The Holy Trinity
If we could somehow travel through time, back to Ancient Greece. Say, to the early 200s, we would probably have quite a strong experience of culture shock. At least to start with. Eventually though, we might well decide to check out what counts for entertainment in the Ancient Greek world. And if we did that we’d probably end up going to a play. At first things might not seem to be all that different - actors on a stage, wearing costumes. We’d quickly notice though, that the actors were all wearing masks, boldly drawn to represent the character they were playing. After a while we’d realise that each actor played a number of different parts, and for each different part they would wear a different mask to represent the particular character they were playing.
Some Christians at this time, in the early 200s in the Ancient Greek world began to say, ‘maybe God is a bit like one of those actors … We speak about God being One, and yet at the same time we speak about God being Father, Son or Holy Spirit. Maybe,’ they said, ‘maybe Father, Son and Holy Spirit are just like the masks an actor wears. One God playing different roles at different times?’
They even began to quote little bits of Scripture to support the idea. For example, Jesus saying, ‘The Father and I are One.’ But when they did that, not only did they have to take those quotes out of context, they also had to completely ignore all of the other parts of Scripture that contradict the whole idea. Think about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemene praying, ‘Father ... let this cup pass me by. Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I would have it.’ (Matthew 26:39) Or we can think about the baptism of Jesus, with the voice of the Father saying, ‘This is my Son, the beloved ...’, and the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove. Attractive as the idea that God might be like an ancient actor with three different masks might be, the Scriptures are very clear. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are One, but they are distinct.
If we continue with our time travel and fast-forward a bit to the central Turkey of the late fourth century. If all goes well we might find ourselves present when a soldier named Ablabius goes to the great bishop and theologian, Gregory of Nyssa. Ablabius asks Gregory this question, Peter, James and John all share the same human nature, and so we speak about Peter, James and John being three men. Why is it that, when we speak about the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, who share the same divine nature, we don’t speak about three Gods?
Jesus prayed: “Father ... I have given them the glory you gave to me, that they may be one as we are one. with me in them and you in me, may they be so completely one that the world will realise that it was you who sent me.”John 17;22-23
Bishop Gregory takes the question very seriously and is determined to search for an answer, but before he began looking he said that, even if the limits of his own gifts mean that he doesn’t discover an answer, the truth that the Church teaches remains: there is only one God, not three.
But he does find an answer, and it’s quite surprising. Gregory says that, whilst in everyday language we might well speak about Peter, James and John as being three men, it’s not, in fact correct to do that. There is only one single human nature - not three or more than three - just one, and Peter, James and John fully possess that single human nature. Think, says Gregory, of the way we speak about an army, or an assembly. If we go to look at an army or and assembly we will see a number of individuals making up that army or assembly. But however great the number of individuals we’re still only looking at one army or one assembly.
As it turns out, Bishop Gregory of Nyssa was a very gifted man, and he gave us a very clear example to help us take all of this in. He asks us to think about gold. Pure unalloyed gold. If we have, say, a cross, a key and a ring made from this pure unalloyed gold we can say some very definite things about them. Firstly, the three things, the cross, the key and the ring are not the same. And yet, each of them is gold, but we can’t talk about three different golds can we? They are all the same pure unalloyed gold. One gold, three items.
Whenever we think about the Mystery of the Trinity it should bring us to a place of humility. A bit like Saint Gregory of Nyssa saying, “Whatever the limits of my own ability... ”, the truth is the truth. Because it’s from that place of humility that like Saint Gregory, the Holy Spirit will lead us ‘to the complete truth’. A place that is filled with awe and wonder.