Trinity A 2005 Matthew 28:16-20
There’s a story about a certain two beggars who were standing at the gate of a mansion house. They are trying to enter
and beg. But in front of the gate is a huge, ferocious, growling watchdog.
The two beggars hesitate, afraid of what the dog might do. "Go ahead," one encourages the other, "see there the dog is barking
but he also is wagging his tail. Why don’t you go on in." The other replies, "That's my problem. I don't know which
end to believe."
Often, as we watch the contradicting signs in life's arena -- rejection and reconciliation; destruction and healing; violence
and gentility, poverty and wealth; we wonder which end we should believe.
We hesitate, we wonder, we ask: "How can we expect to enrich our lives in the middle of such contradictions?
We cry out, "Why doesn't somebody do something to about it all?"
That somebody is we! We have been given the task for our time and place.
A sparrow is sent to do a sparrow's work, so to speak. An elephant is sent to do an elephant's work. But humans are sent
to do a divine work, the work that God has called us to do.
We have in this world of ours an animal level, a human level and a divine level. If we choose to live on the animal level
of brute strength and gratification of physical needs, we will not be long content with such a way of life. It is all right
at times, but we are moral and spiritual beings whose longings cannot be satisfied forever in animal ways.
If we choose to live on the human level, depending on human resources for our fulfillment, much help will be given us. Other
people will help. Institutions and organizations will help. But human effort alone is both limited and insufficient at best.
If we choose to live on the divine level, depending on God for our fulfillment, we will have the help of God the Triune, the
One-in-Three, whose strength never fails.
And so that is one analogous way to begin to think about the great mystery of the Trinity. Granted, a poor analogy, but a
beginning. And in the end all analogies fail to help us understand completely that which can not be understood at all. But
which end to believe?
Another analogy: the nature of human beings has been compared to a milking stool. A milking stool is three-legged. If one
leg is shorter than the others, the stool will be out of balance and will topple. It cannot stand erect. An unbalanced milking
stool cannot do its thing.
We human beings also need to be in balance if we are to stand erect and do the work we have been given to do. We devote much
attention to mental development, acquiring knowledge, getting an education. We devote much attention to physical development.
But do we devote enough attention to the third leg of our stool: our spiritual development? If we do not, our human nature
is out of balance and teetering, in danger of toppling over. (1)
It was the great Anglican divine Richard Hooker who immortalized this analogy of the stool for classical Anglicanism. Scripture,
tradition, and reason were the three legs of the stool by which Anglicans – Episcopalians – understand God, pursue
theological inquiry, and govern the Church. Like Father Son, and Holy Spirit, in the Trinity, scripture, tradition, and reason
each have validity. Each acted as a balance and support for the others. So when we Episcopalians hear Biblical texts used
as the only necessary proof of the correctness of a position, we rightfully are skeptical of motive and outcome. Even though
Scripture was the most important leg for Hooker, its interpretation depended one more than just the literal text – the
text had to be understood and tested by the tradition and God-given human reason. Not for Hooker and not for true Anglicans
can it be sola scriptura: Scripture alone and only scripture.
Hooker, like the great late medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, built upon the work left them by Augustine of Hippo. De
Trinitate is Augustine’s brilliant statement of the Western understanding of the Trinity which has shaped our theological
enterprise for over a millennium and a half.
Augustine stressed unity of essence and Trinity of Persons. Each Person of the Trinity possesses the entire essence of the
Triune God. And thus each is in this way identical with the essence and with each one of the other two. Moreover each one
is not and can never be separate from each of the others. (2) One essence in three Persons.
The classical modern analogy to explain the Augustinian description is that of the most commonplace substance on the planet:
water. Water has three physical forms: vapor, liquid, and ice. Each is physically different but chemically the same H2O.
One essence – H2O – in three forms of vapor, liquid, and ice.
Augustine himself used analogies to explain what he meant. His most valuable contribution was that of the Vestigia Trinitatis.
From the beginning of humankind there were vestiges of the divine Trinity in humankind. Although usually called Augustine’s
psychological analogy, it draws its inspiration from Augustine’s understanding of the structure of the human soul.
Insofar as creatures exist at all they exist by participating in the ideas of God. Everything therefore must reflect, however
faintly, the Trinity which created it. In humanity this finds its highest expression in a creature. In the human process
of perception, for example, there are three distinct elements which are at the same time closely united and of which the first
in a sense begets the second while the third binds the other two together. Augustine understood these three as the external
object (that which is perceived), the mind’s sensible representation of it, and the act of focusing the mind –
the perception itself.
Even when the external object is removed, Augustine believed there to be another, more superior, Vestigia Trinitatis., located
entirely within the mind and therefore of one and the same substance. There is the memory impression, the internal memory
image or mental visualization of the object that was perceived, and lastly the focusing of the mind or will upon the memory
itself. But for the actual image of the Triune God Augustine looked to the human soul and in the soul to its rational nature
which Augustine considered the most lofty and God-like part of a human being.
Augustine pondered Trinitarian analogies until the end of his days. One of the two most familiar involve love: the lover
(the one who loves), the beloved (that which is loved), and love itself which strives to unite them. He also gave various
analogies involving the triad of being, knowing, and willing. He concluded that only when the mind has focused itself with
all its powers of remembering, loving and understanding upon its Creator, it is only then that the image the mind or soul
has of God, corrupted as it is by human weakness and sin, can be fully restored.
Augustine knew that any analogy fails ultimately because no human effort is ever perfect, ever holy. God alone – and
only God – is perfect and holy. But in the theological enterprise it is like stained glass, mosaics, or paintings:
at best they can only represent or be symbols of the ultimate reality; they can never become that reality in fact. (3)
And so we have come to another Trinity Sunday, knowing a little more, perhaps, understanding a little more, hopefully, but
humble creatures who know that we shall never get it all in this life.
1. Adapted by an essay by C.V. Emory entitled, "Levels of Living." In “Which end to believe”, Voicings Sunday
Sermon for 22 May 2005.
2. Louis Berkhoff, the History of Christian Doctrines, Baker, p. 92.
3. J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed., Harper-Collins, pp. 271-278.