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After I finished my Arts degree at Adelaide Uni, majoring in German language and literature, with a year of law thrown in for fun, I was accepted by the Anglican Diocese of Adelaide as a candidate for the priesthood, studying at Flinders Uni and the Anglican Training College, St Barnabas. At college we were expected to preach to the staff and the other students about once a term, but one Sunday a year we were all sent out to different churches to preach at their regular Sunday morning service. There pressure was on, because we were brand new to the whole preaching game. To make matters worse, every year that I was at St Barnabas College, we were sent out to preach on Trinity Sunday. How do you make sense of the Trinity, understanding God as three persons but one God? How do you make sense of the belief that Christians believe in one God, but made up of three persons? It was the worst possible Sunday to be sent out to preach in the local suburban churches! The belief in God as a Trinity emerged because of passages like the one at the end of Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 28: 16–20). Thanks to their Jewish heritage, the first Christians had a strong belief in God. They believed that God was behind every part of their lives, guiding them and encouraging them. Jesus had taught them to address God in a very personal way, namely as Father, which built on their Jewish traditions that God took delight in them, that God loved them and cared for them. But, of course, the first Christians also experienced something quite special in the person of Jesus. The first disciples knew Jesus as a man, but they also recognised something quite extraordinary about him. They came to believe that he was God’s son. Finally, after Jesus’ death, they had these incredible religious experiences, so powerful that they believed God’s spirit was with them. These experiences of the Spirit led them to believe that God was present with them in a particular way as the Holy Spirit. So, the first Christians understood God as three persons: God the Father (the God of their ancestors), God the Son (Jesus the man, whom they had known) and God the Holy Spirit (the sense that God’s Spirit was with them, always).

That’s a very brief history of the emergence of the doctrine of the Trinity. I guess one of the reasons we really struggled as theological students, heading out to preach on Trinity Sunday, was, “What possible relevance does this ancient doctrine, this ancient belief, this idea of three-in-one, have for anyone today, even Churchgoers, let alone the rest of society?”

One of the early fights within Christianity was indeed about the Trinity, particularly in the 3rd and 4th centuries. In the first century after Jesus, there was not a lot of time to debate the nature of the Trinity. In the first century the Christians were just trying to survive. When various Roman Emperors are trying to wipe you out (the Emperor Nero most famously) there is not a lot of spare brain power to think about the exact relationships between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. But, once Christianity survived the persecution of the 1st century (somewhat against the odds) by the time we get to the 3rd and 4th centuries, the question of the nature of the Trinity became really important.

It was in those centuries that an understanding of the Trinity emerged which would shape Christianity profoundly and contribute something quite extraordinary to the western world as a result.

It is this: the three persons of the Trinity are equal. There is no hierarchy in the Trinity. The Father is not more important than the Son, the Son is not more important than the Spirit – they are equal in importance and in their divinity.

Why is that still relevant today? Because if you pay attention to it, it can shape society. If God is mutual love and affection, if the persons of the Trinity are indeed equal, then our society should reflect that. Our society should reflect God.

Because we live in Australia, which has a separation between Church and State (helpfully so, in my opinion) it’s easy to forget how much one’s understanding of God can shape the rest of society. But historically in the west, and still today in some countries, the way you understand God can profoundly shape the society around you. That’s the relevance of the Trinity today, and it’s a radical message, that we are all equal.

As the Year 10 students prepare to head out on their 21-Day Journey, as they think about struggling along with their pack and trying to remain friends with their fellow students, I have encouraged them to think, “What did Father Theo says about the doctrine of the Trinity? Oh, that’s right, just as the three persons of the Trinity are equal, we are also all equal. There is no false hierarchy. We are all in this together.”

Believe it or not, this image of God can be a source of incredible courage and strength, especially if someone tells you that you are not their equal or not worthy of their attention. The ancient doctrine of the Trinity is actually quite a radical statement of equality. Together, as equals, we can go much farther than we can by ourselves.

The Reverend Dr Theo McCall
School Chaplain