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Archive for the ‘Trinity’ Category

Maximus the Confessor

In the last post on “theosis,” I simply gave a definition of sorts, referenced a passage from 2 Peter, and then set down some necessary limitations to the notion of theosis. In this post, I’d like to consider theosis more positively. That said, I do not have a handle on Eastern Christian thought. I’m a great fan of reading and grappling with other traditions, as that helps us clear up our own thinking and sometimes shows us where we’ve missed the last ferry from Chappaquiddick. (Don’t worry, we can still dive in and swim across, even if it’s in the middle of the night.) In the case of theosis, however, I think there is something we Western Christians have to glean. Not something completely missing, but maybe an emphasis that’s lacking. As mentioned above, I’m no specialist here, but I do want to work through some ideas. I hope and pray that the thoughts and meditations of my heart will be pleasing to God and prove to be an edification to the body of Christ.

Alright, here are a couple quotes on the doctrine of theosis from Maximus the Confessor on theosis:

God made us so that we might become ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Pet. 1:4) and sharers in His eternity, and so that we might come to be like Him (cf. 1 John 3:2) through deification by grace. It is through deification that all things are reconstituted and achieve their permanence; and it is for its sake that what is not is brought into being and given existence.

A sure warrant for looking forward with hope to deification of human nature is provided by the incarnation of God, which makes man god to the same degree as God Himself became man. For it is clear that He who became man without sin (cf. Heb. 4:15) will divinize human nature without changing it into the divine nature, and will raise it up for His own sake to the same degree as He lowered Himself for man’s sake. This is what St. Paul teaches mystically when he says, ‘…that in the ages to come He might display the overflowing richness of His grace’ (Eph. 2:7).

St. Athanasius

A thought or two that come from Maximus: Theosis is the divine purpose of creation. God gave humanity existence so that he could then redeem humanity in his Son. So far: dig. We have this notion similarly explained in what’s called the Covenant of Redemption. In fact, I think that we can find just about everything the doctrine of theosis has to offer in historic Covenant Theology. Moving right along: We have an emphasis on the incarnation, which is excellent. It’s taken as a reverse model for the redemption or deification of humanity. In the pithy words of the great Athanasius of Alexandria, “God became man so that man might become god.” I want to explore this more below, but I’ll make the comment here that I think that the incarnation has some significant limits as a model for theosis. First, in Jesus we have the union of two distinct natures in one person (hence, the hypostatic union) forever. Will the redeemed be given a second nature? I don’t think so. I think that our human nature will be perfected and deified (insofar as that’s possible). Thus, at that point, the incarnation doesn’t serve as a good reverse model. We should say, however, that our access into divinity is through Christ’s humanity, indeed, through his flesh and blood.

Theosis is a process, and a long one at that. Since it’s long, I’ll be brief on each point. It starts with creation. The triune God created humans in his image. Creation, in classic Christian thought, is followed by corruption and then by restoration. Theosis takes the created humanity, which has been corrupted in Adam, and sees it not only restored, but brought into God (higher and better than Adam ever was before the fall).

In the West, we tend to conceive of the salvation process in terms of calling, regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification. I dig all that. I think theosis digs it, too. Theosis encompasses that whole process. In fact, I think that the term sanctification, if taken in the broadest salvific way, could more or less be equated with theosis.

Theosis is conceived of in three parts: thoughts, will, and actions. The renewing work of the Holy Spirit renews our minds, wills, and then our lives. The Orthodox theologians speak of praxis, by which they mean the struggle of living out a progressively holy life. Through this struggle, our lives become mirrors of God. But we not only reflect him in our thoughts, wills, and actions, we begin to live in him more and more. The journey toward full theosis includes many forms of praxis, including fellowship in the church, prayer, and participation in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. These forms of praxis are what’s in view in the Reformed tradition in what the Westminster Shorter Catechism calls “effectual means of salvation.”

Now, what can we say about full theosis? One thing we know about God is that he is love. We know this because it’s explicitly stated (1 Jn 4:8), but we would be able to know this also from the triune nature of God. Since the simple God exists in three distinct persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we recognize that there is interpersonal fellowship in the Godhead. We know that there is love in the Godhead. Allah is the eternal loner. Yahweh is the eternal fellowship of love.

Calvin looking good 'n' French

Theosis, taken rightly, gets the redeemed into that love and into that fellowship. We don’t glorify and enjoy God forever so much at a distance, but rather with great intimacy. He, as it were, draws us into his own holy, triune fellowship of love. That’s part of the incarnation. God the Son became man, to draw mankind into God. He is the head, and we are his body. In the words of John Calvin, “Until He is united to us [the church], the Son of God reckons himself in some measure imperfect. What consolation is it for us to learn, that, not until we are along with him, does he possess all his parts, or wish to be regarded as complete!” The divine purpose is creation is that, though Christ, the God-man, a fully redeemed humanity should be drawn into God, into his fellowship, into his love, indeed (insofar as it’s possible) into his nature. The eternal state of glorification is much more intimately in God than the typical caricature of clouds and harps would let on. Theosis gets at that eternal reality. It drives home the point: we were created to be redeemed into God, into his very nature.

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Heidelberg Catechism #31

Q. Why is He called Christ, that is, Anointed?

A. Because He has been ordained by God the Father, and anointed with the Holy Spirit, to be our chief Prophet and Teacher, who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption; our only High Priest, who by the one sacrifice of His body has redeemed us, and who continually intercedes for us before the Father; and our eternal King, who governs us by His Word and Spirit, and who defends and preserves us in the redemption obtained for us.

Theological: What a wonderful answer! Jesus is the Christ or the Messiah, as he is anointed to be *the* prophet, priest and king. He is *the* prophet: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Heb. 1:1-2). He is *the* priest: “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb. 10:19-22). He is *the* king: “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill” (Ps. 2:6) and “Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth” (Rev. 1:5).

Practical: Every aspect of the Christian life is tied in with the person and ministry of Jesus Christ. Every part of the ministry of the Old Covenant lead to Christ. Every part of the ministry of the New Covenant is based and draws upon Christ. Even if a specific biblical text doesn’t mention Jesus specifically, don’t you dare think about preaching that text without significant reference to him. He’s the reference point for every text, and without him that text doesn’t make sense. Preach Christ! People don’t feed on doctrine, they feed on Christ. People don’t thrive on application, they thrive on Christ. Thus, all of our doctrinal and practical preaching (both of which are needed) should be done in Christ. That is, after all, what makes our sermons Christian!

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Here’s a famous quote from a splendid old Trinitarian, Gregory of Nazianzus  (329-390):

Gregory Nazianzen

No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendor of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One. When I think of any One of the Three I think of Him as the Whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking of escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of That One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the Rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the Undivided Light.

One of my seminary professors, Dr. Dennis Jowers, introduced me to the Cappadocian Fathers. I am thankful for Dr. J, for those Fathers, and for their insights into the great triune Mystery.

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Heidelberg Catechism #25

Q. Since there is only one God, why do you speak of three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

A. Because God has so revealed Himself in His Word that these three distinct persons are the one, true, eternal God.

Augustine's de trinitate

Commercial for Augustine's Book

Theological: This doctrine is, at once, one of the most intriguing and also one of the most foundational doctrines of the Christian faith. At the very heart of our faith stands the great mystery that is God. He’s not just personally mysterious, but he’s even numerically mysterious! While I’m happy to embrace mystery, I’m absolutely unwilling to affirm that Christianity includes contradiction. Not being able fully to comprehend something is one thing, but affirming a contradiction is something else altogether. Follow me, here: We affirm that God is one and three, right? But not one and three in the same way. We affirm one being (essence/substance) existing in three distinct persons. Being and persons are NOT the same thing. Therefore, Christianity has NEVER been so foolish as to assert that God is one and three in being. Neither has it been so foolish as to assert that God is one and three in persons. Christianity embraces the great mystery that God is one in being and three in persons. Christianity is full of mystery and even paradox (sometimes called antinome), but never affirms strict contradiction. At the center of the Christian faith stands the incomprehensible triune God. He blows our minds. This is as it should be.

Practical: We should be blowing people’s minds as we preach. The Bible, the story and teachings of the Christian faith are so rich, so profound, so full of magic and wonder, that we should routinely leave people in a state of wonder as they encounter the God of the Bible in his Christ. Preachers: study the triunity of God and end up getting lost in that wonder. Make sure that wonder works its way into your sermons. Part of the beauty of God is that he’s unspeakably majestic. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is pretty good jumping-off point into that high majesty. We minister for a wonderful God, so let’s make sure our sermons have a distinct element of wonder in them. Let us marvel at God himself and at his unthinkable grace in Christ, and so let us leave our people in glorious wonder as we instruct them in the things of God.

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Heidelberg Catechism #24

Q. How are these articles [of the Apostles’ Creed] divided?

A. Into three parts: the first is about God the Father and our creation; the second about God the Son and our redemption; the third about God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification.

Theological: Everything’s trinitarian, but especially our salvation. Salvation’s flow is from the Father, through the Son, and by the Spirit. The Bible speaks of the Father planning salvation and choosing/electing in the Son those who would be saved (Eph 1:4-5). He has given us a pre-appointed destination (that is, he’s predestined us) of complete sonship in Christ (vs. 5) when all things come together in him (vs. 10). This predestined future is guaranteed to us by the Holy Spirit, who is our seal, our down payment (vv. 13-14).  There’s more to be said in all of these areas, but this is enough to show that our salvation is a triune salvation. No other salvation is possible; no other salvation would work.

Practical: Pastors and preachers should STUDY trinitarianism. It’s not enough to know the ancient formulations and to avoid and oppose all the heresies. We should start there and proceed to see how the triune divine nature impresses itself everywhere: from child rearing to liturgy, from marriage to athletics, from fasting to feasting. By this, I don’t mean that we walk around hitting everything with our magical trinitarian hammers, so everything falls into three pieces. I have in mind something far more profound. We should be able not only to account for the one and the many, but we should be able to see deeply enough into the created (and recreated) world to understand how unity and diversity are not at odds, but ultimately work together. The doctrine of the trinity should make us wise. Trinitarians should be sages, clearly articulating the profound depths of wisdom and knowledge.

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