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TH 302 Lecture 5

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TH 302 Lecture 5


The Christian God is Triune


This week we are looking at the most peculiar aspect of Christian faith - the aspect that sets us apart from all other monotheisms (faiths that claim that there is only one god - such as Islam and Judaism and certain branches of Hinduism) - the claim we make that our God is one God, who exists fully but distinctly in the three persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  In theology, we refer to this claim as the Doctrine of the Trinity.


"Its all the same God, really..."


In our current age, with its emphasis on "spirituality" over religion, you will often hear the claim that the "divine being" referred to in all major religions is really the same, deep down, across all faiths. The argument is that the differences which are seen on the surface are really false, and what is essential to our God is the same as what is essential to Allah, the Buddha, etc.

In contrast to this very simplified montheistic model, orthodox Christianity has traditionally proclaimed a very peculiar and distinct manner of talking about the being of God. Instead of emphasizing the bare monotheistic essence, this tradition has insisted upon certain particular and non-interchangable claims. The major claim of the Christian faith regarding the God it worships is that this one God is known in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In short, the Christian God is triune.


What the Doctrine of the Trinity isn't


The theological Doctrine of the Trinity is not meant to be an explanation, nor is it meant to be an argument.  The ways we talk about God's triune nature are not designed to convince you of their truth.  If you go into this thinking that they should, you will probably reach the conclusion that the doctrine is useless, outdated, or confusing (a conclusion many current believers seem to hold!)


But this is not the purpose of the doctrine.  It is, at best, a description of a mystery.  And mysteries are, well, mysterious.  They do not lend themselves to airtight logic or knock-down argument.  Instead, descriptions represent our best attempts to make sense of things that may be beyond our knowledge - our our capacity to understand.


The Doctrine of the Trinity is, thus, an attempt to describe three contradictory claims we find in the Bible.


The first claim is that God is One, that God is God alone, and that there are no other gods (this is attested to in both sets of the Ten Commandements, as well as the Sh'ma prayer: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord alone," as well as in Isaiah and many other points in the Old Testament). 


The second claim is that the Father is God, Jesus is God, and the Holy Spirit is God (we find this in the Nicene Creed, and various attestations in scripture). 


The third claim is that the Father is not the Son or the Spirit, the Son is not the Father or the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father or the Son (look at Mark 1:10, Luke 3:22, I Corinthians 12:4-6 and II Corinthians 13:14 for examples of this differentiation).


As Christians, we assert the triunity of God as an article of faith because, after nearly 400 years of wrangling with these three contradictory but necessary claims, the doctrine of the Trinity remains the best way to describe what seems to be going on in the full account of the scriptures.



Some common misrepresentations of the Doctrine of the Trinity


The following are slightly more technical ways to describe the examples Guthrie gives on pages 81-82:


  • Subordinationism (which includes positions such as Arianism and Adoptionism ) is the notion that, when referring to God, the term "Father" is the real God, while the Son and the Holy Spirit are somehow "servants" or (in some formulations) "creations" of the Father which do his bidding. For example, Arianism asserts that Jesus is more than a mere human, but less than God.  In other words, Jesus is a creature, and not the creator.  This is a position we can see being wrestled with in the Apostles' Creed (how close do you put Christ to the Father?  How much does Jesus fit into the "God Box"?) and one which the Nicene Creed attempts to settle conclusively (remember the way we looked at the language a few classes back: Jesus, as the Son, is "one being" with the Father, "true God of true God," and the Holy Spirit is claimed to be the "Lord" just as the Father and Son are one Lord). Some difficulties in making the other two persons of the Trinity subordinate to the Father include the effect on the mechanics of salvation (one example: only God can forgive sins; if Jesus is less-than-truly-God, are we in fact saved by his action on the cross?)

  • Modalism(also called "Monarchianism") is the term for a variety of misconceptions. The common feature among them is the over-emphasis on God's "one-ness." For the Modalist, any time God seems to be acting in different roles there is really only one God wearing different "masks," instead of truly distinct persons at work. While this misconception has a tempting logic to it (we like the thought that God is really only one person, sometimes wearing the "Father" hat, sometimes the "Son" hat, sometimes the "Spirit" hat) it falls short of accurately accounting for the Scripturalwitness of God's being. The Modalist position has trouble, for example, accounting for the presence of all three persons in the Baptismal narrative (Lk 3:21-23) or the occasions when Jesus (the Son) clearly prays to the Father.  It has the dificulty of making Jesus seem less of a savior, and more of a schizophrenic or split-personality, talking to himself (and answering!)


    God's triunity as a model for the church and human interaction


    Shirley Guthrie, along with other theologians, draws a distinction between two understandings of the Trinity. 


    The first is the ontological understanding (ontology is the branch of philosophy that deals with "questions about Being") which looks at the Trinity as a way of describing the essence of God - how God is within God's self. 


    The second understanding is the social understanding of the Trinity - which asks how the Trinity describes God's relationship with us - God's creatures.  Guthrie emphasises a concept developed in the eighth century - the notion of perichoresis (peri = "around", choresis = "dancing") - to help in describing this relationship.  The three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit, are in constant relationship with each other.  They "dance" with each other in love and unity.  From this notion, Guthrie asserts that God is always, always in relationship.  The relationship of the persons with each other in the Trinity allows us to say that God is never willing to cut off relationship because the very nature of God is relationship.  Therefore, Guthrie claims, we can also understand God's interaction with the creation as one fundamantally of relationship.  God is lovingly involved because loving involvement is the very essence of who God is.


    If we are created in the image of God, and this image is one of a God lovingly involved, then, Guthrie argues, we, too, must be lovingly involved with creation and with each other.  This cuts across our relationships - with family, friends, strangers, enemies - and calls us to a radical love that transcends differences (as, indeed, God radically transcends the difference between Creator and Creation, mighty God and fallible creature - in perichoretic love).  From this, Guthrie challenges us to rethink especially how we are as a church i the world.



  • Click here for more information on the doctrine of the Trinity from the online Catholic Encyclopedia.





    The Attributes of God


    Guthrie talks (on page 98) of the arguments for the "death" of God, and to some extent he agrees that certain gods should be considered "dead":

    Which god is dead? All the gods that were really nothing but a projection of our own fears, wishes, insecurity, greed, or speculation. All the gods made in our own image. If talk about the death of God in our time exposes our idols and their inadequacy, we may welcome it. The quicker we bury and forget the gods we make for ourselves, the quicker we can learn who God really is.

    It is this task (learning who God really is) which is attempted when we speak about God's attributes. We try to describe (always in a limited way) who this God is - and that description can take a variety of approaches.


    Some 'gods' are dead: the tyrant, the cosmic granddaddy, the cosmic slot machine, the heavenly Santa Claus, the 'god' of abstract concepts. Christians, at their best moments, proclaim an altogether different God, a "living" God, a "personal" God, a "relational" God. But our attempts to describe the God we know has not been without its moments of philosophical talking, either.

    Two approaches to the Attributes of God: Philosophical and Personal


    If we describe God in personal terms, we might say, for example, that God is loving, kind, moral, fatherly (or motherly), nurturing, wrathful, just, jealous, passionate, or faithful. These are just a few examples, but what is similar among all of them is that these attributes of God are in the same category as those attributes we might use to describe ourselves. Now, these might be (following a comment made once by Ludwig Feuerbach) attributes "spoken in a loud voice," meaning that they are grander than what we're used to saying about ourselves, but still we can relate to what they talk about in a very human way. Some of the advantages to speaking of God in this way is that is allows us to feel familiar with God, and that God has some manner of empathy and sympathy with us as humans. By describing God in terms we understand, it is easier to assert that God understands us.


    However, there are disadvantages to this approach, too. For example, we might become too familiar with God, and ignore the majesty and awesomeness that demands our reverence. We might slip into thinking that God is here for "our convenience" or that, like a friend, we can ignore God and just visit "when we want to." On the other end of the spectrum are the philosophical terms to describe God's attributes. These have included calling God by the "omnis": omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipresent, as well as other absolute terms like "all-loving," Infinite, Supreme Being, or "Alpha and Omega." Unlike the personal terms, we have a great deal of difficulty relating these sorts of terms to things we as humans have actually experienced. These ways of describing God are good because they hep us to appreciate the difference, the mightiness and majesty, that are proper to God and God alone.


    However, thinking of God using these terms also has the disadvangtage of making God so remote from us that it is hard to ever imagine there could be a relationship between God and the world (let alone humans).


    Part of our task in learning the theological tradition is learning how to strike a balance between these two poles, so we can both appreciate the infinite and "other" aspects of God, as well as the efforts God undergoes to be in relationship with humanity. Three ways Theology has classically talked about God


    a. Sovereignty


    Christian theology has often spoken in terms of God's absolute rule over the cosmos. If we think in terms of the earthly models of government, God is equivalent in some way to a heavenly "king". This has entailed a rejection of dualism, or the notion that there is some "evil power" in the universe that rivals God. God's sovereignty helps us to have a robust faith ("God will be all in all") and a strong sense that justice and mercy will prevail. However, sovereignty also contributes to thinking of God as remote and uninterested in human affairs.


    b. Relationality


    If you were to speak to an observant Hebrew around the time of the life of Christ, and asked him (or her) "who is this God you are speaking about," they wouldn't answer with philosophical categories. Instead they would answer with the words of Deuteronomy 26:


    4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, 5 you shall make this response before the Lord your God: "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7 we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.


    In other words, the Jewish believer would talk about the attributes of God in terms of who this God had been and is in relation to the history of Israel. This approach is profoundly relational, but it has the advantage of also acknowledging the mightiness of God while still claiming that God draws near.


    3. Incarnation


    Christians take this relationality one step farther, however, and speak of the God who becomes incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. Not only does this offer a radical new view of relationality, but when we take the incarnation seriously, it also realigns our very definitions of terms like "majesty," "sovereignty," and "power" that we would use to describe God. In the incarnation God is not powerful like an earthly king, and yet the awesome power of God is preserved. The Christian terms to describe God, then, are at their best when they hold to this mysterious tension and translation of God's attributes - both the personal and the philosophical. Implications for us


    Knowing what kind of God we serve can point us to the type of people we are meant to be (as we are created in God's image). The compassion pointed to in relationality and incarnation can, like the relationality pointed to in God's triune being, push us to reach out and build community in our worship and our daily life. Moreover, this relationality gets communicated in God's call to us to worship properly. Consider the words of Isaiah, speaking God's words:


    1:12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; 1:13 bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. 1:14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. 1:15 When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. 1:16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 1:17 learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.


    Or again, Jesus' own words in Matthew 25:


    25:41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 25:42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 25:43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 25:44 Then they also will answer, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' 25:45 Then he will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' 25:46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."


    In calling us to be authentically ourselves, God is identified as authentically a God of justice, mercy, and lovingkindness.


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