Posts Tagged ‘trinitarianism’

So, there I am, in my office (the Starbucks of St. Helens, OR, USA) minding my own business (by which I mean that of everyone around me), and I end up in a conversation with a cute little girl (probably about 7 years old). She’s all dressed up, lookin’ pretty, and she’s flanked by a small crowd of nicely dressed women (and a similarly dressed little boy of about 8 years of age). Okay, so there I am, talking to this little one. I asked her why she was dressed up so nicely. She said (with some help from the little boy and an older girl, probably 16, behind her) that they were off to share the good news with people. Somewhat surprised, I said, “Oh! Good! I believe the Good News that Jesus died on the cross to save sinners. Is that the Good News you’re telling people?” Then retorts the little sweetie, “Well, Jesus didn’t die on a cross; he died on a wooden stake.” This, of course, zeroed me in on the fact that they were not preaching the Good News, at all. Anyhoo, the boy pipes up and says, “The Bible says that it wasn’t a cross, but a stake.” So, I reply: “I bet you’re reading the New World Translation, aren’t you?” He nods.

Okay, so from there, I ask the threesome in front of me: “So, how is it that one can get to heaven?” Again, the boy pipes up and says, “By serving Jehovah.” I reply, “Isn’t it because Jesus died for your sins?!” “Oh, yeah.” That speaks for itself. But the JWs are not alone in propounding this particular soul-damning error. They are renowned, however, for the following one. (more…)


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Cur Deus HomoCur Deus Homo by St. Anselm of Canterbury
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anselm’s famous book was on one hand exactly what I thought it’d be, and on the other hand refreshingly different from what I expected.

Cur Deus Homo is often referenced in discussions of why the incarnation of the Son of God factored into the atonement which he purchased. It is quite common (praise the Lord) for people to speak of the Savior needing to be man because only a human could pay for human sin and also needing to be God, as only God could do the job of reconciling sinful men to an infinitely holy God. I totally expected to find this explained in Anselm’s book, and I was not disappointed.

I was also refreshed by a few things that I did not expect. The first thing that I didn’t expect was Anselm’s lucid style. This book is set as a dialog ‘twixt Anselm and Boso, a curious and educated inquirer. I think the style of the dialog is excellent and should be used more often. What’s more, I’ve heard Anselm referred to as the Augustine of the Middle Ages. With his clear writing style and the way in which he handles ideas, I can understand why Anselm enjoys that high distinction. Augustine, too, was a fabulous and lucid writer. I find that usually the great ones are far easier to understand than their handlers. Finally, the way in which Anselm conceives of the redemption purchased by the God-man is at once very similar, but also quite foreign to the contemporary discussion of the matter. I don’t want to go into detail here in this short review, but suffice it to say that there is great benefit in reading ancient writers. If nothing else, they can help us to see how our thinking is both modern and all-too-provincial.

One weakness of Anselm’s approach, it seems to me, is that he’s self-consciously and explicitly attempting to give a rational accounting of how the incarnation factors into the atonement. Thus, while he does occasionally refer to Scripture, and even call it the only rock on which we’re to build a sturdy house, reason is his guiding light in this book. In Cur Deus Homo he’s trying to show how the biblical doctrine and the church teaching regarding atonement through the God-man is rational. To that degree, I guess I have no beef. I would just like to see him root his work more deeply in the Scripture, which is, after all, the sword of the Spirit. His reliance upon reason, however, is part of what’s earned him another one of his titles (valid or not): the father of scholasticism.

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One of the great heroes of the 3rd century

The 3rd century opened with a relatively weak Roman government, which (at least for the first half of the century) gave Christianity room to grow and thrive. That growth came with significant internal growing pains, i.e., pains of heresy. The second half of the century started with the short reign of Emperor Decius (AD 201-251), who re-instituted persecutions of the Christian church with zeal. This produced a short but messy period of time full of martyrs and lapsi. Roman persecutions then largely ceased until the early fourth century under Diocletian.

Internal opposition (heresy): the most important heresy of this period is called Gnosticism. It was the great intellectual plague of the church that started in earnest in the 2nd century and flourished in the 3rd. Gnosticism is far too large and involved to address here. The major aspects of Gnosticism: 1) a curious pantheon, including a demiurge; 2) a loathing and denigration of the physical world (exalting rather in the immaterial); and 3) an emphasis on special spiritual knowledge (gnosis – from which it takes its name). Funny enough, the church still struggles with gnostic issues, especially the downplaying of this world (e.g., Amillennialism).

Another major heresy of the 3rd century has to do with Trinitarianism. In this period, we find the rise of two forms of Unitarian theology: Dynamic and Modalistic Monarchialism. Dynamic Monarchialism taught that Jesus received the power of Christ at his baptism, before which he was as any other man. After which, he wrought many signs. This made him closer to God than other humans (also called Adoptionism). Modalistic Monarchialism taught that God has different energies/modes/faces under which he shows himself – now the Father, now the Son, now the Spirit – not three distinct persons, but one person under different energies/modes/faces. This heresy was called Patripassians in the West and Sabellianism in the East.

Now, a couple of villains of the third century (think about naming your dogs or roadkill after these men):

  • Sabellius (fl. ca. 215) – from Libya; went to Rome and taught; excommunicated in 220; denied the real distinctions between the persons of the Godhead; espoused Modalistic view of God.
  • Mani (d. 277) – From Persia (modern-day Iraq), took elements of Zoroastrianism and infused with Christian terminology and some Buddhist-style asceticism to come up with Manichaeism, a rival religion to Christianity.

A few champions of the century (think about naming your children after these):

  • Irenaeus barely made the 3rd century!

    Irenaeus (d. ca. 202) – bishop in Gaul (France) the early formulator of Catholic orthodoxy; stressed that Scripture and church tradition provided a full and consistent Christianity; contra Gnosticism that only had bits and pieces of the teaching of Jesus, but no full understanding and thus much misunderstanding. Irenaeus was to the Apostolic Fathers and the earlier Apologists as John Calvin was to the Reformation – a systematizer presenting a broad and complete picture.

  • Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-215) – not to be confused with Clement of Rome (d. 100) – the first great teacher of the Catechetical School in Alexandria (center of Christian scholarship with massive libraries); scholar of philosophy and classic literature.
  • Origen (ca. 185-254) – seriously ascetic; castrated himself!; followed Clement as head of the Catechetical School in Alexandria; he’s the massive scholar of the first three centuries of the Church; very early textual scholar (Hexapla); explored the philosophical import and roots of Christian though (de Principiis); wrote over 6000 works; a good bit of his theology we’d think is loopy, if not downright heretical (denial of physical resurrection, some sort of universalism, subordinationist in his Christology…); run out of Alexandria, imprisoned and tortured under Decius (ca. 250), released at about 69 years of age and died in Tyre – probably martyred.
  • Tertullian (ca. 160-220) – born in Carthage; brought up Pagan; trained as a lawyer; converted ca. 198; first major writer in Latin; seems to have coined “Trinity” (trinitas) and Trinitarian terminology: “three Persons, one Substance”; was a Montanist (though probably mild) and wrote against heresies (e.g., Gnosticism, Monarchianism); fountainhead of Western (Latin) Christianity.
  • Cyprian (ca. 200-258) – grew up wealthy with great classical education in Africa, probably Carthage; converted and gave away money; studied Bible and the Fathers (his favorite Tertullian); became Bishop of Carthage, wrote from hiding for 1.5 years during Decius’ persecutions (ca. 250); returned and was martyred by beheading 258. Central figure of the controversy over the lapsed (martyrs, confessors, libellatici, lapsi); Famous quote: “No one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother.”

Thus continues our story… more to come.

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Anselm of Canterbury

The first thing that struck me when reading Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (free!) was his humility. Funny enough, the same humility struck me in just the same way when I picked up St. Augustine’s Trinity. Unfortunately, I don’t see much of that same humility in myself. The great teachers always have more to teach than merely what they write.

Anselm’s is asked by Boso (his dialog partner in the book) to discuss the incarnation with these words: “I desire that you should discover to me, what, as you know, many beside myself ask, for what necessity and cause God, who is omnipotent, should have assumed the littleness and weakness of human nature for the sake of its renewal?” Anselm answers thusly:

You ask of me a thing which is above me, and therefore I tremble to take in hand subjects too lofty for me, lest, when some one may have thought or even seen that I do no satisfy him, he will rather believe that I am in error with regard to the substance of the truth, than that my intellect is not able to grasp it. CDH 1, 2

Two things stand out: 1) He recognizes the vast loftiness of the subject and is rightly reticent to take it up. As I mentioned, I found the same humility in Augustine when he took up the subject of the Holy Trinity. This, by itself, is commendable and worth emulating. 2) He’s concerned that his poor articulation may have a negative effect upon someone else. This is a lesson I don’t know that I’ve ever learned. One wonders how many one’s turned off this or that doctrine simply by speaking poorly about it. All that’s in God’s hands, to be sure, but it’s still a gut check for a guy like me.

As to Anselm’s faith, that is (not so surprisingly) in the Augustinian tradition, too. Anselm’s faith seeks understanding. He does not turn that on its head and have understanding seeking faith. He holds to that most excellent principle (which was his motto): “faith seeking understanding.” This concept is, to me, a no brainer. For example, one of the first things we learn about God is that he’s infinite, eternal, and unchangeable. Intellect: *POOF* – is that to be understood unto belief? Impossible. But it can be received in faith and pursued to understand more deeply. Anselm’s a great example for us that Christianity is always faith seeking understanding; it couldn’t be any other way.

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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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Not Presbyterian Baptism!

The Westminster Shorter Catechism #94 asks, “What is baptism?” To which it give the answer, “Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s.”

First, baptism’s a sacrament (mystery), not merely an ordinance. I’m aware that a certain segment of the Protestant population that objects to historic terminology, but the last time I checked the Bible didn’t refer to baptism as an ordinance, either. It is an ordinance, to be sure. It is also a high mystery (sacramentum).

Second, baptism’s a washing, not an immersion. The historic Reformed view of the mode (way of administering) baptism is very charitable toward immersionists, as we receive immersion as a valid mode. We argue that baptism is rightly, that is, biblically administered by sprinkling or pouring. For any that disagree, begin by telling me by what mode the Holy Spirit baptized the New Covenant church. We’ll go from there.

Third, baptism signifies and seals three things, or rather, three categories of things: covenantal initiation, covenantal involvement, and covenantal commitment. To signify is to point to something else, as a sign point to a place. A seal is stamp of divine approval, meaning that it really means business, like a royal seal on a letter. This sign/seal language is drawn from Romans 4:11.

Covenantal initiation: Baptism is the beginning of the trip. It is your “ingrafting into Christ.” Ain’t got no kinda spiritual nuthin (except death) until you’re grafted into Christ. *Important side note: None of these blessings occurs of itself, or by the sacrament itself, but by the blessing of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit by means of the sacrament (same as the Word). See WSC #91 for this.

Covenantal involvement: Baptism is also a “partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace.” As if initiation we’re enough to blow the minds of American Evangelicals (roundly influenced by baptistic thinking in these areas), the Westminster divines blow one bigger. If you want an eye-opener, read the Westminster Confession of Faith on these issues. Also, read some of the older Reformed writers. You’ll be amazed how unabashedly non-Baptist they sound. So, what’s meant by “partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace”? First, what’s not meant by it? Baptism doesn’t hit everyone the same. Only the elect receive the grace of baptism. The water’s not magical, so there’s no immediate regenerating effect. However, for those to whom the grace is due, baptism is (by the work of the Spirit) a powerful means of salvation. Here’s WCF 28.6:

The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongs unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in His appointed time.

In baptism, grace is not just promised, but the Spirit really exhibits and confers that promised grace by means of the sacrament, in God’s appointed time. Baptism is MORE than a bare and empty sign (as John Calvin argued so often). Baptism is, by the work of the Holy Spirit, a potent means of grace.

Finally, covenantal commitment: This is the part that American Evangelicalism has dialed in. Baptism is (in the second place) a commitment by the party baptized to walk in the ways of the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s telling the world, “I belong to Christ, and I follow him. I was once dead, but now, by his Spirit, I live!” This is an important aspect of baptism, but it’s not the primary thing. The primary thing (as always) is God’s grace to us, his name upon us, his covenant to us. Baptism is all that first and foremost. As a response to that grace, our baptism publicly proclaims our fealty to our Lord.

Baptism’s all this and much, much, much more. Baptism’s a mind-blower… that’s why we call it a sacrament!

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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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