The Christian Ed director at our local UMC congregation has started a nifty advent idea. Each day, we have a verse or so from the Gospel of St. John to cause to consider. We are give responses, usually ours. But, I am going to choose this time to draw out voices from the Great Tradition.
I’m not so sure the author of John’s Gospel was unlettered. His keen sense of philosophy, his use of allegory, and his knowledge of the Scriptures places him pretty high in the educational ladder. However, I do think the better “miracle” is found in the great a-ha moments of orthodoxy.
My interest in the concept of personhood is multifarious as I believe it will help in building a proper theology for various elements in our society and Church. In reading Vincent of Lerins, I happened upon this chapter from his Commonitory (ch14). Unlike Tertullian’s less defined, or unrefined, persona in describing the Father, Son, and Spirit, Vincent (a proper Saint) uses persona differently.
BUT inasmuch as we often use the term person, and say that GOD in a person was made man, we must take very great care, lest we seem to say that GOD the WORD took on Him our properties merely in the way of imitative acting; and that whatever made up His human conversation was done by Him not as a true man, but in adumbration, after the manner of theatres, where one individual represents in quick succession several personages, of which no one is his own.
Sed cum personam sæpius nominamus et dicimus, quod Deus per personam homo factus sit, vehementer verendum est, ne hoc dicere videamur, quod Deus Verbum sola imitatione actionis, quæ sunt nostra susceperit, et quidquid illud est conversationis humanæ, quasi adumbratus, non quasi verus homo fecerit: sicut in theatris fieri solet, ubi unus plures effingit repente personas, quarum ipse nulla est.
But the Catholic faith says that the WORD of GOD was so made man as to take on Him our properties, not fallaciously and in show, but truly and actually; and to deport Himself as a man, not as one who imitates the doings of another, but rather as in his own character; and altogether to be what He represented, just as we ourselves, in that we speak, know, live, subsist, do not imitate men, but are such…So also GOD the WORD, in assuming and having flesh, in speaking, doing and suffering in the flesh, yet without any corruption of His nature, deigned even to go so far as not to imitate or represent a perfect man, but to exhibit Himself as such; so as not merely to be seen or to be thought a true man but to be such, and to subsist as such.
Catholica vero fides ita Verbum Dei hominem factum esse dicit, ut quæ nostra sunt, non fallaciter et adumbrate, sed vere expresseque susciperet; et quæ erant humana, non quasi aliena imitaretur, sed potius ut sua gereret: et prorsus quod agebat, hoc etiam esset, quod agebat, is esset. Sicut ipsi nos quoque in eo quod loquimur, sapimus, vivimus, subsistimus, non imitamur homines, sed sumus….ta etiam Deus Verbum, adsumendo et habendo carnem, loquendo, faciendo, patiendo per carnem, sine ulla tamen suæ corruptione naturæ hoc omnino præstare dignatus est, ut hominem perfectum non imitaretur aut fingeret, sed exhiberet: ut homo verus non videretur aut putaretur, sed esset atque subsisteret.
The idea of personhood, then, as showed to us via the Holy Trinity, is that to be a person requires something more than being human.
Note, Christ could still have been a human without being a person. What makes him a person is his life, not that he was born a human. Perhaps he could have grown up completely free from sin and desire, without the need to eat or expel the wastes of eating. Perhaps he could have simply been born a human male, or dropped from the sky as such. Yet, Vincent reminds us that he subsisted as a person.
If Jesus subsisted as a person, that means he was afforded the ability to be wrong and to be right, to love (maybe lust), to be tempted, to live as each of us do even within the confounds of having previously held the universe in his hand. If Jesus really was a person and lived as such rather than simply becoming human, how might this help us answer questions about those with a disability or LGBT people?
What is required to be a person rather than just being human? And is this important? Can you see the difference?
The doctrine of divine simplicity is complicated and controversial—even among those who admire Aquinas’ philosophical theology. But the following account should provide the reader with a rough sketch of what this doctrine involves. Consider the example human being. A person is a human being in virtue of her humanity, where “humanity” denotes a species-defining characteristic. That is, humanity is an essence or “formal constituent” that makes its possessor a human being and not something else (ST Ia 3.3). Of course, a human being is also material being. In virtue of materiality, she possesses numerous individuating accidents. These would include various physical modifications such as her height or weight, her particular skin pigmentation, her set of bones, and so forth. According to Aquinas, none of these accidental traits are included in her humanity (indeed, she could lose these traits, acquire others, and remain a human being). They do, however, constitute the particular human being she is. In other words, her individuating accidents do not make her human, but they do make her a particular exemplification of humanity. This is why it would be incorrect to say that this person is identical to her humanity; instead, the individuating accidents she has make her one of many instances thereof.
I was raised an anti-Trinitarian oneness guy. This view is based on ignorance of Christian Tradition, Scripture, and certain key concepts, such as monotheism. It is based on ignorance of Christianity and arrogance that we know better than 2000 years of Christian tradition.
As one who is an orthodox Christian, I am now a Trinitarian, believing the Trinity is well in line with Scripture and is a natural development of Christian doctrine.
But, outside the oneness pentecostals are those who view Christian Tradition with disdain while claiming to be Christian. (accept my nuance here ). The first thing they like to get rid of is the Trinity. Usually, a good 90% of the time, it is because they lack the knowledge necessary to understand the Trinity and its place in Christology and soteriology.
For instance, Mark Sandlin. In a recent post about his cool new anti-Christian Tradition Christianity he writes,
Jesus was a Jew. (Please tell me no one is surprised to hear that.)
As a Jew, Jew was a strong monotheist.
Except… Jewish monotheism isn’t exactly a thing for all Jews and for all Jews at the time of Jesus.
He then writes,
Jesus was a monotheist.
Can’t prove it. Indeed, we don’t know much about Jesus and his personal beliefs. If we put him next to other apocalyptic Jews, he may have believed in the two-powers of heaven, which is not monotheism. What we know about Jesus comes from the Scriptures held together by the Christian, i.e., Trinitarian Church. We know nothing of Jesus except by the Church that is Trinitarian. It is this same Church that took John (I and the Father are one), Paul (2 Co 13.14) and Proverbs 8/Wisdom of Solomon/Baruch to develop a confession holding the unity of God with the triunity of the Father, Son, and Spirit.
As Nathan McDonald notes, polytheism and monotheism are Enlightenment developments. In other words, a Western European concept. See Larry Hurtado as well. Indeed, one should really read Hurtado’s article. Jesus, I hate to tell the Southern minister, was not a post-Enlightenment Western European male.
By the way, the development of the Trinity was led by Africans such as Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian along with other non-European thinkers.
He goes further and says,
Even the Bible predominantly practices monotheism.
Biblically, God is always addressed with a singular pronoun, not plural.
Except, that is not true either. Not only does Scripture refer to other gods, but God actually speaks to the “we” in creating humanity. Elohim is plural. Indeed, much of the OT, if not the NT, is poly- and heno-theistic (2 Kings 3:27; Ps. 95:3; Ps. 97:7; Ps. 135:5; Ps. 89:6–7). The NT includes theomachy events which means… non-monotheistic.
Mark S. then becomes a biblicalist:
Not only that, but biblically there is no mention of the Trinity.
I find that argument little more than circular reasoning. For that matter, “bible” isn’t mentioned either, neither is the canon laid down. Nuclear missiles, electricity, and pews are out the window as well.
And for some unknown reason, he confuses confession (the Trinity is a confession, i.e., mystery) with fact when he writes,
Admittedly, the Trinity is an interesting theory and it certainly quailed some of the early Church’s division on the nature of God, but it is just that – a theory.
The Trinity is not a theory, hypothesis or otherwise. Neither is it a fact. It is a confession of our faith (Epistle to the Hebrews. Seriously, the entire book). It helps us explain Christology, Soteriology, Pneumatology, and even anthropology.
And then, it all becomes clear…
The lack of biblical witness leaves me to believe that either there simply was no understanding of a Trinitarian God at the time books of the Bible were written, or that the concept was so unimportant to their faith that it mostly wasn’t mentioned.
Mark has no idea what Church History is or how Christianity developed. He abandons something he doesn’t even have and insists he is doing something progressive, emergent, liberal — right. Indeed, what he is doing is what fundamentalists do. Make it up as they go along.
And that you may understand it to be said as a mystery and not in reference to the bare number that two are better than one, he adds a mystical saying, A threefold cord is not quickly broken*. For that which is threefold and uncompounded cannot be broken. Thus the Trinity, being of an uncompounded nature, cannot be dissolved; for God is, whatever He is, one and simple and uncompounded; and what He is that He continues to be, and is not brought into subjection.
Ambrose of Milan, The Letters of S. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (trans. H. Walford; A Library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church; London; Oxford; Cambridge: Oxford; James Parker and Co.; Rivingtons, 1881), 464.
God is—and the Christian faith adds: God is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three and one. This is the very heart of Christianity, but it is so often shrouded in a silence born of perplexity. Has the Church perhaps gone one step too far here? Ought we not rather leave something so great and inaccessible as God in his inaccessibility? Can something like the Trinity have any real meaning for us? Well, it is certainly true that the proposition that “God is three and God is one” is and remains the expression of his otherness, which is infinitely greater than we and transcends all our thinking and our existence. But if this proposition had nothing to say to us, it would not have been revealed. And as a matter of fact, it could be clothed in human language only because it had already penetrated human thinking and living to some extent.
Joseph Ratzinger, The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God (trans. Brian McNeil; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), 29.
LVI. But how far does the testimony of Otto of Frisingen tell against the holy Doctor or in favour of Abaelard? He says that “Bernard had a fervent jealousy for the Christian religion, and was credulous from his habitual gentleness of character,” so that he had little love for those Professors who attached too much importance to their human reasonings and their worldly wisdom, “and if anything was reported of such persons which seemed to show that they were out of harmony with the Christian faith, he listened willingly to it” (Otto, B. i. c. 47). But this judgment is rather praise than blame for the holy Doctor, since there is nothing more in the duty of a Catholic Doctor than to repress as soon as possible men of that class, who attach too much value to their philosophical reasonings, especially when they devise new terms of philosophy, which may easily lead into error incautious persons. I may adopt the words of William, that “the excess of zeal which is blamed in him will be itself praiseworthy to pious minds … happy is he to whom the only crime which can be imputed is that which others are accustomed to consider as doing them honour” (Life, B. i. 41). But Otto himself, although he favours Abaelard, yet acknowledges that he had weakened too much the distinctions between the Three Persons of the holy Trinity, not having followed good precedents, “and that because of this he was considered a Sabellian heretic in the provincial synod of Soissons.” How then can it be wondered at, if repeating the same errors a second time he was regarded with extreme suspicion by lovers of the orthodox faith?
Concerning the plurality of Persons within the unity of nature, true faith bids us believe that, in the one nature, there are three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The First does not originate from any of the others; the Second originates from the First alone through generation; and the Third, from both the First and the Second through spiration or procession. And yet, Trinity of Persons does not exclude from the divine essence a supreme unity, simplicity, immensity, eternity, immutability, necessity, or even primacy; more, it includes supreme fecundity, love, generosity, equality, kinship, likeness, and inseparability; all of which sound faith understands to exist in the blessed Trinity.
Saint Bonaventure, Breviloquium (trans. José De Vinck; vol. 2; The Works of Bonaventure: Cardinal Seraphic Doctor and Saint; Paterson, NJ: St. Anthony Guild Press, 1963), 35.
This godly Saint also declared Theology the only perfect science,
And so theology is the only perfect science, for it begins at the beginning, which is the first Principle, and proceeds to the end, which is the final wages paid; it begins with the summit, which is God most high, the Creator of all, and reaches even to the abyss, which is the torment of hell.
I can allow that if we understand that science of the physical world is imperfect not to its detriment but because we are human, ever seeking, ever curious, and not always knowing.
Maybe we should move away from the dichotomy of high/low and instead create better terms. Critical scholars will generally agree that the Trinitarian Christology is not present in Paul, although many would argue that a high christology is.
Again, maybe better terms are needed. Is Jesus first pictured as a man given/awarded/adopted into a high place next to God? This is still pretty high if by low you think of Jesus as only a prophet or good teacher.
What if Jesus is God made man and only a man? Sure this is high Christology as well since, again, it doesn’t include Jesus as always only a man.
There are dilemmas here, but I have to wonder if part of the issue is not deciding what high and low means but having only two real choices to choose from.
For my part, I have come to believe that rather than a low Christology at the start, the death of Jesus presents us a rather high Christology even by the victim. While others things were codified later, such as “Messiah,” I believe Jesus must have thought of himself as something rather high before his death, with the verification to his disciples made in his resurrection.1 What would this high Christology look like? Maybe Jesus didn’t think of himself as YWHW, but it is quite possible Jesus believed of himself as divine in some sense.
The whole creation saw clearly that for humanity’s sake the Judge was condemned, the Invisible was seen, the Unlimited was circumscribed, the Impassible suffered, the Immortal died and theHeavenly one was laid in the grave. (Discourse on the Soul and the Body, fragment, ACD vol 1 pg 53)
Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. (NASB)
It did not take long for the early Christians to start to qualify (or quantify) the relationship between the Father and the Son, not to mention what role if any the Holy Spirit played in this family of sorts.
Yesterday, while discussing the Book of Acts with my Sunday School class, I read this as a measure of the author’s (not Paul’s) Christological stance. The developing Trinitarian motif of the verse stood out in stark contrast to Paul’s subordinationism.
Here, all three Persons play a role in the Church.
The Church belongs to God (the Father, as indicated by the relationship to the spilt blood), but is governed by the Spirit. The blood (of the Son) is what secured the Church. Throughout Paul’s speech in Acts 20.17-29, the role of the Spirit is heightened much more so than it is in the Pauline Corpus, making it parallel to the role of the Spirit in the life of the Church in Ephesians. Further, the speech begins with a salutation to Jesus but ends with a commendation to God the Father.
Unless, of course, you believe God has blood and can die?
Thanks to Jason for bringing this to my attention, of just how awful the ESV Study Bible notes really are.
God’s act of creation is the foundation for the entire biblical history. – ESVSBGen 1:1
That there, folks, is just plain blasphemous.
Pretty sure that the New Testament says Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of this house of ours, a foundation laid on the Apostles and Prophets:
Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. (Eph 2.20 NLT)
There are plenty of other verses testifying to just how heretical the ESV SB really is at this point.
Sure, the ESV SB says “biblical history” (a foreign concept, really), but if Jesus is not the cornerstone, and the Apostles and Prophets are not the foundation of the Church and the Gospel, what “biblical history” is there? In other words, there is no “biblical history” for Christians without Jesus Christ. Jesus is where “biblical history” starts, and not Ken Ham.
Not to mention just how badly they get Genesis 1-11 wrong, as well as the over all idea of what Creation is according to Scripture…