Monday, 30 November 2015

Triadic formulae

For your perusal and reflection here are some of the more prominent triadic formulae texts and some thoughts about how determinant they might or should be in justifying the doctrine of the Trinity.

References: Matthew 3:16-17     Matthew 28:19 Mark 1:10-11     Luke 3:22            John 14:26       John 15:26          Acts 2:33             2 Corinthians 13:14         1 Peter 1:2                        

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all [1].

These passages are often cited as presenting strong support for Trinitarian views, because they show very close references to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, even connectedness in some cases. However, few actually pause to note that in the key passage of 2 Corinthians 13:14 only one of the Three mentioned is properly called “God”, and that is very consistent with the kind of trinitarianism that we have seen developing in the second and third centuries.

1 Peter 1:2 (salvation) and Matthew 3:16-17, Mark 1:10-11 and Luke 3:22 (Jesus’ baptism) are good verses to prepare for fourth century views on the doctrine of inseparable operations, but again “triadic” ≠ “Trinitarian”. Indeed, in the 1 Peter passage, the unique identification of “God” with one of the three (the Father) is very similar to the 2 Corinthians passage. Overstating the trinitarian ideas at work here is also illustrated by Larry Hurtado’s New International Biblical Commentary on Mark, which sails right through the Markan baptism passage without the slightest reference to any threeness motifs whatsoever[2].

Notice how it is impossible for these passages to be both truly triadic and truly Trinitarian, if God is the One True Triune God. If God is the One True Triune God, then we are forced to say things we actually say ourselves or dream to be in the author’s intentions:

May the grace of the Lord God Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, and the fellowship of God the Holy Spirit be with you all[3].

It would appear that consistent application of Trinitarian dogma could even harm the original triadic beauty, and actually dismantle anything “triadic” about the statement anyway. This suggests, therefore, that God, in these triadic formulations, is exegetically, and consistently, the Father (see especially Acts 2:33 for the clearest example).

Continuing on to John’s triadic references, we get to the heart of the Catholic-verses-Orthodox passages, whereby each focus on different parts of these verses to argue their case for how the Holy Spirit might proceed. It is true that for John in these passages in chapters 14 and 15, there are simple Father, Son and Holy Spirit combinations that would seem suggestive, although John seeing “Father” and “God” as pretty synonymous terms is fairly clear by studying the “God sent Jesus” passages: John 6:29, John 8:42, John 16:27, John 16:30, John 17:3b, 1 John 4:9 and 1 John 4:10[4].

The suggestiveness of these triadic expressions seems weak, except for one. The most suggestive example I can see of the Triadic formulae is at the end of Matthew, where Jesus commands his disciples to make more disciples, baptising them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Trinitarians sometimes emphasise the “One Name” here. We do not have time to develop the strength of this evidence here, I simply wanted to acknowledge it and remember that this trifold formula does indeed extend back very early into church practice, as we can see in the Didache.

[1] 2 Corinthians 13:14
[2] L. Hurtado, New International Biblical Commentary: Mark, p. 19-21, Paternoster, Carlisle, 1995.
[3] The absurdity of such attempts has been more documented around 1 Corinthians 8:6: For there is one God, the Father, … and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ…
[4] Acts 3:20 is non-Johannine but also fairly clear.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Colours as a useful illustration of distinctiveness

To understand what is going on inside of me is going to require more than words. Just now a powerful picture presented itself to me around the theme of colours

Colours are stunning because of the way they contrast, blend, compliment, contrast, inspire wonder. If the Trinity was collapsed into a singular colour, let us imagine for a moment that all that was red, blue and yellow were no longer red blue and yellow but brown. If it were a bucket of paint, then every drop would contain redness, blueness and yellowness in order for it to be sludge-coloured. Yet not one drop would be that colour. I am tempted to do something creative - maybe a video - around this. 

Church, please remember your distinctive God!

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Theology in worship continued: How Great Is Our God

I am still not done with the arche thread, but a song I (mostly) sang last week in a collective worship context reminded me of the theology in worship thread, which is a very open thread. Previous posts tracked a number of songs considered by to be among the best of 2014, grounded on three or four criteria, one of which was apparently biblical faithfulness.

Last week, I turned something of a new page. No, I have not suddenly become a Trinitarian trumpeter, but I do now have a deeper desire to serve God and the church. It's quite exciting. One area where I can see coinciding my own Scripture-minus-creeds reading and the Church's Scripture-plus-creeds reading is on person distinctiveness. Since the fouth century, it has always been heretical to believe that the Father is the Son. Declared orthodoxy is that somehow the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the one true God in a qualitative way (one essence or substance). The big question is: is it still heretical today to be a modalistic Christian?

Today's song I object to because of the new shared-ground foundation. As before, first the song, then the lyrics to give readers time to have a think about where things might be going awry.

The splendor of a king
Clothed in majesty
Let all the earth rejoice
All the earth rejoice

He wraps Himself in light,
And darkness tries to hide
And trembles at His voice
Trembles at His voice

How great is our God
Sing with me
How great is our God
And all will see
How great, how great is our God

Age to age He stands
And time is in His hands
Beginning and the end
Beginning and the end

The Godhead Three in One
Father, Spirit, Son
Lion and the Lamb
Lion and the Lamb

Name above all names
Worthy of all praise
My heart will sing
How great is our God

As with many modern worship songs, the Father is mainly absent. I actually would say that He is totally absent from this song, and I want to explain why that is because it must seem like a nonsense following on from the line "Father, Spirit, Son".

This song is pure modalism. It is one thing to sing only a song to Jesus - that's more than fine, provided churches do not do this to the overall detriment of the Father or to the detriment of the precious interplay between them and the Spirit. But this song is all about Jesus, it is describing him as king, correct, clothed in majesty, correct, inspiring awe, correct. Then we have the chorus (How great is our God..."), which could just about be seen as a step back to admire the full Triune God, or even more unlikely, letting our gaze now turn to the Heavenly Father by whom we are now connected through Jesus. But then you get to verse 4, and you realise that we are simply too optimistic in evaluating Chris Tomlin's care. His line about Father Spirit Son, Godhead three in one seems to now cast the song in a deep and rich historic depth. But if you had any doubt at all about what I am saying, look at the very next line: the lion and the lamb. BOTH OF THESE DESCRIBE GOD'S SON JESUS.

It's pure modalism, friends; albeit with a slightly different twist to the traditional Sabellian controversy. More on that another time.

We should all consider pushing the eject button on this song!

Thursday, 19 November 2015

God's unconditional love is not enough

When I did my theology diploma in 2002, we had the privilege of inviting Bob Mumford to teach us about the love of the Father, the agape love, totally unconditional. Love without a hook.
I wish I could have asked him about a passage I read this morning in John 16...
Jesus is talking to his disciples:
"The Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God..."
Then Jesus' disciples said, "now you are speaking plainly and without figures of speech".
As a believer in Jesus and follower of him, I am relieved to still be on the benefiting end of this conditional love. But hang on a second, did I just say "conditional love"?
(Anyone just dropping by the blog - my above statement does not summarise my religious beliefs)
This statement warrants some explanation. I believe that John is unpacking Jesus' message after decades of meditation and revelation of what happened during those three short years by means of God's Spirit. Apart from the vine, you whither (John 15:6). For me these chapters have been tremendously helpful this week in re-centering my faith in God and his incredible Son. 

But is God's love truly to be understood as universal and unconditional? Or only in the sense that it is available for anyone who loves (friendship love; agape is not specified) the son and believes that he came from God? The trickiest thing about the way John puts this or remembers this is that it seems to imply that the friendship-love initiative or onus is placed on the believer.

What do you think? If you are a believer, have you embraced a readily available love or a real, already active love? Could we have here is a fascinating complimentarity between the agape and phileo love?

Agape seems to not be a full expression of all God has for us! It is wonderful - but it is general, unspecific, lacks the unique richness of phileo.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

The problem of good...

There was a lot of evil committed last night in Paris. My thoughts go out to the many families touched by these disastrous choices. God please break this evil.

Today's post has been a draft for quite a few months, but I am going to release it now.

A lot has been said of the problem of evil, and from what I have understood in philosophy the very nature of the problem has changed (from a philosophical standpoint). It all began more or less with the issue of the unspeakable evils in this world: how could an infinitely good and infinitely powerful God stand by and watch the horrors of torture, murder etc?

As horrendous as this is, I find my own attention drawn to different philosophical problem: the problem of Good. And this fascination for me goes back to 2007 when I finally realised that some people, non-believers, exhibited far greater evidence (fruit) of Holy Spirit character than some Christians, myself absolutely included. That had been a faith-shaker for me before I felt God showed me a way through this.

However, philosophically, there are other issues. When Philip Yancey delves into stacks of real-life examples that seem to poorly fit the superficial explanations, he focusses on damage caused by wrong (or over-narrow) teaching about evil, that can completely undermine faith in the good God. I remember vividly one example of a plane crash that someone wrote to Yancey about, in hope of an explanation.

In the plane crash, some people survived, some died. In a church service after this event, prayers of thanks for the "miraculous" escape of those that survived and prayers of peace and consolation for the families of the bereaved. It struck the person writing to Yancey as so unfair and inconsistent that God gets no blame when things go bad and all the credit when things turn out well, even in the same incident (accident).

Really both these problems concern how God is interacting with this world. It also concerns how we understand the freedom He has given us. Open theism says that God does not necessarily know in advance all the choices we will make. Yet he does know where history is headed and is Himself involved in guiding it toward that outcome. I think, but do not know for sure, that it also accepts that there are also chaotic and random factors at work. I will have to check with my open theist friend D. and ask him. The mainstream view, however, remains that God knows everything, and that includes the future.

Q: The wages of sin are death. We all deserve to die. Is anything other than death then a bonus?

Some very dubious and profoundly unsatisfying logic begins to flow at this point.
True Christians cannot die in accidental plane crashes, for thanks to our sinless saviour we no longer need to pay that price for our sin.
There truly are random events out there. This creates another problem, but it is one I am much more ready to embrace.
R  a     n  do         m

That word warrants savouring in your mouth (or mind) a moment. You cannot predict for sure the outcome in advance, but you can measure probability.

Let me give a crazy scenario that turns my blood a little cold. Imagine that in the USA, 40 ℅ of air passengers are practising Christians. Let us also imagine that the probability of an incident involving some fatalities but not all fatalities is approximately 1 in a million. It would be mathematically possible to work out how long it would it be before it would be more likely than unlikely that the only survivors in an incident were believers in Jesus. It is precisely the same kind of calculation that as rolling a dice and predicting if you roll a six or not. At first you are not surprised at rolling other numbers, but if you roll the dice a million times and not once roll a six, then your dice is probably weighted, right? Or what about the disease that only 1 in a thousand recover from? How does the Christian thank God if they are "healed"? How can they know it was faith, God's hand etc that did it?
So the problem for me and the question I am asking is how to be thankful when I or others benefit from random good? Does it do my faith any good to publicly or privately express thanks to God as though he caused this good directly? That shows Him that I believe that had He not intervened, or even had we not prayed, the good would not have happened. But I do not believe that can be reasonable.

God is a God of Truth. He will not, I feel sure, be glorified by exaggerated accounts or false accounts of direct intervention. Truth is and must be sufficient.

We rejoice always. Philippians 4:4.

I will do a follow-up post on moving away from direct causal assumptions by believers regarding divine intervention, what that might be and alternative ways to define it that might bring more satisfaction to my problems with the miracle-obsession.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Defending what you know

Yesterday I suffered a real disappointment, and it gave my faith another punch in the gut. If you are a really strong believer in miracles to the point that you describe anything good that happens as miraculous, then you may not find this post comfortable - please feel free to continue to another blog or post that is more up your street.

Some of you know that if I have turned to theology it is in part at least due to a foot injury I sustained back in Spring 2013, which has had a quite profound impact on my life as I was at that time a passionate distance runner. I proceeded to very slowly accept that I could no longer do it seriously and that I could no longer drive manual gear-shift cars without making the problem worse. Cycling was out too.

In July of this year, while attempting once again to resume just a very little running, I tore my calf muscle on the other side. Six weeks rolled by, and I started to realise that it wasn't improving and did some tests. These revealed a tear and the need for some physiotherapy. Around about this time, it occurred to me that this was maybe "a blessing in disguise". I regret that thought. Despite the multiple unanswered prayers regarding my foot and huge disappointment, something in me always aspires back to hope... culminating in fresh disappointment. This time, I though just maybe I could understand God's wisdom: a second injury, because I was always so obstinate in trying to resume, could be just what I needed to allow the main injury to heal. I wanted to show my enthusiasm and desire to still believe and shared this idea of "blessing in disguise", with both fellow believers and non-believers. Right up until Sunday 8th November, two days ago.

Nope, it was not and is not a blessing in disguise: it is simply a second injury in addition to the first. I tried to believe and make others believe in a good and wise act of God that simply was not true. I defended an idea that was not founded in reality; I did not defend what I know. I felt like a phony evangelist.

I realised with a sinking sense of despair because on the Sunday morning I wore some walking boots, which although I purchased to be lightweight (after 18 months of foot injury I discovered rather strangely that the weight of footwear had an impact on the sense of discomfort in the foot), are still a lot heavier than what I normally wear. As the day wore on, the old feeling of inflammation came steadily back to haunt me. The "rest" afforded by the second injury had not improved my long-term injury. It was not a blessing in disguise.

So I want to conclude today with a question to you. What do you defend that you know and what do you defend that you don't know? Do you defend that someone will certainly be healed without knowing it? Do you believe in the doctrine of the one Triune God because you have been taught that the Bible teaches it? Do you quickly shout MIRACLE when it might have just been a fortunate or good natural event? Do you defend the creation of the universe as an event that took place 6000 years ago? There are consequences to this which I can best describe as a punch in the stomach to our faiths, and I want readers of this blog to think carefully about it. Faith is very important to build wisely; it is a long-term process. It can be genuinely boosted when exposed to well documented miraculous events; but even these can be readily deconstructed because of abusive historical church practices about the workings of the miraculous that actually generates scepticism. Yes, I do believe that: flippant unfounded belief can be a direct cause of scepticism, disappointment, wrong and unbiblical perspectives of divine action sucking much-needed hope and faith out of believers.

We defend often for the wrong reasons, because we are so defensive, fragile and vulnerable.

The Bible does not teach defensiveness, although believers do need to stand up for what the Bible does clearly hold to be foundational about God and faith and our story as a people, but the primary purpose is not to defend it. Furthermore, it is not the starting point. The Bible teaches the church that:

My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin; but if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

Someone defends us; they know us. One often overlooked part of atonement is knowledge about what is being defended. Jesus is often recalled in the gospels as having known men's thoughts. If Jesus is able to defend his own, then it is because he knows them and is known to them. So we are released and required to defend certain things that we know, and to investigate more neutrally perhaps the things we don't.

Please do not try to defend what you do not know, it is not worth the risk and it is not a risk that you are asked to make. Fortunately, there are other risks that are much more worthwhile.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Miracle ou pas miracle? La théologie biblique de PAR et A TRAVERS

Dernièrement, j'ai été amené à réfléchir à la question des "miracles" dans la Bible et ce qu'on appelle "miracle" dans le milieu des églises évangéliques aujourd'hui.

Ok je suis honnête : cela m'irrite bien, car il me semble qu'il y a une vraie différence entre les deux et cela reflète une théologie qui ne relève pas de la pensée qui habitait les esprits de nos auteurs bibliques. Mais ce qui soulage cette irritation c'est une bonne intention contemporaine dans les églises évangéliques : cette église veut faire le constat que son Dieu est à l'œuvre dans ce monde et que ses prières ne sont pas inutiles. Jusqu'à là, tout va très bien.

Il faut revenir à la réalité biblique, qui n'est peut-être pas monolithe, en ce qui concerne "miracle". En plus, c'est peut-être un chwiya plus difficile qu'on aurait aimé :
C’est ainsi que Dieu a établi dans l’Eglise, premièrement des apôtres , deuxièmement des prophètes , troisièmement des enseignants ; puis viennent les dons suivants qu’il a faits à l’Eglise : les miracles, la guérison de malades, l’aide, la direction d’Eglise, le parler dans des langues inconnues.
1 Corinthiens 12:28 BDS

Pourquoi pensez-vous que Paul distingue ces deux dons? En d'autres passages, les guérisons paraissent être des miracles. Pour l'instant, supposons que ces deux ne font qu'un, ou que la guérison (par puissance divine qui s'exprime plus ou moins instantanément) est une sorte de miracle. 

La puissance dont le Christ disposais était a priori
- par l'esprit Saint reçu au moment de son baptême selon les auteurs des évangiles synoptiques (Marc, Mathieu et Luc), alors que Jean semble vouloir supprimer le cadre de l'événement de la venue de l'esprit Saint sur Jésus, à savoir le baptême de Jésus,
- les auteurs Bibliques ignoraient toute puissance divine essentielle de Jésus, pour opérer des miracles, avant l'événement de cette visitation,
- cette même puissance était redistribuable et redistribuée
- les miracles ne sont pas des buts en soi mais pointent vers la source de cette autorité sur la création.
- les miracles n'expriment qu'une petite partie de l'intervention de Dieu dans sa création et ce pourcentage n'est pas quelque-chose que nous pouvons mesurer!

Si un Chrétien est sensibilisé à une théologie et une foi qui se base sur des évidences miraculeuses, il peut être poussé dans plusieurs sens dangereux. 

D'abord, si on appelle "action de Dieu": "miracle", (et n'oublions pas que toute chose subsiste en lui), nous pourrions applatir tout en miracle - sauf, bien sûr, les aléas de la vie. Chaque instant, chaque respiration, chaque sourir, chaque prière, chaque coïncidence devient le "miracle channel". 

Nous pourrions avoir l'impression que l'objectif premier d'un miracle et notre bonheur.

Nous pourrions penser que notre reconnaissance envers Dieu découle avant tout des avantages qui découlent d'incroyables interventions instantanées.

Nous pourrions oublier que Dieu veut se servir des êtres humains pour accomplir Sa volonté. Sur Terre, cela est l'action principale du Dieu qui se plaît à incorporer et intégrer d'autres dans Ses oeuvres. Saviez-vous que le mot dia, qui veut dire "par" ou "à travers" en grec ancien, est écrit 669 fois dans le Nouveau Testament. L'exemple classique est de Dieu qui accomplit quelque chose dia son Fils ou dia l'Esprit Saint, mais aussi dia Son peuple. Nous pourrions oublier même que le sourire ou action de grâce d'un chrétien envers un malheureux pourrait transformer la journée ou même la vie de ce dernier. Et c'est Dieu qui l'a fait à travers un de ses enfants. Et ce n'est pas un miracle, malgré la parlance contemporaine; il faut resister à ce langage avec rigueur.

Switch to English:
According to the Bible, God delights in achieving his goals T H R O U G H other people and things. That is why he gets the the ultimate thanks for believers' food on the table and money in the bank. He did not raise the cow, kill the cow, cook the cow, plant the vegetables, harvest them, cook them, and so on. But we are truly blessed if we recognise a deeper, more meaningful and loving cause and cultivate within ourselves loving hearts and embrace the mediating God. Occasionally, He shortcuts the system, although even then is loathe to part with the dia principle. Despite many claims to the contrary, God's miracles will never be in any highly predictable pattern or according to any secret method, such as "just believe". 

Pour conclure, nous pourrions nous rappeler que le chrétien doit trouver un équilibre. Il faut qu'il évite de penser que le miracle est l'expression unique ou majoritaire de l'action de Dieu dans son cosmos; d'autre part, il doit garder en vue le droit suprême de Dieu dans son esprit (l'esprit du croyant) qu'Il puisse agir puissamment au delà des lois divines naturelles pour accomplir des buts précis selon Sa volonté.

Please also check out a related post I did back in April that demonstrates how more than one party can be equally involved in a common task and at equal cost: Who Carries Thomas The Tank Engine?