Essay / Theology

Holy Holy Holy

All Christians believe in the Trinity, but some Christians believe in the Trinity better than others. There are some Bible-believing Christians who have all the basic biblical materials for trinitarian theology stored in their minds, but who have never assembled those materials to make the doctrine of the Trinity. They believe there is only one God, and they believe that Jesus is God, that the Father who sent him is God, and that the Holy Spirit is God. They also know that the Father isn’t the same person as the Son, and that the Son and the Spirit aren’t interchangeable. The only way to put all those biblical facts together is with the doctrine of the Trinity: that the one God eternally exists in three persons. The Trinity is a kind of summary formula for a lot of Biblical information.

If I had to choose between having all the right facts and having the summary formula, I’d choose the facts. But why would this be the kind of area where you would have to make a choice? A summary formula can help you keep all the facts in your mind at once, in an orderly arrangement.

There are some Christian traditions that do an excellent job reminding themselves about this large doctrine of the Trinity. Their songs and liturgical formulas follow a constant rhythm of Father-Son-Holy Spirit. They start with “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” and end with “praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” bringing all the ideas together into one act of praise. Some churches are even in the habit of making regular use of the word Trinity, which is not itself a word found in the Bible, though it sums up all those facts about God which are in the Bible. In the most elaborate versions, you can even find long, scripted prayers to the “most holy consubstantial and undivided Trinity, one in three and and three in one, perichoretically united from before all worlds,” et cetera! A regular diet of that might be a bit much, though I suppose once a year on Trinity Sunday it could be a nice attention-getter.

I grew up in a Pentecostal church, and have spent most of my life in Bible church and free church settings. In some of those congregations, we had all the Biblical materials in our minds, but rarely assembled them to get the big picture. You could go a long time without hearing the word “Trinity” in those churches, or even the (directly Biblical) string of names, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” except at baptisms. Our doctrine was solidly trinitarian, of course, and this would come up in the sermons sometimes. And even in the sung worship, there were a few good reminders of the trinitarian character of our faith. From my earliest childhood, I remember the worship chorus “Jesus I adore you // I lay my life before you // How I love you,” which my Foursquare church would then sing as “Father I adore you” and “Spirit I adore you.” Sung in round, this little song can be downright perichoretic! (Perichoresis = the interpenetration of the three persons, each one mutually indwelling and having his existence in the others) There are plenty of other examples of worship choruses which direct the same praise to each of the three persons of the Trinity in turn. But even those are somewhat spread out and serial, rather than packing the concentrated punch of putting the whole doctrine into one word or line.

The great exception to the rule, however, was always the hymn “Holy Holy Holy, Lord God Almighty,” which ends its first and last verses with the line, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity!” I have never been in a church that didn’t have this hymn somewhere in its rotation of songs. Why is it that my beloved low-church homes have broken their unwritten rule and let this elaborately trinitarian song into their hymnals and overheads?

The main reason, I think, is simply that the hymn is so good. The tune by John B. Dykes is stately and reverential, with enough melodic solidity that it can be sung and played in a variety of ways. It maintains its power even when recorded as a love song to God by Keith Green, as a punk anthem by Undercover, and a hipster lullaby by Sufjan Stevens.

And the words are masterful. They are the work of Reginald Heber (1783-1826), the Anglican Bishop of Calcutta. Heber was an estimable scholar who gave the 1815 Bampton lectures on the subject of the deity of the Holy Spirit.

Well, actually, the most important words of “Holy Holy Holy” are not exactly Heber’s. They are from angels. They are the words that one angel says to the other in the vision of Isaiah 6:

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.

And John’s vision in Revelation 4 shares many of these details, but adds several other features (some taken over from Ezekiel’s vision): all creatures crying out their praise to God, a glassy sea, casting down crowns, and more. Above all, though, it has the same words of praise: “Holy Holy Holy, Lord God Almighty.”

According to the Bible, angels praise God by saying “Holy Holy Holy, Lord God Almighty.” And the church has taken up those words and sung them for centuries, in an ancient liturgy that has many variations but goes something like this:

Pastor: The peace of the Lord be with you!

People: And also with you!

Pastor: Lift up your hearts!

People: We lift them up to God.

Pastor: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

People: It is good and right to do so!

Pastor: Truly it is good and right that we should at all times and in all places, give thanks to you, O Lord, Holy Father, almighty and everlasting King. Therefore with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven and all the Church on earth, we praise and magnify your glorious name, evermore praising you and singing:

Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord, God of Hosts!
Heaven and earth are full of your glory!
Hosanna in the highest!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest!

By the time Reginald Heber got his hands on these words, they had come to him through seraphim, prophets, apostles, and centuries of saints. What he did with them then was to make them rhyme, and put them together in memorably metrical lines. He builds up one long O after another (hOly three times, lOrd mOrning) until the praise rolls out of your mouth. The first three words build upwards, elevating the singer’s thoughts step by step as the song’s cadence rises. Lyrically, Heber made the whole hymn a meditation on the meaning of holiness. Holiness combines mercy and might, calls forth praise, has a glory that is incompatible with sin, and is the perfection of power, love and purity.

And of course, he made it explicitly, conspicuously, elaborately trinitarian. It was not so in Isaiah 6, nor in Revelation 4. Even in the traditional Sanctus liturgy, the threefold “Holy” is not explicitly trinitarian. But in all of those settings, the Christian mind can’t help hearing the far-away sound of the Trinity behind the threefold “Holy.” What makes Heber’s hymn so powerful is that he makes explicit what we have been longing to hear: that God is Holy Holy Holy because he is Father, Son, and Spirit.

For Christians who have been praising God with all the right biblical facts swimming around in their minds, the lines “Holy Holy Holy, Lord God Almighty… God in three persons, blessed Trinity” can be a revelation. They can lock everything into place so you can see it in one glance, in an experience of worship in which you have elevated your mind to hear the words of angels as recorded in Scripture; in which you have lifted up your heart to the Lord because it is good and right to do so.

All Christians believe in the Trinity, but some Christians believe in the Trinity better than others. Heber believed very well, with a mastery of the biblical information and a fluency in putting it together for worshipers. Some Christians don’t do as good a job. They believe in the Trinity, but don’t think they believe in the Trinity because it sounds odd to their ears. They know God is triune, but they don’t know they know. They let the information jostle around in their minds, but never put the whole package together, so they lose some of the power of praising God as the blessed Trinity.

But when we sing “Holy Holy Holy,” we get the big picture of the blessed Trinity.

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