In recent years an icon of the Holy Trinity painted
by the 15th-century Russian artist Andrei Rublev has become
popular in the West. It is inspired by the story recounted in
Genesis 18 in which three travelers, angels in disguise, visit
the home of Abraham and Sarah. The encounter is marked by shared
hospitality and mutual good-will. The household offers these
strangers a satisfying meal; they in turn offer their hosts
the pledge of a child who will carry on the divine promise.
In the Rublev icon, Abraham and Sarah's home
is depicted as a temple, the dwelling place of God; the oak
tree in their yard becomes the tree of life; in the center,
the three figures sit around a table on which there is a eucharistic
The meditating eye is drawn toward these three
figures who are gathered inclining toward one another in a circle
that is not closed. Since these figures are an icon of the Trinity,
the image suggests that the mystery of the triune God is not
a closed society but a communion in relationship. Moreover,
this divine communion is lovingly open to the world. As you
contemplate you begin intuitively to grasp that you are invited
into this divine circleindeed, by gazing, you are already
a part of it.
The experience of being drawn into community
with God through this icon points to the very heart of the religious
meaning carried in the Christian symbol of the Trinity. As expressed
in scripture, this meaning is simply: "God is Love" (1 John
4:8). The One who is God is not a monarch living in isolation,
but rather a living communion in relation with the world.
Nourished at the table of this love, the Church
is drawn to the practice of justice and love so that all peoples
and creatures may share in this communal life. The importance
of the fact that the specifically Christian way of speaking
about God is in trinitarian terms thus emerges in the icon at
a very profound level, not simply rational and intellectual,
but intuitive and heartfelt. God is a God capable of immense
hospitality who calls the world to join in the feast.
Often, however, this God of hospitality and generous,
inclusive love is not the first thing we think of when confronted
with the rather abstract sounding "doctrine of the Trinity."
By examining the origin of this belief, by uncovering the poetic
character of its language and by opening up its prophetic and
emancipatory vision, we will see how the Christian symbol of
the Trinity, revealed for the sake of our salvation, can function
to liberate us for lives of love and justice.
Trinity Rooted in the Experience of Salvation
Historically, the doctrine of the Trinity arose
as a kind of shorthand to codify the wonderful experience of
the gracious God who saves. Remember that the early Christians
were monotheists, Jewish believers who worshipped the one God
YHWH. They came to see that what had happened in their lives
through their encounter with Jesus of Nazareth was nothing less
than an encounter with divine mercy in person. Salvation had
been offered to them in his ministry and, after he was taken
from their midst through death and resurrection, they continued
to experience the offer of grace in a new way through the presence
and activity of his Spirit in the community.
For them, God was utterly transcendent, but also
enfleshed historically in Jesus Christ, while also continuously
present through the Spirit in their community experience. Accordingly,
they began to express their idea of God in a threefold pattern.
The New Testament is filled with narratives, liturgical formulas
and short rules of faith that all refer to God in a threefold
cadence. These express the fact that the first Christians experienced
the saving God in a threefold way: as beyond them, with them
and within them. In a word, the triune doctrine arose to carry
the glad tidings of salvation coming from God through Jesus
in the Spirit.
However, the transition from thinking about God
as one to thinking about God's presence in Jesus was not simple
or easy. The early Christians faced two faith claims that seemed
to be in contradiction with each other. First, they believed
that God is one and that salvation is, and can only be, from
God. Secondly, they believed that salvation was from Jesus!
They developed trinitarian language to protect both truths,
to express how God is radically other and yet incarnate and
present in the world in Jesus and the Spirit.
The early Christians struggled mightily to develop
this new way of speaking about God. The specific question that
drove their quest was whether the Son is subordinate to the
Father or not. Their answer, found in the Nicene Creed, confesses
that Jesus Christ is not subordinate, but "one in being" with
the Father, a clear defense of the equality of divine persons.
This conclusion, rooted in biblical affirmations of Jesus as
Savior, affirms that the one God exists as a community of radically
equal persons in mutual relationship. This idea was then extended
to include the Spirit.
To sum up: the concrete saving way that God gives
grace to us corresponds to three distinct, interrelated ways
of existing within God's own being. God exists in a threefold
manner, as first, second and third person, or as radically transcendent,
incarnate and continually present, as we experience in the Christ
event. In speaking of the triune God, we exercise a radical
faith that, as Catherine LaCugna writes, "we do not know a shadow
image of God but the real living God of Jesus Christ in their
Spirit. The God who savesthis is God."
Trinity Spoken Poetically
Even as they explored new ways for speaking about
the life of God, the great minds of classical theology were
aware of the poetic nature of each and every word they used
when speaking about the Trinity. Nonetheless, down the centuries,
talk about the Trinity often denegrated to literal, descriptive
language, as if people were peering into the divine mystery
with a telescope. In truth, however, the Trinity is a religious
doctrine that reveals its truth only according to the power
of the symbol, that is, by way of metaphor or analogy. All religious
speech is like this, like a finger pointing to the moon.
In the words of biblical scholar Phyllis Trible,
"It is a way to see the light that shines in darkness, a way
to participate in transcendent truth and to embrace reality.
To equate the finger with the moon or to acknowledge the finger
and not perceive the moon is to miss the point." The point of
the Trinity, as we have seen, is to acclaim God as the mystery
What the great theologians of the past intended
with the classical trinitarian language of person, one
and three, and what theology has now rediscovered, is
that the language of three persons points to a mystery of distinction
that nevertheless abides in relationship at the heart of the
one God. God is not a singleness but a communiona living
fecundity of relational life. For God, to be is to be in relationthis
is the primary divine characteristic of God. Yet, even these
powerful words are not to be taken literally. As St. Augustine
reminds us, "the formula 'three persons' was coined not in order
to give a complete explanation by means of it but in order that
we might not be obliged to remain silent." Fundamentally, speech
about the Trinity needs to go hand in hand with knowing that
we do not totally understand. Quite simply, to say that the
persons are three is to negate solitariness, thus affirming
relationality at the heart of God.
Trinity of Radically Equal, Mutual Relations
The trinitarian dynamism ushers us into the mystery
of profound love that goes out of itself in order to liberate
and draw all the world back into communion. In Augustine's inimitable
phrasing: "In that highest trinity, one is as much as the three
together, nor are two anything more than one. And they are infinite
in themselves. So each are in each, and all in each, and each
in all and all in all, and all are one."
Traditionally, our imaginations tend to set up,
however subtly, a pattern of dominance and subordination between
the Father, from whom all proceed, and Son and Spirit who do
the proceeding. The ones coming forth seem less than the source.
Yet, if we pay close attention to the wisdom of the Church,
which affirms the radical equality of Father, Son and Spirit,
it is clear that it is unorthodox to claim subordination within
trinitarian relationships. Instead, each of the three divine
"persons" dynamically circles around, pervades and interweaves
with the others in what some theologians call a dance of divine
A key criterion for understanding this mystery
of divine relationality lies in Jesus' preaching of the reign
of God. In his parables, sayings and example Jesus never endorses
a pattern of patriarchal, or even hierarchical, rule. Instead
of lording it powerfully over others, the God whom Jesus preached
is in solidarity with the slave, the sinner, the bleeding woman,
the hungry poor, with the least and marginalized persons, in
order to bring them salvation, concretely, now and forever.
As Mary of Nazareth, full of grace and political
opinions, sings of the Mighty One in her Magnificat, "He has
brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up
the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent
the rich away empty" (Luke 1:52-53).
This is not dominating power but the power of
love that seeks and saves in order to shape all into a new community
of sisters and brothers, connected in kinship with the earth.
And there is not one form of divine power in Jesus' preaching
and another in biblical references to the Trinity. The God of
Jesus is the one triune mystery of self-communicating love who
approaches the world to heal, redeem and liberate. There is
no other God.
Rooting the triune symbol in salvific experience,
rediscovering its dynamism as a non-literal symbol and highlighting
the community of equals in mutual relationship it portrays are
attempts to appreciate the triune God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Although the images of Father, Son and Spirit
are rooted in Scripture, liturgy and traditional use, they are
not necessarily the only imagery in which the triune symbol
can be expressed. The Scriptures themselves speak about the
triune God in the economy of salvation in cosmic images such
as light, fire and water, and theology today quests mightily
for other articulations.
Whatever the categories used, the three's keep
circling round. Always there is reflected a livingness in God;
a beyond, a with and a within to the world and its history;
a sense of God as from whom, by whom and in whom all things
exist, thrive, struggle toward freedom and are gathered in.
The biblical doctrine of the Trinity, bound to
the experience of salvation in Jesus and freed from literal
interpretations, has the power to call forth loving relationship
in our community and in the world. It does so positively, by
inspiring efforts to create a community of sisters and brothers
interwoven with the whole web of earth's life according to the
ideal community that the Trinity models. It does so negatively,
by prophetically challenging social and ecological injustices
that distort such a community. And it does so by the power of
grace, the trinitarian mystery of God actually empowering relationships
of mutuality, equality and inclusiveness among persons and between
human beings and the earth.
The goal of all creation is to participate in
the trinitarian mystery of love. Like Rublev's icon, the Church
is called to be a sacrament making this love visible and effective
in the world. Wherever the human heart is healed, justice is
done, peace holds sway, liberation breaks through, the earth
flourisheswherever sin abounding is embraced by grace
superaboundingthere the human and earth community already
reflect, in fragments, the visage of the trinitarian God.
Next: Israel's Neighbors (by Elizabeth McNamer)