The limits (and freedom) of language

The limits (and freedom) of language

Sermon for the First Sunday After Pentacost

Tonight we’re marking Trinity Sunday, and have just heard read aloud two pieces of scripture. The first was from Paul’s letter to the Romans (8:12-17), the second from the Gospel according to John (3:1-17), yet in neither did the word “trinity” appear. While in both of tonight’s readings the presence and work of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was proclaimed, it isn’t actually until the early third century that the Latin theologian Tertullian first uses the term “trinity” to attempt to speak of the nature of God.

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In his book The Melody of Theology, Jaroslav Pelikan takes note of “the lack of any one passage of Scripture in which the entire doctrine of the Trinity was affirmed,” and then continues that, “Strictly speaking, the Trinity is not a biblical doctrine, but a church doctrine that tries to make consistent sense of biblical language and teaching.” To hear this statement that “the Trinity is not a biblical doctrine”—at least not “strictly speaking”—might sound a bit jarring, but Pelikan is quite correct. Search your bible for a clear, linear description of God as “three-in-one” and you’ll come up empty handed.

But Pelikan is also right in saying that this is a “church doctrine that tries to make consistent sense of biblical language and teaching,” to which I’d want to add the category of experience; the doctrine of the Trinity makes sense of the way in which the first Christians experienced the presence of God. They’d inherited a radical monotheism from Judaism, and in affirming it they were unwavering. And yet their experiences of Jesus, both over the course of his ministry and then in his resurrection and ascension, drew them toward the bold proclamation that “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3), and even to Thomas’s “My Lord and my God!” in the Gospel according to John (20:28). Add to this their experience of God’s ongoing presence in their midst as the Holy Spirit—the “Spirit of God” who makes us “children of God” as we heard tonight in the reading from Romans (8:14), and the Spirit through whose presence we are reborn, as Jesus told Nicodemus (John 3:5-8)—and things get really interesting.

Don’t get me wrong here… I’m not even beginning to suggest that the ancient church invented the idea of the trinity in order to solve a problem. No, what happened was that they gradually discovered a language with which they could say something truthful about the God who is. In a formal sense, that really takes its shape in the Nicene Creed of the fourth century—the creed we will proclaim tonight—but that creed is itself rooted in the biblical language and experiences as carried in both the New and Old Testaments. What you might call “rumours” of God’s Triune nature are present from the opening chapter of the Book of Genesis.

Creedal statements can sometimes sound so very formal, yet to again quote from Pelikan, “[I]t has usually been characteristic of orthodoxy that it has drawn a circle within which theological thought was to be carried on,”—that’s the formal part—“but…within that circle (it has) continued to tolerate an astonishing variety and creativity. Far from stifling such creativity, therefore, the doctrine of the Trinity has provided an opportunity for speculation and reflection.” The theologians of the ancient church often wrote with the souls of poets, and particularly when it came to this doctrine. St Augustine, for instance, offered image after image to unpack the Trinitarian nature of God, one his favourites being that of a romance in which the lover and the beloved are caught up in, and overflow into, their shared love. Their “oneness” is in this sense abundantly three-fold. Yet Augustine was quick to admit that all images limited by human language and experience will be at best only partial in saying something about God… and so he offered up another, and another, and yet another partial image.

Or how about this from C.S. Lewis:

[I]n Christianity God is not a static thing—not even a person—but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance… (The) pattern of this three-personal life is . . . the great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very center of reality.

“A kind of dance,” Lewis writes, picking up on one of the loveliest of images used by the ancients, and one really mined by the contemporary theologian Baxter Kruger, who sees everything from babies and baseball to fishing and barbeques as being signs of the great dance that is the Trinity. Were the Trinitarian dance to cease, the world would simply cease to be.

This past week I met with Beth and Scott, a young couple in this community who are beginning to plan their wedding, and I was quite caught by the design of Beth’s engagement ring. The design incorporates Celtic knot-work, which is a good symbol for the binding together of two lives, but it also includes symbols of the trinity. I actually went back to Beth via e-mail to ask her to reflect a bit more fully on the design, and what she sent to me really merits inclusion here. “There are two trinity symbols in my ring,” she wrote, “one symbolizes me, the other is Scott.” And then in good Augustinian form, she offered up image after trinitarian image. “People are trinities anyway. They are body, soul and spirit. The body is bone, flesh and blood. The soul is mind, will and emotions.” And then she continued, “These two trinities tilt in, towards each other. They cleave to the cross and to each other. They lean on each other and hold each other up at the same time, forming a circle, just as we will both lean on, support and hold each other up throughout our life together.” St. Augustine could hardly have said it better.

But remember, this is all the stuff of theological poetry. What holds together these ways of seeing and praying and proclaiming the Trinity is a sense of harmony, of the mutual indwelling of Father, Son, and Spirit as being one of beauty and of a kind of ordered symmetry. To think that this is actually defining God is to forget that there are limits to our knowing and our language. And language emphasizing this dance-like, symmetrical harmony is not the only language we have at hand.

In his Holy Sonnet XIV, John Donne prays, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” and asks God to, “break, blow, burn, and make me new.” Donne’s language of being battered, burned, and broken by the “three-person’d God” is admittedly startling, yet it does cleave to that great statement from the Epistle to the Hebrews, that “indeed our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:29) A not dissimilar picture is offered by the jazz musician John Coltrane, in a piece entitled “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost.” Rather than being marked by harmony and beauty—something one might expect, particularly given that it appears on Coltrane’s Meditations album—this piece is an explosion of sound and energy, in which all six musicians play incredibly hard, with an intensity almost too great to bear. Coltrane does offer a semblance of a melodic line on his sax; an eleven note run expressing the eleven syllables in the title—“The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost”—which is repeated a number of times near the beginning of the piece, and then reprised a number of times near its close. Yet for most of the piece’s nearly thirteen minutes, what one really hears is an intensely powerful and swirling sound. Frankly, it is not the easiest piece of music to listen to, even for the die-hard jazz fan. But as a statement of the consuming power of God? Of God as Father, Son, and Spirit? It is simply extraordinary.

I am drawn by those more lovely images for the Triune God—images of beauty, of a dance, and of ordered symmetry—yet without this other language that speaks of something like a “consuming fire,” they easily become just a bit too safe. Much as I treasure Augustine’s unpacking of image after poetic image, and Baxter Kruger’s sense that the joy we find in things so simple as baseball and barbeques is somehow rooted in the great Trinitarian dance of God, we do well to attend to Donne and Coltrane and to those other voices prepared to tremble in awe before the Holy One. If we are to attempt to speak of God, we must use multiple languages and multiple images, and admit from the start that our words will be limited. Robert Capon’s image here is that theology is a hunt for the Divine Fox, and because we’ll never actually corner or catch this Fox, we must simply enjoy the hunt in all that it offers us.

And so, as we turn now to proclaim that great creed of the ancient church, hear it not as a limiting or a hedging in of imagination, creativity, and discovery, but as an invitation into a deeply poetic way of standing before the Triune God… the God whose dance holds all things in being, whose presence is a consuming fire, and in search of whom we find our deepest and truest life.

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