Richard Norman on the nature of true Trinitarian worship and the value of explicitly Trinitarian devotions
Almighty and everlasting God, who hast given unto us thy servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of the Divine Majesty to worship the Unity…’
So begins the Prayer Book Collect for Trinity Sunday. I would like in this article to begin to look at the shape that true Trinitarian worship might take. As so often, it is easiest to start by discounting what true Trinitarian worship is not.
Distinction between the Persons
Many Christians today seem very happy in their devotions to maintain a strong conceptual distinction between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In some very important respects this is right and proper: we must always guard against what St Athanasius called the ‘confounding [of] the Persons.’
The failure to maintain the internal distinctions of the Trinity leads to a number of heresies, of which modalism is probably the most common. This is the erroneous belief that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are simply three expressions of the one Godhead, three ways in which God reveals himself. The three Persons are in this heresy ultimately confounded into one.
But there is likewise a danger in holding the Persons in such conceptual isolation from one another that one loses sight of God the Trinity himself, the Three-in-One – the Triunity. In its way, this also diminishes the Persons of the Trinity: the relationship with the Father becomes austere, polite, fearful; with the Son one is affectionate, intimate, romantic; with the Spirit one finds oneself invoking a supernatural force, commissioning a divine agency, channelling an otherworldly energy. Little room is left for adoring the one God in Trinity; little attention is paid to what actually is revealed in the Trinity co-eternal and co-equal.
Christian spirituality includes many important and beautiful devotions to the respective Persons of the Trinity. The Our Father is the best-known prayer in the world; for Orthodox and other Christians the Jesus Prayer is a vital element in their devotional life; our own Book of Common Prayer has rendered one of the most memorable translations of the ancient hymn Veni Creator Spiritus in ‘Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire.’ Praying to a specific Person of the Trinity can be a wonderful exercise for the Christian soul with God. But it is in the very personal intimacy of such prayers that the problem can arise.
A relationship with the Father, the Son or the Holy Spirit alone can very easily become a closed relationship – the Father and me, and no one else. However, our faith is a shared faith: and, as such, my relationship with the Father or the Son or the Holy Spirit must make reference to my relationship not only with the other Persons of the Trinity, but also with all the Church. And this is where explicitly Trinitarian devotions are of so much use.
Part of a community
For, when I worship God the Trinity, the relationship can never be a closed relationship of one person with another: my relationship is instead with a community, a community of three Persons in One. When I worship God the Trinity I orientate myself beyond individualistic limitations – the relationship is no longer my relationship, it is our relationship, because I become part of a community of extroversion and interrelationship. A relationship with the Triune God is not something I can narrowly demarcate, because the exchange that takes place within that relationship is not a transaction from one party to a second, but a constant flux of interaction.
Loving the Trinity is a gloriously ‘three-dimensional’ experience, an experience like no other. Worshipping the Trinity begins in the familiar territory of interpersonal exchange which we know from our human relationships; but it leaps beyond this, in that the Personality of the One with whom we are communing is a multiplicity and yet still a unity. It is a mystical experience, which reveals our merely human relationships as but types and shadows of the glorious relationships of which we are capable in the grace of the life of the Trinity.
An ethical imperative
In encouraging us to look beyond our individual limitations, the experience of the Trinity in worship also provides an ethical imperative. Looking at the Trinity compels us to look beyond ourselves: as we strain for the beatific vision, we are likely in so doing to catch sight of what is around us, and to behold it with renewed clarity. We see Creation, with the attendant responsibility of wise stewardship; we see one another, our brothers and sisters, our neighbours, to the least of whom we do as to Christ; and perhaps finally we will see ourselves as others see us, with the faults that require correction, the truths that need acknowledgement: and we will see ourselves as God sees us, and so understand our human nature as created, loved and taken up by God.
Right-seeing is the basis for right-believing. ‘…We beseech thee, that thou wouldest keep us stedfast in this faith, and evermore defend us from all adversities, who livest and reignest, one God, world without end. Amen.’ ND