Metaphors for God

May 26, 2013

Rublev_OT_Trinity(Proverbs 8, 1-4, 22-31; Romans 5, 1-5; John 16, 12-15)

Today we mark the one festival in the Church’s year which celebrates a doctrine, rather than an event or a person. Belief in God as Trinity is one of the cornerstones of our faith – yet it is something that most preachers find it difficult to preach about. So much so that JHR, a previous Vicar of mine, later a Bishop, once told me ‘the wise preacher always arranges to be away on holiday on Trinity Sunday’; and someone else advised the preacher on Trinity Sunday to “say nothing and just show pictures of kittens” to make everyone feel good.

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Why are preachers so reluctant to preach on Trinity Sunday? Because it is almost impossible to do so without falling into explaining it in a way that has been denounced as heretical at some time in church history. Belief in the Trinity is set out in the three Creeds – the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and most comprehensively, in the Athanasian Creed (which Anglicans are supposed to use on Trinity Sunday, but rarely do nowadays!) But these are felt to be too complicated for ordinary folk in the pews to understand. So preachers resort to metaphors to try to explain it more simply.

I’m sure we’ve all heard them at some time or other: God the Trinity is like a shamrock, one plant with three leaves; God the Trinity is like a person who plays different roles in their life (mother, daughter, sister), but is the same person; God the Trinity is like water, which can exist as solid, liquid and gas but is still H20; God the Trinity is like an egg, shell, yolk and white, which together make up a complete egg; God the Trinity is like an electric cable,which consists of positive, negative and earth cable; and so on. But all of these fall into the trap of committing one heresy or another. If you can find it, there is a funny cartoon film on the internet  called ‘St Patrick’s Bad Analogies” in which St Patrick tries to draw simple analogies to explain the Trinity to two Irish peasants, only to be told they are all heretical; so he gives up and quotes the Athanasian Creed to them instead!

So how did we end up with a central doctrine so difficult to explain?

The doctrine of the Trinity was something that developed slowly, out of the experience of the first disciples. As they reflected on their life with Jesus, and as they lived on after the Resurrection, inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit, they came to realise that both Jesus and the Spirit shared the character of the God of Israel they had been taught about in the Torah. So all three were ‘God’ to them.

As the New Testament was written, its authors drew on images from the Hebrew Scriptures (and later also from contemporary Greek philosophy) to try to express their experiences. Our Old Testament reading, from Proverbs, speaks of Wisdom, as something which is of God and from God, but is somehow distinct from God, working alongside God in the creation of the world. Wisdom came to be identified in Christian thought with Jesus, especially in John’s Gospel as the Logos or Word; and with the Holy Spirit.

Though a developed doctrine of the Trinity is nowhere spelt out in the New Testament, there are hints of it. In the letter to the Romans, from which our epistle reading comes, all three persons of the Trinity are present. Paul says that through God, Jesus and the Spirit working together, the believer experiences peace. In John’s Gospel, written towards the end of the first century AD, the writer reflects the experience of the apostles – that what the Spirit teaches follows on from what Jesus has already taught them about the Father. The Spirit’s role is not to dominate but to point beyond itself to Christ, and so to glorify God. Yet, the way which the Spirit leads them is the same way Jesus led them – so Father, Son and Spirit are one.

This recognition of a divine unity of teaching, action and purpose runs through all the New Testament writings. It was not problematic for those first believers, even though they came from a monotheistic background. It was only when the Christian faith moved out into the Graeco-Roman world, and people who didn’t know the historical Jesus began to speculate on how exactly Jesus and the Spirit could be God; and exactly when Jesus became God; and which bits of him were divine and which bits human; and whether there was a hierarchy of divinity within the Godhead; and when philosophers began to try to define exact answers to these questions, and to insist that everyone had to believe the same things, that the doctrine of the Trinity became problematic. Which is not surprising, because such questions are unanswerable, especially several hundred years after the event.

The doctrine of the Trinity uses a metaphor to try to encapsulate the disciples’ experience of God, which is also the experience of those who lived the faith after them.

Jesus taught his followers to call God ‘Abba’ – Daddy. The New Testament writers followed his lead, and used the metaphor of ‘father’ and ‘son’ to describe the relationship between Jesus and God. They were as similar to each other as family members often are – yet were different beings. The same ‘Spirit’ or breath breathed through them, and was part of them both.

The Greek speaking fathers of the church used the term ‘hypostasis’ which means being or manifestation, or underlying reality to refer to each part of God the Trinity. When the creeds and other theological documents were translated into Latin, the word used was ‘persona’, which originally meant a mask worn by an actor, and then came to mean the role played by an actor. Translated into English, the word became ‘person’, which means a human being. Hence our tendency to imagine the Trinity as three people, or two people and a bird, which can be a severe limitation on our concept of God, who is beyond all our  imagination, and not to be limited by human concepts of what a person is and can do.

The language we use about the Trinity is metaphorical. Metaphors point beyond themselves to something that is incomprehensible. That is why to explain the Trinity (a metaphor about God) with other metaphors simply makes a bigger muddle. A metaphor is not an explanation, it is something which helps us to explore, which cannot grasp the whole truth, but which encourages us to keep engaging with the mystery.

But metaphors are limited. The metaphor of the Trinity imagines  God as three – persons, identities, modes of being or whatever. But the Bible, and Christian spiritual writing since speak of God in many more ways than just Father, Son, Spirit, or even Creator, Redeemer, Comforter.

In the Old Testament, God is much more than creator; other names for the divine include, Lord, King, Shield, Rock, Shepherd, Redeemer, Light to the Nations, The Most High. Jesus is is not just Son; he is Saviour, Bridegroom, High Priest, Bread of Life, Head, Teacher. The Spirit also has many names and roles.  The Trinity is just a shorthand for the multitude of  ways that Godself is revealed to us and the infinite number of ways through which we may come to know God.

There is also a tendency for people to confuse the metaphor with the reality. So, because we speak of two of the persons of the Trinity as Father and Son, some people imagine that they can only be spoken of in masculine terms, and represented by males. To speak of God or Jesus as Mother, and feeding us with milk from herself, makes some people uncomfortable, as does referring to any part of the Trinity as ‘she’. But God is not a being, and so is beyond gender, so it should not do.

Perhaps it might be better not to use words, but to use pictures or diagrams. In some churches you will find triangles, representing the Trinity. I like the Rublev icon, known as the Hospitality of Abraham, which represents the Trinity as three androgynous figures, gazing at each other; but it perhaps falls into the trap of making God seem like three human persons. Another representation I find it helpful to meditate on is this ancient Irish symbol, where a continuous line unites the three parts, without ever ending, so illustrating unity in eternity.

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The Greek fathers spoke of the relationship between the persons of the Trinity as ‘perichoresis’ or indwelling – a relationship of perfect unity of will and harmony of action. Some modern scholars have proposed a social doctrine of the Trinity, which reflects perichoresis, saying that that the unity of the Trinity consists in loving relationships. This implies that the doctrine of the Trinity is really all about relationships: the relationships within the Godhead and the relationships between the divine and the human. Within the Godhead there is difference (reflected by the theological language about ‘persons’) but a perfect unity. It speaks against the individualism of our culture for the importance to human flourishing of life in community.

So, perhaps we are just called to accept that the Trinity is part of the mystery that is God, and simply to live it. And that means working out how to reflect, in our individual and church lives, a God who reveals the divine through the Spirit, through the life of Jesus and through the created world.

If we are to live in accordance with our belief in God who is a Trinity of perfect love, unity and co-operation, then we need to find a way of being church that reflects God’s love unity and co-operation.  We are finite corporate beings, living in different environments and with different personalities, so we will all experience God in different ways, and will tend to think that our way of knowing God is best. Living in love and unity will mean not insisting on that.

Trinity Sunday is a yearly reminder to us that if we want to be true to our faith in our lives and our church, then we need to minimise the differences between us and other Christians and concentrate on the relationship with God we share, a relationship of love, of self-sacrifice, of unity of purpose. If we concentrate on that, then perhaps neither the  complicated theological arguments about the doctrine of the Trinity, nor the inadequate metaphors which try to help us understand the doctrine need worry us too much.

And wouldn’t that be a relief?

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