One of the central beliefs of the Church is that of the Trinity. The first Sunday after Pentecost is called Trinity Sunday and commemorates the belief in the Holy Trinity. It is a doctrine that developed over time and came into full formation with the Creeds, developing as a result of the Christological Controversies in the 3rd and 4th centuries. It is also one of those doctrines that people find it hard to wrap their heads around, because it is a mystery. That is not to say that it cannot be defined, only that it requires some “out of the box” thinking to adjust to the concept. To this day skeptics and even pseudo-christian sects challenge the belief, but the ancient church still proclaims this central belief that there is one God, in three Persons.
Over the years I have engaged in discussion, debates and lots of contemplation on the Trinity and my thoughts are that the Trinity isn’t really a difficult doctrine at all. There are plenty of ways to see the concept in day to day life. St. Patrick used a 3 leaf clover to demonstrate from nature the idea of 3 and 1. Three clover leafs on one clover plant. Other simple explanations would include:
- A triangle, 3 sides but one triangle.
- H2O (HOH) is a compound we know as water, but can also be found as ice and steam.
- I am a son, a father, and a husband. There aren’t 3 different me’s but there are three persona’s that I exists as.
- In math 1x1x1 equals 1.
Some of the arguments I have heard against the Trinity include:
The Doctrine of the Trinity was invented hundreds of years after Christ.This is partially true. The Doctrine was formalized as a result of controversies surrounding the nature of Christ. These are known as the Christological Controversies, and in the 3rd and 4th centuries they were a hot topic. However the fact that there was a controversy to begin with implies that while the belief may not have been formally defined, it was certainly understood enough to defend.
The Word Trinity doesn’t appear in the Bible. This is true. However you wont find the word Bible in the Bible either. This problem is really a result of modern christian sects who have resorted to a “bible alone” basis for their theology. The ancient church was apostolic in nature, and while it held the Sacred Scriptures in the highest regard, they understood that scriptures still needed to be interpreted and defined. As such they not only drew on oral tradition for their belief in the Triune God, but saw within Scripture the basis for what was later defined as the Trinity. Examples would include the baptismal formula to “baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”; and the visitation of Abraham in the old testament by three men in the “hospitality of Abraham” icon.
The Trinity seems to be a belief in Three different Gods, beings, etc. This has always been a hard one for me to deal with. First because the creeds and doctrines do a very good job of stating what we believe in. Credo in unum Deum. (I believe in One God). Second, the forming of the creeds was a rejection of beliefs which broke the unity of Godhead into separate beings, or non eternal entities. In other words the Church rejected polytheism, so how can it be accused of being polytheistic? The point is that the Trinity is not polytheism, it is not based on Pagan Triads, it is not a belief in created beings attaining Godhood.
The Trinity is a Mystery. This one is more of a red herring. It is a mystery, and is understood as such by the church but that doesn’t mean there is no definition. The claim of being a mystery isn’t an excuse to say we cannot explain our belief, the Creeds are proof of this; rather that we need to explain it using symbols or metaphor. When I was in grade school, we learned about the Big Bang. In a lot of ways the Big Bang is also a mystery. It’s hard to wrap your head around such an event let alone describe it. I remember the explanation being that there was a super hot bit of matter about the size of a pencil point that began to spin and then blew up into the universe. Or something on those lines. It’s a definition which uses symbols we would recognize, like spinning, or a pencil point, to describe an event which science believes took place. In the same way the Trinity is explained using examples, symbols, philosophy, metaphor.
In Christian Art the Trinity is shown as Three different people. This is true, however this is another example of using symbol and metaphor. Depictions of an old man (Father), a young man (Jesus) and a dove (Holy Spirit), or other variations are really ways to symbolically represent the Trinity. The personhood of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are easy to represent in art, but it is not easy to show how they are all One. Overlapping the figures, or bundling them together in a cloud are attempts to show the unity in the trinity.