Grace Presbyterian Church
May 27, 2018, Trinity B
The Confessions: Nicene Creed – God in Three Persons
I suspect that you don’t necessarily have the experience of being at dinner with neighbors or friends and spending the whole evening in lively discussion and questioning about points of church doctrine. I went to seminary (twice!) and can’t say that such was really part of my experience. Scripture, maybe; the work of the church – what’s going on or what the church is doing, sure. Not so much on church doctrine. Nor do we see it much discussed in public discussion places; about the most exciting such public discussion of religion at all we have had of late was of Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry using the occasion of the recent royal wedding sermon to (gasp!) preach the gospel, which somehow seemed to surprise a lot of folks.
When Christianity was still relatively new, however, public discussion or questions about Christian teaching was certainly more frequent, if only because people weren’t really sure what these Christians actually thought or believed. And one such issue of doctrine that provoked its share of confusion was “how can Christians claim to be monotheistic” – worshipers of one God – “when they talk about this Father, but then also the Son, and then this Holy Spirit too? Sounds like three gods to me.”
While perhaps oversimplified, this was something that really did provoke discussion and disagreement, not just with those outside the church, but those within as well. How exactly do we explain One God, but the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? It was pretty easy in some cases to say what the church did not believe – no, the three are not hierarchical; each one is fully God – than to articulate the what or how or what the church did believe. Not surprisingly, this led to a fair amount of confusion both within the church and without.
Part of the problem was that even scripture itself wasn’t terribly helpful at explaining something like the Trinity; scripture simply talks about the Trinity, or uses the language of Trinity as more or less settled fact. In the passage from Paul’s letter to the Roman church, for example, we read of being led in life by the Spirit, crying out to the Father, and being “joint-heirs” with Christ, the Son, all within these few verses. Paul doesn’t stop to give a theological explanation of these things; he simply speaks of them and their work in and among and through and for us.
Similarly, in today’s reading from John’s gospel, Jesus speaks to Nicodemus first of the work of the Spirit and its sheer uncontrollability, comparing it to the wind that “blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it blows.” Then the Son of Man becomes the subject, as the one who must be “lifted up, that whosoever believes in him may have eternal life.” God the Father, the one sending his only Son, completes the Trinity, which again is not explained but simply presented as fact, as what is when one speaks of the nature and work of God.
Still, that doesn’t stop people from trying to explain. One such explanation was that God existed in three modes – the Father “mode,” the Son “mode,” and the Holy Spirit “mode,” shifting from one to another. That didn’t pass the smell text, and “modalism” became the name for a heresy about the Trinity. From another direction, popularized by a teacher named Arius, came the idea that God, the Supreme High Being, could not maintain true holiness and perfection if in fact God got caught up in the messy and imperfect affairs of humanity; therefore Jesus, the human manifestation, could not really be same Supreme High God after all but a kind of divine agent on earth. For that Arius became the namesake of another heresy, Arianism. (These of course are highly simplified descriptions).
In seeking to answer Arius and others, the church came together in a council at the city of Nicaea in the year 325 to try and answer these questions. The emperor Constantine, who sponsored the council, only wanted a church that had its act together so that he could use it to unify his empire; nonetheless the result was this statement that to this day remains the most widely used and shared confessional statement in the church, the Nicene Creed. (You can find the Nicene Creed on p. 34 of Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal), or p. 43 if you’re using the large-print hymnal)
You can see clearly in the words of the Nicene Creed how the statement is arranged around the idea of Trinity. Each “person” is identified, and attributes of each member of the Trinity are spelled out. Those attributes can also be seen as answering some of the claims about the nature of God raised by the likes of Arius; Jesus is identified as “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father” – all language meant to make it unmistakably clear that Jesus is not some secondary character in the story, and that it really was God who “became truly human.”
Similarly, the Holy Spirit is no less than “the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son” – again, not some secondary being, but of the very same being with the other members of the Trinity. (Note: much of this language was added at a later council, in 381 in Constantinople, called to clear up some of the questions raised by the initial statement.) With minimal revision, the statement has remained in use ever since.
And now time for the big question: so what? Why does a statement written over 1,600 years ago still matter enough to be used in congregations even now, much less be part of our denomination’s official governance?
One of the effective things about this statement is that while it strives mightily to answer the questions it was meant to answer, it really doesn’t try to do more. It doesn’t try to explain or “pin down” the Trinity, even as it asserts that the Trinity is. In short, there is still mystery, and if we’re going to be worshiping the One Triune God, Three in One and One in Three, we’d better be able to cope with mystery. We are required to know the limits of our own understanding by such a teaching, something that does not easily come to us with our advanced learning and philosophy and sophisticated science and technology. And yet there it is: a Triune God who is One.
It also makes a difference, if we take the Trinity seriously, how we function as a church. A Trinitarian God is necessarily in relationship. All three “persons” of the Godhead, to borrow the word from today’s final hymn, exist in relationship to one another. How, then, can we as the church headed by that “God in three persons” even begin to think that our choices, our actions, our direction can be at all conceived as somehow separate or apart from the world in which we live? We as a church are not autonomous, we as a church are not an island, because we worship and serve a relational God and cannot help but be in relationship to the world that God has made and redeemed and sustained. And clearly, we in the church cannot possibly think we can somehow not be in relationship with one another.
It makes a difference in our worship. We worship God in three persons; the Creator, the Redeemer, the Sustainer, and all three are inherently involved in our worship – it isn’t just God the Father: the Spirit drives us and draws us to worship God (whether we actually respond to that driving and drawing is a different question), and the Son is the one whose redeeming love facilitates and shapes our worship. All Three of the One are involved.
It also makes a difference in our reading of scripture. When we try to separate any part of the Word of God from the witness to Jesus found in that word, or read without the guidance and leading of the Spirit, we might as well be reading something else. Seriously, a good novel would probably be better and more enlightening to read than scripture – the Word of God the Father – without the witness of the Son and the leadership of the Spirit.
It matters, this Trinity thing, whether or not we understand it, and the Nicene Creed still bears witness to this difficult but needful doctrine. We are shaped by it, and our lives are formed by this God-in-three-persons whether we comprehend it or not. When these words appear as our Affirmation of Faith, we are brought again to remember that the God we serve and worship is not bound to our understanding, but exists and relates to us from a place of relation we can’t quite comprehend, which calls us to live in relationship as well. Whatever else we do or don’t comprehend, let us never forget that.
For the Triune God, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #2, Come, Thou Almighty King; #8, Eternal Father, Strong to Save; #11, Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud; #1, Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!