June 16, Trinity C (John 16:12-15)
To know any truth about God, we must be drawn into the life of the Trinity. But how?
In my first year of seminary, our study group wrapped up the fall semester by drawing names and playing Secret Santa. Although it’s designed to be a friendly game in which individuals anonymously give gifts of a set value, something always seems to go wrong. Indeed, when I opened my gift, I struggled to hide my dismay. I held in my hands a children’s book on Trinitarian theology, and, without even turning to the first page, I could already tell that it was heresy.
In particular, the book espoused modalism. By using the three phases of water—ice, liquid, and steam—as an analogy for the three persons of the Holy Trinity, the book collapsed the three distinct persons of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—into three modes of the same entity. It was not as bad as Arianism, perhaps, but it was close. I forced a smile. “How cute . . . and helpful!” I blurted out unconvincingly.
I should not fault the author of the book or the person who gave it to me. Whether speaking to a child or a colleague or a congregation, how else can someone explain the Trinity except by appealing to a heretical analogy? Each year as Trinity Sunday approaches, a video appears in my Facebook news feed from the people at Lutheran Satire in which an icon of St. Patrick tries to convey the complex doctrine of the Holy Trinity. I joyfully watch it every time. After repeatedly failing to find a heresy-free analogy, the exasperated saint proclaims, “The Trinity is a mystery which cannot be comprehended by human reason but is understood only through faith.” In other words, God cannot be understood but must be encountered through a relationship that grows from faith.