TUPELO – Christian theology veers in complex and sometimes tangential directions, but no mystery is at once more central and more paradoxical than the Holy Trinity.
Critics see it as tri-theism, the worship of three gods, but as they’ve done for centuries, Christians continue to unpack scripture and refine the delicate theological language that explains how one God can exist as three persons.
Academic considerations aside, the name of the Trinity is invoked constantly in the life of the church. The Trinity expresses the basic dynamism of the Christian life: God having communion with Godself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a fundamental blueprint of relationship and family.
As Tupelo prepares to host a theological conference on the Trinity, pastors and theologians shared their thoughts about this most central of Christian mysteries and how it comes to expression in the life of the church.
The word Trinity doesn’t appear in the Bible, and nowhere is its existence stated literally. It’s a concept Christians have inferred. In his public discourses, Jesus makes repeated references to his Father. The Gospel of John opens by proclaiming that Jesus, the eternal word, has existed from all time with the Father.
At the conclusion of Luke’s gospel, Jesus mentions the person most Christians know as the third part of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. “Stay in the city,” the risen Jesus says to his apostles. “Until you are clothed with the power from on high.”
The most explicit reference to the Trinity comes in the closing lines of Matthew’s gospel, in the Great Commission. “Baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” Jesus says.
For the Rev. Steven Lawson, the evidence of the Trinity found in scripture is part of the litmus test of Christian orthodoxy. “This is where every cult goes astray,” said Lawson, pastor of Christ Fellowship Baptist Church in Mobile, Ala.
Lawson will be one of the speakers at the Fourth Annual Mid-South Conference on Christ and Culture, May 20 and 21 at Lawndale Presbyterian Church. “Scripture teaches clearly and unequivocally that God exists as a Trinity, as three persons in one God, coequal and coeternal,” said Lawson.
The term “persons” is ultimately insufficient, according to another theologian who will speak at the conference, but it’s the best word to express God’s existence as three in one.
In the centuries following Jesus’ death Christian theologians filtered the Hebraic world-view expressed in the Bible through the lens of Greek philosophy. Greek concepts helped explain, for example, how Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. In a similar way, the experience of God’s distinctive actions in salvation history increasingly came to be expressed as three persons.
According to the Rev. Derek Thomas, professor of systematic theology at the Jackson campus of Reformed Theological Seminary, the first Christians essentially wanted to express their belief that God acted in distinctive ways but always with a single purpose.
Lawson characterized the distinctive roles of the Trinity this way: “Each person has a role in the Christian life,” he said. “We are to follow the person of Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, for the glory of God the Father.”
“We see different aspects of God,” said the Rev. Bryan Collier, pastor of The Orchard, a United Methodist Congregation in Tupelo. “In the Old Testament we’re very aware of the holiness of God. In Jesus we see perfect love. In the Holy Spirit we are given the gift of both. The Holy Spirit is loving us toward holiness.”
It’s remarkable, Thomas said, that Jews, like Paul, took so easily to the concept of God as three in one, given their religious and cultural background.
“Paul was steeped in the tradition of strict monotheism, a belief expressed in the ancient prayer called the Shema,” said Thomas. The Shema proclaims, “Hear, oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”
“There’s really no doctrinal discussion of how three can be one in the New Testament,” said Thomas. “But, it’s still remarkable that a Jew, like Paul, without denying the Shema, can embrace the concept of the Trinity.”
Faith and practice
The second century theologian Tertullian is generally credited as the first to use the term Trinity, and the early councils of the church established the concept as a bedrock doctrine of Christian belief.
Scripture suggests the Trinity was a central part of faith and practice from very early in Christian history.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, composed in the first century, Paul closes his remarks with a Trinitarian benediction. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you,” he says.
“There’s a personal relationship being expressed in the Bible between the persons of the Trinity,” said Thomas. “They talk, relate, have communion, fellowship and rapport.”
It’s not surprising, Thomas added, that God’s creation would reflect God’s own nature, and the most basic and holy of human desires, such as for family, demonstrate a likeness of the Trinity.
“We are created for relationship,” said Collier of The Orchard. “We worship a God who can express himself in any way he chooses and the primary way he does this is in relationship.”
Theologians try to explain the reality of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but at some point, the pastors said, human understanding and language become insufficient.
“You reach a point, I think, in faith, where you’re comfortable with mystery,” said Collier. “But, it’s not an excuse to stop trying.”
“Creeds essentially help us understand where the boundaries are,” said Thomas. “Much of our language in theology defines concepts negatively, explaining what can’t be.”
Lawson, perhaps, put it best. “Every human analogy quickly breaks down,” he said. “If you believe only what you can fully understand, you’ll have a very limited faith, and a very small doctrinal statement, indeed.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
– The Fourth Annual Mid-South Conference on
Christ and Culture at Lawndale Presbyterian Church, 1500 Lawndale Dr., Tupelo
– May 20: Family style catfish dinner at 5 p.m. followed by messages from Drs. Lawson and Thomas beginning at 6 p.m. and ending with a concert by James Ward and the band at 8 p.m.
– May 21: Messages from Drs. Lawson and Thomas, 9:30 a.m. until noon, followed by music. All events free. Nursery and children’s
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal