On Explaining the Unexplainable

This week’s sermon focuses on the doctrine of the Trinity and the difficulty we have with explaining it. Check out John 1:29-42, and Matthew 3:13-17 to learn more. And check out this video, which does a great job at explaining why most of our analogies fall short:

On Explaining the Unexplainable

One of the most entertaining parts of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is a little section on whether or not it’s acceptable to use words that aren’t in the Bible to describe God or theological concepts. John Calvin, you’ll remember, is one of the intellectual fathers of the Presbyterian Church. His Institutes of the Christian Religion is sort of his great work. It lays out his whole theology, beginning with establishing the existence of God and then moving on to every point of theology he found significant. It’s roughly 2,000 pages long.

Anyway, there’s this one part where he goes off on whether or not it’s allowable to use words that aren’t in the Bible to try and articulate Biblical concepts. But really he’s only talking about one thing the Trinity. The words that aren’t in the Bible are, Trinity, and Person, which is a word that we use to talk about the three different persons of the Trinity. Calvin’s conclusion, is that anything that helps explain the Trinity is a good thing, and it would be criminal to ban words that help us understand Scripture.

Explaining the Trinity has always been the problem. From the moment people began to articulate the idea of a triune God, roughly a century after most of the New Testament was written, people had trouble explaining the Trinity.  The whole thing is a contradiction in terms, or as we like to call it in the church, a mystery.

And when people start to explain those contradictions, they inevitably fall into some sort of trap. They protect one aspect of the divine while ignoring another. They assert their independence so much that they forget the unity. In the first few centuries of the church there were many debates and disagreements over what exactly was the nature of the Trinity. The losers of those disagreements became heretics, like Arius, Sabellius, and Nestorius, and the winners became known as champions of orthodoxy, like Athanasius. As often as not the discussions and disagreements were motivated by something other than religious idealism, as Popes and Emperors tried to shift theology to accommodate their various constituencies.

From 325 to 787 there were seven councils of the church that are called the first seven Ecumenical Councils. These councils are widely recognized as the councils that developed the major tenets of Christian orthodox theology. It would be nice to envision them as gatherings in which theologians politely worked out their theology with deep study of the Scripture and a deep understanding of human life. But the reality is that most of the time the Bishops gathered in order to put out fires being set by various groups of dissidents across the Roman and Byzantine Empires.

And sometimes it could get a little heated. There’s a tradition that has been passed down that says that Saint Nicholas, listening to Arius defend himself at the council of Nicea, got so angry that he got up, walked over to Arius, and hit/slapped Arius in the face. That’s right, Jolly Old St. Nick, giver of gifts, lover of children, the inspiration for Santa Claus, punched someone in the face at an ecumenical council. And you thought Presbytery meetings could get testy.

Even now, the Trinity is remarkably difficult to explain. Most good explanations involve contradictory statements, like that God is three and God is one, or words that are terribly vague and difficult to define. Words like, essence, substance, triune, and being. Even folks who have grown up with the Trinity as a part of their understanding of God their entire lives still struggle with putting it into words, because its hard.

There are lots of metaphors for it, but they almost all fall apart in the end. One of my favorite Youtube videos explains that “The problem with using analogies to explain the Holy Trinity is that you always end up confessing some ancient heresy.”[1] It shows two Irishmen pointing out the heresies in the usual analogies used to explain the Trinity. My point is that the doctrine of the Trinity is notoriously hard to pin down.

Even Scripture doesn’t give us a lot to work with in explaining and understanding the Trinity. The persons of the Trinity are like characters in a movie that at the end turn out to be the same person. You never see them together in the same room. When God is involved as a character, Jesus is not. Then when Jesus arrives, we stop hearing from God. The Spirit comes to the disciples in Jerusalem, but only after Jesus has gone.

What we are left with, Biblically, when we want to talk about the Trinity isn’t a long treatise, or an elaborate metaphor that doesn’t quite line up. What we are given is a moment, one beautiful moment. A story, really, because when the Bible wants us to know something truly important its always wrapped up in a story. And in this one particular story, the one thing that we see, more deeply than anything else, is love.

The moment I’m talking about is the moment of Jesus’ baptism. It’s one of the few moments that show up in all four of the Gospels. And it’s the only time where we encounter God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit all taking action in the same place. Jesus is baptized by John in the river Jordan, the Holy Spirit descends like a dove, and God’s voice is heard, by some or all, depending on the account, saying “This is my Son, whom I love. In him I am well pleased.”

It is the best explanation of the Trinity we have. In the one crucial moment where all the persons of the Trinity are present and active, the primary act that they are engaged in is love. The Father loves the Son, and the Holy Spirit is that love which is seen descending upon the Son as a Dove. In the words of Bernard of Clairvaux, a reforming monk of the 12th century,

If, as is properly understood, the Father is he who kisses, the Son he who is kissed, then it cannot be wrong to see in the kiss the Holy Spirit, for he is the imperturbable peace of the Father and the Son, their unshakable bond, their undivided love, their indivisible unity.” — St. Bernard of Clairvaux, in Sermon 8, Sermons on the Song of Songs[2]


I find that to be truly beautiful. In this one moment in time, everything aligned in such a way that a great mystery was revealed. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit exist in relationship with each other. And that relationship is characterized by love. From the beginning this was so, and to the end it will be also. In this one moment we witness the majesty of the Godhead in all its triune glory. And we have been trying to explain it ever since.

[1] Fiene, Hans. “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies” LutheranSatire. Posted 14 March 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQLfgaUoQCw. Accessed 18 January 2014.

[2] Bernard of Clairvaux. “The Holy Spirit the Kiss of the Mouth” Sermon 8 on Song of Songs, http://www.pathsoflove.com/bernard/songofsongs/sermon08.html. Accessed January 18th, 2014


About Drew

I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.
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