Trinity Sunday 4 June 2023 – Rev Chris Elliot

REFLECTION:  God of Many Names

We call God by many names partly because we recognize the limits of our human language  No one name can capture God’s fullness. 

But the conclusion of  this morning’s story reassures us that all the individual voices ultimately come together to call God One. Composer Brian Wren has a similar theme in his hymn, Bring Many Names. We’re not singing it as there is no substitute tune for its unusual metre.  However, the lyrics speak of: Strong mother Godworking night and day, planning all the wonders of creation; Warm father Godhugging every child, feeling all the strains of human living”; Old, aching Godwiser than despair; Young, growing Godeager, on the move, crying out for justice, and, finally, in the last verse, Great, living Godnever fully known, joyful darkness far beyond our seeing, closer yet than breathing….    

So on this Trinity Sunday we bring many names for God, but, as the story reminds us, we also call God One. In dialogue with our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers, we can affirm our belief that God is one.  But, within Christianity, we believe that God is three-in-one.  Over time this idea came to be known as the Doctrine of the Trinity, traditionally celebrated on the Sunday after Pentecost.

This morning let’s look at how the doctrine of the Trinity developed.  Theologian Elizabeth Johnson traces the origin of Trinitarian thinking to early Christians experiencing God as beyond them, with them, and within them: as utterly transcendent, as present, historically in the person of Jesus, as present in the Spirit within their communities.  These were all encounters with only one God.  Out of their experience they sought a way to express this, leading them to talk about God in a threefold way. Early Christian writings are filled with this threefold understanding,  appearing in hymns, confessions of faith, liturgical formulas and doxologies. In the process, the view of God as One, flexed to incorporate Jesus and the Holy Spirit. And so their language expanded creatively to accommodate their religious experience.

As Elizabeth Johnson wrote, while early Christians still believed in one God, they also experienced God in at least three particular ways: beyond them, with them, and within them.

Experiencing  God beyond them, recognized that the fullness of God is beyond human language, knowledge, experience.  Of course the understanding of an utterly transcendent God was historically ancient.  God with them, was the recounted experience of the actual person of Jesus, who embodied the ways of God in his life.  Overtime, because followers saw the ways of God so clearly in him, Jesus of Nazareth became known as Jesus the Christ. And, at the same time that early Christians experienced God as beyond them and with them, they also experienced God as within them, as present in the outworking of the Spirit in their communities.

So, although there was a transcendent aspect of God that would always be beyond their experience, and even after Jesus was no longer physically with them, early Christians still experienced the closeness of God, that is, as Brian Wren writes, closer yet than breathing. The Early Church called this aspect of God Spirit.

As Christians continued to experience God in these three ways, they also wrote about God in a threefold way.  We see an example of this in the apostle Paul’s second letter to the Church at Corinth, written around the mid-50s of the first century, so more than twenty years after Jesus’ death. In the very last sentence of chapter 13,  Paul offered a three-part benediction, one we know well, namely  The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

However, we still need to remember that the New Testament does not contain a doctrine of the Trinity, nor does the word Trinity ever appear. It was almost 200 years after Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians that scholarly writings in the early 3rd century attempted  to apply the Greek word Trinity to Christian thought.  And the Doctrine of the Trinity was still a further 100 years away, formulated at the Councils of Nicea in 325 and Constantinople in 381. If we do the sums,  it was 350 years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus before a fully-fledged doctrine of the Trinity was able to be articulated, eventually becoming orthodoxy.  During those centuries, there were also many other diverse ways that people’s experiences with God were understood and expressed. 

Today we are a long way beyond the  Trinitarian battles of the Early Church.   And today we are not limited to how the Trinity was understood in the 4th century.  Afterall it did take 350 years to settle on an official doctrine.  The Ecumenical Councils where this occurred were actually only called  because of bitter disputes among rival groups on  how to talk about Jesus Christ. These rivals had various ways to understand God, both Trinitarian and non- Trinitarian.

Although the Trinitarian camp received a majority of votes at the 4th century Ecumenical Councils, the minority Christian groups didn’t disappear.  So called heresies flourished, along with diverse interpretations of the orthodox creeds.

Early Christians did their best to reflect theologically about their experience of God from the limits of their time and place.                

Our challenge is the same, as it has been for people of faith in every age. 

We are called to reflect about God as best we can, based on our  experience, while taking into account the wisdom of the past. 

For example, many people today, find it insufficient to limit our language about God to the classic Trinitarian formula of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.   Limiting ourselves to an exclusively masculine formulation (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) can be an inadequate reflection of our 21st century experience.               Just as Sandy Sasso’s children’s book and Brian Wren’s hymn urge us to bring many names for God, we need to bring many names for the Trinity.  There is strong precedent for this.  In the 4th century, St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo, in Algeria, listed twenty different formulations for the Trinity in his book On the Trinity.

When we hear  different Trinitarian formulas, do they resonate with us, or disturb us?  Either way, it might be helpful to ask ourselves the question, why? What feelings, thoughts, or memories emerge in response to the metaphors?

First, how do we respond to the traditional language of Father, Son, Spirit?  What are the things that affect our response?

Secondly, one I use often,  Creator, Redeemer and Giver of Life.   

And thirdly, from Jim Cotter’s Lord’s Prayer, Eternal Spirit, Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver.

We don’t have to look far to find many other images or metaphors.  You may like to consider what names for God are meaningful for you.  What formulation of the Trinity would you choose to express something of your experience of God?  

You won’t be too surprised that  argument and conflict over Trinitarian formulations continued beyond the great Councils of the 4th and 5th Centuries.  16th Century Protestant theologian John Calvin reminded people,  that no figures of speech can describe God’s extraordinary affection towards us; for it is infinite and various so we might be more aware of God’s constant presence and willingness to assist us. Today’s readings from Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 reinforce that.

In fact God loves us as if we were God; and invites us to love other humans beings in the same way that we are loved by God – by loving our neighbours as our very selves. That is the deep meaning for us on this Trinity Sunday.