Thursday, July 17, 2008
[size=150]*** Ommision of Responses due to volume ***[/size]
Bobby asked me a really good question - Why do I think that the Trinity is such a big issue?
It was never my intention that this blog should be a forum for discussing such a topic but, given the fact that Unitarians have had an historic link with universalism, I guess it was inevitable.
To start, I think that it is important to point out that all the Christian thinkers who thrashed out the doctrine of the Trinity from 2nd to 5th centuries did not think that they were ‘inventing’ new truths or adding to revelation. They were simply seeking to find ways of doing justice to the divine self-revelation testified to in Scripture. They wanted to preserve the fine balances required to appreciate the God revealed in Christ. Indeed, for them the debate was never about abstract and irrelevant theological talk - though it may look that way to us at first glance - it was always about the God of the gospel.
I personally take the Christian tradition very seriously and in my view the fact that the ecumenical creeds have governed Christian belief in all three major streams of the Church for centuries gives them prima facie authority. As Christians we’d need very strong reasons to reject them. So I am not starting from a neutral place in this discussion.
Is the idea biblical? Some people never tire of pointing out that the word “Trinity” does not occur in the Bible. But that is simply irrelevant. If the concept is the best way of doing justice to biblical revelation then the Trinity is biblical even if the word is a later label used for convenience.
Where to start? I simply intend to make a few, simple and provisional remarks as the topic is VAST!
All the early Christians were good monotheistic Jews. For them there was one God and to worship any other deity was to commit the primal sin of idolatry. But here’s the funny thing: As far as we can tell from the extant evidence the earliest Jewish followers of Jesus offered to their Messiah the worship due to God alone and they did not think that in so doing they were compromising their monotheism. (Richard Bauckham’s book God Crucified and Larry Hurtado’s book Lord Jesus Christ explore this issue at length).
Worship of Christ goes back to the earliest levels of the tradition that we can access. Given the robust monotheism of those who worshipped Jesus this is an extraordinary fact that needs accounting for. How could solid monotheistic Jews worship Jesus in good conscience?
In early Christian worship and theology Jesus was approached as the one though whom God made all created things (e.g., Jn 1:3; Col 1:16); the one who sits upon the very same throne as God (e.g. Rev 22:3); the one who receives the worship of God (e.g., Phil 2:10-11, note the allusion to Isa 45:23); as one who bears God’s own name (Phil 2:9); as one who is even called "God"on occasion (e.g., Jn 20:28; Heb 1:8). Old Testament texts about YHWH are applied to Jesus (e.g., Isa 45:23 in Phil 2:10-11 or Ps 45:6-7 in Heb 1:8). Jesus’ human body is the divine temple in which the very glory of God dwells (Jn 1:14). And so on and so forth. If Jesus did not participate in the identity of the one God of Israel then all this was idolatry.
And yet the early Christians were very clear that Jesus’ identification with YHWH was not such that Jesus was identical with his Father in heaven. God (the Father) created all things through his Word (1 Cor 8:6 - which, incidentally, is a Christian expansion of the Jewish shema from Deut 6:4); the throne in heaven is “the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Rev 22:3); and when Jesus prayed to his Father in heaven he was not talking to himself.
So in the very earliest Christian responses to God in the light of the Christ-event we find a tension. Jesus shares in the identity of Israel’s one God and yet is not identical with the Father. Trinitarian theology is the attempt to clarify this tension and to guard it again those who would deny the deity of Christ (Arianism) and those who would say that Jesus and the Father are the same ‘Person’ in different disguises (Modalism). It also guards against a whole range of other unbalancing theologies. The aim is not to explain God or to put God in a box and understand him. God is mysterious - and this assertion is not an attempt to dodge hard philosophical issues but a simple admission that God’s bigger than our little brains. The aim of the systematic formulations of Trinitarian theology is to protect certain fundamental Christian claims about God and the gospel from being lost. It is to preserve the delecate balances of the divine self-revelation.
A similar process took place with the Holy Spirit after the controversies over the person of Christ had died down. Perhaps people might like to pick that up in conversations (this blog does not wish to outstay its welcome).
But it is not just a matter about how to interpret certain texts. Issues surrounding the deity of Christ had theological import.
All of the Father’s interaction with the universe - from creation through to new creation - is mediated through the Son and in the Spirit. If Son and Spirit are creatures (even highly exalted creatures) then God has no direct contact with his universe at all. God disappears off into the distance leaving us to engage with super-beings (the Son and the Spirit) instead. But Trinitarian theology, by insisting that Son and Spirit participate in the identity of the one God, puts God right at the heart of all creative and redemptive action. When Christ is saving us from sin God is saving us from sin. When Christ is with us God is with us. When the Spirit draws us through Christ to the Father God is drawing us through God to God. It’s God all the way down.
Of course, please do not think I underplay the humanity of Christ - it is simply that this post is not on that issue. Christ is able to fully save us because he is divine but he is able to save us because he is fully human and can represent humanity.
Universalism does not require Trinitarian theology (it does not even require theistic theology). Christian universalism, I think, does. I know that in saying this I will anger a whole load of blog readers. Oh well. I’m getting used to upsetting people.
Posted by Gregory MacDonald at 7:58 AM