The Trinity is a rather strange doctrine, because on the surface it doesn't have much to do with Christianity or faith, but just seems like a kind of strange belief that Christians are supposed to ascribe to. The Trinity as such is never mentioned in the Bible, and in fact there is a major emphasis on the fact that there is one God. Some feminists actually find the doctrine oppressive (which I will explain shortly), and there have been many splits in the church over the years regarding the level of divinity of each of the three “persons” we call the Trinity.
Early Friends, including Barclay, apparently basically agreed with the doctrine of the Trinity, in that they believed Jesus was somehow part of God (in a way different from how anyone else can be), and they believed in a spiritual being called God who they had no trouble calling Father or Spirit. Barclay doesn't actually address the doctrine of the Trinity in his Apology, but he does make it clear that he believes Jesus to be divine (Freiday in his introduction cites Barclay's Confession of Faith, Article IV on this point).
Also, in Barclay's Apology, Proposition 2, he is discussing revelation but he makes a fairly Trinitarian claim:
“The only knowledge of the Father is by the Son
“The only knowledge of the Son is by the Spirit
“God has always revealed [God's] self to [God's] children by the Spirit....” (p. 23)
What it seems like to me is that early Friends kind of assumed the doctrine of the Trinity was more or less correct, but they didn't get caught up in its nuances. The point is, Jesus is God, we learn about God through the Spirit, the Spirit is both God and Christ, and we don't have to split hairs about who did what in creation, redemption, etc., and who is doing what now—all we know is that God is here, speaking to us, and the God who is present is the God of Jesus and is Jesus.
Other people, however, find the doctrine of the Trinity to be extremely important, and there is a lot of theological work devoted to figuring out exactly how the Trinity works over the centuries. There are two aspects of the Trinity: the “economic” Trinity, meaning the part we can see, the three ways God has interacted with humanity to enact the things going on in our world; and there is the “immanent” Trinity, the speculated internal relationship between the three parts of the Godhead in their own being and essential self, regardless of how they interact with us.
Migliore helpfully distinguishes between the confession of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Trinity: “The Christian confession of God as triune is a summary description of the witness of Scripture to God's unfathomable love incarnate in Jesus Christ and experienced and celebrated in the community of faith. The doctrine of the Trinity is the always-inadequate attempt to interpret this witness in the most suitable images and concepts available to the church in a particular era” (Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 2004, 67). In other words, we see these three aspects of God named over and over throughout the Bible, so the confession of the Trinity is simply naming how we see God interacting with humanity across time. The doctrine is the attempt to explain those different aspects in a way that makes sense to the context of a particular community. When seen this way, the Trinity can be a helpful concept.
There are some positive and negative things about the doctrine of the Trinity, however. Feminist thealogians point out (and I believe rightly) that the way the Trinity is often envisioned is both hierarchical and all male, both of which are not helpful because they are so often used as the basis for other Christian doctrines (Catherine Mowry LaCugna explains these well in the chapter I read for this week, “God in Communion with Us: The Trinity,” in Freeing Theology, 83-114. Migliore also does a good job of presenting these issues in his chapter “The Triune God,” 64-91.)
In many explanations of the Trinity, it is seen as a hierarchy of “persons,” from the Father-God who is the supreme divine being, to Jesus who is “his” Son and therefore heir but not quite equal because he was a human being for a time, to the Spirit who is sent by the Father through the Son as sort of their messenger or mediator. On this basis, many have tried to back up the hierarchy they posit in church leadership, family roles, races and/or slavery, and the hierarchy some see in the natural world (with human beings at the top).
Another major problem is that all the “persons” of the Trinity are spoken of as male. We use masculine pronouns for all of them in English. (In Greek, all nouns are assigned a “gender,” masculine, feminine or neuter. “Spirit” is neuter, so technically in the original language the Spirit is referred to as “it.” But the other two are masculine.) If you ask most Christians, I think they will tell you that God is neither male nor female, and yet often people think of God's qualities as more “masculine,” and males as more like God than females. There is the ever-pervasive analogy of Christ and the church, where Jesus is a prototype for males and the church (submissive, obedient, passive) is the model for females. I think this misses the whole point of that analogy, but that's for another post. The point is, because all the “persons” of the Trinity are set up as male, it is easy to support a hierarchical ideology in all areas of church dogma.
But there is hope! LaCugna and Migliore both spend a good deal of time in their chapters explaining the original reason the doctrine of the Trinity came to be (controversy in the church over the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit), and the original understanding of the Trinity. The Cappodocians (two brothers and a friend who were priests in the fourth century, as well as, probably, their sister Macrina) first really explained the Trinity, and their understanding was that the Trinity was an essentially social entity: one God who was in relationship with God's self in an inexplicable way. The three “persons” we have come to know through history exist in constant, perfect, loving communion with one another, and it is this love and communion into which we are invited.
This became the basis for the Eastern Orthodox understanding of the Trinity, while the Western understanding became more one of a single God with three aspects, like Augustine's more psychological analogy, where the aspects of God were less persons and more like aspects of one's personality or something akin to Freud's id, ego and superego. Western thought became more focused on the singularity of God, of God's fullness and autonomy in God's self, while Eastern Christianity focused on the social nature of God even within God's self, and how God invites us to live within that social structure of love and mutuality.
Western theologians today, it seems, are beginning to stress the social Trinity more than in the past, which I think is a good thing.
The problem still remains, however, that all these “persons” are considered male. This is a problem because it limits the way we view God, the ways we connect with God, and the way we value human persons. I think part of the problem is that our analogies have become rigid dogma, rather than something to help us understand different parts of God and how they can be part of a whole. The Bible uses many different names for God, and yet over the years, Christians have focused mainly on three, deciding with no actual scriptural basis that God is three persons, no more, no less. I understand the need to make it clear that Christians believe in the divinity of Christ and of the Holy Spirit, but I don't think this means we must limit God to only three persons, or three ways of relating to us. These are helpful analogies, but they are only that: analogies. God is not Father, God is like a father, and we can call God “Father” as a way of helping us know how to relate to God. At the same time, God is also like a mother, and it seems to me like we should have permission to call God “Mother” if that name helps us connect with God. I don't see God having a problem with that, and yet many people do have a problem with it.
Now, I understand how easy it is to get set in one's ways and want things to be done how they have always been done. I've actually noticed myself experiencing that a few times this week. I'm at a summer camp where my husband and I have led worship for middle schoolers several times, and there are certain ways we like to do things. We're leading this week with some people who we've never led with before, and they have some great ideas, and yet I find myself chafing about having to do things a little differently. I like the patterns we've set up. They work for us and they seem to help people draw in to worship and attentiveness. And yet, I have to take myself aside and say, “Cherice, are you just annoyed here because we're not doing things the way we've always done them, or do you have a genuine concern that this will be something that will make it difficult for these middle schoolers to practice worship?” Sometimes it's the former, and sometimes the latter. So I've been trying to be really intentional this week about letting my little forms and boxes I want to put around God be broken. But it's hard, and I don't always like it. So I can understand why people don't want to start using other names for God with which they're not familiar—it's hard! It takes work to let ourselves be drawn out of our familiar patterns and the ways we like to connect with God.
But I think it is in these places that we really meet God.
I think that's what Quaker silent meetings were originally about. I think the point was to listen for God as God, not through our familiar forms or comfortable patterns, but just to stop and listen, to be vulnerable to the point of being moved, to receive courage and insight that allows us to break out of the ways we've always done things, and to be moved to do something new. It is only through this kind of opening that we are actually able to live out justice and love in the world.
In Quakerism, whether we are programmed or unprogrammed, Christ-centered or not, whether we talk about the Trinity in formal, informal or nonexistent ways, I think we've still allowed ourselves to build up these kind of forms and boxes that hold us in, that keep us from really experiencing God in God's fullness. Perhaps some of us don't use the traditional “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” language, and I know many of us do, but either way, when was the last time any of us allowed God to be someone bigger than we imagined? When was the last time we allowed God to draw us in to God's playful, loving, co-suffering relationship?
Whether we use Trinitarian language or not, I challenge all of us to allow God to envision God's self to us, to break out of the mold we have put around our concept of God, and to experience God ourselves, unmediated, no walls, no forms, and to see where that experience—of a relationship so deep and loving and painfully aware of others' circumstance—leads us.