[Readings: Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17]

A Sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

This is Trinity Sunday. The word Trinity does not itself appear in Scripture; indeed, it wasn’t until the early third century of the Common Era that the term was first used to define our triune God when Tertullian [160-225AD], the so-called ‘father of Western theology’, used it in a polemic he wrote – Contra Praxeas. It would then be a hundred more years before the theological concept we know as the Trinity would be confirmed as dogma by the first Council of Nicea in 325AD.

Yet, over the past seventeen hundred plus years, the theological concept of the Trinity has proven remarkably difficult to nail down. Islam has derided the concept as polytheistic, while atheists have mocked the idea – in the words of one for example:

What does the trinity even bring to the religion? Nothing. What doctrines are illuminated by God being split into three personalities? Why would an infinite deity require being composed of three parts? [1]

Even some Christians have had their doubts. What we call the Arian heresy of the fourth to seventh centuries was premised on the rejection of the concept; a rejection maintained today by Unitarians and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Carl Jung noted that even many mainstream Christians struggled with the idea; he wrote:

Even among professing Christians there are very few who think seriously about the Trinity as a matter of dogma and would consider it a possible subject for reflection – (let alone) the educated public. [2]

Trinity as ‘a matter of dogma’. Dogma is a word that troubles us; just think of the word ‘dogmatic’, it’s a descriptor which we never wish to have applied to ourselves. Quoting another atheist, the late Christopher Hitchens:

To ‘choose’ dogma and faith over doubt and experience is to throw out the ripening vintage and to reach greedily for the Kool-Aid. [3]

In other words, Hitchens saw ‘dogma’ as glib and verging on being rationally weak and hence indefensible. Is that what you think when you hear the word ‘dogma’? This week, I was reading a (2012), listening. Here it is – Religion and Science written by Rev John Habgood and published in 1964 by Mills and Boon. I have no idea why Habgood, who would later go on to be the Archbishop of York, would choose such a lurid publishing house, but he did and it didn’t seem to impede his episcopal advance. Anyway, he quoted Dorothy Sayers on the subject of ‘dogma’. Here is some of what he wrote:

‘Any stigma,’ wrote Dorothy Sayers, ‘will do to beat a dogma’ She went on to argue in a famous essay that ‘the dogma is the drama’, that Christianity is exciting and important, not in spite of its dogmatism, but because of it. [4]

Further on in his chapter entitled ‘Religious Dogma’, Habgood wrote:

When Dorothy Sayers wrote ‘the dogma is the drama’ she was … excited by Christianity because she believed that it was not a matter of human opinion, but was given by God; it was dogmatic because it rested on quite concrete assertions about what God had done; it could be proclaimed without arrogance for the very reason that it was dogmatic, because it had been received, not manufactured by human wisdom. [5]

Which brings us back to the Trinity – a concept defined as dogma by numerous church councils and which each Sunday we repeat as we say the Apostle’s Creed. Dogma it may be, but it has also carried a lot of stigma about it. On the face of it, the very idea of the question ‘what is the Trinity?’ has something of the riddle about it, a trick question designed to catch the listener out; so that each year, on Trinity Sunday, preachers take a deep breath before they embark on seeking to explain our triune God.

Through history, it has certainly been a question that always seemed to elude an answer. I mentioned that the Council of Nicea in 325AD adopted the concept of the Trinity; 126 years later the Council of Chalcedon found itself still arguing about aspects of the question of ‘what is the Trinity?’. As a result of its discussion, the Council of Nicea had expelled the Arian heretics for rejecting the Trinity, while the Council of Chalcedon saw the division of the Orthodox and Catholic churches from the Coptic and Ethiopic not because either side rejected the Trinity as such but because they disagreed as to what it meant; which led to our Litany of the Mystery – Christ has died/ Christ is risen/ Christ will come again

Much of the collective episcopal tussling over that period of more than a century revolved around the difference between the Greek words  ὁμοούσιος [homoousios: meaning ‘of the same substance’, or ‘consubstantial’] and ὁμοιούσιος [homoiousios: meaning ‘of similar substance’], in terms of trying to understand the nature of Christ in the Trinity. The difference between those two words is only one little letter, the Greek letter iota;interestingly, it has been from this argument that our saying comes about two very similar things ‘not differ(ing) in one iota’ from one another.

Surely, something must have been missed in all this complex theological wrangling. Did Jesus, the expositor of such simple divine messages as the Beatitudes and the statement about the two greatest commandments, really intend his followers to expend so much theological energy over one little Greek letter and all that it represented?  Does the dogma of the Trinity exceed the dogma of the Beatitudes or of loving God and one’s neighbour as oneself?

An Episcopal priest from the US who simply gives her name as Terri and who authors a blog called Seeking Authentic Voice has suggested that we should consider the phrase ‘what is the Trinity’ neither as a question nor as a riddle but as a koan, which is the Buddhist term for ‘a spiritual question’ for which there can be no specific answer. She writes:

A koan is a question which has no absolute answer, although sometimes the meaning is very simple. The meaning of ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping’ is silence. It’s a koan inviting the spiritual seeker into silence. [6]

Applying this to the Trinity, she writes:

The nature of the Trinity is like a koan – not something one can ever fully understand in concrete terms – but a concept that is intended to stretch one’s imagination about God.

So how may using the concept of the Trinity ‘stretch (our) imagination about God’? While Scripture didn’t use the term Trinity, our readings this morning did, between them, identify an unfolding trinitarian nature of God; in particular, they pointed to God’s intention to reach out to humanity in a distinctly trinitarian way.

First, from Isaiah, we heard of God himself reaching out to humanity; listen to verse 7:

(God) touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips, your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.’ [Is 6:7]

Our Gospel reading finished with these words about God reaching out to us through His Son:

For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son. [Jn 3:16]

And then we had this from the reading from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans about God reaching out through His Holy Spirit:

The Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. [8:15]

Thus, these readings tell us, God who created the everything that is, has chosen to reveal himself by reaching out to us in these threefold ways; from this an idea of the Trinity quite easily grows. God, in three aspects, each reaching out to humanity, each in distinctive ways – we can relate to this as an analogical explanation of one aspect of God, the God who wants to be connected with us. Which leads me back to Dorothy Sayers who elsewhere wrote:

There is nothing mythological about Christian Trinitarian doctrine: it is analogical. It offers itself freely for meditation and discussion … [7]

Developing the idea of analogue in seeking to reconcile faith and science through the mystery of quantum physics, John Polkinghorne, author of Quantum Physics and Theology: an unexpected kinship, has written:

A theological analogue would be the birth of Christianity, with its radical notions of a crucified Messiah and risen Lord, ultimately leading to the trinitarian and incarnational paradigm of the nature of God and the relationship between Creator and creatures. [8]

Essentially, a complicated way of agreeing with our readings this morning that God, in three different ways, has reached out to us.

I said earlier that Scripture doesn’t contain the word Trinity yet it does contain trinitarian perspectives of God as I identified, for example, through our readings this morning; however, these perspectives do come together in one place in 2 Corinthians 13:14, a verse very well known to all of us:

The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all evermore.

Put aside all the argument about homoousios or homoiousios, put aside all the other disputes which the word Trinity has raised over the centuries, this reading from 2 Corinthians gives us a profound insight into the essence of God. It can be worded another way: God loves his creation so much that he incarnated himself to come to save us from brokenness and he continues to do so through his very own breath, the same breath that breathed life into Adam then newly created from the dust of the earth.

Perhaps it is more beautifully put by the weekly quote chosen this week for the website by the Cathedral and which comes from Richard of St Victor, a medieval theologian:

For God to be good, God can be one. For God to be loving, God has to be two. But for God to share excellent joy and delight, God has to be three, because supreme happiness is when two persons share their common delight in a third something – together.

Earlier I mentioned John Polkinghorne; he started his career as a particle physicist who, along with others in his field was seeking, through research, to find the grand unified theory of everything – a great explanation if you like. After years of well recognised research, he opted to become an ordained Anglican priest. Why did he make such a change? By way of answer, he has written:

I … believe that the grandest Unified Theory, the true Theory of Everything, is provided by belief in God. [9]

The Grace of 2 Corinthians, reflecting the Trinity, is an invitation to us to accept the original Greek meaning of dogma – ‘that which one thinks is true’ – as expressed in the Trinity. So, in finishing, I invite you to join me in expressing our belief in God by saying it now:

The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all evermore. Amen.

[1] Undeniably Atheist: The Trinity is Absurd (

[2] Jung C, Collected Works Vol 11, p112

[3] Hitchens C, Long Live Hitch: Three Classic Books in One Volume, od is not great, how religion poisons everything, 2012, p264.

[4] Habgood John, Religion and Science, Mills and Boon, (1964), p144

[5] Op.cit.

[6] Riddle me the Trinity (


[8] Polkinghorne John, Quantum Physics and Theology: an unexpected kinship, pp48-9)

[9] Op.cit.