Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 29, Rev. 4:1-11 (i.e. the entire chapter), John 3:1-17
It is fitting that we should read about new birth on Trinity Sunday, and be reminded that, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." Nicodemus asked the question,"How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?" The answer that Jesus gave him was about the invisible work of the Holy Spirit. Invisible and yet observable in effect; for the Holy Spirit's working cannot be seen, but his work can be seen when a man is born of water and of the spirit; for he is a new man in Christ, literally a new creation. "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new." (II Cor. 5:17) Adam was a creature, and his offspring are creatures, but not individually created as much as creatures by derivation, in that each new human being is the result of a man knowing a woman (one hopes, his wife). But, in the new birth, each person is a new creature, individually created by the breath of God with that new life that we receive from the Risen Christ, that new life that is eternal and will survive our death, so that our mortal nature becomes a seed planted to be raised as Christ is risen, that is life immortal. "Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him." (Rom. 6:9)
Currently, among the Reaaserter camp, we find that some who call themselves "Anglican" do not understand that John chapter three, where Jesus speaks of the new birth, is referring to baptism. No doubt, they have never learned the genuine Anglican Catechism, embracing, as they do, over the last thirty years a book that has new things instead. But, here is what the authentic Anglican Catechism says:
QUESTION. What is your Name?
Answer. N. or N. N.
Question. Who gave you this Name?
Answer. My Sponsors in Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.
In baptism we were adopted through Christ, born of water and the Spirit as children of God.
This is clear from the sixth chapter of Romans:
What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (vs. 1-4)
Well I understand why the Evangelicals interpret the new birth as that moment of conscious conversion, for in a sense it really feels like a new birth of sorts: This I know from my own experience. And, it likely completes something valid and real that was planted in baptism, even though it may appear to unsympathetic critics as merely subjective. I understand why they resist the ancient teaching of the Church that the new birth is in baptism, because their experience of conversion just had to be what Christ spoke of. But, the new birth is objective, and we must interpret John chapter three by Romans chapter six. The new birth is into the newness of life, having been buried with Christ by baptism into death, and raised to walk in the newness of life. That is objective and real; and for an Anglican it should contain no contradiction that we accept the teaching of the Catholic Tradition regarding the meaning of Scripture, and that we rejoice when a person's dormant faith comes so alive in his soul that he can mark it as a beginning. But, it is the grace of his baptism awakened by the Holy Spirit, so that his conscience, with all his heart and soul, renders him like the prodigal son who came to himself, and went home to his father.
And, baptism brings us to the nominal theme of Trinity Sunday.
We must look at the words of the Risen Christ at the close of the Gospel According to Matthew, where we read the Great Commission:
And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach (μαθητεύω, mathēteuō, make disciples of) all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (Matt.28:18-20)
This new birth involves the full revelation of the Name of God. And, before proceeding, we must answer yet another objection some have. They have noticed, as have we, that in the Book of Acts baptism was said to be in the Name of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38), or the Lord Jesus (Acts 8:16, 10:48, 19:5). But, they do not understand. They make the mistake of assuming that Luke's designation of Christian baptism reveals the formula, or the actual words that were spoken, which is not at all what the text actually says.
When the Book of Acts reveals what happened in those earliest days, Luke is making clear that the baptism was not that of John the Baptist, but rather it was Christian baptism. Since the word "Christian" appears only once in that whole book, as something that came about after many people were baptized (11:26), it was not yet customary to say "Christian baptism" as opposed to "the baptism of John." But, that this is the meaning is clearly drawn from the nineteenth chapter. "Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus. When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus." Would those who think they are using the formula of Acts by rejecting the commandment of Christ at the close of Matthew's Gospel, not have made the same argument if "Christian" had been a more fully established word from the start? Would they not likely insist that the formula should be "I baptize thee a Christian?" Dom Gregory Dix discovered an ancient baptism liturgy in which the Trinitarian formula appeared as part of a long prayer that was, as a whole, in the Name of Jesus Christ. This makes perfect sense.
The formula for baptism is "In the Name of The Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost (or Holy Spirit)." The revelation of this Name, indeed, this One Name, is the end result in Matthew's Gospel, of all that Jesus did and said. Now, we know God. The revelation of this One Name of The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, could not be given to us before the Incarnation of the Word; the Name could not be revealed before Christ's atoning death in which he took away the sins of the world; the Name could not be revealed until after he defeated death itself and rose from the grave. The Name could be revealed only after we see the full picture of the Son, in his complete victory for our sakes over sin and death, having cast out the prince of this world in his Passion and Resurrection. And, it had to be revealed right then, just before the Ascension and the ten days when the disciples were about to stand on that bridge between the coming of the first Comforter and the coming of the other Comforter; that is, between the coming of Christ our Advocate (παράκλητος, paraklētos I John 2:1), and the coming of "the other Comforter" (same word, παράκλητος, paraklētos, John 14:16,17), the Spirit of Truth.
God the Father has been perfectly (Heb. 1:1f) revealed by the Son; and the Father and the Son are known only through the Holy Spirit (John 15:26). Therefore, the revelation of the Divine Name is also the revelation of our salvation, for the revelation of the One Divine Name of The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit came only out of the mouth of Jesus Christ after he had accomplished all things, and was ready to go back to the Father in order to send the other Paraklētos. The new life, into which we are born again in baptism, is eternal life; that eternal life is to know the God of this revelation intimately.
And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; even the Spirit of truth; whom the world can not receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. ..And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. (John 14:16,17; 17:3)
Eternal life is to know the Spirit of Truth, for he alone reveals the Son. It is to know the Son, for he alone reveals the Father. It is to know the Father. Our salvation and eternal life is to know the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Hear what the Prophet Jeremiah foretold, as the substance of the New Covenant:
Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jer. 31:31-34)
This is salvation and eternal life.
This is also universal, to be proclaimed in all nations; for it is in all nations that we are to make and baptize disciples. "For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea." (Hab. 2:14) In recent years we have read of false teachers (such as one Bishop Swing of the Episcopal "Church") tell us that Christianity should no longer be a missionary faith, and that we should respect the alleged right of all people to have their ancestral gods. Thank God St. Patrick did not think so, or my Irish ancestors would have continued the practice of human sacrifice, burning people in the Wicker Man. The Gospel is not a form of oppression, but the only way out of the darkness into the light. "But thus shall ye deal with them; ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire...And ye shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place. " (Deut. 7:5, 12:3). It is a service, it is compassionate, to liberate people from the cruelty of paganism, and to bring to them knowledge of the true God. When the Church built its new shrines on the sites of old pagan shrines, it practiced wisdom; for the old ways of darkness were replaced by the worship of the loving God of salvation. In the old places of dread and darkness the Church built new places of joy and light.
We have been given a mission, whether or not the world and its defeated prince approve. The Church has that same mission in all the world that Christ gave in a special way to St. Paul: "To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me." (Acts 26:18)
Baptism in the One Name, revealed by the Risen Christ, is entrance into the New Covenant, into death to sin and the newness of life, into the knowledge of God. It is for all nations. To proclaim the Name of The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit is to proclaim our only hope and our only salvation. Only the Risen Christ could reveal it, and so prepare his Disciples to receive the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. We know the Name not in some academic or theoretical sense, but rather because The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit have been revealed in the coming of one Paraklētos, Christ our Lord who defeated sin and death in his passion and resurrection, and the coming of the other Paraklētos, the Spirit of Truth who gives life and power to the Body of Christ. The revelation of the Trinity is the seal of our salvation history and it is our life here and now.
THE REVELATION OF THE TRINITY AND SALVATION
We are given glimpses and indications about the Trinity all throughout the Old Testament, beginning with the fact that God is one, but is spoken of in the plural nonetheless. For the word translated most often as God is rendered in the plural. Elohim (אלהים), the plural, is used rather than simply El (אל), which is singular. This is consistent with many things that appear quite mysteriously in the Book of Genesis, and continue throughout the writings of the Old Testament. The most famous of statements that declare this truth, that there is only one God, is in the Book of Deuteronomy: "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD." (Deut. 6:4) When the holiness of God is proclaimed to the prophet Isaiah by angels in the temple, he is "Holy, Holy, Holy" (Isaiah 6:3). Nonetheless, we are told many times that God is one, and there is no other beside him. "Ye are my witnesses, saith the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen: that ye may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me. I, even I, am the LORD; and beside me there is no saviour." (Isaiah 43: 10, 11). In this same book God often reveals his relationship with Israel in various triads, such as: "I am the LORD, your Holy One, the creator of Israel, your King"(43:15). God is one (אחד) and plural (אלהים). God is invisible, and yet was seen in visions by prophets.
But, let us never imagine that the Trinity presents us with a problem of mathematics. The mystery of the Trinity is not a mystery of how he can be three in one, and one in three. That, in itself, is really not so hard to understand; and so St. Patrick used something as simple as the shamrock, one leaf that is also three leaves, to illustrate the unity of the Trinity.1 Without being mathematicians, we can understand that one may equal any number. That is not the mystery. The mystery is God, a mystery so great that the joy of eternity is growing in the knowledge of God forever, ever deepening knowledge that cannot be exhausted, for "his greatness is unsearchable." (Psalm 145:3) Infinity is too small a concept to weigh against God.
Like all revelation, the doctrine of the Trinity is filled with mystery to such an extent that we can be sure of one thing: No human mind dreamed it up. No human mind can contemplate God except by some use of created things, for the human mind is part of creation, lives in creation, and cannot leap out of that into the uncreated reality we call God. We can know God, nonetheless, because God has taken the initiative to reveal himself. And, this revelation cannot be separated from our salvation from sin and death.
The salvation which we celebrate, as God has given it to us, is historical and it is future. It is also iconic and sacramental. We must turn to readings for the Mass of Christmas on this Trinity Sunday, to grasp the point.
"God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high." (Hebrews 1:1-3)
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth." (John 1:1-14) 2
The Fathers who gathered for the second Council of Nicea knew that the heresy of the Iconoclasts was very dangerous indeed. The Iconoclasts failed to understand the difference between Christian icons and pagan idols. Christian icons are based on revelation, especially the ultimate revelation, the Incarnation: "The Word was made flesh." Pagan idols are a deception, taught by human imagination at best, by demons at worst, to lure men away from the true God. The true God is known only through the Son (John 14:6, 17:3). The Fathers at that Second Council of Nicea (787 AD) knew that if the Church rejected icons they would reject the iconic nature of revelation, the truth that the Word was made flesh. In time, they could refuse to believe in the Son, as he has been revealed through his human nature. In time, the knowledge of God could be lost, if the Iconoclasts were to prevail.
Iconoclasm had come from a new religion, a brand of Unitarianism known as Islam. A god who is alone cannot understand love, because he is not the One-Elohim of Israel, known more fully by the Church as "the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit." The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that "God is love," as St. John put it (I John 4:8,16). But, about a god who is one and only one, through and through, with no plurality of Persons in him, we cannot speak of love; rather of an emptiness, a void in which eternity knows no compassion. G.K. Chesterton contrasted the God of revelation against the god of Islam very well:
"To us Trinitarians (if I may say it with reverence) -- to us God Himself is a society. It is indeed a fathomless mystery of theology, and even if I were theologian enough to deal with it directly, it would not be relevant to do so here. Suffice it to say here that this triple enigma is as comforting as wine and open as an English fireside; that this thing that bewilders the intellect utterly quiets the heart: but out of the desert, from the dry places and the dreadful suns, come the cruel children of the lonely God; the real Unitarians who with scimitar in hand have laid waste the world. For it is not well for God to be alone."3
Our salvation is iconic, because to know the Son is to know the Father also. Apart from the Word made flesh we cannot know God.
"But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them. For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." (II Corinthians 4:3-6)
We know God because we know the Son, and we know him because he is also a man.
The Word is spoken of by St. John in the Trinitarian opening of his Gospel, where God is thrice named, and where, when God is named the second time, "the Word was God." Further on we see, "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth." What did we behold, even as it was disguised in his human features? We beheld "the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." (II Cor.4:6) And, what we beheld in that face was compassion, such compassion as a lonely god would not have. We beheld love, the love of the Father in the love of the Son, expressed most clearly on the cross when he poured out his soul unto death to redeem fallen mankind, to save us from sin and death. And, we behold him, after death, rising again and forever keeping our own human nature within the very Godhead. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ is entwined with the revelation that God is three in one and one in three.
Our salvation, as revealed, is sacramental. It stems from the Incarnation, and depends on the death and resurrection of Christ, from which flow the power and grace that are given to us by the Holy Spirit, as he uses the means of grace through his Church. Without the atonement Christ worked for us on his cross, and by his rising again, we would have no absolution, no baptism, no Communion. Without the Holy Spirit present and active in the Church, this grace would never be imparted through the preached word and through the sacraments. For, it is the Holy Spirit, the other Comforter (παράκλητος, paraklētos), who imparts every grace that flows from the Incarnate, crucified and risen Son.
The risen Christ gave commandment to baptize "in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." (Matthew 28:19) St. Basil reminds us, in his book On the Holy Spirit, that this trinitarian Name is one Name, not three names. We do not baptize in the names, but in the name. Comparing the 17th chapter of the Gospel of John to the 28th chapter of Matthew, we see a progression. In John, before his death, he says: "Father...I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it: that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them." (John 17:26) And, in Matthew, the Name of God is more fully revealed when he commands the Church to baptize, by telling us the name into which we baptize. "The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit." This ultimate revelation of the name of God came from the mouth of the risen Lord Jesus Christ after he had perfected the work of our redemption, salvation and justification. (How fitting that we read the conversation between the Lord and Nicodemus on Trinity Sunday, since baptism, the new birth, is part of the revelation that God is the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost).
The correct pronunciation of the mysterious Name of God has been lost, despite fruitless efforts to figure it out. We may have an indication from the prophet Jeremiah that this loss was God's own work, a loss indeed, but to the end that we gain something greater (Jeremiah 44:26). For in place of a name that is only mystery, we have a greater revelation of a name that declares who our God is. We may not know how to pronounce the name spoken by Moses and the prophets; but, we know the God of Moses and the prophets more fully by the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. And, we have learned this name through the human life of the Son of God, his personal history of being conceived in the womb of his mother, Mary the Virgin, the Theotokos. We know his history of going about doing good, healing all who were oppressed by the devil, teaching and preaching the kingdom of God, preparing his disciples, dying for the sins of the world, rising again from the dead, ascending to the Father and pouring out the Holy Spirit. We have learned the revelation of the Trinity because God is our salvation.
1. See my article Threefold Chords about how J.S.Bach used music to present a theological demonstration of the Trinity.
2. John used the phrase "in the beginning" to remind us of Genesis, and to get behind the opening of that first book of the Bible. What we call "Genesis" is called, in Hebrew, בראשית (B'Rasheet). It is simply the first word, which we translate into English with three words: "In the beginning." John used the Greek translation that opens this same first book of the Bible in the LXX. It was popular years ago to emphasize the first four words of the English translation. "In the beginning God." But, in fact, the word for "created," ( ברא, bora) is the second word in the Hebrew text, and the word we translate as "God" (that plural word, אלהים, Elohim) is third. In the Hebrew syntax the word for "created" directly follows "In the beginning." It is the opening of John's Gospel that moves the emphasis from the work of God to God as God. The apostle goes behind the scene of Genesis 1:1 to draw our attention from creation to God. This is because the New Covenant gives the knowledge of God in greater glory.
3.From Orthodoxy, by G.K. Chesterton. (chapter VIII)