The Trinity as Life instead of Doctrine

There’s currently quite a little tempest going on among Evangelicals about Trinitarianism. Certain high profile Evangelical professor types have gone astray of Trinitarian orthodoxy (specifically in relation to the doctrine of subordinationism) and are seemingly unrepentant. Of course, Evangelicals have no disciplinary structures to speak of, so all that remains for the remaining orthodox Evangelical sorts is to huff and puff with little consequence … oh and offer that little 33 question “Are You A Trinitarian?” test that Tim Challies put together.

A relative of mine posted it on Facebook. I took the quiz because I figured I might flunk it, since I confess and believe the Nicene Creed as it was written and approved by the ancient councils, and not with the “and the Son” phrase that the Western Church has added in order to defend the double procession doctrine. Turns out this little test didn’t touch on the subject of the procession of the Holy Spirit, so I am safely Trinitarian according to this little quiz. (Whew! You can’t believe how relieved I am!! Winking smile)

Beyond the “Are you a Trinitarian?” question is the follow-up question of “So what?” Here is Challies “So what?” answer (from Q31):

Redemption is illogical and impossible without Trinitarian distinctions. For example, in order for the Father to pour out his wrath on his Son and for the Father to accept Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, the persons must be distinct. That the Son is infinite God also explain how his death can be infinitely valuable and thus able to pay the just penalty of eternity in hell for all those he redeems.

I used to be Presbyterian, so I get that a Presbyterian is going to put emphasis on a juridical framework for salvation, but I was left wondering, “Is that actually all you’ve got?” This is certainly not why Trinitarian doctrine is vital to salvation. I will explain:

We are spiritually dead and Trinitarian doctrine, with all it’s arcane details about oneness, threeness, Jesus’ full humanity and full deity, procession, etc., explains how it is possible for Creator God to enter into creation and offer spiritually dead humans the Source of True Life for now and eternity.

Our physical life is not unlike a cut flower which is beautiful and seemingly alive for days and even weeks. But since it has been snipped from its source of life, it will eventually wilt and die. We too are cut off from our only possible source of life, which is the life-giving Trinity.

Trinitarian teachings show us that it is possible for us to be united, or “made one” with Christ through the Holy Spirit, and thus to be made one with the life-giving Trinity because Christ is actually and truly God. Christ, fully God and fully human, participates in our life even to the extent of dying a humiliating cross death. This participation by God with us and as us in turn allows us to participate in God’s life. All of this talk of judgment is certainly biblical, but it is a side-bar to the content of the Gospel: the mysterious life-giving power of the life-giving Trinity who, in Christ, is fully united with humanity, thus giving humans the gracious opportunity to drink deeply and forever of the actual source of life.

To reduce the doctrine of the Trinity to a riff on divine wrath, divine judgment, and Christ’s sacrifice as a solution to judgment rather than as the more fundamental issue of how we actually access the life that is offered to us through Christ’s participation, is a pyrrhic Trinitarian victory. It is the essence of what we find in 2 Timothy 3:5. “… holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power.” It is the conceit of knowledge (v. 4) without proper application of that knowledge to the actual problem: we’re dead … still pretty as we stand tall in the vase but decaying and wilting fast. If we don’t want to get thrown out and replaced by tomorrow’s bouquet (ie, judgment), we need to “put off [the] old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts and to be renewed in the spirit of your [nous] (not “minds” as intellectual endeavors, but our true inner being). Eph. 4:22f.

Good doctrine either improperly applied or only partially applied is not a lot different than bad doctrine. Even the demons believe, as James reminds us (2:19). Being a Trinitarian Christian is not a matter of good doctrine, it is rather a matter of understanding how to properly apply it and the will to do so (ie, the putting off) and the humility to allow it to be done to us (ie, the being renewed in the spirit of our nous).


The Trinity, the Heart, and Human Unity

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is esoteric enough and the arguments that led to its formulation are far enough in the past that it is easy to forget that the doctrine of the Trinity came about to explain and help Christians understand their experience of God. The doctrine is descriptive of our experience before it is prescriptive for our belief.

The recent writings of Arch. Sophrony and his disciple, Arch. Zacharias, offer a case in point. Sophrony, for most of his life a monk on Mt. Athos, saw what was happening in the interior lives of certain monks and sought to understand it. Eventually he and Zacharias began to write about what they witnessed. But before we explore what they said we must review the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, with its dynamic reality in mind.

We might say that the Father exists permanently or eternally. We might say the Word and the Spirit also exist permanently. But it would be inaccurate to say that the Father exists “essentially” as Father, etc. Rather it is the Father, Word, and Spirit together that exist “essentially.”  (That is, the divine essence — a technical theological term from at least the 3rd century — exists in God’s unity.) The three persons of the Trinity “co-inhere” as an expression of this essential unity. One Person cannot exist without the others for they exist in the dynamic flow into and out of each other that we call Love.

When God created humans something very similar was created into us. There is something that all humans have in common and that each one of us express individually. But at the same time, we are not fully human by ourselves. An essential part of our humanity is this something that we share together.

Theologians typically call this human nature. Just as all three persons of the Trinity share a singular essence, so all humans share a singular nature. I suppose we could call this thing that humans share “human essence,” but that term would easily mislead us. Father, Word, and Spirit flow into and out of each other continually, eternally, expansively, and necessarily. Their existence as Father, Word, and Spirit is impossible without that dynamic, just as it would be impossible to speak of the divine essence separate from the manifestation of that essence as Father, Word, and Spirit. Because God is eternal and everywhere present, this dynamic of one essence and three persons is the thing that makes God God.

But humans aren’t infinite in time and space as God is. We humans are finite; even though we necessarily share a human nature, the boundaries of our finitude mean that we experience it differently than God does. We are not automatically aware of our nature; rather, we are aware of our boundaries:  our body is enclosed by skin. That which is outside our skin is not body. Our memories only go back so far, and we are very much aware that one day we will die and be separated from those we love. So while there are fundamental similarities in human relationships and the Divine Relationship, the fact that we are finite necessarily means there are fundamental differences. So it is that we call this thing that all humans share our “nature” rather than “essence.”

It’s hard to talk about the Holy Trinity without also talking about Christology — for it is through Christ that we first experienced the triune-ness of God. Jesus Christ is unique because he is both Divine and human, Creator and created, infinite and finite. He is the Word, the Son of God, one person of the Trinity. But he also took on flesh by being born of Mary and is thus human, the Son of Man, and shares in our human nature. Because he is infinite God he has the ability to share in our nature fully (that is, in a way we cannot share in our human nature because we are finite). Sophrony’s insight mentioned above fits into the discussion right at this juncture.

Because we participate in the human nature, a benefit of the incarnation is that since Jesus Christ became human and shared in our nature, we can learn to share in the Divine Nature through our participation in Christ who participates in the human nature and the Divine Essence. Sophrony’s insight (not unique to him, but he explored the insight in a way that no one else has) is that through Christ and in the Life-giving Spirit, as we begin to share in the Divine Nature we also increasingly and more fully share in the Human Nature that we cannot do without participation in the divine life. To be saved is not only to draw into union with God, it is to become more fully human by transcending our finitude and more fully experiencing our human nature.

As I become one with God, I become one with you.

As I become one with God, I become one with Father Sophrony and the Apostle Paul.

As I become one with God, I become one with Osama bin Laden and Bashar al-Assad and Pol Pot.

And this is the heart of our salvation.

Fr Sophrony developed the language and ideas of “entering into our heart” and “the expansion of the heart” in order to explain this. Our Heart is our true being. It is distinct from our will, intellect, and emotions. (These are what the Apostle Paul calls “the flesh.”) The will, intellect, and emotions are noisy and always drawing attention to themselves. They always want more and more and are never satisfied. All three are easily seduced and entrapped and then they do a good job of convincing us that this is the way things ought to be. Just as together, Paul calls these “the flesh,” so when they get excited and out of control, the fathers call them “the passions.”

“The Heart,” on the other hand, exists beyond these things in the deep interior of our being. Because in our sinful state we not only live on, but thrive on our passions, the heart atrophies and shrinks into tiny silence. The heart typically becomes such a small and utterly silent thing that when we want to start paying attention to it (and through to God), the heart within us can become nearly impossible to find. Only through the enlivening energy of the Holy Spirit and conquering power of Christ over our passions is it ever possible to vivify the heart. Only through the discipline of spiritual silence made possible in the Sabbath Rest of Christ that the author to the Hebrews promises, can we ever hope to enter into that gentle, quiet space of our heart.

And please note that this is an exactly opposite way of conceiving our being as in popular culture. In pop culture, to follow our heart is to follow the whims of our passions.  The irresistible tug of desire is thought to be fulfillment. The feeding of our passions is thought to be the expression of our true self rather than the expression of our enslaved desires being pulled this way and that by “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and pride of life” in James’ words.

Through spiritual discipline we can begin to descend deeper and deeper into our heart.  Because of our salvation and the process of union with Christ and new life in the Spirit, as we descend deeper and deeper into our true heart, we take the true God into our true heart and begin the process of actually uniting with Him. As we learn to dwell in our true heart, the living God begins to soften, enliven, and stretch our heart, the infinite God begins to stretch our heart, as if it were a balloon expanding with the winds of the Spirit of Life.

And as our true heart begins to slowly and incrementally expand we begin to participate in our human nature in a way that was never possible when we were defined merely be the limits of our flesh and bone. We are now in Christ and Christ is in us, and because of the infinite possibilities of this mystery, we are now in human nature and human nature — the full extent of human nature — is in us. And the miracle of true human unity begins to occur.

At first it seems contradictory — a sort of paradox that even as we ascend to heaven and to God, we descend into our very selves. The Apostle Paul says that we need to die to ourselves to become alive to Christ. Isn’t Sophrony contradicting the Apostle? No. For when we die to ourselves, we die to passions (will, intellect, emotions), that perfectly created triumvirate of will/intellect/emotion that has become, through their noisy and insistent strivings, our evil overlords who distort our view of reality and drag us away from God and life, and convince us that it is fun and wonderful and fulfilling and proper in the process. Descending into the heart is painful and brutal. It is a difficult and bloody battle as the passions, starved of their fuel, begin to atrophy while the true heart begins to soften and grow and becomes quietly attentive to God who is now both within and above.

To a degree we can ascend to Christ in our new spiritual life without attending to our heart; and to a degree we can descend into the true heart without striving on our heavenly journey, but Fr Sophrony believes that ultimately to do one we must also do the other. We are not shells from which we escape to flee to heaven, as the ancient Gnostics taught, neither are we secular beings who find fulfillment within as the ancient Stoics taught: We are spiritual and physical and it is necessary that both play their proper role in our salvation. As we ascend to Christ we can descend into our true heart. As we descend into our true heart we can ascend to heaven. The deeper into ourselves we go, the more we expand and become, for the first time, truly aware of other humans and even all creation. And as we see more and more of ourselves, of other human beings, and of all creation, the more we see God with unveiled faces.

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.

Blessed and glorious Theophany to all!

“In other words, away with the manger!” (See below):

The Christian west calls today (Jan 6) Epiphany while the Christian east prefers to call it Theophany. As alluded to in my previous post, the west tends to focus on the revelation of Jesus Christ to the world through “the three mysteries” of which the coming of the magi is the most iconic image. The three mysteries, by the way, are “illumination” (the wise men following the star), “baptism” (the Baptism of the Lord, celebrated the following Sunday), and “eucharist” (Jesus’ first miracle – the water into wine), all of which reveal the babe in the manger to be the Second Person of the Triune Godhead.

The east, on the other hand, focuses almost exclusively on the Baptism of the Lord and the cosmic significance of water (the Old Testament symbol of chaos) being transformed into a saving thing. In Adam creation was turned against humanity; the good and perfect creation became, in a sense, the means of our destruction through Adam’s sin. In Jesus Christ, the last Adam, creation becomes the means of our salvation. To put the feast into the broader struggles of the ancient church, Theophany is the celebration of the nexus of Creator and created; it’s what keeps us from being Gnostic.

I revisit this topic with a second post today (the previous post is here) because of what Jason Peters wrote today over at The Front Porch Republic. Peters makes the two points of Theophany (ie, the Eastern version of this Feast) with such wonderful turns of phrase, I can’t help quoting him:

Now I would no more start of fight with a Unitarian than with a polytheist, a pantheist, or the Head Pastor and his hairdresser at FamilyChurchDotOrg. But one of the things the Church attempts to do here is to tell us that without a clear and resounding Trinitarianism we cannot properly understand ourselves. We cannot orient ourselves to our incarnate—which is to say our full and proper—condition.

Peters isn’t satisfied with mere theological profundities. He also emphasizes the implications of this profound theology:

In other words, away with the manger. Now is the time to get on with the business of renewing the whole created order.

His whole article can be found at