Speaking of God – Trinity

Posted: April 4th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Speaking of God – Trinity

In Speaking Carefully About God and continuing in How to Speak of God I explored some of the things I try to keep in mind about God whenever I speak or write. In this final post, I want to explore what it means that the uniquely Christian God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God. We cannot speak of the God made fully known in Jesus of Nazareth except in a fully Trinitarian manner.

But what does it mean to speak in a Trinitarian manner? How does one do that? There are many directions the answer to those questions could take. It’s a deep subject and there’s no way I can do more than address a very few aspects of the answer in this post. So this is not a comprehensive treatise, just a few things I try to keep in mind when I think of God.

First, there are three distinct Persons in the Trinity. That’s critically important. It’s not God presenting different faces to creation in different situations, but three Persons acting in concert. However, it’s three Persons so unified in love and will and action that they can said to be of one essence — one God. And that is the mystery. It’s out of the overflow from that deep and utterly self-sufficient uncreated communion of love that all creation subsists.

But that reality constrains our language. One way I have heard it presented that makes a great deal of sense to me goes something like this. Absolutely everything we can possibly say about God applies either to all three persons of the Trinity or uniquely to one — never to two and not the other. So the Father is uniquely Father. The Father is the font or source. The Son is the only begotten of the Father (begotten not made). The Son is the unique logos of God, the Debar Yahweh, the Word and strong right arm of God. The Holy Spirit, the  Ruach Yahweh, the breath or wind of God proceeds eternally from the Father. Those are some of the things we can say uniquely about each Person. These are some of the things that make them unique Persons.

But almost everything else we can possibly say about God applies to all three Persons. We say that God is love. By that we mean the Father is love, the Son is love, and the Spirit is love. And there is no break, division, or separation in their love. They are all the same love. One way to think of it is that the Father always acts in and through his Word and Spirit. And his Word and his Spirit never act apart from the Father and each other. Perfect union. Perfect harmony.

And this brings up a common problem today. In an attempt to find gender neutral references to the Persons of the Trinity, some people today try instead to reference the Persons by different activities of God. A commenter on Sarah Moon’s post, Our Mother who art in heaven, mentions referring to the Persons of the Godhead as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer rather than Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There are other “activities as names” I’ve heard over the years, but the ones above are a good illustration and every such attempt shares the same flaw.

When we name the Persons of the Trinity by an activity of God, we necessarily ascribe that activity to that one Person and not to all three. The above implies that it’s the Father who creates, the Son who redeems, and the Spirit who sustains. A hermeneutical move like that effectively reduces the Trinity to three separate Gods (as some of the Christian critics have long asserted) acting independently from each other. And it also fails to accurately describe the God revealed to us.

The Father is not the Creator. No, it’s better to say that creation flows from the Father spoken by his Word and nurtured by his Spirit. We see that pretty clearly even in Genesis, but explicitly in places like the prologue to John and Colossians.

The Son is not separately the Redeemer. Rather the Son acts together with the Father and the Spirit as the agent of redemption — as one would expect of the Word or Arm of God. But it’s the Son acting in concert with the Father empowered by the Spirit redeeming creation. We could as easily say the Spirit redeems or the Father redeems.

Similarly, the Spirit alone is never the Sustainer. Colossians tells us that all creation subsists or is sustained each moment by the Son. Jesus tells us he is with us always, even to the end of the ages. The Father, as the font of life, also sustains all that is.

Virtually every action of God is an action of the Trinity, not of a single Person of the Trinity. It’s in that sense we have one God. So if we want to speak about the activity of God and we do not see how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all involved in that activity, we should be exceedingly cautious indeed.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God, Amen.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 27

Posted: March 29th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 27

59. There is after the union a distinction in Christ between the nature of His flesh and that of His divinity, for divinity and flesh are never identical in their essence. Hence the union of the two elements, divine and human, which have come together has generated not a single nature, but a single person. With regard to this person, there is no distinction in Christ of any kind whatsoever, for as a person the Logos is identical with His own flesh. Had there been such a distinction in Christ, He could not be one person in every way. Where the person of Christ is concerned, His oneness does not admit of any kind of distinction whatsoever, and in every way it is, and is affirmed to be, a unity for all eternity.

The Logos is now identical with his flesh in one person within whom there is no distinction or division while retaining the nature of all that it means to be uncreated God and created man in perfect unity. In that truth lies our salvation. Christ became man so that man might become God. Our salvation is union with Christ in the life of God.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 26

Posted: March 24th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 26

58. He who does not distinguish the two natures in Christ has no basis for affirming that the Logos became flesh without change. He does not acknowledge that after the union that which assumed and that which was assumed are preserved according to their nature in the single person of the one Christ, our God and Savior.

That which assumed was the divine Logos, the eternally begotten Son. That which was assumed was sarx or flesh — our human nature. (I will note here that there’s a section in Romans where the NIV over the course of a few sentences translates sarx as sometimes sinful human nature and sometimes flesh. It’s a good illustration of the way bias can distort translation efforts.) And both the divine nature and our full human nature are completely preserved in Christ. This is hard to wrap our heads around, but it’s important because “that which is not assumed is not healed or saved.”


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 25

Posted: March 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 25

57. With regard to Christ, we do not speak of a distinction of persons, because the Trinity remained a Trinity after the incarnation of the Logos. A fourth person was not added to the Holy Trinity as a result of the incarnation. We speak of a distinction of natures to avoid asserting that the flesh is coessential in its nature with the Logos.

This text and the next several following become very technical and precise and the effort to translate them into English while preserving their meaning leaves them a little stilted. But I want to include them because they are some of the clearest statements not only on the Trinity, but on the way the Incarnation fits into our understanding. If you have studied the history of the Church, you will hear echoes of lessons learned from past heresies in these texts by St. Maximos.

Christ is not two persons. He was one person, the Son, before the Incarnation and he remains one person. The Trinity is still a Trinity. However, as embodied human beings, we are not of the same essence or nature as God. So the flesh Christ assumed was our nature and that nature retains its distinct human essence. It is not overwhelmed by the divine essence nor does it mingle with it. Monophysitism had held that Christ had one nature. While it was expressed in different ways, the primary expression was that the divine nature had absorbed the human nature, so that only the divine nature remained. This concept is hard to grasp and it’s made harder because we don’t really have the words in English that precisely correlate with the Greek words actually used. Nestorius, in an earlier heresy, had emphasized the disunion between the human and the divine nature to the extent that he described two persons, a human Jesus and a divine Christ.

The actual Christian understanding of Christ has always been found between those two poles and in these texts we see that understanding articulated.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 13

Posted: February 1st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 13

39.  After the fall the generation of every man was by nature impassioned and preceded by pleasure. From this rule no one was exempt. On the contrary, as if discharging a natural debt, all underwent sufferings and the death that comes from them. None could find the way to freedom, for all were under the tyranny of ill-gotten pleasure, and so subject to justly deserved sufferings and the still more justly deserved death which they engender. Because of this, another kind of suffering and death had to be conceived, first to destroy the ill-gotten pleasure and the justly deserved sufferings consequent on it – sufferings which have pitiably brought about man’s disintegration, since his life originates in the corruption that comes from his generation through pleasure and ends in the corruption that comes through death; and, second, to restore suffering human nature. This other kind of suffering and death was both unjust and undeserved: undeserved because it was in no way generated by preceding pleasure, and unjust because it was not the consequence of any passion-dominated life. This other kind of suffering and death, however, had to be devised so that, intervening between ill-gotten pleasure and justly deserved suffering and death, it could completely abolish the pleasure-provoked origin of human life and its consequent termination in death, and thus free it from the pleasure-pain syndrome. It would then recover its original blessedness, unpolluted by any of the characteristics inherent in beings subject to generation and decay.

That is why the Logos of God, being by nature fully God, became fully man, with a nature constituted like ours of a soul endowed with intellect and a body capable of suffering; only in His case this nature was without sin, because His birth in time from a woman was not preceded by the slightest trace of that pleasure arising from the primal disobedience. In His love He deliberately accepted the painful death which, because of pleasure, terminates human life, so that by suffering unjustly He might abolish the pleasure-provoked and unjust origin by which this life is dominated. For, unlike that of everyone else, the Lord’s death was not the payment of a debt incurred because of pleasure, but was on the contrary a challenge thrown down to pleasure; and so through this death He utterly destroys that justly deserved death which ends human life. For the cause of His being was not the illicit pleasure, justly punished by death, through which death entered into human life.

This is a long and complex text. I’m still wrestling with it myself and though I commend it, I don’t think I have much in the way of reflections to add. I do want to point out that the idea of Jesus’ death as a form of payment is flatly rejected in this text. Instead, his suffering and death are characterized as a challenge thrown down to the pleasure that ruled mankind and through that challenged destroying the death which ends human life. Unlike many ideas and portrayals of Jesus seen and heard today, that’s a God in whom I can believe!


Thirsting for God 12 – The Light and the Path

Posted: January 12th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 12 – The Light and the Path

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

This chapter of the book reflects more on Matthew’s path toward realizing both the anachronistic nature of the idea that something had to be written down to be a teaching or instruction from God and the idea that reliance on a text alone could ever produce anything but unending fragmentation and division. A lot of his thoughts in this chapter would probably be more meaningful to someone with a history more like his, but I did find the idea around which the chapter revolved intriguing.

Matthew turns to the Psalter and Psalm 119:105 (Psalm 118:105 in the LXX).

Your word is a lamp to my feet
And a light to my path.

In the Orthodox understanding, the Holy Scriptures are the light which illuminate the path, but they are not the path itself. The path is our life in Christ according to the way (or Holy Tradition) of the Church. If you try to focus on the lamp instead of the path, if you try to make that which is intended to provide illumination the center of your attention, you’ll be blinded instead of guided.

So, although both are critical elements of the journey, Orthodox Christians sharply differentiate between the light that shines above the path (the Scriptures) and the path itself (Apostolic Tradition). For the path by itself cannot show us its destination, or give us reason to walk it. Nor can the light that illumines the way provide the solid earth on which we may confidently tread. Both are required, and both are the gifts of God. So for Orthodox Christians, the Bible and Tradition are dear friends, not enemies!

Ultimately, of course, the Word or Logos is the eternal Son. The Son is both our illumination and our way or path, and we find the way through union with Christ. But the path of union is within the pillar and ground of truth, the Church, described as the actual body of Christ. (If you don’t recognize my references, Paul wrote both those descriptions of the Church in 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians.) I had never considered the difference between a light and a path in quite that way before.

When Matthew stopped trying to place the Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church in opposition to each other, he saw that things with which he had struggled, like infant baptism, actually fit easily into the context of both. That’s one example he uses because it’s a fairly widespread issue today (though I’ve never really understood why it is an issue at all), but the same thing is true of a number of places where people try to set the Holy Scriptures against the Church. Many of the disputes are constructed and artificial, and that’s probably why they crumbled before the whirlpool of deconstruction within which I live.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 25

Posted: December 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 25

71. A person pursuing the spiritual way is perhaps quicker to recognize the other demons, and so he more easily escapes the harm that they do, but in the case of the demons that appear to cooperate with the progress of virtue and pretend they want to help in building a temple to the Lord, surely no intellect is so sublime as to recognize them without the assistance of the active and living Logos who pervades all things and pierces ‘even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit’ (Heb. 4:12) – who discerns, in other words, which acts or conceptual images pertain to the soul, that is, are natural forms or expressions of virtue, and which are spiritual, that is, are supranatural and characteristic of God, but bestowed on nature by grace. It is only the Logos who knows whether  ‘the joints and marrow’, that is, the qualities of virtue and spiritual principles, have been united harmoniously or not, and who judges the intentions and thoughts of the heart (ibid.), that is, judges from what is said the invisible underlying disposition and the motives hidden in -the soul. For to Him nothing in us is unseen: however we think we may escape notice, to Him ‘all things are naked and open’ (Heb. 4:13), not only what we do or think, but even what we will do or will think.

We have a natural capacity for virtue. And the more subtle of the demons will cooperate and aid, rather than hinder, that natural capacity for the purpose of creating and stirring pride within our heart. Only the living Word can divide and truly reveal to us our own inward state. Of course, I’m so far from the point of recognizing and breaking free from the normal passions, that I’m a long way from these more subtle dangers. But I do recognize the danger of pride — the way it so easily and quickly turns us from the publican in the parable to the pharisee.


Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 5

Posted: September 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 5

9.  The wrath of God is the painful sensation we experience when we are being trained by Him. Through this painful  experience of unsought sufferings God often abases and humbles an intellect conceited about its knowledge and virtue; for such sufferings make it conscious of itself and its own weakness. When the intellect perceives its own weakness it rejects the vain pretensions of the heart.

The most important point I want to stress is that whatever we call the wrath of God is always an expression of his love. Our God is love and a love so sublime and unutterably wonderful that the divine Son — the Logos — the one through whom everything that is was made and in whom all is sustained, became fully and truly one of us. This is the God who is not willing that any should perish. This is the God who is life.

It’s true that the first two councils that we now recognize as ecumenical were primarily defending against attack on the full divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. But that has been more the exception than the rule. From the late first century and second century docetists and gnostics to the heresies that were the subject of the other five ecumenical councils, it’s usually been the humanity of Jesus that has been attacked. I sense the same sort of spirit today in a lot of evangelicalism. It often seems that the Incarnation is reduced to little more than a form upon which the Father can vent his wrath. Everything centers on the Cross. The Incarnation is an almost pro forma precursor and the Resurrection is reduced to an afterthought.

The Cross is, of course, the instrument of our salvation, but it only has meaning in the full context of the wonder of the Incarnation and in the light of the Resurrection. But if Jesus was not fully human in every way, if he did not become fully and truly one of us in order to heal us, and if he did not defeat death — destroy Hades as it is poetically stated — in the Resurrection, then our nature is not healed or capable of being healed and we are not saved. That which is not assumed is not healed.

So every time we consider wrath, we have to consider it in that context. We have tendency to confuse giving someone what they desire (or getting what we desire) with love. But the two are not the same at all. As Dallas Willard puts it, if we love someone it means we actively will their good. And what they desire — what we desire — is often not that which is for our good. Often our will is in the grip of those things we suffer — our passions. A heroin addict is ruled by their addiction. They might desire heroin with all their being. But would any of us consider it loving to give them what they desire?

Of course, even if we truly and actively will the good of one we love, we often have a very hard time discerning what would truly be for their good. Even if our efforts are not thwarted or twisted by our own passions, we often make mistakes. We will good, but we end up causing at least some harm. “The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.” I know I have often done ill where I meant nothing but good.

God does not suffer from either of those limitations. He unfailingly wills our good. And he always knows what is for our good. His is love and all his acts are love — even if they feel like wrath. Thus, as I discussed in my series on Hell, the wrath and fire experienced by some is not actually anything different than the warmth and comfort others experience. Rather, that particular wrath is the experience of the fire of the unveiled love of God by those who do not want it.

Similarly, as St. Maximos points out in this text, the wrath we sometimes experience now is also God’s love. We experience it as wrath because we are not getting what we want. But if we are not getting what we desire, we need to recognize that’s probably because what we desire is actually our destruction. Sometimes (actually pretty often, I think) God is like a loving parent who allows us to experience the pain of our own choices so that we have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. Sometimes he does not mitigate the cross of undeserved suffering — but whatever it is, he has been there too and experienced it as well. Sometimes he does act to protect or heal. In neither case is it random or arbitrary.

The Christian recognizes that God is always acting from love and from his unwillingness that any of us should perish. We often cannot see the reasons. That’s especially true in the middle of suffering. Sometimes, perhaps years later, we can see the hand of God in hindsight. Sometimes we can’t. But if Jesus of Nazareth is who we believe him to be — the fully divine Son who becomes fully human in every way — then this is the God we worship.


Original Sin 14 – The Two Natures of Christ

Posted: March 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 14 – The Two Natures of Christ

Whether through the hands of another human being, in the narrative text of the Holy Scriptures, or through some sense of direct connection, it has always been Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ, who draws me toward Christianity and who keeps me circling in a whirlpool of love with Jesus at its center. But I wasn’t interested in knowing just any Jesus of my imagination (or the imagination of others). I wasn’t interested in buddy Jesus. I’ve always been repelled by white, suburban, American, Republican Jesus. No, I wanted to understand (to the extent possible), learn to worship, and grow in communion with the actual man.

On the one hand this Jesus was a specific historical human being, a seemingly failed revolutionary gruesomely executed by one of the empires most gifted at instilling fear. The Christian scriptures themselves tell us that Jesus was tempted in every way we are tempted, he endured everything that we endure, he is truly one of us. When we turn toward Jesus, we do not find some supernatural, divine avatar who is something other than human. We find a human being in the fullest sense of the word.

And yet … he did not sin.

Sin is a word that is full of modern, often awful, connotations, but the way I have come to understand it is that Jesus did not miss the mark. He remained faithful where we all have been faithless. He lived and died as the true man, the Son of Man, the sum total of all that humanity was meant to be.

And here is where Christianity takes an amazing turn. Death could not contain Jesus. Death thought it had swallowed a man and found it had swallowed God instead. For the one human being, Jesus of Nazareth, was both man and eternal Logos — the Word or Act of God. Everything that could be said of the Father or had ever been said of the Father, could also be said of the Son. Somehow the one who created all things and in whom everything subsists became a part of his creation.

And all humanity is healed in that union. We are no longer in bondage to death. It is no longer the nature of man to die. Moreover, since our nature has been joined to God’s in Christ, we can move out of our bondage to death and sin and into communion with God. We are able to participate in the divine energies of God.

This discussion may not seem directly related to the topic of original sin as inherited guilt. But it seems to me that many people today often have a somewhat truncated vision of Christ. I’m not entirely sure why that’s the case, but if what I’ve described in this post does not lie somewhere near the center of what you consider to be salvation, then you may have only just begun to wrap your head around the immense implications of the Incarnation. I feel this post lays necessary groundwork for the next thing I want to discuss in this series.


On the Incarnation of the Word 49 – Christ Conquers All Gods

Posted: November 4th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 49 – Christ Conquers All Gods

As always, read the whole section by Athanasius. But I want to focus on his last thought in it.

Or why, if Christ is, as they say, a man, and not God the Word, is not His worship prevented by the gods they have from passing into the same land where they are? Or why on the contrary does the Word Himself, sojourning here, by His teaching stop their worship and put their deception to shame?

I think it might be easy for us, in our modern Western society, to miss the impact of his point here. Gods were tied to places and to peoples. Athanasius is pointing out that the worship of Christ is spreading across all lands, all places, and all peoples. And the gods who were there before him seem powerless to stop him. Christ is not bound to any place or people. If he’s just a man and not also the divine Logos, how is that possible?