Weekly Edgework #57 - August 1, 2005

Trinitarian Jazz

One of the enduring puzzles of Christian doctrine is that of the Trinity. Indeed, to declare that God is three in one is a stumbling block to Muslims and others who insist on the existence of one God without division. Their conclusion with respect to Jesus must of necessity be that he might have been a prophet, but surely not God.

When I was a child, adults in my world tried to help me understand the nature of the Trinity by means of various object lessons. One I remember clearly is that of the egg. Of course I knew all about eggs since I was growing up on a mixed farm. It was clear that an egg had a yoke, egg-white and a shell. That is a picture of the trinity, I was told – three distinct parts, yet together forming one egg. Take one part away and what you have left is not really an egg. That was interesting, but even to my young mind failed to do justice to reality. It can’t be that simple, I thought to myself.

Another object lesson began with a chunk of ice. When it was heated it turned to liquid. And when heated some more it turned to vapor. But always it remained “water”, only it took on different forms. Later I learned that this version of the Trinity - known as modalism, in which God is essentially one but manifests himself in three various ways – had been considered an heretical view for many centuries.

It seems that many of the debates about the Trinity in the first four centuries of the church focused on the questions of whether the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were made of the same, similar or different substances and what the heirarchical order was within the Trinity. From our present perspective it appears that the first question was rooted in a need to satisfy philosophical speculation. And one is tempted to think that the conclusions of a definite heirarchy existing within the Godhead were designed to shore up a heirarchical model of society with all authority descending down from the emperor. The more autocratic the Christian God, the more suited Christianity was for political purposes within an autocratic empire.

It has been interesting to listen in on some of the theological dialogue with respect to the Trinity in the past few decades. Following tendencies within the Eastern Orthodox Church, many contemporary theologians have begun focusing on relationships within the Trinity instead of notions of substance, origin and authority. It is noted, for instance, that there is not a static position of persons within the Trinity, but an inter-change of function. While there is some biblical data suggesting that the Father sends the Son, who in turn sends the Spirit – placing the Spirit at the bottom of a heirarchy – the same biblical text cautions against conceiving of this pattern too rigidly. For example, following the incarnation, it was the Spirit who authenticated Christ’s ministry and empowered him to complete his work. And Christ predicted that when he left the Spirit would come to play a central role in the life of the church as he retreated to the right hand of the Father.

Recently, Kevin, a young but theologically astute theologian in our church, suggested a new image with which to conceive of the Trinity – a Jazz Trio. A pianist, base guitarist and a drummer comprise the trinity of characters making music together. They all function within some basic parameters of timing and pitch, but the music they make is dynamic as each player contributes his or her own variations – each in turn playing lead roles and then fading into the background to allow another player an opportunity to blossom. Trinitarian Jazz! A welcome notion.

I began to appreciate the delicate balances and dynamic freedoms with which jazz players perform when our youngest son, Nelson, participated in a jazz band for a number of years in high school. When I asked him how come the players never turned the pages of music in front of them, he explained that the paper on their music stands simply outlined the basic parameters within which all the players had to function. Beyond that it was mostly improvisation. When a particular player moved to take a lead role the others dropped back to supportive roles. But when your own moment of inspiration came and you took a lead role, you could depend on the other players to back you up.

It seems to me that this renewed focus on relationships within the Trinity has a host of practical ramifications for Christians – different from the earlier applications designed to satisfy philosophical speculation and establish patterns of heirarchical authority. For one, the continual giving and receiving of love within the triune God forms a foundation for how we give and receive love among fellow pilgrims. Another is that salvation can never be limited to concepts such as justification, legal pardon and privilege, but must include the notion of joining in on intimate relationships already established.

Furthermore, viewing the Trinity through a relational lens leads naturally to the awareness that to be whole we too must be open to interact with other persons – that Christianity is essentially relational instead of positional. And so it is fair to say that the concept of salvation already anticipates the formation and upbuilding of a church where love of the “other” is the norm. Since God is not a single individual but a community and believers connect with that community, it is clear that we are also inextricably connected with others - yet at the same time find our individuality within the common parameters of community.

Trinitarian Jazz. A new way to think about and relate to God. So let the music begin!

___________ Note: Some of these thoughts are taken from Theology: An Eschatological Approach, Vol. II, by Tom Finger, Herald Press, 1989, pp. 433-455.