As well as anyone can. The Trinity is the fundamental mystery of Christianity. As such, a definitive understanding is beyond our comprehension! That doesn’t mean it’s useless to try to conceive of the nature of God. It just means we approach the subject with great humility when we do.
Consider Trinity as the specifically Christian way of talking about God. When we meet God face-to-face in eternity, it may not be the best word to describe the encounter, but for now it will have to do. At the center of our faith is this doctrine: We believe we are rescued from sin and death by God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. As theologian Catherine Mowry Lacugna put it, “God, Christ, and the Spirit are equally responsible for our salvation,” and each is divine.
The religion of Israel spoke of God as “One,” and not multiples, quite emphatically. Monotheism was a prize Jewish contribution to Near Eastern religious thought, and Christianity says nothing to disagree or to dislodge its significance. Yet even in Hebrew scripture God is variously known and depicted as Spirit (in the breath of creation), Word (in law and prophecy), Presence (in the Tent of Meeting during the Exodus years), and Wisdom (in the wisdom books). That doesn’t carve up the divine nature so much as give us poor mortals a way of speaking about Infinity without getting a headache.
In the person of Jesus, humanity encounters God in a way as intellectually groundbreaking as when Moses came into relationship with God on Mt. Sinai,or the prophets received oracles and revelations. Both the Incarnation and Pentecost reception of indwelling Spirit changed the way we know God for all time. It’s no wonder doctrines about the Trinity emerged by the 4th century, countering other ideas we now call heresies which attempted to subordinate Jesus to something less than a full participation in divinity.
In 1442 the Council of Florence affirmed God the Father as “Unbegotten” (coming from no source and without beginning), the Son as “Begotten” but not made, and the Holy Spirit as “Proceeding” from Father and Son (being sent by and rooted in both). The interior relationship of the Trinity is such that we can’t really speak of separate realities, anymore than I can talk about my mother, my father’s wife, and the woman she is in herself as three people. Who God is for Christians is Trinity. Who God is to God is still a mystery.
• Deuteronomy 5:6-10; 6:4; Matthew 3:16-17; 28:19; Romans 8:14-16; 2 Corinthians 13:13; Galatians 4:6; Ephesians 1:3-14
• God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life by Catherine M. Lacugna (HarperOne, 1993)
• The Trinity (Kindle edition) by Anne Hunt (Liturgical Press, 2010)
• “What on Earth is the Trinity? The Trinity in Everyday Life” by Jeremy Ive
Actually, there are more than two. But in common liturgical usage we appeal to two: the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. They are professions of faith, from the Latin credo, “I believe.” A creed is an authorized statement of religious belief formulated for initiation and other rites. It provides a concise expression of what the believer holds to be true in communion with the entire body of the faithful.
The Christian creed took many forms in the 1st-century church. The simplest is Saint Peter’s confessional phrase, “You are the Messiah,” in answer to Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:16; Mark 8:29). Peter repeats his reply in the streets at Pentecost. Saint Paul also uses a two-part formula professing allegiance to God and his Son. The Trinitarian confession evolves later and is harder to find in the New Testament. It appears at the end of the Gospel of Matthew: “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.”
Paul offers a summary of the teaching handed to him: Christ died for our sins and was raised on the third day. He reminds the Corinthians of the “gospel I preached to you, which you indeed received” (1 Corinthians 15:1). That became known as the kerygma,or “proclamation,” which the church formerly recited as “the mystery of faith”: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
Church fathers like Ignatius and Irenaeus in the 2nd century evolved fuller expressions called rules of faith. Hippolytus offered an interrogatory, question-and-answer format creed similar to what the church sometimes use at Eastertime. An Old Roman Creed of 150 A.D. was later developed into the Apostles Creed, one of the earliest of a half-dozen ecumenical creeds embraced across the church. While the apostles didn’t write it, it clearly reflects church teaching from the first decades, and Saint Ambrose first mentioned it by that name around 390.
The Nicene Creed was another ecumenical version established at the Council of Constantinpole (not Nicaea) in 381 A.D., and by the 6th century it became the standard at baptisms. When the Reformers of the 16th century provided their own creeds starting with the Augsburg Confession in 1530, the Roman Church responded with a few more, up to and including one by Pope Paul VI in 1968. Because the Catholic Church uses them at Mass, the Apostles and Nicene Creed remain the most influential professions of Catholic faith.
• Matthew 16:16; Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:36; Romans 1:1-4; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
• The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters by Luke Timothy Johnson (Image, 2004)
• The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, 7th ed., ed. by Jacques Dupuis, S.J. and Josef Neuner, S.J. (Alba House, 2001)
• “Creeds and Canons” from the Internet Christian Library
That is a question believers of every generation have asked and have had to answer in their lives. If we look at the testimony of nearly 2,000 years, we see that the responses have been varied and many. Some believers lived out their faith in communities of vowed religious or clergy. Some have been missionaries, others monastics or even hermits.
The great majority of Christians since Christ, however, has practiced their faith in what we could call “everyday life,” whether married or single, working in a job, caring for a home and children, or living a life of service in some other way. Those of us who take these paths are challenged by our faith to be “in the world but not of it.”
What does that mean? The words of Jesus and the gospel stories that depict him in action are timeless guides, as relevant today as when they first happened. Jesus lived and taught values and priorities that we can use to guide our own choices today. Here are a few of the most fundamental values:
First things first and eyes on the prize
“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” (Matthew 6:33). Here’s all a Christian really needs to remember about following Jesus, today or in any age. We only have so much time and energy to give to the world, and life is indeed short. If we put other goals ahead of our spiritual aspirations, we may find we run out of time before getting around to being the disciple we had always meant to be.
Need further convincing? Try these passages on for size:
• Mark 8:36 (There is no profit in gaining the world if you lose your soul along the way)
• Mark 4:14-20 (Cultivate the Word carefully so that it can bear fruit in your life. Watch out for distractions!)
Keep it simple: Begin and end with love
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:36-40).
• Matthew 7:12 (Dust off the Golden Rule and practice it.)
• Matthew 5:43-44 (Everyone loves their friends, nothing special there. Try loving and blessing your enemies!)
Service is the path to greatness
“Jesus summoned them and said to them, 'You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant' ” (Mark 10:42-43).
Don’t believe you are up to the job? Just ask for help:
• Luke 11:9-10 (Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened.)
Finally, for further inspiration, check out the biblical prophets. Here’s an example from one who knew how to boil things down to the essentials: “What the Lord requires of us is this: to act with justice, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).
• The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis has been inspiring Christians for centuries. Learn more and pick up a copy today.