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Lost in the Trinity

Since we tend to become like what we worship, and since we were created
in the image of God, the commandment not to worship “any other Gods but me”
is not an expression of the jealousy of God for God’s sake, but for ours.

C. Fitzsimmons Allison: The Cruelty of Heresy

In yesterday’s post, we celebrated the revealed truth that Jesus was truly and completely human. I pointed out that some people cannot believe that He is human and maintain the corresponding doctrine that He is also God. The more they try to prove the latter false, the more they focus on the truth of the former. But I celebrate the truth that He is man. Lift it up all you can and I will only fly with you. Jesus Christ is 100% man.

And He is 100% God too.

There is a mental tension in the revealed truth that Christ is God as well. It arises from the fact that, if God became man, all sorts of questions arise about the nature of God Himself. Is there one God, truly? Is there some sense in which there is more than one God? Is God divisible? Can we find parts in God? Or is He truly one?

If there is one God, and Christ is truly God, then is He God the Father? Is He also the Holy Spirit? Are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit different parts of God? Are they different modes that God takes on? Are they different masks that He wears in different situations? What is the relationship among the three?

These are great and confusing questions. To ask them is to be drawn into the mystery in which all truth is made more visible and wherein everything is put in the right order. To answer them incorrectly is to disrupt the fabric of your soul and of all knowledge, for, as the Bible says frequently in the wisdom literature: “The fear of God is the beginning of knowledge.”

Most importantly, perhaps, our salvation hinges on a right understanding of the nature of God. I don’t mean that if you get this wrong, you’ll be punished for it. I mean that as a practical reality, your understanding of what it takes to be cleansed, fulfilled, and blessed will be entangled if you act out a misunderstanding of the nature of what has been called “The Godhead.”

Maybe the best approach to the matter is to consider the relationship between the Father and the Son in the context of the Holy Trinity. Christians believe three things about God.

    1. There is one God
    2. Jesus Christ is God every bit as much as the Father is God an the Holy Spirit is God.
    3. Jesus Christ is not the Father and He is not the Holy Spirit.
Numbers one and two are fairly easy to keep straight, since logic allows for them to fit together. There is one God, and Jesus is God. Ok. The Father is God. OK. Then, logic tells us, Jesus is the Father.

No problem: it must be that sometimes God is the Father and other times God is the Son and other times God is the Holy Spirit. In the early days of Christianity, variations on this belief had widespread influence. The core idea came to be called “modalism”, which argued that God is one (correct) who manifests Himself in different ways, or “modes.” For example, when He created, He was Father. When He came to save, He was Son. When He inspires, He is Holy Spirit.

However, this is dangerously false, for it was the Son who was born of the virgin and who was crucified, not the Father. It was the Son who took on all of human nature, flesh and blood and soul and spirit, not the Holy Spirit. The Son, called the Logos (Word) by St. John, was God. However, He was also “with God.” Yet there is one God. Christ does not change: He is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. He does not become the Father and then the Holy Spirit for different purposes.

So we can’t combine one and two logically and ignore the crucial truth of number three. There is one God. Jesus is fully God. But the Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit, and the Son is not the Father or the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son.

How can this be? I don’t know, so I should draw back and make a couple really important points about God.

First, we cannot know the essence of God. He is so different in kind and so transcendent to us, that we cannot know “what He is.” As the great hymn expressed it, He is “in light inaccessible.” And yet, there are three means by which we can know Him, each of which is employed by the scriptures that reveal Him to us:
    1. We can know God by analogy
    2. We can know God by extension (I’ll explain in just a moment)
    3. We can know God by negation.
God made the cosmos in such a way that things could be known about Him analogously. For example, God is king, judge, physician, shepherd, redeemer, Creator, and perhaps above all, Father. But in none of these cases is His nature identical to what we see of these roles in our world. He is Father, not because of sexual unions (as, for example, Zeus) but because of the qualities He has breathed into Fatherhood: loving care and provision, discipline, etc.

Not only is the cosmos itself like God, and therefore capable of making Him known, but mankind is made in His very image and likeness. It follows that if we rightly understand ourselves, we gain knowledge about God. That is why Calvin begins his Institutes of the Christian Religion by pointing out that there are two kinds of knowledge and that they are interconnected: the knowledge of God and the knowledge of Man.

We can, therefore, know God by analogy with the cosmos, and even more, with our own God-created nature.

In addition, we can know God by extension, which, I admit is a form of analogy. For example, we are aware of power and admit without hesitation that it comes form somewhere. We recognize that there is one who has not only some power, but all power. So we call Him omnipotent. Furthermore, we have knowledge and recognize that it matters. We confess, therefore, that there is one who has all-knowledge and call Him Omniscient. We live in time, but we recognize that He is not limited by time, so we say that He is infinite. Indeed, he is infinite in all things.

Finally, we can know God by negation. Look at yourself and your limits. Remove the limits and you have learned something about God. You are mortal. He is immortal. You are visible (perceptible) precisely because you are limited. He is invisible, because He has no limits. You will not live long. He is the ancient of days.

But we must never forget that even when our knowledge is by extension or negation, it is always analogous. Our knowledge is not like His knowledge. Our power is not like His power. Our kings are not like His kingship. I do not mean, in this case, that they are different because we are fallen. That is true. But something more fundamental is being expressed here. They are different because He is uncreated light, and we are created. We cannot access His essence. We recognize that He dwells “in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.”

We need to remember all this, because when we speak of the relations among the persons of the Trinity we will use language that only draws outlines around what we are talking about. We will use language that is analogous, so it will tell us something, but not as much (or is it as little?) as a scientific description of, say, a horse would tell us about a horse. The language, being ana-logical, will not always end up being “logical.”

He has entrusted to us a sacred revelation about Himself. We cannot know much, but what we can know, we must, and we must know it carefully and reverently.

I said above that there is one God, and that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are that one God, but that the Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit, and so on.

This is where theology becomes dangerous. We are now talking about the essence of God. We cannot do so, but He can reveal to us what He chooses to reveal about Himself for our blessing, joy, and redemption. He has chosen to reveal to us something that exceeds the capacity of our minds: that He is one and three. Our duty is to receive what He has revealed and to think on it and to be transformed by it.

If we accept the paradox, we will never be able to explain it in words, though we may come up with all sorts of analogies that explain one side or another (body, soul, spirit; water as solid, liquid, gas; the triangle; etc.) none of which will be able to explain the inexplicable. However, when we meditate on the deity of Christ, for example, and reverently acknowledge that He is fully and completely God, and that He is not the Father, we open our souls to Him and in our worship we are recreated into His image. We will never understand it, but we will enter into it and will be made new in and by Him who is Truth.

The tension or paradox that Christmas calls us to meditate on is that between Christ as fully God and yet not the Father, who is the one true God. Niether of these truths can be compromised if we are to provide our souls with the healing they need.

Because, dear reader, we are both mentally exhausted, I will pause here and resume later, hopefully tomorrow, on the eve of our Lord’s Advent.

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