Happy Reformation Day

31 10 2012

In my humble opinion there is no finer piece of Christian hymnody ever written.  In these few words the whole of the Gospel is proclaimed.

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.





Ridley Systematics: Christology

23 10 2012

)Over the past few posts we’ve talked about epistemology, that is how we can know God and ourselves, we’ve spoken of how God is one divine being who eternally exists in three persons call the Trinity, last week we spoke of how God is our redeemer.  We used Thomas Boston’s definition of a Redeemer, which is as follows:

Under the law, when a man was not able to act for himself, to assert and use his own right, one that was akin to him, had a right to act for him, coming in his room, and standing up in his right.

-Thomas Boston, A View of the Covenant of Grace

In this post we’re going to push that discussion further along with the subject of Christology.  It is not enough to acknowledge that we are in need of a redeemer, but we must acknowledge that we are in a need of a specific type of redeemer.  Speaking of our redemption, Anselm of Canterbury wrote in the 11th Century his famous Cur Deus Homo provocatively wrote::

No being, except the God man, can make the atonement by which man may be saved.

His thesis was based upon two points.  Because sin infinitely offends a Divine Person, only a Divine person could bring a satisfaction and offering of infinite worth.  That is why our redeemer must be God.  However, the penalty for sin, as we reviewed last week, was death.  A divine person cannot die.  Only a mortal creature can die.  Thus our redeemer has to be a man.  Neither nature, the divine nor the human on its own can adequately be the redeemer we need.  Thus our redeemer must be a God-man, fully God able to offer an sacrifice of infinite worth and fully man, able to pay the wages of sin, that is death.  My strategy in this post is to explain why our redeemer must be fully God and fully man existing in one person.  As that’s laid out, we will of course articulate this union of two natures in one person and explore some aberrant, or heretical views of this union. Read the rest of this entry »





Ridley Systematics: God Our Redeemer

23 10 2012

Grant, Almighty God, that as we have not only been redeemed from Babylonian exile, but have also emerged from hell itself; for when we were the children of wrath thou didst freely adopt us, and when we were aliens, thou didst in thine infinite goodness open to us the gate of thy kingdom, that we might be made thy heirs through the Son, O grant that we may walk circumspectly before thee, and submit ourselves wholly to thee and to thy Christ, and not feign to be his members, but really prove ourselves to be his body, and to be so governed by his Spirit, that thou mayest at last gather us together into thy celestial kingdom, to which thou daily invitest us by the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

–John Calvin, Commentary on Hosea

Over the past several weeks we’ve introduced you to range of deep and difficult topics.  In the first week we looked at the topic of epistemology and learned that knowledge of God is only possible as he comes to us, accommodating his infinite nature to our finite capacity.  The second week, we learned about God who is one divine nature existing in three divine persons.  Last week we learned about creation, how it was made that we might enjoy God and glorify him forever.  We also learned how we fell away from this glorious purpose into sin and more specifically into idolatry.  Tonight we begin the discussion of how we were recovered from this ruin by exploring the concept of God as a redeemer.  What we’re seeking to answer here tonight is what is a redeemer and why do I need one?  We’ll do this by looking closely at three covenants revealed in Scripture.  These three covenants are the Covenant of Works, the Covenant of Grace, and the Covenant of Redemption. Read the rest of this entry »





Ridley Systematics: Creation and Fall

19 10 2012

In this post we’ll be talking more specifically about how we have relationship with God and how we have fallen away from this relationship.  Our topic is Creation and Fall and tonight we’ll be exploring themes such as what were we made for, why are we here, and what went wrong? Read the rest of this entry »





Ridley Systematics: Epistemology

18 10 2012

The English Puritan, Richard Sibbes, encouraged his congregation in the 17th century with the following words:

 Labour for the Spirit of God…Beg of God to seal to our souls that the Bible is his word, and the he would sanctify our hearts to be suitable to the word, and never rest till we can find God by his Spirit, seasoning our hearts, so, that with relish of our souls may suit to the relish of divine truths, that when we hear them we may relish the truth in them, and may so feel the work of God’s Spirit, that we may be able to say, He is our God.

–Richard Sibbes, The Marriage Feast Between Christ and the Church, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes Vol II pg 496

It is appropriate to begin this with a reminder from Richard Sibbes that we might take into consideration that theology is more than the act of learning, it is more than the act of application, rather true theology begins with a miracle.  That miracle being the work of the Spirit of God to sanctify our hearts, making a fit receptacle for his word, that our souls might “relish the divine truth” found in Scripture.  So before any text is read, before any words digested, before any truths applied, lets remember together at the outset that we’re not dependent upon how great or how weak our intellect, but rather dependent upon the Spirit of God. Read the rest of this entry »





Hey let’s get practical! A few applicable thoughts on Docetism

18 10 2012

So last Tuesday night I had the pleasure of teaching Christology at the Ridley Institute.  I have been asked through e-mail and conversation to point towards where Christological heresies exist in the church today.  Never one to shy away from calling someone a heretic (it does have a nice ring to it) I’ve decided to wade into this discussion.  Be warned!  It may not be a discussion you want to have!

Docetism is derived from the Greek word dokein (sorry, I don’t have Greek characters) which means “to seem.”  Docetists believe that God only seemed to come in the flesh, be born, suffer and die on the cross.  There are a variety of reasons that the Docetists would posit such a thing, such as a desire to protect the immutability of God (why should I define it and make it easy for you?).  However, the Docetists faced clear difficulties from the church assembled at Nicaea but more significantly from scripture, which says clearly that the humanity of Jesus was no mere illusion.  God really did take on flesh and dwell among us (John 1.14).  So without further ado….

I see Docetism in YOU (and me)!  Repent!

It was Richard Sibbes who said that the best sort of men are severe to themselves and gracious towards others.  So with this discussion, lets begin with ourselves rather than pointing the finger at others.  Often when I come home to my family, my heart and my mind stay at the office.  I may be physically present, but the most important parts of me, namely my heart and my mind remain somewhere else.  Thus my presence with my family is only an illusion.  It is by the way, an illusion not nearly so masterful as to deceive my wife who will eventually say, “Hey!  Are you paying attention?  What did I just say?”  Oops, the jig is up!

When the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us, he did not leave his most important bits in heaven but he really came, was really and fully present, and was completely committed to living life amongst us with all of its joys and all of its sorrows.  This is no mere illusion, but a profound mystery.  God in flesh is present unto death, even death on a cross.  When he comes to dwell, it’s all or nothing.

So to be fair, when you and I fail to be present with our friends or family we’re not heretics.  But we are living inconsistently with what we profess.  Namely, if God took on flesh and dwelt amongst us, how can we who have benefited so greatly from his presence be absent to the very people God has given us to love?  Food for thought.

Multi-Site = Docetism

This is probably more what you were after but I bet you won’t like the application.  When I say multisite, I don’t mean all multisite but specifically those multisite churches that video feed in the pastor from 10 miles or 100 miles away.  As a friend of my is fond of saying, the problem with multisite churches is that “God so loved the world that he sent a….video.”  Oops!  But that’s not how the scriptures speak of God.  For God so loved the world that he sent a person, his Son who was a real man, who had real relationships, real friends and real enemies.  When a preacher video feeds himself in to an off site location, he is not really and truly present but only appears to be.  He cannot respond to his congregation.  He won’t have to answer questions in the receiving line by confused or angry congregants.  He will not lay real hands on real shoulders to offer a word of compassion or consolation or even a prayer because he’s not really there.  He is a phantasm, a ghost, that you most likely will never touch or speak to.  Again, this does not make such people are heretics, but it does mean that they are operating out of Docetic principles.  There are of course other arguments for video feeding in preachers, none of which are particularly good.  I suppose there’s no guessing where I stand!  I like old time religion, where real men preached a real Gospel to a real congregation.  But alas, I think that’s going the way of the Dodo!

Qur’an = Docetism

Now we must be careful in that this is not classic Docetism.  The Qur’an does not believe that God only appeared to take on flesh in Jesus because the Qur’an does not put forth a picture of a divine Christ.  Where the Qur’an does take on some docetic flavor however is in the crucifixion, where it only appears as if Christ was crucified when in fact Muslims believe that “Allah took him up unto himself.”  I’ve excerpted the relevant section from the Sura below:

And because of their saying: We slew the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, Allah’s messenger — they slew him not nor crucified him, but it appeared so unto them; and lo! those who disagree concerning it are in doubt thereof; they have no knowledge thereof save pursuit of a conjecture; they slew him not for certain. But Allah took him up unto Himself. Allah was ever Mighty, Wise.

Concluding thoughts:

Now that we’ve seen some real world examples of Docetism, I hope you’ll do the responsible thing and look first to self before you wag the finger at anyone else which brings me back to my first point.  The Word really became flesh and really dwelt among us.  The Word did not appear to dwell with us, he really did and this was to our benefit.  Living this out consistently dictates that Christians value relationships and presence and intentionally repent of leaving their hearts and minds behind at the office, or at the game, or wherever it’s most likely to wander.  When someone is with you, be with them, heart and mind with focused intentionality.  Christ after all, having done nothing less, did of course do so much more.





Farewell Martin Luther! We hardly knew ye!

17 10 2012

I’m about as ready to say goodbye to Martin Luther as I am to say goodbye to my cat Rico (who is much loved by yours truly).  But it should be obvious that the great hero of the Reformation, celebrated on the lips of Protestants, has long since been excused from the Evangelical Church in North America.  Like a handyman who is no longer needed, he’s been let go to make way for bigger, more majestic projects (Like Christian Radio).  Neither the man himself nor his theology would be at all welcomed in most American pulpits.  Consider the following:

This is clear:  He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering.  Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil.  These are the people whom the apostle calls “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil 3.18), for they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works.  Thus they call the good of the cross evil and the evil of a deed good.  God can be found only in suffering and the cross, as has already been said.  Therefore the friends of the cross say that the cross is good and works are evil, for through the cross works are dethroned and the old Adam, who is especially edified by works is crucified.  It is impossible for a person not to be puffed up by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.

-Martin Luther, Heidelberg Disputation LW pg 53

Let me briefly share why I’m not ready to let this ship sail.  First, Luther is imminently realistic.  Life is hard, fully of suffering and failure.  Blind appeals to God’s goodness and the victory we have in Christ Jesus only cosmetically address the serious problems of life.  Second, Luther understands that God becomes most precious and is most fully known in suffering and failure.  Only a sinner with an afflicted conscience can truly appreciate grace and thus truly appreciate God’s presence in moral and spiritual failure.  Only one suffering can truly, with Paul, understand the sufficiency of Grace and God’s power present in our own weakness (2 Cor 12.9).  And finally, Luther grasps that God is revealed most fully not the in the mountaintop experiences of conferences or powerful worship on Sunday, but rather in the deep, descending darkness of Golgotha.  Here we behold a crucified man, forsaken and abandoned by his friends and say “Truly, this was the Son of God” (Matt 27.54).  When it appeared God had packed up and left town, he was actually doing the most glorious and grandest thing he would ever accomplish.  Hold on to that thought next time you think God has packed up and left town, leaving you forsaken and helpless.  Finally, Luther understood that appealing to the will to encourage works was inherently dangerous.  The “old Adam,” writes Luther “is especially edified by works.”  And how this is celebrated in most churches!  Encouraging people to take the hill for Jesus while never realizing that the glory of the Gospel is that he ascended the hill (by himself!) for them.  The Gospel deflates the old Adam and destroys him so that the New Adam is edified only by Christ and his Gospel, God hidden in suffering.  It is actually being edified only in Christ that makes any good work acceptable, for it means that good works are no longer selfish (for self-edification) nor mercenary (to get you into heaven) but good works are offered freely from the Christian who really and truly has nothing to gain from the endeavor.  It is an overflow from his heart for the love of Christ.





A few thoughts on the Trinity

2 10 2012

 

Regarding the study of the Holy Trinity, 17th century scholar and pastor John Owen writes:

 Let him bring with him a due reverence of the majesty, and infinite, incomprehensible nature of God, as that which is not to be prostituted to the captious and sophistical scanning of men of corrupt minds, but to be humbly adored, according to the revelation that he hath made of himself.

–John Owen, A Brief Vindication and Declaration of the Trinity.

 Owen’s remarks are helpful for two reasons.  First, Owen makes us aware of a subtle temptation when discussing the Trinity.  Namely, when discussing doctrines as deep and difficult as the Trinity we will be tempted to “sophistical scanning.”  In other words, the temptation is to adopt complex philosophy and vocabulary to puff ourselves up with knowledge, and therefore pride.  This is of course a subtle temptation in all of theological study.  We must be ever mindful that the purpose of theology is to deepen relationship with God, not merely to deepen knowledge for the sake of deepening knowledge.

Owen not only teaches us what we must avoid, but he also teaches us what we must pursue, that being “humble adoration.”  I remember sailing into “blue water” for the first time.  When you stand on the beach and look out at the ocean, there is a sense that you can comprehend and appreciate the beauty of what you are beholding.  And yet to step into the ocean and sail beyond the horizon, into the blue water is to experience something altogether different.  Beyond the horizon one knows the ocean in a different way than one who stands on the beach.  Beyond the horizon one knows the ocean as vast, unpredictable, awesome (and awful!), and beyond our comprehension in every direction.  This sense of fear mixed with elation, this terrible joy is what Owen means by “humble adoration.”  As we study the Trinity we step off the beach and sail beyond the horizon, into blue water.  What we find when we arrive is that to truly understand God is to understand that he is beyond our comprehension and the only thing we could rightly do is humbly adore.  That is how we know we’ve understood the Trinity correctly.

So with than in mind let’s explore a few things together.  We will explore:

  1. What the language of Scripture says about God in general
  2. How the language of Scripture forces us to reconceive how we think about monotheism (one God).
  3. How some have wrongly tried to make sense of these scriptures and how their error is to our detriment.
  4. How one can rightly make sense of these scriptures and how it is to our benefit.

In a brief discussion such as this we certainly cannot cover everything there would be to cover.  After all, people have written whole books (or several whole books!) on this subject.  But, it is my hope that we can at least get oriented around the right ideas.

 Who is God?

In his famous Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas identifies five different ways that you can describe “God” in the most general sense.  They are as follows:

  1. God is the“unmoved mover” Everything that is moved is moved by another.  Therefore, there must exist an “unmoved mover.”  God is the unmoved mover.
  2. God is the “First Cause.” The sequence of causes that make up our universe must have had a first efficient cause to set them off.  God is the first efficient cause.
  3. God is a Necessary Being.  All life is dependent upon something greater than itself for being.  For example, a child is dependent upon a mother and a father.  A vine is dependent upon a branch.  Therefore, there must be something from which everything is ultimately dependent upon.  This is God. 
  4. God is the “Perfect Good” Good exists in life.  Some things are better than others, but none is “perfectly good.”  There must be something (or someone!) that is purely and perfectly good.  This “perfect good” is God.
  5. God is the one who brings order to the universe.  We do live in an ordered universe, therefore there must be a person who has given the universe we live in order.  This person is God.

 When people use the word “God,” even non-Christians, I think you’ll find in the West that they are typically using the word in a way that’s consistent with at least one of the five ways listed above.  And of course, the Bible certainly affirms the general principles listed above. 

For example the Bible clearly identifies God as the “unmoved mover,” or the “first  cause” in the act of creation.  So too, the Bible proclaims God to be the perfect expression (Way #4) of many of the experiences we have here on earth.  For example, consider the following text from Matthew’s Gospel:

 Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:9-11 ESV)

 There is an expression of fatherhood that each of us is aware of since we all had fathers. Now some fathers are better than others, but there is only one perfect father.  The perfect father is of course God, as the only perfectly good expression of fatherhood that exists (Way #4).

Finally, the Bible affirms that God is the one who brings order to the universe (Way #5).  Strikingly, this is frequently seen regarding our own salvation.  For example, note the following passage where Paul discusses God’s ordering of the disordered aspects of creation, i.e. sin, suffering, evil, death etc.  He writes:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.(Romans 8:28 ESV)

 Generally speaking there are even more things that we can say about God than what was listed above by Aquinas.  For example, the Bible teaches us that God is omnipotent (Job 9.4 Psa 24.8, Matt 11.25, 1 Tim 6.15).  The Bible affirms God as sovereign over all (Psalm 104, Mark 4.39, Dan 1.2), omnipresent (Psalm 139 is a key text for this attribute), and immutable, that is unchangeable (Heb 13.8,  James 1.17).   A wonderful hymn that aptly expresses the attributes of God W.C. Smiths’ hymn, the first stanza of which reads:

 Immortal, invisible, God only wise,

in light inaccessible hid from our eyes,

most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,

almighty, victorious, thy great Name we praise. 

More could be said about these attributes, but this is sufficient for what both the Bible and often times the world itself wishes to affirm about the nature of God.

 The Problem of Jesus

The attributes listed above are fairly uncontroversial in the larger world of monotheism.  I’m not entirely convinced that anything that has been said about God previously in this little post would be difficult for a Muslim, Jew or even an agnostic to accept. 

Where Christianity differentiates itself from all other major monotheistic religions is in the person of Jesus Christ.  You may have read “Jesus is the answer,” scrawled on the wall or on a bumper sticker.  And indeed, he is the answer to many things but when we speak of God, Jesus actually poses several problems to our understanding of God.  This was after all the reason Jesus was put to death.  He wasn’t crucified for being a nice guy! 

Jesus is a Jewish man who comes from a long, deep, and wide Jewish tradition. Within this tradition it was understood that there was only one God, which was quite different from the multiplicity of pagan gods in the Canaanite, Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek, and later Roman religions.  Moses writes in Deuteronomy:

“Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one (Deut 6.4 ESV, emphasis mine)

 

Jesus believed and would no doubt have confessed the above statement in synagogue, but he nevertheless says some very problematic things concerning himself that force us to rethink the statement that “the Lord is one.” 

For example, Jesus claimed to have the authority to forgive sins.  The importance of the claim is not lost on C.S. Lewis, who notes:

Then comes the real shock…there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God.  He claims to forgive sins.  He says He has always existed.  He says He is coming to judge the world at the end of time…One part of the claim that tends to slip past us unnoticed because we have heard it so often that we no longer see what it amounts to.  I mean the claim to forgive sins:  any sins.  Now unless the speaker is God, this is really so preposterous as to be comic.  We can all understand how a man forgives offence against himself.  You tread on my toes and I forgive you, you steal my money and I forgive you.  But what should we make of a man, himself unrobed and untrodden on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on the other man’s toes and stealing other men’s money?–      Lewis, Mere Christianity

Indeed!  What are we to make of this man?  Of course the whole problem would have gone away had Jesus had the courtesy to stay dead after his crucifixion, but having been raised from the dead he forces us to come to terms with him and the claims he made about himself.  What are we to do with this man, who as Lewis says, went about “talking as if He was God”?

Modalism and Tri-Theism:  Two Wrong Solutions to the “Jesus Problem”

One attempt to make sense of Jesus, his claims and resurrection is called modalism.  Modalism suggests that God is one, however he reveals himself to us in different modes or in successive manifestations.  Perhaps you’ve had an employer who also happened to be your friend.  You talk business for a moment and he has his “boss hat” on, but the subject changes and all of a sudden he says “I’m putting my friend hat on.”  You are speaking to the same person, but he is behaving towards you in different ways.

So modalism says that at times God puts on his “father hat”, at other times he puts on his “son hat,” and at other times he put son his “Spirit hat.”  A crass way to articulate this would be to say that in the Old Testament God was an angry father, but in the inter-testamental period he got some counseling and is much better adjusted.  So he now acts towards us with grace and mercy acting in the mode of a “son.”

So what’s the big deal about modalism?  Well, first it doesn’t make sense of some of the complex statements that we have regarding Jesus revealed in the Bible. Consider the following:

No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.        (John 1:18-19 ESV)

 

The above quote does not imply one person behaving in different ways.  But rather at least two persons, one person being the Father and the other being at the Father’s side.  No simple theory of multiple masks can do justice to what’s happening in the above quote from John’s Gospel.  Second, to suggest that God is one but just puts on different “masks” or acts in different “modes” is to introduce a whole host of difficult problems. 

For example, if God is simply one person, even if he acts in three ways, then God cannot possibly be love.  Often when I speak to non-Christians, one thing that they will almost always affirm about God is that he is love.  But if God is only one person then he couldn’t possibly be such a thing.  Why?  If God is only one person then before creation he has nothing to love but himself.  This is not quite what people have in mind when they say “God is love.”  In order to become a loving God, he would then need to create something to love.  Love would then be a learned trait, not an essential quality, therefore God could never be love.

 The other problem with modalism is this:  if God is one person who wears many masks, how can we ever know when he’s not wearing a mask?  In other words, how can we ever know God is being honest with us?  Perhaps you’ve enjoyed, as I have, the AMC television series Mad Men or Breaking Bad.  Each series revolves around a man who wears many masks.  The man is one way towards his family, another at his office, and another while he is engaged in illicit activity (Draper’s affairs or “Heizenberg’s” drug dealing).  One of the points made by both shows is that you can’t trust a man who wears masks.  Neither could you trust a God who does so.

 Modalism is not simply a heresy of the past to be read about in dusty history books, but it is alive and well and can be purchased at Barnes and Nobles!  One such example is T.D. Jakes, a bishop and lead pastor of the Potter’s House Church.  The statement of faith on the Potter’s House website confesses God as “one God, Creator of all things, infinitely perfect, and eternally existing in three manifestations: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”  But as we have shown above, the language of three “manifestations” or modes is problematic.  This may seem nitpicky in an age with no stomach for strong doctrinal convictions, but as the former Bishop of South Carolina Fitz Allison has so often reminded us, heresy is cruel.  A modalistic God, who is always hiding behind different masks and manifestations can never be truly known or trusted.  A God who can never truly be known can never be truly loved, and perhaps can never truly love either.

 So much for modalism.  What about tri-theism?  This is the second failed approach to comprehend the difficulty presented by the claims of Jesus and his subsequent resurrection.  This solution says we cannot understand the complexity of Jesus’ claims and resurrection and remain monotheists (one-God).  So the solution is to rid ourselves of the “oneness” of God and posit three Gods.  Rather than the Trinitarian position, which we will discuss in a moment, which says that there are three persons in one God, tri-theism posits three persons existing in three Gods.

 Why is this problematic?  Well, one only needs to do a brief overview of Greek mythology to understand the problems of multiple deities.  Multiple deities can turn on one another, overthrow one another, make secret pacts, etc.  Because deities can turn on one another, ancient pagan mythology posits a fundamentally unstable universe, where life and order are in constant jeopardy of being overthrown.   Thus tri-theism is to be rejected not merely on Biblical grounds, but upon philosophical objections as well.

Trinitarianism:  The Right Way to Understand Jesus

Historically the Christian Church has said that the right way to understand the problem that Jesus poses to a monotheistic conception of God is to confess that there is truly one God, however this God exists in three distinct persons.  The evidence is certainly there biblically to form such a conception.  For example, consider the following:

 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him;  and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16- 17 ESV, emphasis mine)

 The above quote from Matthew has a voice declaring from heaven “This is my beloved Son.”  We have a man named Jesus, who is the beloved Son.  And finally a Spirit of God that descends from above and rests on Jesus.  This is a full picture of the work of the Trinity in Jesus Christ. 

Or perhaps consider this from the account of Stephen’s martyrdom in the Acts of the Apostles:

But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”(Acts 7:55-56 ESV, emphasis mine)

What was the “glory of God” that Stephen saw?  First, the glory of God was seen through the power of the Spirit.  Second, what was seen specifically were two persons standing next to one another, just as we read in John 1.18-19 earlier.

Though the evidence was there Biblically, it was not until the third century that Tertullian, a Latin theologian, attempted to describe this profound mystery with the word “trinitas.”  Tertullian sought to navigate this mystery by saying that the essence, or substance of God is indeed one.  If you’ll remember back to when we discussed the question of “who is God,” and certain things were said about Him.  For example, we said God was the first cause.  We also discussed some attributes of God such as his immensity, omnipotence, incomprehensibility etc.  Tertullian said there is only one being with these qualities.  However, within this one being exists three persons.  He writes:

All are of One, by unity (that is) of substance; while the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned, under the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. –Tertullian, Adversus Praxeam

The doctrine was not settled until the council of Nicaea, held in 325 A.D. Here, the gathered church agreed on the following confession to articulate the complex mystery of the Holy Trinity.  They wrote:

We believe in one God,

the Father, the Almighty,

maker of heaven and earth,

of all that is, seen and unseen. 

 

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God, 


eternally begotten of the Father, 


God from God, Light from Light, 
true God from true God, 


begotten, not made, 
of one Being with the Father. 


Through him all things were made. 


For us and for our salvation 


he came down from heaven: 


by the power of the Holy Spirit 
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, 
and was made man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; 


he suffered death and was buried. 


On the third day he rose again

in accordance with the Scriptures; 


he ascended into heaven 


and is seated at the right hand of the Father. 


He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, 
and his kingdom will have no end. 

 

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, 
who proceeds from the Father and the Son. 


With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. 


He has spoken through the Prophets. 


We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. 


We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. 


We look for the resurrection of the dead, 


and the life of the world to come. Amen. 

 

Note a few things about the confession.  First, notice how each member of the Trinity is credited with essential divine attributes.  For example, the Father is the “maker of heaven and earth,” the Son is “not made, of one being with the Father,” and the Spirit is “the Lord, the giver of life.”  Thus we have one divine being.  Second, notice how though we have one divine being, the creed nevertheless carefully distinguishes three persons within the divine being.  For example, the Father alone begets.  The Son alone was “for our sake crucified.”  Finally, the Spirit alone “has spoken through the prophets” and the Spirit alone “proceeds from the Father and the Son” (the procession from the Father and the Son is not without controversy.  I have little time to go into it here.  You can click here for a different article that covers it well).  Thus there is an essentially unity, in that all share in the divine nature.  Nevertheless, three persons can be distinguished within the divinity based upon their distinct activities.

This is undoubtedly confusing and hard to grasp.  How can three persons constitute one being?  Again, Lewis comes to our aid.  Read the following carefully:

On the human level one person is one being, and any two person are two separate beings- just as, in two dimensions (say on a flat sheet of paper) one square is one figure, and any two squares are two separate figures.  On the Divine level you still find personalities; but up there you find them combined in new ways which we, who do not live on that level, cannot imagine.  In God’s dimension, so to speak, you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube.

–       Lewis, Mere Christianity

In other words, in Lewis’ analogy we find it hard to conceive of how God could be three persons in one divine being because we’re one-dimensional and he is three-dimensional.  He exists on a different plane altogether. 

At some point we must admit the mind will fail to grasp the mystery of the three persons, eternally existing as one divine being.  This does not make our discussion meaningless, but rather serves to increase our awareness in the overall majesty and glory of God.  As Gregory of Nazianzus once wrote:

 I cannot think of the unity without being irradiated by the Trinity: I cannot distinguish between the Trinity without being carried up to the unity.

This doctrine, as complex as it is, nevertheless serves to “irradiate” and carry along in adoration.  If that is all we succeed at, we will have more than a humble victory.

 Who Cares?

As I’m fond of reminding you: 

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. – Calvin, Inst I.i.1

The knowledge of ourselves is after all, intimately bound up in our knowledge of God because we are made in his image (Gen 1.27).  There are certain aspects of being human, for example the human desire to love and be loved, the human compulsion to be creative, and the need to be in relationship that are explained only through a God who exists in Trinity.

The Trinity gives us an accounting of love

Take first the human desire to love and be loved.  As John reminds us, “God is love” (1 John 4.8).  God eternally exists as a Father who loves a Son, a Son who loves a Father, and a Spirit who eternally binds the two in affection.  Thus God exists to both give and receive love and he is capable of doing this entirely on his own.  That is God can be love according to his own divine being amongst three persons.  This led Jonathan Edwards to describe God as “infinitely happy in the enjoyment of himself” (Edwards, An Unpublished Essay on the Trinity).  Furthermore, this very same God made us in his image.  We too, like God, exist to receive and return love.  Augustine understood this well when he wrote:

You have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our souls are restless until they find their rest in you. –Augustine, Confessions

We as creature are compelled to rest in giving and receiving love from the divine persons of the Trinity precisely because we are made in the image of God.  This too is the foundation behind all human relationships.

The Trinity gives us an accounting of human creativity

Finally, take the human compulsion to be creative.  Both love and relationships can be understood as a biological necessity.  But the human compulsion to create art, fiction, literature, etc. defies the logic of biological necessity.  It is not after all, a biological necessity for J.D. Salinger to write The Catcher in the Rye or for Frank Lloyd Wright to design Fallingwater.  So why do humans feel compelled to create?  The answer is that creation is imbedded in the very nature of who God is.  In John’s Gospel, the Word is described as God’s “only-begotten.”  Charles Spurgeon rightly notes that this implies “the begetting of the Logos (the Word) was not an event in time but an eternal relationship.”  In other words, the Father eternally begat the Son.  On the nature of this “eternally begotten” nature of the Son David Bell writes:

 Eternal generation means that when the Father put forth or produced or generated the Son, he did not do so in the same way as a woman brings forth a baby, or a bullet comes out of a gun. In both these cases, the action is a single action, done once and for all. But when a candle shines and gives forth its light, the light is emitted continually so long as the flame is burning. It is a continual act, not a single action, and it is in this way that God the Son is begotten. God the Father continually pours forth God the Son…From the beginning of eternity to its end, God the Father generates the Son as light forever generates its own radiance…Light without radiance is unthinkable…and more than that, light and its radiance show a community of substance. In other words we have here light from light . . ., not trees from light or heat from light or horses from light; but as a river puts forth a stream (water from water) or the rational mind puts forth its will (mind from mind), what is put forth here is the same ‘stuff’ or ‘material’ or ‘substance’ as that which puts it forth. –David Bell, A Cloud of Witnesses

If God the Father “continually pours forth God the Son,” in the same way that a candle continually pours forth light, then creation, just like love, is at the very center of who God is.  Made in God’s image, both love and a creative impulse are at the center of a human being. 

Christianity then, particularly in its worship of the Triune God, has a theological reason to celebrate human relationships, human giving and receiving of love, as well as human creativity.  In each and every one of these activities human beings testify to their “likeness” unto God and furthermore, in each and every one of these activities, from friendship (love) to architecture (creativity), Christians can (and should!) enjoy and worship God.