Friday, May 06, 2005

The Ultimate Answer

In Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy an advanced civilization designs a computer to determine the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. After millions of years of computing, the computer announces that the answer is 42.

Naturally, the people hearing the answer are flabbergasted. They had expected something much more profound -- something pithy yet elegant and obviously teeming with meaning. Forty-two didn't meet these criteria. The computer tells them that maybe the problem is that they don't really understand what the question was.

I think we often have this kind of problem with the doctrine of the Trinity. When we hear the doctrine explained in simple terms it sounds irrelevant, at best, and perhaps more than a little nonsensical. And far too often the people explaining the doctrine to us don't have any better idea what it means than we do, and so they say, "Well, it's a mystery."

It is a mystery. I don't want to deny that. But it's not the sort of mystery that people commonly suppose it to be. The doctrine as we have it today is an answer that was worked out over several centuries to a number of very specific questions.

The trouble is that we've retained the answer as one of the central doctrines of our Christian faith, but for the most part, we've forgotten what the questions were.

In very concise form, this is the doctrine of the Trinity:

  • God is three in person (hypostasis) and one in essence (ousia).

  • The Son is of one being (homoousios) with the Father, as is the Spirit.

  • The Son is eternally begotten of the Father.

  • The Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father (and the Son).

  • Jesus Christ is fully human and fully God. He is acknowledged in "two natures without confusion, change, division or separation."

It's packed with meaning to be sure. It's also packed with a lot of terms that don't have any particular meaning for the average Christian. But as much as anything, it's packed with history.

Every one of the statements above has a story behind it. Every one is part of the "orthodox" definition because a sincere and thoughtful Christian somewhere along the line believed the contrary to be true. Every one is an agreed upon answer to an ancient question. It's not even without controversy, as Orthodox Christians don't agree with western Christians that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The history of that part is still being worked out.

Over the course of this study I intend to explore these questions and the religious and philosophical background that led to the questions being asked in the first place and to being answered as they were.

Hopefully, some good will come of it.

Continue to "Let's Talk About God"
Go back to "Why Bother?"


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