Category Archives: Christology

The Doctrine of the Trinity Is Not About A Word

A few years ago I gave a talk to a popular audience on the doctrine of God. During the question and answer period a questioner ask, “Would you explain the Trinity?” The audience laughed. I replied that I find the doctrine of the Trinity quite simple and would be happy to answer his question. For today’s post I will share my understanding of this simple doctrine. Let me begin with two preliminary qualifications.

(1) The doctrine of the Trinity is not about a word. The Greek word “Trinity” (trias) was first used to refer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the late 2nd Century. The word “Trinity” was not used in the New Testament, and some people turn this absence into an argument against the substance of the doctrine that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They seem to think that the whole issue turns on what word you use. If the word “Trinity” were that important to the doctrine, surely the Nicene Creed (381), the definitive statement of the Trinitarian faith for nearly all Christian churches, would have used it. It did not. The debate about the Trinity addresses the question, who is God? Or more precisely who is the God we meet in Jesus Christ and the Spirit who raised him from the dead? The name “Trinity” is simply a shorter way of saying the name “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), into which we are baptized.

The real question of the Trinity is this: is it proper for Christians to believe and confess that the word “God” means Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Gregory Nazianzus (A.D. 329-89), Patriarch of Constantinople and one of the chief defenders of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity says it this way:

But when I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For Godhead is neither diffused beyond these, so as to bring in a mob of gods; nor yet is it bounded by a smaller compass than these, so as to condemn us for a poverty-stricken conception of deity, either Judaizing to save the monarchia, or falling into paganism by the multitude of our gods. For the evil on either side is the same, though found in contrary directions.  This then is the Holy of Holies, which is hidden even from the Seraphim, and is glorified with a thrice repeated Holy, meeting in one ascription to the title Lord and God (Oration 38, 8).

(2) The doctrine of the Trinity is not a speculative doctrine that claims intellectual comprehension of God’s essential being. The church fathers who articulated the Nicene Creed were well aware that God dwells in unapproachable light and that no one has seen God. God’s essence is incomprehensible by any being other than God. The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is a protective formula whose only claim to truth is that it faithfully summarizes the revelation of God made in Jesus Christ. Only God knows God. Hence only God can reveal God. The Son knows God and can reveal God (Matthew 11:27). The Spirit knows “the deep things of God” and can reveal the “thoughts” of God (1 Corinthians 2:11-12). In sum, the doctrine of the Trinity aims not to comprehend “the deep things of God” but to restate the truth of divine revelation in a compressed formula that protects the faithful from one-sided interpretations of the scriptures.

The doctrine of the Trinity arose in three stages. First, Jesus and his disciples confessed the one God and the Christian church never revoked this confession. There is only one God. However once Jesus had risen from the dead and was confessed as Savior and Lord and the Spirit had been poured out on the church, it became obvious that the one God acts for our salvation through his Son Jesus Christ and in his Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is the revealer of God and the Spirit sanctifies us and unites us to God. The Christian experience of salvation and communion with God involves three who act as one. We are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We pray to the Father through the Son, in the power of the Spirit. Everywhere you turn in the Christian faith, ritual, and practice we find the three united in one. Thomas Torrance calls this stage “the evangelical Trinity” (The Christian Doctrine of God).

Second, Christian experience and faith raise questions that demand explanation. At this stage, the church recognizes that the work of Jesus Christ as Savior, Lord, and Revealer and the work of the Spirit as Revealer, Sanctifier, and Giver of life can be accomplished only by God. God acts in the economy of salvation and revelation as Father, Son, and Spirit. In relating to Jesus and the Spirit, we are relating to the true God. When we are united to Christ we are united to God. When we are touched by the Spirit, we are touched by God. In the economy of salvation and revelation we relate to the Father as God, to Jesus Christ as God, and to the Holy Spirit as God. Torrance calls this stage “the Economic Trinity.”

The third stage moves to the ontological or immanent Trinity. The truth of Christian faith and practice depends on the saving and revealing work of Jesus Christ and the sanctifying and life-giving work of the Spirit (the first stage). And the validity of the work of Christ and the Spirit depends on the divine character of that work (the second stage). The final stage asserts that God is triune not only in the economy of revelation and salvation but in God’s own eternal life. Unless God really is Father, Son, and Spirit in eternal truth, we could not receive the revelation and salvation in Christ and the Spirit as a real revelation of the Christ-character of God, of the love of God, of the real presence of God. There might be a different God hidden behind the masks of Christ and the Spirit. The doctrine of the immanent Trinity simply states that what God reveals himself to be for us in the economy, God is in his own eternal life. It is not speculative, and it’s not complicated.

The three stages stand or fall together. If we think God might not really be Father, Son, and Spirit in eternal truth, we would have cause to doubt that God is really at work or genuinely revealed in Christ and the Spirit; and if we doubt that God is really at work and revealed in Christ and the Spirit, would have cause to doubt our salvation, our union with God and our sanctification.

John dealt with similar doubts in his own context in the First Century. And his answer is similar to the one the church eventually gave in the doctrine of the Trinity:

We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life (1 John 5:20).

The Mystery of the Incarnation: How Can the Word Become Flesh?

The Christian church confesses that the eternal Son of God became a human being in Jesus Christ, lived a human life, and died a human death for our salvation. The prologue to the Gospel of John begins, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God” (1:1). In verse 14, we hear that “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The man Jesus is the eternal Word of God. Paul speaks about the one who dwelt in the “form of God” emptying himself and humbling himself to take on the “form of a slave” and to die on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8). And in Colossians, he speaks of Christ as the one in whom “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” The writer of Hebrews speaks of one who secured purification from sins as the one “through whom also God made the universe” (Hebrews 1:1-4).

Hence the New Testament certainly teaches that the person we meet in Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, who existed with the Father before he was made flesh. But how did his disciples arrive at this knowledge, and what does it mean to say that the Word became flesh or that the fullness of the godhead dwelt bodily? These questions are not easily answered. It seems clear, however, that the doctrine of incarnation was not understood during Jesus’ earthly life. Only after the resurrection did this become clear. What changed?

It seems to me evident from  the New Testament teaching about the resurrection of Jesus, his post-resurrection appearances, and his close connection to the sending of the Holy Spirit, that the disciples experienced the risen Jesus as one whom God had designated from all eternity as Lord, Savior, Revealer, Creator, and Judge. These functions cannot be carried out by a mere human or even an angel. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). But Jesus Christ could not be thought of as a mere instrument God used or a space in which God dwelt while doing this work. The risen Jesus is one with God in will and action. God acts “through” and “in” Jesus. But Jesus is not the Father. Nevertheless, in calling Jesus Christ the Word of God or the Son of God the apostles view Jesus Christ as some sort of “extension” of God.

The disciples did not realize fully the identity of Jesus as the Son/Word of God incarnate before the resurrection and the giving of the Spirit. However, once they knew his true identity they concluded that from the very beginning of his human life he had been the incarnate Son of God. The resurrection revealed the identity of Jesus in glory, but it did not constitute it. The question I raised earlier becomes relevant at this point. What does it mean to say that the Word became flesh? We can readily see that the resurrected and glorified Jesus has been united to God, filled to overflowing with divine life, one in will and action with God. His body was transformed and spiritualized and his consciousness united with the divine mind. But how shall we understand his divinity during his earthly life before his glorification?

The first thing to keep in mind in answering this question is the truth I stated above: the actuality of the incarnation before the resurrection is a deduction concluded from Jesus’ resurrection and his status after that glorious event. It cannot be known from experience of his humanity or from pure speculation. And it could not have been established merely by a claim by Jesus or his followers. However, once that conclusion has been secured by the resurrection we can retrospectively see signs of Jesus’ identity in his earthly life: his miracles, the authority of his teaching, and his claims.

But accepting the resurrection-grounded truth that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God incarnate from conception onward does not grant us understanding of how this is possible or complete insight into the nature of the union between the Son of God and the human life of Jesus. Our expectations of what an incarnate God would be like create difficulties in thinking of Jesus as the Word made flesh. We tend to think that a divine presence in Jesus would necessarily manifest itself in a special divine-like consciousness and action through the agency of the body. But we cannot imagine a human consciousness that includes all knowledge or a human agency that exercises omnipotence. In the same way, we cannot imagine a divine consciousness that is limited to a human mind and bodily senses or a divine power bound by the limits of the body. Hence we get hopelessly entangled in contradictions. Some theologians develop theories of divine self-limitation, wherein the Word gives up or refuses to use some divine attributes and others think up theories that lessen the humanity by replacing the human mind with the divine mind or making the entire humanity a mere appearance.

The Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds assert that Jesus Christ is “truly God and truly man” and that he is “one and the same Christ…to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.” These statements do not attempt to explain how this is possible or speculate about the psychological experience of the God-Man. Perhaps it is enough simply to confess the biblical and orthodox Christology and refuse to speculate further. I believe this stance is sufficient for the life of faith, and it is the foundation on which I base my thinking about the Incarnation. But we are curious to know the answers to these questions, and we cannot help imagining some sort of answer. And this curiosity can lead us to propose heretical or fanciful theories.

As I hinted above, I do not find it helpful to think about the Incarnation primarily in psychological categories, speculating about the union of divine and human consciousness and self-consciousness. I find it more helpful to think in ontological categories, that is, the being or existence of a thing rather than the self-consciousness of that thing. No right thinking person identifies their humanity fully with their consciousness. We are human even when we are not aware of the fullness of our human nature. Our humanity does not rise and fall with our self-consciousness. Human life is a life-long quest to understand and experience our full humanity and the humanity of others. The goal of all human existence is to become spirit, that is, to achieve identity between what we are in existence and in our self-consciousness.

Clearly, here and now there is a difference between my existing humanity and my ego or any other medium in which I am aware of my existence. Nevertheless, I can truly affirm that my existence is me and mine, even if I am not yet aware of all of it. I do not think or feel this way about the existence of other things, rocks, mice, planets or light beams. Why not? They are within my sphere of possible experiences. Indeed they are, but when I experience for the first time aspects of my existence, I experience them as me and mine, as having been me and mine all along. I do not experience other objects this way. I experience all dimensions of my existence as constituents of myself, and I realize that they were aspects of my constitution even before I knew of them.

Jesus Christ was fully human from conception onward. But like all human beings he grew in consciousness of his human existence and nature. It was not his consciousness and self-consciousness of his humanity that made him human. Jesus shared with other human beings the drive to know the fullness of his human nature and existence. But Jesus was also fully God from conception onward; that is to say, for Jesus the divine nature was a constituent of his existence. (For us, the divine nature is the cause of our existence but not a constituent of our persons.) In the same way that Jesus was not fully conscious of every aspect of his human nature from conception onward, he was not fully conscious of his divine nature always. And just as his lack of complete consciousness of his humanity did not make him less human, lack of full consciousness of his divine nature did not make him less divine. I think we can safely say that Jesus grew both in his awareness of his humanity and his divinity during his earthly life. And even if Jesus did not become fully conscious of the full depths of his humanity or his divinity until his glorification in the resurrection, this in no way diminishes the completeness of his pre-glorification divinity or his humanity!

Note: this is the 151st essay I’ve written and posted on this blog since August 2013.

 

The Church’s Christology Or The Real Jesus?

In the previous post we began a study of the identity of Jesus Christ. We looked at many New Testament texts that speak about Jesus’ identity. We spent most of the time examining the Gospel of Mark. We saw there and in the rest of the New Testament a very important distinction being made between the offices and functions that Jesus is said to have held and performed and his person, that is, the personal characteristics that qualified him to perform these functions. Perhaps divinely chosen and empowered human beings could hold some of these offices and perform some of these functions, for example, prophet, priest, and king. There were other lawgivers, exorcists, and miracle workers. But the New Testament makes clear that Jesus performs many of these functions by his own authority and some of the titles given to him clearly refer to his person as well as his offices. This is clearly true of the title “Lord” and “Savior” and “Word” and “Son of God.” It is impossible to imagine designating a mere human being by these titles.

Jesus’ Authority Over Kosher Laws

Before I move on to the question of the validity of the New Testament’s Christology, I want to consider one other text in the Gospel of Mark. Mark gives 23 verses to the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and the teachers of the law over the disciples’ eating without observing the traditions about ritual cleansing before eating (Mark 7). Let’s take up the story at verse 14:

14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”

17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

Notice Mark’s extension and application of Jesus’ statement in verses 18 and 19. “Jesus declared all foods clean.” Compare Mark’s observation with the story of Peter’s vision in Acts 10. Peter sees a sheet full of clean and unclean animals being lowered from heaven. A voice from heaven tells Peter to “kill and eat” (10:13). Peter protests. But the heavenly voice, whom Peter addresses as “Lord” (Jesus?) rebukes Peter, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (10:15). Because of this encounter with the Lord, Peter understands that God has opened the door of the kingdom to gentiles. Mark contends that even during his earthly ministry Jesus had implicitly declared all foods clean. Mark clearly views Jesus as having the authority to change the Old Testament kosher laws. Jesus does not need a vision and a voice heaven to give him the right to make this declaration. He already has that right because of who he is.

The Origin of Christology

The New Testament views Jesus Christ as the eternal Son of God, the Word of God who has taken on human nature for our sakes. The wording of the Nicene Creed (381) in reference to Christ does not differ in content to the New Testament teaching:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages,
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven;
he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary,
and was made human.
He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered and was buried.
The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again with glory
to judge the living and the dead.
His kingdom will never end.

But were the first disciples, Paul, John, and the writer of Hebrews making legitimate inferences from their knowledge of what Jesus actually said, did, and what happened to him to their high Christology? Can the church’s Christology be justified by the facts about Jesus? I dealt with this question from the angle of apologetics in the January 2015 posts on the resurrection. I shall address it here briefly as the question of the origin of Christology.

Apart from their belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the apostles’ embrace of such an exalted view of Jesus Christ as we find in the New Testament is inconceivable. [Note: the term “bodily resurrection” is redundant, but I use it anyway since Liberal Christianity claims Jesus was “raised” only in a spiritual or metaphorical sense, a use of the term resurrection I consider duplicitous.] It would never have occurred to anyone to see in the crucified, dead Jesus God’s triumph over sin and death. No one would have dreamed of preaching that Jesus’ death on the cross was the turning point of the history of salvation. Pursuing the question of the identity of Jesus would not have been worth the effort. Only the bodily resurrection could have provided justification for developing Christology. This much is certain.

The question I am asking, however, is not whether the bodily resurrection of Jesus provoked the origin of some type of Christology but whether or not it justifies the exalted Christology of Paul, John, Hebrews, and the Nicene Creed. For it is (superficially) conceivable that God could raise a human being from the dead for a reason other than declaring him to be the eternal Son of God. In the case of Jesus no such ambiguity was possible for at least three reasons:

(1) clearly the resurrection would be understood as God’s validation of Jesus’ teaching and activity and a declaration of his innocence of the charges that lead to his death. But as we have seen, Jesus taught and acted with unprecedented authority and his claims about his relationship with God were considered blasphemous by the Jewish rulers. By rescuing Jesus from the dead God declared Jesus’ claims to be true. Hence Jesus claims, his teaching, and his actions—as the disciples remembered them—became significant for the development of Christology.

(2) Jesus’ resurrection was not merely a return to his former life. It was the definitive salvation into eternal life promised for the end of the age. Jesus is the bringer of salvation. In him the end of all things has appeared and the meaning of creation has been completed. Christology seeks to understand the connection between the one through whom God brings salvation to the world and the God to whom Jesus prayed.

(3) Paul and the original apostles experienced Jesus alive after the resurrection in a way that convinced them not only that Jesus was alive but also that he was united to God, permeated with the Holy Spirit, and endowed with divine authority. Hence they called him “Lord,” worshiped him, prayed to him, obeyed him, and expected salvation from him. Their experience of the resurrected Jesus made necessary the development of an account of his person and his relationship to the God of Israel and the Spirit of God.

Taking all three of these aspects into account, we begin to understand why the apostles and Paul developed the very exalted Christology we find in the New Testament. Nothing less could do justice to the facts of their experience of Jesus.

Who is Jesus?

The first generation of Christians was occupied with grasping for themselves and explaining to others the identity of Jesus of Nazareth.  One of the earliest identifiers is expressed in the confession, “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3; Romans 10:9). His original disciples also designated Jesus as Messiah, Son of God, Savior of the world, Word of God, and many more titles. Jesus saves and judges the world. He is the one through whom God created the universe (Hebrews 1:1-3) and the one in whom the fullness of God dwells (Colossians 2:9).

He existed in the “form of God” but took on the “form of a servant” (Philippians 2). The eternal Word became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14). He is the “true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20). Jesus is not identified in a one-to-one correspondence with the God of Israel to whom Jesus prayed as “Father.” He is distinct from but in the closest and most intimate relationship with the God the Father.

Though Jesus is called a prophet, lawgiver, messenger and teacher, he is more, much more. The Gospel of Mark begins with the affirmation that this is the story of “Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Mark’s gospel tells the story of how Jesus came to be recognized as “Messiah” and “Son of God.” John baptized with water, but Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit. What a contrast! Jesus speaks with authority and casts out demons, which recognize him as “the Holy One of God” (1:24). He heals the sick and raises the dead with a simple command and in complete confidence.

In Mark 8, Jesus asks the question “Who do people say that I am?” At this point in the narrative, Jesus’ actions and words have asserted such unprecedented authority and provoked such wonder that none of the usual labels can do him justice. Peter replies to Jesus, “You are the Christ” (8:28). But not even that label says all that needs to be said about Jesus. For “messiah” means one anointed to be “king,” and Jesus, we discover, is more than a king.

In the next chapter (Mark 9), Jesus is transfigured and meets with Moses and Elijah. The three disciples wish to honor Jesus as the equal of Moses the great lawgiver and Elijah the greatest of the prophets. But God, speaking from heaven declares, “This is my Son listen to him.” Jesus is greater than the law and the prophets! He is God’s “Son.” Mark wants us to view Jesus’ messiahship or kingship—which could be viewed simply as an office like those of prophet and priest—in light of his “Sonship.” When the human beings in Mark’s gospel speak about Jesus’ identity, they speak of him as the bearer of an office such as king or prophet, but when God or demons speak, they speak about Jesus’ person, that is, the inherent personal qualities that make him qualified for the work he does and the offices he holds.

In Mark, as well as the rest of the New Testament, the title “Son of God” means more than an office; it means an intimate relationship with the Father based not simply on a divine choice but on something analogous to natural kinship. John calls Jesus “the only-begotten” Son of God, emphasizing the uniqueness of Jesus relationship to the Father (John 1:15), and Paul contrasts Jesus the Son of God with “the sons of God” who are adopted into “sonship,” in an obvious contrast between natural born and adopted children (Romans 8:15). Jesus is “Son of God” by nature. There never was a time when he was not God’s Son.

 Israel’s lawgivers, prophets, judges and priests were chosen by God from among the people and endowed with the authority of the office. Whatever authority they exercised or wisdom they displayed derived not from their own persons but from their divine appointment. Apart from that divine choice, they are just like their brother and sister Israelites. But Jesus was not only chosen and appointed for his work in this world. He was sent from the Father. He is not qualified because he was appointed but he was appointed because he was qualified. And this fact distinguishes Jesus Christ from all prior and succeeding prophets, priests and lawgivers. Jesus is Lord.

To be continued…

 

It’s Time to Remember What Politicians Cannot Do

In this season of high hopes and deep despair, of utopian dreams and dystopian fears, let us remember that there is only one Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He is the only one who rules by divine right, and he is the only one who can save us from our deepest problems. So, I want to speak today about the limits of politics—not the limits of a particular party or political philosophy but the limits of any possible political order. In this post, I will not be advocating for any party, philosophy or human person. I simply want to ask Christian people to take their confession seriously: Jesus is Lord and Savior. Jesus alone!

People look to the political dimension of society to provide order, justice and prosperity. We can imagine having order without justice and a just order without prosperity. But we want all three. Hence politicians defend their own leadership abilities, theories and policies as the best means to the optimum balance between these three values. Hardly anyone expects politicians of any party to create perfect order, justice and prosperity or even the ideal balance among them. Most people know they must settle for what they believe is the best of those imperfect systems.

But let us assume that a utopian state is possible and that your favorite politicians can bring that state into being. Your society is efficiently ordered, and peace dominates. Everyone is treated fairly, and prosperity extends to all levels of the society.  What then? Can the president forgive your sins? Can your senator raise you from the dead? Can the congress decree that you will inherit eternal life? Politicians cannot create the world or make sure that everything that happens to you works out for your eternal good. No state can guarantee your human dignity or assure you that you exist for a reason. The government cannot make sure that you are loved and have the courage to love in return. No politician can give your life ultimate meaning or give you true and lasting happiness. Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. There is no other.

Now let us assume, on the other hand, that your worst political nightmare comes true. The worst people and worst party come to power, and your dystopian fears become reality. Injustice reigns, order serves the interest of only a few and prosperity eludes the majority. Perhaps dissenters and critics of the new order are persecuted. What then? Can the president make you unhappy? Can poverty erase the image of God in which you are made? Can being treated unjustly make you unjust? The state cannot keep you from loving your enemies and your friends. The senate cannot rob you of God’s love. Nor can congress withhold divine forgiveness or invoke divine judgment. Can politicians prevent God from working all things to our eternal good? Can death or persecution separate us from the love of God? Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. There is no other.

Hence let us have a sense of proportion in this season of debate and decision. The best outcome cannot bring salvation to your house and the worst cannot assign you to perdition. Let us not seek from ourselves what only God can provide. Instead, let us treat politics as what it is: it is a means of maximizing certain worldly goods. Worldly goods! Not heavenly treasures! There is nothing sinful about wishing to enjoy and use worldly goods unless we begin to love and worship them and lose perspective on their true value. Putting too much stock in politics may indicate that we have lost hope in the real Savior and have given up trusting in the true Lord. Or it may indicate that we have grown to love the world. John gives a warning apropos to our time:

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world (1 John 2:15-16).

And Jesus, our true Lord and only Savior, reminds us of the One we should fear:

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him” (Luke 12:4-5)