Let’s start out with a show of hands. You can close your eyes if you’re more comfortable that way.
Could you, reasonably confidently, give a working definition of heresy? … Okay. And, significantly: would you care if something were a heresy?
What I really want to talk about today is mystery, and I’ve been having a really hard time figuring out how to do it. Which I think puts me in good company.
Today, Trinity Sunday, is a day when pulpits across the world will be rehashing the great trinitarian heresies of the first few centuries of the church, either because the pastor has taken it upon themselves to clarify misapprehensions on the part of the congregation or because the pastor’s confident, intelligible explanation of the Trinity is in fact one of the great trinitarian heresies of the first few centuries of the church. The terms of these debates can seem not just foreign but kind of pointless, not least because all the ideas have names that come from people and don’t immediately mean anything to us: Nestorianism, Sabellianism, Arianism, Eutychianism, and so forth, and the distinctions between these ideas and what ecumenical councils decreed was orthodox are sometimes so fine it’s almost comical.
If you’ve ever been in a Bible study or at Midweek Manna or Discipleship Hour with me, it will not surprise you to hear that I’m in fact very sympathetic to these debates. There’s a story, though it may be apocryphal, that St. Nicholas (yes, that St. Nicholas), bishop of Myra, slapped Arius (who invented a heresy) across the face in the middle of his argument, and truly, who among us has not wished to stand up in a committee meeting and do the same? But more than anything I am sympathetic to the desire to know rightly, sympathetic not only to the desire to secure orthodoxy but to the reverence for God and for scripture that led the teachers condemned as heretics to persist in their errors—even when I also believe they were in error. Mystery hangs oddly in the air in a religion like ours, which emphasizes faith and belief so strongly—“believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved,” right? “believe in God, believe also in me,” right?—though when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we often repeat what literally call “the mystery of faith,” that’s a recitation of three assertions, that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again.
But if all is grounded in faith, we cannot really avoid the question of what, exactly, we are to believe, and how much those beliefs matter. Sweat and blood and ink have been spilled trying to articulate precisely the truths of our faith because we have believed truth not just to matter but to matter infinitely—Christ says that we will know it and it will make us free; Paul insists that we are justified by our faith; if truth made us free and faith counted as righteousness, then falsehood leads to chains and lack of faith to damnation. To speak correctly about God is to keep yourself on the side of life, not only this one but eternal life; to speak wrongly of God puts you in danger of the fires of hell; to teach wrongly of God makes you an eternal menace to society.
What a profound shame, that fear of hell and human enmity became the bodyguards of truth, and not the joyous pursuit of knowledge of our maker. How dearly we humans long for certainty, for clarity; how deeply we want things to be simple; how much harm we are willing to perpetuate in order to browbeat the world into categories we can hold tightly in our hands.
And yet the first great irony is that we have always been trying to speak with precision about a God who is, in the end, not knowable to us by our own efforts, a God who cannot be fully grasped. Christ himself, God incarnate, knew well how far beyond us comprehension of God is, presented as he was each day with the finitude of his disciples, their confusion at the things he said and did, their inability to trust. “I still have many things to say to you,” he tells them in this piece of his farewell sermon, only hours from his arrest, “but you cannot bear them now.” They could not know everything, though if they are anything like me, I am sure they longed to know; Jesus could not tell them everything, not because he desired to withhold anything from them, but because they could not hold it all, and he had to go.
The second great irony is that the heresies the church has condemned are not greater mysteries, threatening to the simple, ironclad orthodox view, but diminishments of mystery. The classical heresies are simpler, easier to explain, accommodating of our resistance to what is difficult or unexpected. Of Jesus Christ they make a god in a man suit, or a man with an extra knack for theology. Of the Trinity they make neat analogies, an egg (yolk white shell), water (liquid solid gas), a single person (father son husband). They say: God is not so far beyond our comprehension. They say: This is simple, really.
If we moderns are less compelled by the idea that believing wrongly is a one-way ticket to hell, we are no less desirous that things be simple. We avoid complex, sticky entanglements with common-sense rules and clear parameters: what is affordable, what is legal, what is pragmatic, what is pleasant. We leave out information that does not fit our narratives—all of us do, not just our political enemies. We, too, build for ourselves Gods who make sense to us, Gods who want what we want, who like what we like, who don’t mind what doesn’t bother us, who do not ask of us what would be difficult to give.
Jesus still has much to say to us, but we cannot bear it, either.
When Jesus was taking leave of his disciples, when he told them that there was more to know that they could not know then, he promised them a future and he promised them an aid. “When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all truth”: we have not become more capable, more infinite, than our forebears; but the Spirit has been with us the whole time, to comfort and to teach, to show to us “the things that are to come,” the things that belong to Christ, those things which, without the Spirit, we could not know. “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us,” Paul says from the other side of Pentecost, himself a man who had never met Jesus and yet a recipient of that promised gift of the Spirit, for whom the Christ he had not known in the flesh was everything, for whom that Spirit made even suffering a cause for joy. The revelation of divine truth is ongoing; God’s care for us, shepherding, guiding, teaching, loving, is ongoing. We are only told as much as we can bear, but that is never the end of the telling, and we do not bear it on our own.
If we imagine that truth is the enemy of mystery, it is only because we live in a world that insists on “knowing” in a way that is cataloguing and possessive, that insists that what is “true” is something inert, something that can be examined from all sides and seen to hold together, something that can be exhausted. But this has never been the whole of what “truth” is, and it has never been possible to know God this way, God the source of all being, God our salvation, God who is not a thing as this world is full of things, but rather the one who, for delight’s sake, has filled the world. There are true things we can say about God, and each true thing we say is an open door to another room, and another, and another, deeper in, higher up, until we can say nothing but are only held in the mystery that has given us birth.
I am going to share what has been the church’s best offering on the Trinity for more than 1,500 years, and I invite you to hear it for what it is: a kaleidoscope, a tiny window to a bright, incomprehensible world. When I finish, I will hold silence for a minute, and I invite you to let that silence hold you, that the Spirit may tell you some of those things which Christ has given to be told.
We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;
neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Essence.
For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one;
the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal.
Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost.
The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated.
The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited.
The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal.
And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal.
As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite.
So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Ghost Almighty.
And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty.
So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God.
And yet they are not three Gods; but one God.
So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Ghost Lord.
And yet not three Lords; but one Lord…
The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten.
The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten.
The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding.
So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.
And in this Trinity none is before, or after another;
none is greater, or less than another.
But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal.
So that in all things, as aforesaid;
the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped.