A triad of rule, obedience, and revelation–from Leben 2
Many fundamental principles of the Christian faith are not merely hard to understand, they are impossible to understand. They come to us in Scripture as vague mysteries because only as mysteries can such high-dimensioned truths in any way approach the one-dimensionality of our limited capacity to understand.
Well meaning men throughout history, however, anxious to reduce high truth to the single dimension of their own cramped intellects, have sought to codify and define God’s being and methods by smaller definitions than God intends. Believers then take their one-dimensional definitions as truth, rather than as faint reflections of unknowable mysteries. In the end, sight of the high mysteries themselves gradually fades and becomes even more blurred than it was in the first place.
No example, it seems to me, of this truth-shrinking process is more clear than in the case of the trinity. We have come to the point within evangelicalism where even to confess that one is thinking about what the trinity might mean in a greater way is viewed with suspicion. To suggest that there might be more involved than a “three persons in one” cliché reveals something seriously amiss in one’s faith.
Heresy in the details
Several years ago a prominent Christian writer suddenly found herself in hot water by the ever vigilant guardians of truth at her publishing house. A relatively simple statement—“The Bible does not use the word trinity, and our feeling is that the word trinity implies equality in leadership, or shared Lordship. It is clear that the scriptures teach that Jesus is the Son of God…God is clearly the Head.”—caused the company to withdraw her books from print. An active campaign to discredit her was begun by “cultwatch” groups on the internet, saying that she had “denied” the deity of Christ and was teaching “false doctrine.” They called her “dangerous.”
This is not my only acquaintance with such a mentality. I encounter it regularly in working with certain publishing houses where a constant pressure exists to sanitize all spiritual content toward the cliché-doctrine.
A few years ago I began a series of novels with high hopes. After two books, however, the project was halted and those two titles withdrawn from print. There were many contributing factors, but one of most important was that the president of the company, in reading a certain passage in the manuscript, became concerned that my doctrinal orthodoxy on the trinity might be suspect. The words came in a Christmas prayer from one of the characters:
Our loving heavenly Father…we give you thanks…for this season of giving and remembering, and for your great gift most of all. Thank you for this very precious and special day when you sent to earth your Son for the express purpose that man might know you as he had not known you before, know of that most fundamental aspect of your nature…thank you, God our creator, whom we now know to call by that cherished and wonderful name—Father…Let us dare, on this day especially—for Fatherhood is the message of Christmas, as your own Fatherhood is your greatest gift to us—as Jesus told us we should, to approach you in intimacy, and call you, as he did, our Abba…our very own daddy.
Before the book went to print, “Fatherhood is the message of Christmas” was changed to “Fatherhood is a message of Christmas.” And, “Fatherhood is your greatest gift to us,” was edited to read, “Fatherhood is such a great and wondrous gift to us.”
Now the point isn’t that these are such huge changes. Maybe they are changes for the better. I’ll let you decide.
But are we really so afraid that we have to protect God’s dignity from the slightest misstatement. The editorial process with most books I have written is riddled with such doctrinal sanitizations. I have no way of knowing how many hundreds of minor changes like this have been slipped into my printed works. Authors are not generally consulted about these things. Nor in most cases do they have a vote. I happen to remember this particular example because the above words caused such a fuss at the publishers, as if I was denying the trinity altogether.
It is hardly a secret that I enjoy speaking outside the cliché-box. I think it is healthy to do so. I detest formula-speak. Maybe it is outside the formula box to suggest that God’s Fatherhood is his greatest gift to us. But I happen to believe that this is exactly and precisely what Jesus taught about the Godhead—that Fatherhood exists at its core.
Whether that assessment is correct is not so important as this intense fear that infects evangelicalism, such that evangelical leaders feel they must protect the Christian public from being exposed to the idea that God’s Fatherhood might be the originating power and love within the Godhead. In a double standard I do not understand, my peers write “edgy” sexual and ethical themes into their Christian fiction and no one minds. But write of thought-provoking doctrinal themes and the “Orthodoxy Patrol” swoops down like a hawk. Nothing must violate the accepted doctrine. Must we be so afraid of allowing Christians to think for themselves?
The greatest threat, in my view, to bold thinking Christianity comes from this pseudo-intelligentsia of fundamentalism that has taken it upon itself to act as an Orthodoxy Police of truth. This “intelligentsia” has come to occupy most of the key positions of leadership, power, and influence throughout evangelicalism, and its minions most church pastorates. This leadership drills formulas of belief into the Christian masses, anesthetizing them to the need to think with energy and vigor about the principles of faith. And thus the system perpetuates and protects itself year after year, generation after generation.
In truth, we don’t really know what the “trinity” means, nor does our understanding of the workings of the Godhead penetrate very far. For reasons he alone knows, God has not chosen to reveal to us a great deal about the inner Godhead relationship. He has revealed enough, and we certainly have more information than those of Old Testament times. But our information remains sketchy. Nor did Jesus or Paul ever mention the “trinity” as such. We don’t know whether they believed in the sort of three-sided equilateral triangle that the trinity more or less became in later years. Certainly neither Jesus nor Paul urged such a belief upon their listeners.
As I read Jesus’ words about the being he calls “God,” I do not get a three-equal-persons view. Jesus relegates his own role to an utterly subservient one, an idea completely inconsistent with the contemporary elevation of the Son’s status to equality with, if not (practically speaking) superiority to, the Father’s. As for Paul, he more often seems to speak of a sort of dual functioning Godhead—Father and Son—with the Holy Spirit being the spirit of both. A strong case could be made for the view that the “trinity” as commonly taught (three equal divine Beings or “personalities” in one) is actually difficult to find spelled out with clarity in the New Testament.
A brief history—origins
It was not until about a hundred years after the apostolic age that the doctrine of the trinity as we know it began to form within the church. During the fifty years from approximately 175 to 225, many church fathers grap-pled with the nature of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ as implied by Paul’s writings. They wrestled with it but failed to arrive at any more succinct conclusion than Paul did.
This uncertainty was not limited to later generations. The Lord’s own disciples, the first gospel writers, and church leaders in the years immediately following the Lord’s life on earth—men like Paul and Luke, and even the disciples who had known Jesus personally—didn’t quite know what to make of that life. Indeed, the discussion and controversy over the fundamental question of just who Jesus was and what was the nature of his work, prompted extremely diverse opinion in the early church. If they were uncertain, and debated the matter, why do we in our time condemn uncertainty and discussion that lies outside the box of orthodoxy? Those who condemn inquiry, it seems to me, do not understand the fluid and questioning nature of the Church’s doctrinal development.
Mark, the first gospel writer, as well as Matthew and Luke whose gospels came a few years later, all used terms and titles to describe Jesus which tradition leads most Christians to assume indicate Jesus’ divinity. But this may be an inaccurate assumption. The word Messiah and the term Son of Man, two of the most obvious such titles, throughout the Old Testament, and thus to the mind of first century believers, actually designated human roles. The Messiah was to be a human king, and “son of man” was a term that simply meant man.
Biblical textual scholar Elaine Pagels writes: “The Christians who translated these titles into English fifteen centuries later believed they showed Jesus was uniquely related to God, and so they capitalized them—a linguis-tic convention that does not occur in Greek. But Mark’s contemporaries would most likely have seen Jesus as a man—although one gifted, as Mark says, with the power of the holy spirit, and divinely appointed to rule in the coming kingdom of God.” (Beyond Belief, p. 38)
Though most assume that only four accounts of Jesus’ life were written, it may be, following the first three synoptic gospels, that two more gospels were written in the final decade of the first century, both bearing the names of original disciples—Thomas and John, that of the former only recently discovered in full. Their two portrayals of Christ are very different, the gospel of Thomas emphasiz-ing his humanity, the gospel of John emphasizing his div-inity. In a sense, they characterize the nature of the debate in the church at the end of the first century. Mrs. Pagels suggests that one of the motives behind John’s writing was to denounce Thomas’s teaching and assert Jesus’ divinity. Apparently the disputes between the Twelve, which we see in the gospels, continued long after Jesus’ death. This fact may account for John’s inaccuracies of chronology and lengthy discourses. In John’s gospel, then, do we have our first glimpse of Christianity’s Orthodoxy Patrol attempting to squelch spiritual inquiry? And like many such attempts throughout history, the attack against Thomas’s “heresy” (as John viewed Thomas’s very different “gnostic” portrayal of Jesus) was successful. Thomas’s gospel was eventually lost to the world until 1945.
Elaine Pagels continues: “Why had the church decided that these texts were ‘heretical’ and that only the canonical gospels were ‘orthodox’? Who made those decisions, and under what conditions…how [did] certain Christian leaders from the second century through the fourth [come] to reject many other sources of revelation and construct instead the New Testament gospel canon of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John along with the ‘canon of truth’ which became the nucleus of the later creeds that have defined Christianity to this day…
“John’s gospel was written in the heat of controversy, to defend certain views of Jesus and to oppose others…although John’s gospel is written with great simplicity and power, its meaning is by no means obvious. Even its first generation of readers (c. 90 to 130 c.e.) disagreed about whether John was a true gospel or a false one—and whether it should be part of the New Testament. John’s defenders among early Christians revered it as the ‘logos gospel’…Its detractors, by contrast, were quick to point out that John’s narrative differs significantly from those of Matthew, Mark, and Luke…
“John’s gospel differs from Matthew, Mark, and Luke in a second—and far more significant—way, for John suggests that Jesus is not merely God’s human servant but God himself revealed in human form…In one of the earliest commentaries on John (c. 240 c.e.) Origen makes a point of saying that while the other gospels describe Jesus as human, ‘none of them clearly spoke of his divinity, as John does.’..
“Yet…after the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke were joined with John’s gospel and Paul’s letters to become the ‘New Testament’—a process that took… two hundred years (c. 160 to 360 c.e.)— most Christians came to read these earlier gospels through John’s lens, and thus to find in all of them evidence of John’s conviction that Jesus is ‘Lord and God.’ The gospels discovered in 1945 in Upper Egypt, however, offer different perspectives. For if Mat-thew, Mark, and Luke had been joined with the Gospel of Thomas instead of with John, for example, or had both John and Thomas been included in the New Testament canon, Christians probably would have read the first three gospels quite differently. The gospels of Thomas and John speak for different groups of Jesus’ followers engaged in discussion, even argument, toward the end of the first century. What they debated is this: Who is Jesus, and what is the ‘good news’…about him?” (Beyond Belief, pp. 33-8.)
It is true that the authenticity of Thomas’s gospel may be an open question. We may find it not to be from Thomas’s hand at all. That uncertainty, however, does not tell us anything one way or another. Many biblical texts are subject to uncertainties of authorship, as well as to the mystery why they were included in the canon at all. Does anyone really know why Philemon is in the Bible when many so-called “apocryphal” works were rejected? We must remember that the marvelous works of George MacDonald were nearly lost to posterity. Fifteen years ago, not a single volume of his original sermons was in print, twenty-five years ago not a single full length adult novel. But does this invalidate their truth? We mustn’t forget the lesson of Ezra and Nehemiah. The entire Law of Moses was lost, passing out of sight for generations, only to be rediscovered anew when God’s people returned to Jerusalem. The temporary obscuring of ancient texts does not necessarily invalidate them.
Therefore, I have always been intrigued by the question whether certain manuscripts, now lost, should have been included in the Bible and may in fact have contained more truth than others that were included for various political reasons on the parts of those making such determinations at the time. Do Philemon or the thirteen verses of 2 and 3 John really contain more insight into the nature and character of God and his work than the sermons of George MacDonald? For all these reasons, until the question of authenticity should be determined more categorically by those more knowledgeable than myself, I find the issues raised by the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas intriguing.
A brief history continued
The point in looking at the historical origins of the debate over Jesus’ identity is not to resolve that debate, or to “take sides” in the John-Thomas gospel controversy, but simply to recognize that there was a debate. That fact is hugely significant. The discussion of Jesus’ nature was not in itself a sin. Why have we then made it a “sin” to ask the same questions those in the early church were asking?
When the Apostles’ Creed arose, it was not trinitarian in emphasis. “God” was specified as the Father Almighty, creator. “Jesus Christ” was specified as His only Son, our Lord. But “the Holy Spirit” was included with other matters of belief along with the Church, the Communion of Saints, etc., while not being raised to the level of divinity.
The word triad was first used by Theophilus about 180 a.d. He wrote, “The three days which were before the luminaries are types of the Triad of God, His Word, and His Wisdom.”
Athenagoras, Iranaeus, and Clement of Alexandria also wrote in similar veins. But it was Tertullian (c. 160-225) of Carthage whose extensive writings on the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at last led to the codification of a triune Godhead into accepted doctrine.
“For the very church itself is,” he wrote in 212 a.d., “—properly and principally—the Spirit Himself, in whom is the Trinity of the One Divinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
Tertullian’s extensive writings did not put the matter to rest or settle all doctrinal disputes about what his new term “Trinity” meant. The Church continued trying to rigidly define the relationship. Perhaps in this very effort we may observe the beginnings of error. If Jesus himself did not make these matters completely clear, does God want us to create rigid and defining doctrines of belief? Will not those definitions always be subject to error?
In any event, a series of councils and debates were held through the years at which the matter was discussed. Early in the fourth century a fierce controversy was raging in Alexandria. Now it was not two of the original twelve disciples promoting differing perspectives, but a church leader and the Emperor himself. At the center of the debate stood a presbyter of the church of Alexandria by the name of Arius, who suggested that the Son, though also creator of the rest of creation, was himself created and therefore could not be originally divine to the same extent as was the Father. Arius believed that the Father alone was truly God, and that the Son was in essence different from the Father in that he did not exist before he was begotten by the Father.
Roman Emperor Constantine called the first general council of the whole church at Nicaea in 325 to settle the dispute prompted by the Arian controversy. Constantine himself suggested the Greek term homoousios (“of one essence”) as a definition to clarify the Son’s relationship with the Father. A statement of orthodoxy was produced which, after later revisions, became the Nicene Creed. Arius refused to accept the council’s definition and was subsequently excommunicated as a heretic. Thus, a higher truth than any doctrine (unity in the body of Christ) was set aside for the sake of the lower—a fact which in itself may render the conclusions of those defenders of the faith suspect. Whenever lower truth supplants higher truth, error cannot be far away.
The controversy over the relationship between Father and Son, however, continued to rage even after both Arius’s and Constantine’s deaths, leading ultimately to the Council of Constantinople in 381. At that time a further revision of the Nicene Creed was adopted, producing the definitive statement which would form the basis for the orthodox view ever after:
We believe in one God the Father All sovereign, maker of heaven and earth…
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, Begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made……
And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Life-giver, that proceeds from the Father, who with Father and Son is worshipped together and glorified together….
In the decades following Constantinople, in his major theological work entitled On the Trinity, Augustine (354-430) at last took trinitarian studies to their completion.
And thus has come down to us one of the highest of all doctrines that must be adhered to in order to be considered an “orthodox” Christian.
Eternal mystery or rigid doctrine?
Perhaps the question that might now be raised is this: How important is the trinity in defining and living out true faith in Christ? Is it of such paramount significance, as it was to those church leaders of the fourth century, that failure to comply with a certain statement of belief constitutes heresy and is means for excommunication? Or is further scriptural inquiry allowed?
One major contemporary book on Christian theology concludes its treatise on the trinity with these words:
Try to explain it, and you’ll lose your mind; But try to deny it, and you’ll lose your soul.
Where do ideas like that come from? Nowhere in the New Testament is a doctrinally correct belief in the trinity made a condition of salvation. And yet that is just what many Christians believe today, ignoring the fact that some of the best minds throughout history have wrestled with this mystery and come to varying conclusions.
To reemphasize because it is such an important point—neither Paul nor Jesus defined it so rigidly. Indeed, Paul described the relationship between Jesus and his Father in many interesting ways that cannot always be stuffed into the contemporary jargon-box.
Consider the book of Colossians. Paul says that Jesus was the “firstborn over creation,” that he is “the image of God.” To my ears, this sounds very much like what Arius proposed. And consider Philippians 2:6, in which Paul states that Jesus did not “count equality with God something to be grasped.” Did Paul mean that Jesus was equal with God, but did not grasp at it, or that he was not equal with God? If ever Paul set up an opportunity to clarify exactly that Jesus Christ was God himself, it was in these mysterious passages of Col. 1: 15-20; 2: 9-12 and Phil. 2: 5-11. But he stops short of such a declaration, calling him “the image” of God. What does Paul mean by “in Christ all the fullness of God lives in bodily form”? He clearly speaks as if a distinction exists between “God” and “Christ,” going on to add that “God” exalted him to the highest places and gave him the name that is above every name. Those sound very much like after-the-fact, cause-and-effect results of Christ’s obedience. What does in the form of God (Phil. 2:6) imply?
Mysteries upon mysteries!
I realize of course that God cannot be bound in time, nor held to human conventions of what we mean by cause and effect. I simply raise these points to illustrate the scriptural difficulties we are up against.
I’m not sure that Paul, if he were alive today, would be altogether doctrinally orthodox on the trinity either—or on any number of other things! One simply cannot find doctrinal rigidity about the trinity in the writings of Paul. I’m not sure he would get along very well with evangelicalism’s Orthodoxy Patrol.
If our present doctrinal inflexibility did not originate in the gospels, on what basis do we make such a fuss when honest thinking people explore spiritual themes in creatively prayerful ways exactly as Paul did?
It might be asked further whether the terms Father and Son when applied to the Godhead imply that the Holy Spirit is feminine in nature, and functions as our divine “mother.” There are those who believe that the relationship between “Father” and “Son” could not exist unless the corresponding role of motherhood also enters into the eternal equation. Why else, they say, would God take such pains to use familial terms unless a creative, even procreative, three-way unity were implied?
Do you find this an intriguing idea…or a new heresy? I have only been acquainted with this notion for five years. I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. I’m not altogether comfortable with it. But neither can I escape its common sense.
Revelation is ongoing
Thought, prayer, and revelation of truth is ongoing, not static. God may have revealed truth on certain levels to our forefathers about many things. But revelation does not stop. Paul himself did not possess full truth about every-thing, but helped orient the new Church in the right direction so that it would have a framework upon which to build further revelations of God and his purposes. Neither did those who followed Paul and wrote in the 100s and 200s and 300s possess full truth. Nor did those in the centuries to follow who codified their ideas into the doctrines and creeds upon which the Catholic Church was built.
Revelation is ongoing. We should not fear that process. Yet many are afraid. The Church through the years has made an idol of orthodoxy itself, worshipping orthodox correctness almost more than it worships the God that orthodoxy is supposed to reveal.
What I find most intriguing is that many of our most revered orthodoxies originated during periods of history when knowledgeable scholars would agree that the Church was not particularly reflective of the character of its Founder. The Church of the fourth century was not one whose leadership was altogether motivated by the selfless prayer of Christlikeness. It was a period of political dispute between the churches of the East and West, a time when the future of the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church were hotly debated and contested. Political significance carried far more weight toward correct doctrine than did the requirements of lifestyle and obedience.
I merely ask: Is that a wise foundation for the discovery of truth?
Do we really want to base our outlook about God’s revelation of himself on the conclusions of men in the fourth century for whom a governmentally enforced and regulated religion was the paramount objective? Do we want to codify the orthodoxy by which we interpret truth according to the conclusions of Roman Emperors, bis-hops, cardinals, and popes who lived 1,500 years ago, whose motives in many cases were more political and self-serving than spiritual?
More present day doctrinal correctness comes from Constantine, Augustine, and the highly politicized Catholic hier-archy of their era than many realize. Is that a reliable foundation upon which to base our beliefs? I do not suggest throwing out their ideas, for surely God has revealed truth to men of all generations. I only ask if we are wise to base the largest portion of what we believe about God on the conclusions of a handful of men who were active in Catholic Church and Roman Empire politics in the fourth century a.d.
The Reformation added fresh new thought in some directions, but not really changing the underlying orthodoxy all that much. The Reformation changed church structure more than it changed orthodoxy itself. And about the Reformation, I think we must ask the same question: Do we really want to codify the orthodoxy by which we interpret truth according to the ideas of men like John Calvin and John Knox, men who were perfectly happy to see those who disagreed with them thrown into prison, beheaded, or burned at the stake?
Now I am not one who maintains that our own era always produces more truth and necessarily better truth than all previous eras. We are subject to the same limitations of vision as are the men and women of all times. That being said, however, I recognize the corresponding principle that the revelation of truth is continually expanding and deepening. Thus, by the very nature of revelation, there will be many aspects of spirituality that the sensibilities of our time will be more capable of grasping than were those of the men and women of previous generations. It is for this reason that I cannot personally pedastalize every pillar of our orthodoxy—such men as Constantine, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Knox— notwithstanding the courage they displayed to take stands that were new for their times. Because I know that in certain other respects they were self-motivated, ambitious, and politically driven men. We can respect them as brothers for what they accomplished. But to worship the orthodoxies that grew, in many cases, out of the political small-mindedness of certain contentious times in the history of the Church strikes me as giving the ideas of such fallible brothers far too much credit. If I am going to revere another man’s ideas and his perspectives of God, I want first of all to know if that man knew God intimately, and walked with him in moment-by-moment obedience. Only then do his ideas rise to significance in light of eternity, and take on the higher validity of perhaps having been revealed to him by the God with whom he walked in close and daily friendship.
For this reason (among a host of others), I place a higher credibility, for instance, on the words of one of whom C.S. Lewis said, “I know of hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself,” than I do a man, say, such as John Knox, about whom, to my knowledge, that particular claim is rarely made. Christlikeness of character just may be a greater validation of revelationary truth than the Church of Jesus Christ—in its relentless pursuit of doctrinal correctness above obedience—has any idea.
With revelation ongoing, therefore, and with all the ambiguity associated with the nature of the Godhead, I do not understand why the Orthodoxy Patrol is so afraid of those in our own time who—following Paul’s example—would think boldly about the relationship between the Father and the Son. What are they afraid of, that perhaps more light might be shed on the matter?
What if, for example, after the sketchy and incomplete revelation of God’s Fatherhood presented in the Old Testament, and following the new covenant revelation of Sonship given the world when Jesus came, and following Paul’s preliminary though incomplete and sketchy first attempts to grapple with how these two emerging revelations intermingled…what if God desires further prayerful and scriptural inquiry and investigation into his character as revealed in both Fatherhood and Sonship?
What if there are additional depths of God’s nature to be explored than the creeds and doctrinally correct phrases that have come down to us probe with sufficient vigor? What if these new and additional revelations God wants to give are necessary to the expanding, growing, and deepening revelation God desires in order to ready his Church for Christ’s coming?
Do we honestly think that revelation about every doctrine stopped at some moment in history? In the case of the trinity, that would probably be in the year 381, and with the publication of Augustine’s On the Trinity. In the case of other doctrines, we might identify other dates at which certain ideas were codified into a correctness from which the Church has not deviated since.
To this mentality of revelational stagnation I say, Not for me, thank you very much!
The revelation God gave to Paul was not intended to be static but to example to us how to approach the inquiry after truth—with common sense, prayer, intelligence, scriptural integrity, wisdom, selflessness, and daily practicality. We have the priceless opportunity—which I believe God not only endorses but has set before us to step boldly into—to continue that process of prayerful revelationary inquiry into realms into which even Paul himself did not see.
Instead, the Orthodoxy Patrol of every era has taken it upon itself to stop that flow of inquiry and revelation, declaring that all truth is to be rigidly formulated into the doctrines of its approval. One of the overriding motivations of the Orthodoxy Patrol controlling the Council of Constantinople in 381 was to defeat Arianism once and for all. Though we revere the creed concerning the trinity that came out of it, we have to realize that the motives of those men were no different than those who took my series and the books of the other author I mentioned out of print—to discourage free and honest thought. And if the squelching of ideas is the paramount motivation, how trustworthy will be the revelation?
Let us listen to the words of one who did not limit himself to the revelation of the past, but who always sought more and deeper truth. He wrote:
“I believe, then, that Jesus Christ is the eternal son of the eternal father. I believe that from the first beginnings of all things Jesus is the son, because God is the father. This statement is imperfect and unfit because it is an attempt of human thought to represent that which it cannot grasp, yet which it believes so strongly that it must try to utter it even in speech that cannot be right.
“I believe therefore that the Father is the greater, and that if the Father had not been, the Son could not have been…
“I worship the Son as the human God, the divine, the only perfect Man. He derives his being and power from the Father, and is equal with him as a son is both the equal and at the same time the subject of his father. Yet he makes himself the equal of his father only in what is most precious in the Godhead, namely Love…It is a higher thing than the making of the worlds and the things in them, which making he did by the power of the Father not by a self-existent power in himself. For this reason, the apostle, to whom the Lord must have said things he did not say to the rest, or who was better able to receive what he said to them all—says, ‘All things were made’ not by, but ‘through him.’” (George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, First Series, “The Creation In Christ.”)
Trusting God above doctrine
The endless jot-and-title debate between Christians over a hundred points of doctrine, it seems to me, has done more to impede the coming of the kingdom of God with power than all the unbelief in the history of the world. Argument and debate is not my aim, only prayerful thought and search for truth. These are high matters to be discussed with our Father in heaven, to the center of whose heart all controversies and unanswerables must lead in the end.
The Godhead must mean more than three persons sitting together as many Christians envision it—a stern old man with long beard, an earthly Jesus of 30-35 years, and a white glowing radiance without human body—each dispensing their distinct portions of truth to humanity: The Father scowling at man’s sinfulness, determined to protect his holiness with judgment and justice, insisting that all sin unrepented of at death deserves to be eternally punished; the Son saying quietly, “Don’t worry, I’ll talk to him for you. I’ll take the punishment in your place if you believe certain things about me. Then he’ll let you into heaven even if you don’t deserve it;” and the Spirit filling people with joy and causing them to dance and speak in tongues.
I believe that Jesus was the human expression of our Father-God. He called himself God’s Son not to elevate himself to the level of the Father but to clarify how much greater the Father was than himself. The character of Fatherhood is preeminent within the divine nature because Jesus told us so. God became a man (in Jesus) to tell us that we were created by a good, loving, forgiving, compassionate, embracing Abba-Father who is his God and our God.
If the incarnation means anything, it surely means this!
Therefore, following both Jesus’ words and his example, we are not to worship the trinity…we are to worship God, who is our Father. In that worship and intrinsic to it and thus validating it, we are to obey the commands and instructions of Jesus, who is an obedient Son. Jesus never laid claim to our worship, though he is certainly worthy of our honor and veneration. He laid claim only to our obedience, to the following of his example.
Perhaps that means he is worthy of our worship as well. I do not know. These are great mysteries into which I see only as through a glass darkly. I only say that Jesus himself did not insist upon or even suggest that we worship him as God. It simply isn’t in the gospels unless one reads into his words flawed orthodoxies of a later time.
A trinity of rule, obedience, and revelation
From the beginning of time, God’s single purpose in his creation has been to reveal himself. For men to know him as he is, to grasp his being and character and purpose, would mean to obey him and be one with him. To truly know God would be an end to strife, self-will, and all disharmony in the world. All God’s actions and commands, throughout both Old and New Testaments, are toward this single end—that men know him as he truly is. Jesus came to further this process of revelation.
Anxious, however, to legalize high truth into limited precepts, pharisees in all times and from every branch and denomination and sect within Christendom have reduced this revelation rather than sought to explore the full reaches of its extent. And thus, within a few short generations of his death, his followers were attempting to define and codify exactly who Jesus was rather than to do what he told them. It is out of this misplaced priority that the doctrine of the trinity, however true elements of it may be, originated.
If his disciples in all ages had simply set themselves to practice and live the principles embodied in Matthew 5-7 and John 13-17, I’m not sure we would be discussing “the trinity” at all. I’m not sure the term and its accompanying doctrine would ever have been invented as a pillar of Christ’s Church.
About this I am sure. One does not read in the gospels Jesus teaching man that he himself should be considered a member of the Godhead of equal stature with the Father. Jesus continually taught against what might be called an “equity” in his relationship with the Father. Any serious lover of the Bible, then, must to some degree or another find himself constrained by a perspective of the Godhead that reduces God’s being to a committee of three equal members, Any careful reading of the gospel indicates that God’s being and nature are far higher and more eternal, and of perhaps even more than three dimensions, than human understanding can apprehend.
These multiple expressions of God’s being are no more equal than they are separate. His love and his wrath are both true expressions of God’s being and work. But they are not equal. His love is always higher than his wrath and is more intrinsic to his being. It is his essential nature, whereas wrath reveals only one aspect of it. Wrath subserves love, not the other way around. His mercy and justice both reveal aspects of his nature. But mercy is higher than justice, and he who would worship God’s justice alone (as do those who take delight in majoring, so to speak, on the doom of the unsaved in hell) will invariably worship a false god.
In like manner, Fatherhood and Sonship both represent the divine heart, the divine nature. Both are expressions of who God is. They are not, however, equal expressions, as Scripture plainly tells us…as Jesus himself plainly tells us. The Fatherness of God is greater than the Sonness of God. The Father is greater than I. Sonness subserves Fatherhood. God’s Fatherness is his originating, self-willing, self-creating life. His Fatherness creates and loves, and creates that he might love the more. His Sonness responds to that love, responds by returning that love in joyful obedience.
The two are one because the outflowing love of Fatherness and the responsive love of Sonness beat as a single heart-pulse of harmonious purpose. Though not equal, they are one.
The Holy Spirit, likewise, is no separate entity, no third distinct “person.” The Holy Spirit is just the living, breathing, spirit of this divine heart-pulse of life and love that exists in the interactive energy between the Fatherness and Sonness of God’s being. The Holy Spirit is God’s personality, his voice, his soul, the spirit that reflects both and all other aspects of his nature. The Holy Spirit is simply God’s spirit itself, emanating from within the heart of man to the heart of man messages of the divine Fatherness and Sonness.
These thoughts take me straight back to the Nicene Creed. In this case, those men at Constantinople, political motives and all, may have gotten it right.
One God the Father…
That clearly establishes the Father’s preeminence and dismisses the idea of a committee of three equal members. When we speak of “God,” according to the Nicene Creed, we first of all mean the Father.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ…
Then, when we speak of the Lord, we are speaking of the Son, a reflection of the Father, of the same nature as the Father, but not the same as the Father—the Lord to whom we owe unconditional obedience because he gave unconditional obedience to the Father—though what follows remains full of mystery…”Begotten of the Father…true God of true God.”
And in the Holy Spirit…that proceeds from the Father…
This seems to me to draw the distinction as clearly, though with mystery, as we could have it:
The Father is supreme, all sovereign, the creator, whose role in the Godhead is rule.
Jesus Christ is the Lord, the image of the Father in the flesh, not the same as the Father but rather his Son, whose role in the Godhead is not rule but obedience.
The Spirit, who, again, is not equal to, but proceeds from the Father, and whose role is revelation.
Thus we end where we began, with the conclusion that it is a glorious mystery. I pray that our thoughts will be stimulated to fresh prayer, and toward wonder and thank-fullness for the greatness of his being that is God himself.
Jesus made himself what he is by deathing himself into the will of the eternal Father—thus plunging into the fountain of his own life, the everlasting Fatherhood, and taking the Godhead of the Son. (George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, First Series, “The Creation in Christ.”)