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This is the 3rd post in a recent series on the Trinity. Before you read this you should read the first two:

Speaking Truthfully About God: The Trinity – What it Affirms.

Speaking Truthfully About God: The Trinity – What it Denies.

I’d like to finish with a brief consideration of why this all matters. To put it another way: “Why is it important to believe in the Trinity?”

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At this point we have discussed (briefly) what the Trinity affirms and some of what it denies. Now comes the big question: so what? What impact, if any, does this doctrine have on being a Christian? What difference does the Trinity make for Christian belief, worship and practice? Does it inform what it means to be the Church, or more fundamentally, to be human? Let us be very clear, “what is at stake in the doctrine of the Trinity is God’s drastic commitment to us in Jesus Christ and the Spirit.” Therefore, the doctrine of the Trinity is really the central Christian doctrine “because it identifies God as the God of love who has opened his heart to the world on the cross,”(12). In both modalism and Arianism God is essentially distant and unknowable but this is a lie if the gospel is true. The gospel rejects both these portrayals of God, for God is with us. So, in a very important manner, the doctrine of the Trinity shapes how we understand and know God. God is not distant and “out there”. God is here in the flesh and blood of Christ Jesus and in his Spirit poured out among us.

In a similar way, the doctrine of the Trinity shapes our worship together as the people of God. The Trinity enables us to sustain our faith in a God who is both other than the world and radically immanent in the world, (13). To say that God is other than the world is not to say he is against the world. God is other than the world because he is the creator and is relational in his own inner-self. Yet, in the flesh and blood, life, death and resurrection of a poor first-century Palestinian Jew God is irrationally and undeniably present and poured out in our midst. The Trinity sustains our worship of this God.

Likewise, in our worship together, the Trinity shapes our reading of Scripture. Christians read Scripture “trinitarianly” because “we read it as members of the Church, the community that confesses faith in God as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and reading Scripture that way, we discover that the God who is Trinity speaks to us,” (14). Certainly, Scripture does not explicitly “prove” the Trinity, but rather, alludes to it and those Scriptures that seem to be evident of the Trinity are sign-posts (to borrow an analogy from Tom Wright) that point us in the right direction. Christians read Scripture as shaped by and witnessing to the Trinity on every single page.

God is mysteriously one and three, other and immanent, and we know this because God has revealed himself as such. If the gospel is true, then God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity is perhaps most central to the life of the Christian and, therefore, the Church for it allows us to worship God as he really is.

12. Yeago, 163.

13. Mangina, lecture, Oct. 13.

14. Mangina, lecture, Oct. 13.

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Thus concludes a whirlwind tour of some of the basic affirmations of the Trinity. To be sure, we have not even begun to scratch the surface in the last post. Regardless, now we must turn from what the Trinity affirms to what it denies. In a certain sense, it is easier to say what the Trinity is not rather than to say what the Trinity is. Nevertheless, by the very nature of making affirmations about the Trinity we are also making denials in regards to who/what God is not. There is much that could be said here but for our purposes we will focus on two of the more prevalent heresies, modalism and Arianism.

Between the second and third centuries a group of theologians (namely, Sabellius, Noetus and Praxeas) were seeking to understand how God can be three and yet one. If God is one, then how can we speak of him as three? Their answer to this question was that the threeness of God must refer to three forms which God takes on. Father, Son and Spirit are simply how we experience God. For if Christians worship God and yet also want to worship Christ then we have to say that these are really just different names for the same thing. The same is to be said for the Spirit. The real God, then, is the fourth behind the three. Here, the oneness of God remains intact because even though God reveals himself to us in various ways (as “Father” in the beginning, as “Son” in the person of Jesus, and as “Spirit” in the life of the Church) when all is said and done Christians want to affirm one God.

The problem with this is that if the Father, Son and Spirit are simply forms that the one God takes on at various points in time then these forms are nothing more than “masks” that the real God can take on and off depending on how he wants to relate to us. If this is the case then none of the three are truly basic to God’s own identity. God is not really Father, Son and Holy Spirit, he just dresses up on different occasions depending on the role he wants to play. This is problematic because then God is not really triune. On the surface, as he presents himself to us, God is three. However, if we were to dig down a little bit and penetrate the surface we would surely see that God is really just one. Yet, if the gospel is true then this must be a lie for the Scriptures testify, and we confess, that the Trinity “goes all the way down”. In other words, if we were to scratch through the surface of how God presents himself to us we would discover that God really is three in his own Being.

A modern example of this sort of modalistic thinking about God is in the argument that we do not really know God in himself. All we can know is how we experience God and we experience God as Trinity. The problem with this is that God remains hidden and unknown. He is “out there” in some other realm and does not really have very much to do with us humans. However, these claims of modalism are too modest about God because the biblical God is one who is radically involved in the world.10 God is different from his creation, yes, but this difference must not be confused with distance.

Arianism, like modalism, is an attempt to reconcile that God is one and yet three. The intellectual climate was ripe for Arius. By the time Arius came on the scene Jesus the Logos was already being understood as the mediator between the eternal realm and the transcendent realm and was heavily influenced by Greek philosophical thought. The gap between the infinite (God) and the finite (the world) is filled with the Logos. It was this understanding of the Logos that led Arius to question the divinity of Jesus. Was the Logos to be understood as God in the same sense that the Father is God or is he God to a lesser extent? The way Arius addressed these questions was to say that “there was a time when the Son was not”. In other words, the Son is a creature, albeit, he is the firstborn of all creation, but he is a created being none-the-less. This has implications for how we understand the Father for if the Son was created and was not always the Son then God was not always Father but becomes Father when he brings forth the Son.

One of the more obvious problems with this is that Christians worship a Christ who is more than just a creature. However, there is a deeper issue at work here having to do with how Arius thinks about God himself. When Arius says (rightly so) that a created Logos is not God he is saying that God is eternal, having no origin, and that internally God is simple in the sense that he is one. For Arius, God’s oneness is prior to everything else in creation including the Logos. God, then, is ultimately one and not three.

Arius’ concern is that if we acknowledge that the Logos is God then we are guilty of worshipping a second God. So, Arius wants to say that the Logos is “divine” but not God. In other words, from humanities point of view Jesus is God but from God’s point of view he is not since the one God existed prior to creating the Logos. The problem with this is that it is at complete odds with the Christian gospel. Yes, Christians worship one God, the God of Israel, but we worship him as Trinity. When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray in the gospels by addressing God as their father he is bringing them into relationship with his Father, the one who is eternally his Father.11 Therefore, if Fatherhood is necessary to God’s identity then Jesus, the Son, is God’s very identity. There has never been a time when God was not the Father because there was never a time when God was not the Son.

The Trinity must deny Arianism because Jesus is fundamentally treated as part of the creation. He is a creature not God. Yet the Scriptures testify that creation is a triune act that involves the Son as much as it involves the Father. In fact, everything that was made was made through the Son and is held together in him.

I wrote this post at some point back in July and it got lost in the shuffle. I found it today when I was looking for something for work and thought I’d throw it up on the old blogerino.

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I’ve been listening to some sermons lately from the Imago Dei Community out in the fair (fare?) city of Portland. At the moment they’re working through Matthew and so as I began to listen the other day the pastor made a point that really struck a chord with me.

The text is from Matthew 3 where we find Jesus’ crazy locust eating cousin John living out in the desert. What’s he doing out there? Well he’s preparing the way for Jesus. In other words, if we can’t handle what John is saying (and it’s quite something) then we can’t handle what Jesus is saying.

The first thing we hear John proclaim is this: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Who is he saying this to? Well, to everyone. He’s saying it to you and he’s saying it to me. Repent! Jesus is coming and we have all like sheep gone astray and are in need of redeeming. We’ve all fallen under the power of sin, but we’re not only victims we’re perpetrators and so we need to repent and turn away from our sin.

But what do we do? We try to justify our sin. We make excuses for it. We compare it to others to make ourselves feel ok. We hide it. Or, we just flat out ignore it and pay it no attention at all. But John says, forget the excuses, forget the justification. Just repent. Turn.

Continuing in the seventh verse:
“But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

I’ll keep this short because what I really want to point out here is when Jesus says, “And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.”

See, the Pharisees and Sadducees were two different groups of people but they had one thing in common: both groups were sure that they understood the true heart of the scriptures (or of God). Both groups were convinced that if God were to show up (say, in the form of a Messiah or something) that he would take their side because they were the ones who *really* understood what God was all about.

How many of us are just like this? I know I am. How many of us think that if Jesus were here in the flesh he would side with us? Surely, if Jesus were to return now he would side against those crazy, nut-job fundamentalists, no? Or, perhaps he would side with the fundamentalists against those liberal queer-loving “progressive” Christian folks? Or maybe he’d show up and side with the Christian apologists and we’d once and for all know just how reasonable the Christian faith really is!

We’re all convinced that God would side with us. We’re convinced that we are concerned about the one (or two) issue(s) that is closest to God’s heart.

But do you hear it? John’s voice piercing through the noise, proclaiming, “Repent!” Because he’s saying it to you and he’s saying it to me. He’s saying it to all of us Pharisees and Sadducees that are convinced Jesus would side with us against “them” (whoever they are). And just as we’re about to defend ourself he continues, “do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.'” That’s not the issue. The issue isn’t about whether or not you have Abraham as your father. The issue isn’t about whether or not you can reasonably defend your faith. The issue isn’t about your progressive political views.

Repent!

Because “out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.”

You think Jesus would side with you against them? Please, he can raise up people like you out of these rocks.

So, what are you banking your insurance on?

Is your insurance in the fact that you care for the poor? Is it in the fact that you strive to obey the law? Is it in the fact that you can wield Reason like a sword? Is it in the fact that you’re interpretation of scripture is impeccable?

Repent.

Repent.

Repent. For the kingdom of God is near.

“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise,” (Ps. 51:17).

The Baptism of Christ c. 1425.

Recently I have become convinced that the doctrine of the Trinity is the central doctrine that defines the Christian faith all of life itself.

But first, two things.

1) Doctrine (or dogma as it is sometimes called) is not very popular among some people of faith. The idea that we can systematize God talk isn’t always appealing and part of me understands this (we want to be confidant and yet humble in our God talk for while we can speak truthfully about God we cannot speak exhaustively about him).

2) Doubt about who God really is and what he is really like has become rather fashionable (I’m thinking here of some attempts at post-modern theology within what’s left of emergent circles as opposed to a more robust apophatic theology as present in Eastern Orthodoxy). While it is true that there is and always needs to be an element of mystery to God (we don’t have it all figured out after all) we can never allow this mystery to keep us from talking about God.

To be sure, if the gospel is true then God is not distant and unknowable. Rather, if the gospel is true then God is immanent and knowable and is so in particular things. Given God’s self-revelation we can, and therefore must, speak truthfully about God and we have to say that when we speak truthfully about God we are not simply speaking truthfully about how we experience God but about who God really is. Of course, God being God and utterly free (“wholly other”, to quote Barth) from creation we cannot speak about God through any effort of our own. We can only speak about God and know him if he reveals himself to us and this is precisely a central proclamation of the Christian faith. God has made himself known. He has taken on flesh and become one of us and by looking at Jesus of Nazareth we can know God as he really is. While it is true that creation testifies to God and that he has revealed himself through his creation it is also true that we know God in a particular way through a particular person, namely, Jesus of Nazareth. It is, of course, the particularity of this revelation that is most offensive to the world.

That being said, in the next few posts I would like to explore the doctrine of the Trinity as the central doctrine of the Christian faith. In three posts I want to explore what the Trinity affirms, what it denies and finally, why it all matters. When we proclaim that we worship the one true God we are proclaiming the one true God who is triune. While we can never fully grasp the Trinity we must talk truthfully and in so doing I think we will see just how utterly radical God’s relation to the world is.

The Trinity – What it Affirms.

“We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty…We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…We believe in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life.” – Nicene Creed.
“I believe in God the Father Almighty…And in Jesus Christ his only Son…I believe in the Holy Ghost.” – Apostles Creed.
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is one that has certainly caused a few headaches throughout Church history. If you have ever spent a bit of time trying to wrap your mind around the Triune nature of God then you will know what I mean. The Trinity affirms a number of things, denies even more things and is of great import for Christian practice, and indeed, for being human. To be sure, however, the Trinity is not a concept or idea, no. The Trinity is no less than the living God.

Oftentimes theologians will look to the Scriptures for proof-texts that support, or allegedly “prove”, the Trinity. However, perhaps the most powerful example in Scripture is that of the baptism of Jesus. This should not be understood as a “proof” for the Trinity, but rather, something much more profound. For, here in this magnificent scene the Triune God, who is present on every page of Scripture, comes into focus. The Son is baptized, affirmed by the Father and descended upon by the Holy Spirit in the dove.

On the one hand Christianity, like Judaism, confesses one God. However, on the other hand the Scriptures and Christian worship quite obviously refer to three divine beings, Father, Son and Spirit. God is one and three, but how are we to even begin an attempt at making sense of this? Above are quoted the Trinitarian affirmations from the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds. From these creeds David Yeago in his yet-to-be-published Apostolic Faith teases out six rules(1), if you will, for how Christians can think Trinitarianly, and thus truthfully, about God.

First, there is only one God who is the God of Israel “maker of heaven and earth”. The God whom Jesus claims as Father is not Ba’al, Zeus, Allah or some cosmic divine energy. Rather, the only one true God is the God of Israel, the one who made all things, the great “I Am”, he whose name cannot be pronounced, YHWH. Thus, Christians confess a particular God, the God of the gospels and this serves to distinguish him from lesser deities.

Second, “this one God is the Father who is never without his Son and Spirit”(2). God is given, in the Creed, a particular name: Father. This one God has an “eternally begotten” only Son. The Son, as eternally begotten of the Father is eternally the Son as the Father is eternally a Father. God did not come to be a Father at some point in time. Through this Son “all things were made,” meaning that he is not a part of creation. Likewise, the Spirit is not part of the creation to whom God gave life. On the contrary, he is “the giver of life”. The Spirit is eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son and, therefore, belongs to the “Being which transcends all beings”(3).

Third, everything that the Father is the Son and the Spirit are also. The Son as eternally begotten of the Father is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” If the previous point is true and the Father is indeed God, then the Son is “God from God”. By very nature of his begottenness he is “of one Being with the Father”. As the Cappadocians distinguished, they are of the same ousia (substance). In the same way the Spirit shares in this ousia for he is “the Lord, the giver of life.” He does that which God does. Therefore, the Son and the Spirit can and should be worshipped and glorified along with the Father. If the Son and Spirit are anything less than the Father then to worship them also would be nothing short of idolatry.

Fourth, the Son and the Spirit are distinct from the Father, they are not him. Neither is the Father the Son or the Spirit. This is to say that while the Son and the Spirit are everything that the Father is the three do not collapse into one. The three are distinct and distinguishable from one another. Just how they are distinguishable from one another is precisely in their relationships with one another. Both the Son and the Spirit are from the Father and, therefore, not the Father. Likewise, the Son and the Spirit are distinct from one another in that while the Son is begotten the Spirit proceeds. If ousia speaks to “what” God is (he is one) then, according to the Cappadocians, hypostasis speaks to “who” God is (he is three). The relations are eternal and, thus, intrinsic to who God really is. The distinction here is subtle but important. Ousia is a kind of thing (canine) whereas hypostasis is a particular thing (a poodle). However, when we use this sort of language to speak of God it is analogical in that God’s ousia, or oneness, is not a countable oneness just as his hypostasis, or threeness, is not a countable threeness (4).

Fifth, there is no work of God that is not a work of the triune God, Father, Son and Spirit. If the Father, Son and Holy Spirit can never be separate then every work of God is a triune work. Each work is the Father working along with the Son and the Spirit. As Gregory of Nyssa has said, “the Father does all things through the Word in the Holy Spirit”(5). This prohibits us, as we shall see shortly, from dividing up God’s work amongst the Trinity (i.e. the Father creates, the Son redeems, the Spirit sustains).

Finally, in the coming of Jesus of Nazareth and in the outpouring of the Spirit we receive nothing less than the very life of God. In the Incarnation the Son who is everything that the Father is takes on flesh to become what we are. God becomes man “for us and for our salvation”. On the cross “our Lord Jesus Christ has gathered us into the very life of God”(6). Likewise when the Spirit, being everything that the Father is, is given to us as gift we receive and are filled with nothing less than the God of the gospel.

It would be short-sighted to presume that these affirmations of God as Triune did not touch on other areas of Christian faith. Creation, as one such matter of faith, is a work of the Triune God. For example, in the Nicene Creed we confess the Father who is “maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen”, the Son through whom “all things were made” and the Spirit who is “the giver of life.” In this way we see that the life giving creative act of calling the world into being is a work of the one triune God. Scripture testifies likewise. During the creation account in Genesis God says, “let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”(7). Genesis 1:2 states that during creation “darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”(8). Much later St. John writes of the Logos: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being”(9). It is evident then that if God is indeed Triune, and the God of the gospel most certainly is, then we cannot simply resort to some sort of modalistic affirmation that the Father is the creator. No, the work of creation is a Triune work.

End Notes:

1) The following six rules can be found in David Yeago’s Apostolic Faith page 158-164.

2) Yeago, 158.

3) Cyril of Alexandria as quoted by Yeago, 159.

4) Dr. Joe Mangina, Systematic Theology lecture, Wycliffe College: October 13, 2010.

5) As quoted by Yeago, 162.

6) Yeago, 163.

7) NRSV: Genesis 1:26.

8) NIV.

9) NIV: John 1:3.

A 3d Ultrasound.

It is without a doubt that abortion is one of the most divisive moral issues of our time.

On the one hand we have the pro-life folks.

On the other hand we have the pro-choice folks.

One of the problems, as I see it, is that there really isn’t any discussion happening. The pro-lifers are yelling at the pro-choicers that abortion is murder and ought to be outlawed. The pro-choicers are yelling at the pro-lifers that abortion is a woman’s right’s issue and the state has no business getting involved. But, because everyone is yelling at each other no one is really listening to each other. And, where listening is absent there is no dialogue, there is only yelling, name calling and alienation.

So, it’s refreshing to see people on both sides of this issue coming together to talk.

Two articles appeared in Slate over the last few days.

What pro-lifers can learn from the Princeton abortion conference.

What pro-choicers can learn from the Princeton abortion conference.

You may not agree with everything that is said in these articles but, hey, you’d be hard pressed to say that this doesn’t feel like a breath of fresh air in comparison to the usual boring and unproductive banter.

I’d like to see this conversation taking place in Canada. Canada, I’m told, is the only nation in the developed world with zero restrictions on abortion. How that is possible is beyond me. Perhaps it’s time for both sides to concede some ground here so that less women are getting unnecessarily pregnant and so that less babies die as a result.

Thoughts?