I don't know whether the Athanasian Creed is recited very much these days. It begins: ‘Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith unless every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
And the catholic faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost…’
Then it goes on for a very long time, and ends with:
‘… This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved.’
For me, this prompts at least three questions:
- What does it mean?
- How does he know?
- What kind of God would condemn us to hell for not believing a complicated doctrine?
The Holy Trinity is often presented as a test, to let the right people in and keep the wrong people out. This is quite contrary to the whole spirit of Jesus.
So, what is the use of the doctrine of the Trinity?
It’s not clearly stated in the Bible, but there were reasons for the early church to develop it.
In essence, I believe it is an attempt to recognise the fact that the whole idea of God is not a simple, straight-forward one. God is not a man with a beard sitting on a throne up in the sky, listening to all our prayers and giving us what we ask for if we deserve it.
The Bible is the record of people’s experience of God over a period of more than 1000 years. The people who wrote it were Jews, and then Christians, who shared a common tradition. That tradition was one of dialogue, questioning, discussion, and often disagreement, as they tried to work out the meaning of their experience. Sometimes they got it wrong, or only partially got it. Nobody ever gets it completely right.
The ancestors of the Jews had some remarkable experiences of a God who came to their rescue. They were slaves in Egypt and by what seemed a miraculous series of events they were set free and found a land they could live in.
They had other experiences too, when their backs were to the wall. They unexpectedly won battles against overwhelming powerful armies attacking them. They were convinced that there was a powerful God who was on their side and had chosen them as his own people.
Many of us today have experienced God in that way:
- times when we were in danger and perhaps miraculously saved
- times when we have faced problems and felt we were being guided through them
- times when we have been brought low by illness, bereavement, or betrayal and have found that we are still alive and life is worthwhile
- Times when we have prayed and our prayers have been answered
That is what God means to many people. But we experience God in other ways too.
The Jewish people who wrote the Bible, as well as many other people the world over, were moved to wonder at the greatness and the beauty of the world around them.
This is an experience we all have and the reason why so many of us love the 8th Psalm:
‘When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?’
The person who wrote those words knew far less about the universe than we do. They thought the sky was just a bit further up than the highest mountains. But how much more wonderful it is for us, who know that those stars are other suns and worlds billions of miles away, and the universe is vast beyond anything that we can imagine.
It makes us feel very small, and yet at the same time, like the writer of the Psalm, we know we have remarkable powers and abilities, and with the Psalmist we can say of human beings:
‘You have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honour. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands. You have put all things under their feet.
We today are more than ever aware of the power we human beings have. We have power to change the whole planet for better or for worse.
The problem is that most of the time we seem to change it for the worse. Life is full of meanness and selfishness, fear and greed, war and cruelty. Even when we try to do good we so often seem to fail.
But there is one person we look to who seems to be so different from all others. We read the stories of Jesus and we listen to his teaching and we think, ‘If only the world could be like that!’ He is the one who gives us inspiration and hope.
The people who first met Jesus were Jewish people proud of the fact of believing in one God and one alone. And yet in meeting Jesus they felt that they were directly meeting God – the God of love. And so they gave him titles like ‘the Son of God’, ‘the Image of the invisible God’, ‘the Word of God made flesh’.
Jesus is the practical, physical way in which we have experienced God here in this world.
But there is much more to the experience of God than that. We experience God as love: the love of our friends, partners, children, even a kind stranger we meet only once. And not only the love we get from other people, but the love we give them.
When two or three people are sharing deeply together, supporting one another, helping one another, listening to one another, God is there. Somehow that experience is God.
In a sense the question is not ‘Is there a God?’, but ‘What is the meaning of everything we experience?’
The idea that there is a God up there ruling the world from above is crude and simple. When people say they don’t believe in God I feel like saying ‘I don’t think I believe in the God you don’t believe in either!’
I think part of what the Holy Spirit means is that God is in us as well as outside us. We don’t need to look outside for evidence of God we can find God by looking deeply within ourselves.
The Bible talks of God showing himself in different ways one common expression is ‘the Angel of the Lord’.
The word ‘angel’ means a messenger. Sometimes in the Bible story someone sees a vision of a divine being, but sometimes the angel is a human being, and sometimes no one is quite sure.
God appeared to Abraham in the form of three men. Abraham took them for passing strangers and invited them in for a meal. But as the story goes on it gets more confusing. Is it three men, or one? Is it an angel, or is it God, or God and two angels?
In the story of the Resurrection, when the women go to the tomb and find it empty, what do they see?
In Mark, a young man in a white robe. In Matthew, an angel. In Luke, two men. In John, two angels.
Most of us don’t ee heavenly angels, but we have all had the experience of some stranger helping us in a special way or teaching us something. We can say that person for us at that moment is ‘the Angel of the Lord’.
The Bible talks about other aspects of God too.
The Spirit of God features in the Old Testament in different ways:
- At the beginning of creation, ‘wind of God’ sweeps over the waters
- God instructs Moses to appoint a man called Bezalel to design the Tabernacle, because ‘I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft’ (Exodus 31:1-5)
- When Samson was threatened by a lion, ‘the spirit of the LORD rushed on him, and he tore the lion apart with his bare hands’. On another occasion his enemies tied him, but ‘the spirit of the LORD rushed upon him’, and he broke the ropes and went on to kill 1000 men (Judges 14:6; 15:14). Nothing very holy about that spirit!
- Then the day of Pentecost fulfils the prophecy of Joel 2:28-29, where the Spirit of God is the Spirit of prophecy.
In Proverbs, ‘Wisdom’ is described as a woman accompanying God at the creation and present in the world now, calling people to follow her.
So, already in the Old Testament there is nothing strange about God showing his different aspects in different ways.
When we say that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but one God, we are naming three of these aspects, but the main point is that we are expressing the belief that God is not just a Person up there or out there somewhere, but a deep, complex and mysterious reality.
The question is: how do you experience God? Think about it, and then ask: how do I respond to that experience? How do I show it in my life?
This brings us to probably the most revolutionary insight of all. The New Testament goes as far as to say that in a sense we are God. We are the body of Christ. The world knows God not just through the story of Jesus or the Bible but through us and the things we do.
The Wisdom of God, the Image of God, the Angel of the Lord, the Word of God made flesh is now made flesh in us. What a challenge!