The Trinity

too much unity can be a very bad thing

Last week I tried to suggest that without a strong sense of the unity between Father, Son and Spirit, the logic Christian good news begins to unravel. I argued that it was precisely a sense of this unity that ‘Nicene theology’ sought to protect using the technical term homoousios.

The importance of this unity is dramatically evident at the cross. You see, if Jesus wasn’t really one with the Father — if he wasn’t included in the unique identity of the God who’d revealed himself to Israel — then how can we escape the charge that the death of Jesus in our place was a horrendous perversion of justice (a case of an angry Father taking his wrath out on an innocent third party)?

La Trobe University at dusk

But our emphasis on the unity of the persons in the Godhead ought not to obscure their ‘threeness’. Too much unity — or, rather, the wrong kind of unity — can be a very bad thing. It can eclipse the particularity of the Father, Son and Spirit. And if it does that, then I think the logic of the gospel also unravels.

It unravels because if we ditch the idea that God is eternally three persons in loving, other-person-centred relationships with one another, then we end up struggling to see why God didn’t have to create and save us. That is, if God was purely singular — rather than three-in-one — then he didn’t have anyone to love until he’d created us. Worse, he’s at risk of losing someone to love unless he saves at least some of us from our sin. The hands of this God would seem to be tied.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, things get really topsy-turvy when we try to follow this through into our thinking about who God is. For if God is love but is not eternally three persons in relationship, then he couldn’t actually be himself without us to relate to. He couldn’t show love or experience relationships. Instead of being free to create and then save us, he would be forced to. In an ultimate reversal, instead of us being dependent on him for everything that makes life worth living, this God would be dependent on us!

But the good news is that God’s hands aren’t tied. The God we meet in the Old Testament — and get to know intimately in the story of Jesus — doesn’t need us to be himself. He is love because Father, Son and Spirit are eternally bound together in relationships of mutual love (expressed in distinct and particular ways — as we glimpse in the different roles they each play in the one work of creation and salvation).

Most gloriously of all, God’s majestic and lovingly executed work in creating everything and rescuing human beings (and the world along with us) is not something he’s forced into. It’s all grace. Free and full of delight. It is God the Father’s pleasure to create and save us through his dearly-loved Son and in the power of his Holy Spirit…

why the Trinity isn’t all Greek to me!

You may have heard someone suggest that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity — and specifically belief in the deity of Christ — only came about as a result of a conceptual tangle. People who argue this, think that the Christian belief in Jesus as God is an unintended side-effect of transplanting an essentially Jewish message — about the Jewish Messiah (‘the Christ’ or ‘Son of God’) — into Greek philosophical soil.

On this view, when Christians declare (in the words of the Nicene Creed) that Jesus is ‘of one Being with the Father’, they’re betraying the New Testament story of Jesus. Worse, they’re allowing philosophy — mere human guesswork — to take centre stage, shunting what God has revealed about himself off to one side.

What’s interesting is that the fourth-century Christians who opposed Nicene-style theology also felt like this. They objected to the key word homoousios — which was drawn from Greek philosophy and meant something like ‘one being’ or ‘the same substance’. To them, this implied that God was something physical like Coca Cola — a liquid that could be poured into different bottles. Either that or something worse — like the idea that God was really a nameless and unknowable oneness which simply wore the different ‘masks’ of Father, Son and Spirit as necessary.

These fourth century Christians rightly worried about both of these ways of picturing it, sensing that they created big problems. Problems like: How can we know we’re really in touch with the real God when we’re dealing with Jesus and the Spirit? How can we know that each bottle contains the same liquid? How can we know we’re actually connected with God if all we see are masks?

But the defenders of Nicene theology replied: ‘This is exactly what the word homoousios is meant to safeguard! It acknowledges Christ’s genuine identity with the one and only God.’

This Greek word (of dubious heritage) is supposed to help us do justice to what we see in the New Testament story. It assures us that we know we’re really in contact with God when we’re dealing with Jesus and the Spirit precisely because they share in one being.

inventing the Trinity?

The novel The Da Vinci Code infamously suggests that the doctrine of the Trinity wasn’t ‘invented’ until the fourth century. One of the characters, Leigh Teabing, claims that no-one considered Jesus to be God until the Council of Nicea in 325AD.

Lots of people have documented how far off the mark this is historically. And contemporary scholars like Richard Bauckham and N. T. Wright (and many others before them) have charted how the New Testament constantly presents Jesus as being and doing what only God could be and do.

At the same time, the New Testament does present Jesus’ relationship with the Father as a genuine relationship between one distinct ‘person’ and another.

What the Council of Nicea did debate — or, rather, what it commended as the solution to the pre-existing debate — was how these two things fitted together: ie. How can we say Jesus is God while at the same time acknowledging that Father and Son are distinct?

In historical terms, it was a key moment in resolving the Arian controversy. Arianism (a not very well organised movement named after its leading figure, a young preacher called Arius) admitted that Jesus was divine — but not in the same way that God the Father was divine.

According to Arius, God had always existed, whereas the Son (or Word) came to exist at some later point. He’s therefore inferior to God. And his role is instrumental — it’s through him that the transcendent God made and relates to everything (without needing to get his hands dirty). So the Word, for Arius, was a sort of half-way house between God and the world.

It’s important to see that this way of putting the pieces together isn’t totally outrageous. For the New Testament doesn’t unambiguously call Jesus God. And it does present him as distinct from the Father, relating to him as an obedient Son and as one through whom God creates and redeems.

What’s more, given some important assumptions people were used to making about God and the world, the Arian view plausibly explained how it was possible for the transcendent and eternal God to interact with a finite and time-bound creation.

It was only by overturning these assumptions that the road was paved for Christians to do justice to both sides of the New Testament presentation of Jesus. As a result, the form in which we now comfortably confess God as Trinity — saying, for example, that the Son is one in being with but personally distinct from the Father (and the Spirit) — bears the historically specific and contingent marks of this controversy…

what an incredible intimacy!

For my money, one of best things about being Christian is being able to call the God of the universe ‘Our Father’. Yet it’s also one of the most incredible. Not very long ago the former Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, referred to God as ‘He or She’. And many people would sympathise with this. The literary critic Terry Eagleton, for example, declares that God ‘cannot literally be the Father of Jesus Christ, since he does not have testicles’ (On Evil, pp 126-127).

Now, Christians have always recognised that a word like ‘Father’ can’t mean exactly the same thing when applied to the Creator as it does when applied to us. Jesus himself highlighted this. He taught us to pray to ‘Our Father in heaven and assured us that God is much better and far more reliable than any human father.

So what do we mean when we call God ‘Father’? And what gives us the right to lay claim to such an incredible intimacy?

Of course, some people don’t regard it all that intimate or special a thing. For them, God is a ‘father’ — indeed, the father of everyone — because we are all brothers and sisters (owing each other some minimum moral obligation as family members). On this view, God is sort of like Santa Claus. He says you’ll only receive his gifts if you’ve been ‘nice’, but it’s obvious he doesn’t really mean it — everyone always gets the gifts anyway!

Others react against this by restricting God’s fatherhood to a particular group. They insist, for example, that only Christians have the right to call God ‘Father’ — or perhaps only some subset of Christians (for when you start down this road, how do you know when to stop?). On this view, God is someone to cut a deal with: we bring our spiritual pedigree or record of achievement to the table and get his ‘gifts’ in exchange.

But our approach to God’s fatherhood must pay more attention to the New Testament story of Jesus, where we discover what kind of Father God is at the same time as we discover who is entitled to claim such an incredible intimacy…

we believe in the Holy Spirit … don’t we?

Each Friday for the next 5 weeks I’ll be sending out some pre-reading for a course on the Trinity, which I’m aiming to post here too.

Some Christians appear unusually reticent to talk about the Holy Spirit. Indeed, at times, you might be forgiven for thinking they’re suffering from ‘Spirit-phobia’. Others, however, have the opposite problem — a kind of ‘Spirit-mania’. These Christian can sound like they’ll never run out of things to say about the Spirit!

For centuries, Christians have declared that they believe in the Holy Spirit alongside the Father and the Son. In fact, those who confess their faith using the words of the ancient Nicene Creed, have said:

We believe … in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorifed, who has spoken through the prophets.

But do we really mean this? Sometimes the way we summarise the Christian message can suggest that there isn’t much need for the Spirit (or really any cause to make much of — let alone worship — the Spirit). My hunch is that this tends to happen when the problem that the gospel solves is laid out like this:

  • The main problem that has to be dealt is, How can the transcendent and holy God be present within a time-bound and sin-stained creation?
  • The assumption is that there’s a gap between ‘God’ and ‘the world’ that must be bridged. The question is therefore, By who (or what) can it be bridged?

Although there is obvious truth to this way of putting it, there are also some problems.

For instance, when you give the obvious answer to the question of who can bridge the gap — someone with a foot in both camps (ie. God in the flesh) — you’re left without a clear idea about where the Spirit fits in. But if you flip out to the other extreme and start claiming that it’s actually the Spirit who bridges the gap then you’re immediately in danger of denying what the New Testament says about the completeness and effectiveness of what God has done in Jesus — e.g., ‘God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ’ (2 Cor 5.19).

I think we need is a much clearer sense of the Spirit’s role in the story of Jesus — the story of the Spirit-anointed Son sent by the Father — and, by extension, a clearer sense of the Spirit’s role in making us a part of that story as adopted sons and daughters of God. Only if we can manage this will we be faithful to the New Testament, and be able to avoid both Spirit-phobia and Spirit-mania.