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What does it mean . . .?


Triquetra symbol of Trinity Trinity - What does it mean?

It is never easy speaking about the Trinity. At theological college they tell you that Trinity Sunday is a good Sunday to invite the Bishop to preach. Sometimes I am approached by people who say to me 'Ok if you are a Vicar, explain the Trinity.'  This is to miss the point of course, the Christian teaching of the Trinity is not an explanation of God, it is a description of what we know about God, albeit contradictory and contrary to logic as we know it.

The need for Trinity

The early Christians worshipped God, they also knew that Jesus was God and that Jesus sent the Holy Spirit who was God to be with them. This complex truth was therefore found embodied in the use of the word Trinity. It is not word which Jesus used, it is not found in the Bible, but it is used to describe what we know about God. This is important! It does not explain God, nobody could do that. It just describes what we know. It is contrary to logic, because what we know about God is beyond our understanding. One day we might be able to understand it, in the same way that we have come to understand that the world is round. But at the moment it is a mystery.

In the face of this amazing mystery, Christians have looked for symbols which have expressed the Trinitarian nature of God. So let us spend a few minutes considering the Trinity and I will use some iconography to illustrate

Equilateral triangle to illustrate the trinity

One of the first symbols used for the Trinity was the triangle. The three equal sides forming one complete whole captures some of what it mean to be three in one. The triangle is also an extremely strong shape used in construction, think of the Eiffel Tower!  Balance and stability in the Godhead was conveyed by the triangle on one side, and the eternal nature of the Trinity was demonstrated by the connection between each side of the triangle. The triangle is evident in the center of the triquetra.

Another classic shape used to bring to mind the properties of God is the circle. The circle has no beginning and no end, its never ending form represented God as eternal. The circle is a symbol used to represent God for many centuries. For the Greeks, the circle symbolised perfection.

Borromean rings (Named after the crest of the Borromeo family in 15th-century Tuscany.)

These are often used as a symbol of the Trinity. The earliest source for this that we are aware of was a thirteenth-century manuscript in the Municipal Library at Chartres. It contained four diagrams, one of which is shown above. In the centre, inside all the circles, is the word `unitas'; the three syllables of `tri-ni-tas' are distributed in the outer sectors. Unfortunately, the manuscript was destroyed in a fire in 1944.

The sides of the equilateral triangle conveyed to believers in the early church that there is equality in the Trinity.

In the early church, the eternal nature of the Trinity was especially clear through the use of the circle. Three overlapping or intertwined circles would represent the three persons in the Godhead. Thus, the equality, unity, and eternity of the Trinity was represented. Each of the three circles were of the same size to symbolize equality. They were intertwined to symbolized unity. And because the circle has no apparent beginning or end, it symbolized the eternal nature of the Godhead. The circles are so arranged that take one away and the other two will also separate, this emphasises the interdependence and indissolubility of the Trinity. This trinitarian shape, like the threefold cord of Ecclesiastes Chapter 4:12, is is not quickly broken. However take away one strand of a threefold cord and it will break, so it is with the Borromean rings, take on away and the whole shape is ruined.


This shape found in Spanish churches uses the circle and triangle in a very obvious way


One of the most common symbols of the Trinity is the Trefoil, generated from three interlocking Circles. It is generally believed that this symbol was created by St. Patrick when he illustrated the Trinity by pointing to a shamrock and remarking that it the three separate leaves form yet one shamrock. Hence the name Trefoil, i.e. three-leaved.

You will sometimes see this shape in Gothic windows in Churches.

Triquetra      (Try ket ra Latin for three cornered)  

You will find this symbol used on the spines of the NKJV version of the bible.Fish in a triangle shape

The triquetra uses shapes like one of the oldest Christ symbols, the shape of the fish. Remember it was found in Pompeii which destroyed in AD 79! The shape In the triquetra, the three equal arches of the circle expressed the equality of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Second, the union of the arches represented the unity of the Godhead. Third, their continuous form symbolized eternity. And last, the fact that they were interwoven denoted the indivisibility of the Trinity. In the center of the triquetra was an equilateral triangle, the most ancient of the Trinity symbols, and each pair of arches formed an ellipse, the symbol of God’s glory.  



All of this goes to show just how difficult it is for us adequately to express in our human language, difficult divine concepts. Fortunately we do not really have to. This is the job of the Holy Spirit to point to the Truth, to guide us to truth.

Thankfully Christians are not people who understand a load of facts about God. Christians are people who reach out and discover God for themselves. Only as we open our lives to God and discover that God is real, only then will be able to have our hearts and minds opened to his presence around and within us.

Additional Thoughts

Trinity Sunday is a special Sunday in the church year, it has been celerated since 1334 when Pope John XX11 fixed it as the Sunday after Pentecost. It is a Sunday which is not tied to any special event. We don't have to remember any special events or rituals. Instead it is about a day when we remember just God himself, it is a day to focus our hearts and minds on him. It is a bit like a birthday when all we do is celebrate a particular person and their presence with us. Like the wonderful singing of happy birthday.

But of course when we celebrate God we have a problem of sorts, do we celebrate God the father, Son or Holy Spirit? Should we have three days, one for each! This is the difficulty for Christians.

The Doctrine is

1. God eternally exists as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
2. Each person is fully God
3. There is one God.

The Bible never uses the word Trinity, it is something that we have invented to explain they way in which we think of God. It isn’t really an Old Testament problem, not surprising that the Jews have never had a doctrine of the Trinity of Binity or anything else.

There is not a great deal of convincing evidence for a doctrine of the Trinity in the Old Testament. Some people quote passages such as Genesis ‘Let us make man in our own image’ Gen 1:26. I am not sure that this should be taken as such a key passage, how often do we talk to ourselves or say things like
‘we are a grandmother’ Was Margaret Thatcher a multiple personality.

But in the New Testament the problem of speaking of God in the traditional terms as ‘one God’ become obvious, there is Jesus and perhaps the best illustration of the difficulty our minds have is seen in the episode of Jesus baptism
And when Jesus was baptised, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven saying,
‘This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased’

So we have Father, Son and Holy Spirit all in one episode!

So Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit, who comes to Him from God? How can God be God the Father, and Jesus God the Son, and also God the Holy Spirit?

The doctrine of the Trinity is one of those subject which leaves everybody feeling confused but we use it simply to describe how amazing God is. God is so big, so wonderful and so far beyond our imaginations that to our minds he really doesn’t seem to make sense! So if somebody comes up to you and says, go one then you're a Christian explain the Trinity then you're response could be simply to say

‘The Trinity is a way of us saying as Christians that God is much bigger and more complicated than we will ever know.... you can’t put him in your pocket’

If you ever wanted proof of the truth of Christianity then the doctrine of the Trinity is it. Which human being would ever invent a religion which didn’t make sense?! Christians have always struggled trying to put together the bits which God has given to us.

However we cannot just get rid of the idea of the Trinity. Christianity stands or falls by what the doctrine says. If Jesus is not God then we might all pack up and go home.

The Trinity is an example of unity in diversity which is surely something which we must learn about in our ecumenical relationships. Orchestras rely upon different instruments playing different parts and we must question the idea that unity ill bring about a sameness lacking in colour and vibrancy.

Trying to make sense some explanations

The Trinity has been expressed in many ways throughout history, often church architecture had three arches or pillars joined together. St. Augustine mentions people crossing themselves with the sign of the cross using three fingers to symbolise their faith in a triune God.

Many people have tried to show from other examples that one thing really can be expressed in three different ways! Here are some analogies, but although helpful at an elementary level they are all flawed in one way or more

1. St. Patrick from Ireland used the example of a wild plant the Shamrock which has three leaves but actually consists of only one leaf, very strange. Each of the bits of the three bits of the leaf are an essential part of the leaf, but the leaf is greater than just the three parts. Yet this fails because each leaf is only a part of the clover, any one leaf cannot be said to be the whole clover. With the Trinity each of the persons is not just a separate part of God, each person is fully God. Moreover the leaf is impersonal and does not have a distinct and complex personality
2. A triangle has three sides, yet it is not three sides but one triangle.
3. Anselm compared the trinity to the River Nile. A river like the Nile has a source, it has a stream and it has an estuary. It is all the same water and yet it is in three very different looking stages.
4. Tertullian said to compare the doctrine of the Trinity to a tree. A tree can have three very different parts Roots : Trunk: Fruit: Again these are only parts of the tree and not the whole tree. Moreover they all have different properties, unlike the Trinity where each has all the properties
5. Three forms of water steam, water, ice. But no quantity of water is ever all three at once.
6. Some have said that it is like a man who is a farmer, the mayor and the church warden. But it is the same person doing three different things and the church has deemed this understanding of the Trinity to be a heresy called modalism.

No analogy can ever teach the Trinity, they are all fatally flawed!

Modalism: God appears as three different people. This denies that there are three different people as seen at the baptism
Arianism Denies that Jesus or the Holy Spirit are fully God
Subordinationism: Origen - Jesus is subordinate to the Father
Adoptionism: Jesus only became divine at the baptism

Anselm of Canterbury came up with a formula
to describe what we do as Christians
‘fides quaerens intellectum’ - ‘Faith seeking understanding’.

Lets look at the two parts of that statement

What does faith mean - Some think of it as a risk, a gamble or a bet. In a way it is, we stake a lot on something we have not seen and something we do not know all there is to know about. But it is not just about gambling. I might think that John Redwood is a very good bet at 12/1 as leader of the Conservative party. But I wouldn’t want to worship him.

Faith is about believing in somebody, rather than just believing about somebody. For this reason Christian faith is often described in terms which resemble a love affair. People fall in love with other people, long before they understand what those people are like. Think of Prince charming in the story of Cinderella. He falls in love with Cinderella and he knows nothing about her. He searches throughout the kingdom of her because he loves her and because he loves her it doesn’t matter who she is. When two people come to a marriage that is more like religious faith. Two people come together and they don’t know everything there is to know about the other person but they believe in them and trust them. There is much that they will learn, they know that they will never have all the answers, but there is a depth of love which causes them to make this commitment.

Being a Christian is about belonging as much as believing, we share in our faith with others. Faith is caught it is not taught. You will not become a Christian because you suddenly understand the Trinity. People are slowly attracted to God and begin to try to explain their faith using words. This is why it is true that most people belong to a church before they actually believe.. This has important implications for us as a church what we are seeking to encourage is belonging, enabling people to share membership and to feel a part of the church the body of Christ.

In other words faith comes first, and then we have to try to understand it. If we all look at ourselves we know that it is true that we believe before we understand. Moreover nobody fully understands, theologians disagree so much, different traditions of Christianity disagree so much and that is why I personally think it is ridiculous to prevent children from taking communion because they don’t understand, understand what - and who decides what is correct! If Christianity is about our love of God and more importantly about God’s love for us - then it is open to all, free at the point of delivery!

Seeking understanding
That doesn't mean that we stop trying to understand. As Christians we believe some things very powerfully, other things we believe less strongly but we think that they are important. Some things we believe because somebody has told us about them and some things we believe because we know them, in here.

The Trinity expresses something which we know - in here. We know things about God which are not negotiable and the non-negotiable things necessitate the doctrine or the belief in the trinity.