Several people have asked for my thoughts on the Christian idea of the Trinity and it appears they have never made it into blog form, so here goes.
The Short Answer
Two millennia ago, a bunch of people were standing around trying to make sense of the world in light of the life, death, and apparent resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I say apparent not to call it into doubt, but to say it was something strange that they were trying to account for and needed a new way of thinking to do so. They discovered that they were more than just a bunch of people thinking. Rather, they were a community, bound together by common faith, hope, and love. Their lives were intimately associated with their beliefs, their practices, and their relationships, so individual answers would not be enough; they needed a common understanding.
Many of them, perhaps the majority, said that Jesus must be God – not just >a< god or even >the< god, but GOD in the sense of the philosophers. They saw Jesus as that which was more fundamentally real than anything else, that on which the universe was built. At the very least, he was that on which their common life was built. Jesus was a real person and not an abstraction. Many had seen, heard, and touched him. The best way to keep their priorities straight was to stay focused on the man, Jesus. They would tell his story, follow his example, and try to do as he had asked.
A second group noted that Jesus was Jewish and prayed to someone else, whom Jesus called Father. They identified the Father with the God of Israel, whose proper name is YHWH (usually not pronounced in common conversation out of respect). This god, they said had created all things and Jesus deferred to him, so he should be viewed as GOD. Worship (the attribution of worth) should be directed at the Father.
A third group, said no. For them the spirit (life, wisdom, value) of Jesus had been imparted to the community or Church. This Holy Spirit was neither fixed in history like Jesus nor universally transcendent like the Father. This Holy Spirit, they said was with them and continued to inspire and lead them. Community seemeed hard, perhaps impossible without this spirit among them. Such a Spirit continues to grow and change with the people, whom they saw very literally as the continuing body of Christ (one title for Jesus). This Spirit was the locus of true religion. This Spirit was GOD.
As they assembled common scriptures, rituals, and rules of life, people from all three points of view came to accept one another as a single community. They came to respect all three perspectives as accurately reflecting reality and real value in the cosmos. They came to see Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three persons – three ways of relating to the same GOD. More than that, they agreed that a full relationship could be had with GOD in each or in all.
To this day, Christians still fall into (at least) these three camps. I’ve asked people at churches where I’ve spoken, “which person of the Trinity do you interact with primarily (worship, meditate on, talk to…)?” I was surprised to get about 1/3 vote for each. (I thought it would be more lopsided.) We continue as one community with one GOD, approached in three ways.
In the next post, I’ll dive into some the theological challenges to this point of view.