Trinity Sunday, June 12 this year, is the one Sunday set aside for the preaching of arguably the most important and most arduous doctrine in the Christian faith.
The Trinity is difficult to understand and even more difficult to proclaim. In fact, theologian Roger Olson has recommended pastors not preach on the subject.
Many seem to agree, offering a Father’s Day-focused sermon when the Hallmark holiday falls on Trinity Sunday as it occasionally does, or avoiding the day altogether.
Not preaching on the Trinity, however, leaves the impression that the doctrine is best left to bespectacled theologians scouring dusty tomes and that the church could function without the doctrine.
To make the doctrine of the Trinity practical, some have repurposed it for other ends.
For example, some see the kind of unity God experiences in the Trinity as a model for human relationships. Because God lives in community, humans who are created in God’s image should share a community with each other analogous to the Trinity.
There is an enormous problem with this effort, however. Humans are not capable of the kind of unity God experiences because they are humans and not God.
Humans, even those who live in community with the Triune God, have great difficulty living in ordinary community with each other. Teaching people to expect trinitarian community is setting them up for disappointment when they are unable to experience it from the church.
How many congregations have split over the color of the carpet, pulpit furniture or music? How many souls are wounded by unrealistic expectations of Christian community?
Community is always difficult and fragile. Raising expectations that Christian community can be anything other than community with other broken humans can cause severe disappointment.
Another way the Trinity gets repurposed is by seeing it as a way to critique human institutions. “The Trinity is our social program,” is a common phrase in theological parlance, for example.
Because the Trinity is a perfect community, the doctrine becomes a way to speak against structural ills in human institutions: sexism, racism, patriarchy, hierarchy and inequality, to name a few.
Lest one think it is only theologians of the left who repurpose the Trinity for other ends, consider how those who support the “doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son” use their version of the Trinity to support their vision of the institution of marriage.
They argue that because the Son submits himself to the will of the Father – not just in the process of salvation but in eternity – women are to submit themselves to the rule of their husbands. Millard J. Erickson addresses this in his book Who’s Tampering with the Trinity?
Essentially, supporters of the eternal subordination concept are using the doctrine of the Trinity to buttress their view of the institution of marriage against the perceived encroachment of radical feminism.
So, in a pulpit on Trinity Sunday, one could hear the doctrine used in support for democracy, feminist theology, anti-feminist theology, egalitarianism, complementarianism, liberty, equality, socialism or a host of other ideas.
If a doctrine can be used to support all of these dissimilar and sometimes contradictory ideas, then there must a problem with the way the doctrine is being used. The doctrine of the Trinity is not that elastic.
The essential problem is that the doctrine of the Trinity is not practical, and trying to make it practical invites misuse.
Using the doctrine to argue for social arrangements is a little like driving a Lamborghini to the landfill, wearing a wedding dress to Chuck E. Cheese, or using a silver spoon to spread Cheese Whiz. Even if it is effective, it is inappropriate.
No, it is worse than that. Using the Trinity to argue for our favored social arrangements is to risk redefining God in a way we choose in order to support our ideologies. That might be the technical definition of idolatry.
Making a doctrine whose purpose is to describe the divine life about human life runs the risk of idolatry as well.
Not everything is about us. God is not the patron saint of our preferences, and the doctrine of the Trinity should never be repurposed for that end.
So, how does one preach on the Trinity?
Recognize that the Trinity is more about praise than purpose. It is not particularly important to find some practical good for the gathered congregation to do.
The goal of preaching the doctrine of the Trinity is to inspire worship of the God who is infinite in nature, who is holy beyond our imagination, who is the wellspring of all existence, who is the Savior of all who will call on God.
Expressing the mystery of God, pointing to our need for God and evoking God’s majesty is the point of preaching on the Trinity.
While some may consider the Trinity a topic to be avoided in the pulpit, sermons that inspire wonder and worship of the Trinity are worth preaching.
Senior pastor of Rosemary Baptist Church in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, and the author of Karl Barth’s Theology of Nothingness: a Critical Examination, and Loving God in the Darkness (upcoming).