The former Roman Catholic Archbishop of Boston, the late Cardinal Richard Cushing tells how early in his career, when he was a parish priest, he was called to a home to give the last rites to a man who was dying. Following the custom of the Roman Catholic Church, he knelt by the man and asked him, ‘Do you believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit?’ The man stirred a little, opened one eye, and replied, ‘Here I am dying and you ask me a riddle?’
Today is Trinity Sunday, the one Sunday in the entire Church Year set aside for us to focus on, not a particular individual or event but rather, an important, albeit somewhat difficult to comprehend, doctrine. Lots of the people have a really hard time trying to understand the triune nature or person of God. Christianity is one of the three great ‘monotheistic’ religions, along with Judaism and Islam. Christianity alone, however, understands this ‘One God’ as existing as ‘Three Persons’ – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The concept of God in Three Persons, whilst one of the deepest truths of the Christian Faith, is also on of the most perplexing truths of the Christian church to try to teach or explain.
Down through the generations there have been various attempts to illustrate how God is Trinity in order to make it easier for people to comprehend this truth. Everything from Saint Patrick’s use of a three leaf shamrock to demonstrate the three in one nature of God, to the diagrammatic ‘Trinity Triangles’ comparing God to the chemical symbol H2O and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to ice, water and steam. I have to confess (God forgive me) to probably having used these kind of illustrations in my earlier years to try and make the doctrine of God as Trinity easier to understand for both children and adults alike. Sadly, nearly all of these ‘illustrations’ are actually heretical. In virtually every case they are guilty of ‘modalism’. Modalism is probably the most common theological error concerning the nature of God. In effect it is a denial of the Trinity. Modalism states that God is a single person who, throughout biblical history, has revealed Himself in three modes or forms, rather than three persons in one Godhead.
Some years ago my friend John Colwell introduced me to ‘Rublev’s Trinity’ (see the picture above) as a helpful way of understanding and illustrating God as Trinity. Rublev’s Trinity is an Icon attributed to the Russian painter Andrei Rublev in the 15th century. Ostensibly it depicts the story of the three angels who visited Abraham at the Oak of Mamre (Genesis 18:1-15) but in reality the painting is full of symbolism and (since it was painted at a time when creating images of God in this way was officially ‘not the done thing’) is interpreted as an Icon surreptitiously depicting the Holy Trinity. Icons are not meant to be venerated but (as with other religious paintings) are primarily meant to be a vehicle through which we are enabled to recognise the deeper spiritual truths about God and his ways. Ideally we are meant to ‘look through’ the Icon to the truths beyond it. For me, this is very much how I see the Bible actually. We are not meant to ‘worship the Bible’ but the God of the Bible. Whenever we read Scripture, or expound it, we are meant to ‘see through’ the actual printed word to the various truths contained within its pages.
Over the years Julia and I have grown to love Rublev’s Trinity. We have a large copy of it hanging on the wall of our Den – our office, come study, come prayer place – and we both frequently use it both illustrate and explain the doctrine of the Trinity to others and to meditate upon ourselves. There is so much to learn about the nature and activity of our God from this Icon. You can find all sorts of explanations – and helpful meditations based on the Icon – on the Internet. Some are more helpful (and less fanciful) than others, but I would encourage you to search the more helpful interpretations out and make good use of them.
For me, art – particularly paintings that thoughtfully depict biblical scenes and truths – is often an extremely helpful way of getting to grips with the deep truths of God. God (our Creator) is so ‘other’ to us (his creation), that, apart from his self-revelation to us, it is impossible for us to comprehend him and his ways. As God himself tells us through his Prophet Isaiah: ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8.9). No wonder then that the Orthodox Church begins its Communion Services with the words: ‘Welcome to this Mystery’, and John Calvin tells us (in his Institutes) that God speaks to us in ‘baby language’ because this is all we are capable of understanding. At best then our grasp on God and the things of God can only be tentative – rather like holding on to a wet bar of soap. It can be ‘held’ but it has to be held gently, carefully? In much the same way pondering something like Rublev’s Icon (as we could also ponder a passage of Scripture) tentatively, sensitively, allowing God to reveal himself and his truths through what is before us in picture (or narrative) enables the Holy Spirit to open our eyes and ears, our hearts and minds, to God and the things of God.
There is much that could be said about some of the more obvious truths illustrated by Rublev’s Icon. The fact that there are Three Persons, gathered around a table, obviously in a special loving and harmonious relationship with each other but where it is not obvious (at first glance) to tell which is the Father, which is the Son, and which is the Holy Spirit. The fact that there is a simple chalice on the table – symbolising the broken body and poured out life-blood of Jesus Christ – which reminds us all that the ground of our salvation is the gracious work of God in the Cross rather than in anything in and of ourselves.
For me, however, the most wonderful thing about this Icon is that it depicts a four-sided table. The Three Persons of the Trinity sit facing each of three sides of the table but the fourth side – the side facing outwards towards us – is open. It is as if the Living God is inviting us to enter in and sit at his table? To come and share in this loving, harmonious relationship that already eternally exists within the Trinity itself. No wonder then that the Writer to the Hebrews encourages us to ‘approach God’s throne of grace with confidence’ because we will ‘receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need’ there (Hebrews 4:16).
One of the things I love about the Baptist Church (well the kind of Baptist Church that I associate with) is the concept of what is called ‘the open table’ at Communion. The famous Baptist writer and preacher, John Bunyan (1628-88), the author of the religious allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, was the great champion of this. He believed, and taught, that anyone could attend ‘the Lord’s Table’ and take Communion. It was down to the person concerned to determine if he or she was ‘worthy’ in the light of the Apostolic injunction that ‘Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread or drink of the cup’ (1 Corinthians 11:28) in coming to Communion. Some time ago I attended a very Reformed Church where I was not allowed to take Communion without a letter from my Pastor to say that I was ‘worthy’ enough to take Communion. For a brief moment I though seriously about writing myself such a letter right there and then and handing it to the rather officious steward hovering over me having given me the ‘good news’?! In the end I just though ‘Stuff it!’ and walked out, vowing never to go back to that particular church again! For me ‘closed communion’ is the very antithesis of what Scripture actually teaches, and what we see portrayed in Rublev’s Icon. As Jesus himself said on one occasion: ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls’ (Matthew 11:28,29).
In the Beginning, not in time or space
But in the quick before both space and time,
In Life, in Love, in co-inherent Grace,
In three in one and one in three, in rhyme,
In music, in the whole creation story,
In His own image, His imagination,
The Triune Poet makes us for His glory,
And makes us each the other’s inspiration.
He calls us out of darkness, chaos, chance,
To improvise a music of our own,
To sing the chord that calls us to the dance,
Three notes resounding from a single tone,
To sing the End in whom we all begin;
Our God beyond, beside us and within.
~ Malcolm Guite