In my grandmother’s house there were collector’s plates with Norman Rockwell scenes on them hanging on the living room wall. As children, we were never ever allowed to touch the collectors plates, let alone eat off them. They were purely for admiring. When my grandmother died, nobody really wanted her collectors plates. I think my father has them in a box somewhere. We didn’t care about them that much, and I don’t particularly miss them. But I do miss my grandmother’s kitchen: the smell of food and the regular old plates on which she used to serve up home-cooked meals and Swedish cookies.
In the Christian church we have dinner plate doctrines and collector’s plate doctrines. Dinner plate doctrines include Jesus’s death and resurrection, God’s loving character, God’s providential plan for us, and God’s guidelines for living. We get these doctrines out weekly, plop them down, and eat off them.
But some doctrines stay in the china cabinet or worse, up on the wall, where they gather dust: occasionally admired, rarely used.
The Trinity is, in my experience, the ultimate collector’s plate. A gilded, limited edition Charles and Diana Wedding commemorative. Purely for admiring. Never for serious use. In my experience, Christians never talk about the Trinity unless compelled for some reason, and then the discussion is preceded with a lot of hemming and hawing and insecurity posing as ‘mystery.’ And as soon as the occasion for discussing the Trinity is done with, we drop it and get back to topics that don’t cause theological panic attacks.
This is a problem.
Because we love what we use.
Can we really love the beauty of the Trinity if we never talk about it?
Jeremy Begbie, the theologian and musician, has always been fond of saying that if we want to talk about the Trinity more skilfully we need to talk about the Trinity more.** Which is to say, to take the Trinity down off the shelf and start eating pot luck lasagna off it.
With this in mind, I have three tips for turning the Trinity from a collector’s plate into a dinner plate.
1) Uncover some fresh new ways of understanding the Trinity. As this Lutheran Satire video recently pointed out, a lot of the analogies that we use for the Trinity have theological problems bound up in them. On top of that, lots of them have been trotted out endlessly. New and joyful imaginative analogies refresh our appreciation and keep the Trinity from being a drag. Jeremy Begbie again, in a Veritas lecture, jokes that on Trinity Sunday we discover “the glorious good news, that God is a problem, a mathematical problem, to be solved.” Instead of laboring over tense formulations of God’s threeness-in-oneness, Begbie offers a simple and lovely analogy: the three-part harmony, such as we can easily play on the piano. The three in one perfectly combine to make a single note, while retaining the distinctness of the three parts.
2) Use Trinitarian language when speaking about the story of scripture. What I think is the best way to keep the Trinity off the shelf and on the table is just to speak Trinitarian-ly when discussing the story of scripture. It’s not just that “God created:” rather “the Father created through the Son in the power of the Spirit” (Gen. 1:1-2; Gen. 2:7; Col. 1:16) It’s not just that “Jesus came to earth:” rather “the Father sent the Son in the power of the Spirit” (Lk. 1:35). It’s not just that “as a Church we gather to worship God:” rather we are unified together by “the love of the Father, the grace of the Son, and the fellowship of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:14). Gregory of Nyssa saw this a long time ago, when he wrote that we understand the unity of the Trinity by virtue of the fact that whatever God does, He does as a Trinity. Gregory of Nyssa was a smart guy (smart enough to be the most famous Gregory from the town of Nyssa, at the very least), so maybe we should listen to him.
3) Start ‘em early. The way to get good at talking about the Trinity is the same way you get to Radio City Music Hall: practice. Pastors need to practice speaking about the Trinity, and parishioners need to practice hearing about it. So I suggest starting with the kids. Get them eating off the Trinitarian plate. The Trinity is a big idea, but it’s not any more conceptually difficult than pre-algebra. It’s easier, really. You only have to count to three. So start talking about the Trinity in youth ministry. Bring it up in confirmation. We did at Christ Church, we started with the Trinity and built on the doctrine as we explored each key area of Christian theology. By the end of eight weeks, all our kids could give a solid definition of the Trinity, not just of the essence of the doctrine, but of the shape of the Trinitarian life as it plays out across scripture. They could faithfully recite, “three persons in one God” and talk about the Father as the source, the Son as the way, and the Spirit as the power of God. If they can do it, then so can you.
*Thanks to Andrew Root’s book Taking Theology to Youth Ministry for inspiring the title, and the topic.
**In the short run, this sometimes means talking about the Trinity poorly. When we charge into doing theology, we sometimes run roughshod over details that are truly important. In our confirmation lessons, for instance, I was writing about God’s nature, I screwed up at one point and included some accidental properties in my discussion of essential properties. It wasn’t a colossal mistake, but it was a flub nonetheless that I have to revise in the second version. A helpful phrase to learn in doing theology is, “I was wrong.”
After being a good Methodist of more than a few decades, I finally lit out “on my own” and began learning what all I did not know/understand about basic orthodox Christianity. One of my many
” Aha! she cried in a loud voice” moments came as I slogged through a book on Wesleyan theology. This “Aha” was the realization that “It really is about God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, and each one has a role.” It makes all the difference. That understanding has been greatly expanded thanks to the Heidelberg catechism and three books about the catechism. This quote from Wesley ought to be included in the liturgy we recite in church:
“Glory be to you, O holy undivided Trinity, for jointly concurring in the great work of our redemption and restoring us again to the glorious.”
Thanks for your comments, Betsy. It DOES make all the difference, that as we try to creative loving community in the church, we know that God is (in His very being) perfect loving community.
Excellent, timely, witty.
A side note: I consciously and deliberately considered this issue while studying theology and concluded that Trinitarian language is so important that it must always trump concerns about gender-related language in reference to God; and that furthermore, because distinct personhood and relationship is so important in speaking of the Trinity, the Father, Son, Spirit language is immensely helpful, while Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer language can sometimes, when overused, diminish our perspective on the relationships among the three persons of the Trinity.
Fear of using male descriptors has often, I believe, kept the Trinity in plate holders on the wall.
Thanks EGT (just one letter away from an EGOT, there). Agreed. That’s a great point. The language of “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” makes the persons almost into mere functions, which then depersonalizes the persons.
PT – precisely.
[…] the Trinity isn’t very easy. A little over two months ago Phil Tallon lamented that we don’t focus on the Trinity more than we do. He asserted – and I think he’s right – that if we thought about it more, it might not be […]