June 3, 2012

God In Three Persons

Passage: Romans 8:15-17

When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

In a classroom one day a professor wrote the following words on the board unpunctuated—“woman without her man is nothing”.  The professor then invited students to punctuate the sentence.  One young man took up the task with the following punctuation: Woman, without her man, is nothing.”  He sat down to the cheers of the males in the room.  A young woman approached the board and made one slight change: “Woman, without her, man is nothing.”

In a philosophy class I attended the professor Dr. Victor Shepherd made the pronouncement that “grammar is the key to life”.  When I was young I thought the study of grammar so very boring; I have now come to the place where I think Shepherd is right—“grammar is the key to life”.

Consider three brief sentences about prayer in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: “Rejoice always”, “Pray constantly”, “Give thanks in all circumstances”. Now here is the lesson in grammar. The mood of the verbs is imperative; the tense of the verbs is present iterative. The imperative mood means we are commanded to do something; the present iterative tense means we are commanded to do it continuously, without letup, ceaselessly, unfailingly. We are always to rejoice, ceaselessly to keep on praying, unfailingly to give thanks in all circumstances. Our thanksgiving is to be unremitting.

But note something crucial: the apostle tells us we are to thank God in all circumstances, not for all circumstances. We are never commanded to thank God for all circumstances. It would be the height of spiritual ignorance to thank God for all circumstances, for then we should be thanking God for those things which he opposes, against which he has set his face, and which he does not will.  Grammar is the key to life.

1. There is a grammar, so to speak, that underpins what the New Testament has to say about the nature and identity of God; this grammar is articulated in what we know as the doctrine of the Trinity.  Scripture constrains us to understand God as eternally triune; there is one God eternally existent in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The trinity—God in three persons—is the grammar of the New Testament’s discussion of God.  Listen again to the text from Romans 8 attentive to the triune grammar for God: “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

In our Gospel lesson we read the story of Jesus’ meeting with the Pharisee Nicodemus.  Listen again for this triune grammar: “Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.... The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. ... For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

It is true that the writers of the Older Testament may not have conceived of God in Trinitarian terms, but they say nothing to contradict it. In fact the Older Testament’s treatment of the Spirit of God helps Christians deepen their understanding of the Holy Spirit.  In a few Older Testament texts—like  Isaiah 6 where the praise of God is in triune formulae, “Holy, Holy. Holy is the Lord of Hosts”—there is more than a hint that God is Triune.

It is also true that a fully-articulated doctrine of the Trinity is not found in Scripture.  Nonetheless, the building blocks of the doctrine incontrovertibly are.  Many have said—because the word “Trinity” is found nowhere in scripture—that the doctrine of the Trinity is a later invention of the church. In the fourth century the divinity of Jesus is the issue in the articulation of the Nicene Creed; the divinity of Christ going to the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity.  A close study of the creed will show that the phrases of the creed were not a fourth century invention but the making formal of articulations of Christian doctrine long held by the church traceable, in most instances, to the New Testament.  A doctrine of the Trinity makes explicit what is everywhere implicit in “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” and for which faith, the apostle tells us, we must ever “contend” (Jude 3).

2.  On April 2, 2012, at the beginning of Holy Week, Newsweek magazine carried an article by writer Andrew Sullivan titled Forget The Church Follow Jesus.  In it he talked of the church in crisis where “many have turned away from organized Christianity and toward “spirituality”’.  He expressed a fondness for Thomas Jefferson who edited the New Testament to distill it to what Jefferson thought to be the actual teachings of Jesus; Jefferson though Jesus’ teachings to be radically simple. It was explained in stories, parables, and metaphors—not theological doctrines of immense complexity.

Is the doctrine of the Trinity complex baggage that is not only unnecessary but a threat to the seaworthiness of the ship (church) in the storms of preference for “spirituality”?  Or is it the ballast in the ship’s keel apart from which even moderate winds will blow the ship hither and yon?  I note in the New Testament that the Apostles’ were not concerned that proclamation of Jesus Christ crucified drove people away because of its complexity. In the second letter of Peter (3:15-16) it is acknowledged that Paul wrote some things hard to understand; this was not offered as a reason to abandon the writings of Paul.

Knowledge of God, according to the gospel, is the work of God himself, never the work of rational inference or philosophical speculation.  Scripture insists that God is the only fit witness to himself; only God can disclose God.  Aristotle, for example, postulated the “unmoved mover” as a primary cause of all the motion in the universe.  But is the “unmoved mover” of Aristotle the “God and Father” of our Lord Jesus Christ?  We can think correctly about God only as God include us in his self-knowing; it is not a function of putting our thinking caps on and concluding that the idea of God that makes the most sense to us must be God.  The question is who God has disclosed himself to be.

So is this grammar for God important; we have noted a few moments ago that grammar makes all the difference in what a few words mean.  Christian faith is rooted in the oneness of being between Jesus Christ and God the Father.  In the gospel, God has revealed himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Apart from the divine activity of the Holy Spirit we should not know of the deity of Father and Son.  If the oneness in being between Jesus Christ and God the Father is cut, the substance and heart of the gospel is lost.  For if what Christ does in not what God does, then before God humankind’s predicament is unrelieved.  Again, if God has not come among us in Jesus, then God’s love for us stops short of God’s full identification with us sinners—meaning we remain in our sins.

“From Minister To Atheist: A Story Of Losing Faith” was the title of the article (April 30, 2012).  It was the story of a United Methodist Minister named Teresa MacBain; it was heart breaking for me to read. “Her dad was a pastor and she felt the call of God when she was 6. She had questions, of course, about conflicts in the Bible, for example, or the role of women. For years, MacBain set her concerns aside. But when she became a United Methodist pastor nine years ago, she started asking sharper questions. She thought they'd make her faith stronger.
"In reality," she says, "as I worked through them, I found that religion had so many holes in it, that I just progressed through stages where I couldn't believe it."  The questions haunted her: Is Jesus the only way to God? ... Is there any evidence of God at all? And one day, she crossed a line. "I just kind of realized—I mean just a eureka moment, not an epiphany, a eureka moment —I'm an atheist," she says. "I don't believe.”

Where I think MacBain stumbles is not the sharpness of her questions but on her assumption of the nature of believing.  God welcomes us to ask questions of him.  Somehow this minister is convinced that to believe means it all needs to make sense to you; that she had to make sense of the whole thing to say she believed.  Indeed faith is a kind of knowing—we are to love God with all our mind—but it isn’t subject to the limits of human cognitive ability.  Descartes was wrong when he said “I think therefore I am”.

Let me repeat what I said a moment ago. Apart from the divine activity of the Holy Spirit we should not know of the deity of Father and Son.  Suppose that you could line up all the conceptions of god uttered by humans across the spectrum of history: Aristotle’s unmoved mover, the various Buddha, pantheist conceptions, Allah, Descartes’ human rationalism, the Deist’s clock maker, the initial designer, the Taoist principle of living in harmony, the ancestor spirit, along with the God who made himself known in conversation with Israel and in coming in Jesus Christ.  If you could line them all up could you pick out deity when you see it?  That is to ask is there some resident knowledge or capacity in you to say ‘there it is”?  The gospel says we are alienated from God and apart from his self-disclosure would never come to know him.  We come to know the deity of the Father and the Son because of the divine activity of the Holy Spirit.

3.  Like this minister-turned-atheist we ever want God to conform to our way of thinking; to our understanding.  No one who met Jesus Christ in the flesh ever spoke of him as pal or found him cozy.  The written Gospels, rather, customarily depict him as One whom people do not understand and cannot tame.  Even the disciples, newly made aware in his presence of their sinnership, plead with Jesus to leave them alone.  The apostles never confuse proximity with presumption.  Jesus is the one who does not supply answers to questions, always refusing to endorse whatever understanding the people before him have brought to him.  (No doubt you have found yourself being asked a question you cannot answer in the way it was asked of you because you do not accept the premise of the question).

Throughout the written gospels, Jesus refuses to answer questions put to him, preferring instead to reply with his own questions.  (This is not to say that Jesus refused to engage with people about their questions).  Plainly, he will not underwrite the standpoint or the perception or the purpose of the questioner; he will not endorse the questioner’s question as legitimate.  Jesus shows us that many of our questions are borne of spiritual unreality.

The doctrine of the Trinity maintains the Lordship of Jesus as Son of God; that he rightfully can correct us with respect to our religious and other questions. Often the denial of Jesus as the Son of God is precisely to tame him.  But in reading the gospels Jesus discloses his deity in how he lives towards people—questions and all.  People couldn’t quite describe how he did it but he spoke with authority, they said, as if it belonged to him.

4.  Admittedly, the doctrine of the Trinity—three in one—is hard to conceive. On my book shelf I have a copy of a book edited by Dr. Andrew Stirling (Minister at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church) titled The Trinity: An Essential for Faith in Our Time.  It was published just ten years ago.  It is a compilation of rather academic essays—all of them excellent—on the subject of the Trinity.  I fear that for many Christians the doctrine of the Trinity sounds like the domain of the theologian and should be left there.  Somewhat like how many regard the designers of the Smartphone—let them worry about how it works just show me what buttons to push (or how the touch screen operates).

I have tried to underscore for us the importance for the Trinity as the believer’s grammar for God; in short, apart from this grammar the gospel is lost.  Severed from the Triune God, the good news is rendered just a back page editorial of some human’s opinion.  Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th-century philosopher, despised Christianity. He once said “I fear we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar.”

Here is something that helps me.  Jesus was a devout Jew and no doubt when joined to his community at synagogue participated in the creedal expression of belief in the words of the Shema; “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is One”.  In confessing God to be One, Jesus’ saw no discrepancy between that and his affirmation about his relationship with the Father—I and the Father are one; he saw no discrepancy between that and his teaching to Nicodemus we read from John’s gospel affirming the three in speaking of his God and Father, of himself as Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
5.  One final reflection on the Trinity; it has to do with love. We are fond of the Apostle John’s affirmation in his first letter that God is love.  It is also affirmed that the biblical notion of love is not an ideal concept—not mere ideation.  Love biblically is a relational expression; you need someone to love—hence God’s observation that it is not good for man to be alone.

For God to be love then the very nature of God’s love is dependent upon an inner relatedness within God—it implies the doctrine of the Trinity. That love is relational arises from a God whose love is relational.  Perhaps you have read William Young’s bestselling novel The Shack; it is the story of a man who meets with God.  Whatever the shortcoming of Young’s theology may be, he captures well this picture of the three persons of the Triune God being completely self-forgetful and for the other persons of the God head.

The cross of Christ, revealed to be the very essence of God’s love for humanity, is Jesus’ self-giving, self-forgetful offering of himself for us. This is the self-giving self-forgetful love of the three persons of the Triune God for each other turned towards us.  Is it not so that your greater delights in life arise from being able to contribute to the delight of those you love?  This is so because our love flows from God’s love; finds its very breath in his love.

Here ends the grammar lesson for today.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.