All About Trinity Sunday
Trinity Sunday Definition and Summary
Trinity Sunday commemorates and honors not an event, but a reality: the Holy Trinity. Trinity Sunday always falls on the Sunday after Pentecost.
Liturgical Color(s): White
Time of Year: The Sunday after Pentecost
Duration: One Sunday
Celebrates/Symbolizes: The Holy Trinity
Alternate Names: Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity
Trinity Sunday, officially called "The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity," is one of the few celebrations of the Christian year that commemorates a reality and doctrine rather than a person or event. On Trinity Sunday, Christians remember and honor the eternal God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Trinity Sunday is celebrated the Sunday after Pentecost, and lasts only one day, which is symbolic of the unity of the Trinity. Eastern Churches have no tradition of Trinity Sunday, arguing that they celebrate the Trinity every Sunday. Westerners also commemorate the Trinity at every Eucharist, although they set aside a special feast day for the purpose as well.
The Trinity is one of the most fascinating — and controversial — Christian teachings. The Trinity is described as a "mystery." By mystery the Church does not mean a riddle, but rather that the Trinity is a reality above our human comprehension that we may begin to grasp, but ultimately must come to know through worship, symbol, and faith. It has been said that mystery is not a wall to run up against, but an ocean in which to swim.
Common wisdom is that if you discuss the Trinity for longer than a few minutes, you will slip into heresy, because you are probing the depths of God too deeply. The Trinity is best described in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, commonly called the Nicene Creed.
Essentially the Trinity is the belief that God is one in essence (Greek ousia), but distinct in person (Greek hypostasis). The Greek word for person means "that which stands on its own," or "individual reality," and does not mean the persons of the Trinity are three human beings. Therefore Christians believe that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are somehow distinct from one another (although not divided), yet completely united in will and essence. How can this be? Well, think of the sight of two eyes. The eyes are distinct, yet one and undivided in their sight. Another illustration to compare the Trinity to a musical chord. Think of a C-chord. The C, E, and G notes are all distinct notes, but joined together as one chord the sound is richer and more dynamic than had the notes been played individually. The chords are all equally important in producing the rich sound, and the sound is lacking and thin if one of the notes is left out. Of course, all analogies and comparisons ultimately fall short when trying to understand this mystery, but they can be helpful in trying to get a better sense of this teaching.
The Son is said to be eternally begotten of the Father, while the Holy Spirit is said to proceed from the Father through the Son. Each person of the Trinity interpenetrates one another, and each has a distinct role in creation and redemption, which is called the Divine Economy. For instance, God the Father created the world through the Son and the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters at creation.
The Nicene definition of the Trinity developed over time, based on Scripture and Tradition. The Scriptures call the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all "God," yet the three are also clearly distinct. For instance, Saint John gives Jesus the titles theos and monogenes theos (God and Only-Begotten God) and has Jesus saying that the Father and Son are one, yet in John's Gospel Jesus also states that the Father and Son are not one witness, but two (John 1:1, John 1:18; John 8:17-18; John 10:30). So John tells us that Jesus is God but not God the Father? Jesus is one with the Father, but they constitute two witnesses? It is scriptures such as these that led to the development of the Trinity doctrine. The Church had to reconcile the Divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit with Jewish monotheism. Over time, and with the aid of the Holy Spirit, the Church reflected on the implications of God's nature, and began using the word Trinity by the middle of the second century to describe the relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit.
In the fourth century a presbyter named Arius denied the Father and Son were both true God and co-eternal, which caused his bishop, Alexander of Alexandria, to challenge and depose him. Nevertheless, this view, named "Arianism" in reference to Arius, began to spread. In AD 325 the emperor Constantine, newly fascinated with Christianity, convened a council of bishops in Nicaea to deal with Arianism. It is there that the Church drew up the beginnings of the current Nicene Creed. In the latter half of the fourth century the Church dealt with those who specifically denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, adding more text to the creed.
Ultimately, Trinitarianism posits a dynamic God, whose ultimate nature is beyond human conception, yet who voluntarily operates within the created world. Trinitarianism also shows a loving God that is willing to become as we are so that we may become like Him. The implications of believing in Arius' God, a God who is unwilling to involve Himself in our redemption instead sent an angel of the highest order, did not escape the earliest Christians. As Saint Athanasius was fond of saying, "That which has not been assumed has not been redeemed," meaning that unless God truly became completely human, we could not be fully redeemed, because only God Himself is capable of truly redeeming humanity; an angel does not have this ability. Thus, the Trinity is not about Greek philosophy or pointless metaphysical speculation, but about the heart of our salvation.
The Church has been celebrating the Trinity in its life and worship since the earliest days of the Church, as evidenced by the Trinitarian baptismal formula. The earliest known liturgies (including that contained in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus) include many references to the persons of the Trinity, including prayers that end with Trinitarian doxologies.
Nonetheless, there was no general feast of the Trinity in the early Church. Over time, dioceses and churches began celebrating feasts of the Trinity locally, perhaps in response to Arianism. Early dates of the localized feasts include the first Sunday after Pentecost and the first Sunday before Advent. Both placements have symbolic value. The post-Pentecost date celebrates the Trinity as the final celebration of the Church year, after Christ's resurrection, ascension, and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The pre-Advent date, no longer observed, began the Church year with the celebration of the Trinity, the source of all creation. Both show the importance of the Trinity as the foundation, beginning and end, of Christian belief and experience. In AD 1334, Pope John XXII established the feast day on the present date for universal observance in the Western Church. In addition to the yearly observance of Trinity Sunday, the Church's weekly, daily, and hourly worship is strongly Trinitarian in nature. Trinity Sunday has been especially popular in England, perhaps because Thomas Becket was consecrated on Trinity Sunday, AD 1162.
Worship and Prayer Resources
Traditions and Symbols
Traditions Reciting the Athanasian Creed
Symbols Three interlocking rings, musical chord, shamrock, the Chi-Rho, equilateral triangle
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Why do so many Christian sects not believe in the Trinity? Since the advent of the internet, many traditional Christians are coming in contact with groups that deny the Trinity. There is a laundry list of groups that deny the Trinity, including Messianics, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Apostolic Pentecostals. They all deny the Trinity for different reasons. All share one thing in common: a rejection of the historical Church's role as interpreter of Scripture.
Messianics are often Jews themselves (or probably more commonly, Gentiles who adopt Jewish customs) who accept that Jesus was the predicted Jewish Messiah. Being heavily influenced by Judaism, many (though not all) Messianics deny that Jesus is God, because Jewish thought has traditionally denied the possibility of God becoming man. In addition, the idea of one God in three persons strikes many Jewish persons as too close to pagan polytheism. However, we must remember that Jewish thinkers have roundly rejected the claim that Jesus is the Messiah as well, so appealing to Jewish thought to settle a Christian doctrinal dispute creates problems. As to the Trinity being pagan, see #2 below.
Jehovah's Witnesses, members of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, a 19th century American Apocalyptic sect, deny the Trinity because they see no clear scriptural evidence for it. They make an issue of the doctrine of the Trinity because the word itself is not in Scripture. However, many theological words and concepts they use are not in Scripture either, and as Catholics and Orthodox, we do not subscribe to the same criterion that in order for something to be true the word itself must appear in Scripture. We also believe Scripture must be interpreted. Rather than looking to the witness of the historical Church, whose views of Scripture span all time periods and regions, Jehovah's Witnesses, and many other American groups from the late 19th century, rely on rationalist and mechanistic principles of Scriptural interpretation heavily influenced by the 18th century Enlightenment. There is little room for mystery in this modernistic system of interpretation. While Jehovah's Witnesses have been called modern-day Arians, they are only Arians in regard to their understanding of the Trinity; Arius would not recognize many of their distinctive 19th century American trappings.
Some groups, namely the United Pentecostal Church, believe the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all God. However, they believe that they are not distinct in any way, but one being that changes roles. For instance, when God created, he played the role of Father. When God came to earth, he played the role of Son. This is called Modalism or Sabellianism, and is even older than Arianism. The problem with this theory is that it doesn't take into account the differences the Scriptures give to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As Saint John writes, the Father and Son are two witnesses, not one. Also, the Scriptures have all three persons interacting at once. Many Christians unknowingly hold to this view because on the surface it seems the most appealing. However, upon reflection it creates many philosophical and historical problems, including that this theory has all of God being crucified on the cross. This why Modalism is often called patripassianism, "suffering Father," because Modalistic theology ends up with a crucified God the Father.
2. Is the Trinity pagan? Why should we celebrate a pagan day? Many pagan religions did have triads of gods. However, before we jump to too many conclusions, we must remember that many other Christian doctrines are well-paralleled in pagan religions: the resurrection, baptism, and the virgin birth. In fact, scholars of comparative religion have studied the pagan dying and rising agricultural deities and written on their similarity to Jesus. A type of baptism was common in many Greek "mystery cults," and this pagan baptism had many similarities to the Christian rite. Also, virgin births were somewhat common in pagan literature, and famous pagan heroes were often born under remarkably similar circumstances as that of Jesus. What does all of this prove? Very little really. Do these facts render the resurrection, baptism, and the virgin birth untrue? No.
Even if someone could prove that Christians purposely borrowed these doctrines from pagans (which I will not grant, because the thesis is far too simplistic), it still doesn't make them untrue or evil. Pagan religions all had some elements of truth, and according to C.S. Lewis, it makes Christianity more true that it shares things in common with other religions. As far as I know, the Trinity is unlike any other pagan triad, which are often either clearly tritheistic or modalistic. The concept of three persons sharing one Divine essence is uniquely Christian, and as outlined above, based on the witness of Scripture, Tradition, and the implications of salvation and redemption. Celebrating the Trinity is thus celebrating a loving and dynamic God.
3. Based on the information in this article, was the Trinity invented in AD 325? No. Truth unfolds; or, rather, the implications and hows and whys of certain truths unfold. It took a hundred years after Jesus' birth for a gospel clearly outlining Jesus' divinity to appear, even though the earliest gospels hint at Jesus having the authority and attributes of God. The Old Testament hints at many Christian doctrines, but they were not made clear until hundreds of years later. The delay in officially dogmatizing the Trinity does not mean that God was not a Trinity until AD 325, or that the early Christians did not believe in some type of Divine Triad. Rather, over time, with reflection and with the aid of the Holy Spirit, the Church came to a deeper understanding of God's nature. The same happened in the Old Testament, as we witness the Jewish people come to a deeper understanding of God, the afterlife, and other concepts that are more clearly developed in later biblical writings than earlier ones. Thus, in the Church and the Bible, later explanations of certain truths (like the Trinity) will be more complex than earlier explanations. Remember that the Church, starting in the New Testament, bestowed upon the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit the title "God." In AD 325 (and at other times), the Church simply clarified the nature of the relationship among the three persons.
This page written by David Bennett.