By Robert Hendrickson

One of the disciplines I have been trying to maintain in recent years involves keeping reactivity at bay until I have had a chance to imagine what a speaker, writer, or conversation partner is really trying to relate. I practiced this a bit with a recent piece run at Episcopal Café: “The Trinity is the Heresy” by Linda McMillan. The author seems to be trying to acknowledge the fundamental mysteries at the heart of the human experience of the ever-ungraspable God. She lays out the story of the serpent on the staff and how that staff becomes an idol that must be destroyed (see Num. 21; 2 Kings 18).

The author then moves into a reflection on the relationship between the cross and the Trinity, asserting that these are human attempts to say what is and is not true about God.

The challenge I see is that our experience of the Trinity (and indeed the whole of the Christian experience of God) is not simply one-sided, with humans making up words about God. God is speaking back to us — relating to us how we might relate to God. We know that the dividing wall between us and God was too vast to describe and too deep to cross, so God does the crossing for us. He sent the Son into the world that people might come to believe (John 3:16).


We might not be able to comprehend or countenance a God who comes raging and reigning in might. Even if we could comprehend or countenance it then we would, quite naturally, only fear such a God. We could never love such a God, for the love would inevitably be born of fear. However, a God who comes among us held in the arms of a young woman to be taught, nursed, raised, and mourned — that is a God we could not only love but know ourselves loved by in return.

This path of love is a familiar one to human beings. It is the way we have come into relationship with one another across the divide of generations and across the differential between creator (parent) and creation (child). It is a path of love that we can see, understand, walk, and share (because others understand its meanderings). God chooses to love us and to give us the free will and genuine choice to love God back.

In the Incarnation, God stepped into the place of utter vulnerability, into our hands. Of course, the story went awry as so many human stories do. We took the babe whom we wrapped in cloth and laid in a crèche, and we stripped the cloth away and put him on the cross. This act of violent betrayal is the mirror image of the experience of so many people, so many endure hardship and betrayal and can think of only God to blame. But God entered the very human experience of betrayal, denial, and death.

Then something happened that upended all this, that took the cycles of human pain and suffused them with divine love. The tomb is shattered. Death is taken by death. A better way is laid out ahead of us — a way of redemptive forgiveness for love’s sake. God took all of the human condition and restored and redeemed it, not for the sake of remaining an ineffable mystery but for the sake of being in the deepest of relationships with us. We become heirs not of the old story of malice and wickedness but of the new story of love’s promise unleashed.

This saving love is given form in the Holy Spirit whose shape is ours and ours the Spirit’s if we will dare to let it happen. The Spirit transforms things — water, bread, wine, and us — into the vessels of grace. The Spirit moves across the history of the Church and the world. The Spirit reveals truth, guards unity, makes forgiveness known, sends evil to flight, and breathes spark into blaze in the holy people of God.

In all of this we have the word of Jesus to rely upon. We have his word that he and the Father are one as we should be one. We have his word that the Holy Spirit will come among us. We have his word that we now have the glorious gift of calling God Our Father, for we are heirs of the kingdom.

We have all of this and we also have the movement of the Spirit across the history of the Church. We have all of this and we have the revelation of God in the sway of a tree, the whispering of an ocean, or in the roar of a hummingbird’s wings. There is undoubtedly mystery to the Divine. There is revelation that is all around us and calling to us. Those mysteries lie within the essential, knowable, loving, lovable, enduring community of the Trinity.

God gives this sure path of love — this way, truth, and life — because God never wants us to be in doubt that we are loved into being, loved when we think ourselves irredeemable, and loved enough to be transformed into the very essence of Christ’s self, loved beyond the grave and gate.

The persons of the Trinity are not a doctrine circumventing our ability to wonder at the mystery of it all. They are the persons with whom we are ever in conversation, ever in relationship, and ever in love: This is the mystery of faith.

The Rev. Robert Hendrickson is rector of St. Philip’s in the Hills in Tucson, Arizona.

One Response

  1. A Bryden Black

    Thank you Robert for your considered reply to Linda McMillan’s reflections on things trinitarian. I hope the comments that follow are similarly reflective of each set of views, even as they try to delve more deeply into the probable causes and confusions that might be on display.

    Firstly, trying to address anything re the Trinity, as if the revival of theological reflection these past many decades, stimulated by Karl Barth, had not occurred is rash, frankly. There are at least two key elements to note. Linda writes: “It’s all really just a reflection of us.” Well; no it is not. This thesis of Feuerbach’s was a key feature of Barth’s “Deus dixit”, and now of Robert’s third paragraph: “… our experience of the Trinity (and indeed the whole of the Christian experience of God) is not simply one-sided, with humans making up words about God. God is speaking back to us — relating to us how we might relate to God. We know that the dividing wall between us and God was too vast to describe and too deep to cross, so God does the crossing for us.”

    As I myself summed it up in my own chapter on the Arian controversy in my book, The Lion, the Dove and the Lamb (Wipf & Stock, 2015): “the triune God himself is supremely free to transcend his transcendence” (p.61). The radical dualism of classical Hellenistic culture was the snare binding Arius, and which Athanasius and his ilk were able to identify and so offer a richer interpretation for the significance of the arrival of the Gospel of the Jesus, the singular bearer of the divine Name (Phil 2 & Jn 17). This last phrase prompts the second key element.

    While we await Kendall Soulen’s second volume to his 2011 book, The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity, Volume One: Distinguishing the Voices, at least this much should be clear. The sorts of “alternative Trinitarian formulations” Linda proffers only have any currency WITHIN AND AFTER the prior two Namings of “YHWH” (Ex 3:14-15) and all that that implies, and “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (e.g. Matt 28:19, Eph 1:3-14), the New Covenant Name par excellence.

    Finally, Tom Torrance always zeroed in on failures to similarly address any other forms of dualism. One result was to carefully distinguish between any inability of ours to comprehend the triune God (following Augustine’s famous sermon on the subject) with our ability nonetheless to truly apprehend the triune God – for this very God has truly apprehended us, through Jesus and in the Holy Spirit. For “the dividing wall” is not merely metaphysical; it is above all else moral, sinful, idolatrous. Our sinful “eclipse of God” (Martin Buber), our “incurvatus in se” (Luther et al of ‘sin’ itself), may only result in blindness (John 9 now). The crux of the Gospel of Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, is to truly if not exhaustively come among humanity in such a way that humans may now “come and see” (Jn 1:39). The authentic grammar of Trinitarian Faith just allows us to follow faithfully the Way THIS God, our Creator, has declared and demonstrated to us. The doctrine of the Trinity is ever and only the due process of Nachdenken (as Barth and Jüngel practice), thinking God’s thoughts after this Way the triune God has himself revealed in the economy of salvation.


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