Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed the Trinity. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep



    The idea of the Trinity is quite extraordinary. Outside physics it must be the best pursued conundrum in and about the universe. So easy to mock. Yet, again and again, we have to come back to the reality of the intellectual parameters of earlier times. These people were every bit as clever as we are and in some cases much, much cleverer. But they could only operate in the world that was given to them. They were given the Old and the New Testament in the Western world, and what ingenuity and convolutions and speculations and complications and riddles they saw in that or made of that. But the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost – three in one and one in three – is probably the most beguiling of all. I hope the programme in some way illuminated it.

    The number 3, as I tried mildly to introduce, has a powerful connotation. Conception is three in one and one in three. Pythagoras said the number 3 was perfect because it had a beginning, a middle and an end. There were the three Furies. There was the three-headed Cerberus … oh dear, I’m drifting into irreverence and starting to think of The Three Stooges and The Three Musketeers.

    So move on to glorious, sunny days in London and up in the Lake District, where I’ve been for the Words by the Water literary festival. Wonderful to listen to Pat Barker and so many others in the lovely little theatre by the lake. To walk by the shores of the lake, with the wind lapping the overfull Derwentwater so hard that it was like being on a seashore (where does the word ‘lapping’ come from?).

    Back in London in St James’s Park the cherry blossom is fiercely out now, while up on Hampstead Heath there were congregations (if that is the right word) on Wednesday morning of numerous Muslim men in semicircles around a teacher, or at least spokesman, who was instructing them or debating with them because often two or three people were speaking at the same time. It’s the first time I’ve seen these open air religious groups (if they indeed were religious and not political) on Hampstead Heath. A place made for it.

    Went across to York to talk to Kate Atkinson, and walked through York late at night and early in the morning and wondered how anyone born there could ever bear to leave it. It’s such a convincingly medieval city which has not lost itself, even from Roman times, but still operates as a contemporary city.

    Enough of treats. Back to London, but what’s waiting? Sunshine? Something’s wrong with the world, surely? It’s only March.

    Ukrainians are demonstrating outside 10 Downing Street. The pavements around Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament have ceased to be useful as crocodiles (of the schoolchild variety) no longer inhabit London. They’ve been replaced by mass movement which shifts lone rangers on to the road.

    After the programme I’ll be going to Westminster Abbey where Sir David Frost is being memorialised with full honours. Clichés are often useful. A nicer man than David you could never meet.

    Best wishes

    Melvyn Bragg


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    • Comment number 8. Posted by All for All

      on 19 Mar 2014 00:09

      Why trouble with the Trinity?

      Two main reasons:

      1. To grapple with the nature of our existence (using and developing all available languages, all faiths and creeds).

      2. To escape from abusive social division (our ganging-together against the consequences of atomisation, from inequality our leaders also subject to fear & greed & corruption).

      Seeking the shareable, in reason and care, we will come to material equal partnership and glad spiritual fellowship. Fail to find real democracy, and we condemn if not immediately ourselves then our children, our dreams vain of viability, our 'civilisation' only a mirage.

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    • Comment number 7. Posted by All for All

      on 17 Mar 2014 22:23

      On the Trinity, the sending of the Son and the free choice of the Son, the sending of the Holy Spirit and our 'responsibility', the potential of this universe to come to Heaven, worth listening to Eldar Shafir - in discussion with Jo Fidgen before an invited Oxford audience - on the design of context for our liberation, our freedom to know and follow conscience.


      Of course, in equal partnership! Your decision. Our price to pay.

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    • Comment number 6. Posted by All for All

      on 17 Mar 2014 21:36

      Forget It @5

      The past being Father to the present Son, in word and action - even through Hell - the Spirit seen that can break the bonds of fear and greed, bringing the future to Heaven.

      However co-determined (perhaps by divine Will implied, by evolved complexity, in subjective conscience, etc), the sense and reality of our 'responsibility' (for in large part our own actions, for in some measure our own fitness to think morally, less so for the limitations of our era) can be taken as our proper guide in personal life and in social regulation (given law either divine or democratic). Trinitarian esoterics, medieval and prejudiced debates thus are side-stepped, transcended, enough for us to bear those 'sins' of our fathers, visited on us, and the thought of our own sins leading into Hell so many generations of our own children, even with luck.

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    • Comment number 5. Posted by Forget It

      on 17 Mar 2014 17:28

      Time present and time past
      Are both perhaps present in time future,
      And time future contained in time past.

      Was how I Interpret TS Eliot on the Trinity:
      Past (BC) - OT God
      Present (year zero/baptism) - Jesus
      Future (AD) - Holy Spirit

      Works For Me

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    • Comment number 4. Posted by All for All

      on 15 Mar 2014 01:23

      Where rule is first of instinct and might, of mosquito and monster, the appreciation of cleverness may hover between lieutenancy and extinction as of a rival, its place best in the harmlessness of classroom or cloister, there by chance or independent ambition eventually to yield wonders best or only to be enjoyed in high degrees of co-operation, as so in the sharing of high degrees of security, the highest in equal partnership.

      Where the game is on of cleverness, it soon becomes obvious that being ahead by 'just a nose' will not do, the reign of the complacent ever shorter, the direction of travel ever more rewarding to discern, not least in the understanding of nature, society and conscience, and not only for universalist purposes of control but also for the selection of specific individuals in whom to invest funds for research and authority for decision-making, the selection of friends and partners for all manner of enterprises, including marriage and education and stewardship.

      Where cleverness can bring reward, we can expect fantastical forms, mysticism and wild guesses the equivalent of costly extremes in the sheltered evolution of plumage and ritual display in birds of paradise. Such forms may long survive as proxies for health, average, full, perhaps exceptional intelligence or strength, in their poetry some truth beyond that yet apprehended by reason. Thus it might be for the Trinity.

      As we move from polytheism to monotheism, deism to rationalism, dictatorships (by birth, strength, cleverness, money-advantage) to the rule of conscience (in agreed equal partnership), rests can be carried forward of older ideas accommodating but variably to the new, their survival perhaps some testament to issues elsewhere at risk of neglect, perhaps simply of our need for models and parables, our need to be reminded how easily we still might flock to flags if once again divided.

      Our gratitude is natural, to parents, tribe, planet and cosmos, why not to a Creator (and Sustainer, even if no 'need' of an Intervener): but who then could have 'created' the potential (the mathematics and the logic of 'what is', or at least what appears 'to be')? We need that 'Word'; then that impulse, to share as 'Father'; and to be alongside, the 'Son'. Less need, much less, to count the angels on a pin-head, or to imagine 'rewards in heaven' for the unspeakable.

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    • Comment number 3. Posted by John Thompson

      on 14 Mar 2014 18:33

      Isn’t all of Christianity a kind of imposition of theology upon a historical personage,Jesus of Nazareth? ‘Christ’,the Holy Spirit,The Logos,the Trinity,all came later.A.N.Wilson tried to rescue Jesus from the tangles of Christian history,presenting us with a compelling portrait of the man behind the myth.The New Testament never says Jesus claimed to be the 2nd person of the Trinity or claimed to be God.

      Perhaps the idea of the Trinity is an attempt to reflect polytheistic beliefs around God,to show the many powers that acted in our creation.God is spoken of and the Logos, through whom the world is made.The Gospel of John is heavy with theology:”In the beginning was the Word,and the Word was with God and through this Word everything is made.Christ is identified with the Platonic-Stoic Logos.Philo’s Logos was seized by the Christians,the instrument by which intelligence ascends to God.

      The Trinitarian belief was influenced by Greek philosophy.Philo,a contemporary of Christ,shows the Greek influence on the Jews.He is primarily a Platonist,also influenced by the Stoics and Neo-Pythagoreans.He showed the Christian Fathers the way to reconcile Greek philosophy with acceptance of the Hebrew scriptures.The idea of One God was combined with a polytheism’s many gods,the many powers of God that acted in our creation.Philo talked of the One God and the Logos of that God.Philo spoke of this Word as a deuteros-theos,a second God.Although Philo was a monotheist,he inflected Greek philosophical terms towards his own Jewish thought.

      There is an attempt to explain the manifold in terms of unity,to reduce apparent multiplicity into essential identity.From this theoretical monotheism,the half-converted polytheist can,go on to the realization of the divine Ground of his being.Reinterpreting the Pentateuch in terms of a metaphysical system derived from Platonism,Neo-Pythagoreanism and Stoicism,Philo transformed the wholly transcendental and almost anthropormorphically personal God of the Old Testament into the immanent-transcendent Absolute Mind of a perennial functioning belief.He
      bridged the gap between Judaism and intellectual paganism,transforming the cosmic power of Greek philosophy into the moral power of Judaism.

      Pythagoras calls 3 the perfect number, expressive of ‘beginning,middle and end’,wherefore he makes it’s a symbol of deity.Thomas Jefferson called the Trinity, ‘the Abracadabra of the mountebanks’.But a lot comes in threes.Man is threefold(earth,sea and air),the enemies of man are threefold(the world,the flesh and the devil),the Christian graces are threefold(Faith,Hope and Charity),the kingdoms of nature arethreefold(animal,vegetable and mineral),the primary colours are 3(red,yellow,blue).

      A God and yet a man?
      A maid and yet a mother?
      Wit wonders what wit can
      Conceive this or the other.

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    • Comment number 2. Posted by Reith was right

      on 14 Mar 2014 01:13

      I just want to say what a wonderful programme and newsletter this is. It is a real treat and a place of deep thought.

      I grew up on a council estate in the North East of England, where my parents were loving, encouraging, unskiled and formally uneducated. But they helped me to a PhD, because they cared. Bit like Melvyn Bragg! And, yes, Laurie Taylor.

      Lovely newsletter. Thank you. And long live the BBC.

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    • Comment number 1. Posted by Michael Wolfe

      on 13 Mar 2014 20:51

      The Nicean creed says "I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
      the Only Begotten Son of God,"

      That word, 'Begotten' was the beginning of textual criticism in the early 18th century.

      It was not in the original Greek Gospel of John 3:16. Of course, the scholars of the Roman church were weak in Greek, and the Roman church declared the Latin Vulgate as the 'official Bible' of the church. They added 'Begotten' to the Latin of John 3:16. After all, the Latin was a translation, and without the 'Begotten,' the church said, the Latin did not capture the full meaning of the Greek. Then, when Erasmus wanted to print the Greek Bible, his copy lacked the word 'Begotten.' Fortunately, some senior members of the church gave Erasmus a copy of the 'original' Greek (ink still wet) with 'Begotten', and, since he really didn't want to be invited to the church's banquet for innovative scholarship (a hot stake), he used the version with 'Begotten' and printed it in 1516.

      It was not for another 200 years before Protestant scholars found that none of the older Greed manuscripts agreed with the printed version that they'd been using: none of the older manuscripts had the word 'Begotten' in John 3:16. Nor is the Trinity explicit in the earlier version of 1 John 5:7-8.

      This then led Protest scholars to discover that no two Greek Bibles were identical, that there were more discrepancies among the 500 or so copies than the total number of words in the Greek New Testament.

      And all from that word, 'Begotten,' (and the explicit reference to the Trinity in Erasmus' printed edition of 1 John 5:7-8).

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