Sunday, June 9, 2019

Trinity Sunday: Explaining

How to explain the Trinity. There have been books (with lots and lots of ink spilled) going into minute detail. There have been analogies: the Trinity is like an egg - shell, yolk, white...or the Trinity like a candle - wax, wick, flame. There have been visuals. Some are pictorial - Jesus on the cross, a dove above his head, and an old white guy at the very top of the picture. Some visuals are more diagram - like the shield of the Trinity below. Around the outside of the triangle we are reminded that the Father is not the Son is not the Spirit is not the Father. Moving from the corners to the middle of the triangle we see that Father, Son, and Spirit are all God.
John 16:12-15 is one of the scripture passages where all three persons of the Trinity are mentioned in some kind of relationship. There are others in scripture. But none of those verses offer a definitive explanation of just how the Trinity relates to one another. So theologians have stepped in to try to explain.

Augustine (354-430) was one of those who attempted an explanation. His work De Trinitate (On the Trinity) is not his most well-known work, and, in fact, it was published before it was completed to Augustine's satisfaction. But in it he does try to explain the Trinity to the critics of the doctrine (remembering the issues around the controversy answered in orthodoxy by the Nicene Creed's  assertion of Jesus as "of one substance" or the same substance as the Father) and to remind Christians that they should remember themselves as made in the image of a triune God.

Not surprisingly, undertaking to explain the Trinity could be a daunting task. A legend (based on nothing written by Augustine) says that while Augustine was wrestling with De Trinitate he had a vision. Augustine was by the seashore when he saw a child with a seashell (or a spoon). The child had dug a hole in the sand and was running between the ocean and a pool of water that had gathered in a hole. When asked by Augustine what was happening, the child replied, "I am emptying the ocean into this pool."
     "Impossible!" Augustine pronounced.
     The child, apparently unawed by the learned theologian, replied, "I'll empty the ocean into this pool before you manage to understand and explain the mystery of the Trinity!"
     The legend concludes with Augustine turning around, only to find the child had disappeared. So Augustine was left alone with the mystery of the Trinity.

And in many ways, so are we.

(Left) Botticelli. Vision of St. Augustine (detail from the predella - pictures below the main image - of St. Barnaba Altarpiece). c. 1488. Florence: Uffizi Gallery. 
This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook...alternate depictions  of Augustine's legendary vision. 
For thoughts on Proverbs 8:1-4. 22-31, click here and (in a brief mention) here 

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