Trinity Means Love: A Sermon to a Seminary Community
Roger E. Olson
I love ironies. Except when I’m caught in one. For a long time I’ve advised seminary students not to preach on the Trinity. Imagine my surprise, then, when I was “invited” to preach the first in a series of community gatherings for worship sermons on a new hymn written especially for the seminary where I teach: “Give Us Courage” together with Ephesians 1 and the invitation specified the Trinity as a possible topic.
Why have I advised students not to preach on the Trinity? Well, not at all because I disbelieve it or even have doubts about it! Rather, because when I’ve tried to preach it and even when I’ve taught it in theology classes I’ve seen eyes glaze over, heads slump back or forward and even a few people fall comatose under their pews.
Now that could be because I didn’t preach it well. But I’d rather think that’s not it. I tend to think it’s because the Trinity is a homiletically challenging topic. I don’t like to think of myself as a bad preacher, but years ago I did pray that God would give me the ability to preach like Billy Graham and God said “No, but I’ll give you audiences that don’t know the difference.” I know that’s not true today, so I’m a bit more confident about preaching on the Trinity here than usual. Where better than to a theological seminary audience?
Perhaps the reason people tend to fall asleep as soon as someone says “Trinity” is the quality Augustine referred to when he said of the doctrine of the Trinity “If you deny it you’ll lose your salvation, but if you try to understand it you’ll lose your mind.” Many people do find it just too abstruse to even try to understand and they are fearful of getting it wrong, so they’d rather just leave it in the realm of mystery, sing about it and name their churches and rivers after it and never think about it.
Well, it is a mystery. What of it? Everything about God is mysterious. But we don’t give up trying to understand as much of God as we can—following the clues he’s given us in revelation using the minds he’s given us as part of his own image in us. Trinity should be no different. It’s worth understanding as far as we can. We may not be able to penetrate the mystery to the point where we say “Ah, I’ve got it!” But surely we can do better than give up at the first mention of the word.
Some so-called Christians not only avoid the concept; they ridicule it. Some years ago a tour guide in Oxford would point out the four statues atop Trinity College and mention that they represent the Trinity. As soon as a tourist said, “But how can four statues represent the Trinity?” he would reply “You know, three persons and one God.” (For anyone interested, the truth is the four statues are female and represent astronomy, geometry, medicine and theology.)
A former colleague of mine liked to call the doctrine of the Trinity “cosmic numerology” and belittle it as irrelevant. (That was at a previous teaching context.) Without any doubt he was influenced by liberal theologians such as Friedrich Schleiermacher and Walter Rauschenbusch who did not deny the Trinity, but all but omitted it because they could not discover its “practical relevance” for their project of “moralizing dogma.”
Many contemporary American Christians are in the same boat with those liberal theologians of the past. We have to know the practical relevance of an idea before we will grant its importance. We are educated in pragmatism and utilitarianism. In our public schools and through culture we learn to be John Dewey instrumentalists—the idea that human beings are problem-solving animals so that allegedly useless ideas are like typewriters—relics of a bygone era to be discarded or relegated to museums.
Whenever I hear a self-professed Christian denying the practical importance of the Trinity I know he or she has not kept up with developments in theology. The most significant development in Christian theology during the 20th century was the renaissance of the doctrine of the Trinity. It was rescued from obscurity by Karl Barth and Karl Rahner and a host of creative theological minds who found it far from irrelevant to worship, discipleship and ethics.
Some well-intentioned Christians think the Trinity is unworthy of attention because, so they assume, everyone believes it and we should focus our attention on doctrines in dispute like predestination or free will. It never ceases to amaze me that some Christians can spend all their time, energy and attention working out the details of the second coming or debating TULIP without ever plumbing the depths of the doctrine of the Trinity or being able to explain it.
The fact is that denial of the Trinity has invaded at least the fringes of evangelical Christianity. Some leading televangelists and pastors of megachurches and popular authors, songwriters and performers adhere to what is called the “Oneness doctrine” that is simply a modern form of the ancient heresy of modalism. The sure signal of this is that they say the Trinity means that God is one person with three manifestations. That’s not what the Great Tradition of Christian belief has confessed and it is inconsistent with the biblical message.
So what is the classical, orthodox and biblical doctrine of the Trinity? Well, it’s not that God is “three persons and one God.” At least that doesn’t begin to do justice to it. And it’s not that God is “three in one and one in three.” At least that doesn’t begin to do justice to it. And it certainly isn’t that God is one person with three manifestations. That’s a denial of it.
Ephesians 1 is as good an expression of the classical, biblical and orthodox Trinity as you can have. But, like every other single passage of Scripture, it doesn’t say everything that needs to be said. Here, as elsewhere, three are clearly recognized as God and they are regarded as distinct persons. We all know the Father is God; that’s never been questioned. In this chapter as elsewhere the Son Jesus Christ is treated as God even if he is not directly called “God.” As Karl Barth would ask, who but God could reveal God himself to us and unite us with God by uniting us with himself? Who but God could redeem us and sit at God’s right hand over every rule and authority, power and dominion?
Then there’s the Holy Spirit who is the Spirit of wisdom and revelation who is the power of God dwelling in us to guarantee our inheritance until our full redemption?
Ephesians 1 contains no hint that these three are mere “manifestations” of one divine person; they are clearly distinct persons. Not in our modern American individualist sense of “person” as autonomous self over against and apart from others. That’s a false cultural meaning of “person.” The doctrine of the Trinity actually teaches us that “person” means being-in-relation, being-in-community.
Even St. Augustine knew the problem. He said “We do not say ‘three persons’ because we want to but because we have no choice.” At least in English, in spite of its problems, we have no alternative word for the three. “Manifestations” reduces Father, Son and Spirit to ephemera—illusions. The question immediately arises: if the three are mere manifestations who are they manifesting? Behind the manifestations would be a fourth something—masked by the manifestations. Trinity says the three are not manifestations of someone but God themselves.
What Ephesians 1 lacks is a strong statement of the unity of the three persons. That we find elsewhere in Scripture. Christians are monotheists and not polytheists. We confess one God and not three gods. Even in Ephesians 1 we find this assumed; Father, Son and Holy Spirit are inextricably united in their common work of bringing about unity to the praise and glory of God.
Even if there were no practical use, no “cash value,” of the doctrine of the Trinity we would need to confess it rightly. Why? Because it is revealed. Clearly God wants us to honor him with right thoughts and confessions about him. We do God no favors by being intellectually lazy or avoiding challenging ideas rooted firmly in his self-revelation.
Also, the doctrine of the Trinity is a protective mechanism; it guards and preserves other essential doctrines of the faith from denial or distortion. Apart from it all kinds of heresies are almost inevitable—heresies about the persons of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit to say nothing of salvation.
But is it true that the doctrine of the Trinity has no practical value? Much depends on what a person means by “practical value.” If that means “cash value,” then perhaps not. But if it means “relevance to real life,” then I think the Trinity has immense practical value.
The Christian concept of God is that God is love. 1 John 4:8 tells us “God is love.” It doesn’t say “God became love when he created angels or us and began to love us.” It says “God is love.” That’s as close to a definition of God as we find in Scripture. And the model of love we have in God’s revelation is not self-love but other-love. And we know intuitively that self-love is defective love; the greatest love of all is unconditional love for another than one’s self.The question for any self-proclaimed monotheist, then, is: whom did this lonely, isolated and individualistic God love before creation? Or is creation God’s eternal counterpart—necessary to God’s very being? Did God have to create in order to express love? These seemingly philosophical questions are of immense importance. If God’s love is the perfect model of love and if creation is not necessary for God to be God, then God must be a community of love in himself.
And that’s exactly what the word “Trinity” points to—that in contrast to the lonely, isolated and individualistic God who appears more like the Marlboro Man of advertising fame—our God is a circle of love among three distinct but never separate persons. When we say “God” we mean the three who love one another perfectly eternally or one of them who is inseparably linked with the other two in perfect love.
What is this love that God is? Some contemporary evangelical theologians argue it is so different from any concept of love in human experience that it is compatible with hate. The problem with that is it empties the idea of love of any meaning; when we say it about God we don’t even know what we’re talking about. If God’s being-as-love is compatible with predestining some of his own creatures made in his image and likeness to hell, then that is, as John Wesley said, “a love such as makes the blood run cold.”
So God’s love must bear some analogy to the very best of our idea of love. God as love, then, mean unconditional seeking the good of the beloved without regard for self. Perfect love goes out to another person and values them selflessly and works for their benefit without requirement of return benefit.
Father, Son and Holy Spirit love each other eternally in that way. They seek to glorify each other. They seek not their own glory but the glory of the others. That brings each one glory and honor.
That innertrinitarian love overflows in creation outside of God. God did not create out of need as some imply. God did not create out of self-love but other-love. The other-love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit burst forth like a nova exploding into the universe or, better, like a husband and wife conceiving and giving birth to a child. The moment that child is born mother and father know without any doubt the meaning of other-love. They look upon that helpless baby and love him or her for his or herself and not for what the child can give them. They know the risk they are taking, but whatever it might turn out to entail they know in that instant it’s worth it because love is so increased.
The Trinity means love. God is a community of love open to the world. Out of abundance of love God makes room in his own life for us at great risk to his own emotional well-being. And that love is unconditional other-love and not self-seeking love that uses the other as an instrument of benefiting oneself.
In other words, contrary to popular Christian teaching today, “It’s not all about God.” Because God is love it’s also about us. An ancient church father said “The glory of God is man fully alive.” In other words, God is interested in us for our own sakes but gains great pleasure and glory and satisfaction in seeing his love for us overflow in real life which is love for others.
God wants to replicate his own being-as-love in community in us. That’s what Ephesians 1 is all about. That’s what the seminary hymn “Give us courage” is all about. “God who made us.” For what? For “love with no exceptions.” Out of desire to “bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth.” That’s love—perfect unity.
“Christ who calls us.” To what? To “The Way.” What way? The way of “adoption to sonship.” To the path of sons and daughters of God—members of God’s family of love.
“Breath who guides us.” Guides us to what and how? “From deep within” to “eternal day.” To “the redemption of those who are God’s possession” and to our “glorious inheritance” and “incomparably great power” of being resurrected and seated with Christ in heavenly places. That is, final and complete inclusion in God’s own community.
Yes, God gets glory from all this. But it’s not just for him or about him. It’s also about us. That God is a community of love opened to us means that we matter to him. It’s all about us and him together. Making us fully alive in him is what he lives for just as a loving parent lives to see a son or daughter completely whole and well and joyful and fulfilled. God’s glory out of this relationship with us is his satisfaction. He is most satisfied when we are fully alive in him, when we are fully included in his family of love. And that’s his glory.
Trinity means that God is not a selfish being who delights in manifesting his attributes in order to gain attention and applause at others’ expense. God gets no satisfaction or delight in damnation. Trinity means that God has a surplus of love to share and wants to draw everything in heaven and earth together in perfect union with himself. If anything or anyone is excluded it’s not because God plans it or wills it or gets glory out of it; it’s because creatures refuse to participate in the trinitarian community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
So what is the practical value of this truth? Again, I want to ask whether truth has to be practical to be valuable. I don’t think so. This is such a glorious truth about God and us that just knowing it is of inestimable worth.
But there is a practical value in it. The point is that we are made to reflect God’s community of love in our human communities. Even more than “reflect,” we are to replicate that love by the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us and among us. Our marriages, family lives, friendships, churches, schools and organizations our purpose is to love each other as the members of the divine community love each other and as they love us.
That means there is no room for individualism in Christian communities. Individuality—yes and absolutely. But individualism that asserts the self over against others and finds identity in separateness—no and absolutely not.
Many modern Baptists fall into this mentality of individualism that is contrary to trinitarian love; they fill the Baptist concept of soul liberty with Enlightenment content and regard themselves as unaccountable and not responsible to the community of God’s people. One well-known and highly regarded Baptist leader said “Ain’t nobody but Jesus going to tell me what to believe.” Well, that’s understandable as a reaction to fundamentalist totalitarianism. But it can’t be the final word for a Christian. In love we should submit ourselves to each other seeking the good of every other person over our own good and affirming others’ rights and liberties rather than our own.
So, you see, the concept of the Trinity is full of practical meaning and application. But more importantly, the Trinity—Father, Son and Spirit—is not a concept but a personal reality of community that draws us into community with God and empowers us to replicate that community of love among ourselves.
When I say that “Trinity means love,” then, I’m not talking about a sentimental feeling of romantic love or even ordinary human family love or friendship love. I’m talking about the love of being-for-the-other, the love of action that goes out of its way to bless others even at one’s own expense.
Here at our seminary we try to model our community after the Trinity using Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together as our guide. We all like to complain about “covenant groups.” It’s like college students complaining about the food in the dining center. Even if it’s delicious and nutritious, it’s just traditional to knock it. Instead of grousing about covenant groups perhaps we should regard them as opportunities to replicate the love of the Trinity in our midst—by bearing one another’s burdens and doing acts of self-sacrificing love for each other. I’m certain that’s God’s intention for covenant groups and for our seminary life together as a whole.