Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Approaching Trinity Sunday: The 1979 ECUSA Prayer Book & “The TRINITY”

Reflections to improve worship of The Trinity on Trinity Sunday from The Rev’d Dr Peter Toon.

If you wish a definition of the Christian expression, “The Trinity,” and you turn to the Catechism within the 1979 ECUSA Prayer Book (which is also its Standard of Doctrine), you find an answer in the section entitled, “The Creeds.” Here after four questions beginning with “What” (e.g., What is the Nicene Creed? ) the question is posed: “What is the Trinity?”

Notice that the question occurs in a section on “The Creeds,” which are statements of belief about God. Thus the simple logic here appears to be (unless I am missing something) that “The Trinity” is a statement of belief, that is a doctrine about or of God. The meaning of this belief, this doctrine, called “the Trinity” is given in these words: “The Trinity is One God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

Let us stop here and ponder for a moment. As we do, let us realize that “The Trinity” is not a doctrine as such (of course there is a doctrine of the Holy Trinity Who is a Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity); but is rather the Christian Name, the Name first used by the Early Church, of the LORD GOD whom Christians knew in worship and service as One yet Three, as God the Lord, and yet as the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. [Three yet One -- One Substance (Essence/Being or Godhead) and Three Persons (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) where each Person possesses wholly the One Substance/Essence/Being/Godhead.] The Early Church referred to this LORD God as TRIAD or TRINITAS, the Name that summarized the Dominical words in Matthew 28:19 [“in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”].

The TRINITY is the Christian Name for the God of Abraham, the God of Elijah, the God of David, and the God who is revealed in the Person and Ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Christians adore, worship and serve the One, Holy, Blessed and Undivided Trinity, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

The real and true question is not “What is the Trinity?” but “Who is the Trinity?” And thus, the question posed on page 852 of the 1979 Book should not be there at all. It encourages false thinking. In fact, there should have been a whole section entitled, “Who is the Trinity?” where “Trinity” was recognized as the Christian Name of the God, who as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is the LORD God of creation, revelation, salvation and judgment. Or a section on “What is the doctrine of The Trinity?”

The difficulties of doctrine and worship (“the law of praying is the law of believing”?) into which this Catechism places us by this major error are exacerbated when we examine the response to the “What?” question.

Presumably what is supplied is doctrine, that is, how the Episcopal Church pictures or imagines God when there is talk of “Trinity.” The precise words of the answer to the “What?” question are – “The Trinity is the One God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” The formula, “God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, occurs often in the Rite Two material of the Prayer Book and is required rather than optional in most places. Thus it is obviously to be regarded as important, even basic, for the Episcopal religion.

In this formula there is the use of the colon which effectively causes the sentence to have two halves or two major parts, with the second being equivalent to or having an equivalence to the first. That is “The Trinity is the One God” is the same as, or, is explained by, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” The formula does not say, “the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” (as in Matthew 28: 19) for the definite article (provided three times in Matthew 28: 19) is wholly absent. Thus the doctrine here being presented may be, for example, any of these possibilities:

1. God is three in that he has three primary names, all of which truly belong to him as the one God. So God is One Person, with three Names. (This meaning is adopted by many Episcopal clergy who change the wording as it occurs in the Eucharist to “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier” to avoid offending feminists.)

2. God is three in that he reveals himself and acts in space and time in three primary modes – those that in anthropological terms are said to be as Father, as Son and as Holy Spirit. Here God is One Person using Three Modes of Being in relation to the cosmos to achieve his purpsoes. (This meaning seems to be that of many who are basically Unitarian, or Panentheist or committed to Process Theology.)

3. God is Three Persons, One God, a Trinity in Unity and a Unity in Trinity. This is classic orthodoxy. (To claim or to accept that this formula on page 852 expresses the classic, patristic, orthodox doctrine of the Trinity as presented in say The Athanasian Creed [see back of 1979 Prayer Book, p.864 with your magnifier] is a big stretch and also a major act of charity. If orthodoxy was intended, why did not the writers use a formula that was not open to doubt, had been used in the Church for a long time, and could not be interpreted in its natural sense as being heresy!

Bearing all this in mind, the celebrant (when using Rite Two especially on Trinity Sunday) would be well advised not to use the formula as provided in the 1979 Book, but possibly to edit it in the name of orthodoxy to either the original form of it as used in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy [“Blessed be/is the kingdom of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and always, even unto ages of ages” and allow the congregation to say “Amen”] or in such a form as, “Blessed be God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” and allowing the congregation to respond, “And blessed be his kingdom now and for ever” [that is the Kingdom of The Trinity]. It will be noted that the Roman Church uses the dominical form of words to begin the Mass; “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” It would do no harm to imitate this as a third possible way to escape error or misunderstanding!

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