I was an undergraduate in Durham during the episcopate of Bishop David Jenkins (whose son Tim will be known to many in Cambridge as a Fellow and former Dean of Jesus College). At the time David was probably the most famous Bishop in the Church of England, as he had been unequivocal about putting academic theology into the public sphere with honesty, intelligence, and wit. (When York Minster was struck by lightning close to his consecration, it was seized on by some as a sign of divine displeasure at his appointment.) David’s short books, mostly collections of sermons, are wonderful primers in divinity. His bigger works are always rewarding. I got to know him quite well, and stayed in touch with him in retirement, occasionally going to visit him in his house just outside Barnard Castle (a place you may have heard of).
Always controversial, his frankness on doctrine was unpalatable to some. But he was always open, up for debate, and disarming because he was, undoubtedly, a great man of God. I was present once when he placed himself before an Evangelical church in Durham for questioning by them, and it was a fascinating and memorable evening.
Someone asked him if he found belief in the Holy Trinity difficult. Without pause he answered with his typical rapid delivery:
God the Father: greater than great;
God the Son: more loving than love;
God the Holy Spirit: closer than close.
What’s difficult about that?
What indeed. With Trinity Sunday in just a few days’ time, this is the definition I return to whenever I need to say something about the reality of God that Christians lay claim to.
Another friend, the Cambridge theologian David Ford, writes
The Trinity offers a fundamental way of relating to reality and conceiving one’s own identity: through God the Father as creator, and source of life’s truth, goodness and beauty; through God the Son as full participant in human history; and through God the Holy Spirit as the power of right action, communication, vocation and personal transformation in relationship with other people in the world.
Yet another fine definition which appears, interestingly, in a dictionary of pastoral care. That’s worth noting. Because while the Trinity is a doctrine for theologians to wrestle with, the believing Christian finds here a truth to delight in. We are made in God’s likeness: and his likeness is Love. That Love is not ‘static’ but active, alive, moving, dancing. You and I are invited to join in the divine dance of giving and receiving that bring faith to life.
It is easy, on Trinity Sunday, to get tripped up by the ‘grammar’ – but our God is Majesty that cannot be parsed, but ought to be praised. About 2500 years ago, some seraphs kindly shared the song with us:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord!
Now: what’s difficult about that?