Monday, August 2, 2010

The Doctrine of the Trinity for Non-Theologians, pt 1

This month, I want to take a break from high-flying theology and write about our loving God in everyday language. This is the first of three posts on the Trinity, written in non-theological language, so that normal people can enjoy it! These three posts are actually the text of a one hour sermon I was privileged to give at a great little church in east Texas.

If you could describe God in one word, what word would you use? No doubt there may be many one-word descriptions of God; these descriptions vary from denomination to denomination. Some groups say that God is "sovereign"; others insist that God is "holy". But what one word did the Apostle John use to describe God? John said, "God is love" (1John 4:8, 16). Note what John is saying: God is love. Love is not one characteristic among many other characteristics of God; love is not something God does; love is what God is, or better yet, love is who God is. This means that every act of God flows from an unlimited fountain of love, the love that God is by his very nature.

Yet, how does John know that God is love? In his First Epistle John says, "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life . . . that which we have seen and heard we declare to you . . ." (1Jn 1:1, 3). Who or what is John talking about? He is talking about Jesus. He wants to declare to us the things he has seen, heard and touched regarding Jesus. John knows that God is love because John knows Jesus! What John has done is to give us an important lesson in epistemology and methodology: If we want to know about the nature of God, we start with Jesus, because Jesus is the self-revelation of God.

But what does it mean to say that Jesus is the self-revelation of God? How does Jesus reveal the Father? How do we get from the rabbi of Galilee to the heart of the Triune Godhead? These questions occupied the minds of the greatest thinkers in the early Church as they contemplated the meaning of the scriptures that pertain to Jesus' relationship to God.

Jesus portrayed his essential relationship with the Father in simple terms: He said, "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30), and "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). Moreover, the apostle Paul asserts the oneness of Jesus and God. He writes, "In Christ, all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form" (Col 2:9), while the writer of Hebrews assures us that the incarnate Son is the "exact representation" of God's being (Heb 1:3). Finally, the Apostle John writes, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:1, 14). Not only that, John tells us that this Word has made the Father known (v 18).

What was the early Church to make of the scriptural account of Jesus' relationship to God? How could the Church take these varied New Testaments scriptures about Jesus and put them together in a coherent and meaningful way? To make sense of the biblical witness of Christ was something the Church was forced to do because some said Jesus was not fully God. They wanted to say that Jesus was merely an exalted creature, perhaps like a great archangel, but he was not fully divine. Under the leadership of the great Athanasius, the Church was compelled to answer those who would deny the full divinity of Jesus, for as Athanasius understood, if Jesus is not fully God, we are not saved, for only God can save.

In the fourth century, the leaders of the Church gathered together at a little town called Nicaea in order to collectively hammer out a coherent summary of the New Testament witness to the exact relationship between Jesus and God. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they carefully and prayerfully contemplated the biblical witness to Jesus Christ, and collectively realized that the incarnate Son is one in being and identity with the Father. The Church Fathers enshrined their insights into the Nicene Creed, wherein they asserted that Jesus Christ is "God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God, Begotten not made, Of one being with the Father."

It's that last phrase that I want to focus on. The early Church said that Jesus is "of one Being with the Father"; that is, Jesus is one in "nature" or "essence" with the Father. Said another way, Jesus is of the same "God stuff" as the Father; he is just as much God as is the Father; he is equal with the Father in every way. At the same time, Jesus is not the Father and the Father is not the Son. While Jesus and the Father are one in Being or nature, they are distinct in personhood.

To say that Jesus is one in being with the Father is also to say that the acts of Jesus are the acts of God. In more precise terms, it is to say that Jesus and the Father are one in being and agency. That means that the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit) always act with harmony of intent, purpose and will. We should not be surprised to know that there is complete harmony in the acts of Jesus and the acts of the Father, for Jesus said:

I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. . . (John 5:19, 20a).

Thus, Jesus acts in complete harmony and purpose with the will of the Father. In simpler terms, this means that the compassionate loving acts of Jesus reveal the Father's heart, for to say that Jesus and the Father are one, not only in Being, but in activity as well, is to say that the heart of the Father is not different from the heart of the Son. Thus, in the self-giving loving acts of Jesus, we see the Father's will being done. This means that all the good things we say and believe about Jesus apply just as much to the Father.

Doctrine of the Trinity

To say that Jesus is one in being and agency with the Father as attested by the early Church brings us to the doctrine of the Trinity. In many churches, it is common to hear that the doctrine of the Trinity is the most mind-boggling, incomprehensible subject in all of Christian theology. In fact, there is a standard joke that preachers use on Trinity Sunday that goes like this: The preacher comes to the pulpit and announces that it is Trinity Sunday, and he has a duty to preach on the subject of the Trinity. Then he says, "But the doctrine of the Trinity is so mind-boggling, so incomprehensible, so far beyond human understanding that there will be no sermon today." I am sorry to say that I have told this joke myself when it was my turn to preach on Trinity Sunday.

All of that is simply wrong, however. While it is true that we finite humans are incapable of understanding all there is to know about the infinite God, it is not true that the doctrine of the Trinity is beyond our understanding. The whole point of a doctrine is to put into words, as well as we can, what we do know about God based upon God's self-revelation of himself.

So why is there a doctrine of the Trinity in the first place? Why does the Christian Church speak of God as one Being in three Persons? The reason we speak of God as one being in three persons is because that is how God has revealed himself to us. The doctrine of the Trinity is nothing more than an attempt to make sense of the fact that God has revealed himself in salvation history as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Put yourself in the place of the first Christians. Most of them were Jews. Contrary to all the cultures around them who worshipped many gods, the Jews had always believed in one God. Yet the early Church believed that Jesus Christ is God, as the Scriptures attest. They also believed that the Holy Spirit is God, again as the Scriptures attest. In fact, they worshipped, prayed, and baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I doubt all this was something the first Christians thought much about. In fact, most of them were slaves who were unable to read and write. So I doubt they were overly concerned about how the worship of three Persons fit into their doctrine of one God. The first Christians simply believed that God had come among them in the Person of Jesus Christ and that God continued to be present to them in the Person of the Holy Spirit.

Soon enough, however, the early Church came under attack regarding its doctrine of God. Pagan philosophers began to accuse Christians of worshipping three Gods, not one. They demanded to know how Christians could claim to worship only one God when in fact they prayed and worshipped in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Someone had to answer these questions if the Gospel was to retain its theological and philosophical integrity in the cultural environment in which it was spreading. So theologians of the early Church began to think about and to articulate how God can be one Being in three Persons. It took the early Church more than three hundred years to finally articulate what we know today as the orthodox statement of the Trinity as enshrined in the ancient creeds of our faith.

Now let me tell you what the doctrine of the Trinity does not say. The doctrine of the Trinity does not say, as is often wrongly supposed, that one equals three or three equals one. The doctrine of the Trinity does not say that God is only one Person who wears three different hats. Nor does the doctrine of the Trinity say that there are three gods out there, all going their own separate ways.

The classic statement of the doctrine of the Trinity says that God eternally exists as "one Being in three Persons." Said another way, God is of one essence or nature in three distinct Persons. The doctrine is saying that God is both a unity, that is, God is one, and that God is also a diversity, that is, God is three. To say that God exists in both unity and diversity is not as difficult as it may at first seem. We deal with unity in diversity every day. Look at your hand. There is one hand in five fingers. Unity in diversity. Think about a cluster of grapes. There is one cluster with many grapes. Unity and diversity. Think about all the people in any Sunday morning worship service. There is one congregation with many members. That's unity and diversity. Think about a husband and wife. The Bible tells us that the two shall become one flesh. Again, that's unity and diversity. So unity in diversity is something we are all familiar with. None of these analogies are perfect of course; far from it. I can pluck off a grape from the cluster and eat it. I can lose a finger in an accident. A married couple can get divorced. But the three Persons of the Godhead can never be divided. They exist eternally in union and fellowship without division. Despite the imperfection of analogies, however, they help us to understand how God is both one and three, that is, that God eternally exists in both unity and diversity in a triune fellowship of reciprocal love and delight marked by complete harmony of purpose, will and intent.

Bearing in mind the unity of purpose of the Triune fellowship that we call God, let's consider the oneness in being and agency between the Father and Son in the light of the cross.

(To be continued)

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