Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Basic Problem

So far I've laid down some basic ground rules for talking about God. I've acknowledged the importance of historical context in understanding talk about God, I've pointed to the inherent metaphorical nature of all God talk, and I've discussed the intrinsic limitations on whatever we say about God.

Now I think we're finally ready to actually talk about God.

Naturally, I want to start by establishing historical context. What is the basic problem that led Christians down the path that led to the doctrine of the Trinity? How we answer this question will have an enormous influence on what we think of the rest of the process, so it's important that we get it right.

I'd like to suggest that the basic problem that started Christians in a Trinitarian direction was a fundamental tension between their doctrine of God and their experience of God.

The very first Christians were Jews. They were not former Jews who became Christians -- they were faithful Jews who were also Christians. We need to be careful not to attach too much baggage to these terms. When I say they were Christians, I certainly don't mean to imply that they affirmed all the doctrines and dogmas that most Christians do today. Rather I simply mean that they were followers of Jesus of Nazareth, whom they believed to be the Christ.

Likewise, when I say that they were Jews, I don't necessarily mean that they followed the precise form of Judaism that we find in the world today. There were a number of variations of Judaism in the world in those days, and not all of them survived into the present forms of Judaism.

But the point is that the earliest followers of Jesus Christ would have thought of themselves as faithful Jews. The reason that I stress this point is that as Jews they shared in common with other Jews a central creed that was probably part of their daily devotion to God, the Shema, which begins:

"Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One."
That is, these first Christians were, to the core of their faith, monotheists. If they knew anything at all about God, they knew that God is one and there is no other God.

But here's the problem. They were also sure that in some way they experienced God in the person of Jesus Christ, and they felt connected with God through the Holy Spirit. That is, while they held as certain the knowledge that God is one, they experienced God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This tension is reflected centuries later in the words of St. Augustine:

"For in truth, as the Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Father, and the Holy Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son, certainly they are three. ... But when it is asked 'three what?' then the great poverty from which our language suffers becomes apparent. But the formula 'three persons' has been coined, not in order to give a complete explanation by means of it, but in order that we might not be obliged to remain silent."
What to do?

Continue to "Metaphor and Heresy"
Go back to "Mystery"


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