Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Triune God, Part I


A 12th Century illustration of the Trinity
Christianity teaches that the 3 personages we discuss here -- Father, Christ, and Spirit -- are in fact 1 being. This is the doctrine of the Trinity and it has caused many learned heads to spin down through the centuries. But given the data Jesus left us, it's really the only viable solution.

People have suggested various alternative ideas over the years: That God is a group of  3 separate beings, like a team or a family, for instance -- technically known as "Tritheism". Or that there is just 1 God but he wears 3 masks, playing different roles at different times -- an idea called "Modalism". While these may be easier to wrap our minds around, they just don't cover all the facts.

Jewish Background
Jesus was a Jew, a member of the 1st great monotheistic culture. If you asked any random Jew back then about his God, he would have told you there is only one -- "One lone God, Creator of all things... restlessly juggling the fortunes of individuals and peoples to right the balance of moral justice," (Joel Rosenberg, Introduction to Genesis, Harper Collins Study Bible, p.3).

Jews in Christ's time were united
 in their belief that God is one
Many people today aren't aware of just how diverse Judaism was in Jesus' time. Groups of every description existed and their teachings spanned the theological spectrum. Some of these societies we're familiar with from the Bible: Sadducees, Pharisees (of which there were at least two flavors), and Herodians.  History tells us about others, like the Essenes, the "Sons of Light" at Qumran (who may or may not have been Essenes themselves), the followers of Judas the Galilean, the schools of various prophets and teachers, and more liberal thinkers living in the Roman world outside Palestine, like Philo of Alexandria.

Ideas on virtually every conceivable topic swirled in these groups -- about the afterlife (or lack of one), the end of the world, and what God requires of humans. Often these schools would clash, sometimes violently.  But whatever else they disagreed on, one thing remained axiomatic: The 'oneness' of God. Even the most religiously-challenged peasant would pause day in, day out and repeat the ancient Hebrew creed: "Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one," (Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 6 verse 4).

And Jesus couldn't agree more. The Gospel of Mark describes an episode were a Jewish scholar asked him bluntly, “Which commandment is the most important of all?”  Jesus responded as a faithful Jew: “The most important is: ‘Listen, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’"

Monotheism -- the idea that there is only one God -- was the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth and the unshakable claim of his people, the Jewish nation.

In fact, the Jews were so secure in their monotheism that they spoke freely of "Wisdom" building the universe side by side with God or powerful angels riding to Israel's rescue with never a thought that this in any way compromised the concept of the one true God. One angel in particular, known in the ancient Scriptures as the "Angel of the Lord," seems at times almost to blend into God. But that didn't phase the faithful 1st century Jew in the least: "The Lord is one," they confidently asserted.

Jesus taught a unique vision of the one God
Jesus Appears
Then Jesus appeared on the scene, not so much claiming to be God (although his best friend John certainly remembered him doing that and getting into considerable trouble for it) as doing the things only the God of the Jews did -- fulfilling the very role of God. And yet, as we saw above, this while still praying to, worshiping, and accepting the authority of the one God, whom Jesus called "the Father."

Even more strangely, he spoke of a 3rd person, "the Paraclete" (meaning an attorney or someone that helps you) who would be his people's guide and leader once Jesus returned to Heaven. This Paraclete was not a new idea with Jesus though; he identified the Paraclete with the Holy Spirit, a familiar term in the Jewish Scriptures, referring to God's creative "breath."  The new point was that Jesus was describing the Holy Spirit as a person.

Eventually, when the Christian movement had gone on for a while, people began to ask themselves exactly how Jesus, the Paraclete, and the Father were related to each other, and to the one God they worshiped. If nothing else they needed to be able to explain it to the Roman philosophers and competing religions they were up against.

The debate that ensued lasted 300 years.

(To be continued...)



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