Isaiah 40.12-17, 27-end
Last week, the American President Donald Trump was controversially photographed holding a Bible in front of St John’s Church Lafayette Square. His Democrat opponent, Joe Biden, was not the only person to remark that the President would have done better to have read the Bible rather than simply to wave it for the cameras. Now whether or not Donald Trump has read the Bible is not something I can comment on. But whilst I too would very much want to encourage Donald Trump and anyone else for that matter to read the Bible, I would also want to encourage them to think about how they read the Bible. It is a book, or rather a collection of books, with a complex history, and its words have inspired countless men and women to acts of love and service and justice. But in the wrong hands, or read in the wrong way, it has also been used to justify tyranny, injustice and brutality. We find an awareness of the possibility of the abuse of scripture within the scriptures themselves: in the story of the temptation of Jesus, the devil quotes freely from scripture to try to induce Jesus to betray His mission.
Today is Trinity Sunday, the day traditionally dreaded by preachers. One of the reasons preaching on the Trinity presents certain difficulties for the preacher is the absence of a single passage in the Bible which sets out the doctrine of the Trinity. We encounter the Church’s statement of this doctrine Sunday by Sunday in the words of the Nicene Creed, and yet none of the passages of scripture on which we asked to preach in the Church’s three-year cycle of readings sets out this doctrine. And so ever since the printing press put the Bible into the hands of the people, enabling them to read it and make up their own minds about what it says, there have been those who have argued that the doctrine of the Trinity is not in fact in the Bible at all.
Are they right? If you’re looking for a simple proof-text for the Trinity, today’s gospel is about as good as it gets. Yes, it clearly refers to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. But it tells us little about their relationship. There is a big gap between today’s gospel and the Nicene Creed. There is nothing in today’s gospel about the Son being of one substance with the Father. Today’s gospel has seemed to some to leave open the option of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three different gods. It has seemed to others to leave open the option of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three facets of one God. It has seemed to others to leave open the option of Son and Holy Spirit as somehow less goddy gods than the Father. The Trinitarian faith that the Church proclaims teaches none of those things.
So, is the doctrine of the Trinity in the Bible? The answer is yes, if we know how to read the Bible.
That it is a good thing for us to think for ourselves is one of the articles of faith of our contemporary society. But it seems to me that it is generally much better for us to do our thinking with other people. Not that this requires a slavish, unquestioning acceptance of what other people have to say. There should always be space for some independence of thought. But as a rule our ideas are going to be better ideas if they are worked out alongside other people. This is as true of reading the Bible as it is of anything else. If we pore over the scriptures alone, we all too often end up simply looking for proof-texts for our own hobby horses, and our minds will easily fix on verses which suit our purposes. But as Christians, we are not committed to poring over the scriptures alone, looking for proof-texts for our own hobby-horses. We are committed rather to immersing ourselves in the scriptures as a whole with the Church as a whole, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Bible has been handed down to us by the Church. What is included in the Bible and what is not was discerned by the Church, informally in its practice and formally in its councils. The boundaries of scripture were drawn over time by the people of God, both Jew and Christian. The boundaries can seem a little fuzzy when it comes to the disputed books of the Old Testament. When we read the Bible as Christians we are not reading a book handed down directly from on high. We believe the scriptures to be God-breathed, but we also know that we are reading a book with a complex human history handed down to us by the Church. And when we read the Bible as Christians we are not simply reading it and making up our own minds. We are reading it and entering into a rich conversation with the Church through time and space in the power of the Holy Spirit.
It is a conversation that includes many giants of prayer and the spiritual life, scholars of the sacred scriptures. It is a conversation that includes untold unknown humble and faithful men and women. Yes, the individual conscience is important. But we must reject that extreme individualism that elevates thinking for oneself without reference to others to the level of a moral axiom. We should be proud to read and to think with others. We should be proud to read and to think as a part of the rich inner dialogue of the Church.
And so we can say with confidence that the doctrine of the Trinity is in the Bible. The doctrine of the Trinity, formulated in its mature form in the Nicene Creed, is the fruit of several hundred years of the Church’s reading of the Bible, praying through the Bible, arguing over the Bible. You can’t find any one verse in the Bible that sums up the teaching of the Nicene Creed. Rather, over time, and through much argument and dissension, the Church arrived at the Nicene Creed as a formula that marked out the boundaries of teaching about God that was true to the witness of the Bible as a whole.
God is one. Although there are a few verses in the Old Testament which appear to presuppose an ancient Israelite polytheism, the weight of scripture supports the belief that God is one, a belief shared by Jews and Christians.
God is three. In the New Testament, we can identify the God Jesus calls Father with the God of the Old Testament. And yet Jesus does things that only God can do. Jesus forgives sins, Jesus heals, Jesus saves. And Jesus speaks of Himself and the Father as one. And as the Church read the Old Testament it found foreshadowings of Jesus, for example in the Wisdom literature that spoke of a personified word of God through whom God acted in creation. And the New Testament speaks of the Holy Spirit, too, which also does things that only God can do, giving life, leading into truth, bestowing gifts of love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And as the Church read the Old Testament it found foreshadowings of the Holy Spirit there too. So the Church came to teach that God is one in substance or nature, but in three distinct persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
So I invite you to read the Bible and to make your own mind up. But not as a solitary individual thinking for yourself without reference to others – whether we are thinking about questions of ethics or questions of doctrine, such a thing is neither desirable nor even possible. I invite you to something much more interesting than that. I invite you to read and reflect on and pray and argue with and over the Bible as a part of the rich inner conversation of the Church around the world and through the ages in the power of the Holy Spirit.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.