liturgy, Trinity

Frank Answers About Trinity Sunday

I’ve heard sermons on Trinity Sunday in which the preacher always says that Trinity Sunday celebrates a doctrine and then complains about how hard it is to preach on a doctrine. Is Trinity Sunday really just about a doctrine?

Frank answers: yes and no. Mostly no. But let’s start with the “yes.”

Obviously, “Trinity” is a term that comes out of theology, not the Bible. Without the “doctrine” of the Trinity we would not have “Trinity Sunday.” The Gothic tribes that swept into Western Europe and settled down there had to be weened away from the Arianism they had been taught by missionaries from Constantinople. Out of this effort we have the great canticle of praise, Te Deum laudamus (We praise you, O God), and the so-called Athanasian Creed (Quicunque vult salus esse – Whoever wishes to be saved), that was not written  by Athanasius of Alexandria. Both texts came from southern Gaul (modern France) in the 5th century.

In the effort to shore up Trinitarian orthodoxt, prayers that ended simply “through Jesus Christ our Lord” were expanded to say, “who lives and reigns with you [Father] and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end.” A special mass to the Holy Trinity  was added to liturgical books that could be used on any occasion, not just on one Sunday of the year. But from the 9th century on some bishops in the Frankish kingdom ordered their own dioceses to celebrate a special mass to the Holy Trinity, usually on the Sunday after Pentecost, using propers prepared by Alcuin of York at the Court of Charlemagne in 804. The eucharistic preface for the Trinity in the Gregorian Sacramentary came to be used on all the Sundays that are counted in ordinary time, that is, Sundays “after Trinity” as they were designated.

But by the high middle ages  we’re well beyond just shoring up a doctrine. What we really see is a growing devotion to the Holy Trinity in Western Europe. This was expressed in some dioceses and religious orders by having a day devoted to the Trinity. The so-called Athanasian Creed had come to be used in the monastic office of Prime on Trinity Sunday. This creed does not say “We believe” but “We worship  one God in Trinity and the Trinity in unity.” Trinity was taking root in the culture of the people. Look at those three doors leading into the gothic cathedrals—three ways into the one divine mystery.

However, not until 1334 was the Festival of the Holy Trinity promulgated by Pope John XXII as a day to be included in the universal calendar of the Western Church. (It is not observed in the Eastern Orthodox Churches. They observe the Feast of All Martyrs on the Sunday after Pentecost.) This was the 14th century, a time of the “Black Death,” of the plagues that decimated the populations of Western Europe, of the Hundred Years’ War. It was a time of special devotion to the Trinity. There were penitential processions using the Great Litany that begins with an invocation of each person of the Trinity. Hundreds of new churches were built across Europe in the 14th century that were dedicated to the Trinity. Altar paintings (such as the one above this post by Jan Polack, ca. 1400) tried to portray the persons of the Trinity, but showed a suffering Son of God and a caring Father that the faithful could relate to out of their sufferings.

The Lutheran and Anglican Reformations continued the observance of Trinity Sunday with its proper Eucharistic preface and provided for the continuing recitation of the Athanasian Creed in Morning Prayer. Up until the revision of the calendar and lectionary after the Second Vatican Council, Lutherans and Anglicans used to count the Sundays of ordinary time as “after Trinity.” The time “after Trinity” was divided into three trimesters that dealt with creation (Trinity Sunday until Michaelmas), redemption (Michaelmas term), and consummation (from All Saints until Advent). The great Lutheran chorales of the 16th and 17th  centuries were as Trinitarian as they were Christological. J. S. Bach loved the Trinity. Look at the great Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major (St. Anne)—3 flats, 3 sections of the prelude.

Trinity Sunday is not a doctrinal Sunday.  It’s not the anniversary of the Council of Nicea, or something like that. No preacher has to stumble verbally trying to explain the doctrine of the Trinity from the pulpit. It is about the devotion of the Christian people to the God they have come to know by the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is about the mystery of the Godhead but also about the relationship of the church as a community of faith to the God who is a community of persons, as shown in the Andrei Rublev icon of the Trinity from 15th century Russia (see below). Preachers would do better in their sermons to avoid trying to explaining the doctrine and instead cultivate a love of the God who created, redeemed, and sanctifies us, and also evoke a worldview of new creation, redeemed humanity, and holiness of life that only a teaching as big as the doctrine of the Trinity can promote and protect. Above all, it is a day for all-stops-pulled worship of the Holy Trinity.

Pastor Frank Senn



  1. Jerry Kliner

    I think one of the great weaknesses of our current time is the loss of the distinction between “Dogma” and “Doctrine.” The Holy Trinity…at least to my thinking…resides in the realm of Dogma because it is a “revealed Truth.” To speak of a god other than the Holy Trinity is to cease to speak of the God that Christians worship. “Doctrines” on the other hand are not “revealed Truth” but rather are attempts at comprehension. While not unimportant, doctrines may, depending upon their centrality, dissented from or re-understood or re-imagined. For example, who among us is really and fully “Lutheran”? Even before the Reformation had gone a single generation, disputes arose between various Lutherans over various doctrinal points. But Dogma is not “arguable.”
    A serious repercussion of our (small-P) protestant anti-Catholicism and authority issues is that a great many of us reject Dogma out-of-hand. Which leads far too many to uncritically reject the Holy Trinity as “a celebration of doctrine” and often as a repressive exercise in “legalism.” Instead, the Holy Trinity is in the same nature as the Incarnation; a joyous self-revelation of who God IS.

  2. Charles Pierson Shaw

    Technically speaking “dogma” comes from the Greek word “dokein” (seems good), as in “ἔδοξεν γὰρ τῷ πνεύματι τῷ ἁγίῳ καὶ ἡμῖν μηδὲν πλέον ἐπιτίθεσθαι ὑμῖν βάρος πλὴν τούτων τῶν ἐπάναγκες” (Act 15:28, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials”) from the Letter of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. Thus dogma comes to be understood as that doctrine (from the Latin “docere” meaning to teach or “doctrina” a teaching) which has been tested and weighed through a process in which the Church is called and guided by the Holy Spirit.

    Frank, I would most certainly agree with you that Pastors should not begin by lamenting having to preach on Holy Trinity Sunday. However, I think I am correct that Holy Trinity Sunday remains the only Feast Day on the liturgical calendar in use in most Lutheran denominations, which is devoted to an essential doctrine of the orthodox Christian tradition. As you have alluded to in your post Frank, the Carolingians, especially through in the work of Rhabanus Maurus Magnentius (d. February 856), known also as Hrabanus or Rabanus, a Frankish Benedictine monk who became the archbishop of Mainz in Germany, along with his brother bishops implemented Church reforms mandated by the the Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne. The Carolingians had no difficulty in speaking of Confirmation as one of the sacraments of the church. They had come to recognize that in the Christianizing and baptizing whole populations, there were many who came to the Church without knowing the story. Many then, as in the present time, clung to a redeemer who was merely seen as a creature of the one who had called them by name. In this distorted view, many held to an utterly deficient christology with sacraments mediated by a redeemer who had been created and mediated by the Father. Since there was a time when they believed that their redeemer was not, those who clung to such a savior as this were like the Norse who admired the stories of the hero Sigurd [a hero of Norse pre-Christian mythology]. To counter this, Carolingian reformers sought to improve catechesis and insist upon a more thorough articulation of the faith of the Church by the faithful. . . [T]his was why subscription to the Quicunque Vult [Athanasian Creed] was mandated by the Carolingians. To cling to an Arian form of subjective faith was utterly deficient and threatened to infect whole Church; the faithful would have placed ultimate trust to save in one who was little more than a hero. Bishops needed to take greater charge of ensuring that catechesis was improved within their dioceses. A sacrament of episcopal handlaying and second chrismation was mandated to ensure that bishops took catechesis seriously. With the Synod of Lambeth, Confirmation ensured that before children came to the sacrament of the altar, they had rejected the practical Arianism of their parents. Honest profession of the subjective faith of the community was considered paramount.

    The Dogma of the Holy Trinity carefully considered through the Christological and Trinitatian disputes of the Seven Ecumenical Church Councils does find its inspiration in the norming norm of Holy Scripture. No indeed, we should make no disclaimers as to why we should despise preaching on this very important feast day, but we should also most certainly preach the texts. Only then will it become apparent that the dogma which articulates through the vehicle of human language expresses just a small bit of what we may say of the majesty, holiness, and fullness of the one God-in-three, and three-in-one whom we worship and adore. God has revealed this sense of his very being to us, that we may be drawn into unity with our brothers and sisters and that together we may know the one whom we worship and serve.

    • Comment by post author

      Charles, the pastoral challenges of the Carolingian era (early Middle Ages) make our challenges look, well, less challenging. Tremendous social changes, terrorist raids (those Vikings!), and popular theology inadequate to the faith that was needed. It’s a fascinating and understudied period in Western Church history. This period provides the backdrop for the emergence of devotion to the Holy Trinity in Western Europe. But by the time Pope John XXII promulgated a universal feast of the Holy Trinity in 1334 (four centuries later), Arianism had been pretty much suppressed and new challenges faced the Europeans for which only devotion to the Holy Trinity seemed adequate.

      The point in my post is that Trinity Sunday is primarily a day of devotion to God the Holy Trinity, not just a day to celebrate a doctrine. Worship on this festival (like all Christian worship) should celebrate and express our Trinitarian faith and preaching (on the lectionary texts, to be sure!) might also evoke a Trinitarian worldview or explore our personal relationship to the three-personed God. In other words, preachers, just do your job without complaining or giving excuses. I suspect that’s what my questioner was reacting to.

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