In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9-11 NRSV)
In my view, for what it’s worth, there seem to be basically two ways of studying Theology. There are those theologians who see their subject as an academic discipline, to be studied and explored much as you would do for, say, history or archaeology.
And then there are those for whom the study of theology is a determined effort to discover more of the truth about God, especially so that they can be applied to the Christian life.
For Christians, the latter approach is likely to bear more fruit, but that is not to denigrate the discoveries made by those who pursue an academic discipline for its own sake. Study for its own sake is both honourable and necessary to enable out thinking to be challenged.
However, I do get a little puzzled when theologians occasionally make comments to the effect that you won’t find much talk about the Holy Trinity in the New Testament.
The quotation from Mark’s gospel, above, is just one example of why that simply isn’t an accurate picture. Certainly, the term “Holy Trinity” is not used, but the presence of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is explicit in the gospels.
The study of the Trinity, difficult though it is, is necessary if we are to deepen our understanding of the one whom we worship.
It is important to grapple with that age-old problem which has faced human beings since almost time began. How do you define God?
Its an age-old problem because no-one has ever really successfully solved it. But, if you think about it, that’s really how it ought to be.
Because if we could define God – if we could, with 100% certainty say that God is this or God is that, then we would present ourselves with another difficulty.
And that difficulty is this: once you have defined God, you must know pretty well everything about him. And the only person who knows everything about God – is God! So, to be able to accurately define God is a logical and philosophical impossibility. (No surprise, then, that one of the Great names for God in the Old Testament may be translated simply as “I am” – “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” (Exodus 3:14 NRSV)).
To attempt to prove the point, try something on a smaller scale. Try defining another human being. If you got half a dozen people to give description of someone they all know, that description might agree in many senses – but there would be disagreements in the detail.
And that wouldn’t surprise anyone, because they would all have encountered different aspects of that person. You might be father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, friend, work mate and each would bring about different ways of describing him or her.
But it’s even more complicated than that, because each one who tried to make their description would be filtering their views through their own personality, their own preoccupations, their own values.
So if it’s so hard to define another human being it should be little wonder that we have such difficulty in defining God.
But part of the vocation of the Christian is to try to at least understand more about God. And that is why our understanding has grown and developed over the centuries.
People have reflected on the existence and presence of God in our universe, they have seen the results of his activity in creation, and of what happens to creation when his creatures live without reference to God. And so our understanding has grown.
In any case, we know enough to get by. And we celebrate what we do know about God: that God is Creator of all; that God has taken on our human likeness; and that God is Spirit – comforting and disturbing us in our daily lives.
And supremely, we know that the God we worship is a God of love.
Over the millennia people have tried to project all kinds of fearsome attributes onto God – usually at someone else’s expense. Anger, jealousy, vengeance have all been laid at God’s door, often as a means of seeking to control other people.
Children have been threatened with eternal damnation if they don’t sit up, take notice and, of course, behave.
I have a friend who was completely put off her childhood faith because pious teachers told her that if she didn’t work hard and do her homework, she would probably go straight to the fires of hell for all eternity.
And Christians down the centuries have often tried to turn their churches into private clubs which ensure that some are “in” and others are “out”.
It’s no wonder organised religion has something of a dodgy name.
For one of the most potent and powerful attributes of God is NOT anger, jealousy or vengeance – but love.
And the evidence and the experience of so many Christians is so overwhelming that if we are to understand nothing else at all about God, we must understand that he is a God of love.
Creation is an act of love, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is an act of love, the activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of the world is an act of love. If it is not of love, then it is not of God.
Speaking of a God of love is not a cop out, not a 1960s hippie sentiment. Nor is it an easy way of avoiding all the really serious issues. Far from it.
For the love of God is so awesome that it can be a fearful enough thing in itself. It is a love which we may aspire to but can’t hope to live up to.
When we talk about God Almighty, God all powerful, God the omnipotent, remember that God is also God the vulnerable, God who risks humiliation, God who weeps, God who suffers.
Re-read carefully the story of Jesus – especially the part leading up to and including the events of the cross on Good Friday. The Cross itself was an act of love.
That is why it is right to try to express that love of God in the life of our church communities. We need to take risks for God, we need to become vulnerable for God. For only then can we get along-side God’s people – both inside and outside the Church.
God’s love, by human standards, is often reckless and foolhardy. That may have to be our model too.
God the Holy Trinity might ultimately be undefinable by human intellect – but his loving purposes are clear enough for us to see; and for that we offer him our worship and our thanks and praise.