Trinity: The Triune Paradox

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

“And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing eh persons nor dividing the substance.” Not three gods but one God in essence. And yet not one Person but three Persons. Tri-une. Three in One and One in Three. Got it?

Of course you do! Or do you? Well, today is Holy Trinity Sunday, the day we celebrate the central paradox of the Christian faith, namely, that God is both Three and One at the same time. Three Persons in One Divine Essence, one Divine Essence in three Persons. Strange? You bet it is. Irrational? Yes, though you can understand it well enough to repeat it. We do every week in the Creed. And we will shortly in the words of the Athanasian Creed, which summarizes four hundred years of struggling to say it just the right way. And still we can only come to an approximation, as though looking through a dirty window pane. We can describe God using words like “person” and “being” and “essence” and “substance” but we can’t really explain God or get a bead on Him. How can something be both Three and One?

There are some failed attempts to makes analogies. A cube, for, has three distinct dimensions – height, width, depth, which together make a cube. Without all three, you don’t have a cube at all. You’d have a square or a line. But the problem is that each dimension is not a cube but only one side of a cube.

There is the hat analogy, that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are like someone wear three distinct hats, for example one man may be a father, a husband, and a son at the same time. So God has three hats – a Father hat, a Son hat, and a Holy Spirit hat. Clever, but again, it fails. When Jesus prays, He does not pray to Himself but to His Father. And Jesus didn’t send Himself to die, but the Father sent the Son with all authority in heaven and on earth.

There is the triple point of water analogy. At it’s triple point, water co-exists as solid ice, liquid water, and vapor all at the same time. All are essentially “water” H2O, but they are simply different states of the same thing. But that doesn’t quite do the trick either. Father, Son, and Spirit are not states of God or modes of God’s existence, but distinct Persons with a distinct relationship to each other.

The error is called “modalism,” where you don’t have three distinct persons but you have three modes of God’s presence. That’s one of the two ditches you end up in when you try to resolve the tri-une paradox. Most analogies fail in this way. They’re modalistic. The other ditch is tri-theism – three gods. That’s what Islam accuses Christianity of. Tritheism. They even call us tri-theists. If you lose the Persons, you will end up as either a modalist or a unitarian. If you lose the one Essence, you will wind up with three separate gods.

The closest that anyone has come to a decent analogy is St. Augustines who used the analogy of love – the Father is the Lover, the Son the beloved, the Spirit love. And still that fails somehow. All we can do is distinguish the Persons – the Father is uncreated, unbegotten, unproceeding. The Son is begotten of the Father. And the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. That’s what distinguishes them. And yet there is but one God, and whenever God deals with us, all three Persons deal with us, each according to what is properly His.

The trick to all paradoxes is to stay on the road, confessing both but favoring neither. It’s not really that hard to say back, just impossible to rationalize. We worship three Persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in one Being or Essence called “God.” It’s really as simple as that.

And the Trinity is literally all over the Scriptures. From the opening verses of Genesis in which the Father speaks the Word as the Spirit hovers over the waters of the deep to the Revelation, in which the Lamb who was slain but lives is enthroned at the right hand of the Father and the Spirit flows like a river of life from Father and Son.

In today’s OT reading from the Proverbs, the Son is personified as Wisdom, begotten from all eternity, from before the beginning of the earth. In his Gospel, John states it this way: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. With God and was God. Paradox. Two things held together at once.

You heard it in the epistle reading and Peter’s quoting of the psalm: “The Lord says to my Lord, sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” Jesus confronted His detractors with that psalm and asked them, paradoxically, “How can David’s son be David’s Lord?” And how can “the Lord” and “my Lord” talk to each other and sit next to each other?

Finally, in today’s Gospel we have Jesus Himself being confronted with the paradox of who He is as the Son of God in the flesh. The religious types thought He was nuts. “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” That’s another way of saying, “You’re nuts.” And anyone who claims to be the Son of God in the flesh is nuts or delusional or demon possessed or at least a Samaritan heretic. It’s a crazy claim and worthy of all dismissal. If I made that claim to you, that God Himself is my Father, you’d have every right to ignore me and tell me to get some help. You can’t really blame the Jews for doubting Jesus. Here He was, a carpenter from Nazareth, claiming not simply to be the Messiah, the Christ. But also claiming that God Himself was His Father, that He was sent by the Father, that the Father glorifies Him with a glory not given to Abraham or to Moses or to any of the prophets.

Jesus even rubs it in a little bit by indicating that Father Abraham rejoiced by faith that he would see Jesus’ day. He acted as though He and Abraham were on a first name basis, which they were, and had seen each other, which they had. And then Jesus pushes the big button and flat out says it, “Before Abraham was, I am.” And this doesn’t simply mean that Jesus is chronologically older than Abraham, but that Jesus is the I AM who Moses say in the burning bush, YHWH of the ineffable name, the LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who keeps covenant and shows mercy.

They understood precisely what Jesus was saying. There was not mistake in hearing. They immediately took up stones to throw at Him. He claimed to be “I AM” in the flesh, an audacious claim, a crazy claim really.

The core truth of today is that the doctrine of the Trinity centers on Jesus. It’s really all about Jesus and His being sent to save the world, to save you. If the Son of God had not come in the flesh, there would be no need for all this triune paradox. We could all be unitarians and worship the Father or Jehovah or whatever we wanted to call Him or Her. But when the Son of God shows His face to the world and suffers, dies on a cross, and rises from the dead, when He reveals the Father to us, and sends the Spirit out as His breath, all religious bets concerning God are off.

Luther was fond of saying that he knew no other God than the one who nurses at the breast of His virgin mother and who hands dead on the cross bearing the world’s sin. It’s very tempting to speculate about God and come up with clever analogies and theories and alternative theologies. But that is nothing more than subtle idolatry in the end, our fashioning gods for ourselves in our own image and likeness. God comes to His in the eternal Son. We know God in knowing Jesus. And we know no other God but this Jesus who suffers, dies, and rises, who sends His Spirit, who brings us to the Father.

The triune life of God is also our life in Holy Baptism. We are baptized into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. We live, move, and have our being within this Triunity, worshipping the Father in the Spirit and in the Truth who is Jesus, having God as our Father, Jesus as our brother, and the Spirit as our Advocate and Guide. We are loved by the Father in the Beloved Son who bears our humanity and are drawn by the Spirit.

They wanted to take up stones and throw them at Jesus. They wanted to kill Him for saying He was the Son of God. They couldn’t bear the thought that the Word could become flesh and dwell among them. They wanted God “out there” in heaven somewhere, safely transcendent, big and mighty, powerful and remote. But that’s not a God who can save from sin and rescue from death. The God must draw near, empty Himself of HIs divine glory and take on our humanity, become one of us, and in our humanity humble Himself under His own Law in obedience to death. And being humbled in death, He must be raised to life again and glorified at the right hand of the Father, now bearing our humanity so that we too are glorified in Him.

“If I glorify myself,” Jesus said, “my glory is nothing.” Self-glory is vain glory, empty glory, narcissistic vanity. The Father glorifies the Son. And the Son glorifies us in His dying and rising by the Spirit whom He breathes out over us in our Baptism. And we, trusting that this mysterious Triune God is merciful and gracious to us for His Son’s sake worship the trinity in unity and the unity in trinity.

Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the Undivided Unity.
Blessed be God – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God in three Persons, now and forever.








Leave a Reply