Satan and the Holy Trinity

Jonathan Tobias, an Eastern Orthodox priest, said in a recent talk, that the devil and other evil powers are ignorant of Trinitarian and Christological theology because it can only be known by revelation of the Holy Spirit. This is why the Devil allowed Jesus as much free reign on earth as he did. This is why Jesus was able to enter Hades and accomplish his final victory over death. The Devil didn’t (and probably doesn’t since it comes through revelation) know that Jesus was fully God. If he was a human, or even some sort of demigod, Satan could have defeated him; conversely, if he truly knew the depth of who Jesus was, he never would have messed with him. Granted, this is speculative, for it is never revealed anywhere, but as a thought experiment it opens up a door that is critical to proper interpretation of scripture.

If we don’t take seriously (1) the trinitarian nature of God and (2) the truth that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully human, and (3) if we don’t appreciate the fact that this was not revealed in its fullness until the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we simply cannot understand the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament.

From the Old Testament we know that no one can see God and live. Said another way, any time God approaches us frontally, with no intermediary in between, we will be destroyed. That sounds a lot like our human conception of wrath. An Old Testament person, even an Old Testament saint, would be excused for thinking that God is a god of destruction who may even have it out for humanity, given the experience of the people of God from the time of the expulsion from Eden to John the Baptist (who is typically understood as the last Old Testament person).

But Trinitarian theology allows us to see this from a different perspective. God no longer has to “confront” (a negative term, rooted in the experience of the Old Testament) us “frontally” (same root as “confront”). Rather the Son, through the miracle of the incarnation, can clothe himself with flesh. The glory of God, that burns and destroys our sinful self, is veiled and toned down. Suddenly we gaze into God’s face (in Christ) and not be destroyed, and what we discover is that love was there all along, rather than wrath.

Similarly, the Holy Spirit (fully God) can enter into us and exist in veiled form, and transform us from the inside out so that we can increasingly experience the blazing love of God without being burned and destroyed.

My childhood was spent in the Bible Church. I was a pastor in the mainline Presbyterian church, but because of my background, a number of people I rubbed shoulders with were part of the very conservative branches of Presbyterianism. For both groups the wrath of God is a big deal. In the Orthodox Church, on the other hand, divine wrath is rather specifically downplayed for specific theological reasons. The catch is that the reasons both groups emphasize what they do has to do with presuppositions. As a result the subject of the wrath of God is very difficult to talk about across presuppositional divide of the two groups.

Fr. Jonathan’s remarks provide an interesting bridge across this presuppositional divide, since both groups take Trinitarian theology very seriously. What is the relationship between wrath and love? While not having the status of dogma, it is certainly a commonplace within Orthodoxy to say that they are the same thing. Take heaven and hell for instance, which are the same place, according to the story. The difference between the two is that those who know God and have entered into union with him experience the burning brightness of God as holy love and communion (heaven) while those who don’t truly know God experience the same thing a the flames of wrath (hell).

On the face of it, this explanation seems too esoteric and paradoxical for most of my Protestant friends. But Fr Jonathan’s remarks may help explain the seeming paradox. After Eden, God was an outsider to the world from the perspective of human experience. He was person behind the messengers that came to Lot; he was the flame in the burning bush; he was the lightning and cloud that came from heaven down to Mt Sinai, engulfing it, and hiding his glory. Conversely, the Son of God came into the world from the inside out. Creation first experienced him inside the womb. He was the helpless baby the angels sang about, the shepherds wondered about, and King Herod tried to kill. This was possible because the flaming love of deity was clothed with flesh. People and all creation could look upon him and what they saw, without the eyes of divine revelation, was a baby, a boy, a human, an odd Rabbi who was crucified by the Romans.

But those who accepted the revelation of who he actually was by faith (“Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you” Mt 16:17) began to be transformed and began to do the work necessary to become transformed, so that eventually, through the eyes of faith, they could begin to see Jesus as what he really was — the Son of God, that is, God himself. What they experienced was love, acceptance, warmth, but also awesome power that worth fearing. And this is something that as a Protestant who liked the idea of a friendly God, who was like a father with whom I could snuggle when I was sad (as in the John Fischer song, “Rest In Him”), is worth remembering: Love can be towering and overwhelming. It can be at the same moment, inviting and frightful.

So it is, according to this line of thought, that the difference between wrath and righteousness, judgment and love, is the revelation of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and its embrace by the believer.