The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America



The One in Three & the Three in One

Church teaching, or "doctrine," about the Trinity grew from the soil of the church's life of prayer, praise and testimony.

Early Christians found that they could not pray to God or talk about God without invoking Jesus of Nazareth and the life-giving Spirit intimately associated with Jesus' life, death and resurrection. Early Christians experienced the Spirit as the power in whom they prayed to God. They experienced Jesus Christ as the one through whom they prayed to God. As Ephesians 2:18 puts it, through Christ we "have access in one Spirit to the Father."

Questions naturally arose about the relations between these three figures who were so central to the church's life of prayer and testimony. In the ensuing debates, the church sought to become clearer about the relations between "the Three." The primary concern of these debates was the relation between Jesus and God. Through these debates the church worked out important teaching. One primary expression of this teaching, the Nicene Creed, is a regular part of worship in ELCA congregations.

At the heart of these debates was the fact that Jesus suffered and died. No human being avoids questions of vulnerability and suffering. No human being who confesses belief in God avoids questions of how God relates to creaturely vulnerability and suffering. These everyday, pressing questions are at the heart of the church's teaching about the Trinity.

The Gospel accounts push us to a drastic question: How can we identify God with a person who was tortured to death, as Jesus was? How can we identify the life-giving breath of God, the Spirit, with the breath of that Jesus who was tortured to death? Yet this is what John 20:22 does when it says that the risen Christ "breathed on them and said to them: 'Receive the Holy Spirit.'"

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