Monday, May 14, 2012

Do Christians Believe in Three Gods? Part 1

Some folks out there accuse Christians of worshipping three gods because Christians believe in a Triune God—that is, the Trinity, concisely expressed as follows:

God eternally exists as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and each person is fully God, and there is one God.

Let me state categorically from the get-go: Christianity is not polytheistic; Christians affirm and stand rigidly on the Shema: “Listen, Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You must love the Lord your God with your whole mind, your whole being, and all your strength.” [Deut. 6:4,5][NET]  Reading the above statement of the Trinity to mean God is three gods is no more correct than saying the wave and particle natures of light are two distinct and separable types of light.

Theologians have identified many analogies over the centuries to help us grasp the concept of the Trinity.  Some have been better than others.  The church frequently adopted fire as a favorite example:

 “….: just as we recognize the existence at once of fire and the light which proceeds from it: for there is not first fire and thereafter light, but they exist together.  And just as light is ever the product of fire, and ever is in it and at no time separate from it, so in like manner also the Son is begotten of the Father and is never in any way separate from Him, but ever is in Him.” [John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 1, Chap. VIII]

They would elsewhere complete the analogy by noting the radiance or heat generated by fire as analogous to the Holy Spirit [I apologize, but the reference eludes me].

Only in the last hundred years or so have we come to appreciate the duality of physical light: light, which is inherently energy, is both a wave and a particle.  Consequently, only in recent times have we discovered what I believe to be the best analogy of the Trinity.  I will explain this by using the phenomenon of light to help illuminate (no pun intended) some of the key oppositions to the orthodox statement of the Trinity (above).

When we experiment with light we can sometimes detect its wave nature, such as when we shine light through a prism, and other times detect its particle nature, such as the Photoelectric Effect.  But in none of these experiments does light cease to be light, nor does it become only a wave or only a particle.  But regardless what character we might observe at any given moment, the other character is in no way lost; it is always the phenomenon of light in its total essence we are studying.  In the context of light, the wave is light, the particle is light, and together is light.

Saying light sometimes becomes only a wave and other times only a particle would be analogous to the argument called Modalism perfected by Sabellius at the dawn of the third century AD to describe the triune nature of God.  Sabellius asserted that in order to preserve the Shema and also allow for the three persons of God, God must transform into a given person at a given moment such that the remaining two persons meld into the person expressed.  But the Fathers quickly saw the fatal flaws of Modalism preventing it from adequately describing the Trinity.   Modalism leads to monstrous ramifications, particularly when considering the redemptive work of Christ on the cross.  The church Father, Tertullian, stated the problem succinctly:

He who raised up Christ and is also to raise up our mortal bodies will be as it were another raiser-up than the Father who died and the Father who was raised up, if it is the case that Christ who died is the Father.” [Prax. 28:13] 

Modalism, otherwise known as Sabellianism, was quickly abandoned and deemed heretical by the orthodox church.

The phenomenon of light does not allow for us to apply some sort of hierarchy to wave, particle, and energy; these characters coexist as distinct yet inseparable properties that are; and are without competition or rank.  The same must be asserted about the three persons of the Trinity.  Some have proposed the Hierarchy of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the foregoing decreasing order of authority.  But if this picture were accepted, then one would certainly lapse into a trithiesm, unless one deems the Son and Spirit created Beings (an idea to be discussed later)—in which case they would not be gods.  Hierarchy implies division and limitations; but God is simple and uncompound because He is perfect, unchanging, omniscient, omnipotent, and completely autonomous; we know this because God tells us His name:  “I Am that I Am.”  For these reasons and others, the church quickly relegated what came to be called subordinationism to the dust-bin of heretical teachings.

I have used the analogy of light to help guide us away from incorrect perceptions of the orthodox Christian understanding of the Trinity.  But we must understand three limitations of any analogy applied to the living God who is and was and is to come.  First, there is no perfect analogy for God; any analogy will fall hopelessly short because God is infinite and therefore beyond our ability to understand or describe Him.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how fathomless his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has first given to God, that God needs to repay him?” [Rom 11:33-35][NET]

Not only is God beyond our reason and comprehension, He is also beyond our language.  For example, when we speak of the three persons of the Trinity, what do we mean?  The term person is wholly inadequate, but frankly there is no better term.  For this reason I like the light analogy because when I ponder the concept of person I think about the mysterious dual character of wave and particle.  They offer a way of picturing person that words could never communicate.  Nevertheless, the light analogy as with any analogy is imperfect and we must be careful not to push it too far; alas, some physicists might complain I have already done that.  Let's keep it simple, baby.

Secondly, no analogy explains the cause or reason for the existence of the Trinity.  For that matter, no one can explain the dual nature of light; it simply is so.  It is a mystery.  The nature of God who created light is shrouded in even greater mystery—yes, decidedly so.  The church Fathers understood the limitations and simplicity of the Trinitarian formula (above); it leaves questions unanswered.  We must realize that they refined it enough to keep our thinking from straying into heresies.  To refine it any further would not only be foolhardy--God is infinite--but dangerous, because we can so easily slip into erroneous concepts that can lead us astray from God’s purposes, authority, and love in holiness.

Third, no analogy proves the existence of God or the truth of the Trinity.  These things cannot be proved a priori.  I must say, though, the phenomenon of light does provide compelling circumstantial evidence for the existence of God; light fits in nicely with the teaching of Scripture:

For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse.” [Rom. 1:20][NET]

All we can know and understand about God is what He has revealed about Himself.  This revelation is the Word, Jesus the Christ who lives forever as King at the right hand of God and the Scriptures testifying of Him handed down to us.  Therefore, the question becomes for us: “Do the Scriptures teach the Trinity of God?” or, stated differently, “Does God reveal Himself as triune Being?”  (Note Being is a limiting term—that carn-sarn language again—because God transcends Being)  Well, to find out, you will have to wait until next week—same bat-time, same bat-channel!