Trinity Sunday is a very difficult feast to explain. Last night my pastor took the well traveled path of generations of preachers who used the feast to reawaken our sense of awe and mystery at what we can’t grasp or explain. This is certainly a better approach than I received at various levels of my youthful formation, where the heart of the mystery was reduced to how “something can be one and three at the same time.” Theology 101 destroyed that line of thinking: since God is totally “other,” all human analogies—even philosophical/mathematical constructs—are meaningless. I seem to recall that St. Patrick is attributed with an analogy of the Trinity from nature; he used a three-leafed clover to explain the Trinity. I find it hard to imagine Patrick leading a surly mob of Celtic chieftains out on the meadow to stop and smell the theological roses, so to speak, but generations of artists were grateful for the thought.
The reality of the Trinity and its celebration is in truth a very serious business. The Trinitarian formula of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” actually is not common to the New Testament. In fact, the only usage I am aware of is today’s Gospel in which Jesus commissions the disciples to go out and baptize the whole world in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In his Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Matthew Father Daniel Harrington believes that this usage in Matthew 28 is probably borrowed from a later Christian ritual, the Didache, in the context of describing a baptismal rite.
The Christian Church always believed in the all powerful God of the Hebrew Revelation, the divinity of Jesus, and the divine presence of God’s Spirit. It was the finding of a common ground of doctrinal expression that was (and still does) present challenge for believers and theologians. In 1971 I actually heard a Catholic bishop (an auxiliary in Washington, D.C.) tell a Confirmation class that the Holy Spirit was like a light switch. “When you have a problem or a temptation, you throw the switch and God sends you the light to know what to do.” (Sixteen centuries of Greek Church fathers are turning in their graves as we speak.)
After numerous councils and other deliberations and writings the Church accepted the formulation of the Nicene Creed in the late fourth century as the liturgical and legal summary of what can be said from Revelation regarding the life of God. However, the Nicene Creed, which is the creed used in the Roman Mass today, does not precisely address the inner relationship of the members of the Trinity. There is a historical reason for this: the attention of the Church at this time (325-451 A.D.) was in defending the divine and human nature of Jesus from heresies such as Arianism and Nestorianism. Thus, in the fifth century, a second creed known as the Athanasian Creed gained prominence in worship and theology for its more explicit description of the inner life of the Trinity. Rather than describe it, the text is here. This creed is attributed to St. Athanasius, a famous doctor of the Church.
The Athanasian Creed has corrective qualities in its relationship to the Nicene, with its very strong emphasis upon the oneness of God; Trinitarian belief has always been attacked as leaving the door open to a misunderstanding of a multiplicity of Gods. (In fact, Islam’s emphasis upon the oneness of Allah was heard quite sympathetically in this respect.) The other Athanasian emphasis is that all three members of the Trinity are equally eternal. The Nicene Creed contains a phrasing that has been sadly misunderstood and maddeningly provocative: that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.”
This phrase “and the son” is translated from the Latin filioque, and thus gives the name to probably the longest and most divisive doctrinal debate in the history of Christendom, the Filioque Controversy.” Even the official website of the American bishops has a very lengthy treatment of the present state of affairs, as filioque is one of the main sources of division between Eastern and Western Christianity.
In short the Nicene/Western Roman Church was attempting to use analogous language to describe the perfection of love between the persons of God by saying, in effect, that the love of the Father and the Son was so great that the existence of a third divine person was the only language to express it. However, on the face of things, it appears to say linguistically that the Holy Spirit is the product of the love of the other two. This was outrageous thinking for the Greek Eastern Church, which venerates the Spirit in its theology and culture. Thus, the Orthodox Church does not include the filioque language in the Creed.
This is heady stuff, but I suspect that the Nicene Creed is proclaimed Sunday after Sunday with little or no appreciation of the thought, history and anguish of those who composed it, nor a great curiosity in the language we use to seal our baptism each week. As I learned the hard way in a Hertz Rental in Perugia, Italy, it helps to read the small print.
By the way, I am teaching a Church History course on this matter on Friday, at which I am depending upon intervention of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.