Persons: a sermon for Trinity Sunday
Persons: a sermon for Trinity Sunday by Kenneth Padley
4th June 2023
Readings: II Corinthians 13.11-13; Matthew 28.16-20
On arrival at the Cathedral a year ago, I was surprised and honoured to be told that I had become a ‘Principal Person’. Not, I hasten to add, a Person of Principle, but Princi-pal Person: ‘p-a-l’. I have since learned that the residentiary canons of Salisbury are known collectively as the ‘Principal Persons’ because of their shared ministry. The terminology dates back to the first cathedral at Old Sarum and is reflected in the seating in the quire. Thus, at evensong, you will find the Dean and Precentor sitting at the (near) end of the horseshoe of stalls, facing east, while the Chancellor and Treasurer are at the far end, facing one another from the back rows. I assume the intended image was mutuality and cooperation, four pillars supporting the corners of the firmament – either that or our reverend predecessors so disliked one another that they had to sit as far apart as possible.
Our worship today is a celebration of Principal Persons. But the Persons whom we celebrate are not four in number, only three. More significantly, however amicable and collaborative the cathedral clergy, a group of human persons such as this is very, very different from what we mean when talking about the divine Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit whom we adore and worship on this great and holy festival.
For over eighteen hundred years Christians have referred to God’s Threeness as ‘persons’. Awkwardly, however, while human persons are defined by distinct physical appearance and function, this cannot be the case with the Trinity.
• The divine persons do not have physical characteristics – because God has no body. While the second person of the Trinity was (and is) incarnated in the human body of Jesus, God in-and-of-himself has no body, because God is Spirit.
• Just so, the divine persons are not separate spheres of activity. They are integrally involved in the work of one another.
o Think of creation: the book Genesis begins by describing the Spirit – of God – hovering over the face of the waters, while John’s gospel insists that God’s Word (the Son) was alongside the Father from the beginning. This means that all three Persons are at work in making us.
o Similarly, all three Persons are at work in saving us. Jesus, while dying on the cross, says ‘Father, into your hands, I commend my Spirit’.
o And, as we heard in today’s readings, the Name of all three Persons is invoked in Baptism, and the blessing of all three Persons is pronounced on the Christians at Corinth.
From all this, the early Church derived the important axiom that, ‘the external actions of the Trinity are one’: all three Persons are always at work together in making and saving the world.
This means that ‘personhood’ in God must be very different – and in particular less individuated – than it is for humans. While to be a human person is to be an independent individual, a distinct centre of consciousness, an originator of activity, this is not what we mean when we talk about the divine persons.
This complexity stems in part from the etymology of ‘person’. The Latin word ‘persona’ began as a term for masks worn in Etruscan plays – in other words the characters which an actor might adopt on stage. There were some in the early Church who considered this to be a useful model for the Trinity, as if the one God has three successive faces or modes – a stern Father for the Old Testament, a loving Son of the gospels, and an energising Spirit for this present age after Pentecost. However, orthodox thought soon rejected this modalism for the reason outlined already, namely that the Bible is clear that all three persons are present and active throughout salvation history.
But this means we have a further problem: if the triplicity of the Trinity is inherently real and not just real from the perspective of the viewer, how can this triplicity be reconciled with God’s oneness, what theologians call ‘divine simplicity’. God is always and everywhere what God is. There is no place and time where God is less than fully God. And we don’t want to undermine this when we talk about God’s threeness.
There is, I think, a particular risk with visual illustrations of the Trinity because these can be misunderstood as individuating the divine Persons more than the artist intended. You may know the famous icon by Andrei Rublev which depicts the Father, Son and Holy Spirit munching crudities at the home of Abraham and Sarah. Or you may have seen the Trinity depicted as a bearded old man, a superhero Son and a fluffy white dove. These images contain important truths – but we must not overinterpret them into likening the divine persons to human persons. That would leave Christianity open to the allegation that we worship three Gods. But we are not tritheists: we worship one God.
So, if God is ‘simple’ and uniform, is not this talk about divine persons unhelpful? Might we find a better word for God’s threeness? Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, certainly toyed with this idea. However, our tradition has retained the word ‘person’ because it reminds us that God is not a cold inanimate object, some mathematical conundrum to be solved, but the amazing effervescent self-existence at the heart of creation and redemption. Indeed, to talk about the Trinity as Persons is, ultimately, a proclamation that God is relational. And that relationality is, first and foremost, internal.
Let me explain what I mean. We have resisted the temptation to partition God into three. There cannot be physical divisions, or differences of action within the Godhead, but we do believe there are relationships. And we believe this because God is love. Love is not a ‘thing’ but a verb, not static but dynamic. And this means, if God is love, then God loves God’s self, such that there is a subject and an object of divine love. The subject we call the Father and the object we call the Son. And these two are bonded by the very power of love itself, love of God the Father, love of God the Son, which proceeds from both and is (of course) the Holy Spirit.
This model of the Trinity based on love was first articulated by Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. Its brilliance is to preserve God’s unity while at the same time articulating an eternal interaction of love which defines the three persons. This is not a modalist Trinity of mere appearances. Neither is it tritheism. It is truly three-in-one, a Trinity which is eternally and internally true for God Herself. While human persons are independent beings united by relationships, God is a supremely unified being whose persons are distinguished by relationships.
Trinity Sunday is a challenge to humility and confidence. We need humility not to make God in our own image – persons individuated by shape and function. And we need confidence to uphold the classical theological belief in one God. Humility and confidence, qualities which stand us in the tradition of our forebears with whom we ascribe to God (three Persons in one substance) all might, majesty, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.