Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Walking . . . a Way of Living

Paul mentions running the race at least once in his writings, but over and over again the picture that emerges from God's Word is walking. 

Lord, walking is an incredible gift that You have given to me.

I walk before breakfast after spending time in Your Word--memorizing it & poring over dictionaries to see what it means.

I walk up hills to keep my legs & lungs & heart strong.  I walk down hills so I can return home for tea & school work.

I walk downtown whenever I run out of Ontario breakfast tea.



And often, at the end of the day, I walk to the garden & meet friends.

But sometimes I think the 'walking' that influences me the most is simply pondering Your Word & Your truth.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Being God

It is said that a rose would be a rose by any other name.  It would still be silky to the touch and fragrant to the nose.  But would a thistle become a rose simply by calling it that?

Today we have teachers telling us that Jesus is God even while they claim He is always obedient to God the Father.  Jesus is the follower.  The Father is the leader.  But somehow this definition seems to be designed so that we can call Him God without actually letting Him be God.

The Trinity: From the Ancients to Us

The Trinity is the bedrock of our beliefs as Christians.  If we do not know who God is how can we know anything about how we are to live in relation to this God?  There have been a number of disagreements throughout history about how we are to understand God.  In this paper we will look at three different time periods.  First we will see that during the ancient church the Arian controversy forced the theologians of the day to truly grapple with the question who is this God that we know as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Then we will look at some of the confessions of the Reformation[1] to see if the believers of that time found it necessary to redefine the Trinity in any way.  Finally, we will end by looking at a redefinition that is being attempted by a few evangelical theologians today to see how well it fits into the historical understanding of God.[2]

                “The problem of the relationship between God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ became an acute problem in the church soon after the cessation of persecution.”[3] During the early days of Christianity, the persecution kept the focus away from theological disputes since survival was the highest priority.  Once time was available for theological thought and dispute, it was only natural that the question of this one God with three different names and focuses would arise.  In trying to understand God, the early church worked diligently to express two seemingly contradictory truths.  From Judaism we inherited through the Old Testament the truth that there is only one God.  From Jesus and the New Testament we learned of three individuals who are represented as being equal to God.  There is one God and yet there is a Father, a Son and a Holy Spirit.  How do we even begin to understand this?

                In the Apostles’ Creed (the earliest of the three universal creeds accepted by the church[4]) this truth is alluded to in passing as we say “I believe in” for each member of the Trinity individually[5], but it is not hammered out in a definitive way as the Arian controversy was to show.[6]  Much of the controversy focused on the Father and the Son in order to sort out their relationship to each other.  Scripture shows them both as equals and yet also as a Father with a subordinate Son.  Origen, one of the ancient church fathers presented the Father and the Logos as being of the same substance by using the word begotten for the existence of Jesus rather than created.  However, Origen still saw a subordination in Jesus when placed beside His Father.[7]  Were the Father and the Son one or two?  The question would be answered by two opposing perspectives debating the different possibilities.  Alexander, bishop of Alexandria and later Athanasius argued for unity between Jesus and the Father.  Arius and those who agreed with him argued for a greater distinction between the Father and the Son.   “Origen’s theology could be developed either in the direction of emphasizing the unity of the nature (this Alexander did) or of emphasizing the subordination to the extent of saying different natures (this Arius, with a penchant for pushing things to their logical conclusions, did).  Since the exact relation of the Logos to the Supreme God was still not clearly agreed upon, further formulation was needed.”[8]

                “Constantine tried to settle the dispute by letters to the bishop of Alexandria and Arius, but the dispute had gone beyond the power even of a letter from the emperor.  Constantine then called a council of the bishops of the church to work out a solution to the dispute.  This council met at Nicaea in the early summer of 325.”[9] The result of this council was the first Nicene creed which was then followed by 56 more years of wrangling and a final Nicene creed in 381.  This creed is the second creed accepted by the universal church.[10] This creed clearly shows Jesus as God equal with the Father and as subordinate Son only for a limited time while involved in His earthly ministry.[11]

                The Nicene creed emphasizes both God’s unity and tri-personhood.  “The doctrine of the unity of God is held in contradistinction to Polytheism, which is belief in a multiplicity of gods; to Tritheism, which teaches that there are three Gods—that is, that the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are, specifically, three distinct Gods; and to Dualism, which teaches that there are two independent divine beings or eternal principles, the one good, and the other evil, as set forth in Gnostic systems, such as Parseeism.”[12]  So we believe in the unity of God—there is only one God.  But God is not only unity, He is also Trinity—three persons in one God.  “We Christians uniquely believe in one tri-personal God: Father, Son and Spirit.  It is this doctrine that explains how Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit can be ‘coequal’ God with the Father.  Christ is God in revelation.  Our saving knowledge of God is given solely through Jesus Christ.  We worship Jesus Christ because we believe He is God.  The Holy Spirit, we believe, likewise is God.  When the Holy Spirit comes into our life as we become Christians, God comes into our life.  If we think and believe anything less about Jesus Christ or the Spirit, we think less of God.  If Jesus or the Spirit are in any way less than God, then we are mistaken in worshiping Jesus Christ as God in the power and presence of the Spirit of God.”[13]

                To see the Trinity spelled out even more clearly than the Nicene creed manages to do it, we can look at the third creed that the ancient church accepted universally—the Athanasian creed.[14]  In the Athanasian creed the relationships in the Godhead are spelled out very clearly and there is no room to suggest that one person is subjugated under another.  As statements of faith, the creeds are amazing in pulling together what we believe into a simple memory tool.  Athanasian’s is not as short and simple as the others and it finds at least one topic that Protestants might challenge (the permanently Virgin Mary), but the thorough description of God as Trinity is wonderful.

                That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;

                Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.

                For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.

                But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the                 majesty coeternal.

                Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit.”[15]

And this is but a snippet of how the Athanasian creed describes the Trinity in their coequality.  But now we move forward through time to take a look at four confessions of faith from the Reformation.

                We will look at these four confessions of the Reformation to see how they see the Trinity.  Do they simply accept what the ancient church Fathers had worked out or do they find a need for a different definition?  The earliest of the four is the Schleitheim Confession of 1527[16] that was written by the Swiss Anabaptist Michael Sattler.[17] This confession simply puts forward in what ways the Anabaptists differ from the other Christians of the time and so it does not give a definition of God since they assume everyone already knows Who God is.  Therefore it could be argued that they agree with the Nicene creed, but they do not actually say what they believe about God.

                The second confession we will look at is the Augsburg Confession of 1530 that was largely written by Philip Melanchthon and reviewed by Martin Luther.  It has become the major Lutheran Confession.[18]  This confession accepts the definition of God found in the Nicene creed.  “1] Our churches, with common consent, do teach that the decree of the Council of Nicaea concerning the unity of the Divine Essence and concerning the Three Persons, is true and to be believed without doubting; 2] that is to say, there is one Divine Essence which is called and which is God;  . . . and 3] yet there are three Persons, of the same essence and power, who also are coeternal, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”[19]  They believed in one God who through three persons was one essence, one power and coeternal who were not only called God, but are God so that none of the persons of the Godhead are God in name only but God actually.

                The third confession we will look at is the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566 that was written by Heinrich Bullinger from a Swiss Reformed perspective.  It is a “[m]oderate statement of Reformed doctrine emphasizing continuity with ancient church teaching” and was Bullinger’s private confession.[20]  In this confession, Bullinger not only spells out a description of God similar to the Nicene creed, but he also includes a very interesting section that spells out what is a Trinitarian heresy.  He says in this document “We also condemn all heresies and heretics who teach that the Son and Holy Spirit are God in name only, and also that there is something created and subservient, or subordinate to another in the Trinity, and that there is something unequal in it, a greater or a less . . . “[21]  Jesus and the Holy Spirit are not God in name only and are not subservient or subordinate to another in the Trinity and so again we have a coequal Trinity—three equal persons making up one God.

                The fourth and final confession we will look at is the Westminster confession of 1647 which was written by delegates for the English Presbyterian church.[22]  This confession also takes its definition of God from the Nicene creed since it specifies that God in all three of His persons is only one substance, one power and one eternity.[23]  Again we have a classic description of the Trinity that states that all three persons are equal in substance, power and eternity—in another word “coequal”.

                “The Bible and the interpretive tradition summed up in the creeds and Reformation confessions speak of a coequal Trinity where there is no hierarchical ordering.”[24]  That is the only real summary one can find looking at these creeds and confessions—there is one coequal Trinity where there is no hierarchical ordering because they are all fully equal and living in fellowship with one another.  But what about today, is our understanding of the Trinity still something that needs to be discussed?    Perhaps it is surprising, but the Trinity is not simply “old hat” and unimportant because what we believe about God affects what else we believe.   But why is our understanding of the Trinity so vital for today?  Today there are two main pictures (definitions) being presented to the church and each one is used as a picture of how people are to interact with each other.  So if we have a true understanding of the Trinity, there is an excellent possibility that we also have a good understanding of how people are to interact with each other and both pictures (definitions) have people treating each other quite differently. 

                Many theologians today still agree with this assessment of the Trinity that subordination cannot be eternal for any person in the Trinity because God is one in authority, power, eternity and equality.[25]  “In light of this contemporary stress on the coequality of the divine persons who are to be understood to be bound together in the most intimate bond of love and self-giving, it is no surprise that some of the best contemporary expositions of the doctrine of the Trinity see the Trinity as a charter for human liberation and emancipation.  If no one divine person is before or after, greater or lesser because they are “coequal” (as the Athanasian creed says), this suggests, we are told, that all hierarchical ordering in this world is a human construct reflecting fallen existence, not God’s ideal.  God would like to see every human being valued in the same way.  It is the Christian’s duty to oppose human philosophies and structures that oppress people, limiting their full potential as human beings made in the image and likeness of God.”[26]  When we read through the Gospels we see Jesus raising women to a status not known previously (Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet to study about God; the woman at the well participating in a theological discussion with Jesus in Samaria; the women at the empty tomb being sent to tell what they had witnessed because they were trusted to do so faithfully) and what we find in the Trinity is the reason for such freedom and equality—it is a part of the very nature of God that everyone is equal and therefore to be developed to their full potential.

                But there is also another picture of the Trinity.  This picture has come to the forefront in the last few decades at the same time that the Trinity living in equal community and fellowship has been flourishing.  This picture does not encourage all people to work together as coequals living in community and sharing the load together.  This picture returns to the hierarchies of the past and tells us that hierarchies are the way God the Father intends us all to live.  How is this possible?  “Paradoxically, in this same thirty-year period [closer to forty now] many conservative evangelicals concerned to maintain the permanent subordination of women have been developing a doctrine of a hierarchically ordered Trinity in which the Father rules over the Son just like men are to rule over women in the church and the home.  We are told that the Father is eternally “head over” the Son just as men are permanently “head over” women in the church and the home.  On this model of the Trinity, the doctrine of the Trinity indicates that God has appointed some to rule and some to obey, and this is the ideal.  It is not unfair to say that rather than being a charter for emancipation and human liberation, this doctrine of the Trinity suggests that social change and female liberation should be opposed.”[27]  With this picture we are told that patriarchy is God’s intended will for human interaction.

               We are today hearing two very different definitions for the Trinity.  In one definition each person—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—is a full and equal part of the Trinity since God is quite simply only one God.  However, there is also another definition in which it is proposed that Jesus is subordinate to His Father because He is under the authority of His Father for all eternity while at the same time He (Jesus) remains fully God.  This definition gives us God in hierarchy permanently with no possibility of ever moving or changing such an arrangement.

                Coming full circle—the Trinity is the bedrock of our Christian beliefs.  Who is this God?  From the ancients we see that He is Trinity, that He is three in one because God is one substance while also being three persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  So there is only one God even while we see three separate persons.  Since God is one substance, God is one God with one will, one power, one authority, and one eternity.  In essence God is a Trinity of coequals.  Authority and obedience cannot be used to separate them because as the Augsburg confession and the Second Helvetic  confession show, it is a heresy to call Jesus “God” in name only and if He is eternally subordinate and eternally obeying God the Father, He has been relegated to being “God” in name only.  If Jesus is denied the full power and authority of God, He is essentially denied being a part of the Godhead because Jesus cannot simply be called God, He must also be God with the full authority of God. 

                Therefore, we must continue to abide by the picture that the ancients and the reformers drew for us of the one God made up of three persons (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) living in loving and self-giving community as coequals for all eternity.  Amen.

[1]Robert C. Walton, Zondervan Charts: Chronological and Background Charts of Church History (revised and expanded edition). Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2005, Chart 67: Protestant Creeds of the Reformation
[2] Kevin Giles, Jesus and the Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2006
[3] Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church, 3rd Edition, Revised and Expanded, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1996, p126
[4] Cairns, p129
[5] http://.www.creeds.net/ancient/apostles.htm (29/06/2013) or The Book of Common Prayer 1959 Canada (The Anglican Church of Canada), University Press, Cambridge, Great Britain, p10
[6] Walton, Chart 25: Ancient Church Trinitarian Heresies
[7] Everett Ferguson, Church History: From Christ to Pre-Reformation (Vol. 1), Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2005, pp192-193
[8] Ferguson, p193
[9] Cairns, p126
[10] Cairns, p129
[11] http://www.creeds.net/ancient/nicene.htm (29/06/2013) or The Book of Common Prayer 1959 Canada, p71
[12] William Evans and S. Maxwell Coder, The Great Doctrines of the Bible, Moody Press, Chicago, 1974, p25
[13] Giles, p12
[14] http://www.ccel.org/creeds/athanasian.creed.html (29/06/2013) or The Book of Common Prayer 1959 Canada, p695
[15] http://www.ccel.org/creeds/athanasian.creed.html or The Book of Common Prayer 1959 Canada, p695
[16]Schleitheim Confession.  “Schleitheim Confession (Anabaptist, 1527).”  Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online.  1527.  Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online.  Retrieved 15 Jan 2006 
[17] Walton, Chart 67
[18] Walton, Chart 67
[20] Walton, Chart 67
[22] Walton, Chart 67
[24] Giles, p19
[25] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, Second Edition, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2009, pp362-364
[26] Giles, pp18-19
[27] Giles, p19