The doctrine of the Trinity

and interfaith dialogue

by Jeyan Anketell

from Signs of the Times, No. 38 - Jul 2010

Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and other believers all find meaning in their belief systems and their devotions; they are spiritually and devotionally attached to them. The doctrine of the Trinity is probably the biggest article of belief separating most Christians from their Jewish and Muslim neighbours (who also believe in one God who created and sustains the Universe); particularly the idea of the divinity of Jesus. The doctrine of the Trinity is also the one belief held in common by most but not all people who call themselves Christians.

There is much in common among Jews, Christians and Muslims. All three religions include a version of our "Old Testament" in their holy scriptures. All three seem to consider Jesus as a prophet (at the least); but I am not sure how Jesus' status as a prophet is attested in the Jewish religion, because he would not feature in their Scriptures (our "Old Testament"), whose authorship ended a century or more before Jesus was born. Jesus is included in the Muslim Scriptures; and Muslims even ascribe to the Virgin Birth. I understand that Muslims believe that Jesus survived the crucifixion, that he was taken down before he was actually dead and that he recovered (after three days, presumably).

I am told that one reason why Christianity spread so fast, in the early years, was the fact that it made sense to so many people in the first century or so after Jesus' death. Jesus himself in his teaching, often seemed to appeal to his audience's reason when trying to put something across; and he often did this by means of parables. For example, when asked the question "who is my neighbour?", he told them the parable of the good Samaritan and then asked "Which among these was neighbour to the man who was struck down by thieves?".

It is in fact the case that most believers share the faith of their parents, and that one's belief is most likely to be determined by the family and country in which one is born. Most but not all Jewish believers are racially Jewish, although they have been widely scattered across the world for centuries. Most Muslims come from Muslim families in mainly Muslim countries. Jews and Muslims hold their respective beliefs mainly because that is what they were taught by their families and respective religious communities, synagogues or mosques. They find meaning in their religious beliefs, their public practices and their private devotions. We Christians can't help feeling that, if they would only listen to Christian teaching with a really open mind, then they would be very likely to become Christians themselves. Unfortunately, Muslim and Jewish people who would wish to even merely modify aspects of their religion are likely to become ostracised by their families and communities. If they are religious teachers, they are likely to lose their jobs; and in certain parts of the Muslim world, they may well lose their lives as well!

But then, Muslims and Jews could equally well say the same to us, regarding the religious faith that we hold; that if only we would listen to their religious teaching with a really open mind, then we would be likely to become Muslims, Jews or whatever. I was told, many years ago, that for every person converted to Christianity in Africa, nine were converted to Islam. We too are most likely to be Christians if we were born into a Christian family and in a Christian country. Even our Christian denomination is most likely to be similarly determined. We too find meaning in our religious beliefs, our public practices and our private devotions. But if we were born in Eastern Europe, we are likely to belong to an Orthodox Christian denomination; if born in the West, we are likely to be a Roman Catholic or one of the various Protestant denominations. Open-minded Christian theologians could well lose their jobs, not only in the Roman Catholic Church, but also in fundamentalist Protestant Churches. Even in our own Church of England there was, a few years ago, controversy and concern at the number of teaching staff resigning from their jobs at Wycliffe Hall, one of the evangelical Anglican Theological Colleges in Oxford; the concern was to do with a perceived lack of intellectual freedom.

It is worth considering here one of the current differences between the Eastern Orthodox and the Western Christian Churches. It is to do with the so-called "Filioque" clause in the Nicene Creed we say at every Communion Service. "Filioque" means "and from the Son", and it was added to the Creed just after the point where it said "The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father". This clause was not in the original Nicene Creed of 325CE, but was added to the creed by some important prelate in Spain around 700 years later, was taken up in Rome, and then accepted throughout the Western Church as a matter of faith. This was not accepted by the Eastern Church, which insisted that the Holy Spirit proceeded "From the Father" (perhaps "Through the Son"), not from the Father and the Son. The Western Church (including the Protestant and Reformed Churches, as well as the Roman Catholic Church) continue to insist that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Both Eastern and Western Churches claim that they have sound theological grounds for insisting that their belief is correct. Which side Christian theologians take in this argument depends largely (if not wholly) on where they were born; and I continue to be amazed at the certainty they seem to have in their own (differing) views on relationships within the infinite Godhead. I find this absolutely astounding!

Most religious people feel superior or imperialistic about their own particular religion, or about their own particular denomination within a given religion; whether it be Judaism, Christianity or Islam. Consider, for example, our "entirely reasonable" attitude of amusement if not irritation towards the Hindu worship of oxen in India: where, I understand, there are occasional (if not frequent) traffic jams in Hindu towns and cities because devout Hindus do not want to interfere with and cause distress to cows in the road. We may be more aware of superior interdenominational attitudes in our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters; but perhaps our fellow Reformed or Protestant Christian brothers and sisters in this country may feel that we Anglicans are the ones with the superior or imperialistic attitude.

My clerical colleagues are unlikely to agree with some or much of what I am now going on to say. I have never been able to understand the doctrine of the Trinity. When I went to Theological to train for the Ministry, this was one of a number of areas where I expected to find some clarification and understanding. Alas, it was not to be so. Many people I have spoken to say they have a simple faith, and that they believe the teachings of the Church on this and other matters, whether or not they understand the details. The fact is that the doctrine of the Trinity is not something simple or easy to understand, and we must not expect to fully understand the nature of the infinite Godhead. The Nicene creed we say at the Eucharist refers to Jesus as being "Begotten of the Father" and "Of one being with the Father". This seems to me to be a logical contradiction. I find it difficult to think of the "Begotten" as being of the same nature as the "Unbegotten". The doctrine of the Trinity is not actually found in the Bible, and it was not formulated as such until the Council of Nicea around 325CE. St Paul was unlikely to have subscribed to the doctrine. In one of his letters (1Cor15:28) he speaks of the end time, when all things will be subjected to the Son and when the Son himself will then be subjected to God. I don't believe that Jesus or our Father God will hold it against us whether or not we believe too much or too little about them.

Some of us may be familiar with the Athanasian creed, composed by St Athanasius not long after the Council of Nicea. It can be found in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, just after the form of service for Evening Prayer, under the heading "At Morning Prayer". It is supposed to be said during Morning Prayer on certain Feast Days during the year. It is fairly repetitious, but I will pick out certain sections to illustrate my point. "We worship one God in Trinity, And Trinity in Unity. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Ghost uncreate. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. Yet there are not three incomprehensibles, but one incomprehensible." I would not call this a simple faith.

I said earlier that I did not think that Jesus or our Father God would be too concerned about our doctrinal beliefs, but rather how we responded to Jesus' teaching about generous love and forgiveness. Matthew's Gospel quotes Jesus as saying, "Not everyone who calls me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of Heaven, but only those who do the will of my heavenly Father" (Matt. ch7, v 21). I don't think Jesus was the kind of person who went about saying "I am the Greatest", or who would want his followers to say this about him either.

But, we may ask, "What about those places in the Bible where Jesus is called 'Son of God'?" As it turns out, the term 'Son of God' was applied to a number of people in the Bible. In Luke 3:23-38, the Gospel writer traces Jesus' genealogy back to "Enosh, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God": here Adam is called 'son of God'. In Job 1:6 and again in 2:1, the angels and Satan himself are referred to as 'Sons of God', although in some translations they are referred to as 'The court of heaven'. Elsewhere in the Bible God's agents, whether messengers or prophets or kings, they are sometimes addressed as if they were God himself: eg Ex 4:16; Ex 7:1; 1Sam 28:13; Ps 8:5; Ps 58:5; Is 9:5; Zech 12:8; but different versions again translate some of these differently.

I don't think we should be afraid of considering new ideas. Jesus is quoted as saying in John 16:12-13, "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now; when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth". We can see theological development going on within the Bible itself, from the Old Testament to the New; developments carried on by Jesus himself; and we can also see Christian theological developments carrying on well past the Biblical period --- centuries later, for example with regard to the case of our understanding of slavery. Jesus did not seem to condemn slavery, as far as we know; he was a man of his time in many respects. St Paul seemed to approve of slavery, or at least to accept that slavery was OK, when he sent the runaway Christian slave back to his Christian master. And again, we don't worry too much nowadays about St Paul's injunction that women should cover their heads in church.

We should not be too concerned as to whether our doctrinal beliefs are as it were 'complete' and 'accurate'. There are at least a thousand different ways in which people who call themselves Christians have different beliefs which they think are important in our religion, if we consider how many different Christian denominations there are. I do not think God is going to hold it against all those at least 999 different denominations whose doctrine is not up to scratch, even if one is --- although I expect they are all lacking. We should be prepared to ask ourselves, as Jesus would, whether what we have been taught about something in our faith makes sense or not; and whether it is really important. Much of our doctrine about the nature of Jesus hinges on our ideas about the Atonement, how God finds it possible to forgive us our sins; and the different ideas about the Atonement depend on our understanding of the nature of Jesus. It is a cyclical process, with one doctrine depending on the other; and many of our previously accepted ideas of the Atonement have been questioned, and still are currently being questioned.

I believe in God, the loving creator and sustaining God that Jesus taught us about; the God Jesus taught us to address as 'Father'. The God who shares in our joys and supports us in our times of need. I believe that God created us for loving fellowship with each other and also with him. I believe that God created us for a full and abundant life, a life rich in meaning; and I believe that we are more fully human, the more we share in this loving resurrection life made known to us by Jesus; so much so that I try to base my life on this. Of course we all keep falling short; but we keep picking ourselves up and keep on trying to turn to God.

Muslims, Jews and others are more likely to consider us with open minds if they see that we are prepared to have open minds ourselves. May God help us all to see what really matters in our lives and religions. May we do justly, may we love mercy, and may we walk humbly before our God.