Sunday, June 30, 2013

Grace and the Trinity

The current series on grace has three main posts still planned: this entry plus two others. There is also some additional material that may not fit cleanly into one of those posts and may be posted separately. The remaining posts are all interrelated; as this piece seems more of a foundation to the following two, it will be posted first. 

God in Three Persons, or Father, Son, and Spirit?

I'll start by briefly mentioning some thoughts I've written before -- some time ago -- about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It does actually matter whether we think of "God in three persons", or whether we think of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Bible does not know the language of "three persons in one godhead"; it speaks about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When the Bible speaks of "God" it generally means the Father. Speaking of the Father, Jesus says that people call him God (John 8:54). The Father is the "first person" not by accident but because He alone is without origin, unbegotten, self-existing; in Him the Son and Spirit have their source. If the Father alone is self-existing, how and why do we see God as more than the Father alone?

The Word of God is sent out by grace

So what is the true nature of Christ? The Bible does not speak of the "second person of the Trinity"; it speaks of the Word of God becoming flesh and living among us. I take this to mean that the Word of God is the true nature of the divine in Christ. The earliest church does not proclaim the "second person"; it speaks of the Word of God who becomes flesh and dwells among us in Christ. If God did not care to establish a relationship with the world, then the Word of God would have stayed hidden within God; the Word would not have been sent into the world. If God desired that we should relate to him only as servants -- to do as we are told, and look no further than that -- then all his words to us would be commands. The Word of God is not all commands; that teaches us that God did not intend us to be only servants.

The Word of God was sent forth into the world through various messengers and different types of message, each with its own kind of grace (more on that in an upcoming post). First, the Scriptures tell that the Word of God was the means of creation -- in which grace was established as the foundation of God's relationship with the world. In time, God's word called forth a people to live under his blessing and protection, to work for his purposes in this world. Under that covenant, the law called for God's people to be known for their integrity and goodness. In other times through his word, God showed us the beauty of holiness, held out visions of paradise, and promised the coming Messiah in the kingdom of God. God's word reveals his decision to be our leader, our teacher, our protector, our guide through the wilderness, and our hope.

Moving forward, the Word of God became flesh and lived among as Jesus. Here we see the fulfillment of God's decision to join with us, to be "God with us". In Christ, in living with us, God establishes his love for us, and establishes our forgiveness. Where grace had always been our human hope, that hope was given solid ground in Christ: grace was set as a covenant. The covenant was no afterthought, and the incarnation was no afterthought. The act of love, the purpose of grace, is part of the essential nature of Christ, the living Word of God.

The Spirit of God is sent in grace

Then what is the true nature of the Spirit? Again, the Bible speaks of the Spirit of God in the same way that it speaks of the spirit of a man knowing his thoughts within him. I take this to mean that the Spirit of God is the true nature of the Holy Spirit. When we think rightly of the Holy Spirit, we remember that the Spirit is essentially, genuinely, the Spirit of God who knows God's thoughts within him.

The Spirit of God is poured out on the world and lives in us.* This living in us is an act of goodwill towards us -- that is to say, an act of grace. In it, God increases his fellowship with us, which is a remarkable gift. The ancient Temple at Jerusalem was inlaid with gold, with cedars of Lebanon, adorned with fine embroidery and images of heavenly beings -- it was a beautiful, pure, and holy place, and was blessed with the presence of God. Now we are called to be his living temple. (Are we supposed to build our hearts inlaid with love like gold, and righteousness like the cedars of Lebanon? Or as the Psalmist says, "Your Law to me is better than gold.") If God living in a city was a blessing and honor to the city, if God living in a nation was a blessing and honor to the nation, then consider God's presence living in us, and in all his people. If the Spirit of God is that inner part that knows God's thoughts within him, then how does that Spirit come to us? The Spirit of God only comes to us because God chooses to pour out his Spirit on his people. Grace is the essential answer of how the Spirit of God comes to be within us, rather than only within God.

What does that mean?

The very nature of the God -- Father, Son, and Spirit -- reaches into the world until it is accomplished that he lives in us, until we have hope in him, and we have fellowship with him and with each other. If "Trinity" is how our minds see and understand God, then our understanding of God is structured by his workings in the world to accomplish the beginnings of restoration here and now in our lives.

It may be that this is how and why, if the Father alone is self-existing, we see God as more than the Father alone. Trinity is inherently a matter of grace: the Word and the Spirit reach out into the world and communicate God's attributes and God's own spirit to us, by their constitution -- by God's decision from the foundation of the world to be the God who loves us, to be God with us.

And the footnote referenced above, which would have disrupted the flow of thought earlier

* The Holy Spirit lives particularly where the message of Christ -- the message of God's grace -- has been trusted, as Paul challenges his readers in Galatia to remember: "... before your eyes, Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. Tell me just one thing: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?" (Galatians 3:1-2)

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A word about "faith", and about Christ

Here I want to look closely at one word in the New Testament: "faith". That word is important to Christians, and to Christian life and thinking. As we look at "faith", I'd like to look at one passage in particular that says something striking about faith -- or nothing at all, depending on the translation.

The New Testament has come down to us in Greek, even if some works may have been written in other languages originally. It is from the Greek that we translate into the languages that we use ourselves. The main Greek word for "faith" is πίστις (or Strong's G4102, for searching with that method). It is used 244 times in the New Testament, and in the AV (King James) it was translated almost always as "faith". Of those 244 uses, it was translated 239 times as "faith", 3 times as forms of "belief" or "believe", once as "fidelity", and once -- only once -- as "assurance". It is a word which was almost always taken to mean "faith" as used back in the day when that translation was made. In some modern translations we also see other words like "trust" used to translate that some word. "Trust" is particularly apt in many cases. Still, it is the once  -- only once -- that the AV translates it as "assurance" rather than "faith" that I want to look at more closely:
He (God) has given ______ to all by raising him (Christ) from the dead. (Acts 17: 31)
What exactly has God given to everyone by raising Christ from the dead? The translators of the King James here decided against the normal translation of "faith", instead turning towards "assurance" (AV). The old NIV went with "proof of this", which is not at all how they typically translated that Greek word. These special and unusual translations of the word are probably because the translator was firmly convinced that the sentence "God has given faith to all by raising Christ from the dead" makes no sense. Of course the words make sense; but who thinks Paul could have really meant that? Let's look a little more at translations of that word, and that it does have more than one meaning as we would see it in English, before we get back to this question.

Paul, the righteousness of God, and faith: Romans

Many people know more than one language, and know that translations can be tricky. For any word in one language, there can be several different words with different shades of meaning in another language. This creates a pair of problems: not only which word to choose, but also how to show that there was not such a huge difference between the concepts for the original writer.

With that in mind, let's look at "faith" and we'll start with a less controversial sentence, I hope: Paul's topic sentence in writing to the Romans:
For the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith." (Romans 1:17)
The AV sticks with "from faith to faith" even though that's hard to understand in English. The NIV drops "from faith to faith" entirely and tries to find the meaning, saying "by faith from first to last".  But the more I read Romans and follow the train of thought and the line of argument, the more I think "from first to last" is not what Paul meant. Let's watch Paul develop his train of thought, then, and come back to "from faith to faith". The whole book of Romans is worth re-reading but I will hardly quote the whole thing here. I'll quote from the parts that are most directly developing the topic of faith, and hope that the reader reads along for more than is directly quoted here.

1.  Here Paul contrasts human lack of faith with God's faithfulness.
What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God's faithfulness? May it not be! Let God be true, and every man a liar. (Romans 3:3)
Paul contends that God is true: he is constant in his faithfulness, unchanged by our lack of faith.

2. Here Paul speaks of Abraham's example of faith, and we read Paul's introduction and concluding remarks about Abraham's example:

What does Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." (Romans 4:3)

Yet he (Abraham) did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. That is why "it was credited to him as righteousness". (Romans 4:20-22)
Paul argues that Abraham's faith consisted in trusting that God could keep his promises. Abraham thought that God was trustworthy and faithful. "Faith" is what you call that attitude towards someone when you consider them to be trustworthy and faithful.

3. Here Paul explains how Christ fits into the picture of the righteousness that is by faith:

But the righteousness that is by faith says, "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?' (that is, to bring Christ down) or 'Who will descend to the deep?' (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? "The word is near you: it is in your mouth and in your heart", that is the word we are proclaiming. That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. As the Scripture says, "Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame." For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile -- the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." (Romans 10:6-13)
Again we see Paul proclaiming God's faithfulness: that the one who trusts in God will not be put to shame, that he blesses all who call, that all who call on him will be saved. So God's faithfulness is the basis of our faith.

Paul has already mentioned Christ in the passage that we just read, about how Jesus is Lord, and how God raised him from the dead. Here he continues about how we come to faith:

Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17)
It is in Christ that we know God's faithfulness: his love for creation, his commitment to heal, his promise of resurrection, the justice to come at the last day, the mercy of forgiveness.

4. So back to Paul's topic sentence for the letter to the Romans:

For the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith ...

Based on how Paul develops his thoughts on "faith" throughout the letter, I expect Paul was using more than one sense of the word here. The same word means "faith" and "faithfulness". I think he was saying that God has proven himself to be faithful (trustworthy) towards us, and that God's trustworthiness is the basis for our trust in him. Once we grasp God's righteousness, once we understand God's faithfulness, that is what it means to have faith in him. And so our faith consists in our understanding of God's goodness, in our conviction that he has promised a good thing and will accomplish it as he said. And that faith is credited to us as righteousness. That is how there is something "revealed": The righteousness of God is revealed in his faithfulness, which gives us faith (from faith, to faith).

By raising Christ from the dead

So what should we say?
He (God) has given ______ to all by raising him (Christ) from the dead. (Acts 17: 31)
You can fill in the blank with "assurance" or "proof" if you like. But when we resist saying "faith" here, it is because in our language we do not think of "faith" in the way Paul did, where God's raising Christ from the dead was the full demonstration of God's trustworthiness and faithfulness toward the world, seen as proof enough for the world of how right it is to hope in God through Christ. It was seen as proof enough for the world of everything that the message of Christ entails: hope of the world to come, new life, resurrection from the dead, justice and mercy. Christ's resurrection is the ultimate mind-opening, heart-opening, hope-inspiring event of all time. It is our message, and it is the message that brings faith.

What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God's faithfulness? May it not be! Let God be true, and every man a liar. (Romans 3:3)
Some people will say that faith is a gift of God (Eph 2:8, and assuming that the gift being referred to is faith).  But when we see a passage that says that same thing is given to all by a generally known event -- Jesus' resurrection, arguably the most momentous event in the world's history -- what will we say? Will we say that God has given faith to some but not others? Does God's act in establishing our faith consist in something more than putting proof (or assurance) right before our eyes? Granted that some do not have faith; but God is still faithful, and has still shown it to all.

That is how people come to faith: "Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ." Consider also that Jesus said that, when the Son of Man is lifted up (on the cross), he will draw all to himself (John 12:32). Because
God has given _______ to all by raising Christ from the dead.
When we hear that God gives us faith, and that God draws us, time and again we hear that it is through the message of Christ. I wonder very much: Is it right to look for any other giving and drawing, or is it all in the message of Christ? Regardless of how you translate that one word here, we can be sure that there is something unique that God has given to all in raising Christ from the dead. How exactly should we understand that unique thing that God has given to all in raising Christ? And why would Paul choose that word for it?

Grace from the foundation of the world

The usual disclaimer in posts which mention Genesis and creation: I offer these comments hoping they are helpful regardless of whether the reader views that as historic or symbolic, because either way it is food for thought.  

Among Christians, it seems generally agreed that God loved the world at its creation, and has loved the world from its foundation. That's directly on topic when it comes to God's grace, so let's take a closer look.
Grace is established in the act of creation

God's goodwill towards creation was not an afterthought. In its natural state, the world is good. God intended creation to be good, and he created it to be good, and then he recognized it as good. Now anyone who makes or creates does that by bringing things out of themselves. As Jesus said on another occasion: The one who is good out of the treasures of his heart brings forth what is good. In the same way, out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks -- or the mind imagines and speaks and creates. So creation's goodness is a natural outcome of God's goodness. God's goodwill towards creation comes from his own goodness: it was from the original treasures of his goodness that he created, which caused the natural goodness of what he has made. That is to say: God's grace towards the world is established in the act of creation.

Grace is the natural order of things

It follows that God's goodwill towards what he made -- grace -- is the natural order of things. "Grace" and "nature" are not meant to be separate. While "nature" speaks of the things and their natural workings, "grace" speaks of their natural relationship to their creator. From the original state of creation, it is a mistake to think that nature is lacking something unless grace is added to it, as if this adding was an uncertain outcome, as if grace was not part of the act and purpose of creation. Instead, nature is intended to exist in God's grace, and it was created in God's grace. In the same way, we should not think that human nature in the original state of creation is lacking something unless grace is added to it. Again, grace is the intended natural state, and the lack of grace is the unnatural state.

So the desire for grace permeates the world

In this imperfect world, the idea of creation can seem distant to us. Still, in every good thing, and so often in the natural world, we catch a glimpse of that undiluted goodness, that undiminished glory that reminds us of how things might be. Every good thing draws us and calls us back towards our original state of grace. Every good thing is, then, a preparation for grace.

Even the bad that we experience is a sharp reminder of what we wish we had, a call to return to what is good. Every loss, every fear, every worry, every hurt directs us to look back to what we lost, or forward to what we might regain. Every petty or hateful thought that runs through our minds, every unkind word or even cruel action, causes us shame for what we have become, and calls us to pray to God to create in us a clean heart. We live in a world where day by day things steadily increase this restlessness and desire. As Augustine once said, "Our hearts are restless until they rest in You." This restlessness, this longing for grace, is a constant part of our world, part of the human experience. Because of all this, there is a general tendency of things to turn our thoughts toward God. Life contains a steady stream of occurrences that prompt us to look for God.

And the promise of grace permeates our hopes

We do not think of paradise as lost beyond hope. We look forward to paradise as the intended future. From early times, religion has spoken not only of the breach between heaven and earth, but also of its restoration. There has been a promise of reconciliation between heaven and earth, God and man. To greater or lesser extent, this thought is found in every religion that I have yet reviewed. In each faith there is the promise of renewal or paradise or reunion with the infinite. Sometimes that promise also looks for some great future man of God or presence of God in the world. In the Jewish faith with its deep and nourishing visions of paradise, we find the promise of the coming kingdom of God linked to the hope of the Messiah who will bring restoration to the world.

Religion exists in part to keep human hope alive. These hopes take firmer shape wherever the promises of the prophets are read and studied. And now, for roughly 2000 years, we have celebrated how those early promises have made their actual beginnings in our world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, in his healing and in his teaching and most of all in his resurrection. What happens in Jesus is directly connect to both our primal thoughts of a world without corruption, and our persistent longing for a future where that world is realized. But what grounds do we have for thinking about this promise of grace as reality?

Paul once said that God has given faith* (or proof* or assurance*, if you'd rather) to all by raising Jesus from the dead. In his resurrection, we have God's open, on-the-record demonstration to the world of the reality of those promises, the reality of the hope to which we are called.

And it is our part to hold out the promise of hope and renewal to the world. Starting from Jesus' resurrection, we have the message he sent us to proclaim of repentance and forgiveness in his name. Everyone can know the reality of that hope. We have the honor of explaining God's love for the world, his faithfulness to what he has made, and the redemption that has begun in Jesus.

* This is the topic of the next post, already written and posting immediately after this one, looking into the relationship between grace and faith.