Bulletin Articles

Bulletin Articles

“As One Who Speaks Oracles of God”

Categories: Iron sharpens iron

Over the centuries, Christians have devoted a lot of thought and study to the doctrine of the Trinity—the co-equality and oneness of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It’s pretty much settled at this point, but even now there are occasional challenges to the idea, and they don't generally come from deliberate troublemakers.  Some have simply looked at the Scriptures and seen things they struggle to square with the accepted doctrine, and they make their case primarily from the Bible.

This was also the case soon after the Apostles died, and the church wrestled with questions like this one even as the New Testament was solidifying into its final, accepted form.  Many different ideas floated around the Christian world in the first few centuries AD, during which period it was obviously the biggest open question among the leaders in the church.

The debate became increasingly complicated, and led to the birth of a rich new terminology, incomprehensible to anyone not well-versed in the topic, and even to some of those who are.  Words like ousia, hypostasis, consubstantiality, miaphysitism, subordinationism, and dynamic monarchianism are common in discussions on the Trinity.  Then, there are a host of -isms that mean absolutely nothing until you have delved into the bowels of all the increasingly nit-picky arguments.  These are tied not to ideas, but to the names of those who taught them; so, we have Novatianism, Eutychianism, Sabellianism, Arianism, Marcionism, and more.  Funnily enough, the vast majority of these terms—like the word Trinity itself—are found nowhere in the Bible, and yet, here they are, confusing people since the early second century.

The question was finally settled in the First Council of Nicaea in the year 325—or so they thought.  Turns out, there were more objections to come, and they simply couldn’t anticipate all of the new and exciting ways men would dream up to confuse us, and amuse us.  There were several successive revisions of the creed they developed, each one custom-tailored to address a new and improved heresy, and generally doing a fairly good job of repeating what the Bible says in order to refute what men said.

My favorite contemporary quote on the course of this debate comes from Gregory of Nyssa (c. AD 385), who wrote of this period:

Everywhere, in the public squares, at crossroads, on the streets and lanes, people would stop you and discourse at random about the Trinity. If you asked something of a moneychanger, he would begin discussing the question of the Begotten and the Unbegotten. If you questioned a baker about the price of bread, he would answer that the Father is greater and the Son is subordinate to Him. If you went to take a bath, the Anomoean bath attendant would tell you that in his opinion the Son simply comes from nothing. (“De deitate filii et spiritus sancti et in Abraham” in Gregorii Nysseni Opera vol. X part 2 [ed. E. Rhein], Brill, 1996)

It is noteworthy that a full survey of the Bible shows pretty clearly that the eventually-accepted orthodoxy on the Trinity is basically correct—however, it’s also pretty clear God isn’t awfully concerned that we should fully understand his nature, or he would have spelled it out more clearly, and more concisely.  It matters, but he has bigger fish to fry, like repentance from dead works, faith toward God, washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment (He 6.1-2).  What really stands out about this old debate are the public interest and street-corner discussions.  This minor point wasn’t reserved for the elites in their ivory towers, divorced from the real world.  It mattered to the little people, enough to discuss it with friends, family, and passersby.

Why don’t people care as much, anymore?  Sure, the question is settled apart from the objections of a few wacky outliers, but hardly anyone discusses things of a spiritual nature at all, outside the confines of “church.”  Why?  The frightening answer is obvious when you consider what is discussed by nearly everyone, nearly everywhere in our society.  Suddenly over the last several months, virology and epidemiology have become topics of popular discussion.  So has racial injustice and related public policy, as well as economic policy.  In short, it’s all about politics.

To be fair, the Trinity had become a political question in the 4th century when Gregory wrote about it being discussed in the bathhouse, but it should still terrify us that much of our society has replaced God with State.  Even many churches have done this, choosing to focus on social issues and voter registration campaigns instead of the Gospel.  God’s Word should, of course, influence our politics, but that’s often not what’s happening.  Instead, many now start with politics, and then paint it over with a thin layer of repurposed Jesus-talk.  This isn’t really anything new, but it’s getting worse and worse.

People choose to spend their time, thoughts, and energy on the things that really matter to them.  If your conversation day by day is about everything but the Gospel, what does that tell you?  Jesus was dealing with essentially the same problem when he told the Pharisees and Herodians, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mk 12.17).  The State has a place ordained by God, as we see (for example) in the first half of Romans 13.  We live in a system that encourages, and even requires the populace to participate in governance.  We should be grateful for this, and oblige.  But don’t let politics become the new religion.  Get a little less heated about the things that are Caesar’s, and a little more interested in the things that are God’s.

Jeremy Nettles