Ars Praedicandi: Preaching the Trinity

Trinity Meme
Several people have sent me this meme and, as it turns out, while working out the preaching schedule for the spring and summer, my Pastor said, “Oh, good. You’re preaching on Trinity Sunday.” I’d like to think this was because he was looking forward so much to what I had to say, but I suspect that it was simply relief that he didn’t have to preach himself.

The doctrine of the Trinity is clearly a—perhaps the—central doctrine of the Christian faith. So why does it so terrify preachers? Perhaps because they learned it as a series of propositions to be committed (often imperfectly) to memory, propositions that seem somewhat incomprehensible and completely divorced from the everyday lives of people.

I have no magic formula for preaching on the Trinity, but here are a few suggestions:

  • Don’t panic. In preaching on the Trinity you will probably—almost assuredly—fail. But we always fail to some degree in speaking of the mystery of God.
  • Don’t wait for Trinity Sunday. If you try to bring the Trinity into your preaching only one day out of the year, you simply convey the message that it is a doctrine that we dutifully acknowledge and practically ignore. The Trinitarian faith should pervade and underpin all preaching.
  • Avoid analogies that try to explain how something can be both one and three. They not only almost always lead you into heresy (typically some form of modalism), but even if they don’t they still leave your listeners saying, “OK. So what?”
  • Preach the Trinity as the mystery of salvation. While it is doctrinally important to maintain what theologians call the “immanent Trinity,” for homiletic purposes you are more likely to reach your audience if you at least start with the “economic Trinity”: God the Father sending the Son and the Spirit into the world for us and for our salvation. As the late Catherine Mowry LaCugna argued, we have to come to see the Trinity as “God for us,” and this is particularly true in terms of preaching.

For those who are interested, I offer my own latest attempt at preaching on Trinity Sunday.

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13 comments

  1. All good points.

    Myself, I find 1 John 4:8 the most economical starting point. God *is* love. (Not the same as God is loving or God is lovely.) Which then eventually leads to a line from Love Unknown: Love to the loveless shown that they [we] might lovely be.

    Western Christianity tends to focus on Jesus (with Pentecostalism changing that focus a bit in the past century or so). Eastern Christiantiy is so emphatically Trinitarian that it can be misread as tritheistic by Westerners, but it serves as a corrective to remember the essentially Trinitarian nature of the Incarnation and Paschal Mysteries, among other things…

  2. I like to bring out two points:
    1. God is mystery
    2. God desires to be known by us. This happens through revelation: in history and in scripture.

    Our response to the Trinity is to strive to know God more.

  3. When I was an undergrad seminarian at Catholic University in the late 60s our house of studies had a devout cook who was also a catechist. Her health was giving out so a helper was hired. The helper was a devout Protestant, a great lover of God who went into our little porch chapel blessing herself with the holy water. I came home from school at lunch and heard the two of them in the dinette talking about how wonderful God was.. The helper said yes, “God loved us so much Jesus sent his son to save us. That was too much for our catechist…she drew a shamrock on a napkin and explained Father Son and Holy Spirit, three persons in one God, none of which were the other and that it was God the Father who sent Jesus his Son to save us. The other woman said, “Well, you know, you learn something new every day.”

  4. Why are these sort of topics addressed on the day of the feast and not a week ago when the points raised could actually be incorporated into preaching?

    But there’s a fancy Latin title so I guess I’ll just be distracted by the academic veneer.

    1. @Paul Firenze:
      The idea of this series is that it will help pastors to strengthen their homilies and provide good homiletic examples. The series is not meant to give a pastor specific talking points when composing their homily for a specific Sunday or feast. The series is an attempt to show good homilies and talk about the principles of good homilies so that pastors can improve their homilies.

      This is why most of the homilies are not prepared and posted ahead of time. It is mean to be a reflection on homilies that have already been preached.

  5. I’ve chatted with some Mormons nearby who’ve explained their belief that the Three are separate, but One in their intent. Nice, simple, easy to understand. To my way of thinking. not what God should be.

    Personally, I think if I could understand God, He wouldn’t be all that much of a God. I like knowing that He is a mystery, far beyond my ken. It lets me truly have faith in Him. It helps keep my faith more than just a mere belief.

  6. Love the YouTube!

    To me, the key to preaching on any Sunday, but especially Trinity Sunday, is avoiding the “OK. So what?” A homily is not an occasion on which we talk *about* God, but a time in which we *encounter* God. Classrooms are for explanations, and worship is for engagement.

    The ELCA has a slightly different series of readings, but the Romans text stands out to me as the strongest of the three in the RC lectionary in terms of getting past the “OK. So what?”. You *are* a child of God, says Paul — not a slave, not a servant, but a child and heir. Playing with what this means is an opportunity for exploring all kinds of aspects of Christian life. What does it mean to be a partner with the Spirit (“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit”), for example?

    Finally, one last observation . . .

    “. . . we have to come to see the Trinity as “God for us,” and this is particularly true in terms of preaching.”

    Martin Luther (among others) would agree. The “for us” is as central to preaching as it is to the Eucharist, with the body and blood given “for you.”

  7. How about the Trinity approached through the three sacraments of initiation? The Father adopts us in baptism, the Son incorporates us in the Eucharist, the Holy Spirit transforms us in Confirmation?

  8. I booked baptisms for both of our am Masses this Sunday before I looked at the lectionary. When I booked them, I thought that preaching about baptism would be a good way of preaching the Trinity. Then, I saw what Gospel we had this year and realized the lectionary compilers had had the same idea.

    Fritz mentioned Catherine LaCugna. Preparing for Trinity Sunday, I always go back and re-read her “Making the Most of Trinity Sunday” article.

  9. The sermon last Sunday focused on the relationship among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, how they act in concert, how they “predate” creation, how the theological Trinity teaches us more than the economic Trinity (Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier — which is borderline modalism anyway). For application, the sermon focused particularly on how the Father and the Son interact, with the Holy Spirit being the love between them. Straight up St Augustine, without the name dropping that makes people tune out. It then compared that relationship to parents and their children, emphasizing unconditional love, humility, and elevation to the Father’s Right Hand — the notion that parents must, one day, let their children be their peers and not forever and always infantilize them. I was happy.

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