Sunday Meditations: The Trinity

If you keep up with this project at all, you’ll have noticed that updates have been pretty sporadic the past couple of weeks.  This hasn’t been an intentional decision so much as a side effect.  Work has been really stressful, demanding, and frustrating above and beyond the usual thorns and thistles.  I wake up in the morning feeling like I do after a hard day at work, and then I go to work.  So, it’s left me pretty dry and raw and tired and probably unpleasant to generally be around.  It also has meant I haven’t spent much time on things that are important to me personally and keep me going (and help keep my joy up – thanks Jim for today’s sermon).  I have spent a lot of time whining and feeling sorry for myself, but it turns out it’s not the same as spending time doing healthy things.  So, time to try to re-engage with the stuff that keeps me up and running.

In a couple of different venues, I’ve had some conversations about the doctrine of the Trinity with a few different people for various reasons.  In our modern Christianity, there are really few doctrines that seem as unshakable.  So many things about Christian theology today take it as a given, including all our later creeds.

Because some of what follows might be seen as controversial, I should probably say at the outset that I am a Trinitarian and don’t particularly feel a need to shake that up.  As Conal and Donal will illustrate, though, it’s almost impossible to talk about your thoughts on the Trinity without accidentally committing a heresy of some kind.

My current thoughts regarding specifically the divinity of Jesus (nobody seems to get up in arms about the divinity of the Holy Spirit) include the following:

  1. The vast majority of Scriptures that people use to “prove” the divinity of Jesus tend to prove no such thing.  The actual Scriptural evidence for a divine Jesus and/or a Trinity is way, way slimmer than people tend to think.
  2. The divinity of Jesus is almost (or maybe even entirely) irrelevant to the narrative of Scripture.  It is an article of faith, but it has very little to no impact on the message of the New Testament or the Bible as a whole.

As to the first point, there are only a few places we can go to that make strong equivalencies between Jesus and God, and they all come from John.  One place would be John 1 where God has a “logos” and is a “logos,” and this “logos” takes on flesh who is Jesus.  The other place or two would be the book of Revelation where strong equivalences of names and positions imply that Jesus and God are the same being.

Everywhere else people appeal to usually falls into one of the following categories:

  1. Something that many Spirit-filled human beings used by God share in common, such as miracles, resurrection, or union with God.
  2. Jesus carrying out a function traditionally reserved for God, although the most this proves is that Jesus has been given the authority and power to do these things on God’s behalf.
  3. Titles that actually have nothing to do with being God at all, like Son of God, Son of Man, or Christ.

Obviously, there are more than those kinds of things people appeal to, but the thing that tends to be a huge feature of the proof-texts people use for the divinity of Jesus is that they only establish the divinity of Jesus if you’ve already decided Jesus is God.  If you assume that Jesus is God, then those verses make sense in that rubric and support you.  But we could say that about a lot of theological positions, and hence the problem of proof-texting to begin with.

Also, when we look at the doctrine in church history, things get very messy.  It’s not like Trinitarianism as we know it was some overwhelmingly dominant position with a handful of kooks here and there.

In fact, it was the wide diversity of views that made the Council of Nicea a perceived necessity, and it wasn’t necessary for theological reasons, but political ones.  Constantine wanted a united and strong Empire, which meant his bishops could not be at each others’ throats about these things.  His own bishop, the early church father and historian Eusebius, was Arian and led the Arian contingent at the Council along with over twenty other bishops.  This is to say nothing of the other positions represented.

But only one position could be allowed to prevail given Constantine’s aims, and he became convinced of Trinitarianism, and all the other bishops could get in line with that, accept exile, or be put to death.  Just think – if Constantine had decided Arianism was correct, the Western church could today be proclaiming Arianism as orthodoxy and Trinitarianism as heresy.  Church history is unsettling like that.

And then, a hundred some odd years later, we begin the Monophysite controversy – did Jesus have one will or two (divine and human)?  This seemed to cause even more furor than Nicea as armies of Christians stood against others.  Monks killed other monks in armed mobs with clubs.  Entire cities were attacked as Christians stood against Christians on this doctrinal issue.  Some even found allies with the nearby Arabic nations, giving a smooth path to the rise of Islam in traditionally Christian areas – a religion that co-opted many things from Syriac Christianity at the time.

Enter into this fray the Byzantine emperor Justinian who, seeing himself as continuing Constantine’s work, also believed that a strong Empire needed a united Christianity, so with some urging from his wife, he took up swords and began a military campaign that, when the smoke cleared, would leave us with a divide between Western and Eastern Christian traditions that would ultimately fully separate in the 11th century.

It’s interesting to look at the different variables in church history and see how a given idea got so close to becoming the dominant idea.  What if the converted Vikings – who were overwhelmingly Arian – had conquered the Empire?  What if Justinian had decided to stay out of the Monophysite controversy or entered it on the other side?  What if Constantine had never required a Nicean Council to come to one view of the issue once and for all, with dissent punishable by exile or death?  Would our definition of orthodoxy look the same?  Would we have a broader tent?  Would we still have a narrow tent but made of totally different materials?

Suffice it to say that, until soldiers got involved, the issue of the divinity of Jesus is one that historically has been grounds for widespread disagreement as to how that whole thing shakes out.  These people were Christians.  They lived and in some cases died for their faith.  They confessed Jesus as Lord and meant it with all their hearts.  The only reason it seems to us today that Christianity has been basically monolithic on the Trinity issue is because we literally killed everyone else, which is an effective way to come to unanimity on an issue, but it does illustrate that this doctrine has not been “clear” from the Scriptures to very many.

But perhaps a more important issue is: if Jesus were not God, would anything about the Bible’s message change?

My contention is that it wouldn’t change at all, or perhaps barely in a few details.  What Jesus accomplishes, he accomplishes as a human being who is filled with Spirit of God who knows what God wants him to know (Matt. 24:36), says what God wants him to say (John 12:49), and does what God wants him to do (John 5:30-32, 8:28).  His authority is given to him by God (Matt. 28:18); it doesn’t come prepackaged in his ontological nature because he is God.

Everything Jesus accomplishes to save his people, he does so as a faithful human man – a second Adam and a faithful Israel whom God rewards, vindicates, and exalts by raising him from the dead (something Jesus did not do, himself – Acts 2:24) where now he rules at God’s right hand as king over the kingdom of God until all enemies are placed under his feet.  When this happens, he will hand everything over to God (1 Cor. 15:28).  There is nothing that I can see that necessitates Jesus being God.

Now, this does not mean Jesus is not God.  Just because he doesn’t have to be doesn’t mean he isn’t.  But it does mean that, over time, I feel like we have become functional Docetists where we think of Jesus as God in a human costume, and by doing so, not only do we fail to know the real Jesus, we fail to understand the gravity and comprehensiveness of why Jesus had to live and not just go straight to crucifixion and resurrection.

My guess is that the reason Christians feel so strongly about proving that Jesus is God is that they feel this offers them an apologetic against other religions.  Ours is the only one that says Jesus is God, so if we can prove that, then our religion must be right.

Well, my thought is that, if the only thing Christianity has to offer the world is a correct doctrine of hypostatic union, we might as well hang it up.  If the only reason we can give someone to follow Christ as opposed to some other “prophet” or leader is that ours happens to be God, then we have a very anemic message, indeed.

The gospel of the New Testament – the gospel that got people killed by both a Temple power structure and the Roman Empire – was that the kingdom of God had come and the risen Jesus her king.  The gospel was not that Jesus was God.

So, as an article of faith or theological or philosophical reflection on the nature of a Trinitarian God, it can perhaps be useful to nail our thoughts down on that, but as far as understanding the message of the Bible, I’d say it’s not that important.

But check with me in another five years or so.