12 June 22

One of the incessant commercials we endure currently has a man interrupted while painting his fence and told about the tiny cable under his feet.  He is then teleported into a massive tunnel under the berm where small streaks of pulsing light flow down the middle.  ‘You said it was a tiny cable he protests’. ‘It is, this is a metaphor.’ voice-over replies.

A metaphor that tells us that the tiny tube carelessly stapled to my fence can carry far more data than its size might indicate.  Trinity is a bit like that.

The Rev Dr. Robin Meyers recently argued on Facebook that the doctrine of Trinity is a metaphor that evolved as a way to try and understand God.

But even on TV metaphors have limitations and Meyers suggests the Trinity metaphor sells God short.  He quotes Bishop Spong as saying: ‘The Holy Trinity is not now and never has been a description of the being of God.  It is rather the attempt to define our human experience of God.’ [2]

Myers went on to say, ‘We experience God as creator; Jesus as the incarnation of God’s love; and the Holy Spirit as the means through which we are drawn to and inspired by that love.  It is a metaphor that should remain, as William Sloane Coffin Jr. put it, “a sign-post, not a hitching-post.’[3]

Metaphors are a feature of our faith and Trinity is a signpost set up in the history of our faith and indeed still points to a way forward in understanding just as a metaphor can demonstrate the vast potential of fibre optics.

Trinity is a philosophical and linguistic formula that explains why Christians can understand God as creator of the universe, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit but still claim that there is only one God.


Proverbs 8: 1-4, 22-31

This is an alternative vision of creation that is not all that well known and shows a feminine persona as part of the divinity we call God.  Furthermore, there are very ancient mythical understandings of the process of creation where God puts limits on the waters of chaos which were believed to exist before creation.

Interestingly images of ‘the deep’ could be understood in terms of the deep emptiness of contemporary physics just as easily as the deep water of chaos of ancient mythology.

In a lecture at the Hamilton cathedral, former Archbishop David Moxam recounted a discussion with a Jewish scholar who suggested that, if John’s Gospel had been written in Jerusalem rather than the Greek city of Ephesus then, it would have been the Hebrew feminine spirit Sophia in the prologue of John’s Gospel rather than the Greek masculine Logos –Word that was ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’(John 1:1)   Maurice Andrew quotes his successor as Old Testament lecturer at Otago University, Judith McKinlay, as suggesting Sophia can best be summed up as the trusted mediator between Yahweh and the world. [1] 

John 16:12-15

This reading is part of Jesus’ farewell speech.  Previously Jesus has explained that he will be leaving and going to the ‘Father’.  They should not grieve because he will be with the Father, and he has explained that the Father and he are one.  Jesus then says he will not leave them orphaned because he will send the Advocate, the Spirit of truth who will teach them all things.  This passage builds the relationship between Spirit, Parent and Christ.  The images very much reflect the relationship between Yahweh and Sophia except for the gender. 

Jews maintain that there is only one God and their scripture relates stories of the heroes of their faith from patriarchs to prophets with a bit of politics thrown in.  Moslems fiercely assert that there is only one God, they acknowledge the sacredness of the Hebrew and Christian scripture, and they include the Hebrew Prophets along with Jesus but claim Mohammed as the greatest of the prophets.  In protecting the one God concept they see any reference to any human as god as blasphemy.

For Christians, it is still helpful to zoom down the metaphor of Trinitarian Theology and let it inform our faith.  Because without the Trinity signpost we can take some very unfortunate side roads.

I often think that some people just worship Jesus, Myers in fact says we should follow Jesus not worship him.

Others focus on the fruits of the Spirit and some just the God of the Old Testament.  Bryce Courtenay in his novel Tandia referred to one branch of the church in apartheid South Africa as believing that the New Testament was a softening of the true God of truth and vengeance they found in the Old Testament.  He also made reference to a Pentecostal woman who ‘was a heavyweight transmitter for the Holy Ghost. At the smallest provocation she could go off in a prayer meeting like a yard full of chickens who discover a snake in their midst’.[4]

The origin of the Triune God belongs in the Empire of Constantine and can be as helpful to us as it was to Constantine.

But it is amongst the multiplicity of gods in the polytheistic Roman Empire that Trinitarian theology is best understood and makes the most sense.

Constantine needed a religion to unify the divided empire he inherited by conquest.  The most widely distributed faith at that time was Christianity.  Therefore, by offering the followers of Christ protection Constantine obtained supporters in every part of the empire.

But if Constantine wanted to unite people through a unifying faith he needed that faith to be unified and organised.  Furthermore, if he was replacing all the diverse god’s and goddesses of the empire with one God it needed to be perfectly clear that there was just one God, and all the others were irrelevant.

The loose understanding that in resurrection, Jesus somehow became divine as God was divine, and a Holy Spirit was somehow also involved, was just too confusing in amongst all the other spirits and idols people gave their allegiance to.

Therefore, without the internet and tiny fibre cables with big metaphors Trinitarian theology was inevitability and necessary.   It was not just important in the imperial palace it was also important to ordinary people because a universal faith offered peace and stability.

However, we should not give Constantine’s need to structure and organise the church all the credit for inspiring the doctrine of the Trinity.  John’s gospel certainly has hints of the doctrine and today’s reading, and indeed the whole farewell discourse, gives important ‘proof texts’ for the doctrine of the Trinity.

Furthermore, our Proverbs reading and the prologue to John’s Gospel with the ‘word’ being with God in creation are also texts that are later used as Trinitarian proof texts.

These passages also show the movement of the Christian faith out of a spiritual Jewish world view into a logical Greco-Roman world that struggled with different images of one God.  But it would in fact take another two hundred years before they got a formula that gave both monotheism and three ways of imaging God.

We could also suggest that the mention of proselytes or ‘God fearers’ in the Pentecost reading from Acts is another clue pointing towards the desire among the Greek and Roman community to find a faith that affirmed one God.

For non-Jews the idea that there was only one God was a philosophical decision, but they were searching for a faith that affirmed that hypothesis.  Judaism was such a faith, but it was difficult to convert to Judaism for both racial and surgical reasons. Therefore, so when the followers of Jesus began accepting gentiles that seemed the obvious choice.

But for those gentile converts seeking a monotheistic faith the Jesus followers would appear to be worshiping three different divine identities and could well have been a barrier to their conversion.  Therefore, we can imagine an early church filled with evangelical zeal wanting a press release that proved that, in spite of these three ways, they understood or visualised God it was still the one and only God they worshiped.

But is Trinitarian theology also important to us, and if so, why? 

The answer is that many of the issues that drove the quest for a Trinitarian formula in the early church are still with us today.  We live in a multicultural world surrounded by diverse images of the divine and some of the choices that world offers are not terribly helpful.  Furthermore, although we no longer make metal images to worship, as was the case in pagan Rome, we very easily create mental images of our understanding of the divine.

A mental image of divinity is not only extremely flexible but always has a remarkable resemblance to the mind that conceived it.  In affirming the Biblical concept that God created humanity in the divine image we also have to acknowledge that humanity returned the compliment.

Recent news items have presented us with gods who shower immense wealth on their prophets who in turn exploit their followers.

The truth is that the human mind struggles to cope with a divine existence, that even a very limited understanding of the wonder and vastness of the universe tells us, is beyond our comprehension.

If we are sincere in both our worship and our questioning, we must continually ask Bill Wallace’s question; What image shall I use to give a face to God?

The Christological answer is that, as Christians, we image God in the Jesus of the Gospels.  But that still gives an opportunity to build a Jesus in our own image and there is plenty of Christian artwork that proves our ability to do just that.  The truth is that we need the Holy Spirit to guide our understanding of Jesus and the way scripture reveals Jesus to us.

However, we regularly come across any number of examples of visions and prophecies that have more to do with the prophet having the vision or making the prophecy than the Jesus of the Gospels.

But understanding that both the Risen Christ and Holy Spirit are linked, both in scripture and doctrine filters out the aberrations of our imaginings and allows a truer image of God to guide and inspire us.

That is even more the case when we understand that the Father, Jesus speaks of in our Gospel reading, is not just a father like those of us who are fathers or the loving fathers we had.  The divine creator is certainly not a father who may have deserted or abused us.  The Father figure within the Trinitarian formula is the creator of the whole universe with both the characteristics of Sophia, the feminine wisdom, and the masculine strength and power that brought all things into being.

But above all the Trinitarian formula brings those different expressions of God together in a formula of belief that ties three ways of both imaging God, and experiencing God, within a very important monotheistic belief that there is only one God.

The Trinity is a concept that stands Christians apart from other faith expressions.  Trinity is a formula that enables us to experience the divine and give our mind an image of God in three ways.  A triune God allows us to understand both the experience and the vision of one unimaginable mystery that exists in and around us. Calling us not to a high-tech tunnel under the front lawn but to greater personhood than we can ever imagine.

The triune metaphor is a superconductor that allows us to experience God as creator; Jesus as the incarnation of God’s love; and the Holy Spirit as the means through which we are drawn to and inspired by that love.

[1] J.E. McKinlay, Gendering Wisdom in the Host, pp.72-80. in Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), p374.


[3] ibid.

[4] Bryce Courtenay Tandia (Port Melbourne: Mandarin 1992), p.523.