Monday, June 12, 2017

A Needless Complication?

I get a lot of technical questions thrown at me at the jail. People there have little to do except read their Bibles and think. The most common question I get is about the Nephilim. Their first and most intriguing appearance is in Genesis 6:4. There we are told they were giants who were the product of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men.” These giants pop up a handful of times in the first 6 books of the Bible and generate a lot of curiosity. Nowadays I simply send the inmates who ask about them photocopies of a couple of pages from the book Hard Sayings of the Bible, detailing the 3 basic interpretations.

Other frequently asked questions are about the apocryphal Book of Enoch, the names of God, the composition, transmission, and translation of the Bible, the divinity of Jesus, early church history, and whether Roman Catholicism is Christian. So it's a good thing I am a Bible and theology and church history geek, meaning I not only study these things but enjoy really getting into the details. And unlike my experience in the world outside, I rarely see inmates' eyes glaze over when I explain. They really want to know.

Occasionally I will get questioned about the Trinity. Mostly folks just don't understand it. It seems to them a needless complication of the doctrine of God. Why do we still retain it?

Well, it's not like anybody sat down and decided that the nature of God needed to be made more difficult. Rather it is that Christians started noticing things about their experience of God and needed some framework to deal with the paradox they encountered. That God was the creator of us and all that exists was obvious. The problem came when Jesus arrived.

Had Jesus of Nazareth been the kind of Messiah most Jews expected there would have been no problem. Had he simply been King David 2.0, leading a revolt against the Romans occupying Jewish land and setting up a kingdom of God on earth, his followers would have been fine with that. Had he been a prophet or high priest who brought the people back to the observance of God's laws, that would have been OK. But Jesus was different. He healed many more people than either Elijah or Elisha had. He even raised the dead. He fed multitudes with a few loaves of bread and some fish. He stopped storms. Most notably, he walked on water. And having been killed in the most horrible and bloody way the Romans had concocted, Jesus rose again. Clearly Jesus was not merely a man of God. People had referred to him by an old royal title, the son of God. But it looked more and more as if this was literally true. And that caused a problem for monotheistic Jews, which all of the first Christians were.

There were scriptural precedents for this, however. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, there are appearances by the “angel of the Lord,” who speaks for and sometimes as God. Because he sometimes is identified with God and sometimes is seen as distinct from God, Jewish thinkers saw him as a theophany or an appearance by God in humanoid form.

And then in Proverbs 8, wisdom personified speaks. “From eternity I was appointed, from the beginning, from before the world existed....When he established the heavens, I was there; when he marked out the horizon over the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above, when the fountains of the deep grew strong, when he gave the sea his decree that the waters should not pass over his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him as a master craftsman....” (Proverbs 8:23, 27-30) So God's wisdom is spoken of as a separate person who works with him in creation. And on a few occasions Jesus did identify himself with the wisdom of God. (Matthew 12:42; Luke 11:49-51; Matt. 23:34-37)

The wisdom or logos of God was a common theme of both Jewish and Gentile philosophers. The logos, which could be translated “word,” was the rhyme and reason for the world, the ordering principle behind it. John's gospel seizes on this concept and begins, “In the beginning was the Word (logos) and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him and without him was not anything made that was made....And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us....” (John 1:1-3, 14) Notice the parallels with Proverbs 8, where wisdom is with God and helps in creation.

So the idea that an aspect of God could be a person sharing his attributes had been established. And this helped the early Christians who were trying to wrap their minds around how Jesus could be God while at the same time his Father was God. 

So how did the Holy Spirit come into this?

The Spirit of God was mentioned frequently in the Old Testament beginning with the very second verse in Genesis, at the dawn of creation. At first the Spirit of God was seen as a supernatural force, rather like the wind, that could not be seen but whose power could be experienced. God's Spirit was given to kings, priests and prophets, who were anointed to carry out his will. The Spirit might come upon such persons to speak or prophesy through them, often in an ecstatic state. And the prophets spoke of the coming age when the Spirit would renew creation and be poured out not just on leaders but on all people.

Jesus spoke of the Spirit as a person. Blasphemy against himself, the Son of Man, would be forgiven but not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 12:31-32) How could insulting an impersonal force be more grave than insulting Jesus, unless the Spirit was also a divine person? And in John 14:16 Jesus speaks of the Spirit as another parakletos or advocate who would take over that role in the life of the church. 

But the biggest reason that the church saw the Holy Spirit as another divine person has got to be their experience of him beginning with Pentecost. The Spirit spoke through them, guided them, has a mind (Romans 8:27), and can be grieved (Ephesians 4:30). They realized that the Spirit was not simply an impersonal energy but God living in them. (Romans 8:9-11)

So the early Christians observed 4 facts about God: the Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God, and yet there is one God. The Trinity was not formulated to explain away this paradox but to preserve it. But why?

Because the early church experienced God in all 3 ways. They saw God's work in creation and knew of his wisdom, justice and mercy in his law. The Twelve and the Seventy had spent a lot of time with Jesus and 500 had seen him after his resurrection. From Pentecost on, they felt and knew the power and direction of the Holy Spirit. They also did not feel that God was merely putting on 3 different masks or that Jesus was shadowboxing when praying to or speaking of the Father as a separate person whom he was obeying or the Holy Spirit whom the Father was sending. And yet the unity of the three was so complete there was no sense that any one divine person was acting apart from or in opposition to any other. The Trinity was the church's way of acknowledging all of these experiences while resisting the temptation to oversimplify reality.

As science is our attempt to explain the natural world, theology is our attempt to explain the ways of God. As science has to deal with counterintuitive facts, like light behaving both as a particle and as a wave, and the extremely odd behavior of subautomic particles, so theology has to deal with things we discover about God that are also difficult to comprehend. Of course there are several difficult areas in their respective fields that scientists and theologians continue to wrestle with as they try to bring all of the data together. When someone ignores certain scientifically established facts in creating a theory, it's bad science. When people ignore the basics of the faith to assert something about God, it's bad theology.

But is it important that the average person understand these things? Not in the detail that experts do but just as we should all know some basic science, Christians should know basic theology. And let me relate something that has helped me understand the Trinity.

In 1 John 4:8, we are told that God is love. It doesn't say that God is loving, but that God is love itself. If we take that not as a poetic sentiment but a literal fact, then God is an eternal act of love. And if that is true, there has to be more than one person in the Godhead. God is not unrequited love, like the love Charlie Brown has for the little redhaired girl. That's merely a crush or an infatuation. For it to be true love, it has to be reciprocated. So the Triune God is the Father loving the Son loving the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit.

That means that since we are created in the image of God, we are most like God when we in a loving relationship, whether it is a friendship, or a romantic relationship, or a family, or a loving community. And that's important for Christians to know.

The fact is that we still experience God in different ways. There are times when we are out in nature or looking up at the night sky or looking through a microscope or listening to the latest news from science or watching a baby discover the world and her own body and her abilities, when it hits us that this universe is both amazingly vast and complex and yet intricately coordinated. It may seem random and chaotic at times and yet it always obeys the laws of math and physics and chemistry. Our brains are able to do more than just keep us alive and help us decide if the the other things in our environment are things we should fight or flee or feed on or fertilize. We think and we understand and we appreciate and we invent arts and sciences. Even unbelieving scientists confess to feeling awe about this cosmos. They marvel at the fact that the universe seems fine-tuned to allow life and ourselves exist. We Christians can feel gratitude to our Creator as well. And gratitude is a key element of psychological well-being.

But a God who is merely a creator, who is far above us in knowledge and wisdom and power, can also make us feel very much alone in our place in the universe. The people of Israel felt grateful that God simply deigned to send down his law and his word to guide and comfort us. But God did more than that. He sent his living Word, the ultimate in self-expression, his son, to become one of us, to live a human life. He shows us both what God is like and what we can be. And through his crucifixion, he shows us the extent of God's love. Through his resurrection, he shows us God's power and intention to restore life and wholeness to all of creation. Consequently, we Christians know that nothing we encounter in our lives is foreign to him. He understands firsthand what it is like to be human. And that includes pain and suffering and sorrow and death. But we also know that no matter how dire our situation is, there is hope because not even death can defeat our God. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. (Romans 8:38-39)

But now that Jesus has gone back to the Father, we might feel abandoned and orphaned. Yet God is still present with and in us through his Spirit. He awakens us spiritually, giving us new life and recreating us in the image of God we see in Jesus, which our self-destructive ways have marred and obscured. He speaks to us and speaks for us. He drives us and restrains us. He reminds us and inspires us. He equips each of us and binds all of us. The Spirit leads us to become the people God intends us to be.


We can, and should, experience God in all three ways: above us, beside us, in us. And even if our minds have trouble taking this all in, we need to remember that his ways are not ours. A god small enough for our minds to comprehend is a god too small to be the source of all creation, nor the rhyme and reason behind it, nor the power energizing it. A big and complex and awesome universe like ours requires an even bigger and more complex and much more awesome Creator. Man is not the measure of all things. God is. And thank God for that. 

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