An Emerging Theological Mosaic

My Sweet, Sweet Song

Trinity illustrations tend to breakdown. The water one illustrates modalism not historic, orthodox trinitarianism. The egg one doesn’t resonate with me. I found one that does, however. James Smith came up with it. It is the illustration of music, or a song. For a song to exist, it must be composed, produced, and heard. In other words, it needs a source, a score, and a sound.

Think about the trinity. The Father is the Source. He is the ground and originator of creation and us. The Son is the Score. He is the word, divine music written and revealed. The Spirit is the Sound. He is the love and power of God expressed in us.

I like this illustration because it captures the diversity of function within the trinity. The Father activates, like the source of a song. The Son accomplishes, like a score written. The Spirit animates, like the sound produced.

Our world is filled with music because our world was made by God. Each time you hear music playing, each time you sing or play music yourself, each time you worship the Holy God through music, remember that that music has a source, a score, and a sound. And so does God in you.

With this in mind, listen again to this.

Dissecting the Undissectable

God is one. God is three.
God is unity. God is diversity.

These four statements by Stan Grenz summarize the heart of Christian trinitarianism. For trinitarianism to be held in a historic and orthodox manner, each statement must be held in equal balance.

God is one. Christianity is a monotheistic faith. On a cosmic level, God is not in competition with other gods. There is only one God. On a personal level, human beings devote themselves to false gods. In ancient times, these gods made with human hands had names like Baal and Asherah. Today, we are more subtle in how we worship money and sex and power and success. Despite our devotion, these gods are false. It is not that our God is one among many or even first among many. He is the one and only true God. God is one.

And God is three. This one God exists as three separate and distinct individuals – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Throughout the ages, the church has tried to use language to express the relationships between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit that has maybe caused more confusion than clarity. We have said that the Son was “begotten, not made.” We have said that the Spirit is “generated” from the Father and/or the Son. No wonder people have been left scratching their heads wondering what the practical importance of all of this heady stuff is.

I am not opposed to the theological discussions of the trinity. In fact, I really enjoy them. I think that the fruit of discussion, theological precision, would do the church some good. However, I think there are things that we can affirm about the threeness of God that makes the doctrine of the trinity much more assessable. That is where Grenz’s second two counterbalanced statements come into play.

God is unity. The Divine Community is unified in essence. There are certain things that set God apart as God, making him God rather than merely a force or energy or figment of our imaginations. Whatever it is that makes God God, each member of the trinity equally shares it. Here are some things that come to mind for me:

Eternality – The Divine Community has always been, always is, and always will be.
Sovereignty – The Divine Community exercises supreme influence over all that he has made.
Omnipotence – The Divine Community has the power to do anything within the scope of his divine purpose and character.
Omniscience – The Divine Community possesses complete wisdom and insight in all things.

The Divine Community is also unified in purpose. I love some church statements of faith which talk about the “harmonious working of God.” The members of the trinity are on the same team and playing the same sport. They are not in competition with each other, but rather are working together to accomplish the divine desire, whether that be in creation, salvation, or revelation.

On a very controversial side note, this is where Calvinists find support for the L in TULIP, limited atonement. It seems inconsistent to them that God the Son would be out of lockstep with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. The U in TULIP speaks of God the Father’s unconditional election of those who would be redeemed. The I in TULIP speaks of God the Spirit’s irresistible grace in granting new and spiritual life to those who have been elected by the Father. Since God is unified in purpose, why wouldn’t the Son’s atoning death on the cross not be limited as being applicable to those whom the Father has elected and the Spirit will regenerate? This line of reasoning may not resonate with you, but it does with many who are inclined to see the world through a Calvinistic lens.

Furthermore, the Divine Community is unified in character. Anything you say about God, you must say about all three members of the trinity. Have you ever heard someone describe the wrathful God of the Old Testament (the Father) and the loving Jesus of the New Testament? When we set members of the Divine Community up against one another in a false dichotomy, we violate the unity that is God. If God is holy, then the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all holy. If God is merciful, then the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all merciful. If God is just, then the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all just. The members of the trinity are unified in the divine character.

God is diversity. Each member of the trinity is playing the same game on the same team, but each has a different position. The roles or functions of each member of the trinity should not be thought of as modes. It is not that God was in the form or mode of Jesus during his lifetime and that he is in the form or mode of the Spirit now. Such a statement would diminish the threeness of the one who is God. Rather, the Father, Son and Spirit are all always working in distinct but harmonious ways. John Piper has made the helpful statement that God is one and three, at the same time but not in the same way.

In the story of the Bible, a pattern emerges in how God acts. The Father activates. The Son accomplishes. And the Spirit animates. Take creation as an example. It was the Father who initiated creation, activating the process that brought about all that is. He did this through the word, a biblical designation for the Son. It was the Word who brought all things into existence, accomplishing creation. But that is not all. The Spirit was present, hovering over the waters, rustling them. And it was the Spirit who was the breath of life in Adam’s lungs. The Spirit brings life and motion to that which God has made, animating creation. God is unified in essence, purpose, and character while also being diverse in function or role.

God is one. God is three.
God is unity. God is diversity.

The Evolution of Trinitarian Belief

The Hebrews were not trinitarian. It would be an improper eisegesis to suggest that they were. Trinitarianism is something that evolved or developed in Christian theology.

The ancient Hebrews were monotheistic, but even that developed over time. God was Abram’s God. And then the God of his family. And then the God of a people. And then the God of a land. And then the God of all the earth. As their experiences with God developed – from the whisper in Abraham’s ear to his shouts to Moses on the mountain – so did their understanding of him. God did not change, but the belief of his faithful people did.

By the time Jesus comes on the scene, fierce monotheism is the only option. “Hear, oh Israel, the Lord your God is one.” There is one God, and all others are man-made imposters. That one God is an omnipresent spirit who judges and directs and decrees. But … Jesus is doing miracles. And he is teaching with authority. And his is forgiving sins. Those are things only God can do. And then he says, “I am.” Could he be?

Upon his resurrection, he is no longer just Rabbi; he is Lord, a title of God. By his faithful followers, he has been recognized to be the physical representation of their one invisible God. He is distinct from the Father, for they have heard his voice in the presence of Jesus the Son, but they are equal. Their experience is moving them away from the fierce monotheism of their youth. They are not abandoning it, but their understanding of what God is really like is evolving.

40 days after he returned to his Father, the followers of Jesus have another evolutionary moment. God becomes present with them in a way they had not yet experienced. His Spirit, distinct from the Father and the Son, promised by Jesus, blows upon them, causing them to speak in tongues, convicting them of sin, and giving birth to the church. Those are things only God can do. God is not just far away in heaven, nor just present in Jesus, but now he is alive within each of them.

It would take 300 years for them to be able to state with precision how their understanding of God had evolved. It was worth the wait. Here is what they came up with:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, light from light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and became truly human.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father [and the Son],
who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Interconnectedness, or Six Degrees of God

When we lived in Boston, I went to church with Don Hasselbeck.
Don is the father-in-law of Elizabeth Hasselbeck.
Elizabeth, famously, was on The View with Rosie O’Donnell.
Rosie was in A League of Their Own with Tom Hanks.
Tom Hanks was in Apollo 13 with Kevin Bacon.

Why is it that the six degrees of Kevin Bacon works? And why, when you travel, is it common to meet someone from your hometown or who knows someone you know? We say, “It’s such a small world.” Why does it feel so small sometimes?

We are all connected. There is a oneness about humanity. We all share a common substance that links us to one another. It is an interconnectedness that transcends the commercialism of ubiquitous McDonald’s franchises. And it is an interconnectedness that is more substantial than being able to send an instant message anywhere on the globe.

In some real and mysterious way, my life affects other people. And not just the ones I rub shoulders with. My life can influence and impact Kevin Bacon’s and other far less famous people in Bangkok and Munich and San Juan. In some way, they are dependent on me. And I am dependent on them.

Talking about the interconnectedness of humanity might sound to some like eastern religion and philosophy. For them, “pagan” religion seems like an iffy place to begin a discussion of Christian theology. But I think God made us interconnected. If Eastern philosophers have recognized that, they should be commended for it. (Christian theologians need to learn some epistemological humility.)

I love the story of Paul in Acts 17. When he debated with some Athenian philosophers, he quoted a poem about Zeus that confesses that “in him we live and move and have our being.” The Greeks saw Zeus as a common denominator for humanity. Paul hijacks the poem, reinterpreting it, saying that his God was in actuality that common uniting substance for humanity. In God, we all live and move and have our being.

The six degrees of Kevin Bacon, our interconnectedness, is a picture of that God. God is the oneness of three interconnected persons who live and move and have their being together. The trinity – the belief that there is one God who exists as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is the centralizing belief of the Christian faith. And we can begin to understand it by considering our own interconnectedness.

God invites us into a web, a network, of relationships. The life of the trinitarian God can be my life and yours. It is a place to find love, meaning, warmth, help. But this relationship God invites me into is not just between God and me. It includes all of us. What I receive from God, I share with others. Rather than shrinking my world, my relationship with God expands it, and that makes it a small world after all.

An Emerging Theological Mosaic

Every period of time has a theological core, beliefs that form the nucleus of the faith. I believe that what each generation of Christians puts in this nucleus is culturally-conditioned, depending upon the conversations that are taking place in the time in which they live. Martin Luther said that justification by faith alone was the doctrine on which the church stood or fell, but it did not make it into the list of the five fundamentals defined by faithful Christians during the modernist controversy of the early twentieth century. Today’s world is not the Reformation era, nor is it turn of the century America. Things have changed. And our theological core needs to adapt. So, humbly, I offer these areas of faith as a nucleus for the emerging theological mosaic.

Community – God: the Mysterious Trinity
Narrative – The Hero Story of Jesus
Truth – What God Has Revealed to Us
Transformation – What It All Means to Me
Hope – What It All Means to the World

Some points of discussion I plan to delve into throughout June:

Community – the interconnectedness of us all as an image of God, the magnetic function of trinitarian belief for theological method, the copout known as “the trinity is too hard to understand,” trinitarian metaphors

Narrative – the hero motif of the gospel, finding ourselves in the story of Jesus

Truth – the posture of truth (or, what is the difference between absolute truth and knowing truth absolutely), community-based knowledge and the necessity of the church

Transformation – why faith must make a difference, being good and being right, how seriously do I take Jesus?, and would he be against the Global War on Terror?

Hope – can we have an optimistic eschatology that is not postmillenial?, the blurry lines of effective ministry (or, what if American Idol is more effective at helping Africa than the church is)

So, that is the map for the coming weeks. Let me know if there is some trail you want to wander down. I will probably be inclined to go with you. I hope it will be an exciting journey for all of us.

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