Monday, August 15, 2005

It''s not quite dead...

It's been nearly two months since I updated this project, but it's not quite dead. In fact, I think it could pull through.

I've gone down this path twice before, but in preparing the material for presentation here, I decided I wanted to do some extra research, which turned into a delay as I failed to dedicate the necessary time to said research. I've got some good stuff on the Spirit of God in the Old Testament, but I haven't had time to pull it together yet. Hopefully I won't stall on every post.

I really do plan to pick this up again soon. Check back in a few weeks.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Deuterocanonical Wisdom

While the book of Proverbs provides a seed for the idea of the personified Wisdom of God, the idea comes into full bloom in the deuterocanonical books.

The deuterocanonical books are Old Testament books that are part of the Bible used by Catholic and Orthodox Christians but, for the most part, rejected by Protestants. The books generally survive in Greek manuscripts and show evidence of the influence of Greek culture on their Jewish authors. But perhaps it's worth saying that they also develop ideas that were already part of the Jewish religion.

Lady Wisdom appears in the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach in ways that strongly resonate with the New Testament descriptions of Jesus.

Sirach, which is also known as Ecclesiasticus ("the Church book") because of how frequently it was used in the teaching of the early Christian church, was probably written in about the second century B.C. and later translated into Greek. Sirach begins with praise for wisdom, saying wisdom is "from the Lord, and with him it remains forever" (Sirach 1:1).

In the 24th chapter, Wisdom speaks as she had in Proverbs:
I came forth from the mouth of the Most High
and covered the earth like a mist.
I dwelt in the highest heavens,
and my throne was in a pillar of cloud.
-Sirach 24:3-4
Notice here how Wisdom is associated both with creation and the exodus from Egypt. In this speech, Wisdom goes on to tell of how God chose Israel as "the place for my tent" (24:8). She also says "Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me, and for all the ages I shall not cease to be" (24:9). Still the idea that Wisdom is created remains as in Proverbs, but here this creation took place "before the ages."

As in Proverbs, Wisdom in Sirach calls people to herself:
Come to me, you who desire me,
and eat your fill of my fruits.
For the memory of me is sweeter than honey,
and the possession of me sweeter than the honeycomb.
Those who eat of me will hunger for more,
and those who drink of me will thirst for me.
-Sirach 24:19-21
Here we see not just a parallel, but also a contrast to sayings of Jesus, "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest," and "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty." While the early Christians would have seen parallels between Jesus and Wisdom, they saw more in Jesus than the Old Testament writers had seen in Wisdom.

Wisdom appears again in the last chapter of Sirach.
I opened my mouth and said,
Acquire wisdom for yourselves without money.
Put your neck under her yoke,
and let your soul receive instruction;
it is to be found close by.
-Sirach 51:25-26
Compare Matthew 11:29, "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."

The Wisdom of Solomon was written in Greek by an Alexandrian Jew sometime between 100 and 50 B.C. In this book, Wisdom has taken on an even more exalted status.
For she is a breath of the power of God,
and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty;
therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her.
For she is a reflection of the eternal light,
a spotless mirror of the working of God,
and an image of his goodness.
Although she is but one, she can do all things,
and while remaining in herself, she renews all things,
in every generation she passes into holy souls
and makes them friends of God and prophets.
-Wisdom 7:25-27
It is not a very long step from here to Colossians' description of Jesus as "the image of the invisible God." Again we should see that while these Jewish writings provided enormous input to early Christian thinking about the Trinity, the ideas were reshaped by the Christian experience of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Go back to "Lady Wisdom"

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Lady Wisdom

Probably the most significant Old Testament influence on the doctrine of the Trinity is the idea of Lady Wisdom. This may not be obvious to Protestant readers because Lady Wisdom only appears in a single book of the Protestant Bible, but the idea is developed further in the deuterocanonical books used by Catholics and Orthodox Christians, and it provided an important point of contact with Greek philosophy.

Proverbs describes Wisdom as a woman crying out in the streets, calling God's people to come to her and learn from her. Wisdom reaches out to people, but the people reject her.
To you, O people, I call,
and my cry is to all that live.
O simple ones, learn prudence;
acquire intelligence, you who lack it.
Hear, for I will speak noble things,
and from my lips will come what is right;
for my mouth will utter truth;
wickedness is an abomination to my lips.
-Proverbs 8:4-7
Wisdom is described as being present with God in creation. Wisdom was there when God made the skies and the sea, beside God "like a master worker."
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.
-Proverbs 8:30-31
Even within the writings of the New Testament we can begin to see Jesus being identified as God's Wisdom. For instance, when Luke's gospel records Jesus pronouncing woe on the scribes and the Pharisees, he records Jesus as having said, "the Wisdom of God said, 'I will send them prophets and apostles'" (Luke 11:49), But in Matthew's parallel account Jesus says, "I send you prophets, sages, and scribes" (Mt. 23:34).

Early Christian teachers continued to draw on this connection as they struggled to understand who Jesus was. For instance, Tertullian (who died about AD 225), writes:
This power and disposition of the Divine Intelligence is set forth also in the Scriptures under the name of Sofia, Wisdom; for what can be better entitled to the name of Wisdom than the Reason or the Word of God? Listen therefore to Wisdom herself, constituted in the character of a Second Person: "At the first the Lord created me as the beginning of His ways, with a view to His own works, before He made the earth, before the mountains were settled; moreover, before all the hills did He beget me;" that is to say, He created and generated me in His own intelligence. ... Thus does He make Him equal to Him: for by proceeding from Himself He became His first-begotten Son, because begotten before all things; and His only-begotten also, because alone begotten of God, in a way peculiar to Himself, from the womb of His own heart -- even as the Father Himself testifies: "My heart," says He, "has emitted my most excellent Word."
Against Praxeus, 6-7

Continue to "Deuterocanonical Wisdom"
Go back to "God as Father

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

God As Father

The New Testament occaisionally makes a big deal about people's reaction to Jesus' claim that God is his Father (e.g. John 5:18). It's quite obvious that there's something unique about Jesus' relationship to "the Father" and the writings of the New Testament ground our relationship with God in Jesus' relationship to his Father. We are children of God because he is the Son of God.

Nevertheless, the idea of God as Father was not a Christian innovation. It was not an idea unheard of before Jesus. The Old Testament speaks of God as a father, and by exploring that motif we can gain a deeper appreciation for what it means for God to be our Father and perhaps even start to see how the idea of God as Father helped inform the development of the doctrine of the Trinity.

As Father, God established Israel as a nation (Dt. 32:6). He brought the Israelites forth as a people and protected them as they grew (Hosea 11:1-4). In these and similar images, God's fatherhood is closely related to God's election of the Jewish people.

This idea is especially developed among the prophets who use the image of God as Father to convey the deep intimacy of God with his people. For example, Isaiah 63:16 says, "For you are our father, though Abraham does not know us and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O Lord, are our father; our Redeemer from of old is your name," and Jeremiah 3:19 says, "I thought how I would set you among my children, and give you a pleasant land, the most beautiful heritage of all the nations. And I thought you would call me, My Father, and would not turn from following me."

God's protection of the weak and helpless is seen as a special relationship of fatherhood (Psalm 68:5), but God is also imagined to have a special relationship to the kings of Judah, who are represented as his sons (see, for example Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14).

Yet in all of this God's fatherhood of the Israelites is envisioned in strictly non-biological terms. In the religions of Israel's neighbors goddesses were closely associated with fertility and this may be one of the reasons that the Bible uses so few images of God as a mother.

The image of God as Father definitely depicts relationship, but never biology. The transcendence of God simply does not allow such a view.

Continue to "Lady Wisdom"
Go back to "Shema"

Tuesday, May 24, 2005


I already talked about the Jewish prayer known as the Shema in an earlier post, but I think it's worth revisting as we think about what the Old Testament can tell us about God as Trinity.

The Shema, which may be thought of as the central "creed" of Judaism, begins with the words of Deuteronomy 6:4, Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Elohaynu Adonai Echad -- Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

This thought of the uniqueness and oneness of God pervades the Bible. Although some scholars think they can detect echos of a time when the Israelites saw their God as one among many deities, the texts as we have them today are decidedly slanted against the idea that there can be any other God than the Lord.

Besides the passage quoted above, we could look at Deuteronomy 4:39, "So acknowledge today and take to heart that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other"; 1 Kings 8:59-60, "May he maintain the cause of his servant and the cause of his people Israel, as each day requires, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God; there is no other"; Nehemiah 9:6, "And Ezra said: 'You are the Lord, you alone'"; Psalm 148:13, "Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven."; Isaiah 42:8, "I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other"; Joel 2:27, "You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other"

The message is clear: "The Lord is our God, the Lord is One."

But here was must recognize that this is not an obstacle to Trinitarian faith. This is the foundation of Trinitarian faith. Whatever ideas we may form about the Holy Trinity, we must be careful never to lose sight of this central confession: "The Lord is One."

Continue to "God As Father"
Go back to "Elohim"

Monday, May 23, 2005


One of the places supporters of the doctrine of the Trinity point when looking for the Trinity in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word "Elohim". This word, which is translated as "God" in English, is a plural word, and not just a plural but a plural indicating three or more. What more evidence could we need?

But this is where the critical reading of the Bible tugs at our sleeve, wanting a word with us. Can we legitimately claim that the authors of these ancient Jewish scriptures had some insight into the Triune nature of God? Some would point here to the influence of the Holy Spirit, saying that even if the human authors didn't know about the Trinity, the Holy Spirit did. Even so, the human authors chose this word, so it must have meant something to them. What did it mean?

The use of the plural word, "Elohim", certainly does not mean that the authors had a sneak preview of the Trinity. The rest of the text just doesn't support such a view. The unity of God is unquestioned, and the philosophical framework for something like a doctrine of the Trinity just doesn't exist. Besides this, God being plural in number would not support the doctrine of the Trinity, which like all monotheism believes that their is only one God.

But if God is not plural in number, then how is God plural? God is plural in majesty. That is, by using the plural "Elohim" for God, the Hebrew authors are indicating that the One referred to by this term encompasses much more than we can know.

In short, "Elohim" means "we aren't going to put God in a box."

Now, is this a disappointment for us in our search for the Trinity in the Old Testament? It shouldn't be. Far from being a disappointment, this is our first signpost on the way to a well-formed understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Too often we treat the doctrine of the Trinity as if it were some fact that we knew about God, similar, for instance to knowing the Jesus was 5'3" tall. But that's not the kind of thing the doctrine of the Trinity is meant to tell us. It doesn't tell us that God happens to have three heads or some such trivia. Rather, it tells us something very mysterious, something we can't quite comprehend but can only grasp intuitively.

And this is how the meaning of the word "Elohim" should contribute to our appreciation of the doctrine of the Trinity. It reminds us that God is more than we know and warns us against forming too tightly defined dogmas about God.

Continue to "Shema"
Go back to "Two Ways of Reading"

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Two Ways of Reading

In order to really grasp the doctrine of the Trinity, we need a solid rooting in the Old Testament. This may strike some people as anachronistic or just plain wrong-headed. After all, the doctrine of the Trinity isn't even fully spelled out in the New Testament. What can we expect to find in the Old Testament?

Others might even find such a suggestion offensive. These are Jewish scriptures, after all. Will I really have the hubris to suggest that the ancient Jews were Trinitarian? I will not.

But the very fact that these are Jewish scriptures is critical. The earliest Christians, remember, were Jews. These were their scriptures too. It was out of these fertile soils that the Christian movement emerged. These writings were the air that the early Christians breathed. And so we also must breath this air in order to understand the development of early Christian thought.

Later Christians had a collection of uniquely Christian writings that they considered scripture, but they also maintained devotion to the earlier writings. And so the Old Testament witness to God continued to inform Christian thought throughout the development of the doctrine of the Trinity.

I do not think that we will find the doctrine of the Trinity in the Old Testament, no matter hard we look, but what I hope to show is that we can find Old Testament teachings about God throughout the doctrine of the Trinity. And therefore we will find what I would call "hints" about the Trinity in the Old Testament.

Before I dig into the Old Testament writings, I'd like to distinguish between two different ways of reading the Old Testament: the patristic way of reading and the critical way of reading.

The patristic way of reading the Old Testament is the way that the Early Church Fathers read it. Among Christians, this was the dominant way of reading the Bible until the 18th century. This way of reading sees Jesus Christ as the center of the Scriptures. Everything is imagined as pointing toward Christ. No exposition of the text is complete until Christ is found there.

In particular, historic Christian interpretation of the Psalms has been heavily influenced by this method. Even in the New Testament we find psalms being interpreted as prophecies of Christ, and in later Christian interpretation this was taken to the extreme with the Psalms being understood as Jesus' personal prayer book.

It should come as no surprise to us, that the doctrine of the Trinity turns up all over the Old Testament when we read it this way.

A second way of reading the Old Testament is the critical way of reading (usually called the historical-critical method). This way of reading emphasizes the fact that each book of the Old Testament was written in and for a particular historical setting. This method seeks to understand what the writer of the text intended, and how the original audience would have understood what was being said.

In general, this method rules out any appearance of the doctrine of the Trinity in the Old Testament because the community in which the text appeared held no such belief.

As we try to see the doctrine of the Trinity through the lens of the Old Testament, we need to keep these two ways of reading in tension. We need to think about the patristic way of reading to try to see the text the way the early Christian Church would have seen it, to look for the things that would have resonated with them. But we also need to keep in mind the critical reading in order to keep ourselves from getting carried away.

Continue to "Elohim"
Go back to "Who Is God?"

Friday, May 13, 2005

Who Is God?

We live today in constant awareness of religious pluralism. We can no longer pretend that Christianity is the only religion on the market. Throughout much of the history of western civilization, when a person said "God" and the person's neighbor said "God" they could be fairly certain they meant the same God because they were both Christians. (Of course, there have always been non-Christians living among Christians, but in the past this was ignored due to the dominance of Christianity.)

This wasn't the case when Christianity was founded. For centuries Christians were a minority among people with a wide array of ideas about God. When a Christian in this setting spoke of God to a stranger, some introduction was necessary.

Today we live in a world where we are keenly aware of the plurality of religions. The question "Do Christians, Muslims and Jews all believe in the same God?" has become quite an important one. I think the answer must be yes, simply because there aren't any other gods around to be believed in.

But within the thought worlds of our individual religions, even though the answer may truly be yes, our proclamation makes it seem as if it were no. What we say about God only has meaning within the framework of our religious thought. And so when we want to talk about God, we must first ask questions. Which God do we mean? How do we recognize God? Who is God?

Previously I said that the God in whom we believe is identified by the community that has gathered to worship this God. But there's a deeper sense in which God is recognized by what God has done among us.

The Old Testament frequently refers to "the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt." Imagine asking an ancient Israelite, "Who is God?" Before a certain time, the Israelite may have answered "Yahweh is God" or later "The Lord is God." But still not knowing who is specified by this name, you might persist "But who is that?" And perhaps you would be told "He is who the He is" as the Lord told Moses. Still this isn't very helpful. Asking yet again, you very well may be told, "God is whoever brought us out of Egypt."

In the New Testament we find a similar identification of God "who raised Jesus from the dead." So who is God for Christians? As a first identification, we may say God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead. (Although Christians would also affirm that God is whoever brought Israel out of the land of Egypt.) Alternatively, Christians may refer to God as "the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." Already in these two statements we see God recognized through Jesus, but the Christian experience goes beyond that.

Christians further recognize God as the one who is revealed in Jesus. What do we know about God? We know that we see God in the face of Jesus. But how do we see Jesus? Traditionally, Christians have said that Jesus is made present to us by the Holy Spirit.

So, for a Christian, identifying who we mean when by the term "God" has involved the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is reflected in the witness of the early Christian writings and it is reflected in current Christian proclamation about God.

Catherine Mowry LaCugna said, "The doctrine of the Trinity is not ultimately a teaching about 'God' but a teaching about God’s life with us and our life with each other." This is an enormous concept which I hope to return to later. It's a perspective that we would do well to keep in mind whenever we talk about God as Trinity.

Continue to "Two Ways of Reading"
Go back to "Creeds"


If metaphor is the basis for our God talk, and doctrines are the rules that tell us how to use our metaphors, then creeds are standard forms of the metaphors -- reference implementations, to borrow a term from the high tech world.

For most of our history, Christians have used creeds as common confessions of our faith. Three ecumenical creeds have emerged as most important: the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed. These three creeds are each confessions of faith in God as Trinity.

Some Christians are suspicious of creeds. "No creed but Christ" is a common slogan in some circles, though this slogan itself functions something like a creed. Others don't like creeds because they perceive them as a checklist of facts you must believe in order to be a Real Christian™.

I think both these positions are based on misunderstandings of what creeds are and their relationship to faith.

Jaroslav Pelikan says it this way:
My faith life, like that of everyone else, fluctuates. And so, I’m not asked of a Sunday morning "As of 9:20, what do you believe?", and then you sit down with a three by five index card and say "Now let's see what do I believe today?" No, that's not what they're asking me. They're asking me, "Are you a member of a community which now for a millennium and a half has said "We believe in one God...'"
The English word "creed" comes from the Latin "credo" meaning "I believe," but when we say, "I believe in God the Father Almighty, etc." we don't mean I give my assent to the intellectual proposition that God exists. Rather we mean, I have faith in God, and then the rest of what we say in the creed identifies the God in whom I have this faith.

Ultimately, although we might not like to admit it, the God in whom we believe is identified more by the community that has gathered to worship this God than by any particular facts we happen to associate with God. When the Bible speaks of "the God of Israel" this is specifically what it means. Who is God? God is the God worshipped by Israel.

Creeds are sometimes called the "symbols" of our faith. This is a rather arcane usage, but it's one that we would do well to recover. The word "symbol" comes from a Greek word that was used to describe something business associates exchanged so that they could recognize one another when they met again.

There's an ancient legend about the Apostles' Creed that says this creed was composed by the 12 apostles on the evening of their last night together in Jerusalem, just before they went out into the rest of the world to spread the Gospel. According to the legend, each of the apostles contributed one line to the creed.

Now the legend is certainly a-historical, but it captures something that is very true. The Creeds are tokens of our common faith. They are shared by Christians throughout the world. They identify the God in whom we believe.

Continue to "Who Is God?"
Go back to "Metaphor and Heresy"

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Metaphor and Heresy

One of the ugly facts of Christian history is that people labeled heretics have been horribly mistreated. They weren't always burned at the stake, but even in the best of times it was no fun to be a heretic. It's not without reason that the very idea of heresy leaves a bad taste in our mouth today.

A consequence of this deprecated status of heresy is that the idea of orthodoxy tends to get downgraded in the process. Richard John Neuhaus has proposed the following principle: "Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed." That is, if I voluntarily give up the option of saying anyone else's theology is wrong, sooner or later I will be forced to give up the option of saying my theology is right.

Many people would consider this to be a good thing. What business do any of us have saying that our theology is correct in the first place? Remember our discussion about mystery? Surely we shouldn't be so foolhardy as to say that we have correct beliefs about God?

I would suggest that right and wrong, correct and incorrect, just aren't good categories to use when talking about theology. But does that mean that I'm willing to throw away the concept of orthodoxy? Not quite. What we need is a new understanding or orthodoxy and heresy, one that takes into account the essentially metaphorical nature of our talk about God.

Lutheran theologian George Lindbeck has suggested just such a new understanding in his book, The Nature of Doctrine. Summarizing, adapting the terminology, and no doubt (but inadvertently) changing the flavor slightly, what Lindbeck has suggested may be stated briefly as follows:

All our talk about God, indeed all religious speech, is to some degree metaphorical in nature. Metaphors gain their meaning by convention (i.e. by how they are used). Religious doctrine functions as a set of rules that regulate how these metaphors are used.
If I understand correctly, Lindbeck isn't merely saying that this is the way doctrine should work; he is saying this is the way it does work whether we recognize it or not.

Within this view, orthodox doctrine provides the groundwork that tells you the proper way to utilize the metaphors that the community uses to speak about God, and heresy involves a misuse of metaphor. I believe we will see something like this when we work through the history of the early Church.

Continue to "Creeds"
Go back to "The Basic Problem"