In 1819, in Baltimore, at the ordination of one Jared Sparks, a man stood up and preached a sermon. Because of what he said in that sermon, the face of religion in Boston and New England would change forever.
The title of William Ellery Channing’s sermon that day was “Unitarian Christianity”. In it, he set forth principles around which the growing Unitarian movement would coalesce. He was reacting to many tenets of the then-current Calvinist faith of the Congregationalists (that’s us), Presbyterians, and others. Among the pieces of that historic faith he and later Unitarians would disavow were the doctrine of original sin, the doctrine of total depravity of humankind, and the belief that God would ultimately banish anyone, much less most people, to eternal torment.
Each of which was controversial in its own way, but the real issue? The issue that would split Congregational churches all over New England in two, the issue that would drive ministers from pulpits, the issue that mattered enough that candidates for the presidency of Harvard University would be asked to state their position on it before being hired? The Trinity.
Of course it was the Trinity. The Trinity is now and has always been the most vexing, confusing, mind-bending theological proposition in all of Christianity. Here’s the claim it makes: God—note the singular construction there—God is made up of three persons: the Parent (Father, in the old language), the Son (that’s Jesus), and the Holy Spirit. All three of these persons have exactly the same substance. All three have always been part of God; there was never a time when any of them wasn’t there, co-eternal, co-existing, reigning over and ordering the creation forever and always. Three persons and yet, just one God. Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Creator, Christ, Redeemer. Parent, Child, Holy Spirit. And yet we claim emphatically, over and over, that we are not polytheists. And yet we claim that this triune God we worship is the same God of whom the Jews say, “Hear, o Israel, the Lord our God is one.”
The Unitarians of Channing’s day claimed that the God of Jesus Christ was not, in fact, a Trinity, but was a Unity, just one person. They believed so strongly on this point that they named themselves after it: Unitarians, as opposed to the rest of Christianity, most of which was Trinitarian.
Their claim was, in effect, a disavowal of the orthodox claim that Jesus Christ is both human and divine (which is the second most vexing theological proposition in Christianity and will have to wait for some other sermon). They made this claim partly because it was central to a belief system—Calvinism—that had become hidebound, outmoded, and mildly embarrassing. They made it partly because they had combed the Bible and didn’t see the Trinity named or claimed explicitly anywhere in it. And they made it because they believed that faith should be a rational matter and the Trinity, well, the Trinity just didn’t make sense to them.
Channing and company certainly weren’t the only ones that it didn’t make sense to. One way or another, every one of the great ecumenical councils of the first five hundred years of Christianity was convened to answer questions about the Trinity that nobody could agree on the answers to. Over the years, more than twenty different heresies—heresies with enough believers that they got their own capitalized names like Arianism, Docetism, Nestorianism, Patripassionism—revolving in one way or another around the Trinity were named by those in charge. If there are twenty different ways for people of good faith to misconstrue your theological proposition, I just want to tell you that your theological proposition may not be wrong, but it sure is hard to understand.
So difficult to understand did well-educated Bostonians find the Trinity that when the Unitarian controversy swept through this town, every single formerly Trinitarian Congregational church converted to Unitarianism. First Church, Second Church, Federal Street Church, Arlington Street Church (where Channing was the preacher), the New South Church, the Old West Church, and the list goes on. Every single Congregational church in Boston became Unitarian—except one, this one. Old South Church stayed firmly Trinitarian in its proclamation, and felt strongly enough that, when the Unitarian tide was rising, we were primary founders of Park Street Church to act as another bastion of theological orthodoxy on Boston’s landscape.
Now, some of you are new here, and may not know this, but Old South Church in Boston is not known for our conservatism. We are not now and were not then very likely to come down hard on the side of orthodoxy. And yet, we were willing to stand alone among the churches of our tradition on the side of the Trinity. We were willing to found a whole other church just to keep the idea alive. Why? What was at stake? Why invest so heavily in this strangest and least sensible of doctrines?
It is not, allow me to assure you, because the biblical claim is clear on this point. There are some statements that seem to point in a triune direction, such as Jesus’ command to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, which we did in Reid Bugbee’s baptism just a short while ago. Or there’s Paul’s blessing “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you”. Still other parts of the Bible look trinity-esque if you squint and tilt your head juuust right. Like today’s passage from Genesis, which reading is assigned to today, Trinity Sunday, because if you squint and tilt your head juuust right you will see that right in the beginning, there is God the creator, and a wind from God (or, depending on how you translate it, the spirit of God; wind and spirit are the same word) hovering over the face of the waters, and (here’s where it gets complicated) that God speaks, so the Word of God is there, and the prologue of the Christian Gospel of John claims that Jesus Christ is the Word of God and that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. So there.
It may not surprise you to learn that the average Jew, who also regards this text as Scripture, does not see the Trinity in this story. It also may not surprise you to learn that for every text a Trinitarian puts forward to illustrate her point, there’s one that disproves it just as surely. What it comes down to is this: the biblical witness is unclear, and those who wish to see the Trinity in it, will. Those who do not, will not.
So why then did the Trinity—does the Trinity—matter so much to Old South? Is it because we, being smart, educated, precise, agile thinkers reasoned our way into it? In answer to that, let me lay on you what many consider to be the clearest, most precise accounting of the Trinity ever, the Athanasian Creed. Churches throughout Christendom will rise to their feet and recite this creed today, Trinity Sunday, for that reason. It’s the best anyone has ever done explaining the Trinity logically. This, in part, is how it goes:
“The Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite. So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty. So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords; but one Lord…” and it goes on and on and on like that for a loooong time—but I won’t go on, because surely you understand the Trinity now, right?
If not, then I have good news: someone has diagrammed the Trinity! Here it is:
Got it? Is not all clear to you now? Aren’t you ready to shape your entire life around that?
Well, that’s because reason has little to nothing to do with the Trinity. Reason is not what the Trinity is about. Reason, in fact, makes an utter hash of Trinity. It distorts it. Warps it. Or just makes it completely and utterly uncompelling.
Would you sacrifice anything at all for that diagram? Does your heart quicken when you see that, or when you hear the Athanasian Creed? Are you moved to praise or protest or joy or fear or anything when you see that?
Reason cannot apprehend Trinity. This is the very reason that the Unitarians decided to do away with it. It is also the very reason that we continue to proclaim it.
You are very smart people. Many of you are also well-educated, with many letters after your names. You are hard-working people who achieve most if not all of what you set your mind and your will to. You understand much, much of the world.
You do not understand the Trinity.
I do not understand the Trinity, Nancy does not understand the Trinity. The Pope doesn’t. Whoever wrote the Athanasian Creed doesn’t. Whoever made that diagram doesn’t. The doctors of the church don’t. No one does. Not with our heads, anyway. Not with our reason or our research or our hard work.
And yet. And yet.
Was there not power in the room when Nancy said, “I baptize you in the name of the one whom Jesus called ‘Abba, Father’, and in the name of the Son, and in the name of the Holy Spirit?” Was there not power in the room when the Bugbees staked the entire shape of their daughter’s life on it?
Reason cannot apprehend the Trinity, but rituals like baptism can point to it.
Reason cannot apprehend the Trinity, but metaphor can point to it:
One commentator says that the Creator laughed a golden laugh, and the laugh produced the Son. The Creator and the Son laughed together and produced the Spirit. The Creator and the Son and the Spirit laughed a golden laugh together, and produced you. The Trinity is like three people laughing together and saving the whole world in the laughter.
Another says that the Trinity is like three people in perfect choreography, and the shape of their dance is the shape of the world.
Reason cannot apprehend the Trinity, but art can point to it:
Andrei Rublev, the greatest icon painter of all time, created perhaps the most famous icon of all time:
Three people sharing a meal at a four-sided table, with the fourth side left open for a guest. And the guest, of course, is you.
Reason cannot apprehend Trinity. Words cannot contain it, but music can get close. Try this: Harry’s going to play a song. If you know the words to that song, then sing them as loudly as you can—any words you know. If you don’t know them, then listen. And if, by chance, there’s something that your body wants to do when you sing, a particular movement or posture that you think is appropriate to the singing of these words, then by all means, do it. Harry?
**Harry plays “Old Hundredth” while the choir and congregation sing the Doxology**
The Trinity matters because it is important for us to have a reminder that God cannot finally be apprehended by human reason. Reason is good. Reason is a gift from God, to be used in the life of faith and here in the church. But it will not, finally, encompass God, because a God that can be fully understood is no God at all.
But just because you cannot fully comprehend a mystery does not mean that you cannot participate in it, and it does not mean that it’s not true. Like laughter. Like a dance. Like a feast that you’ve been invited to. Like the oldest of rituals. Like parents willing to stake the shape of their child’s life on something they cannot see but can only feel.
It’s not reasonable at all, but if there’s something out there so large and beautiful that when you sing about it, you cannot help but rise to your feet in respect and awe, that’s as true as anything needs to be.
If you believe that, say “Amen.”