In the Gospel of John, chapters 14-16 are Jesus’ farewell discourse. He does not describe something that has already happened. He looks ahead. The text points toward Jesus’ looming death, resurrection, and ascension. Jesus speaks to his disciples; keep this community in mind.
In 16:12-15, there is a brief shift from the preceding subject. Jesus has been describing the Holy Spirit. The Greek, here, is helpful—the word Jesus uses for Spirit, Paraclete, means advocate or helper. This passage is situated on Trinity Sunday because it juxtaposes Jesus the Son, the Holy Spirit, and God the Father. These are not God’s roles. They are not three gods. This is about one God, with three unique persons.
Studying the Holy Trinity is always a bit of a struggle because the subject is so complicated. For people who just want to know how to live, how to be a good neighbor, how to raise their children, how to be ethical, studying the Trinity can seem esoteric, or even unnecessary.
Talking about the Trinity can also be embarrassing because there are so many Trinitarian heresies, or ways to get it wrong. We hear, The Trinity is like water; it can be liquid, ice, or steam. No! This analogy is modalism. Quite often, the minutia of parsing doctrine from bad analogies gets boring. Surely, we say, someone can explain God to me in simple terms! Yet, when a description of the Trinity sounds simple, the person speaking is probably describing a heresy.
We might ask, who decided one Trinitarian definition of God was a heresy? Who decided another definition was not a heresy, or was orthodox? The answer is: people. People made these decisions with God’s guidance—people like you and me. They relied on the leading of the Holy Spirit, the helper described in John 16, and biblical stories of God and Jesus Christ.
When we consider God leading people—whether we are describing Jesus’ interaction with his followers, God’s encounter with humanity in the Hebrew scriptures, or the leading of the Holy Spirit today—we look at what God does. God-doing is the Economic Trinity. This comes from the Greek word oikonomikos, from which we derive the modern English word economic. This sense of God-in-motion, God-in-action is evident throughout scripture. We study the Trinity because it matters; it distinguishes Christianity from other religions and gives meaning to our faith.
This week, an Egyptian Air commercial airliner crashed. The Egyptians have located the debris in Mediterranean Sea. We do not know how or why it suddenly dropped from the sky. There is speculation, but what we do know is that God was with the people on board, even as it suddenly descended from the sky. The nature of God-relating-to-humanity in those horrifying moments is the Economic Trinity.
On Facebook, I have a friend who is a young Muslim lady in Pakistan. We met because she started following my blog. I made several posts about my Trinitarian reading this week, and when Reemsha commented, one God was present in that interaction—God, Jesus, and Spirit.
Early Christian creeds, like the Athanasian Creed, express a Trinitarian formula, “We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity… there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit… they are not three Gods, but one God.” These divine persons, with respect to one another, are the Immanent Trinity. Thus, God, as revealed and acting in salvation history, is the Economic Trinity, and God’s inner working is the Immanent Trinity. Karl Rahner brings these ideas of God together, when he writes, “The ‘economic’ Trinity is the ‘immanent’ Trinity and the ‘immanent’ Trinity is the ‘economic’ Trinity.”
To this, we can say, so what? What difference does immanent or economic Trinity mean? Sure, we see evidence of the Trinity in scripture. In John’s Prologue, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus and God are one, but distinct persons. However, since this is a theological construct, with Emil Brunner, we can ask, “Is this truth the centre of Christian theology, but not the centre of the Christian Faith? Is such a discrepancy between theology and faith possible?” In other words, can we practice our Christian faith without messing around with this complicated, heresy-ridden idea of the Trinity?
Sort of. As Christians who seek God and wish to practice a thoughtful faith, we have a choice between (a) doing the work of studying the Trinity, or (b) dropping the subject. And, while there is plenty of space for studies on being the peacemaker Jesus talks about in Matthew 5:9, there is also a time and a place for plumbing the depths of the Holy Trinity. Taking time to explore scripture and the Christian tradition yields a treasure trove of theological understanding. The Economic Trinity is about salvation. The Immanent Trinity is about understanding the nature of God. Both provide language for us as we talk about God.
To Brunner, I reply: Yes, the discrepancy theology and faith is possible. One can be a Christian without wrestling with the Trinity. For many Christians, Trinity Sunday is little more than an excuse for an extraordinarily boring sermon. To those, I say, God will not smite anyone who avoids the complicated task of understanding a Triune God.
To those who do wrestle with the Trinity, you will be blessed with greater understanding of the God who offers salvation and an ongoing relationship.
In John 16:12, we see Jesus offering a pastoral response to those who are weary of analyzing the Trinity. “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” How often I wished to hear those words when I was a student! For us, the Spirit is a helper to guide us on our path. We do not need an analogy to help explain the Trinity. For we can say the words: “…we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance…”
Just like Jesus looking ahead in the farewell discourse of John 14-16, we, too, look ahead. We have the Spirit of truth to guide us. In John, Jesus equals the truth, and the Spirit does not come to us individually, but communally. Just like thinking about the Trinity, we do not struggle alone. We approach the topic as a community, and this is where it gets interesting.
Our questions—such as how to live, how to be a good neighbor, how to raise children, how to be ethical—are not ours alone. We have the Spirit of truth, sent from Jesus, who is in unity with God and the Spirit, the divine three-in-one of the Holy Trinity. We can find answers to our questions in scripture, the Christian tradition, and in the Spirit-led community.
Together, we join the Spirit and become God’s accomplice to do greater work than we could alone.