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Making sense of rubbish: the Trinity

Pierre Whalon
4 min readNov 23, 2022

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The story is told of the bishop preaching one Sunday in his cathedral, when suddenly the gentle crazy man who always sat in the front row (every church has one) jumped up and shouted, “Rubbish!” Then he sat down. The bishop composed himself and carried on. A few minutes later, the fellow leapt up and shouted, “Absolute rubbish!” and sat down again. The bishop looked at the dean, who motioned that he should carry on. After a deep breath, the bishop plunged on until the man once again got up and shouted “Complete and utter rubbish, I tell you!” The bishop asked the dean whether he should carry on. “Please do, Bishop,” said the Dean. “That’s the first time he’s ever made sense.”

There is a sense in which every explanation of the Trinity is rubbish. The Trinity is often presented as an esoteric bit of theology that only a die-hard theologian could love. You know: “four relations, three Persons, two processions, One God.”

Huh?

The Catechism in the Prayer Book is a bit too succinct:

Q. What is the Trinity?

A. The Trinity is one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Uh-huh.

Then there is the Athanasian Creed: “But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Ghost uncreate. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.”

To which one wag famously added, “The whole damn thing incomprehensible!”

Whoa there

Enough. Let’s back up. The great Anglican theologian Austin Farrer wisely pointed out that we do not read the Bible in order to do theology. We do theology in order better to hear the story of the Bible. For the Scriptures have a surfeit of meanings: they overflow. For example, consider how the four Gospels describe Jesus’ baptism. Each one takes a different angle, as it were. Matthew focuses on the relation between John and Jesus. Mark describes Jesus’ personal experience. Luke looks up to the Holy Spirit descending. And John has the Baptist describe the scene after the fact. In each account, the Trinity…

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Pierre Whalon

Bishop in charge, Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, 2001–2019. French-American. Musician, composer, author, happily married. www.pierrewhalon.info