The non-scriptural doctrine of the Trinity makes its annual appearance this coming Sunday, and with it the host of theological problems the Christian church has wrestled with throughout its history.
As a Bible-centered Baptist, I’m continually amused by how much time is spent arguing about this non-biblical doctrine – that is, a doctrine that isn’t even named in the Bible and developed only by implication.
For many, including many Baptists, this church-created doctrine usually has more important standing than the clear and central truths of the Bible itself.
In that sense, it is like the doctrine of Scripture – also a church-made doctrine – that is seen as more important than the revelation about God and about the relationship of God to humanity and the whole creation that the Bible discloses in manifold ways.
An excellent example of this can be found in the lectionary readings assigned to this coming Trinity Sunday.
The Gospel and Epistle lessons certainly include references to God the Creator, who is intimately related to both the work of the divine offspring of God in the Son and the Spirit.
In John’s Gospel, for example, Jesus tells his followers that despite teaching them a whole lot, he still hasn’t conveyed everything to them – and that it is only by the work of the Spirit that they will be guided “into all the truth” (John 16:12-15).
Jesus assures the disciples that there’s no discontinuity between the truth that he has taught and what will be taught by the Spirit, but each has their mutually supporting and temporally sequential roles.
In Paul’s letter to the Roman church (see Romans 5:1-5), the Apostle tells his readers that it is the work of “our Lord Jesus Christ” that justifies human beings before God in their faith and thereby achieves their peace with God, while it is the Holy Spirit that is the instrument for God to pour the divine love into human hearts. Again, different but complementary roles as divine instruments.
I suppose it isn’t surprising that leaders of the church in its early centuries took such testimony and constructed elaborate doctrines about Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit as members of the Godhead who, sharing the same substance with the Creator, were not themselves created or made.
That’s the stuff of which a doctrine of the Trinity could be constructed and made orthodox dogma. It’s the stuff of coercive norms to determine who belongs in the real church and who must be booted out.
But the lesson assigned from the Hebrew Scriptures (Proverbs 8:1-31) for “Trinity Sunday” provides a quite different testimony about how God the Creator works through at least one of God’s chosen instruments.
It’s the instrument of “Wisdom,” or in the Greek “Sophia,” who acknowledges that she herself was created, albeit prior to the creation of the earth that she had a hand in making.
She testifies that: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth” and even before the establishing of the heavens.
She tells us that as a partner in creation, “I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”
What does this vivid testimony from Holy Scripture do to our doctrines of the Trinity, with their orthodox elaborations on the three members of the Godhead sharing the same substance and none of them being “made?”
I’d say, at the very least, it puts a crimp into those Trinitarian doctrines.
What, then, should we be observing this coming Sunday?
Certainly, we can affirm with gratitude the complementary works of Christ and the Spirit as part of God’s original and ongoing creation, including the redemption of a fallen humanity and creation.
But, rather than reaffirming and trying to explain and defend what the church has been doing in attempting to make sense of a human-made doctrine, maybe we, especially in the American churches, ought to listen to the cry of still another instrument of the Creator:
“Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you desire cannot compare with her.”
She continues: “I, wisdom, live with prudence, and I attain knowledge and discretion. The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate. … I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice.”
As an instrument of the divine, Wisdom/Sophia cries out, hoping that we will listen and follow her in the way of righteousness and the paths of justice.
Maybe on Trinity Sunday we ought first to listen to her and then join her in crying out.
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.