Decorative Image
October 17, 2023

The Holy Trinity and Trinitarian Worship

When Christians speak with a Reformed accent, they remind us that the God we worship is mysteriously triune: simultaneously a threefold being and a unitary one.

The Father is God,

the Son is God,

the Holy Spirit is God.

Yet there are not three gods;

there is but one God (Athanasian Creed, vss. 15-16).

Centuries of Christians have pondered this mystery and attempted to state it in various ways. The Heidelberg Catechism says that “three distinct persons are one, true, eternal God” (A. 25). The Belgic Confession says that “we believe in one God, who is one single essence, in whom there are three persons, really, truly, and eternally distinct . . .yet in such a way that these three persons are only one God” (art. 8).

Here are some things we may say about this mysterious doctrine:

  • The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct persons. Scripture says that they know and are known; that they love and are loved; that they take distinct actions (only the Son has become incarnate); that they can be grieved. These are traits of personal beings.
  • Yet the three persons each possess the full divine essence. They possess the set of traits that make a being fully divine, traits such as eternal, almighty, holy, and perfect in love and justice. That’s what it means to say that each is God.
  • But “God” is also the proper name of the Father, as when we confess that we believe in “God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth.” And “God” is also the name of the Holy Trinity. So when the Catechism and Confession, quoted above, state that we believe in “one God,” we may read this as saying that we believe in “one God, the Holy Trinity itself.”
  • Besides the generic essence (holiness, almightiness, perfect love, and so on) shared by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each has a personal essence as well. The Father is unbegotten; the Son is begotten, the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Son derives from the Father in some non-temporal, non-physical relationship akin to that of a father and a son. The Father is original in some ineffable sense and the Son, derivative. Meanwhile, the Spirit—the least original of the three—derives or proceeds from both the Father and the Son. The Spirit exists in an “of” or “from” relation to the Father and the Son.

These subtle distinctions let us see why the Holy Trinity is a mystery.

But there is nothing mysterious about the effect of the doctrine of the Trinity on Christian worship. Classic Christian worship is weighty with trinitarian riches. We Christians often open or close services of worship according to Paul’s words at the end of 2 Corinthians 13: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” We sometimes sing such hymns as “Holy, Holy, Holy,” which ends its first and last stanzas with “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”

Moreover, we Christians baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit because Jesus in Matthew 28 told his disciples to do it. In the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving at the Lord’s Supper we pray in gratitude and supplication to the Father, Son, and Spirit.

In recent years, some Christians have winced at the language of Father, Son, and Spirit. The language sounds as if God is a bachelor father, his single son, and their agent—two thirds of God sounds pretty masculine. And so sensitive leaders and planners will have alternative ways to honor the triune God.

For example, borrowing from the Celtic tradition, the 1994 “Book of Common Order” of the Church of Scotland has a prayer of confession that goes like this:

Count us not as nothing, O God.

Count us not as nothing, O Christ.

Count us not as nothing, O kind Spirit,

nor abandon us to eternal loss.

O God, O Christ, O kind Spirit. That's an alternative trinitarian address. So is Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Using this language does not presume to correct Jesus who taught us to say, “Our Father in heaven.” It does not try to correct the Creed, which tells us that Jesus is “God’s only Son, our Lord.” It simply expands our Trinitarian vocabulary.

Meanwhile, in trinitarian worship when we offer prayer to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are deeply aware that we do not have a single listener. We are praying into a threefold society of listeners. Moreover, as Romans 8 reveals, when we pray into the triune life, we are praying into a center of hospitality. As we pray the Spirit intercedes for us. As we pray, Jesus Christ intercedes for us. The triune God makes room for us in this wonderful way.

In an article in Reformed Worship, Diane Strickland suggests that worship leaders and preachers simply name the Holy Trinity at least once each service (“Trinity Matters,” RW 51, March 1999). Rev. Strickland, for her own part, prefaces her sermons by saying to listeners, “I speak to you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And after the final word of good news in her sermon she will say “In this, as in all things, glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit” or, alternatively, “Glory be to God, and to the Christ, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Perhaps all this reminds us that we Christians are not called to resolve the great mysteries of our faith. We are called to adore them.

More from Reformed Worship