Rev Canon Dr Paul Overend, Canon Chancellor Lincoln Cathedral
For us to reflect on the Trinity, it’s helpful to first consider how we celebrate this day, for this is a liturgical celebration, and reflections on this way of celebrating in worship can give us an insight into what it is we are celebrating.
In worship, we offer thanks and praise to God, for God’s work in creation, in salvation and our transformation. The eucharist is a highlight of these celebrations in which, united by the Spirit, we give thanks to the Father, not only for what Christ did, but “through him, with him and in him”, as our eucharistic prayer puts it.
The divine economy of creation, salvation and our transformation, and the shape of our worship, reveal what theological writers call the Economic Trinity — so called after a Greek phrase kata oikonimia that was used by the theologian Athanasius to refer to the dispensation or ordering of divine activity. This term ‘dispensation’ helpfully reminds us that our liturgical celebrations draw us into this divine economy — into the creative, reconciling, and life-giving work of God.
The Economic Trinity of the Bible
Our way of knowing God in worship is primarily relational, found in the bible in prayers, in the hymns of praise, and in the earliest accounts of the Eucharist.
Judaism had long had many figurative ways of speaking about God, which were used in prophesy and praise. These figures of speech included various forms of metonymy, as when referring to God’s ‘mighty hand and outstretched arm’ (Dt 7.19), or ‘the word of God’ which came to the prophets. They were used to speak of God’s agency. The ‘spirit of God’ was initially such a figure of speech. In Genesis, the spirit of God breathed on the face of the waters, giving life, and at the word of God things were created. The metonymy of the ‘wisdom of God’ is personified: She cries out in the streets (in our reading today). She is said to be the firstborn of all creation, beside God like a master builder at the making of the world (Prov 8).
Such idioms of the Hebrew Bible gave familiar forms on which New Testament writers drew. Matthew personifies the spirit of God as a dove. And since the title son of God was used of king David, who was anointed in the Jewish dispensation of the monarchy, so Jesus is called God’s Son at his baptism as a part of Matthew’s monarchical framing of Jesus of David’s line. Luke portrayed Jesus as anointed by the Spirit of God for a ministry of social justice, after the dispensation of the prophets. Then after Jesus’s anointing, Luke gives us the church’s anointing at Pentecost and Christians’ anointing in baptism.
But it’s in worship that we find the most creative development of theological language. From the earliest days, Jesus was acclaimed ‘Lord’, which was a way of addressing God. Jesus is praised as the wisdom and word that proceeded from God. He was sung of as “the image of the invisible God” in a hymn cited in the letter to the Colossians (Col 1:15). Paul praised the mind of Jesus which existed “in the form of God”, though he humbled himself to be be born in human likeness, in a hymn cited in the letter to the Philippians (Phil 2:6-7). The church is reaching for a language to worship God for the central mystery of salvation, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19).
The knowledge of the Economic Trinity in the bible, then, is primarily a liturgical wisdom, of being caught up in the economy of salvation in the worship. It is primarily addressed to God, giving thanks and praise for Jesus’s part in this. Only secondarily does this knowing become propositional knowledge, a language about God, with figures of speech asnd exclamation of worship evolving into concepts of philosophy.
The God of the Philosophers
It’s in the fourth century that Greek philosophical concepts are used to define who God is in the Christian creeds. Theologians engaged in a critical dialogue with a Platonic triad, from four hundred years earlier, of “God, the ideas [or forms, and] the World-Spirit.” Later pre-Christian philosophers referred to these three as “substances”—the supreme God (or “the One,”), from which proceeded “mind” and “spirit”. This Greek philosophy was used by Christians to speak of God in himself, which is known as the Immanent Trinity, the word immanent meaning “within an agent”, so within God.
So, in dialogue with Greek and Latin philosophy, Christianity develops a conceptual framework of person and countenance (hypostasis and prosopon) and of being or substance (ousia and substantia). The 6th century Latin creed Quicunque Vult (which as prescribed in the BCP of 1662 for use this day, instead of the Apostles Creed) speaks of ‘neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Essence’. The purpose of this creed, though, is more political than it is liturgical. The complete version of the creed defines what beliefs are anathema, so identifing who should be excluded and excommunicated.
The philosophical terms were cultural tools used to explore and explain the Trinity. As historic formularies they can guide our theology by pointing to certain problems the church struggled with, lest like Arius we think we can attain perfection by our own efforts. But at times they seemed to have replaced the transforming participation in divine life with definitions that have excluded people for holding the wrong beliefs about God, and so nurtured prejudices against the faith of people of other religious traditions. In our day such formularies of belief are more likely to be seen as simply unintelligible or unconvincing, not persuasive or compelling, and so a barrier to faith for some.
When the 17th century Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal had his epiphany, he acclaimed “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God is Jacob—not of the philosophers and scholars”. This acclamation points us to the God of relationship, and to the priority of worship again, over the God of propositions.
Today, creative theologies offer new relating images of God, moving away from the gendered, hierarchical and excluding language of the historic formularies about God to stress our participation in the divine ecology of nurturing, liberating and inspiring. Such creative uses of language, of worshippers and worshipping communities from beyond the hitherto privileged voices of western classically-educated theologians and churches, develop the liturgical wisdom tradition of knowing. Attending to these images might better help us to recover our sense of divine engagement in the social and environmental world, and of our participation in this engagement.
But from those classical philosophical reflections on the Immanent Trinity we can learn that the divine activity in creating; the divine word of justice spoken by the prophets and which lived among us in Jesus; and the divine work of healing by social inclusion, building of community and making us whole again – all those parts of the dispensation of the Economic Trinity – they are equal in importance, the three persona — the ‘countenances’ or ‘faces’ — of the one God. And since we’re being drawn into the life of God by the Spirit, so working for the environment and for social justice are integral to our spiritual life, as we become a co-creators, justice-workers and peace-makers with God.
Our celebration of the Trinity today is not a way of excluding people from God for having other beliefs or for being unable to ascent to some doctrinal formulae, but the celebration way of knowing God which involves us sharing in the dispensation of God in creation, salvation and transformation.
So I pray this day that we may know God in faith, and hope, and love; and so be drawn into the life of God in wonder love and praise.