Let the Scriptures Speak
From Experience to Doctrine
… the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Rom 5:5)
A rabbi I know is frequently asked to speak about Judaism to classes in Catholic schools. She marvels at the students' assumptions about Jewish understandings of God. “If you don't believe in the divinity of Christ,” they sometimes ask her, “what does that do to your understanding of the Trinity?” That Jews have no concept of God as Trinity amazes the students; and their amazement continues to amaze the rabbi.
This reciprocal puzzlement can serve as a reminder that the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not a matter of reasoning, nor even a matter of revelation to be found in the Hebrew Bible. Our sense of God as triune is a doctrine that came from reflecting on God's revelation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who is called Christ and Lord only by Christians. Claiming a divine Christ raised the challenge of integrating that claim with the oneness of the God of Israel.
If it is the Christian experience of Jesus that gave rise to the teaching on the Trinity, then the only way even to begin to understand the doctrine is to reflect on the experience that prompted it. This Sunday's reading from Romans provides a fine entrance into such reflection.
The cutting from Romans 5 gives us a privileged glimpse into the heart of St. Paul's understanding of Christian life and faith. Paul writes to the Roman Christians for several purposes. He wants, for example, to demonstrate his way of teaching the faith and to help ease tensions arising naturally from the fact that the Christian community of Rome is comprised of people from two diverse and sometimes mutually hostile backgrounds—Gentile and Jewish. Up to this point in the letter, he has argued that all of them—Jew and Gentile alike—needed the gift of God that came in Christ Jesus; and, Jew and Gentile alike, they had all come into that new relationship with the Creator through the kind of faith modeled by Abraham, who trusted that God could bring life out of sterility.
At the point of today's reading, Paul begins a four-chapter section in which he rehearses some of his favorite ways of describing the transformation they have all experienced as baptized and believing Christians. He describes this, for instance, as moving from sinful solidarity with Adam to life-giving solidarity with the new Adam, Christ, or as moving from death to a new life, or as like being adopted slaves who gain a new family and an astounding inheritance as children of God.
Here, in Romans 5:1-5, Paul gives his resume of the Christian experience, which he knows the Roman Christians have shared even though he has not met them yet. Without fear of being presumptuous or misunderstood, Paul can assert that he and his readers are people who have peace with God. When we read “peace” in Paul we should think shalom, which means not simply the absence of strife or guilt but the fullness of shared covenant life in relationship with the Creator. Paul uses language from his Jewish heritage to describe what he has come to see as the fulfillment of that heritage. He adds that this new realization of life with God has been enabled by “our Lord Jesus Christ.” That is the creed in a nutshell: Paul knows that, with the Roman Christians, he claims the Galilean Jesus of Nazareth is the long-awaited Messiah of his people, and, leaping beyond his past Jewish expectations, this Jesus is worthy of the divine title “Lord.”
He writes, “through whom we have gained access by faith to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in hope of the glory of God.” This shalom in Christ Jesus has a future. The death and resurrection of Jesus founds a hope of sharing in the very glory of God. Meanwhile, this relationship sustains us in the midst of the hard stuff of life: “we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance proven character, and proven character hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us.” “Love of God” here is not our love of God but God's love of us.
There we have it—the seeds of the later full-blown doctrine of the Trinity rooted in experience. Like the cross, the sense of God as Trinity is “scandal to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” But for those who believe in Jesus as Messiah and Lord, the doctrine of God as three Persons is not mainly an intellectual puzzle but a necessary description of the experience of those who are enabled by faith to pray through the Son to the Father in the Holy Spirit.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
**From Saint Louis University