Q: I'm a 66-year-old Lutheran. I have a sound religious faith and have always had a strong interest in learning from reading the Bible. What I've never understood is our concept of God the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I don't know to whom I should pray. I would rather just pray to God. If we're to pray only to God, though, why all this talk about the other two? Also, we're commanded to have only one God.
-- S., Quakertown, Pa.
A: Nothing scares me more as a rabbi than being asked to explain the Trinity to Christians. It would be like my friend Tommy (Father Tom Hartman) being asked by a Jewish person to determine if a chicken was kosher! However, sometimes an outsider can have a useful perspective. With that disclaimer and my strong suggestion that you consult your pastor, here's what my Christian teachers have taught me about the Trinity:
The theological problem the Trinity is meant to address is that the single word "God" is not thick enough, rich enough, nuanced enough, or true enough to begin to capture the full mystery of the Deity. In the Hebrew Bible, there are three main names for God: elohim, el shaddai, and the unpronounceable tetragrammaton, YHWH.
Each name may refer to one or another of God's many attributes. God explains this to Moses directly in Exodus 6:3: "And I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but by my name JEHOVAH was I not known to them." (KJV). In the case of the Trinity, however, the reason for the three names is not sequential and historical. For Christians, these are three separate but ultimately identical elements of God.
Christianity is a monotheistic religion, so the ways the three elements of the Trinity are different is not as important as the way they are the same.
Both Islam and Judaism refer to many attributes of God (mercy, judgment, etc.), but this is also not the same as the Christian notion of the Trinity because they are all attributes of a single God. Jesus taught of the Trinity explicitly in the New Testament: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." -- Matthew 28:18-20 (NIV). However, nothing in the New Testament supports the idea of three gods, thus, "The Lord our God is one." (Mark 12:29)
To focus on Lutheran beliefs, we begin with the foundation: "Lutherans confess (to declare faith in, or adherence to, the faith of the apostolic Christian Church as it is taught in the three Ecumenical (Universal) Creeds: Apostles', Nicene and Athanasian. Namely, that there is only one true God, and yet in this one God there are three persons: the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit."
This means what it says, namely that there is one God, within which there are three persons. It doesn't mean that there are three gods. Each of the persons in the Trinity is completely God and yet they are distinct. The great problem is in understanding what it means that there are three people inside of one person. The Trinity ought not confuse you into thinking that it is a belief in plural gods. What remains true for all Western faiths is that the mystery of God is far too rich and complex to allow it to be understood the way we understand anything else. The courageous mystery of the Trinity remains a challenging inspiration to all faiths and the single unifying mystery of Christianity.