Sunday, October 25, 2020

Why the Holy Spirit was not a Driving Force for the Doctrine of Trinity

If the early Christian church had believed Jesus to be simply human, they would not have developed a doctrine of the Trinity. If we ask, "Why did the Christians come to understand God so differently?", the answer revolves around Jesus. That is to say: the conversation in the early church started with Jesus and how they understood Jesus. 

There was a separate conversation about the Holy Spirit, and that conversation took place slightly later in church history. By the time that conversation came into focus for the Christian community, there had already been centuries of conversation about how to understand Jesus. There seems to have been an expectation by that point in time: whatever had been decided about Jesus, the same logic should apply to thinking about the Holy Spirit. They brought parallel reasoning to the question of how to understand the Holy Spirit, and eventually reached the doctrine of the Trinity as it is known today. As with any summary, that is simplified; the relevant point is that the Christian experience of the Holy Spirit did not demand the same conversation. The church's experience of the Holy Spirit did not demand any changes to the idea of One God. 

To make my point clearer, think for a moment about the Holy Spirit. For those who take guidance from the Bible, the Spirit is clearly non-human, clearly uncreated, clearly based solely in God. In church history I have not seen any serious Christian disputes about the eternal divine nature of the Holy Spirit. So why didn't the church's experience with the Holy Spirit drive the conversation about the Trinity? And consider that for centuries Judaism had lived comfortably with awareness of the Holy Spirit without questioning the oneness of God. 

The answer seems to lie here: Many viewed the Holy Spirit as something like an extension of God, and not as fully distinct from God. While that question does not arise with Jesus, it is an important question in our understanding of the Holy Spirit. 

(Part of a series, to be continued.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Think on these things

Whatever is lovely, excellent, or praiseworthy, think on these things ... 

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Trinity: Why did Christians develop such a different understanding of God?

All of Jesus' original apostles were Jewish. Of the documents in the New Testament, only two (Luke and Acts) were known to be written by a Gentile. To the best of our knowledge, the rest of the New Testament was written by people who were life-long Jews, who continued to see themselves as Jews while understanding Jesus as the Messiah. In the Second Temple era there were different Jewish groups with different opinions on various points of law and texts, but none of those mainstream groups disputed monotheism: There is only one God, and God is one. 

From that background, why not keep to the most obvious solution: That Jesus is simply human, and so the Jewish understanding of God remains unchanged? It's important to any following discussion that we take the first step seriously and make the first point clear: Why is there a need for any discussion at all? The whole question could have been a non-starter; possibly the most natural view of that topic would have been as a non-starter; so why did something else happen? 

Or to come from the other direction, we can look at the alternatives to the Trinity that have been considered. Over the centuries, Christians wrestled with other options such as: Maybe Jesus was fully divine and his humanity was merely an appearance; or maybe Jesus was adopted by God; or maybe Jesus was the one through whom all things were made as the first of God's creations. Still in our times we see alternatives like: Maybe Jesus was an angel, or maybe Jesus is a god but not the God of this world, or maybe God is one and Jesus is one way that God appears to us. (These are my fumbling attempts to summarize the views of Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and Oneness Pentecostals; if anyone can suggest a clearer way to word those, or finds a more accurate way to summarize, those suggestions would be welcome.) 

Why take a quick survey of the alternatives? To show that even the Christians who have not agreed with the doctrine of the Trinity generally don't say that Jesus is simply human. Even among feuding sects who hesitate to recognize each other as belonging to the same religion, there's an unintended consensus on that one point: There's more going on with Jesus than "simply human". 

If we were to make a decision tree of how people understand him, the first point might be, "Is Jesus simply human?" At that point, not only the prevalent Christian theologies but most of the alternative Christian theologies join together in the same answer: No. 

For this blog, most of the readers are familiar with the reasons why the answer is generally: No. In the New Testament, the early records of Jesus introduce him with John the Baptist fulfilling prophecies about preparing the way for the LORD -- texts that in the original language use the Divine Name. Even in the shortest, possibly least-theological gospel in the New Testament, that of Mark, we find his opponents challenging him over whether he is laying claim to God's authority: "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" And even in that early document we find words attributed to Jesus in which he questions their understanding of the promised Messiah: "Why does David call him Lord?" 

The alternative gospels -- the ones outside the New Testament -- do not present us with a merely human Jesus either. Consider the Coptic Gospel of Thomas: "Jesus said, 'I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.'" (Saying #77)

These few texts are not presented in order to prove any point, but as a sample of the reasons why someone might look at the documents and think: Jesus' followers didn't think he was simply human; and unless they were inventing what he said then Jesus didn't consider himself simply human either. That lies at the heart of why Christians developed a different understanding of God, and to some extent still wrestle with it today: How exactly do we understand the information that we have, being faithful to the facts as we know them? 

(Part of a series)

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Reviewing the Trinity: Authority, Proof Texts, and Ways Forward

I have a long-standing interest in the tracing the origins of the teachings of the church. The Trinity has an interesting place among Christian doctrines: it is never directly taught in Scripture; there are Scriptures that seem to support it and others that seem to contradict it. It has been the subject of much debate, and conversation is fenced off carefully: the wrong answer may find you excommunicated from many churches. Despite the problems with the doctrine, I'm not aware of a better explanation for how God is described in the sayings of Jesus and the writings of the apostles. This post will not propose to resolve that, but to size up the "authority" approach and the familiar proof-text pool for avenues to move the conversation forward. 

The "authority" approach does not seem capable of resolving the matter fully. By the "authority" approach, I mean the situation where the church cites its authority to resolve disputes over its own teachings and declares the question resolved, or claims the Spirit's guidance. That creates pockets of acceptance wherever that particular source of authority is respected or that particular claim of guidance is believed. Outside of that scope, the claim is only as respected as the reasoning that supports it; the teaching must prove its legitimacy. That brings us back to the original sayings of Jesus and the writings of the apostles, and how we understand those. 

Beyond the most obvious point -- that the Trinity is not taught directly -- several other points catch my attention about the texts brought to support the different views: 

  • The gospels of Mark and Luke are cited less often, despite their interest in Jesus' identity
  • Only a few passages in Matthew are cited, again though there is interest in Jesus' identity
  • The Gospel of John has some of the more directly applicable comments for both sides of the debate. When both sides rely on the same document, it raises questions about whether we may have misunderstood the document. 
  • There is also an item that isn't directly addressed very often: Even in passages that are quoted as proof of the Trinity, when the word "God" occurs it generally refers to the Father specifically. 

The doctrine of the Trinity seems to have a specific job: to safeguard our insistence that God is one, and to reconcile that with the divinity of Christ. That is: rather than the idea being developed directly for its own sake and on its own basis, it seems to have been developed indirectly to serve a function of supporting other teachings. 

In the centuries since the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, the teachers of the church have often read the Bible while focusing on academic points that touch on this doctrine, rather than focusing on the original point. For example, how often can we discuss the blessing "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" without focusing on Christ's grace, or God's love, or the Spirit's fellowship? In some ways, drawing the different verses into the controversy has been a disservice to their original message. 

Since the doctrine of the Trinity seems to have been developed indirectly, and since a return to the original sources seems the most productive approach, I hope to spend some time in the coming weeks looking at what the Scriptures say about the identity of Christ, and how we understand that in light of the oneness of God. 

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Is it possible to speak the truth without love?

 I have found myself wondering lately whether it is possible to speak the truth without love. Up until recently I would have said "Yes, but it will sound like a noisy gong or clanging cymbal;" it brings discredit on the word 'truth' to use it as a tool of hatred. I've seen it done so often. The phrase "brutal honesty" generally claims the right to use truth as a tool of brutality. 

But recently I have given more attention to how deeply distorted our thoughts become under the influence of hatred and its gateway emotions such as anger and fear. Is any person rightly the subject of pure hatred? Is there a human being without any redeeming qualities? Is there anyone who is completely without decency? I have not met them; they show up commonly in stories meant to entertain: stories meant to frighten children. 

If no person is honestly seen as an object of hatred, then no discussion of the person that comes from a place of hatred is a fully honest one. The hatred distorts the one thing most important to the conversation about another human being: their humanity. So I am considering the possibility that when the Bible tells us to "speak the truth with love," that it may not be possible to speak the truth without it. 

Cutting-room floor: It doesn't fit neatly into my main point so it's here as a post-script. I'm having trouble seeing if there's any difference between "telling half the truth" and "telling a half-truth" (which is a euphemism for lying). And yet how many places these days do we hear only half the truth?