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.


Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Posted: October 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Atonement | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

I’ve worked through my thoughts on this blog across a variety of topics from original sin to justification to hell in separate multiple post series on this blog. I have not written such a series on the fairly common Protestant teaching of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA from this point on) because I don’t have anything to work through on the topic and I don’t really have much to say about it. However, this teaching seems to surface in many of the discussions I follow and I’ve become increasingly convinced that I should try to write something on the topic for those who from time to time browse my blog. I don’t really expect there to be more than this one post on this subject unless others raise questions that seem to me to warrant another post.

I will say up front that I’m pretty familiar with this teaching. I’ve read many of the primary sources. I’m familiar with the common prooftexts. I’ve listened to it expounded and taught countless times in countless ways over the years. I understand many of the different ways it is nuanced — both in theory and in practice. But I do think the essence of this teaching is pretty simply stated. In fact, the following statement I recently saw in Sunday School distills it pretty accurately, if not to any great depth.

Jesus died on the Cross to pay God the Father the debt of our sin.

I beg to differ.

St. Gregory the Theologian provides the best summary I’ve found of my reaction to that idea.

The question is: to whom was offered the blood that was shed for us, and why was it offered, this precious and glorious blood of our God, our high priest, our sacrifice? We were held captive by the evil one, for we had been ‘sold into the bondage of sin’ (Romans 7:14), and our wickedness was the price we paid for our pleasure. Now, a ransom is normally paid only to the captor, and so the question is: To whom was the ransom offered, and why? To the evil one? What an outrage! If it is supposed not merely that the thief received a ransom from God, but that the ransom is God himself – a payment for his act of arbitrary power so excessive that it certainly justified releasing us! If it was paid to the Father, I ask first, why? We were not held captive by him. Secondly, what reason can be given why the blood of the Only-begotten should be pleasing to the Father? For He did not accept even Isaac when he was offered by his father, but He gave a substitute for the sacrifice, a lamb to take the place of the human victim. Is it not clear that the Father accepts the sacrifice, not because He demanded or needed it, but because this was the part of the divine plan, since man had to be sanctified by the humanity of God; so that he might rescue us by overcoming the tyrant by force, and bring us back to Himself through the mediation of the Son, who carried out this divine plan to the honor of the Father, to whom he clearly delivers up all things. We have said just so much about Christ. There are many more things which must be passed over in silence…

I don’t have much to add to what St. Gregory says. As far as I’m concerned, PSA teaches a different God and a different faith than the one I believe. It’s as different to my eyes as the faith taught and the God described by the docetists and the arians.

The problems with PSA are legion. It teaches that God has a problem with forgiveness. Even as he commands us to forgive, he is unable to forgive himself. Rather the infinite debt must be paid in full by someone and since we are finite beings, the debt can only be paid by the divine Son. But PSA fundamentally denies God mercy and forgiveness. Instead, God becomes the unrelenting debt holder. In the mechanics of paying that debt PSA violates everything Christianity says about the nature of the Trinity. It has members of the Trinity acting almost in opposition to each other rather than in concert as one. The Son is paying the debt the Father can’t forgive. The Father is exhausting his divine wrath on the Son. The Spirit almost vanishes from the picture. And even with the debt paid, we are not actually healed and we do not truly commune with God. Instead, we move into a sort of legal fiction. When God looks at us, he doesn’t actually see us. He sees his Son. The list of problems goes on ad nauseum.

Now, that is not to say that the Spirit has not been at work in the groups of Christians who hold some variation of this belief. I would not deny the work of the Spirit anywhere in humanity. And the Spirit certainly has more tools with which to work among those who proclaim that Jesus — the image of the invisible God — is Lord, however distorted their vision of him might be, than among adherents of entirely different world religions.

However, it is also true that there are many people who correctly understand the sort of God postulated by PSA and have rejected that God in revulsion. I empathize with them. If I thought the God described by the PSA theory was really the Christian God, I would absolutely reject Christianity myself. No, our God is the good God who loves mankind. He is the God who has never had a problem forgiving us. He has not required satisfaction. He has not had to have his wrath assuaged by pouring it onto the Son. All three persons of the Trinity were always acting in concert to save us, even in the worst moments on the Cross. Yes, the Cross is indeed the instrument of our salvation, but we never needed to be saved from God. Instead we were rescued by the Father, the Son, and the Spirit in and through the Cross by the power of the Resurrection. We were ransomed from sin and death, the powers which enslaved us — not from our good God and not ultimately from the Evil One (though he certainly used the power of sin and death against us).

And, as Forrest Gump says, “That’s all I’ve got to say about that.”

I’ve posted it before, but I’ll post again this podcast by Fr. Thomas Hopko on the Cross. It says much of what I would say better than I could say it.

Understanding the Cross

I would also recommend the much shorter reflection (5 minutes) by Fr. Stephen Freeman.

The Tree Heals the Tree


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 12

Posted: July 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 12

32. There are three things that impel us towards what is holy: natural instincts, angelic powers and probity of intention. Natural instincts impel us when, for example, we do to others what we would wish them to do to us (cf. Luke 6:31), or when we see someone suffering deprivation or in need and naturally feel compassion. Angelic powers impel us when, being ourselves impelled to something worthwhile, we find we are providentially helped and guided. We are impelled by probity of intention when, discriminating between good and evil, we choose the good.

33. There are also three things that impel us towards evil: passions, demons and sinfulness of intention. Passions impel us when, for example, we desire something beyond what is reasonable, such as food which is unnecessary or untimely, or a woman who is not our wife or for a purpose other than procreation, or else when we are excessively angered or irritated by, for instance, someone who has dishonored or injured us. Demons impel us when, for example, they catch us off our guard and suddenly launch a violent attack upon us, stirring up the passions already mentioned and others of a similar nature. We are impelled by sinfulness of intention when, knowing the good, we choose evil instead.

I wanted to highlight the above two texts together. The number three had a sacred meaning in ancient Judaism and, considered in light of the three Persons of the Trinity, took on even greater significance in Christianity. In these texts, St. Maximos draws parallels between the forces which move us toward good and those which move us toward evil in groups of three.

Our natural instincts, as creatures in the image of God impel us toward good, while our unbridled passions impel us toward evil and seek to rule us. Angels seek to help us and guide us toward good while demons seek to fuel our passions. But the most important of all, I think, are those cusps where we know the difference between good and evil and willfully and deliberately choose the one or the other. Every such choice, large or small, is important for those choices shape our will. The more we choose evil, the easier we find it to will evil and the harder we find it to will good. And the reverse is true as well.

Our wills need to be healed, but they can only be healed through choosing good. And at every such point at which we can exercise our will for good, an evil alternative is always available and may often seem more attractive.

Healing our wills is also essential in our overall salvation. This is why the determination that Jesus had both a human and divine will in the sixth ecumenical council is so important to our faith. If Jesus did not have a human will or if his human will was wholly subsumed in his divine will, then our wills are not healed in Christ and we have no hope of true healing. Our human will can be healed because Jesus assumed a human will and willfully remained the faithful and good man at every point of intention and decision in the face of every temptation to do otherwise. He truly became one of us and in him we are healed.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 9

Posted: June 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 9

29. When our Lord says, ‘I and My Father are one’ (John 10:30), He indicates their identity of essence. Again, when He says, ‘I am in the Father, and the Father in Me’ (John 14:11), He shows that the Persons cannot be divided. The tritheists, therefore, who divide the Son from the Father, find themselves in a dilemma. Either they say that the Son is coeternal with the Father, but nevertheless divide Him from the Father, and so they are forced to say that He is not begotten from the Father; thus they fell into the error of claiming that there are three Gods and three first principles. Or else they say that the Son is begotten from the Father but nevertheless divide Him from the Father, and so they are forced to say that He is not coetemal with the Father; thus they make the Lord of time subject to time. For, as St Gregory of Nazianzos says, it is necessary both to maintain the one God and to confess the three Persons, each in His own individuality. According to St Gregory, the Divinity is divided but without division and is united but with distinctions. Because of this both the division and the union are paradoxical. For what paradox would there be if the Son were united to the Father and divided from Him only in the same manner as one human being is united to and divided from another, and nothing more?

I don’t actually have much that I think I can add to this text. But I wanted to include it because I think it’s an important reflection on the three Persons of the Trinity. “Divided without division” and “united but with distinctions” are phrases to ponder. The key thing to me seems to be that the division and unity of God transcends the sort of unity and division we as human beings know and experience with each other. We are theomorphic (made in God’s image) and it is toward something more like that union that we are moving in and through the work of Christ. But it is beyond our ken and without the work of God would have always been beyond our grasp.


Beyond Justification 4 – Understanding the dance of the Trinity

Posted: May 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Justification | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Beyond Justification 4 – Understanding the dance of the Trinity

I was struggling to frame my thoughts for the next post in this series when I realized I needed to pause for a moment and explore the Christian concept of the Trinity, that is of a triune God. I will say up front that anything and everything we can express about the essence and nature of God will always be in some sense inadequate. We are finite and God is not. This is, in fact, so true that as soon as we say something about God, we almost have to say that insofar as we’ve encountered or experienced or understood that thing, God is not like that to which are comparing him.

For instance, we can positively say, as the Holy Scriptures affirm, that God is love. But when we say that, we need to also say that the love I have or which I have experienced from others falls so short of the love that is God that in terms of the love I have known God is not love at all. God transcends my understanding of love. Nevertheless, even though it is limited and finite, my understanding and experience of love do help me begin to understand God.

If we do not maintain that tension in our thoughts, especially when discussing the Trinity, it becomes far to easy to attempt to rationalize the Trinity, to make the essence of God make sense to us. This has been true throughout Christian history. When people have fallen into this trap, they have tended to overemphasize either the oneness or the threeness of God. In so doing they have on the one hand reduced God to a single person who adopts different roles or masks. And on the other hand, they have subtly shifted to three persons who can somehow act separately, stand apart from one another, or even act in opposition to each other. Tritheism tends to be subtle rather than overt.

So it is with fear and trepidation that I venture into this arena of words, praying that I will not misspeak or be misunderstood. This discussion is risky, but it is essential. For if we do not have some understanding of the nature of the Trinity, it is not possible to understand what salvation means in the Christian sense of the word.

Before I delve into the heart of what I want to discuss, I did want to mention one principle I very recently picked up from Orthodox theology that I have found surprisingly helpful. My first reaction was “so what?”, but as I’ve reflected on it, I’ve found that it sounds simple, but runs very deep indeed. Here it is:

Everything that can be said about God is either unique to a single member of the Trinity or is common to all of the persons of the Trinity.

Here’s how it works. Most things are common to all. All are uncreated. All are love. All together fulfilled certain roles. All are creator (we see that in both Genesis and more explicitly in the NT). All are our redeemer. Redemption of creation was a wholly triune act. However, only one person is Father, one is Son, and one is Spirit. Only the Son is incarnate. Only the Son is begotten. Only the Spirit proceeds. Most importantly, no two persons of the Trinity ever share an attribute or quality or role or action that the third does not. Unique to one or common to all. Think about it. As it sinks in, I think the value of this dogma in keeping our way of thinking about God on track becomes clear.

The best metaphor for the Trinity I’ve yet encountered is that of the dance, a dance which lies at the center of reality. The greek word for this dance is perichoresis. The word is used to capture a reality of three persons who are so mutually indwelling, interpenetrating, and united that they can be said to share a single nature, a single essence, to be one with each other even as each retains their own unique personhood. This perichoretic nature is described as a dance, each person constantly twirling with, around, and through the other two. It’s a dance where, as soon as one person finds themselves in the center of the dance, they immediately yield that place to the other two. It’s a perfectly spinning, eternal, communal dance of self-sufficient love. It is perfect relationship in eternal motion.

This is the God made known to us through Jesus of Nazareth. This is the God inviting us to join the dance.