Monday 6 August

Rikk Watts is the speaker for the morning Bible Teaching at New Horizon this week. Initially an aeronautical engineer, Rikk later worked with IBM while studying philosophy, art history, and sociology at LaTrobe University. He went on to complete two Masters degrees in theology (OT & NT, Gordon Conwell) and a PhD (Cambridge).  After 20 years teaching at Regent College, Vancouver, Rikk and his wife Katie recently returned to Australia where he is the Dean of the School of Theology at Alphacrucis College. 

Reading from John 20:19 -31

There is an overwhelming amount of material on the subject of the Trinity and I don’t think anybody completely understands it. This morning, we are going to ask, “What is the Trinity? and Why does it matter?”

The next four days are going to be spent looking at Israel’s experience of God. Jesus was actually Jewish. He wasn’t Canadian, Australian, British or Irish. Too often we have marginalised this fact and that sets us up for trouble. Jesus was a Jew and the scriptures shaped His worldview. Jesus did not call the Jewish scriptures the “Old Testament.” Too often if it is “old” we don’t pay attention to it. Jesus took the scriptures seriously.   And they still carry enormous authority.

The Greek translation of Yahweh is “Kyrios” and that is translated LORD. It is critical for us to get a handle on who the LORD is. Then we will spend time looking at the Spirit. There is no way of knowing who God is apart from the Spirit. After that we are going to talk about Jesus. There is no question that Jesus is human but then He starts doing stuff that only God can do and that gets really interesting. On the last day, I want to talk about what this means in our lives.

Trinity: One God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This already sounds odd. How can you have one and three?

“Whoever denies the trinity is in danger of losing their salvation and whoever tries to understand it is in danger of losing their mind!”
– St. Augustine.

“O blessed glorious trinity. Bones to philosophy but milk to faith.” – John Milton

These quotes capture two important points: first of all that this doctrine is essential and, secondly, that it is impossible to understand, despite our best efforts.

Is the Trinity really essential to Christian belief?

Some people think Augustine’s statement is an exaggeration or even wrong. Some argue that all you have to do is to trust Jesus.

Some people avoid the trinity because it causes so much trouble. Some of the deepest and longest lasting schisms were created as a result of the trinity. I don’t think the division comes because of the truth of this doctrine, I think the division comes because we think we know more about it than we actually do.

Human beings love to go into places where God has not spoken. Don’t presume to speak for God if He has not told you what to say. Even if it is difficult, that doesn’t mean it is not true. Whoever said that important things have to be simple or easy? Why should we expect that about the Trinity?

Some much of what we understand about the Trinity is shaped by Hellenistic thinking (ancient Greek thinking). Some rightly note that the word Trinity does not appear in the scriptures and that no-where in the NT do we see Jesus ever getting worked up about it; let alone trying to explain it. Jesus and Paul both make some extraordinary statements without attempting explanation.

Given some of these concerns, how can belief in the trinity be a matter of salvation? A full-blown doctrine of the trinity doesn’t appear until the church councils of Nicaea and Constantinople.

People in the Greek world had the conviction that if something changed it could not be true. Most of the people who were doing this thinking about how God works, had grown up in a culture that was suspicious of history and experience. And so much of our theology today is disembodied because our thinking is shaped by that Hellenistic culture.

Those church councils were not always pictures of the Spirit’s grace. They were plagued by rivalries. They were people just like us. This doesn’t mean the creeds are wrong but we need to be honest about the environment out of which they came.

Having said all of that, nevertheless, I think Augustine is correct that to deny the Trinity is to be in danger of losing our salvation.

The post-apostolic church did not invent the Trinity

Paul wrote, “Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” 1 Corinthians 8:6 (NRSV)

This is just 25 years after Jesus died and Paul is re-interpreting the Shema (Hear, Oh Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.)   Something must have gone on to cause this seismic shift in Paul’s thinking. In Jewish language, there is One Father (Elohim) and One LORD (Yahweh) and Paul is saying that Jesus Christ is the LORD (Yahweh).

This began with Jesus.

In our reading today, Thomas is the hero. What Thomas offers is the first truly Christian confession in the New Testament. He was the first one to get it right. Thomas wants to see and touch and handle. That is how Israel learned about Yahweh (seeing, hearing, witnessing). And when Thomas encounters the risen Jesus, you get this wonderful moment when he declares, My LORD (Yahweh) and my God (Elohim).

There is no question that Jesus is human. But then He does odd stuff. A man is let down through the roof and Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven.” People judge Him because they think, “Only God can forgive sins.” Then Jesus calmed the storm and they were terrified. Jesus claimed to be Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus re-defines the food laws and then He does something equally extraordinary: He takes the Passover, changes the menu and says, “This is about me.” Notice when the demons confront Him, they are afraid that He will destroy them.

With that background, you have Jesus as a human being and Jesus doing God stuff. Jesus addresses God as Father and God speaks back to Him as Son. There you have it: two persons and one God.

The Jews accused Him of blasphemy or thought He had a demon or even wondered if He was out of His mind. Yet, in the resurrection, God confirmed the truth of everything Jesus said and did. This thing we are wrestling with is God among us and God in heaven. That is two persons but then we also have the Spirit.

To believe in Jesus requires belief in the trinity. It informs all of Christian theology if we are saying that Jesus is none other than Yahweh Himself, come among us.

Whoever tries to understand the trinity is in danger of losing their mind!

The New Testament does not fuss about it. Why is it not an issue? It becomes an issue if you speak in terms of history for the Hellenistic Christians. They are not Jewish but they are telling a Jewish story in a Hellenistic culture.

The Hellenists used words like this:

Trinitas – trinity

Homoousias – meaning the same stuff (this is their way of trying to explain that Jesus is the same substance as God).

Hupostasis – meaning instance (there is one God but you see three distinct persons, three instances or hupostasei).

Perichoresis – Unity (the trinity exists in perfect unity)

They used the word Economic Trinity to describe the way God was acting in our world as we see it in the gospels / in history.

The Immanent Trinity has to do with the unchanging realities of eternity.

But within these explanations we encounter problems.

There are still problems because those different words have different meanings. You have to get that right. We wrestle with the same things today. Philip mentioned the word “Father” last night. It is true that God is like a Father but what do you mean by the word father?

Because the Greek didn’t trust history they trusted rationality or reasoning rather than experience.   They assumed that the world was rational and that what they thought about it was true. People think the modern world is a result of reason. The modern world is a result of taking stuff on trust (e.g. that creation has a beginning).

If you don’t understand the world that God made through logic, what makes you think that you can understand the God who made the world (the Creator) through logic?

It is scary that our theological systems have been built on a Hellenistic thought (the idolatry of human reason). It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think but it should mean that we don’t buy into that type of reasoning.

If you think that the world is rational, then you can speculate. But too often we get it wrong when we speculate.

Greeks also loved to get to know things through analogy. But these only work if they are valid. The trouble is that analogies are drawn from the created, material world but God is NOT created and He is not material. So the analogies fall down. We are talking about things that we do not know or understand.