Posts Tagged ‘God’

Trinity Sermon

December 10, 2009

As part of my course this semester on the Trinity, we had the opportunity to give a ten-minute presentation in the format of either a sermon on the Trinity or a diatribe against the Trinity. In our class we had 15 sermons and 1 diatribe. The sermons were quite varied and it was fascinating to hear sermons from people who come from very different Christian backgrounds, (one of the great things about studying theology at Nottingham!) and to receive written feedback from other students. One student thought my sermon was “a bit fundamentalist” – by which I can only assume he meant “Evangelical Protestant” (the two, incidentally, are not synonymous!) since I took out the bits about gun ownership and stoning adulterers. Or something.

The idea of doing a sermon was (according to our lecturer) because there were so many really bad sermons on the Trinity. According to a vicar I know, a certain famous Anglican bishop regularly used to  “pull a sickie” on Trinity Sunday to avoid having to preach on the doctrine. Which is a shame, since it’s not really that hard to get the basics of what Christians mean when they say God is Trinity (though, to balance that claim, it’s not possible to comprehend God’s trinitarian nature in entirety) and, importantly, it’s not a doctrine we need to be embarrassed about, but actually something that is good news. Here’s what I said:

Trinity Sermon – 1/12/2009

“Holy, Holy, Holy, Merciful and Mighty,
God in three persons, blessèd Trinity.”

Thus reads the well-loved hymn. But what do we mean by the word “Trinity”, and why is it important? It has a bit of a reputation for being hard to understand. Sometimes people even give the impression that the Trinity is a bit of an embarrassing doctrine, and that Christianity would be a lot easier to understand if we got rid of it.

In the short amount of time we have here, I’d like briefly to make three points, which I hope will shed some light on the Trinity and why it’s important. We can’t comprehend the mystery of the Trinity in the sense of knowing everything there is to know, but I hope that we might at least be able to understand what God wants us to know about his Triune identity.

 First, I want to say that the Trinity is a distinctively Christian doctrine – it is specific to Christianity. Second, that Christianity is distinctively Trinitarian – that you can’t have Christian faith without the God who is Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Third, that believing in the Triune God isn’t something we should be embarrassed about, but rather something we should be joyful about, and something to celebrate.

So, first – the Trinity is important because it is distinctively Christian. It is about what kind of God we worship. You don’t have to talk to too many people or read too many newspapers before you encounter the very fashionable idea that all religions are essentially the same, or really all have the same God. Have you heard that opinion recently? It’s quite a common one, and quite an attractive one in terms of playing down religious conflict. But whenever I hear someone say that all religions lead to God, or serve the same God, I want to ask, Which God is that? It’s not a small question – perhaps one of the most impassioned cries of the Old Testament is not to serve false Gods. We do not want to be idolaters. So we need to be sure what kind of God we worship.

When we look at the Nicene Creed we find that it begins with “We believe in one God” and then immediately goes on to speak of ‘the Father Almighty’, ‘one Lord Jesus Christ’ and ‘the Holy Spirit’.  The one God Christians believe in, worship and praise isn’t a simple numerical “one” but is, in fact, these Three.  As the noted theologian Gregory of Nazianzus would say a few decades after Nicea, “when I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit”.

Let’s look at what Paul says in 1Corinthians 8:6

“For us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.”

Here Paul is quite happy to affirm there is one God, but implies that one God is multipersonal. In fact, what Paul is doing is very radical. He is taking the “Shema” formula from Deuteronomy 6 – the prayer said by pious Jews every day – “Hear O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One” and reworking it as “There is One God, the Father, One Lord, Jesus Christ”. As Bishop Tom Wright comments:

“The whole argument of the chapter hinges precisely on [Paul] being a Jewish-style monotheist, over against pagan polytheism; and, as the lynchpin of the argument, he has quoted the most central and holy confession of that monotheism and has placed Jesus firmly in the middle of it … This verse is one of the mostly genuinely revolutionary bits of theology ever written.”

The one God and the one Lord are the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit). This is the kind of God Christians worship – radically different both from  polytheism (that is, many Gods) and from strict, numerical monotheism (that God is not only one essence, but also one-personal).

This brings us to the second point I’d like to make. Christianity is distinctively Trinitarian. You can’t have Christianity without it. The so-called Athanasian Creed is very firm on this point:

WHOSOEVER WILL BE SAVED,
before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith.
Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled,
without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

And the Catholic Faith is this:
That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity,
neither confounding the Persons,
nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father,
another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost.

That is, we must believe in the Triune God if we are to be saved.  Notice, too, the warnings against “confounding the persons” – which means collapsing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit into just three ways of looking at the same thing – and against “dividing the substance” – that is, saying that there are three Gods. The first error is called Modalism and throws up huge problems – if God appears some times as Father and other times as Son or Spirit, then he isn’t really three – but then, who was Jesus praying to when he prayed to the Father? The second error is called Tritheism – from the Greek for Three Gods. This, as we have seen, is not what the Bible teaches. There is one God, in three persons, not three Gods. But if all this is seeming complicated – and it is a divinely revealed mystery – we need to realise why it is so important that this creed can say there is no Christianity without it. There cannot be salvation unless God is Trinitarian – at least not as the New Testament sees it.

Take as an example Paul’s words in Galatians 4:4-6:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’

Here we discover all three persons of the Trinity at work in our salvation. See how they relate to each other – the Father sends his Son to redeem us – and also sends his Spirit (who is also linked to the Son) to us. The three are all at work together and intertwined… though definitely distinct. The Father isn’t the Son and the Son isn’t the Spirit and the Spirit isn’t the Father.  And yet there is one God who saves us.

So, finally, the Trinity is good news. Look back at Galatians 4:6. Our salvation is a work of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Father has sent the Son to redeem us – to rescue us from our sins, which Paul unpacks at length in this letter. But here Paul gives us an insight into what God’s purpose for that rescue is. The Father has sent the Son – Jesus Christ – to rescue us that we might receive adoption as children. In Jesus Christ, we are adopted by his Father and brought into the life of the Trinity. Likewise, through the Spirit we are able to call the Father that intimate term of “Abba!”, which Jesus himself uses in praying to the Father. When we pray the “Our Father”, we really, really mean it. God the Father is our Father not in the sense that he is the father and creator of all humanity, but in the special stronger sense that he has adopted us as children in Jesus Christ. We are caught up together in the life of the Trinity as we are united with God and are being made into the image of this community of unity and love. We can call God “Father” and mean it!

So we should not be embarrassed about the doctrine of the Trinity. It is not something we can completely comprehend, but it is a mystery which God has shown us enough of that we can know him truly as the Triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – three persons in unity. This makes Christianity unique, and it makes Christianity good news because this God can save us, bring us into relationship with himself, adopt us and give us hope.

Lunchbar: How Can You Be Sure God Exists?

May 15, 2009

The topic of Lunchbar today was the question “How can you be sure that God exists?” – quite a big issue, as the speaker pointed out!

Our speaker began by questioning the position that is held by atheism: that God definitely doesn’t exist. The problem with such a position is that it is very, very hard to prove a negative statement. To know that something does not exist means that we have to know every piece of knowledge in the universe; when in fact most of us would not even claim to know a hundredth of a percent of all the available knowledge there is. The claim “God does not exist” is a problematic one; and the strong version of Atheism is epistemologically very hard to maintain.

What about the opposite claim – that God does exist? It is easier to prove a positive than a negative – so what is the positive evidence for God’s existence? Christians do think that there is evidence for God, even if they do not think that they can prove him to a mathematical or logical standard of proof. Some evidence the speaker mentioned included:

  • The explanatory power of the hypothesis “there is a God” with respect to our suspicion that there is a meaning to life. Almost all of us implicitly or explicitly believe that there is a meaning and a purpose to life; as shown by the way we live it. But where does this meaning come from?
  • We are also aware of a “religious instinct” or desire to worship something greater than ourselves. Augustine taught that God “has made us for [himself] and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in [him]”. C.S. Lewis employed the analogy of a need corresponding to something that can fulfil that need: We are hungry because there is such a thing as food; we are thirsty because there is such a thing as water; might we not be religious because there is such a thing as God? There is a “God-shaped” hole in our lives which suggests that there is a God who can fill it.
  • Morality – We instinctively feel that there are objective standards of morality; as shown by our appeal “that’s not fair” when we feel we have suffered an injustice. This gives the lie to the common idea that morality is entirely a matter of personal preference. But, if there is no God, then what is the basis for morality? Evolution? – But “the survival of the fittest” is an ethic which produced the Holocaust and Eugenics. Social consensus? But the “tyrrany of the majority” easily becomes oppressive. Economic utility? But multi-national corporations have repeatedly shown themselves able to exploit the planet and other people in the pursuit of profit. There remains the possibility that there is a “transcendent Other” (i.e. God) who is the source of morality in that he is the personal embodiment of goodness, righteousness, justice and truth.
  • There is the need to explain the transformation of lives by the gospel – as witnessed to by the atheist Matthew Parris of The Times. Christianity changes lives for the better; and Christians claim to experience God in their lives. This, too, is at least a clue that there is a God.
  • Finally there is the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which vindicates his claims and his teaching (Romans 1:3). This claim can be tested historically from the gospels, whose evidence is trustworthy and (based on) eyewitness testimony.

 

I agree with our speaker that all of these things might be clues that there is a God – but I would be very reticent myself about claiming that any of these give any grounds for certainty that there is a God. I don’t think we are capable of knowing God in a meaningful way without him revealing himself to us – which he has done in Jesus Christ. Maybe I’m just in Christological mode at the moment, but it seems to me that the main point to make in answer to the lunchbar title is that we can be sure about the existence of God because of the deity of Christ. It was really great that the speaker made this point, and placed it as the crescendo to his argument – but I’m a little uneasy about the way in which the self-revelation of Jesus is portrayed as something which we find out about primarily through the historical method.

One of my friends from CU calls this approach “Case for Christ evangelism” – the approach to evangelism that promotes historical investigation of Jesus from the gospels – “take a Gospel of Mark, read it, and decide for yourself if it is historically true”.

What do you think? Is this a convincing and/or faithful way of sharing the gospel? Is the way to see God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ through dispassionate historical investigation?