The first Sunday of June is Trinity Sunday, so I thought I would take a whack at talking about the Trinity in my newsletter article for June. I just attended a three day conference on the topic, "Who is God?". Some of the papers had titles like; "Christology: Key to Understanding the Trinity", and "Pneumatology: Key to Understanding the Trinity", and "The Trinity in the Old Testament". With hours and hours of papers on the topic - and they did not exhaust the topic - you can see I won't be able to cover every aspect of it. The topic is too large for a short newsletter article to do anything but scratch the surface, so I will use the outline of the Athanasian Creed as a guide to keep me on task.
The Athanasian Creed is the long one we read every Trinity Sunday, and, usually, only on Trinity Sunday. It was not written by Athanasius, but named for him about four centuries after he lived. Athanasius was one of the chief adversaries of an anti-Trinitarian theology called Arianism. Arius (for whom Arianism is named) was an early Bishop in Egypt who taught the oh-so-reasonable doctrine that God was one, The Father, and that the Son was a created being, superior to human beings, but of a different nature than God the Father and inferior to Him. The Holy Spirit was produced by Jesus, according to this theology. No Trinity.
This was popular stuff, and it nearly took over the entire Church before it was condemned as a heresy by the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, and again by the Council of Constantinople in 381. That should have ended it, but theological "opinions" do not die easily, and Arianism continued as a force in the Church until the 800's, at about the time of the writing of the Athanasian Creed. It generally died out as a teaching only the advocates of Arianism died out, sometimes at the point of a sword. Those people took their religion seriously!
The rigor and the importance of the debate is reflected in the creed. The creed was not intended for regular use in worship, by the way, but as something like our Lutheran Confessions; a statement of the true faith and a touchstone. Those who were "orthodox", "right teaching", could confess this creed whole-heartedly. Those who had qualms about it were not to be trusted. We use it in church each year to remember the complexity of the doctrine of the Trinity, and to remind ourselves to pay attention to our faith. It is precious, because it expresses the saving faith - the only saving faith.
The creed begins with the uncomfortable statement, Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic [i.e., universal, Christian] faith. Lutherans have trouble with the word "catholic", which means "universal", or something like "the only true and saving faith". They should be more concerned about the statement that to be saved you must hold the correct faith, Which faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. The Christian Church from the very beginning has always said, "You gotta know the truth and believe the truth. Close doesn't cut it"
Then it goes on to talk about the Trinity. It tells us that we need to be careful not to divide God into three parts, or mix the parts together and pretend that "the Trinity" is just a mode of reference, or a semantic device for talking about God. The unity of the Trinity in one "essence" or "being" is vital, and yet so is the "three-ness". It gets wordy here, talking about how each divine quality is owned by each member of the Trinity, and yet there are not three of each, but only One. You remember, Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Ghost uncreate. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal and yet they are not three Eternals but one Eternal. As also there are not three Uncreated, nor three Incomprehensibles, but one Uncreated, and one Uncomprehensible. And so forth.
But first they make the point that there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. Then afterwards, they make the point that there is only one Father, one Son, and one Holy Ghost. The Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Holy Ghost, and yet there is just one God. This is where our logic begins to falter. And it should. What kind of God would He be if He were not capable of thinking and being in ways we cannot imagine? What makes this wonderful is not that it can be confusing, but that this God, who is so far beyond our computing and reasoning out, cares about us. He did not just create us, but He saw our predicament in sin and chose to redeem us and save us - and reveal Himself to us! God explaining Himself to us is something like our answering the questions of a two year-old who has just discovered the word, "Why?". The answers simply lead to another question; in the case of the child, another "Why?". God knows we cannot fully comprehend Him, but He wants us to know and try to understand Him anyhow.
For, like as we are compelled by the Christian verity [Christian truth] to acknowledge every Person by Himself to be God and Lord, So are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say, there be three Gods or three Lords. That word "catholic" again! It means that if you are a Christian, you believe this; and if you don't believe this, you are not a Christian, no matter what you say! The mystery of the Trinity, the part of it that we would never reason our way to, but needed to have simply 'revealed' to us, is contained in those words at the start of this paragraph. There we have the 'three' and the 'one' carefully set forth. It doesn't make it more reasonable, but it is set forth simply and clearly.
Now, although you can say the same things about the three Persons of the Trinity, they are distinguishable for us because God has revealed how they may be distinguished. The Creed says, The Father is made of none, neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created, but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father, and of the Son neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.
I hope you noticed that the only way to distinguish between the Persons of the Trinity is in the words we use to describe them. Since God is a spirit (therefore possessing no physical body) we cannot describe Him or distinguish by how He looks. We identify each person by what God tells us about Himself. The Father is God, but without any definition or limitation, or whatsoever. The Son, however, is described as "begotten". The Bible even refers to Jesus as the "only-begotten", as in John 1 and 3, and in Hebrews and 1 John. What it means, or how it works precisely, is not explained to us, but we have the word to distinguish the Father and the Son, and the Holy Ghost is said, in Scriptures, to be proceeding.
Of course, when we see Jesus, we know we are dealing with the Son. Or do we? What we see is the Son. Only Jesus died on the cross. But Jesus added to the confusion here when He told Philip, "Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how do you say, 'Show us the Father'? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works." Apparently, when we see Jesus, we are seeing God, even the Father, somehow. Jesus even tells us that we cannot worship God without worshiping the Son: "For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son, in order that all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him."
Hebrews goes on to tell us that Jesus is the image and likeness of God the Father, and the clearest revelation of God. Some have taken that and tried to run with the idea of worshiping Jesus only. After all, if you have Jesus, you have God, right? But that 'Jesus Only' stuff is contrary to other Scriptures, and even to Jesus Himself. God wants us to know Him as He is, not take what we know and try to make something simple out of it. He wants us to do the heavy lifting of thinking about the truth, even if it is beyond our complete comprehension. Doing so is an act of worship. Doing it confesses that God is worth the work!
The Athanasian Creed continues: And in this Trinity none is before or after other; none is greater or less than another, but the whole three Persons are co-eternal together, and co-equal. So that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshiped. He therefore that will be saved, must thus think of the Trinity. I was tempted to update some of the language for you, but I am explaining it, so the update would simply be messing with the Creed, and I don't like people messing with my creed, so I won't mess with yours, either.
The Trinity is equal. There is no priority here. There is no hierarchy. We don't divide them, or separate the Persons of the Trinity, we simply distinguish between them as distinct Persons , and yet there is only one God. We distinguish between them because God teaches us about them - or Himself. This doctrine is a sort of identification. The true God is this confusing, not quite manageable to the human mind, God. A deity that would make perfect sense to us, is the wrong deity - a false god. That would be a god that served man's ego and man's will. The true God doesn't do that. He created us. He redeemed us for His own reasons. He chose each individual among His people out of a motivation we call "grace". He serves us, but according to his will and His plans, not our own. We just find His will and plans delightful, when we understand what they mean for us in eternity.
What this piece of the Creed tells us is that this God, the only true God, must be known as He is. The generic idea that "as long as you believe something", you are okay, is false. The thought that we can "name it and claim it" when it comes to salvation is dead wrong - and dead is where the adherents of that notion will find themselves. Believing that we don't need to know too much, that God is happy if we just acknowledge Him somehow, and that going to church is a good thing without regard for which church and what they teach and who it is you believe in is a deception. That teaching is the devil's work, not God's Word.
The comfort that "well, at least they are going to church" is a false comfort. There is no particular value to going to a church that teaches falsely, any more than there is a value to eating if the place you eat deliberately poisons the food. It is true that as long as the Word of God is used, there is a hope that the Word will work in the hearts of some of those who hear it, but people do not go to a place that falsifies the truth to learn the truth, they go there to escape it. If you want to feel like you are going to church but don't want to be bothered with the truth about God, or deal with the true God Himself, then any non-denominational assembly, or mainline denomination for that matter, that appeals to you will do fine. If you want to grow in the truth and in respect to the true God, you have to go where that truth is proclaimed, and that true God is worshiped deliberately. And sometimes that requires testing those places congregation by congregation.
The rest of the Athanasian Creed deals with the rest of the Christian faith in familiar terms, almost like the Nicene Creed. It takes care to describe the personal union in the light of the doctrine of the Trinity with very precise terminology. Then it makes the statement, At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies, and shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil into everlasting fire. These words can only be understood in the light of the Gospel - they that have done good have had their sins forgiven (by grace through faith, so only good remains to be seen) and the rest are accountable for their evil. Any other interpretation eliminates forgiveness and salvation.
Finally the Creed ends with, This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved. It reminds us once again at the end that this confession is what defines a Christian as Christian, and that doctrine is no casual matter, but a vitally important thing! It serves us well, even in these easy-going days, to keep this reality in mind - and, of course, the very important truth of the doctrine of the Trinity!
Yours in the Lord,
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