St Margaret's Lee

May 26th 1991

The Trinity

In the year 1628, William Harvey, physician to King Charles the First made a discovery which totally transformed the Medical Sciences.

He discovered (and demonstrated for the first time) that the blood circulates around the human body.

Now I'm not enough of a medical historian to know exactly what people had believed up till that point about the function of the blood. But the fact remains that after that momentous discovery medicine progressed by leaps and bounds.

Now consider another fact: the actual concept of the blood circulating isn't a difficult one to grasp. An intelligent six-year-old can latch onto it in about five minutes if it's explained properly and compared with something he does know, for instance a central heating system or an electric circuit.

Which is however very far from saying that there's nothing more to it. Haematologists and others are still finding out more and more about it and millions and millions of words have been written about it.

Let's sum up those three points as follows:

  1. Nobody knew about the circulation of blood till 1628 although it had been going on for millions of years.
  2. Once discovered, the principle is easy to understand if properly explained.
  3. The whole science of haematology which opened up as a result of Harvey's discovery is vastly complicated and extensive.

Now I want to take what I just said and apply it to one understanding of God and the Trinity of Persons, Father, Son and Spirit

Firstly, the Trinity exists and has a nature quite independent of our belief in or understanding of it. Just as blood-circulation was a fact of living creatures from their first creation before, and independent of, William Harvey's discovery of it.

I stress this because in some people's minds there is the mistaken notion that God's existence or nature is somehow bound up with or dependent upon our belief in him.

Let's get that straight: God exists and would continue to exist and continued to be who he is even if nobody in the whole world believed in him or more probably chose to ignore his existence.

Secondly just as our understanding of the human body took a great quantum leap forwards as a result of Harvey's discovery, so our understanding of God developed rapidly beyond all recognition as a result of the Incarnation and Pentecost. It's as if these two events supplied the missing piece of the jigsaw.

The Jews discovered Monotheism through God's revelation of himself. Monotheism - that is the realisation that there is only one God and not the many gods of Pagan polytheism. That in itself was an enormous leap forward in the human understanding.

But the wisest of them realised that this couldn't be the whole story. For one thing it raised to the whole question of how God could be said to be Loving before there was any Creation to love. And the same wise men suggested that there was something called Wisdom, or the Spirit of God which had existed from all eternity alongside him. Not a separate god, you understand, nor yet just aspects of his nature, but something best described as "Persons" living within the Godhead.

But it was God's decision to reveal himself in the fullness of time by the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, as the man Jesus Christ, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon those who are accepted him as their Lord and Saviour at Pentecost which opened the doors of men's understanding of the nature of God in a way which has never happened before or since. Over the course of the next to 360 years up to the Council of Chalcedon, a revolution took place which changed theology from being rather an intellectual backwater into what is called the Queen of the Sciences.

Thanks to two or three fairly simple and easily understood concepts put forward by medics like Harvey and Pasteur and Lister, and their theological counterparts like St John, St Augustine in and Saint Athanasius, we now know more about the human body and and the Nature of God than people did for millions adheres in the past.

Of course things didn't stop there. Both Theology and physiology with all their sub-disciplines developed into most immensely complex Sciences, well beyond the intellectual grasp of you and me and most of the people we meet.

But that complexity does not in any way contradict the basic simplicity of the concept, any more than explaining circulation of the blood in terms of a central heating system is a wrong thing to do. It won't enable you to pass exams in haematology or theology. But anyone who has this concept of God in his mind whatever its limitations is in an incomparably better position than someone who doesn't. So what does the Trinity mean?

Very simply then, it means that God is personal. That view is shared by Muslims, Jews and Christians. But of the three, only Christians believe that within the Godhead there exists something which resembles what we would call a society. Were all quite familiar with the notion I'm sure that an object can be greater than the sum of its parts. A family, for example, is something more than three related individuals living under the same roof; a piece of music is more than a succession of sounds of a particular frequency; a great painting is more than canvas and pigment.

Well, within the Godhead there exists three Persons, standing in different relationships to each other and yet of one substance. They are therefore able to love one another in a way which we can only begin to guess at.

I said a moment or two back that these Persons within the Godhead stand in a different relationship to each other. The model which Jesus taught his disciples to use in their thinking about the first two persons was that of Father and Son. Other models have since been given us to highlight other facets of the true. One thinks of the Word of God which Saint John spoke about in the first chapter of his gospel; or the Wisdom of God which was favoured by some Greek thinkers - but the fact remains that the Incarnation of God, at a particular time and place, provides most of us with the clearest picture of what God is really like.

The Word made flesh, dwelling among us, who calls God "my father" or "Daddy". A man indeed, human like ourselves, hungry, thirsty, mortal and yet who speaks of God in a way that nobody has before or since, and who makes claims and says things about himself which if they were not true make him out as being the biggest lunatic and con-man the world has ever known.

And then the Spirit "proceeding from the Father through the San". Not created nor begotten but proceeding or progressing. There have been many images given to help us envisage the Spirit. Wind, Fire, Power are three which we are most familiar with - all three are ideas which it any intelligent child can grasp. God does not expect us to receive him as theologians but like intelligent children. Theology will come later if we have the intellect, time and will to explore it.

"But what", you may ask "has all these got to do with life in the 1990s?"

Well if Christians have got it wrong of course, the answer is "very little" just as it would be if scientists suddenly discovered that the blood only appeared to circulate round the body, or it only did so whilst you were watching or noticing, or a new bloodless species of Man were genetically-engineered. It would relegate Harvey's discovery to the level of a historic curiosity. But if Christians have got it right, and I can only suppose that some of us here believe they have, the belief in the Trinity has momentous consequences for us. For the promises of God assure us that by believing what he has revealed about himself, the promises he has made to mankind will be fulfilled in us.

Like God the Father we shall be as gods, knowing good by nature and experience because we shall have been made perfect.

Like God the Son we shall be raised from the dead to live a new life in and for him.

With God the Spirit we shall be able to proceed or progress in his Palmer into what God and the Creator designed us to beat. We have as Saint John said already become his sons through baptism. What we are to become in his purposes is still not apparent. But we know that when it does appear we shall be like him because we shall "see him as he is, Father, Son, Spirit, three Persons in one God".

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