The Trinity: Yes, A Doctrine About God

 

Today was Trinity Sunday, as observed by churches who follow the western liturgical calendar. There wasn’t always a Trinity Sunday, and even when (well into the middle ages) it was proposed, some popes argued against it on the grounds that (a) feast days are supposed to commemorate events, not doctrines, and (b) every Sunday is Trinity Sunday. Those are pretty good arguments. But eventually both objections were overturned by the recognition that it’s a good idea to have a final summarizing day on the liturgical year: after Christmas and Easter (the sending of the Son of God, and his work of salvation) and Pentecost (the coming of the Spirit on the basis of the work of the Son), it makes sense to look back on the whole series of divine revelations and say: Hey, that was the Trinity! The Father sent the Son and the Spirit. Let’s have a party! (The eastern liturgical calendar follows a similar logic, celebrating not so much the eternal fact of the Trinity but the salvation-historical revelation of it.  But the eastern churches settled on the baptism of Christ as the most appropriate day to ponder the revelation of the Trinity: when the Spirit descended on the Son and the Father said “This is my beloved Son,” it was the great trinitarian Theophany).

So Trinity Sunday ought to be a great day for a sermon in a lectionary-based church. What an invitation to roll up the whole history of salvation and declare openly the great, central meaning that has been building up for so long: That God has made himself known to us as he really is, as eternal Father, Son, and Spirit, through the economy of salvation.

But alas, the conventional wisdom has long been that it is not a great day to find yourself on the preaching rotation. Preachers apparently dread Trinity Sunday, and (that being the case) who knows what congregations think?

A recent issue of Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology was full of resources and suggestions for how to preach for Pentecost Sunday and Trinity Sunday.  Some of them are quite good (if you’ve got access to the journal, don’t miss Jeremy Begbie’s piece on George Herbert). But the key article (pp. 5-15) went to Beverly Roberts Gaventa, NT prof at Princeton Seminary. This seasoned exegete was the one who took the lectionary readings and wove them together.

I’m about to complain about the result, so let me start by saying how much there really is to appreciate in Gaventa’s work here. In the Pentecost section, she lands a solid hit on the way “Spirit” and “spirituality” have come unhooked in recent decades. Best quote:

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