Monday, May 23, 2016

The 'least worst explanation'

“He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. St. John 16:14-15”

In the first year of seminary, my classmates and I were sent out a few Sundays to preach in local congregations.  I drew the short straw, and was assigned to a Family Service in a rural Cotswolds village on Trinity Sunday.  The assignment was to say something orthodox and meaningful in about five minutes, and the core audience was a dozen elementary school children.  Well, I mustered my full energies, and most of what I was learning in my class on the church fathers, and put together a plan, which involved a circle dance and some half-digested fifth century Greek theology. 

I was feeling rather confident about my impending oration, and on the Saturday before Trinity Sunday, over breakfast after Mass, I announced to the congregation at Pusey House Chapel that I’d happened upon a way to explain the Trinity to kids.  Father Philip frowned over his teacup, looked me directly in the eyes and said bluntly: “If you think you have explained the Holy Trinity, young man, then clearly you’ve got it wrong.”

I take his point.  This is the day when we confess together the mysterious truth that the One God is Three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  What God is in Himself is a truth utterly beyond us.  How God’s three Persons are related to one another is revealed to us in Holy Scripture, but some aspects of this lie beyond our powers as well.  In a sense, there is no explanation of the Holy Trinity, either for eight-year-olds or the most seasoned and learned theologians.  Even Archbishop Rowan Williams, the most gifted Anglican theologian of our time, cribbed a line from Churchill when he said that the doctrine of the Trinity is the “’least worst’ explanation we have found for talking about something very disturbing and inexhaustible.”[1]

The truth of the God who reveals Himself in the creation of the world, the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit surpasses the limits our words can stake out.  The most complete response to this truth about this God is adoration, obedience and love. 

And yet, from the very beginning, for the sake of its public worship and teaching, its moral vision and systems of governance, the Church has found it necessary to speak of the Trinity.  This remains the best way we can answer the questions people naturally ask about the “disturbing and inexhaustible God” who saves and renews us. 

This doctrine is classically and most clearly expressed in the language of philosophy.  The Creed speaks of one being or substance of God and of three persons, three distinct subjects.  Strictly speaking, that is not Scriptural language, and that makes a certain kind of fundamentalist very grouchy.  The Bible rarely uses philosophical terms, but it does say many things with philosophical significance. 

This language of substance and persons expresses exactly what Jesus means in our Gospel lesson when He speaks of truth that He has been given by the Father and which the Spirit will declare to his disciples in the time after His departure.  The truth is one, because it is expresses the single wisdom, purpose and will that the Father, Son and Spirit share.  But it is shared by individual subjects, from the Father to the Son, and then to the Spirit.  In our Epistle lesson, Saint Paul presumes a similar single unity of purpose and will when He speaks of how Jesus has uniquely reconciled us to God, giving us a share in the glory He shares with the Father.  The sign of this reconciliation and glory is the Holy Spirit, who comes from the Father and the Son and lives within us. 

When we ask how precisely the distinct Father, Son and Holy Spirit share this single truth, reflect this single glory, or cause this single work of salvation, we are asking a philosophical question.  It’s a timeless philosophical question, the question of the one and the many.  If you remember your Philosophy 101, you will know that it’s one of the original questions of Western philosophy, something Thales and Heraclitus were wrestling with long before Plato was a twinkle in His mother’s eye.  The question of the one and the many asks about how we assign similarity and difference, how things can be grouped together in meaningful categories depending on the characteristics they do and do not share. 

And the doctrine of the Trinity says that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are able to work so closely because, as the Scripture teaches, God is one.  There is a single divine essence, that they all share.  And yet they remain many: distinct, with roles that sometimes differ.  They don’t change from one form to another to take on particular tasks, but are eternally distinct, so as the Creed says, the Son is “begotten of His Father before all worlds.”  There is no time when they were not distinct. 

This is most clearly illustrated by a simple diagram that Kevin has printed for me on the back of your bulletins.  It shows how the Father, the Son and the Spirit are each God, but that the Father is not the Son, the Son not the Spirit, and the Spirit not the Father.  You may have seen this diagram because it got some currency in the Middle Ages as God’s coat of arms, often picked out in white, blue and gold and emblazoned on stained glass windows.

The diagram is perfectly clear, and probably says about all that needs to be said on the subject.  But people rarely find it satisfying.  So they usually resort to illustrations and analogies that seem to make things clearer, but are unfortunately mostly wrong.  While three-leaf clovers, and ice, water and steam are ways of explaining the one and the many, they fail to do justice to this One, the single, inexhaustible essence of God, and this many of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Church history abounds in many examples of these insufficient explanations.  We call them heresies.  They inevitably start out trying to simplify what seems unnecessarily complicated in the classical teaching.  But they end up creating many more problems than they solve, and not just logical problems, or problems of Scriptural interpretation.  Heresies create real problems that emerge in living out the faith they aim to reinvent. 

Ideas, you see, really do matter, especially theological ones that aim to describe that truth on which everything else depends.  The Church has always insisted that heresy needs to be called out, not just for the sake of consistency, but so the faithful would not be led off course by faulty guidance.

So on this day of explanations, better ones as well as worse ones, I think we would do well to look at just one heresy: perhaps the most common Trinitarian heresy of them all, modalism.  Technically, we usually call it Sabellianism, after a third century North African priest who was the first to teach it. 

Modalism or Sabellianism holds that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are not distinct subjects, but modes or ways in which the one God chooses to do his work.  The One God, modalism says, sometimes acts as father, sometimes as Son, and sometimes as Holy Spirit.  It’s a bit like how I am sometimes a priest, sometimes a husband, and sometimes a world-famous mountain-climber (at least in my daydreams). 

You can see how this explanation came to be.  Jesus ascended, and then ten days later, the Holy Spirit comes down.  It’s a bit like Superman stepping into a phone booth, changing from one mode to another.  And yet it doesn’t do justice to the full story of the Scriptures, which says that even as the Spirit is here, in our hearts, the Son also lives at the right hand of God and here on the Altars of His faithful people.  Modalism also cannot make sense of moments like Jesus’ Baptism, when the Father speaks His word of approval just as the Spirit descends to rest upon the only Son.

But as retired Episcopal Bishop FitzSimons Allison says in his excellent book, The Cruelty of Heresy, there’s also a deeper problem of theological integrity within modalism.[2]  We need to know that God is eternally consistent.  When I stand at a deathbed, and assure a person burdened by guilt that Christ truly has died to set her free, it won’t do to tell her that the mercy revealed in Jesus was what God intended just at one particular time.  We need the confidence that the Son is eternal, that He is the Alpha and the Omega, that was present at the beginning and will be forever.  The modalist can say only that once upon a time God came to save the world, but God might have changed His mind since then.  Perhaps God doesn’t intend to stand by the promises he made when He was in “Son mode” those many centuries ago. 

And what would it mean to be people who worshiped a God who was always changing to fit the needs of the moment—a shape-shifter, a chameleon?  I expect it would give us a certain amount of wiggle room in our own interactions with other people.  We might be honest one day, but if God is always changing, it wouldn’t be so hard to persuade ourselves that a bit of embellishment was just what this new situation demanded.  Heaven knows we are inconsistent enough when we’ve been plainly assured that the One who gave us the law will judge us by it in the end.  But if God too were endlessly variable, what need would there be for us to have integrity? 

Sound faith and upright living depend on a clear knowledge of the truth about God.  There is great wisdom, at least one Sunday in the year, in returning to praise this truth of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, revealed in Scripture, taught by the Church.  This doctrine is a life-giving truth, a welcome rule that helps us to know this inexhaustible God more clearly.  It stands at the center of the life we share together in Christ, and we must defend it with conviction and care.  It may be the “least worst” of explanations, but it reveals our God to us in ways that enrich our minds and uplift our spirits.

[1] Rowan Williams, Living the Questions (the Converging Worlds of Rowan Williams), The Christian Century, Apr 24, 2002, David S. Cunningham (thanks to Bishop Matt Gunter’s blogpost “Quotes on the Trinity” at An Odd Work of Grace, 18 May 2016.

[2] The Cruelty of Heresy: An Affirmation of Christian Orthodoxy.  Harrisburg: Morehouse, 1994, 73-79.

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