Finding True Love in the Dogmatics Section

Reference: 1 John 4:7-21

“God is love,” says John, in the referenced passage above. For some reason, we often seem uncomfortable with such simple statements. Think only of the example of Jesus’ words on Maundy Thursday: “This is my Body.” Jesus so often speaks in analogies and parables, as is the custom of the time. But here he speaks in clear, unambiguous language. Many people ever since have been trying to make these words mean something else. The same is true in the case of John. How could he make this statement any clearer? It also elicits a “yes, but” response because many cannot accept that it is really so simple. “God may be love, but this doesn’t mean he loves just anybody, nor that the rules are suspended, nor that he can love bad dudes.”

Instead, John says, twice, simply “God is love.” It is called a “definition.” He didn’t mean “God symbolizes love,” or “God conveys love” or “God has nice thoughts about love,” or he would have said so. Also, importantly, he didn’t say “Love is God.” If you don’t accept the authority of Scripture, you can claim John was simply wrong or deluded. But the text itself is perfectly clear.

When theologians discuss the doctrine of the Trinity, it can get much more complicated. Many are intimidated by the concept of the Trinity, and perhaps rightly so. To understand the nature of God is well beyond human capability. In the end, we can know only what God has chosen to reveal to us, within our limited ability to grasp it. The annual celebration of Trinity Sunday, a week after Pentecost, can be described as “muted,” since we are awed by the idea. The focus is usually not so much on the Trinity as on the doctrine of the Trinity, which can admittedly be complex.

But why not celebrate the Trinity himself (which is to say the Father, Son and Holy Spirit together) on the Sunday? Trinity, after all, is not an “it,” a thing. Trinity is another name for God, whose nature is triune. It changes the celebration into one which fetes the God who is perfect love. Nothing illustrates that love better than the structure of the Trinity, a love so perfect it seamlessly joins the three persons of the Trinity into the one, indivisible God. Jesus speaks at length of this unity in his farewell address to the disciples (John, chapters 14-16), and clarifies how the love involved also reaches and includes the disciples. He also expresses this in his view of oneness in marriage (Matthew 19:5-6, Mark 10:8). The relationship among the Trinity is the model for the perfect sacramental union in marriage.

The key to applying this model to Trinity Sunday can best be found in the introduction to the Nicene Creed in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: “Let us love one another that we may with one mind confess the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Trinity one in substance and undivided.” The prerequisite to right Christian belief is love, that same love which defines what God is about. Note, first, what this is not. It is not an endorsement of love as a substitute for right belief. Nor is it a “dumbing down” of theology, or a suggestion that the centrality of the Creed as the bedrock of Christian belief can be skipped. But it is to emphasize that, without love, the most pure doctrine in the world is useless. As Christians, we come together to express our Faith, as quite specifically identified in the Creed, but expressed in love. The Creed is not meant as an instrument to judge, condemn or exclude. On the contrary, in the warmth of love, it invites others to join in and themselves become part of the community whose God lives every day in perfect seamless love. The Creed, in its three sections, covers the actions of God in implementing that love, in creation, redemption and application of his expression of love towards us, and towards all the earth. It is as much a statement of history as dogmatics. And the history of the earth is the story of God’s love in action despite the pervasive rebellion of mankind.

As such, Trinity Sunday stands at the conclusion of that story which is told through the Church Year, starting in Advent. It could be designated “Summary Sunday.” By the time of the English Reformation, St. John Chrysostom’s introduction of the Creed in the context of love had disappeared from the Western liturgy, and it has stayed absent even through the liturgical renewal of the past century. Archbishop Cranmer must have sensed the loss, because he inserted the provision for noting the two great commandments of Christ, to love God and to love your neighbor, in the entrance of the Liturgy of the Word, a unique feature of the Anglican Rite. But it does not make the creedal connection. The Creed is introduced with something like “Let us confess our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed” (BCP 2019), about as insipid as a liturgical text can get. Other Western rites also miss the connection. And, as St. Paul notes in his discussion around the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 13, if you don’t have love, the rest is only so much noise.

But with the context of love, the whole story told in the Creed becomes alive, becomes our own story of what God in his love has done for us, and for all. It’s a story that not only needs to be told, but to be celebrated.

So, Happy Trinity Sunday.