Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Who is God? Why Were You Born?

The title of this post consists of two questions. I put them together because the second question cannot be answered rightly without knowing the answer to the first question. The Genevan reformer, John Calvin, who is definitely a mixed bag for me, wisely noted at the beginning of his Institutes that in order to know ourselves we must first know God.

So before we can answer the second question, we must address the first: Who is God? How do we answer this question? Where do we begin (a methodological question)? How do we know (an epistemological question)? According to the great Athanasius, the stalwart defender of the orthodox faith in the 4th C., our speech about God must begin with God's self-revelation in the incarnate Son, the historical Jesus Christ. The incarnate Jesus is the revelation of God. He is "of one substance with the Father" (Gr., homoousios to Patri). In his flesh and blood person, he is the fullness of God in bodily form (Col 2:9). As my pal, theologian Baxter Kruger, Ph.D., loves to say (and I paraphrase): To say the name of Jesus is to say the Father's Son and it is to say that God and the cosmos are eternally bound together in union. In his incarnate nature, the Son of God is the literal union of heaven and earth. He is all that the ancient Temple represented, the meeting place between God and humankind, walking on two sandaled feet! He has breached, in bodily form, the ancient dualism between deity and materiality that not only marked Greek philosophy but has been smuggled into much classical theism (i.e., the western doctrine of God). Jesus, the Son of God, takes us directly to the Father and, therefore, directly into the heart of the triune circle of the Father who loves the Son in the Spirit and the Son who loves the Father in the Spirit. In short, to speak the name of Jesus is to move immediately into the eternal circle of the triune fellowship of love. The apostle John tells us that God is love. As I said in a previous post (One Person or Three? That post fits well with this one BTW), love is not something God does; love is not an attribute (characteristic) of God, nor is love an accident of the divine nature in the Aristotelian sense of being incidental to God's nature; rather love is constitutive of that nature. God is love.

Now, what does God's essential nature of love have to do with the reason you and I were born? Because God has freely and sovereignly chosen to reveal his eternal threefold nature in time and space, that is, in the "economy" (oikonomia) of salvation, as the Father who loves the Son in the Spirit, we can make inferences as to why the God who is love creates. Since God exists eternally as a communal fellowship (koinonia) of eternal love, we can infer that there is no necessity in God's act of creation. In other words, God does not create from any lack or need in the Godhead. God does not need us for companionship, for he already exists in an eternal community of reciprocal love. Since God does not create out of necessity, we can conclude that creation itself arises from God's gracious, freely chosen act to be God for us. As Karl Barth says, from eternity past God determined that he would not be God without us. Before the creation of the world, God chose to include the human race in his triune circle of love. As the apostle Paul states, he predestined us to adoption (Eph 1:3-5). Moreover, nothing will stop God from achieving his eternal purpose for humanity, not even the sin of Adam. Even in the face of God's "No!" to sin, God's eternal "Yes!" to mankind remains, its clarion call undiminished by our shortcomings and failures. From eternity past, eons before the sin of Adam, the Father purposed to send his Son to unite divinity with creation so that the entire cosmos could forever be included in the triune circle of love. After all, what else is love to do. By its very nature, love is not self-centered; it is other-centered. Therefore, as an eternal fellowship of love, God freely and graciously chooses to extend the triune circle of fellowship to include the cosmos, and with it, all humanity.

With the stunning realization that God freely chooses to be God for us comes the equally stunning revelation that we are here on this earth in order to be included in the eternal great dance of the Father, Son and Spirit. So why were you born? You were born in order to share eternally in the blissful, joyous, perfectly harmonious and overflowing fellowship of the triune love of God. This is God's gracious gift to you and me, and like any real gift from a loving Giver, it is not conditioned upon our performance. God himself provided for us all the "performance" that was needed in the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. All God asks of us is to enjoy and to share with one another the gift of love that the Father, Son and Spirit have so lavishly poured out upon us. And that's what I call Good News! Amen.

Monday, October 20, 2008

One Person or Three? Does it Matter?

One of the early distortions of the doctrine of the Trinity was modalism, a view of the Godhead articulated by Noetus and Praxeas in the second century and Sabellius in the third. Modalism (rhymes with commode-alism, a severe stomach malady) asserts that God is one person (not three) who plays different roles in his interaction with creation. In other words, the one-person God wears three different masks, like an actor in a Greek drama playing three different roles, or like a single actor in vaudeville playing Larry, Mo, and Curley all by himself. You get the idea, don't you? Sometimes God wears the Father mask; at other times, the Son or Spirit mask, and like that.

The more technically minded among our readers will want to know that there are two variants of modalism (McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 328, 329): 1) Functional modalism (associated with Praxeas). In this version, the three "persons" of the Godhead are merely three roles played by the one God at any given point in time. So the one person God switches masks as the need arises. (Could get confusing don't you think?) 2) Chronological modalism (associated with Sabellius): God plays successive roles at different times in salvation history. It's like he's the Father for a few centuries or so, then he's the incarnate Son for a relatively short while, and then he's the Spirit. (Talk about identity crisis!) In either case, the "three persons" of the Trinity are really just different aspects of the activity of the one-person God. That's the main point: for the modalists, God is one person, not three.

There is an obvious problem with modalism, however, and I know you astute readers out there have already figured it out (except for one or two, and you know who you are!): Modalism makes it look like Jesus was praying to himself in the Garden, like he was some sort of split-personality type. So what did he do? Answer himself by lowering his voice? The modalists have a problem there. But it gets even worse: Since modalism portrays God as one person playing three roles with no real distinction between the Father and Son, the ghastly but inevitable corollary is patripassianism, the heretical notion that the Father, incarnate in Jesus, suffered on the cross (O'Collins, Tripersonal God, 86). And that throws the Gospel passion story all out of whack!

Patripassianism notwithstanding, however, what's the problem with modalism anyway? Were the modalists bad men who wanted to start a cult? Or did they have legitimate, though mistaken, reasons for their assertions? Here's the deal: Because they were big on monotheism, the modalists feared that to assert the Son was a distinct person from the Father would sound like Christians were wild-eyed orgiastic polytheists who believed in more than one God. Not only that, the modalists wanted to guard the "unity" or "one principle" (mone-arche, "monarchy") of the Godhead by eschewing (huh?) any hint of division in God. In the Hellenistic philosophical milieu of the day, God was considered simple; hence, any suggestion of a division of the divine essence was verboten (Did you notice that I used a French word and a German word in the same sentence?) In other words, the modalists didn't like the idea that God was more than one person because that was like saying the divine "substance" (Greek: ousia or "essence") of God could be divided up, just like when you slice a 12-inch pizza into palm-sized pieces. To equate God with a cosmic pepperoni was not cool for the modalists.

Now you may think that modalism is an out of date, old-fashioned heresy that happened long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away; but there's where you're wrong Chewbacca! Fiddes (Participating in God, 4) cites a 1984 study in Great Britain wherein participants were asked, "How is it that God is three persons in one?" The typical answer for one-third of the sample surveyed was that "the three are one person: they're all one person." So you see, modalism is still with us. As preachers and teachers we have to wonder how many of our congregants are modalists without even realizing it.

To be sure, there are boo-coo (Cajun for the French "beaucoup") problems with modalism. Bloesch (God Almighty, 172) says that the modalists could affirm an economic Trinity, that is, a threefoldness in God's relationship to the world (aka oikonomia). They could not, however, affirm an ontological Trinity, that is, a threefoldness in God's eternal being (aka theologia). To put it in a bit more high-browed fashion, modalism asserts that God's revelation in salvation history as Father, Son, and Spirit is threefold only in relation to us and is not, therefore, indicative of the eternal being of God (I like that last phrase.). In plain speak, the modalists understood that God has revealed himself in time and space, that is, in salvation history (oikonomia), as Father, Son, and Spirit. Yet they couldn't bring themselves to believe that that's how God really and truly is in his eternal, intradivine nature (theologia). So the modalists ended up with a Trinity of names, but not a Trinity of persons.

Modalism leaves us with no knowledge of who God is eternally while it undermines God's faithfulness, for we cannot be sure God truly is as he has revealed himself in Christ. In short, modalism severs the vital connection between theologia (God in his eternal, intradivine relations) and oikonomia (God as revealed to us in salvation history). Let's do that again: Modalism severs the connection between God in se and God pro nobis. One more time: Modalism severs the connection between God ad intra and God ad extra. WARNING: Do not repeat these words to your spouse unless you are prepared to be taken as a fruitcake. I should know!

Now let's get down to the real nitty-gritty. There is a major, major problem in modalism. I expect many of you readers have already figured it out, but there's one or two of you that I know pretty well who ain't got it yet (you know who you are and so do I). So here's the deal. Let's start with the Apostle John's beautiful description of who God is. John says, "God is love." For John, love is not something God does, nor is it an attribute (characteristic) or accident (in the Aristotelian sense) of God's nature. God is love. The very essence of God is love. Love is who God is. Period. (And I don't want to hear any strident screams about "holiness" defined legally. Forget about it! Most of the readers of this blog will know what I mean.) But I digress.

Now then, what is love? There's no better place to find the answer to that question than in the apostle Paul's memorable treatise on love (1 Cor 13). According to Paul, love is patient, kind, gentle, does not seek its own, does not keep any record of wrongs. Notice that Paul is describing love in interpersonal terms (I have to thank my homey, theologian Robert Lucas, Ph.D., for that one). No wonder Paul describes love in interpersonal terms, for love, by its very nature, requires another. If God were only one person, as the modalists say, then God's love would be self-love, and that we call narcissism, not love. 

Moreover (you can tell I'm getting serious now), if God is a unipersonal monad, God cannot be eternally love; rather, God becomes love when he creates, thus making love an accidental quality of God rather than constitutive of the divine nature (I love that phrase!). Not only that, we cannot be certain whether creation exists merely to fill a need in God. If God is unipersonal, he may create out of a need for community. In that case, creation would not be God's free and gracious act for us but rather a self-fulfilling act in order to fill the one-person God's need for community. 

Finally, if God is aloof, remote, isolated, and alone (as Greek philosophy maintains) then we cannot be certain of God's purpose in creating us. Said another way, there are soteriological consequences to the modalists' assertion that God is unipersonal rather than tripersonal. Because God is a tripersonal fellowship of love, we can rest assured that God is favorably disposed to his creation. We cannot have that certainty if God is unipersonal rather than a triune fellowship of love. So you see, whether God is one person or three makes a difference—a lot of difference. I think our eternal destinies depend on the difference.

Let me close with a beautiful quote from John Sanders (The God Who Risks, 148) that bears upon our topic: "The Father can beget the Son because the Father, as personal, has self-emptying love for another. God is then not alone, in isolation from relationships, but eternally related within the Godhead as Trinity. God is then not an 'in-itself,' apart from others, but the epitome of love in relation." Wow! 

Thank you Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! Your threefold self-revelation in salvation history (oikonomia) allows us to rest in the assurance that all your triune activities toward the world derive from your compassionate heart of love. Amen.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Why a Doctrine of the Trinity?


In keeping with their Jewish heritage, the first Christians were strict monotheists (cf. Dt 6:4). Nevertheless, they believed that God had come among them in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The gospel writers assert that Jesus is "Immanuel": God with us (Mt 1:23). Thus, the problem for the early Christians was not whether Jesus Christ was God, but how, within the boundaries of their inherited monotheism, could the unity of God be maintained while equally holding to the deity of one who is distinct from God the Father. In short, how could they assert that Jesus is one with God while maintaining there is only one God? Said another way, how could they maintain both the unity of God and the distinction of personhood between the Father and the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom the early church also worshipped as divine?
While there is no formal doctrine of the Trinity articulated in the New Testament, there are many scriptures that plainly indicate the triune pattern of God's self-revelation in salvation history. Thomas Oden (Systematic Theology I) lists twelve "classic texts" that point to an incipient doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament: i) the baptismal formula (Mt 28:19-20); ii) Jesus' baptism (Mt 3; Mk 1; Lk 3; Jn 1); iii) Paul's apostolic benediction (2Cor 13:14); iv) the varieties of gifts (1Cor 12:4-6); v) the Ephesian formula (Eph 2:18; 4:3-6); vi) Jude's summary instruction (Jude 20, 21); vii) John's Prologue and the Farewell Discourse (Jn 1; 14-17); viii) the Johannine letters (1Jn 3-5); ix) the Apocalypse salutation (Rev 1:4-6); x) the kenosis (Phil 2:5-11); xi) introduction to Colossians (Col 1:13-16), and xii) Hebrews summary of salvation history (Heb 1:1-4). In addition, there are many more texts that plainly lend themselves to a trinitarian interpretation.
Even as New Testament scripture was being written, the early Christians were compelled to reflect on their encounter with Jesus Christ, either personally or through the power of the Spirit. The early church believed that God was present and active in the ministry of Jesus and that the resurrected Jesus was personally present in the life of the community through the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the starting point for early (not later) Christian reflection on the nature of God was the biblical witness to the presence and activity of God in Jesus Christ as attested by the Holy Spirit. In short, the early church's speech (confession) about God began with the unique self-revelation of God, the incarnate Son of God, the historical Jesus, and his ongoing presence in the community of faith through the power of the indwelling Spirit.
The Christian confession of God as triune is a "summary description" of the biblical witness to the Father's unfathomable love for all humanity as revealed in the incarnate Jesus Christ and experienced and celebrated by the Christian church in the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity is the always-inadequate attempt to interpret this witness in images and concepts comprehensible to the community of faith. The doctrine of the Trinity is the product of the ongoing meditation and reflection of the church over the gospel proclamation of the "good news of the love of God in Christ" that continues to work in the world through the Holy Spirit (Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, p. 67). In short, the doctrine of the Trinity is the result of sustained reflection by the early church upon the exact nature of the relationship between Jesus Christ and God (and later, the Holy Spirit).
Roman Catholic theologian Catherine Mowry LaCugna describes the doctrine of the Trinity as "the summary statement of faith in the God of Jesus Christ" (LaCugna, God for Us, p. 21). She adds the important observation that the doctrine originated as "an explanation of how God's relationship to us in the economy of salvation (oikonomia) reveals and is grounded in the eternal being of God (theologia). God is none other than who God is revealed to be in Christ and the Holy Spirit" (p. 8).
Reformed theologian T. F. Torrance asserts the importance of the connection between God's self-revelation in time and space, that is, in salvation history (oikonomia) and the inner, eternal being of God (theologia). As the theologians of the early church reflected on the incarnation of the divine in Christ, says Torrance, they were faced with the fundamental question as to how the self-revelation of God, manifested within the limited capabilities of human comprehension, is related to the "invisible, intangible, and incomprehensible Reality of God in the mystery of his own ultimate being" (Torrance, Christian Doctrine of God, p. 77). Unless there is a substantial connection between the visible, tangible, and comprehensible and the invisible, intangible, and incomprehensible, there can be no firm basis for actual knowledge of God as God is in himself (God in se). Without such a connection, argues Torrance, the Gospel is detached from reality and its account of God's redemptive activity in human history is nothing more than a "mythological projection of human fancy."
Torrance, a Protestant theologian, and LaCugna, a Roman Catholic theologian, both assert the supreme importance of the bridge between oikonomia, defined here as God's self-revelation in the history of Israel, the incarnation of Christ, and the sending of the Holy Spirit, and theologia, God's eternal intradivine nature considered apart from his action in the world. LaCugna echoes Torrance in her assertion that the "central theme" of trinitarian theology is the relationship between the economy of salvation (oikonomia) and the eternal being of God (theologia). In the terminology of Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, trinitarian doctrine focuses on the relationship between the economic Trinity (oikonomia) and the immanent Trinity (theologia) (LaCugna, 1991: 22). In plain speak, trinitarian theology focuses on the relationship between God's self-revelation in time and space as incarnate Son and the indwelling Spirit (economic Trinity) and God's eternal, internal relationships in the triune Godhead (immanent Trinity). The task of trinitarian theologians is to articulate the innumerable theological, anthropological, cosmic, soteriological, and eschatological implications of God's triune self-revelation as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. No doubt, notwithstanding the efforts of Barth, Torrance, Gunton, Jenson, Kruger, LaCugna, Rahner, Zizioulas, and many others, this task is still in its early stages.


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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Welcome to God for Us!

Welcome to God for Us!, a trinitarian blog. Mixing straight-faced seriousnesss with irreverent humor, this blog will use a variety of approaches, from stuffy academia to sheer nonsense, to help put the good news back into the Good News! In future posts, I intend to ask many questions regarding the doctrine of the Trinity as well as what it means to live in relationship with the God who is revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I may even provide the odd answer now and then!

I am not a professional theologian (yet); but I am working on it. Most of my professional career was spent as a Marriage and Family Therapist. For many years, I worked as a professional counselor in a local megachurch (Man, was that an education!) and was also a graduate level adjunct professor in my field at a local college (although I didn't smoke a pipe). I have written two books and numerous magazine articles related to theology and Christian living. I also do occasional workshops on those subjects. You can learn more about all that at my website: http://www.mannabooks.org/.

I have a profound interest in trinitarian theology. After spending twenty years wrestling through the Calvinist-Arminian debate, I was exposed to trinitarian theology through my now good friend, Dr. Baxter Kruger. About half way through his book, The Great Dance, I began to feel as though scales were falling from my eyes. I got so excited about the Good News of the Triune God's love for all humanity that I ran into my front yard and started running around in circles! I immdediately pulled my cell phone from my pocket and called my brother-in-law, Ken, a businessman and pastor, and told him, huffing and puffing and still running in circles, "Hey man! You gotta read what I'm reading!" (I went immediately back inside, however, when I saw a police car slowly and quietly approaching.) Baxter's book brought me the sudden, stunning illumination that , for two decades, I had started my thinking about God in the wrong place, invariably ending up with a view of God that finally drove me to the serious study of Zen Buddhism (Tell me, Grasshopper. What is the sound of one hand clapping?). Given the picture that some theologians paint of God, Zen started looking pretty good to me.

Since reading Baxter’s work, I have moved on to Barth, Torrance, Gunton, LaCugna, Jenson, and many others, and have developed a profound hunger for more understanding of the Triune God’s unfathomable love for all humanity. I am now pursuing a doctorate in trinitarian theology (research degree) under the supervision of Greenwich School of Theology in England. I am in the early stages of this project and probably have nearly three years to go.

Part of what I want to do in this blog is share some of what I am learning with people around the world who are fed up with religion and its unending litany of rules, regulations, conditions and demands for entering the Kingdom. These are people who want to hear the Good News of God's unconditional love for his creation. (That's what I said: unconditional! After all, what other kind of love is there?) In addition, I know that a number of those who will read this blog are personal friends who are busy pastors and simply don't have two or three (sometimes more) hours a day to devote to research and study. These friends are themselves learning more and more about the Good News through their own study of Kruger, Capon, Jinkins, Torrance, Barth, and others, and, quite frankly, some of them need all the help they can get! (You know who you are.) I hope they can benefit as I share some of what I am learning. Perhaps they can even share some of it with their congregations. If so, my time devoted to this blog will be well worth the effort.

In addition, I want to help my pastor pals and other readers to increase their theological and philosophical vocabulary, so that when they read some of the more academic theological works, they will have an easier time of it. So I will throw in the occasional three-dollar word, chosen from among the four or five that I know, so that my readers won't be put off in their advanced reading if they don't happen to know the difference between God in se and God ad extra or God pro nobis . In addition, I may throw into the mix the occasional post on Greek philosophy (zzzzzz!). A basic understanding of Plato, Aristole, and Plotinus is needed to comprehend a whole bunch of theological writing. Ancient though it is, Greek (can you say, pagan!) philosophy is still with us today, underlying western classical theism. Finally, I reserve the right to wax "academic" from time to time. I am a teacher by nature, so I guess it's something I just have to do. So, tell me, Erasmuffin, what impact did neoplatonic emanationism have on the early Christian doctrine of God? And why has a substance ontology been privileged over relational ontology in the western doctrine of God, and what are the implications, Bro?

Another thing I want to do is help put the good news back into the Good News! This is large for me. Somewhere along the line (and we’ll take a look at where) the Good News of God’s love for all humankind got lost in the deck in the unholy shuffle of Greek philosophy and biblical thought. To illustrate the consequences of this ungodly cocktail of biblical and pagan thought, I had a teacher in a theology class say that when he was exposed to the “gospel,” or at least the version presented to him at seminary, he wanted to burn down the entire campus because he had been told that God had, from eternity past, reprobated many to hell (Who wouldn't want to bring out the flamethrowers hearing that garbage?). Since that time, of course, he has learned to accommodate his “aberrant” thinking to the sovereignty of God. But let me ask you this: Should hearing the Gospel make us want to burn down the campus, or should it make us want to shout from the roof tops how great the news really is?!

Not long after reading some of Baxter's stuff, I was walking, pockets empty, through the voluminous lobby of a coastal casino crowded with people from Tokyo to Tuscaloosa. Filled with compassion for all these disparate people (Thank you, Holy Spirit!), I had the sudden urge to yell out, "You are all included!" But because of the significant number of security guards present, I held my peace. Maybe next time I'll wax evangelical and let out a hoop and a holler for the Good News! After all, the Gospel is supposed to be good news, but too often it’s presented as the story of a vengeful, wrathful God who can’t wait to send as many of us as possible to hell, particularly those who don't go to my church. That’s not what I call good news. So I want to do my bit to put the good news back into the Good News.

Finally, since I am a professional therapist (mostly retired), I can't help but post the occasional thought or two on relationships. After all, why are relationships so difficult? Why won't my spouse do right? Or, better yet, what do my difficulties in relationships (with spouse, friends, coworkers) have to say about me? There's a scary thought. Ugh!

So let’s get started and together share our interests, questions, and perhaps an occasional answer regarding the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who, in their unfailing love, are God for Us!

To get things moving, I'll share with you some questions that I ponder from time to time:

Does the doctrine of the Trinity matter? What difference does it make if God is one person or three? Does triunity matter in regard to the nature and character of God? Might God be other than what Scripture describes him if he were one person rather than three?

Is God’s triunity related to his plan for human salvation? Is the scope of God’s plan of salvation reflected in the triune heart of God? Does God love some but not others? Does an understanding of his triune nature help us to answer these questions?

Regarding human beings created in the image of God: Does it matter whether God is one person or three? Does God’s triunity have anything to do with our relationships with family, friends, and coworkers? Or is God so remote that his inner nature has little to do with us?

Is God simple, immutable, and impassible? Where does this kind of language come from? Is it biblical? Is God affected in any way by our prayers, or is God an unmoved mover, like a cosmic fence post (or a Greek column) whose relation to us is a function of our movement, never his (its)? (Aristotle thought so and apparently some Christian theologians, including Thomas Aquinas, are happy to agree).

How do we understand the nature of God? Where do we start? Do we look for trinitarian patterns (vestiges trinitatis) in the human mind or soul in order to understand God’s triune nature? Augustine thought so. Do we look to the tree, or perhaps, the ocean or mountain to tell us what the nature of God is like? In other words, does our thinking about God begin with creation? Aquinas thought so and he followed Aristotle in formulating his cosmological proofs for the existence of God. Or does all our speech about God begin somewhere else? Irenaeus and Athanasius certainly thought it did. These kinds of questions are epistemological (How do we know?) and methodological (Where do we start?). And they are extremely important because how and where we start our thinking about God has a profound effect on where we end up—and some, starting in the wrong place, have ended up in some very ungodly places.

These are just a few of many questions that have been asked, and continue to be asked, in the field of trinitarian theology. I don’t have the answers to many of these questions. I don’t know if anyone can answer them all. Yet these are the kinds of questions that must be addressed if modern Christianity is to escape its captivity to Greek thought and return to the joyous trinitarian vision of the early Church. Maybe together, we can work out some answers here.

A.S. Radcliff: The Claim of Humanity in Christ (in the Torrance tradition), Post 15

Reference Radcliff, A.S. 2016. The Claim of Humanity in Christ: Salvation and Sanctification in the Theology of T.F. and J.B. Torrance . ...