verse to become proof of a trinity. In fact, I am unconvinced that Matthew the evangelist even wrote such words. Matthew records a special connection between God the Father and Jesus the Son (for example, Matthew 11:27), but he falls short of claiming that Jesus is equal with God (as in 24:36). I do not need a trinity to explain to me that Jesus was special.
RUFINUS: Come, come, you surely cannot mean that. The coming of Jesus Christ, the belief that he represented the presence and power of God, clearly had implications for the very early Christians, and planted seeds of understanding in their minds. Think of the Holy Spirit, whose coming was connected with the celebration of the Pentecost. Surely you will agree that the Holy Spirit is divine.
SOPHILLA: Of course the holy spirit is divine. She is sent by God, to increase human understanding, to bring change and renewal, and to announce the will of God.
RUFINUS: She???!!!! What do you mean, she? The holy spirit, the blessed third person of the trinity, is male. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Three persons in one being. Of course the spirit is male. How could it be otherwise? All three persons are male. And come to think of it, just who are you anyway, to be putting forth such ridiculous ideas?
SOPHILLA: I thought you would never ask. I am Sophilla, handmaiden to Wisdom, and one of the keepers of the feminine tradition. Wisdom has been described in many and various ways—as an aspect of God, as a divine entity existing in her own right, even as something approaching a feminine deity. All of these have some truth to them. Wisdom’s primary function is, of course, to be a mediating force between God and the world. Wisdom is very old; as it says in the book of Proverbs: “The Lord created [Wisdom] at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old” (Proverbs 8:22). Wisdom also functions as a vehicle of God’s self-revelation, granting knowledge of God to those who pursue her.
RUFINUS: I am sorry, this is getting out of hand here. What you are talking about is the function of Jesus. These are the things Jesus does. Let us consider these verses which come early in the letter to the Colossians:
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him…For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
This makes it very clear.
SOPHILLA: All that this makes clear is that the New Testament writers usurped Wisdom’s function and gave it to Jesus. The name of Wisdom was used by you men at the early Church gathering at Nicea to try and explain how a ‘three persons in one’ related to the created world. You just conveniently forgot that Wisdom is female. It is time to give you a history lesson to prove my point.
The first recorded use of the word “Trinity” in Christian theology was in the first century (around 180) by Theophilus of Antioch. He used it, however, to refer to a “triad” of three days: the first three days of Creation, which he then compared to “God, his Word, and his Wisdom.” Later great Christian thinkers such as Maximus the Confessor and Gregory Palamas made Wisdom integral to their theory of knowledge and understanding of the created and uncreated orders.
RUFINUS: What about Tertullian, that great theologian of the early third century? He explained the trinity properly. He made it clear that words “Trinity” and “person” are to explain that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit were “one in essence—not one in Person.” What do you have to say to that?
SOPHILLA: Only this: how can you be so sure that Tertullian is right and Maximus is wrong? And what about the rabbis? Consider the words of Rabbi Rami Shapiro: “You are intimate with Wisdom. She has known you from the beginning. You cannot hide from Her. On the contrary, you can take refuge in Her. This is what She offers you. You do not have to earn Her love or be other than you are…she knows you and loves you for who you are”. These teachings of Wisdom can be found in lots of Writings: the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, the Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes, as well as the Greek texts, the Wisdom of Solomon and the Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach. The New Testament, therefore, has clearly associated Wisdom with the person of Jesus Christ. Wisdom had to go because she was feminine. The Divine Feminine through which God created the world was replaced with the divine masculine.
RUFINUS: I am astonished by your heretical views. The New Testament shows you are wrong. What about the section of Paul’s letter that we heard today? 2 Corinthians 13:14 is such early evidence for a trinity. The apostle Paul understood God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit as the Trinity. Jesus is referred to as Lord and Christ, God is referred to as a source of love, and the Spirit promotes sharing within Paul’s churches. Now you cannot dispute this.
SOPHILLA: I can and I will. Paul does not refer to Jesus as son, but as the means of God’s grace. He refers to God as a source of love, not as father. And by your own admission, the Spirit promotes sharing within the community, and is not physically connected with either.
RUFINUS: All right then, what about the Gospel of Rufinus? Rufinus suggests the equality and unity of Father and Son. “I and the Father are one” Jesus says in Rufinus (Rufinus 10:30). And this Gospel starts with the statement that in the beginning Jesus as Word “was with God and ...was God” (Rufinus 1:1) and ends with Thomas’s confession of faith to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” (Rufinus 20:28).” You cannot deny that these two verses identify Jesus with God.
Furthermore, Rufinus’s gospel says that of the role of Holy Spirit is to be a parakletos, an advocate and comforter for believers, and will be sent after the death of Jesus:
“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you [said Jesus]. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me. .. the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (Rufinus 14:18-19)
Here we see Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, both distinctly yet functioning as a unity. What more proof could you ask for?
SOPHILLA: Since you have raised the topic of the spirit, let us focus on her for a minute.
RUFINUS: Her???!!! My dear Sophilla, the spirit, as part of the trinity, is masculine. The parakletos, the comforter, the spirit, is of masculine gender. This is female bias gone mad!
SOPHILLA: I would remind you that the holy spirit was alive, well and active in the Old Testament, and the ruach, which is one of her names, is most definitely feminine gender in the language of Hebrew. Let us consider her role: the ruach is frequently coupled with the name of God; in Hebrew, the ruach Elohim is literally the Spirit of God who descends on kings and prophets alike, anointing them for the role of leadership of the people. Here again we have proof that this doctrine of the trinity has replaced the ruach with a masculine persona. Further, we find in the Hebrew scriptures the presence of two other figures: the Shekinah, also known as the glory of God, who always indicates God’s “presence”; and the bat kol, “the Daughter of the Voice,” which is how any proclamation made by God is described. Every action of God in the ancient writings is feminine. What have you to say to that?
RUFINUS: What are you talking about, with bat kols and Shekinahs? These are not words I have heard; we did not discuss these at Nicea.
SOPHILLA: Let me spell it out for you then. The Hebrew word “ruach” means “spirit”, just as the Latin word “spiritus” means spirit, but in Hebrew, ruach is a feminine noun, while in Latin, spiritus is a masculine noun. The Holy Spirit changed its sex somewhere in the last few centuries.
I have further evidence that this notion of trinity has swallowed up the feminine. According to ancient Rabbis, where two or more of the faithful are gathered together in prayer, or study of Torah, the Shekinah is in their midst. Does this sound familiar? I seem to recall a saying in the New Testament that says ‘wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am with them’. This is clearly describing the role of the Shekinah – and when the gospel writers get to work, this role has been taken over by Jesus.
Further more, the ancient Rabbis also said that the Shekinah appeared before Moses at the burning bush, where the bat kol (or daughter of the voice) was heard speaking to Moses. It was the guide to Israel in the wilderness. Now, I seem to recall this idea of spirit in the wilderness is also found in the writings of the New Testament.
RUFINUS: You cannot possibly be suggesting that this nonsense is somehow related to the deeds of Jesus or the spirit in the wilderness!
SOPHILLA: Well, I was suggesting this. The feminine spirit and Shekinah are well attested in the Jewish writings. Why did you Western church fathers need to remove them? Look at Justin Martyr – he claimed that Jesus was Wisdom, Logos and the Glory, thereby removing the feminine ruach, Wisdom and Shekinah all in one stroke. He did not consider the ancient teachings.
For example, Rabbi Hillel, contemporary of Jesus, understood that the Hebrew understanding of Wisdom and spirit was the same as the Greek understanding of the Logos, and therefore feminine. It was Paul and Rufinus who first claimed that the Word or Logos was Christ, and therefore masculine.
In the Eastern Church, the Spirit was always considered to have a feminine nature. She was the life-bearer of the faith. Clement of Alexandria states that “she” is an indwelling Bride. Instead of recognizing this feminine aspect of the divine, you have tried to satisfy women throughout the world by presenting them with models of martyrs and virgins, thereby setting a standard that no normal female can aspire to. You tried to turn Wisdom into the mother of Jesus, rather than seeing her as true divinity.
RUFINUS: You still haven’t explained what you mean by bat kol.
SOPHILLA: The bat kol, the ‘daughter of the voice’, was the voice of God that proclaimed God’s will and intention, his judgments and his promises, his warnings and his commands to various people, communities, and sometimes to all of Israel. Jewish tradition always spoke of the bat kol. When the Law was given at Sinai the Bible says,
“And the LORD spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of the words, but saw no form; you only heard a voice.” (Deut 4:12)
This voice is the bat kol. There are hundreds of examples of the bat kol in the Old Testament. And believe it or not, the bat kol is alive and well in the New Testament writings – do you recall the baptism of Jesus? A voice was heard from to make a pronouncement about Jesus. This was the bat kol.
RUFINUS: I am glad you mentioned this scene. This is another part of the New Testament that is considered to show the trinity at work. We have Jesus, the son, being baptised by the holy spirit, and the voice of God is heard. Surely you must accept this as proof.
SOPHILLA: No, I do not. The writers have taken the bat kol and made her masculine! And I see this scene very differently. The ruach, the spirit of God, who descended from the heavens was changed into the pneuma, or spiritus, and made masculine. The qualities of Wisdom and the Shekinah were grafted onto Jesus – again the feminine became masculine. And the bat kol, the voice of God and the means of communication between God and the people, morphed into a male. So you could say that all three ‘persons’ of this newly invented trinity were in fact, originally female. And did I mention that the bat kol is represented in Jewish tradition by the symbol of the dove?
JOHN: At this point, we shall leave our analysis of the history of the doctrine of the trinity. However we approach this subject, it is clear that it is, by its very nature, complex. We need to recognise that the concept of the trinity was developed over a long period of time. It was not only an expression of divine revelation. It was just as much about refuting heresies, and explaining how belief in what seemed to be three divine entities was still consistent with a faith that was monotheistic. And, of course, it had to do with the church politics of the time. This is well-recognised by theologians and church historians today.
ELIZABETH: What is not so well known is that the many attributes of the three persons of the trinity were taken from the older religion of Jesus – that of the Jewish people. An analogy to this might be seen in the Christian festivals of Easter and Christmas, where older traditions were redefined or subsumed under the Christian banner. As we have seen, the trinity contains Jewish ideas which have been reshaped into a new doctrine. In this process, the female figures so important in Jewish tradition were lost. Today, we hope that we have helped you to recover the missing element—the female figures of Wisdom, Shekinah, the ruach, and the bat kol.
The view we have presented here of the trinity is not meant to discredit the traditional doctrine. On the contrary; what we hope to have done is to open up new possibilities for further exploration of the idea of the divine attributes and the different aspects of God. The trinity can be a stimulus for such exploration in our thinking about God, and how we experience God’s presence in our lives.