Amid the commemorations and celebrations of Martin Luther nailing several Latin points for disputation upon his local bulletin board, there has been some discussion about whether the Reformation “failed” or “succeeded.” The answer, of course, depends on what you think the Reformation’s goal was. But to enable you to reach your own conclusions, I thought a scorecard might be helpful. (more…)
Sometimes it is useful to look back to a time before the heated debates of the present were kindled, and see how cooler heads then discussed those issues. One of the heated public arguments of our time is the place of gender and gender expression in our society, and the degree to which those are God-given, naturally determined, socially constructed, or individually chosen. This past week the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) published a “Nashville Statement” outlining what they regard as necessary Christian teaching on homosexuality and transgenderism. Reactions to the statement were covered in all the major and most of the minor media outlets. And this is only the latest flurry in a discussion which already goes back several years.
I recently read Margaret Widdemer’s 1915 novel Why Not?, written long before the current cultural uproar regarding transgender identity and gender expression. It includes, solely for entertainment value, a subplot surrounding a woman who wants to be a man, and how that turns out. In doing so, it raises possibilities that our modern gender pugilists do not consider, or even wish to foreclose. Let us examine those, looking for an alternative to a renewed culture war.
Does the Bible teach that God is Trinity? While the word “Trinity” does not occur in the Bible, we have discussed how the Old Testament presents God as united and unique, but it also hints at something more about God. Jesus, a devout Jew, affirmed the unity and uniqueness of God, but he also claimed for himself divine authority, roles, attributes, and prerogatives on the basis of his unique unity with the Father, whom he identified as the God of Israel (John 8:54). How did Christians get from there to the Trinity? And what do Christians mean by the Trinity anyway?
The Apostles on God and Jesus
Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would bring to the mind of his followers everything he had said to them (John 14:26), and the earliest Christians certainly collected what they remembered Jesus as saying and reflected on it. But the apostles were not primarily philosophical theologians coining new jargon for church doctrine; they were far more concerned with proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus and setting up churches to carry on the message after them. They were also limited people like us, not understanding God fully and growing over time in their knowledge of him (John 2:22; 12:16), even while struggling with doubts (Matthew 28:17). (I do believe, however, that what they wrote on the subject which made it into the Bible was divinely inspired!) So the apostles certainly did not use the word “Trinity.” But they did worship Jesus (Matthew 28:17; Luke 24:52), a divine prerogative which mere humans and even angels were required to reject (Acts 10:25-26; 14:14-15; Revelation 22:8-9). Worshiping anything other than God would break the very first of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3), so clearly the apostles believed that Jesus deserved divine honor.
The apostles, all of whom were devout Jews, believed that the God of Israel was the only true God. Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, “We know that ‘An idol is nothing at all in the world’ and that ‘There is no God but one.'” (1 Corinthians 8:4; cf. Romans 3:30). Earlier, he and Barnabas had contrasted the “worthless things” of sacrifices to Zeus with “the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them” (Acts 14:15). James affirmed that God’s oneness is so incontrovertible that even demons acknowledge it (James 2:19). John ended his first letter with a closing warning: “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). So the apostles did not believe that worshiping Jesus contradicted their monotheistic belief. It did lead to some puzzles.
The apostles experimented with what to call Jesus in relation to God. They called him God’s Servant (Acts 3:13; 4:27), God’s Messiah (i.e. “Christ”: Luke 9:20; Acts 2:36; 3:18; 1 Corinthians 3:23), God’s Son (Mark 1:1; Romans 1:4; 1 John 5:20). All of these are correct. These same apostles were even increasingly comfortable explicitly calling Jesus himself “God,” starting very early. Already one week after the resurrection, when the apostle Thomas faced the risen Jesus, he called him, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). Paul wrote to the Romans that Jesus Christ “is God over all, forever praised!” (Romans 9:5). To the Christians in Philippi, Paul described Jesus before his birth as “being in the form of (i.e. as) God” who possessed “equality with God” (Philippians 2:6). Writing to his friend Titus, Paul spoke of the expected return of “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). Peter likewise opened his second letter by appealing to “the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” which gives faith to Christians (2 Peter 1:1). Finally, and most famously, John penned the opening lines of his gospel about Jesus as God’s Word, using phrases which evoke the opening of Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1; cf. 1:18).
So the apostles did not use the term “Trinity” and did not work out a detailed philosophical explanation, but they believed that there is only one living God, the creator of all things and the God of Israel, and yet they worshiped Jesus and were willing to call Jesus “God’s Son” and even explicitly “God.”
Good Theories and Bad
Some Christians after the apostles had a bit more time on their hands and a desire for philosophical consistency, and were inclined to ask nosy questions and suggest possible answers. (I might be one of these.) The question arose, “How can God be the Father of Jesus, and Jesus also be God, and yet there be only one God?” Various answers were suggested. Some people had the idea that maybe Jesus was just a man, yet God adopted him, so Jesus was called “God” by courtesy, or like a family name (a viewpoint called, unsurprisingly, “adoptionism,” and believed again today by various liberal groups suspicious of supernaturalism). Others suggested that there was only one God, but sometimes he acted in the role of Father and sometimes in the role of Son (which we label “modalism” or “Sabellianism” and which is held by Oneness Pentecostals today). Yet others proposed that Jesus was more than a mere human, and was the first created thing, through whom all else was created, and is called “God” as a form of honor (this position, accepted by Jehovah’s Witnesses today, is “Arianism,” not to be confused with “Aryanism“).
Each of these viewpoints was considered and rejected by the majority of ancient Christian leaders, as incompatible with one or another aspect of God’s revelation in the Bible. Adoptionism runs afoul of what God said to Isaiah: “I will not give my glory to another” (Isaiah 48:11). It seems to counter Jesus claiming to exist before Abraham’s birth (John 8:58) and Paul speaking of Jesus, before his birth, as “being in the form of God” (Philippians 2:6). Modalism satisfies those passages, but how can that theory explain the baptism of Christ, where a voice from God the Father spoke and sent down the Holy Spirit like a dove upon Jesus being baptized (Matthew 3:16-17)? According to a modalist view, the many times that Jesus said, “My Father sent me” (fourteen times in John) would all reduce to “I sent myself in a different costume,” and that does not seem to make sense. Arianism preserves the different actors in the interactions between Jesus and God the Father, and allows for Jesus speaking of his existence before Abraham’s birth two millennia earlier, but how then could Paul worship and serve Jesus, when he condemned people who “exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised” (Romans 1:25)? Arianism also founders on God’s statement to Isaiah cited above, that he would not give another his glory, which is no doubt why Jehovah’s Witnesses carefully mistranslate the passages cited above in which the apostles called Jesus “God.”
Instead of these faulty explanations, ancient Christian leaders, and their successors and followers to the present, identified a few key necessary ideas, hinted at in the Old Testament, claimed by Jesus, and held by the apostles. There is in fact only one God, and no created being can be called God. Jesus’s Father is God. Jesus is God. Jesus is not his own Father. But there is more.
And the Holy Spirit, Too!
The Old Testament had mentioned God’s Spirit already in the beginning of creation (Genesis 1:2), and had referenced God’s Spirit performing divine actions, such as inspiring prophets. Jesus had promised his close followers that after his departure, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16-17). The fact that the Spirit is another, suggests that in some sense the Spirit is the same sort of thing that Jesus is. After rising from the dead, Jesus commanded his followers to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), suggesting a shared authority among the three named persons. Indeed, although “Spirit” is technically a neuter noun in Greek (an “it”), Jesus chose to refer to the Holy Spirit as “he” and “him” (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:7-8, 13-14) instead of what would be expected and considered non-offensive, “it.” Perhaps the grammar was making a point.
The apostles likewise spoke of the Holy Spirit frequently, often in the same breath with God and Jesus (Acts 10:38; Romans 15:30; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Ephesians 1:17; Philippians 3:3; 1 Peter 1:2). Peter rebuked a couple for having “lied to the Holy Spirit,” which he described as having “not lied just to human beings but to God” (Acts 5:3-4); this may hint that the Spirit is also God. Paul, speaking of the variety of spiritual gifts, nevertheless emphasizes the unity of “the same Spirit… the same Lord… the same God at work” in the different spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-6).
Later Christians puzzled about the Holy Spirit for even longer than they puzzled about Jesus. Some suggested that God’s Spirit is another way of saying “God” (but this runs into the same trouble as modalism when God sends his Spirit). Others concluded that the “Spirit of God” was another way to refer to Jesus (but then how can Jesus describe the Spirit as “another advocate”?). Yet others seem to have argued that the Spirit of God was just not God, but instead someone created by Jesus (this is the view ascribed to the “Pneumatomakhoi,” those who “fight against the Spirit”) – but in this case how could a mere creature know all the depths of God (1 Corinthians 2:10-11)? In the face of these explanatory failures, Christians eventually came to the view that there is still only one God, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father nor the Son, but is the same God as the Father and the Son.
The Oneness and Three-ness of God
The conclusion of the long process of early Christians figuring out what they believed about God, Jesus, and the Spirit, can perhaps most briefly be summed up in the words of the Athanasian Creed: “the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; and yet they are not three Gods, but one God.” Christians have continued to insist that there is only one true God, and yet the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit are three distinct individuals who are jointly the same God. The Old Testament’s hints about God’s complex oneness, Jesus’s claims to full participation in divine unity without singleness, and the apostles’ appropriation of Jesus’s claims and their implications that he and the Spirit are “also God,” together force Christians to recognize that there is not only a oneness about God, but there is also a certain “three-ness” to the one and only God. The Latin word for “three-ness” is trinitas, from which English gets the word Trinity.
So when critics say the “Trinity” is not in the Bible, they are right about words but wrong about meaning. It is true that the word “trinity” is not to be found there. But as we have observed, it is possible for the reality described by the word to be expressed even without using the word. The notion of God’s “three-ness” (trinitas) is an attempt to understand and synthesize what the Bible teaches about God’s complex unity, and about the simultaneous divinity and distinction of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Corinthians 13:14)
In any contentious debate, it is useful to reconsider the views that are taken for granted in order to facilitate dialogue. This is especially important for views that are shared by both sides, which may by their falsity enforce a sterile debate. One key tenet in much of the “gay marriage” debates, held by “liberals” and “conservatives” alike, is that each person’s sexuality defines them as a person. Your “sexual orientation” is an essential trait, perhaps the most essential trait, to your human personhood. On reflection, this is preposterous, and both conservatives and liberals should jettison the notion. This will enable much more fruitful discussion on contentious issues.
The issue of homosexuality has been prominent in church discussions for several years now, long enough for most parties to be sick of the issue and incredulous that other people don’t see the matter as seems obvious to them. In many ways, the debates have resembled the debates about American slavery in middle third of the nineteenth century: both sides dug in and called the others non-Christians, and almost every denomination split over the issue in the period leading up to the American Civil War (and indeed, the Southern/Northern Baptist split remains to this day, even if the Northerners changed their name to “American Baptists” with all the arrogance of military victors). The disagreements over sexuality persist, in part, because both sides have been making really stupid arguments which are easily caricatured by their opponents. Conservatives have been accused by liberals of simply reacting with a knee-jerk “yuck” and seeking to justify their irrational prejudice with appeal to the Bible and tradition. Conservatives in turn have accused liberals of throwing out all that characterizes Christianity in their desire to kowtow to the current cultural trends. (more…)
A fascinating new website has been started over at danherrickphilosophy.com, all of whose arguments merit careful reading. This is not to say I agree with all of his arguments – I do not, which ought to surprise no one – but his essays often provide an interesting sidelight on the issue and frequently an unusual insight. In particular, he just finished a series of four posts on how to read Scripture: (more…)
Peddling stereotypes is intellectually irresponsible, usually offensive, and occasionally funny. Along those lines, here is a list of parking lot layouts for various religious groups, in no particular order: (N.B. outside of America, “parking lot” is usually pronounced “car park.”) (more…)
In response to my long essay about the similarity, or lack thereof, between the earliest Christians and various denominations today, one commentator, Anna, offered insights which can jump-start practical ecumenical discussion among Christians. In her first comment, she opened the door to a principled ecumenism with a rejection of the extremes, both of judgmental conservatism and of mindless liberalism:
But I would like to suggest that there is a middle ground in between “you’re going to hell” and “all paths are equal”. The middle route says, “Yes, it does matter; but you’re not screwed if you get it wrong.”
She then established the value of ecumenical contact among Christians by pointing out how great it would be if we all took upon ourselves what each denomination does well: (more…)
My mom tells the story that when she was a child, she was not allowed to eat anything which contained ingredients she couldn’t pronounce, as they were probably harmful. This is the same way some Christians feel about ecclesiology: they can’t say it, so it must not be good.
Ecclesiology is just the concept of what the Church is. We all have an ecclesiology, even if only implicit. Is the Church a formal institution or an informal association of people? Is it a holy witness to the truth or a messy hospital ward for sinners? Is it the a tax-exempt charity or a political action committee? Or none of the above? There are many different ideas about the nature of the Church.
Do these ideas matter? In a sense, not nearly as much as other areas of Christian belief. Jesus never said, “You are blessed if you believe X, Y, and Z about the Church.” Nor did Paul write, “If you believe A, B, and C about the Church, you will be saved.” The central message of Christianity is that God became incarnate as Jesus Christ in order to redeem the world and fix the mess that we all have made by his death and resurrection. Christianity first and foremost proclaims Jesus Christ, who he is and what he has done and is doing.
But “not nearly as significant” as the most significant single event in the history of the universe is a far cry from “insignificant.”
Some might point out that ecclesiology remains perhaps the most contentious and debatable area of Christian belief, with more disagreement than agreement on the subject between Orthodox, Protestants, and Roman Catholics. And if the churches have got on well enough without a clear consensus on the subject (unlike, say, the doctrines of the Trinity or Christology), then ecclesiology must not be the most essential.
But again, “essential” is not the same as “significant.”
Ecclesiology makes a difference to many areas of our understanding of Christianity. Here, I will take just one example: ecclesiology determines how we evaluate which religious events are good or bad. In particular, whether a Christian who is not of your group is an ally or a rival, whether you should celebrate or abominate their successes, and whether you regard their ideas are stepping stones or snares, are all questions of ecclesiology which have a large impact on how we live in a society with multiple Christian denominations. A number of examples will clarify the case.
John of Monte Corvino was a Franciscan missionary to China in the early fourteenth century. At that time, there were a significant number of Eastern (non-Latin) Christians in China under the Mongol Yuan dynasty, and because he did not regard their churches as in any way valuable or conferring salvation, he focused his efforts on converting them to his own Latin Christianity. According to his account, he succeeded in converting a prominent statesmen who belonged to the Church of the East, namely King George of the Onggut, and cherished high hopes of leading most of that people into submission to the papacy. By doing so, he elicited strong opposition from the clergy of the Church of the East, and he complained that they were attempting to prevent him from saying mass or baptizing anyone. (It is not simply ironic, but rather a reflection of the ecclesiology of his church, that back in Europe and in the Crusader states his fellow Latin clergy sometimes likewise hindered other Christians from celebrating church services.) His actions and his complaints make sense, if he took a narrow interpretation that outside of his (Latin) Church there could be no salvation. But from an ecclesiology which values ecumenical cooperation (and since 1994 the Vatican has acknowledged that the Church of the East is not teaching Nestorian heresy, as they had previously thought), these strategies are back-stabbing and sheep-stealing. What looks like Christian love and missionary zeal, from one ecclesiological perspective, appear instead as arrogance and hypocrisy, from another.
In 1548, Luther’s followers were in crisis. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, a staunch supporter of the papacy against “Lutheran heretics,” had defeated the Protestant princes in the Schmalkaldic War, and he decreed religious uniformity throughout his realm by ordering all people to go back to mass. The only concessions to the reformers were communion in two kinds (bread and wine for laity) and clerical marriage. A revised version the following year explained the doctrine of justification by faith in a Lutheran sense, thanks to the input of Philip Melanchthon, and was more acceptable by some, though not all, of Luther’s followers. Melanchthon argued that the Roman mass itself was adiaphora, neither commanded nor forbidden in scripture, and therefore obedient attendance was permitted. His critics, including Matthias Flacius, said that nothing idolatrous (as they viewed the Roman mass) could be adiaphora, and a split developed between the “Philippists” and the “Gnesio-Lutherans” (the name means the “True Lutherans”), which would only be healed a generation later, after both Melanchthon and Flacius were dead. Was Melanchthon correct to be willing to compromise with the Roman Catholics? Certainly not, if they had nothing to do with Christ’s true Church, as the Gnesio-Lutherans claimed. Were the Gnesio-Lutherans right to break away from Melanchthon and other “compromisers”? Only if preserving the “purity” of their church was more important than unity with Christians who thought differently on these points. (It is ironic that there was a controversy over adiaphora, literally “things that don’t matter.”)
A third example: Rev. Billy Graham preached an evangelical Protestant message of salvation by faith in Christ from the late 1940s to the early 21st century. His revival “crusades” in a location were organized by clergy in that city or area, who would then direct follow-up efforts with new converts and incorporate them into their churches. These clergy would often sit on the platform behind Graham while he preached. Beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Billy Graham’s “crusades” made two inclusive moves. He racially integrated the clergy on the platform, and he invited Roman Catholic clergy to participate in the revivals. These views were not universally popular, and he earned a lot of criticism from more conservative Protestants, especially for encouraging lapsed Catholics to return to the Roman Catholic Church. Ecclesiology again determines whether Graham was right or wrong to cooperate with Catholics. If the Roman Catholic Church is simply the bondage of demonic idolatry, as some of Graham’s critics assert to this day, then sending would-be converts to Christianity to them is to short-change them of salvation. (Lest you think I’m making this up, here is one webpage critical of Graham along these lines, and by no means the most extreme.) But if the Roman Catholic Church is a valid church through which people may experience Christ’s redemption, then Graham’s cooperation with them is another instance of his evangelical priority to work together to spread the good news of Christ’s love and redemption.
Ecclesiological issues inform many of the debates between liberals and conservatives in most major denominations. Among Protestants, the liberal/conservative divide for the past century and a quarter has frequently lined up over the issue whether the Church should seek to ameliorate the world or should seek to rescue sinners out of the world. (Some are increasingly realizing that this need not be an either/or.) Among Roman Catholics, the division between sede vacantists and papal loyalists turns on whether recent popes and the Second Vatican Council have started promulgating falsehood or have merely exercised their divine right of doctrinal definition. Among papal loyalists, the divide between liberals and conservatives includes the question whether the Church should change to accommodate modern notions of progress and mores, or whether the Church should timelessly hold its essential teaching in defiance of contemporary social developments. In order to navigate these debates, and to rejoice in those things which honor our Savior, Jesus Christ, we need an ecclesiology which is accurate and astute. May the Holy Spirit guide his Church into all truth, as our Lord promised.
I appreciate the book of Proverbs. I didn’t always; it wasn’t always intuitive to me what I was reading. The proverbs themselves seem to hold out various promises, and yet they clearly were not absolute rules. (Indeed, I, like all converts, am a counter-example to Prov. 22:6.) So what are they? A number of years ago I started compiling a list of common English proverbs, to the tune of “A penny saved is a penny earned,” which helped me see the value of this book of wisdom.
Prompted by a post on another blog, I have included here a number of proverbs that have struck me previously, some seriously, some humorously, with brief comment.
“Where there is no guidance, the people fall, / But in abundance of counselors, there is victory.” (Prov 11:14, NASB)
I’m a younger sibling, so I take this proverb to heart. I have watched many other people charge ahead without first asking advice, and often regretting it. In consequence, I like to ask people for advice regarding important decisions. I make no express or implied warrant that I will follow any advice, but I am happy to ask (and less happy to receive advice unasked-for).
Of course, the proverb speaks of “abundance of counselors,” and what one usually learns when one asks for advice from even two people is that they don’t agree. Professional advice in particular I have found to be often diametrically opposed, though personal advice often diverges. Why is that? When people give you advice, their counsel most often reflects their own experiences of what worked and did not work for them. Most advice has no greater validity than that. And this is where the proverb’s “abundance” comes in: if one can ask many people, they will not all agree. But they will give you a broader range of human experience than just your own experience. My own inclinations also reflect only my own experiences, and have no broader validity than that! So asking for others’ advice allows me to identify if something surprising always works, or always fails, or has mixed results which might be managed in some way. It’s not rocket science, but it can be helpful.
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, / But desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” (Prov 13:12, NASB)
“Desire realized is sweet to the soul, / But it is an abomination to fools to depart from evil.” (Prov. 13:19, NASB)
The first of these proverbs always make me think of the poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes (also known as “A Dream Deferred”). Christianity, somewhere along the line, got an odd reputation for being against any sort of fun or pleasure. Some people’s distorted view of God is as a giant killjoy. But apart from clear evidence in creation and prophecy that God knows how to have a good time, these proverbs also tell us that we long for things, and when we get them we do better (caveat to follow). Putting off our longings, perpetually missing out on what we hope for, is hard, and not good for us. Getting what we want is, at some level good for us.
(Now for the caveat.) As the second part of the second proverb shows, however, we often want the wrong thing. So when our desires are “disordered” (to use the jargon of Catholic moral theology) or “messed up” (means the same thing), then getting what we want may in fact do us harm. This is the point of another proverb, which early in my post-conversion life indicated to me that we cannot trust people to know what is best for them:
“There is a way which seems right to a man, / But its end is the way of death.” (Prov. 14:12, NASB)
If people cannot be trusted to know what is best for them, this places limits on individual autonomy (because most people don’t in fact seek counselors, as described in I. above) and calls into question the moral virtue of permitting people to go their own way. But that’s a digression for another time, if I ever feel inspired to write on political economy.
For my purposes now, it suffices to show that the problem with fulfilling our bad desires, as indicated in the second half of Prov. 13:19 or in Prov. 14:12, is not that we are fulfilling desires, but that we’re stupid. It’s not a problem of having desires, as if it would be virtuous to desire nothing (a frequent teaching in certain varieties of Buddhism and sometimes Hinduism), but of desiring the wrong object. We need to learn to direct out desires to good things, above all to God who gave us good desires in order to delight us with satisfying them! We are not called to be Stoics; we are called not to be idolaters, substituting bad things for the good that God made us to desire.
“Where no oxen are, the manger is clean, / But much increase comes by the strength of the ox.” (Prov. 14:4, NASB)
When I first came across this, as a new convert to Christianity, it shocked me. It seems to directly contradict the common English saying (or perhaps only common American saying?), “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Indeed, it approaches, though without the connotations of violence, “You can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs.” I had never liked “cleanliness is next to godliness,” as it sounded judgmental and I didn’t like doing chores, but when I became a Christian I was resigned to accept that as part of package. Coming across this proverb revealed to me that there are more important things than being tidy. I mean, I suppose most people like to appear “put together” and like they “have their ducks in a row,” but sometimes real good interferes with those appearances. Sometimes in order to get something done, something really good, I need to “get my hands dirty.”
On a much lighter note:
“In all labor there is profit, / But mere talk leads only to poverty.” (Prov. 14:23, NASB)
As a soon-to-be teacher, I marvel that the Bible explains so clearly why teachers don’t get paid much.