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Commentary: The Gospel and the Trinity

Commentary: The Gospel and the Trinity

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Commentary: The Gospel and the Trinity

An e-Review commentary by Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker | April 21, 2009 {1004}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at

Trinity Sunday is the first Sunday after the Day of Pentecost in the Christian year. It is the only special Sunday in the Christian year that is focused upon a doctrine. All the other special Sundays are focused upon the Gospel of divine action in sending the Son of the Father (Christmas day, Baptism of the Lord, Transfiguration of the Lord, Passion/Palm Sunday, Easter day and Christ the King) and sending the Holy Spirit from the Father through the Son (Day of Pentecost and All Saints Day).

The singularity of Trinity Sunday in the liturgical calendar indicates the unique role of the doctrine of the Trinity in the life of the church. One way of thinking about the role of the doctrine of the Trinity is to consider the relationship between the church’s proclamation of the Gospel and its teaching about the Trinity.

There is a distinction that can be made between the Gospel and the Trinity. The Gospel is the good news of God’s action in history as told in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. The Scriptures contain the story of God’s action in God’s creating the world, electing the people of Israel to know and obey God through a covenant, raising Jesus of Nazareth from the dead to reveal that he is the Messiah of Israel and the Lord of the world, inaugurating a new covenant to include both Jews and Gentiles in a renewed Israel, and pouring out the Holy Spirit upon this renewed Israel and its members as the beginning of the transformation of the creation into a new creation.

The triquetra is a three-part interlocking fish symbol that symbolizes the Christian trinity. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This is the story of what God does to save the whole world. It is an exciting story because it tells about God’s action. When we hear it, it sounds like news. It tells us about a God we could not imagine who is doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves and who demands a response from us that is life-changing and world-transforming. Because it is news, the Gospel must be preached, summoning us to a new life and new world.

How different the Gospel is from the Trinity. Talk about the Trinity has an entirely different tone from speech about the Gospel. It is reflective and even contemplative. The difference in tone is indicative of the difference between preaching and teaching. In talking about the Trinity the church is stepping back from the task of announcing the Gospel to catch its breath to think about the God who is proclaimed in the Gospel.

Many Christians notice this difference between the Gospel and the Trinity, and it explains why some Christians become impatient with discourse in the church about the doctrine of the Trinity. I remember one person who would frown at me every time I talked about the Trinity on Trinity Sunday. To her, Trinity Sunday was a waste of time and a distraction from the business of preaching the Gospel. Probably there are many Christians who get restless on Trinity Sunday since talking about the Trinity requires reflection and explanation of the history of the church’s development of this doctrine. The mood on Trinity Sunday feels like intermission during the Super Bowl: this is all right, but let’s get back to the action!

Christian symbolism can be found in nature. The trillium grandiflorum has a shape similar to the triquetra. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Yes, there is a distinction that must be made between the Gospel and the Trinity. It is the distinction between proclaiming the Gospel of divine action according to the Scriptures and teaching the church’s reflection upon the Gospel according to developments in the history of the church.

Yet it would be a mistake to consider the distinction between the Gospel and the Trinity as a difference between the God proclaimed in the Gospel and the God taught in the doctrine of the Trinity. While the Gospel focuses upon what God does, the Trinity focuses upon who God is. The church had to step back and think more about who this God is who is active in the coming of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

When the pilot of an airplane makes a perfect emergency landing in the Hudson River and saves the lives of all the passengers and members of the crew, our first response is to celebrate and marvel at what happened. But later we begin to wonder who this pilot is, what he is like and what he was thinking when he performed this marvelous act of rescue. Likewise, when the Gospel was proclaimed for the first time, people were astonished to hear that God had raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead and learn about all that God had done before Easter and after Easter. But, over time, the church wanted to know more about the God who had accomplished this amazing act of salvation. The church explained that the God of the Gospel is the triune God, one God who is the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, a triunity of one God who is eternally three persons in relationship with one another.

I am aware that the picture I am drawing of the Trinity as the church’s explanation of God acting in the Gospel is overdrawn. After all, the name and nature of God is revealed in the Gospel told in the Scriptures. The Gospel reveals who God is, as well as what God had done and is doing. Yet it is still necessary for the church to develop its doctrine of God’s identity as the triune God because the revelation of God’s name and nature in the Gospel presents new knowledge that requires deeper reflection.

The Gospel discloses that Jesus, who is the Messiah of Israel and the Lord of the world, possessed a consciousness of his relationship to God as the Son of the Father, which involved an awareness that he had been sent into the world by his Father. Moreover, Jesus’ whole existence, from conception to baptism by John to performing mighty works to resurrection from the dead, occurred by the power of the Holy Spirit. Following his life, this same Spirit dwelled within his body, the church on earth. The church came to know that the only way to talk about the God of the Gospel was to extend the name and work of God as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. To do otherwise would distort the revelation of the God of the Gospel. When the church talks about the God of the Gospel as the triune God, it is speaking about “the economic Trinity,” God acting in the world in the economy of salvation.

As the church continued to understand who this God is, the church realized it could not settle for just talking about “the economic Trinity” because this seemed to compromise the idea of one God, or monotheism. It also had to do justice to the meaning of “the immanent Trinity” or “the theological Trinity;” that is, an account of the inner life and order of the triune God which preserved the understanding of God’s inner unity.

The Holy Trinity by Hendrick van Balen, a Flemish artist from the 17th century, dated 1620. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Thus the church finally arrived at its mature doctrine of the Trinity. This did not happen by a pleasant, extended history of pure contemplation. The church reached its mature understanding through a long period of conflict because many different ideas were proposed as the right interpretation of the Trinity, which the church rejected as heresy.

In its mature teaching, then, the church says there is one God in three persons — the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. There are not three gods, but only one, because all three persons share equally of the same essence of being God. Yet there is an order (“taxis”) in the Trinity. While the Father does not have a different essence from the Son and the Spirit, or more of it, the Father is the source of the other two persons in that the Son is the begotten of the Father and the Spirit proceeds from the Father. There is a sense in which the Father is the “cause” of the other persons, but this causation is not like that which occurs in time and space in the creation. Since God is eternal, the Son being begotten and the Spirit proceeding are eternal. What we see when we gaze in contemplation on the Trinity is one God who is, as St. Basil of Caesarea said, “a community of essence, a God whose one life is a relationship, an essential unity of a communion of love.”

Now we see the connection between the identity of God in the church’s teaching about the Trinity and the action of this God in the Gospel in the Scriptures. God is love, and because of the love of the triune God, God acts to create a world different from God and to bring that world to completion by saving it from the chaos of sin, evil and death (which God does not create, but paradoxically, is what appears when God does create) by sending the Son and the Spirit. When the Father sends the Son and the Spirit on their mission to save the world, they are the same persons in their mission in the world as in their life of communion in God.

The Son’s role in the triune God is offering himself in love for the Father as the Father receives his donation of love by loving the Son. In his incarnation in Jesus Christ, the Son lives his whole life in making an offering of himself to the Father in obedience and filial love. The Spirit’s role in the triune God is being the joyful union of the Father and the Son in their mutual giving to one another. In his mission to the world from the Father through the Son, the Holy Spirit brings us and all of creation into the communion of love that is the life of the triune God.

So then, the church’s doctrine of the Trinity serves to help us human beings begin to perceive the way in which the mighty acts of God in the Gospel are grounded in the eternal life of God, whose very nature is a unity of communion among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Not incidentally, the persons of the Trinity redefine for us what it means for us to be persons. A “person” is not an isolated “individual,” but one whose being is communion. Thus, from our participation in the life of the Trinity we are drawn into true personhood, growing in our love of God and others while still being distinct as ourselves in this mysterious communion.

Trinity Sunday is our time during the year to think about who the God of the Gospel is. It requires the kind of thinking which turns into contemplation, leading us to adore the God of our salvation, who draws all of us into the communion of divine love.

(Trinity Sunday is June 7. It is the first Sunday after Pentecost, which is celebrated on the 50th day after Easter. Worship resources for both Pentecost and Trinity Sunday are available on The United Methodist General Board of Discipleship’s worship Web pages at

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.