Posts Tagged ‘trinity’

Hilary on Scripture and Theology

January 6, 2010

Hilary of Poitiers was one of John Calvin’s favourite theologians. Writing in Latin in the 4th Century, he gave a remarkably lucid and clear account of the doctrine of the Trinity in “On the Trinity” (356-360).  Discussing the question of religious language and how we can even begin to describe God, he writes that we must not hesitate to affirm that which God has made known about himself in Scripture. We must believe what God says about himself, and our theology must come from Scripture. But we should not twist Scripture or take it out of context (what was later called “proof-texting”) – for doing so is easily deceitful. Instead, we must pay careful attention to the context and circumstances of the texts we quote. There is a need for careful exegesis in the move from biblical studies to systematic theology. It’s easy to see why Calvin found him so helpful:

“We must believe God when he speaks about himself and we must not resist those truths which he has revealed to us for our understanding. We must either deny Him after the manner of the heathens if we reject His proofs or, if we believe Him to be God as He is, then we cannot have any other concept of Him than that which He has revealed about Himself. Let there be an end, therefore, to the personal opinions of men, and do not allow our human judgement to trespass upon the order established by God! For this reason we pursue the godless and impious teachings about God by the very same texts of the divine words, and we shall base everything on the testimony of Him who is the subject of our investigation, and shall not attempt to deceive or to mislead our unlearned listeners by merely citing some quotations from the texts without explaining all the attendant circumstances. The understanding of the words is to be deduced from the reasons why they were spoken, because the words are subordinated to the event, not the event to the words (non sermoni res, sed rei sermo subjectus est). But we shall examine everything, while at the same time we shall explain the reasons why they were said and the meaning of the words.”
On the Trinity, 4.14

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:

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.

Barth on non-Scriptural language

November 17, 2009

To continue from my post on using non-Scriptural language to describe the Trinity, Karl Barth raises the point that to object against using non-scriptural terminology per se would also mean we must object to all preaching of the Bible that went further than a simple reading of it:

Already in the early Church the doctrine of the Trinity was attacked on the ground that it is not biblical, that in the form in which it was formulated by the Church’s theology it cannot be read anywhere in the Bible. This is especially true of the crucial terms “essence” and “person” which theology used. But it is also true of the word “Trinity” itself. Now this objection can be raised against every dogma and against theology in general and as such. It would also have to be raised against proclamation, which does not stop at the mere reading of Scripture but goes on to explain it too. Now explanation means repeating in different words what has been said already…”
(CD 1/1 §8 – p.308; emphasis mine.)

Gunton on the Image of God and the Environment

November 12, 2009

Phil Jackson left a great comment on my Environmentalism post earlier this month:

 I want Christianity to be sustainable without need for extra biblical imperatives, to contain within itself such self-limiting principles as would moderate population, carbon, water, energy by it own understanding of ecology, economy and ecclesiology…

I was reminded of that when reading Colin Gunton’s essay on “The Human Creation” in his The Promise of Trinitarian Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991). In dealing with the “image of God” in humanity he takes a ‘personal’ reading, building on the Christian understanding of God as Trinity, and argues that the image of God in humanity is not to be thought of as rationality or anything belonging only to the interior mental world, and touches upon the implication of this for human relation to the nonpersonal creation. It’s fairly involved, but worth it:

The merit of the approach to anthropology by means of the concept of person is that it relativizes so many inherited dualisms. Relations are of the whole person, not of minds or bodies alone, so that from all those created in the image of God there is something to be received, and to them something to be given. When the image is located in reason, or for that matter in any internal qualification like consciousness, problems like those of ‘other minds’ are unavoidable. The person as a being in relation is one whose materiality is in no way ontologically problematic, whatever problems derive from the way in which we relate in actual fact to others.
The contention that our realising of the image of God embraces our embodiedness as much as our intellect and our ‘spirituality’ leads into the further point that we are not human apart from our relation with the non-personal world. Much current misuse of the creation, with its attendant ecological disasters, derives from a lack of realisation of human community with the world. It is not the same kind of community, that of equals, as that with which we were concerned when speaking of the community of persons. But it is a fact that we receive much of what we are from the world in which we are set and from whose dust we come. It is the context within which we become persons, and it too, is in a kind of community with us, being promised a share in the final reconciliation of all things. Although it is not itself personal, the non-human creation is bound up with that of the human, and depends upon us for its destiny. It is not something which we stand over against in the sense that it is at our arbitrary disposal, as ‘technocracy’ assumes. It is rather, to use Polanyi’s metaphor, the reality which we indwell bodily, intellectually and spiritually. Here, being in the image of God has something to do with the human responsibility to offer the creation, perfected, back to its creator as a perfect sacrifice of praise. It is here that are to be found the elements of truth in the claims that the image of God is to be found in the human stewardship of the creation.

I think that a lot of this is helpful in looking for the grounds of a Christian involvement in and attitude to the rest of creation. The planet, the plants, animals, seas, rivers, clouds, mountains and valleys matter and are in a kind of relationship with us. This isn’t to personalise creation in a Gaia-theory kind of way, but rather to recognise our relatedness to the rest of creation and our responsibility to care for it. We indwell creation and depend upon it, just as it depends upon us and is bound up with humanity and our personal relating to the personal, trinitarian God. There is an asymmetry to this relationship as the environment is not personal, but there is not such a sharp dividing line between humanity and the non-personal creation as we sometimes imagine.

Non-Scriptural language

October 7, 2009

Does it bother you that the word trinity is not found in the Bible? It bothers some people – for example, Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is unbiblical on the grounds that the word trinity is non-Scriptural. It seems that, during the Arian Controversy, Athanasius had to answer the objection that, in formulating the Nicene Creed, the orthodox bishops had used non-Scriptural language – probably focussing on the use of the word οὐσία (essence, substance, being). Athanasius replies, defending his use of such language at length (De Decretis, 18-24). Both the opponents and supporters of Nicea used non-Scriptural terminology, according to Athanasius, but the language used in the creed was valid because it expressed the truth:

But if someone enquires accurately into the things written and defined by the council, he will find that it completely embraces the sense of the truth, especially if one were to enquire with a love of learning and hear the fitting reason for the use of these words.
De Decretis, 18

Second, Arianism was a subtle heresy which attempted to defend itself from the Scriptures. The Arians and non-Arians would both have assented to the same Scriptural phrases about the Son’s relationship to the Father, but have understood it in different ways. Therefore, Athanasius says, it became necessary to rule out certain false ways of interpreting the Scriptural language, using non-Scriptural terms. But, this language is acceptable because it “gather[s] together the sense of Scripture”:

Nevertheless, let it be known to anyone who wishes to learn, that even if the words are not as such in the Scriptures, yet, as has been said before, they contain the sense of the Scriptures and they express this sense and communicate it to those who have ears that are whole and hearken unto piety.
De Decretis, 21.

In this way, while we concede that much of the language used in orthodox definitions of Christology and the Trinity are non-Scriptural or non-biblical (that is, they are not part of the vocabulary of the Bible), they are not for that reason unscriptural or unbiblical. Of course, Christians need to be careful that they find and use appropriate language when trying to “gather up the sense of Scripture”, but they need not feel limited to only using the Biblical vocabulary when doing theology. Such a limitation would also really limit theology to works written in Hebrew or Greek, since all translation involves interpretation to a greater or lesser extent. Non-Scriptural vocabulary often helps explain what the Biblical language means, rule out false interpretations where there is potential ambiguity, and acts as a shorthand for things that are Scriptural.

Should anyone then worry that the word trinity isn’t found in the Bible? No – because it is shorthand for the truth taught in the Bible about God’s identity. The Bible does teach that there is one God; that the Father is God; that the Son is God; that the Holy Spirit is God; and that the Father is not the Son nor the Spirit, and that the Son is not the Spirit nor the Father, and that the Spirit is not the Father nor the Son. These seven statements (and the nuances given in Scripture) lead directly to the Trinitarian belief expressed in e.g. the Athanasian Creed, and the word trinity is a useful shorthand for this, and fully commensurate with the sense of Scripture.