A Triumvirate Godhead

Scriptures: 1 John 5:6-8 KJV vs. NRSV; Genesis 1:2, John 4:24, 10:30, Matthew 28:19.

Let us pray:

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, One in Three… Amen.

It was news to me, when in 2014 the late Phyllis Tickle wrote that contemporary Islam is increasingly charging Christianity with being Polytheistic. It has to do with what we are about with this whole Trinity thing.

The truth of the matter is, neither the Hebrew Bible coming out of our ancestral Judaism “nor our New Testament ever employs – or even mentions – the word Trinity as such at all.”[1] Despite that, I have to declare that to my mind there is no mistake that our revised common lectionary places Trinity Sunday directly after Pentecost. I can see how the most difficult concept in our entire corpus of theology cold be how we can remain monotheistic as our ancestral Judaism is and was, but at the same time worship God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit as three distinct “’personed’ Great Truths within a Great Truth.”[2]

Tracing an understanding of the Spirit of God, Ruach through Judaism we find illumined an understanding of the interwoven eternal reality of the Holy Spirit being both of and from God. From the first two verses of our Scriptures, we learn, “In the beginning, God created the heaves and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God [Ruach Elohim] was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:1-2 NKJV). The word, Spirit, from the beginning, is that multi-faceted word, Ruach, which can mean: spirit, wind, breath. Tickle writes,

Ruach itself, with its multifaceted subtleties and teasing nuances, occurs almost 400 times in Hebrew Scripture…it is…the ruach, the prophets say, that will rest upon the Son of David who is to come as Messiah and as Israel’s hope.

The Ruach, or Spirit, was, in fact, the inspirer of all the great prophets of Judaism right up until the time that prophecy ceased in the land because of the disobedience of the people. There is a rabbinic tradition, however, that holds that YHWH, in His mercy, did not entirely withdraw from His people. Instead of speaking to them through the Ruach, He spoke through the Bath Qol: that is, through “the daughter of the Voice of God.”

When Messiah comes, that tradition teaches, there will be little or no more need for Bath Qol, for the people will again have direct, and even greater, access to the Spirit. This tradition – this sadness of lost prophesying, this consolation of the daughter of the Voice of God, and this promise that when Messiah came, the Spirit would once more be among us – was [no doubt] well known among the disciples and early Jewish Christians. Thus it is that at Jesus’s baptism, Mark tells us that the Spirit (pneuma) descends on him like a dove and that it is the Voice (phone in Greek), and not the daughter of the Voice, that proclaims him as the well-beloved Son. …It is the Voice, or phone, neither the pneuma nor the daughter of the Voice, who [appears] again at the Transfiguration, where it is the Voice Itself that declares, “This is my beloved Son: hear him” (Mark 9:7 KJV).[3]

The extra canonical tradition of the Bath Qol aside, we are still faced with the reality that reading through both Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament, we are faced with a very active Spirit of God, present from the beginning, who identifies Jesus and whom Jesus refers to, who testifies through prophecy, and later directly from the clouds at the Baptism of Jesus and the Mount of Transfiguration (I might add, the imagery of that cloud would have been immediately identified by those disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration as being, in a very real way, the actual presence of God; recalling the pillar of cloud by day that led the Israelites through their wilderness experience).

Finally, as we have been exploring these past few Sundays, it is this same Spirit poured out on all people at Pentecost as the replacement for the bodily presence of our Lord, Rabbi Yeshua,  Jesus Christ.

So the Bible never comes out and says “Trinity;” unless of course you are reading the King James Bible. There, to this day, you would find what scholars refer to as the “Johannine Comma,” an additional phrase not found in any of the earliest Greek manuscripts. The additional phrase first appeared mysteriously in New Testament manuscripts in the fourth century. Turn to 1 John chapter 5, in your pew Bibles and read with me verses 6, 7, and 8.

Now listen for the same three verses from the King James Bible:

John 5:6   “This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth.  7 For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.  8 And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.”

To my mind, the mystery is somewhat explained when we take into account what was happening in the Church in the fourth century. Briefly, Constantine won control of the Roman Empire in 312 A.D. He attributed his victory to Christ’s intervention, so his new motto became, “One God, one Lord, one faith, one church, one empire, one emperor.” The church, at that time, was far from unified in its beliefs, however.

Two opposing stances on the divinity of Christ were popular: On one hand, it was believed that Christ was created by God before the beginning of time, so therefore his divinity was similar to God’s. On the other hand was the belief that the divinity of Christ, the Son, was of the same substance as the divinity of God, the Father. Out of a growing rift between these two perspectives, Emperor Constantine convened a council in Nicaea in 325 A.D. It adopted the perspective that Christ’s divinity was of the same substance as God’s. The Nicene Creed as we have it today was finalized by the second council of Nicaea in 381. Western Christianity and Eastern Christianity agree on all points in the Creed except one. Eastern Churches state that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. Western Churches state that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. To Western Churches, filioque, Latin “and the son,” guards the unity of the triune God. To Eastern Churches, this threatens the distinctiveness of the person of the Holy Spirit. This issue remains unresolved in the ecumenical dialogue to this day.

To which I can only suggest, let us return to the scriptures as we have them and examine three relevant passages. Jesus specifically teaches the Samaritan woman, and through her all believers in the Gospel of John chapter 4:24, “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth;” and again Jesus teaches us in 10:30, “I and the Father are one.” Similarly, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus commands us “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (28:19).

So whether or not we take the King James Version of the Bible to heart with its post-council of Nicaea scribal addition or if we wish to remain true to more ancient manuscripts which leave out specific reference to a Triumvirate Godhead, it is enough, for my faith, to celebrate the full mystery of the Trinity with just what Jesus himself teaches.

Which leaves me with only one question: Does any of this have a real bearing on how we live out our faith in God? Perhaps, if we gaze in this mysterious cloud of unknowing long enough – we might begin to grasp one way or another the infinite love that binds all three together; and in so doing, begin to understand how we, truly, are to love.

Let us pray:

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love. Help us understand how God regards with merciful eyes not what we are, not what we have been, but what we wish to be. In the name of the One who lived, died, and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ. Amen? May it be so.

[1] Tickle, Phyllis. The Age of the Spirit; How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy is Shaping the Church. Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI. Copyright 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

About Scottrick

Parent ~ Pastor ~ Poet ~ Author
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