God Is Love: The Mystery of The Trinity

November 8, 2013 — 1 Comment

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This week we only went through one chapter of God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology. Part of that is because of the testing schedule, and the other part is because it is the opening chapter on the Trinity. Bray avoids getting too technical, but it is a bit of a more taxing discussion than any chapter up to this point. He spends a good deal of time discussing the meaning of Greek and Latin terms and their relation to theological discussion on the Trinity. I found it very helpful, but also wondered to what extent it would be understandable to the average person. It’s a tough field to survey, but in the end I thought Bray handled it well. Here’s my highlights:

Three Persons In Fellowship With One Another

Our knowledge of God is not rooted in mental constructs, even if they are correct, but in personal experience. That experience is not the result of intellectual deduction from the nature of reality, but is the fruit of an encounter expressed in the Bible as a relationship of faith.

Faith in God, however, involves two-way communication, which means that there is something present both in us and in God that makes such dialogue meaningful. That something is what we call “personhood,” and so it is with the personhood of God that our analysis of how we know and experience him must begin.

It is only in and through that experience that we come to know that the underlying being of God is one, and begin to understand what that really means. If the fundamental principle of our theology is that God is love, then we must start with the divine persons and not with the unity of God’s being. The concept of love implies that there must be someone or something to be loved. Of course it is possible to argue that, even if God were a single person, he would still be self-aware and could love himself, but the biblical idea of love is something more than self-esteem.

The great Augustine of Hippo (354–430) solved the problem of how the one God could be a God of love by saying that his self-awareness had an identity of its own, which he called the Son, playing on the fact that “conception” can be both physical and intellectual. God conceives of himself as he truly is, and loves that self-awareness as he loves himself. In this way, Augustine identified the primordial God as the Father, his self-awareness as the Son, and the love that the Father has for that self-awareness as the Holy Spirit, who binds the Father and Son together.

The Trinity Is Eternal

Modalism may have encouraged some Christians to use the word “person” to describe the three modes of God’s activity, and it was certainly a factor that contributed to the unwillingness of many to accept it as a valid way of expressing the divine threeness. “Person” had originally been the word used for “mask” in the ancient Greek theater, where the character being portrayed was identifiable by the mask the actor wore. A change of role meant a change of mask (or person), a device that allowed a single actor to play many different parts. Once the drama was over, the masks would be discarded and the actor’s identity would become plain, which is what the modalists thought would happen with God. They believed that at the end of time, when the work of salvation was finally accomplished and creation had been transformed into something eternal and different from what it is now, God would no longer have to play the parts of creator, redeemer, and sanctifier, and so the Trinity of persons by which we know him would give way to the knowledge of the one true God.

The Trinity Is Relational

If the love of God is eternal, then the persons who manifest that love must also be eternal, and any theory which suggests that one of them brought the other two into being must be rejected. This is easier said than done, however, because the language of generation and procession used in the Bible clearly suggests that there is a derivation of some kind from the Father, even if this cannot be equated with an event that can be pinpointed in time. The early Christians found nothing more difficult than surmounting the notion of causality among the persons of the Godhead. As a result, we find them using terms such as “eternally begotten” as the best way of reconciling the words of the Bible with their assumption that God’s being is eternal, even though the expression itself is a logical contradiction.

The language of generation and procession used in the New Testament must be understood in relational terms, not causal ones. This means that in some mysterious way unknown to us, the three persons of the Godhead must have decided to relate to each other in the ways just described. The sonship of the second person is not an accident of birth but the result of a voluntary act—not his alone, but that of all three persons, since they have a single will that is common to them all. Similarly, the identity of the third person is the result of a free choice, made not only by him but by the three persons acting together. Finally, the fatherhood of the first person, though not described in such terms, must also be the result of a free act on the part of all three, a reminder to us of their common mind and purpose. How this can be is a mystery that goes beyond our ability to understand, because it speaks of things that subsist in the eternal being of God, which is incomprehensible to us. When we speak of a “voluntary decision” taken by the three persons acting together, we are using a human concept to explain a divine reality that is worked out in eternity. As far as we are concerned, it has always been like that and always will be—there never was a time when things were or will be otherwise, because there is no time in God.

The Father shows his love for the Son by supporting him throughout his earthly ministry of reconciliation, even to the point of raising him from the dead, and finally by exalting him so high that the Son becomes his co-ruler and co-judge. The Father’s love for the Holy Spirit is not openly stated, but it becomes clear when we realize that he shared his intentions with the Spirit, who was then sent to reveal them to the apostles and prophets. The love of the Son for the Father is most fully revealed in his act of self-sacrifice on the cross, when he took our place by becoming sin for us, bore our punishment, and reconciled us to God by paying the price demanded by the Father’s justice. But at every point in his earthly ministry, the Son made it clear that he had come to do the will of the Father who had sent him, and in his obedience to that will he demonstrated what the demands of love could mean.

What Is A Person?

We may find the controversies about the Trinity that plagued the early church confusing, but one of the main reasons why they occurred was because the Greco-Roman world had no single concept for what we now call “personhood.” Because of that, the early Christians were not sure how to describe the God of the Bible, who reveals himself in what we call “personal” terms. Of course, there were plenty of human beings around back then whom we would not hesitate to describe as “persons,” but this analogy would not have been helpful to the fathers of the early church. They were only too well aware that the pagan gods were portrayed as glorified men and women, and they were determined that the Christian God should not be confused with them.

Given that God is not a human being and that his divine nature is completely different from our human one, finding a way to express this relationship was more difficult for Christians than it would have been for pagans, who thought of the gods in their own image, even if the gods could do things that ordinary humans could not do. Christians had to find a way of explaining how God can relate to human beings, even to the point of becoming one himself, without ceasing to be eternally transcendent. The need to do this was imposed on them by the fact that the Son of God became a man in Jesus Christ, and they had no ready-made vocabulary to describe what had happened. Early Christian theology was not a speculative exercise that tried to figure out how the divine and the human could interact, but an attempt to make sense of an event that changed the way they thought of themselves and the world in which they lived. They did this in Greek, because that was the international language of their time, and they chose words that already existed, since otherwise they would not have been able to preach their message without inventing a jargon of their own that would have been more of a hindrance than a help to communication. But in the process of doing this, they selected their terminology and defined it much more carefully than the ancient Greeks had ever done. This took time and caused misunderstandings, especially when attempts were made to translate Greek terms into Latin. Latin was not as developed a language then as it later became and was therefore less able to accommodate technical theological terms, but as it is from Latin that our own terminology is largely derived, we have to understand how the early church handled its translation difficulties.

In Tertullian’s day, that had not yet happened, so instead he used the word substantia, the term which was then generally accepted as a translation of both ousia and hypostasis—a good example of what the Greeks meant when they said that Latin was crude and unsuited to subtle theological discourse! This of course left him with no obvious word for hypostasis when it had to be distinguished from ousia, as it did in the case of the Trinity. Faced with that challenge, Tertullian came up with the word persona, which seems to have come into Latin by way of Etruscan (phersu). The Etruscans, however, had taken the word from the Greek prosōpon, which originally meant “mask,” and so all the problems associated with the Greek word were liable to resurface, as they eventually did.

The most important long-term achievement of the Council of Chalcedon was that it transcended the limitations of the thought-world of ancient Greek philosophy, in which both Alexandria and Antioch had been imprisoned, and restructured Christian theology on a new and different basis. It did this by decreeing that a “person” is not to be understood as a manifestation of an underlying substance (ousia) that determined what it could and could not do in line with that substance’s nature (physis). Instead, “person” is to be treated as a theological principle in its own right, logically prior to both the substance and its nature and therefore superior to them. This revolution in theological thinking occurred when the council said that the divine person of the Son of God took on a second nature by becoming man, making his divine hypostasis the hypostasis of his humanity as well. Subsequent debates established that this second nature was a substance (ousia) in its own right, fully equipped with a soul, a mind, and a will that were neither subordinate to the Son’s divine nature nor dominated by it. In other words, by saying that the union of the two natures in Christ was hypostatic (i.e., personal), the fathers of Chalcedon made the natures dependent on the one person/hypostasis and not the other way around. In the incarnate Christ, the divine hypostasis controlled each of its two natures (physeis), giving the person of the incarnate Son the freedom to employ them as he chose without being constrained by either of them.

The incarnation of Christ, however, challenged the purely transcendent monotheism of Judaism and forced Christians to tie their doctrine of God to their understanding of humanity. The result was a Savior who was fully divine and fully human, but who remained a single person whose ultimate identity was anchored in the fellowship of the Trinitarian God.

Modern Difficulties With The Term “Person”

God does not have a “personality” in the modern sense of the word, because he cannot change, but it would be hard to deny that he is somehow personal. Even those who define “person” as “center of consciousness” are usually prepared to accept this, despite the problems it creates for the Trinity and for our understanding of the incarnation of Christ. If the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not three “centers of consciousness,” what are they? To speak about them as “modes of being,” as Karl Barth and others have done, is problematic because that kind of language is liable to land us back in the very modalism that the early church tried so hard to escape from. If we accepted it, how could we say that God became a man in only one of the modes of his being? What would Jesus’ “center of consciousness” have been if that were the case? Jesus Christ was obviously a man, but what is it that makes him God as well? Even if his human “center of consciousness” were perfectly in tune with God’s, that would still not make him divine. In the final analysis we have to say that the word “person” expresses something about God and about the incarnate Son that cannot be captured by “center of consciousness” or “mode of being.” We therefore have to conclude that to abandon “person” in favor of some other concept can only diminish our understanding of who Jesus is, of how he relates to the other members of the Godhead, and of how we relate to him.

In the end, the best way to think of personhood is to say that being a person means having the capacity to give and receive love. The persons of the Godhead love each other fully and completely. Their mutual love constitutes their being and determines their actions, which are not constrained by the limitations inherent in their divine nature but are governed by the relationship that each of them has with the others. The incarnation of the Son would have been impossible if the persons of the Trinity were circumscribed by their divine nature. But when the Son demonstrated the depth of his love for his Father by taking on the role of a servant, he assumed a human body and the incarnation became a reality. As human beings, we are persons because we have been made for love—love of God in the first instance, but also love of one another and of ourselves. Our love may be imperfect, it may grow cold, and it may be diverted to things that do not deserve it. But even when we abuse it, it is love which expresses the meaning of our life and which we display in everything we do. We may love the things of this world and show no appreciation for the love of God, but God nevertheless continues to love us as persons, and it is as persons that he calls those whom he has chosen to enter into eternal fellowship with him.

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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