Tag Archives: Trinity

Responding to Non-Christian, Monotheist Critiques of Christianity

Many of us live on streets where nearly all the world’s major religions and different types of secularism and atheism are represented. We personally encounter religious viewpoints today that fifty years ago we had only read about in books. We are encouraged by the exponents of pluralism and relativism to ignore the differences and just get along. And from a personal and political vantage point this may be a good strategy. But what is true for individuals and politicians is not true for religions and philosophies. They make conflicting truth claims. From a logical point of view they may all be wrong, but they cannot all be right. I am comfortable and experienced in arguing for the truth of Christianity against atheism or for the truth of an important theological truth against a Christian thinker who denies it. But like many of you I am not all that experienced at defending the faith in discussions with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and others. And as I hinted above, our culture discourages us from anything but affirming encounters with representatives of other religions. I think, however, that Christians need to go beyond tolerance and politeness, and learn how to explain and defend our faith to our non-Christian neighbors. Let’s think today about how to respond to one particular non-Christian critique of Christianity.

Critics of Christianity attack at different points. Where they attack depends on what they assert as the alternative truth. Atheists object to the very idea of God, and offer nature or matter as a god-substitute. Non-Christian monotheist religions object to the status and role Jesus Christ occupies in the Christian faith and assert some other revelation or mediator or law as a Christ-substitute. Non-Christian polytheist religions find it easy to assimilate Christ as one appearance of god among many. Today I want to address certain objections to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. I am not concerned in this essay with those Christians who object on biblical grounds to the specific doctrine asserted in the Nicene Creed. I am thinking of rational critiques by Jewish, Islamic, Theist or Deist thinkers.

These critics assume that defeating the doctrine of the Trinity defeats Christianity as a whole. And to accomplish this goal they make use of a common (and mistaken) notion that gives their objections underserved force, that is, that the simple unity of the divine being is a clear, rational truth whereas the triunity of the divine being is irrational or mysteriously beyond reason. But as a matter of historical fact, biblical Israel’s belief in the unity of the divine being was based on historical revelation and divine action, not on reasoning from nature. The best reasoning from nature at that time concluded that the divine nature was plural, that there were many gods, some more, some less divine. There are many forces and spheres within nature, and for the ancients these different forces possessed no obvious connection. And even if you examine the writings of the Greek philosophers from Plato to Plotinus, you never find a rationally plausible system that gets beyond dualism, that is, the assertion of at least two ultimate principles; and the divine realm always includes multiple levels. The history of philosophy proves that we cannot reason conclusively from the many things of our experience to a single, simple explanation for everything, much less to a single personal God. To think at all is to relate one thing to another. If there is only one thing, we are beyond thought. Hence simple monotheism is not a clear, rational truth self-evidently superior to belief in a differentiated divine unity. That there is only one, personal God is a truth that can be known only by revelation. I think it can be rationally held once believed, but just because it can be rationally held doesn’t mean it can be rationally proved. And I’ve not even addressed the question of the identity of that one God, which, of course, can be known only through the self-revelation of God, who alone, knows who he is.

If we remove the presupposition of the rational superiority of simple monotheism, the rationalist critique of the doctrine of the Trinity collapses. The question of whether God’s inner nature is absolutely without distinction or contains internal relations is beyond rational discovery. Now we can see clearly that the more basic question at issue is, has God revealed himself in such a way that calls for thinking of God as triune? Just as Jews assert that the God who called, guided, punished and saved Israel proved himself to be the one Creator of all things, Christians assert that this same God showed himself by what he did in and through Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to be eternally Father, Son and Spirit. The real question is not whether or not this assertion is as clear to reason as is the assertion of simple monotheism. Neither one is a truth discovered by or transparent to reason. The real question is whether or not God really has revealed himself in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit in the way the New Testament declares. Judaism, Islam and Deism deny this; and this denial is the root of their objection to the Trinity and to Christianity as such. The rationalist objection is a distraction.

Why The Doctrine Of The Trinity Cannot Be Used To Support Egalitarianism Or Complementarianism Or Any Other Ethical Teaching

In the contemporary debate about the relationship between men and women, in church, home, and society, disputants on all sides appeal to the doctrine of the Trinity for support. In this post, I will argue that the doctrine of the Trinity is the wrong ground on which to fight this battle. Any theological argument made on this issue must be based the economy of salvation and not on the inner mystery of God’s being. The doctrine of the Trinity points toward that mystery but it does not make it clear to the eye of reason. Hence it cannot be used for further deductions.

The doctrine of the Trinity asserts that God’s eternal being is one essence in three persons. This assertion is the terminus of a line of reasoning that moves from God’s saving action in the economy of salvation to God’s eternal being. In a post on the Trinity from May 7, 2016, I outlined this process:

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. For it does not explain the how and why of the Trinity, only the that.

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.

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is not a metaphysical theory of God or of the nature of being derived from the idea of God or being. It is a Christian teaching only because and insofar as it is implied in the way God worked in Jesus Christ. It should be confessed because it is implied in the act of faith in Jesus as savior and lord, which is grounded in the resurrection of Jesus. But the doctrine of the ontological Trinity is not comprehensible by reason. It’s not like a logical or mathematical truth in that once you understand its terms, you can see its inner and absolute necessity. Even when you understand its terms and see that it follows logically from a combination of two or more truths of faith, you cannot see its inherent necessity and meaning. Hence this doctrine cannot become the foundation for another line of reasoning that attempts to draw out ethical or ontological truths that were not present in the original faith assertions.

The controversy about whether the doctrine of the Trinity supports an egalitarian or a complementarian or a hierarchical view of the relationship between men and women can never be settled. The disputants always argue in a circle by using their conclusions as interpretive lenses through which to “see” their views in the doctrine. And the reason for this futility is simple: the doctrine of the ontological Trinity points beyond our reach into the incomprehensible mystery of God. I find myself sympathetic to Vladimir Lossky, who in his The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church objects to such thinkers as John Zizioulous (Being as Communion) and Juergen Moltmann (The Trinity and the Kingdom) who want to see in the doctrine of the Trinity an ontology of being or ethical truths that could become bases for further insights into the nature of the church or the ethics of society and interpersonal relationships. Lossky argues that the assertion of the ontological Trinity is designed to drive us to encounter the mystery of God. I advise taking Lossky’s cautious approach rather than the bolder approach of Moltmann.

So, if you want to construct a theological ethics of male/female relations, look to what Jesus taught and suffered, to what he did and what happened to him, and to the apostolic teaching about what his suffering and resurrection means for the way we live at home, society, and church. But don’t try to squeeze something out of the doctrine of the Trinity that you cannot find already present in economy of salvation enacted in Jesus Christ. Such speculations give the impression of being ungrounded and arbitrary. They persuade only those who need no persuasion. And they do an injustice to the doctrine of the Trinity and risk missing the encounter with the divine mystery.

 

 

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).

Who is God? (Part 3)

 

In the first two parts of this series I argued that a person’s identity is determined by whatever founds their existence, what they do and say, what is done to them and the relationships they have. We’ve seen that Christianity points to the story of ancient Israel, Jesus Christ and the apostolic church to answer the question “Who is God?” The story is the answer. But this story is much too long and complicated to rehearse or even summarize in this essay. And some of it overlaps with Judaism and to a lesser extend Islam. Hence I want to focus on the heart of the distinctively Christian part of the story: Jesus Christ.  Jesus taught that we can relate to God as our “Father in heaven”(Matt 6:9) and that we ought to love not only our friends but also our enemies (Matt 5:44). I think that Jesus’ teaching about God, religion and ethics, taken as a whole, is quite unprecedented in the history of religion. Nevertheless, it is not in Jesus’ teaching but in his “fate” that we find the most revolutionary reorientation in divine identity.

For most of the New Testament, but especially for Paul, the cross and resurrection of Christ is the heart of the Christian gospel. The claim that God raises the dead did not surprise or offend Paul’s Jewish audience, though his Greek hearers found it strange and even repugnant. But Paul’s contemporaries found the timing of Jesus’ resurrection very surprising. The resurrection was not supposed to happen until the end. But what they found most surprising and troubling about the resurrection of Jesus was the claim that God raised a man who had been crucified for blasphemy and rebellion. For Paul’s contemporaries the cross was an offense completely opposed to God’s dignity and power. But for him the cross embodied the wisdom and power of God (1 Cor 1:24). How could Paul have come to such a conclusion? Apparently Paul and the original disciples of Jesus were forced to look for divine wisdom in the cross because the empty tomb and Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances convinced them that God had raised Jesus from the dead. In the resurrection, God vindicated Jesus and overturned the verdict that led to his execution. The bold things Jesus said about God and his intimate relationship to God were declared true and reverent. Since God raised Jesus from the dead, the cross could not have been an accident but makes sense only a divinely intended act. If in the resurrection of Jesus God overcame death’s power over humanity, it stands to reason that in the cross God overcame the power of sin; for sin was the “sting” that brought death into the world (Genesis 3; 1 Cor 15:56).

The New Testament does not explain the cross as something God did to Jesus or merely allowed to happen to Jesus but something God did in and through Jesus (2 Cor  5:18-19). Jesus’ acts were also God’s acts, his words God’s words, and his love God’s love (2 Cor 5:14). Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God (Col 1:15). We come to know the glory of God in Jesus’ face (2 Cor 4:6). We know that God is love because God in Christ gave himself for us sinners (1 John 4:9-10). Hence, according to the New Testament, the gracious, self-giving act of Christ on behalf of those who did not deserve it, reveals the heart of God’s character; it defines God’s identity. God is not world-dominating power or arbitrary willfulness or blind justice or indulgent neglect. God is self-giving, unselfish, gracious and redeeming Love. How, then, does Christianity answer the question, “Who is God?” It says, God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And God’s life is God’s eternal act of giving, receiving, returning and sharing among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This divine identity was first made known to human beings in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ and everyone is invited through the grace of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to participate in God’s eternal love story.

Why, then, is it important to get the right answer about God’s identity? What difference does it make? As I said in part 1 of this series, unless we know who God is we won’t know how to relate to God or what to expect from God. Most people living in the western world do not have a clear idea of how many conceptions of divine identity there are, how much they differ or what different visions of human life and behavior they generate. People seem to think that everyone who acknowledges the existence of a divine reality holds the same nebulous view of God’s nature and identity: God is benevolent toward all and wants us to be happy in this world. But it is not as simple and self-evident as this. As Paul said in the text quoted in part 2, there are many so-called gods and lords (1 Cor 8:5), and the character of some of those gods looks more like character of demons than that of Jesus (1 Cor 10:20-21). Some gods are identified with fertility, some with wine, some with war, some with nations and some with death. Their powers are revealed by the activities of these natural forces. The gods’ identities are constructed by the stories told about their deeds and sufferings, by the heroes they inspire and commands they give. And worshipers naturally live as much as possible like their gods. Devotees aspire to their gods’ power and wealth and find excuses for their sins in the moral defects of their gods.

Suppose someone thinks of the divine nature as exalted high above human nature, as possessing supernatural powers and immortality and even as being one (monotheism). No doubt believing in the existence of a God with these qualities would affect a person’s behavior in certain general ways. But this description does not tell us who God is and what we are permitted to do and ought to do in relation to God. It is our understanding of the identity of God that determines decisively our behavior in relation to God. If you identify the divine nature as an omnipotent, world dominating force who works by coercion, if the stories of your God’s acts are all tales of conquest, if the heroes of your religion are blood-soaked warriors and politicians, and if you think your enemies are fit only to be destroyed, it is to be expected that you will aspire to be like your God and his heroes. But one who identifies the divine nature with the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ will seek God only in the face of Jesus and will aspire to live as Jesus lived; and this dramatic difference is an important reason to get the identity of God right.