Shuck and Jive

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

God the Trinity--Bob

(I like it; I love it; I can't rise above it; yeah, you know what I'm talkin' about--- Conversations with Bob! Here's Bob!)

I used a quilt analogy a few posts ago.
One of the problems in describing a quilt is where to start. The same is true in talking about essentials of faith. How does a Christian talk about God without starting by talking about the Bible? And how does one talk about the Bible without first talking about God?

The other problem is how to talk about these topics in a short post. Volumes are written on the Trinity. I’m going to limit myself to just a few observations.

I believe believing in the Trinity is an essential for being a Christian. There are a variety of practical reasons for that but I will get into those reasons in later posts.

God is one God in three persons. To use the specific language of the Nicene Creed: “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 . . .” The language about the Trinity and doctrine of the Trinity were developed to talk about the relationship between God the Father and Jesus. The intent of the writers was to say that Jesus is also God. But they wanted to hold onto Jewish monotheism on the one hand and say that Jesus is God on the other. Thus we come to the Trinity.

Some scholars say that the only appropriate way to talk about the Trinity is to talk about the economic Trinity, how we see God at work on earth. This can be slippery and so must be done with care. While early creeds like this one speak as if the Father is creator the Bible says that the Son and the Spirit participated in creation. We need to describe God as God in relation to the universe and specifically in relation with humanity. That, after all, is mostly what the Bible is all about: God’s loving pursuit of and relationship with humans. So we see God described as creator in various places in the Bible. We see God described as redeemer, the one who makes covenants with humans and who keeps covenant promises even when humans break covenant promises. We see God as the one who is present, as one scholar put it in the title of his book, The God who is there.

But different persons of the Trinity come to the fore as God does different things. When it comes to redemption, Jesus comes to the fore, even though the Father and the Holy Spirit are also intimately involved. When it comes to God speaking and being present the Holy Spirit often comes to the fore.

Thus we meet the persons of the Trinity in the actions of God. But God is more than actions.

One of the problems we can run into when talking about the Trinity is that we may lean too far in talking about God as one or too far in talking about God as three. I love the Eastern Orthodox idea that the persons of the Trinity are together in love, overwhelming love. They suggest that the creation of the universe happens because of the overwhelming love between the persons of the Trinity. But this image, if taken alone, suggests that God is really three. On the other hand, we can so talk about God as if there is only one God and we only see different aspects or faces of God. Thus the early Church condemned Patripassionism, the idea that God is only one and that we see the one God doing different things. The balance must be maintained.

I know this is very short and skips over a lot of issues about the doctrine of the Trinity. But I can’t write I book on John’s blog! I already wrote an 8 page post one time and I’m trying to avoid doing that again!

Two more quick assertions: we must be careful as we name the persons of the Trinity. Last year the PCUSA General Assembly received a report on the Trinity. There was a lot of controversy because the report seemed to say that we can use a variety of names for the persons of the Trinity. I think that the writers meant to talk about analogies about the Trinity. Nevertheless some of the images were just weird and some of them bordered on describing God as God is not. Calling the Holy Spirit the life giving womb suggests that creation is somehow part of God or a child of God, moving toward panentheism, something I think is beyond the bounds of Christianity.

So let’s be specific: the Bible uses a whole lot of analogies to talk about God and the persons of the Trinity. Jesus uses the analogy of a mother hen who wants to gather her chicks under her wings to describe himself. Prophets and poets use images like fire and wind to talk about God. The Bible says that God comes in a still small voice and that the Holy Spirit comes as a dove, fire and the wind. These are all analogies and images, not names.

The appropriate name for the one God is YHWH, the God who is or the God who is present. The appropriate names for the persons of the Trinity are Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These are the appropriate names because Jesus tells us to call the Father Father. The Father calls Jesus Son. And the Holy Spirit is named the Spirit or Holy Spirit all over the place in the Bible. We can use analogies to describe God but we need, particularly in the context of worship, to name God as God tells us to name God. None of this suggests that God is male. After all, God is Spirit and therefore does not have sexual characteristics. But we must, when naming God, use the names that the Bible gives us. Analogies are one thing. Names are another.

Finally, the doctrine of the Trinity is more than just speculation. The early Church came to talk about God as one and three because of issues about salvation. Can Jesus really bring forgiveness to humans without being human and God? For the early Trinitarians the doctrine had immense practical value.

If ya’ll want to tell me what I left out, go ahead! Like I said, I’m trying to keep this short.

I believe in the Trinity.

Grace and Peace



  1. Again, red lights, sirens and whistles whenever Presbyterians start talking about Essentials.


    His dictis, the kerfuffle in Birmingham over the Trinity paper was IMO simply a way for the Laymanite conservatives to vent their aggression. They had come expecting a knock-down, drag-out fight over The Gay and they didn't get one. It wasn't what the liberals wanted either, but comparing the responses of groups like Covenant Network and MLP to the other side is a useful lesson. I have to give kudos to both Joan Gray and the PUP Task Force for their leadership.

    The Trinity report was NOT adopted in 2006, it was "received", which in PC(USA) bureaucratese is the next best thing to tossing it in the wastepaper bin. Regardless, it didn't really say anything THAT earth-shattering. The church has ALWAYS found alternative ways of expressing the names of the Triune God ("Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer", the visual symbols of the triangle and three intersecting circles, the Sign of the Cross, etc). No, Bob, I'd disagree with you that we are restricted to "the names the Bible gives us". There are many who would object to your use of the unutterable name of God so freely. If nothing else, there is a huge translation issue. In Hebrew (as in French, Spanish, and most of the modern Romance languages) assigns one of two genders to every noun (either masculine or feminine). Greek and Latin (as do German and Sanskrit) have three genders (masculine, feminine and neuter). Even where three genders are used, the neuter is generally reserved for inanimate objects. Modern English does not assign genders to nouns.

    This leads to a translation problem. God in the classical languages has to be assigned a gender in written or spoken language. The default tendency in Latin (with which I am most familiar) and Greek is to favor the masculine (it's a cultural norm that still persists in French and Italian grammar). By assigning God the masculine noun gender arbitrarily, ancient writers would be forced to use male synonyms when referring to God (e.g., "father"). It's not an easy concept for us native English speakers to grasp. As you say, God is sexless. We can be guided by the Biblical descriptions of God, but we have to bear in mind that the writers of the Bible had linguistic fetters in Hebrew and Greek that we are not bound by in English. It's also worth noting that the writers of the Bible also have no terminology whatsoever for the Trinity, as it is a doctrine derived from Scripture, not one explicitly stated therein, as the Unitarians (and Jews and Muslims for that matter) are wont to remind us.

    The Trinity can be a difficult concept to understand, and I think that the words and imagery we use to describe it need to emphasize the oneness of the whole, the unique characteristics of each "person", and the interdependence of each on the other.

  2. fly

    First, read carefully. I did use the word "receive." I talked with Charles Wiley about the report this past winter and told him that my real problem with the report is that it wasn't deep enough.

    And please notice that I did say that there are lots of analogies that talk about God in the Bible and we use lots of analogies to talk about the Trinity. Analogical description and naming are two different things. I find Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer problematic for at least two reasons: it reduces the personhood of God to task and it divides the work of God in ways that the Bible does not.

    Oh and by the way, the PUP report said that it was up to the presbytery to decide if a particular candidate had rejected one of the essentials. Presbyteries get to decide what are essential. As a presbyter I look for what I consider to be essential. I suspect I am not alone among presbyters in considering the doctrine of the Trinity to be essential.

    Outside of the name thing, what do you think of the rest of what I said?

  3. Pastor Bob,
    Thanks for this. I know its not easy writing about the Trinity when you have to condense what must be said, but I think you did an excellent job.

    I do think there are problems with papers that get received. They get used by some as accepted, But even Wiley has stated that he thinks there are some problems with the paper. One of the most problematic for him is referring to the Spirit as womb. The reason, the womb is a thing, the Holy Spirit is personal.

  4. As a non-Presbyterian and a unitarian, I remember when that Trinity paper made the news; and my reaction was really one of amusement over the timidity of that reformulation of a hard and fast, rigidly adhered to, Trinitarian theology. Trinitarian Christianity is so fixated on the number "three" that it is considered somehow "radical" to propose different names for these same basic three elements of that Trinity. Woo hoo! Different names! How radical!

    Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer? Why not rock, paper and scissors? Larry, Moe, and Curly? Tinker and Evans and Chance?

    Renaming the Trinity is just a tentative way of being creative without really being creative.

  5. fly - First, read carefully.
    Sounds funny when someone else says it.

    Viola is correct. The "womb" is a material thing [probably why Bob said it was not deep enough], IMO, it's an invasion from materialism.

    Instead of looking at it as "laymanite conservatives to vent their aggression", it would make more sense to understand the concern and show a little unity.

  6. What's in a name?

    There is something philosophically brilliant about the doctrine of the Trinity as it took nearly two thousand years for an analogy in the real world to surface that can adequately describe the doctrine, i.e. the dual nature of light (particle and wave).

    The really cool thing is that we can learn from that analogy and use it to inform the doctrine.

    What really happens with light is that it is either particle or wave depending on the question we ask of it. It behaves as one or the other depending on the observer.

    It's shocking to those who hate relativism but there it is. God is Father when we ask of God the things we ask of a Father. God is Spirit when we ask of God the things we as of God the Spirit. And God is the Son when we ask of God the things we ask of God the Son.

    "Ask and it shall be given unto you"

    It is maddening to hold these three in our head at the same time. Which is He. Father? Son? Holy Spirit? the answer is "yes". Is he Wisdom? Again the answer is "yes". Can there be more persons to the Trinity? Sure, why not? It does not violate Scripture at all. The only thing that violates Scripture is to think of them as separate gods.

    They are all one and the same. What we see depends on how we look. And if we look in a really weird way, we will see a really weird manifestation.

    Rock, paper, scissors? What about "Rock of My Salvation", "Word of God", and "Sword of the Spirit" all used to speak of God and Jesus and the Spirit of God in Scripture.

    It is not God who is different in each of the persons of the Trinity. It is we who are different when we come to God. The miracle of the incarnation is that God manifests God's self in whatever way is necessary to meet us where we are.

    He does not change us to meet Him where he is. He meets us where we are and >>that<< is what changes us.

    Bottom line, we should all relax and take a deep Breath and let God be whoever God wants to be, because God is doing the "being" for us.

    All for us. "What love is this" indeed!


  7. Jodie

    Maybe I have misunderstood you but it sounds to me like you are saying God is one and that we just see God in different ways when we look to God for different things. That is not Trinitarian theology. Remember I used the word Patripassionism? That's what I think you are proposing: that God is one but does different things at different times or, from our point of view, we meet the one God in different ways at different times. Interesting. A very human point of view. But not Trinitarian.

    Did I get you wrong?

  8. Bob
    I think the heresy is called modalism, to talk about the trinity in terms of tasks? I find it compelling in that I'm not sure how one can talk about persons and their identity apart from their actions. God is what God does, so to speak. If it's meaningful to speak of distinctive persons it would have to be identified by what they do; even if other persons may do similar activities, such as say you and John

  9. Hi Jodie,
    I am so glad to see you writing. I have not seen your comments anywhere lately.
    The biblical understanding of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is that they are in an eternal relationship. Christ is eternally the Son, the Father is eternally the Father, same with the Holy Spirit.

    Going a bit further, now because of the resurrected humanity of Jesus Christ there is forever a perfected human in the Trinity which I find amazing and wonderful. And in our relationship with Jesus Christ we are united to the resurrected Jesus Christ and so we are also in fellowship with the Father and the Holy Spirit. We share in the life of God through Jesus Christ. What a wonderful thing Jesus has done for us.

  10. I know Pastor Bob, I got ahead and started talking about the Incarnation and the resurrection. I just couldn't help myself they all fit so neatly together.

  11. viola

    It's all part of the quilt. That's why it's so hard to talk about parts of Christian faith independent of other parts, right?

  12. Bob, (and Dwight)

    Not quite.

    But it does require you to let go of the notion that you can ever put your hands on the true nature of God in a way that is independent of your own nature.

    What you see is the convolution of God and the way you look at God. What you perceive and know of Him is part Him and part you. It is impossible to take yourself out of the equation.

    In the wave/particle theory of light we learn that light behaves like a particle when we test it for its particle properties and it behaves like a wave when we test it for its wave properties. At the same time. It is both /and in ways that are intuitively impossible and seemingly contradictory. When we test Jesus for his divine nature he is fully God. When we test him for his human nature he is fully man. At the same time. This too is intuitively impossible and seemingly contradictory. Most people loose sight of one or the other. But (it just so happens) we have in nature something that is just like that.

    The Scriptures encourage us to seek in nature analogies to God, and to learn from those analogies about our relationship with God.

    Should we be be limited only by the things middle eastern farmers knew about nature 2000 years ago, or can we use some of the things we have learned since then?

    Heresy is to stand behind man made dogma as if it were the inerrant word of God. That >>really<< is idolatry.

    Hello Viola,

    Darrel Johnson once said that at the center of the Trinity is a relationship. I like that. Whatever else we understand about the multiple persons of the Trinity we understand that they form a perfect relationship. But it still seems hard to hold that in your head. If God is One and the Trinity is about a perfect loving relationship he has with himself, well, isn't that sort of narcissistic?

    Yes the Trinity is at its core about a relationship, but its the relationship God has with His creation. We know nothing about God except what he reveals to us and then we say "Oh I get it, you are Three in One".

    A better response might be to say "Oh I get it, you love me"


  13. Thanks for this, Pastor Bob.

    You said that panentheism is outside of the bounds of Christian theology. What would you suggest a presbytery do when an officer starts promoting panentheism and poo-pooing personal theism?

  14. Jodie,
    You need to get away from your light theory, although it is a great thing to think about.

    The reason I say that is because we don't have to try and understand God through our own imagination but through what God the Son has told us about the Father in the word.

    God is other then we so what we know about him has to be what he tells us about himself. And although we are finite and he is infinite he has sent his Son, Jesus Christ to explain who he is.

    We need to listen to the words of Jesus.

    And no, the relationship God has within the Trinity can not be with nature because nature is not within the Trinity. And I am sure Darrell would agree with me that the relationship is among the Father, Son and Spirit. Although God is one the persons in the Trinity are true personal distinctions so that relationship would not be narcissistic.

    The important thing to think about is that we as creation can through Jesus Christ experience this loving relationship. And yes He does love you.

  15. Yes, Pastor Bob,
    you are right about the quilt!

  16. Viola,

    No real arguments really but you said something odd regarding thinking about the Trinity:

    "... we don't have to try and understand God through our own imagination but through what God the Son has told us about the Father in the word."

    But the doctrine of the Trinity is exactly that, an attempt to understand God through our own imagination. The Son never told us God was Three in One. He never said that and he never ruled out say Four in One.

    I don't have a problem with using our imagination this way, but if you do, then you have to stop short of a Trinitarian doctrine. Its an imaginative extrapolation from Scripture.

    And you are quite right about Darryl's teachings on the Trinity.

    (One of the things I really liked about him is that he never said I was wrong or accused me of heresy when I argued with him. We just explored ideas together. I'd like to think it wasn't just me learning from him... Another thing I liked about him is that even though he was strongly conservative, he always brought something new to the table. A bible study was never complete unless something new had jumped off the pages of the text that had never before been seen there. It was his prayer even, almost before every sermon. He kept the Gospel fresh that way.)


  17. "..if said reverently it can be said that nature is God"- John Calvin

    Which is not to say that nature can be collapsed into God, but that as his little book Instruction in Faith argues, nature teaches us all that we should need to know of God. To divorce nature and God is to divorce a medium of God's communication towards us that has loomed larged historically in the Reformed tradition.

  18. I do notice a thread here that while "Father, Son and Holy Ghost" are acceptable descriptors of the persons of the Trinity, it seems that any of the objections to the suggestions of the paper could be applied to it. Calling God "Father" gives God an explicit gender and human sexual traits. The "Son" is appropriate, but only because Jesus of Nazareth was born with a penis. The "Holy Ghost" has always been difficult to understand for most Christians, who have to go into deep textual analysis to explain it. Another problem with the "Father, Son and Holy Ghost" formation is that it does not show the interdependence of the persons of the Trinity. If anything, it emphasizes the separateness of the persons. A Son cannot simultaneously be his own Father unless equipped with a pimped-out Delorean. While there is a sort of implied dependence between Father and Son, the formulation leaves the Holy Ghost out by itself.

    I also disagree strongly that "Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer" is a modalist heresy, as implied by some. It's a very ancient formulation and describes both the interdependence and uniqueness of the persons. It is in fact alluded to in Westminster. It does not replace other trinitarian formulas, but it enriches our understanding of them.

    As I mentioned, the English language gives us a somewhat unique opportunity to explore different ways of expressing the Name of God that cannot be done in Hebrew or Greek. I think it's entirely appropriate for a denomination that is comprised mostly of English-speakers to explore the possibilities (and even explore the linguistic traditions of those of us who speak other languages like Korean or Spanish).

    To answer your question to me, Bob, I guess I would have to say that I agree with some of the points you made and disagree with others. No one, pithy, short formulation of words adequately describes such a complicated concept (or, a concept with very complicated nuances). It doesn't help that the doctrine of the Trinity is not explicitly laid out in Scripture (again, this is a main objection of the unitarians, Jews and Muslims).

    That brings me to my fundamental objection to the idea of a grocery list of Essentials. It destroys conscience, not only of the ordination candidate, but also that of the examiners. It is the duty of the examining body to determine whether they feel that a candidate's beliefs will be a help or hindrance to his/her ministry. To say "#6: Must believe in Trinity." leaves too much unexplained. There's not enough to discern whether Bob's view of the Trinity or Jodie's view or Viola's view is adequate enough to earn a check mark. One could conceive a list of essentials that would be about 500 pages long with very specific doctrinal explications of each of the essentials (and lists of acceptable and unacceptable interpretations), but that would ultimately truly destroy liberty of conscience and IMO be an affront to the Lord of the conscience (see WCF).

  19. flycandler

    The way we do examinations these days is more complicated than a checklist. Before 1967 a presbytery asked a candidate if he/she (mostly he back then) had any scruples concerning the Westminster standards. If a candidate had such a scruple then the presbytery decided if the scruple was about an essential part of Westminster.

    Now with a Book of Confessions, particularly since the various documents disagree about some things, we have a candidate write a statement of faith and defend it. Will each presbyter look for certain essentials in the candidate's statement? Of course. But most presbyteries don't make lists of what the whole presbytery is looking for. (San Diego Presbytery is an exception to this) Instead each presbyter looks for what he/she considers to be essential. Further, I at least don't look for exact wording. I want to see an adequate statement about a variety of doctrines but the candidate should not use formulaic words. In fact I'm more concerned about candidates who use specific formulas because it looks to me like the candidate is just saying the right things to pass. Will I vote against a candidate if she/he explicitly denies a doctrine I consider to be essential? Of course I will. That's my job as a presbyter. If, for example, (and this example is very unlikely today) a candidate says that Jesus is only divine but was never really human, I will vote against the ordination or installation of that candidate.

    The beauty of the presbyterian system of government is that while governing bodies have power each member of the body only gets one vote. I get voice and one vote. In my presbytery, Philadelphia there are usually at least 200 presbyters at a meeting so my vote has little power. I like it that way, even when I think the presbytery is wrong.

  20. Bob, I don't disagree with you at all. Again, my background is in former PCUS churches, while yours and John's are in the former UPCUSA (which in turn can be subdivided into former PCUSA and former UPCNA). To my knowledge, the Confession of 1967 had little or no impact on ordinations in the Southern church until reunion.

    I think the current process, as you describe it, is the best way of examining candidates. What I fear is that checklists WILL enter into the process again if the San Diego document gains traction the way the Five Fundamentals did. I think you might misunderstand me: I'm not complaining about the current system, I'm worried about the future that many powerful voices are pushing for. IMO, freedom of conscience is something worth defending, whether it is your conscience or John Shuck's conscience or Jane Spahr's conscience or (shudder) Keith Hill's conscience, if the Body can remain whole.

  21. Flycandler,
    You write: "The "Son" is appropriate, but only because Jesus of Nazareth was born with a penis."

    Christ was the Son eternally and not because of any penis. Remember Jesus said before Abraham was "I am." The eternality of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is essential to who they are. The sonship of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with gender. But he is the eternal Son nevertheless.

  22. gokngnzuP.S. to my last comment Flycandler,
    I keep meaning to write this. Only the Mormons have Laymanites:)Read the book of Mormon.

  23. Sorry, I must have put the word verification into the text somehow.

  24. Essay Question:

    Part I:
    Detail the theological significance of the penis of Jesus.

    Part II:
    In the Resurrection, what kind of penis will we have?

  25. Excellent questions John.

    We know that Jesus had a penis because he was circumcised (Luke 2.21).

    This causes some rather awkward theological questions.

    1. Did Jesus heal his own tallywacker? If so, does that mean he was technically no longer a Jew?

    2. When Jesus was bodily resurrected, did he get his foreskin back too? Maybe THIS was the question Thomas should have asked--then again, maybe not (John 21.27).

    3. When Jesus returns in glory, will his foreskin also return in glory? Will that be something we necessarily want to see?

    (I really shouldn't be writing this when there are so many thunderclouds about).


    Viola, my point about the penis (hey John, how nasty is your blog rated NOW?) is that it would be appropriate to use the term for "male offspring" ("son") to describe Jesus and inappropriate to use the term for "female offspring" ("daughter") mainly because that as manifest on Earth, Jesus had a hoo-hoo-dilly and not a cha-cha. It has to do with whether Jesus was a Son or Daughter, not whether Jesus was begotten or not (misbegotten?).

  26. BTW, Viola, I'll finish The Book of Mormon as soon as you finish Dianetics. ;-)

    PS: I am more familiar with the former than the latter. Everything I know about Scientology I learned from South Park.

  27. From now on, I propose that all genitalia be referred to in John's blog as either a hoo-hoo-dilly or a cha-cha.

  28. **Calling God "Father" gives God an explicit gender and human sexual traits. The "Son" is appropriate, but only because Jesus of Nazareth was born with a penis.**

    I would agree with this, because both are pretty much biologically determined. If we say that someone is a father, whether by birth or adoption, then we mean that person has certain physical characteristics. Without those biological characteristics, what makes Jesus a "son?" Or God a "Father?"

  29. fly

    You are correct about not only the Confession of 1967 but all of the confessional documents in the Book of Confession outside of the Westminster Standards. The PCUS never adopted any other confessional documents until reunion in 1983

    As to whether presbyteries may or may not make a list of essentials, that is currently in the judicial system of the PCUSA. The first curious bit is that no one challenged the San Diego list within the appropriate time period to bring a remedial case before the Synod PJC. The only way one could challenge San Diego's list of essentials in the judicial system now would be to bring a remedial case if a candidate is turned down because he/she did not make a statement that included an adequate description of what San Diego Presbytery considers essential.

    The courts are in several curious places about the issue of essentials. Pittsburgh Presbytery's statement about essentials was overturned by the Synod PJC as was Sacramento's. One from a presbytery in Washington state was upheld by the Synod PJC. So we all wait with baited breath to find out what the GAPJC will say.

    Pittsburgh's, Sacramento's and the one in Washington were all about obedience to the mandates (shall, shall not, is to be, is not to be) in the Book of Order. I think they all reference G-6.0106b.

  30. OK, I admit it, I came out as 50% Yankee on the Are Y'all/Youse Yankee or Dixie? test. So this is the first place I have ever heard of the terms hoo-hoo-dilly or cha-cha. Does that make me irreparably Yankee?

    Beyond that please note, all that I said that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are names, not metaphors. Therefore the sex of God does not apply. I knew a girl in high school called Douglas, sister of my best friend at the time. She did get assigned to boy's PE but neither her name nor her class assignment made her male. One could also point to Johnny Cash's funny song called, "A Boy Named Sue." Being called Sue didn't make him a girl, although it got him in a lot of fights. (favorite like from the song: "My name is Sue! How do you do! Now you gonna die!")

    Do the names have implications for how we think about God? Of course! The real underlying problem goes back to an issue John and I talked about early on, one to which fly has referred and just came up again on John's site. God is personal. If God is personal we cannot use impersonal names or pronouns for God. We can use impersonal analogies and metaphors. In English as in Greek and Hebrew one can only use male or female names and pronouns for persons. God is not an it. One cannot have a personal relationship with a thing. So while we may talk about God as Creator, (a job title) that is not sufficient for a name of God because the word is not personal.

  31. Bob, my favorite line from the song comes at the end: If I ever have a son, I think I'm gonna name him...Bill or George! Anything but Sue! "

    Seriously, though, any name, title, or metaphor you choose to assign to God is going to be an incomplete description of who God is and what he/she does. That's where the Muslims have got it right with their concept of 99 names of God. God is too vast, too ineffable, for any of us to capture anything but a piece of God's infinite nature. And while I'm a big fan of having a personal relationship with God, I also think that the nature of that relationship is nothing comparable to the relationship that we have with human beings. While giving God a personal-sounding title may help aid us in our ability to personalize the way we communicate with the Divine, even the personal way that we describe God is a kind of metaphor for a reality that is beyond our comprehension.

    The only way that we as finite creatures can describe our encounters with the Infinite is via metaphors. That's all we've got. Father is a metaphor. Mother is a metaphor. Son is a metaphor. Creator does describe something of what God does, but it only captures a piece of it.

    I would, of course, go further and argue that the Trinity is just another imperfect human attempt at describing God's ineffable reality--and a rather convoluted one at that.

  32. **all that I said that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are names, not metaphors. Therefore the sex of God does not apply.**

    But there's more options here than just name or metapohr. Father and son also function as titles or descriptions. I understand what you're getting at, in needing to give some idea of what God is, and words are imperfect, at best.

    But why not just go with Parent/Child? There's not such a biological association with those, as there is with father or mother. It just seems that Father/Son aren't used according to what they mean in referring to God as eternally being the son.

  33. Heather said "why not just go with 'parent/child'?

    Because it leaves out the political implications and context of 'Father/Son'. At the time of Jesus, every emperor since at least Alexander the Great took on the title "Son of God". It goes with "Lord" It means "boss of everybody" not just "heavenly child".

    It was the position of the early Christians that their Lord was Jesus Christ, not the emperor, and that the title of "Son of God" belonged not ever to any emperor but forever and only to Jesus Christ who alone has authority to rule over his people.

    It's a question of allegiance and loyalty. In today's language, they would have been shocked at us pledging allegiance to the flag of a nation, even if it were - truly - under God.

    I am inclined to believe that was the first and foremost implication of Jesus being the "Son of God". Even if the philosopher theologians argued endlessly about the metaphysical and cosmological implications of the statement, the point they sometimes lost sight of was "who is your one and only boss?"

    (by the way Bob, there were Christians long before anybody articulated a belief in the Trinity, so you cannot say that not believing in the Trinity makes you not a Christian - that is totally anachronistic - you can only say that not being a Christian implies you are not a Trinitarian)


  34. I don't see any contradiction between these titles being both names and metaphors. The fact is that they are both. You simply can't get around the connotations associated with calling one person of the Trinity "Father". This is not a name pulled out of a hat, like Bill. If instead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we said Bill, Buffy, and Chad--those would be names. But when you use names that have roles associated with them in other contexts within human language, then you get into metaphor territory. It's impossible to escape that aspect of it. Especially when we are applying these titles to something that is so beyond ordinary experience--because something like God almost cannot be described except via resorting metaphors at some point in the discussion.

  35. **Because it leaves out the political implications and context of 'Father/Son'.**

    This might be anachronistic as well, but in today's times, the parent/child could still carry the political implications, with the understanding of how Father/Son functioned back then. Part of what would be carrying that back then is how male-dominated the world was, and just that the male had the highest power. Had the Israelites been matriarchal, I have no doubt God would be referred to as Mother. The point of the Roman Emperors being called the "Son of God" seems to put the emphasis, first and foremost, as a connection and divine right to rule, not to focus on the gender of the ruler. If it had been equal in terms of gender, then even child of God would carry weight. The "son" portion seems to be an afterthought, almost.

  36. (by the way Bob, there were Christians long before anybody articulated a belief in the Trinity, so you cannot say that not believing in the Trinity makes you not a Christian - that is totally anachronistic - you can only say that not being a Christian implies you are not a Trinitarian)

    Yes, yes, yes! This is one of my pet peeves about those who insist that you can't be a Christian if you are not a Trinitarian. Before the matter was settled in the fourth century, Christians of all stripes had all sorts of views about Jesus and his relation to God. To claim that one cannot be a Christian lest one believes in the Trinity ignores the diversity of belief that existed in the faith prior to the time that non-Trinitarian views were drummed out of the faith by those in power.

    The Trinity is an accident of history. The votes over Arianism versus the Nicene version of the faith went back and forth. There was bloodshed, there was Imperial intervention, there was political intrigue. One side won--and now this accident of history is considered even today as an essential of the faith, and Christian gatekeepers use that as a stick to beat out heretics with. And the diversity of thinking on questions like these that existed prior to the "settling" of the matter is written out of Christianity as well, apparently. The word anachronistic totally applies here.

  37. At the time of Jesus, every emperor since at least Alexander the Great took on the title "Son of God".

    The same could be said of the myth of the virgin birth of Jesus. Ancient heroes, Emperors, and Kings were often said to have been conceived by gods. Alexander the Great, for example, was said to have been conceived as the son of a god. Christians, by inventing the virgin birth myth, were appealing to this notion in the popular imagination that the greatness of Jesus required that he was conceived by a human-divine union.

    Justin Martyr, in fact, made this very point himself, when he wrote that "we introduce nothing new beyond those whom you call sons of Zeus."

  38. Seeker,

    I sympathize with you feeling like you're excluded or treated badly by trinitarian Christians. You and Jodie both have a point about there being Christians before the formulation of the doctrine of the trinity and of it not being explicit in scripture.

    However (you knew there was a but coming) you miss the point when you call the trinity an "accident of history". Everything is an accident of History. You are an accident of history. Jesus is an accident of history if you go that direction. It changes nothing. We live in a world in which Christians for over 16 centuries have expressed their faith primarily in trinitarian terms and by and large this has been enriching, indeed, the most breathtaking theology the church has produced is trinitarian in every era. Furthermore, the doctrine was codified in the fourth century, but it has roots deeper and the value in it is the way it opens scripture and dogmatics up in amazing ways. I am not prepared to say one MUST be trinitarian to be Christian. Clearly this is not true. However, missing the beauty of the trinity is like walking through the Louvre and then going - "meh".

  39. To mesh both Seeker and Jodie's points, another famous example of political leaders claiming divine parentage is Romulus and Remus.

    In a nutshell, an early Italian king forced Rhea Silvia to become a Vestal Virgin for thirty years (so that she would produce no heirs for her father). The god Mars found her attractive and raped her. On finding she was pregnant, the king ordered her to be buried alive (standard punishment for VVs who broke their vows) and the twin boys to be killed. A servant felt pity on the baby boys and set them adrift in the Tiber. A she-wolf found them and nursed them until a shepherd found the boys and raised them himself. Long story short, the boys grew up and slew said king. After a bit of weirdness involving vulture sightings and trench-jumping, Romulus got to found the Eternal City on his pick of the hills (Palatine) and named the city after himself (Roma) and killed his brother. Tradition says that Romulus was borne up into heaven at the end of his life (in a whirlwind) and made into the god Quirinius.

    See a few Biblical parallels? Even if one believes that Jesus' virgin birth, divine nature and bodily resurrection are literally true, one has to admit that the early Christians would find these aspects of their faith as particularly satisfying pokes in the eye to their Roman overlords. I still maintain that until Nero, Christianity was tolerated as just another fashionable cult by Rome (like the cults of Cybele, Isis, Mithras and Sol Invictus). Things changed when Nero needed a scapegoat for the burning of Rome while he farted around with a stringed instrument and started tossing Christians in the Colosseum. You see the subtle and not-so-subtle jabs at Nero throughout Revelation.

  40. BTW, I think we should offer a prize for whoever can figure out the subtle hint I gave about the origin of "hoo-hoo-dilly" and "cha-cha". John or Bob, can you arrange for some coupons for comped cups of ambrosia in the afterlife?

  41. Aric,

    As almost always, very well put.

    My 'but' is this. If the doctrine of the Trinity is all that you say, then it will hold its own in a fair debate in the marketplace of ideas. Challenges to the doctrine should be met with well thought out "pros" and "cons", its merits and detriments should be aired out, if corrections or adjustments are found necessary they will surface, and all of us will be enriched by the experience.

    The worst possible response to such challenges are cries of "heresy" and "blasphemy". That reaction indicts the doctrine and those that profess it and gives it the kiss of death really.

    That is where the cutting edge of the discussion lies. Not what it says or means, but how to insure the right and privilege to challenge any doctrine on its own merits.

    The Fundamentalists want to shut down all said discussions and for me that invokes a "give me liberty or give me death" response. I imagine I am not alone.


  42. Jodie

    First, the various debates you suggest are already going on inside the Church. There is a great deal of debate about how to talk about the Trinity today, what metaphors for the Trinity are appropriate and what are not, and even whether the doctrine is Biblical and/or useful or not.

    Remember I find it essential. Not all do.

  43. fly

    Can't promise any ambrosia but I have some contacts among the Catholics. Maybe I can get you a few thousand years off on your time in purgatory.

    But wait! I don't believe in purgatory! Oh well . . .

  44. Bob, I couldn't have said it any better, and I think it illustrates my point about the danger of essentials beautifully.

    The concept of a List of Essentials is dangerous because it quashes liberty of conscience. It means that you are no longer able to disagree with me about how we discuss the Trinity today, what metaphors are appropriate or not, and whether the doctrine is Biblical or not.

    To put it in Jodie's term, it shuts down the marketplace of ideas. I will say that the idea of a marketplace of theological ideas is bone-chilling for some, as it eliminates dogma. I submit that our historical Presbyterian tradition calls on us to open that marketplace up and have open, honest, respectful discussion (not unlike John and Bob's conversations series). If we ask ourselves tough questions about the Trinity, I believe our faith in the Trinity will ultimately become stronger.

    I know that there is a lot of talking at cross-purposes here. What I mean by "essential" is different from what Bob means by "essential" is different from what John means by "essential". I know that John and even Bob are not using the word in the sense that J. Gresham Machen did, but my fear is that in the context of the Presbyterian churches in the United States, that word has Machen's ghost firmly attached to it. We must not, we cannot go down that road again.

    I suppose it begs the question: so then what do we call it, Mr. Smarty Pants? How 'bout "crucial"? What is crucial to what I believe about Christianity? What, if I had limited words or time to explain my faith, would I consider the crucial elements? Being the language geek that I am, I also like the fact that the root of the word "crucial" is the Latin crux, or "cross".

  45. The concept of a List of Essentials is dangerous because it quashes liberty of conscience. It means that you are no longer able to disagree with me about how we discuss the Trinity today, what metaphors are appropriate or not, and whether the doctrine is Biblical or not.

    To put it in Jodie's term, it shuts down the marketplace of ideas.

    This is exactly what is happening in the Catholic Church. Just this week, we learn that the Catholic Church is investigating an American theologian for not exactly toeing the Vatican line. This is hardly an isolated case in that church. I think this is exactly the consequence of imposing "essentials", whatever those may be, on a church--the suppression of free inquiry leads to a stifling of religious thought and a shutdown of the human brain in religious circles. Theology becomes an exercise in simply justifying what is handed down from above, rather than a true exercise in theological exploration.

  46. It's the narcissism of our time, combined with an ignorance of history and the theological tradition, that leads people to believe that they have captured some new data demanding a reworking of the doctrine of God such that personal Trinitarianism would be abrogated.

    The Church isn't shutting out debate on the issue, but it's going forward with what it believes is true to the core of its being. I find it funny that these accusations of intellectual stubborness are never leveled at the academic establishment's claims of evolution and global warming. Should universities be funding the work at the Creation Museum in order to ensure that debate goes forward? If not, why is the Church expected to do the equivalent on the nature of theology? Especially among the officers who vow to uphold essentials.

    And here's a clue: if it's in the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed, it's essential. Trinity, incarnation, resurrection, and return are all found there. You can have a legitimate debate on what they mean in light of Biblical data, ideas held at the time, and further theological exploration. But to dismiss them as church power plays is callous handling of history.

  47. Chris,

    You said:

    "The Church isn't shutting out debate on the issue, but it's going forward with what it believes is true to the core of its being."

    "The Church"?!


  48. Hmm... so by Chris' logic, a candidate for ministry must be rejected if s/he fails to believe in the following:

    1. Jesus' biological father is actually the third person of the Trinity ("conceived by the Holy Ghost")

    2. The Virgin Birth

    3. Pontius Pilate was solely responsible for Jesus' torture and execution

    4. Jesus went to Hell

    5. The Holy Catholic Church

    6. Baptism grants forgiveness of sins

    It's a pretty radical statement, especially considering that the Nicene Creed was written about 260 years after Paul died and almost 300 after Jesus was crucified. The Apostles' Creed is not much older, maybe about 100 years at the most.

    It's also pretty radical considering that claiming the Apostle's and Nicene creeds as a list of essentials would also get one rejected by the OPC or PCA, who adhere strictly to the Westminster Confession of Faith.

    I don't know how many times John, Bob and I can rehash the history of the mainline Presbyterian church to get the point across: we made a conscious decision to reject the idea of a list of Fundamentals or Essentials for candidates for ordination as a matter of principle (specifically, that liberty of conscience is a gift from the Lord of the conscience).
    Just as our understanding of the world around us changes over time, our understanding of God changes over time. The very idea of a Book of Confessions is to show that we realize that we as a Church grow in our view of God. It is the very essence of the Reformation that the Church understand this: ecclessia reformata, semper reformanda, secundu Verbum Dei! The Church reformed, ever being reformed, after the Word of God!

  49. Thanks to all of you for the great comments! I thought of popping in to address one or another, but you all are doing just fine! It would be fun to have you all over for a sarsparilla!