The Trinity: naming the incomprehensible

Why limit God to three names when God really has hundreds and hundreds? Or, how The Trinity helps us fully embrace the Name above all Names

Троица (Trinity) by Andrei Rublev, c. 1411

I believe in God the Father, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord… I believe in the Holy Spirit…

So goes the Apostles’ Creed, one of the earliest and most spoken affirmations of faith in the global Christian community. People remember its use as a common prayer dating back to 390 (there’s a letter mentioning it around the time of a meeting called The Synod of Milan — which sounds like a great new pop up Italian restaurant, but this gathering dealt more with so-called heresies rather than caprese, risoto or pannetone).

Everyone from 4th century Catholics to 9th century Greek Orthodox to 16th century German Lutherans to a little Methodist church outside Indianapolis last Sunday have recited this confession, anchoring their understanding of a Triune God. Pentecostals in Africa, Unitarians in Canada, Evangelicals in Mexico, and Anglicans the world around have recited the Apostles’ Creed.

What’s the big deal about the Trinity anyways? What’s the point? Where did it come from? And why does it matter today?

The Bible tells us so

When Moses first encountered the unimaginable presence of God in a burning bush (as you do) and God tells Moses to tell the people with him in the desert that God is sending them somewhere, he naturally asks so, what do we call you?

“I am who I am,” God replied. (literally YHWH — or Yahweh as we would transliterate it today).

Fair enough. Why do we need to make it more complicated?

Probably because of the manifold and incomprehensible ways in which we may have experienced the divine presence in our lives.

One of the last instructions Jesus gave his disciples, friends and followers before he slipped out the celestial back door was to “go out into all the world, “… and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” (Matthew 28:19,20)

The Great Commission Revisited by ReKnew

When you see or attend a baptism, it’s most likely noted that the infant or adult being baptized is done so in a three-fold pattern. It certainly carries with it a sense of solemnity or officialness. More words and more titles always make something sound much more serious. But the reasoning is simple enough: Jesus told us this was how we were to do it. And you’d listen to Jesus, too, if he was walking around three days after being crucified.

In many ways, however, this threefold understanding of the person or identity or presence of God had been around for much longer than that.

Way back in the first pages of the Bible — in The Book of Genesis — one of the creation stories (there are two, by the way) notes that God said:

‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26, 27)

With that, we have to at least imagine a plural sense of God — God calls God-self “us.” And it’s safe to say that there is at least a Fatherly and a Motherly sense to this Creator God, if He-She is making all humankind in His-Her image.

It’s in these first pages of our library full of Bible stories that we catch a glimpse of a God who cannot be contained by one simple category, gender or name.

Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

The earliest Christ-followers wrestled with this understanding of God, too, having just witnessed first-hand or vicariously through members of their extended community, the Divine mystery revealed in the person of Jesus.

One of the earliest and most prolific church leaders, a rabbi named Paul, captured this two-fold understanding of God in many of his letters to the first Christ-centered communities spread throughout the Roman Empire.

Paul an apostle — sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead — (Galatians 1:1)
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. (Romans 8:11)
…because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. (2 Corinthians 4:14)
God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, (Ephesians 1:20)
To Timothy, my loyal child in the faith: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. (1 Timothy 1:2)
Luca Rossetti, The Holy Trinity’, fresco, c. 1738–9, St. Gaudenzio Church at Ivrea (Torino, Italy)

You find a community leader, trying to reach into his own experience and the shared experience of the group, grasping for words to describe the nature and character of the type of God who did unimaginable things like raise rabble-rousing Palestinian rabbis from the dead and gift people with understanding, despite language differences.

Despite the confusion, despite the chaotic times of change, one other community leader assured folks everything was going to be alright, because in the end it was all about love and peace: Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, in truth and love. (2 John 1:13)

I think a Trinitarian understanding of the Divine opens up a world of possibility to name all the manifold ways in which God is active in our lives and the world.

God is a Mother, too

But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
— Psalm 131:2
Mother and child, artist unknown

We do an immense disservice when we limit God to gendered pronouns. Because throughout thousands of years, people have experienced in manifold, mysterious and magnificent ways the riches of God’s presence, care and love.

And for those of us trying to take the Scriptures seriously, it’s just straight up mindfulness.

Because the ancients experienced God explicitly as a nurturing mother to be reckoned with:

God is described as a mother bird, like an eagle rescuing her chicks from dangerous Egyptians (Exodus 19:4) or stirring up her nest, only to hover there to catch protect and carry them in her wings (Deuteronomy 32:11,12)

God is described elsewhere as a mother bear, ready to bend down and feed (Hosea 11:3,4) or attack, if necessary, and tear her mother cubs’ foes “asunder” (Hosea 13:8)

Moses reminded his band of sisters and brothers in the desert that it was God who gave birth to them, and she, not he, who would carry them (Numbers 11:12,13)

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, its many authors go at length to describe the yearning of a mother God who labored in birth pangs for her people, even as they set about into adulthood and beyond (Psalm 131, Numbers 11, Deuteronomy 32 Proverbs 8, & Isaiah 42–49 for a start).

Paul, in his famous address to the Athenians, was more than comfortable to borrow from the Greek poets to describe this parental understanding of God and reconcile the two, mother and father, together, when he said “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.”

Yolanda Pierce, an Associate Professor of African American Religion and Literature and the Director of the Black Church Studies at Princeton Seminary shared this powerful word over at Time a few years ago:

Scholars who oppose the notion of God as Mother often focus on the gender of Christ and his naming of God as “Abba” or Father. Others argue that God is beyond gender, all the while privileging masculine language to understand God. There are also scholars, myself among them, who support the naming of God as Mother along with God as Father, deriving their support from biblical passages which privilege more “feminine” metaphors and analogies, including the image of God as a nursing mother (Isaiah 49:15; Numbers 11:12); God as a midwife (Psalm 22:8–10); and God as one who gives birth (Isaiah 42:14). We do not have to choose only one form of address. God is Creator and Sustainer. God is Protector and Defender. God is Mother and Father. If we are humble, we know that human words and metaphors are incomplete and can never do justice to describing the majesty of who God is.

How do you describe the incomprehensible? How do you name that which has manifested itself in so many unique ways — all mysteriously connected somehow, yet distinct.

“Science” Mike McHargue makes a compelling case, rooted in the ancient “apophatic tradition,” that the mysterious ways in which God makes God-self known doesn’t fit language very well. And that is perfectly, beautifully, frustratingly, ok.

Do yourself a favor and head on over to The Liturgists and dive in to their beautiful, powerful “God Our Mother.”

What are electrons? We learned in school that electrons are little particles that orbit the nucleus of an atom. That explanation is useful, but people who study physics say it’s wrong. More sophisticated understandings of physics tell us that electrons teleport from place to place, or that they exist as a cloud or even that they are a wave function that interacts with other wave functions probabalistically… all those explanations are useful, but they are very wrong! You see, nothing in the human experience has prepared our intuitions and language to deal with the reality of electrons. Any time you describe electrons with words, you are using a metaphor to describe something that is best understood with mathematics. People had to start with an accessible metaphor to understand electrons at all. However, once that understanding is mastered, increasingly challenging explanations are revealed with further study until language is ultimately left behind. And that’s just electrons!

Now another question, what is God? We say that God is holy, infinite and beyond our words. We describe God as limitless, all knowing and present everywhere. The Bible often speaks of ways in ways that surpass language.

To say that God is only a father is missing the point all together. It limits or undercuts humankind’s experience of the Divine through all time. And it does more harm than good.

Many names, one God

There are something like 900+ names for God in the Scriptures. Names beyond Jesus, Father (and Mother), and Holy Spirit (or if you’re going old school and prefer the Holy Ghost).

St. Menas and Jesus (circa 6th century Egypt). Who knew people were talking about the Buddy Christ way back when?

And in fact, some people don’t just call Jesus, Jesus. Some call him Savior, some call him Brother, some even called him Friend (actually he called himself our friend). Jesus has also been referenced as the Sin-Bearer, and a Scapegoat.

Jesus has been and continues to be many things to many people.

This isn’t just the sentimentality of human experience. It’s not just semantics either. It’s actually in the grammar of a shared faith. Going back to the early days of the ancient Jewish movement that gave birth to the first Christian communities, just as they understood God to be a mothering nature, they understood God in incredibly diverse ways.

God was “the Provider” (literally Yahweh-Jireh) to Abraham in that complicated little episode where he almost sacrifices Isaac.

God was “the Healer” (literally Yahweh-Rapha) to the Moses and the people who had drank bitter water at Marah.

God was “the Banner” (literally Yahweh-Nissi) to Moses and Joshua after community believed God helped them destroy the Amalekites.

God was “the Shepherd” (literally Yahweh-Raah) to the psalmist and many a child like and deathbed prayer, from whom we “shall not want” and whom helps its flock to “lie down in green pastures.”

God is also The Most High (El-Elyon, Genesis 14), The Almighty (El-Shaddai, Genesis 49 & Psalm 132), The Creator, Mighty & Strong (Elohim, Jeremiah 33).

The list goes on and on and on.

In the end, God was literally the One who was there (Yahweh-Shammah, Ezekiel 48).

The God who shows up. In many manifold, mysterious ways.

For me, the takeaways are enormous. But for now, I land on two questions:

  1. How might the ways people ancient and modern have understood the work, presence and role of God in their lives inform how we might understand how God might be working in our lives today?
  2. And when talking to our friends, family and neighbors who might identify as spiritual but not religious (or straight up another religion altogether), how might these names and experiences of God ancient and modern give us opportunities for common cause today?

Let me know what you think.