Sunday, June 3, 2012

Trinity Sunday

Today is Trinity Sunday.  What is the Trinity?  We have a long and convoluted Creed that purports to explain the Trinity but it doesn't help very much and it leaves us bewildered.  Let me give you a brief guideline that I will write off the top of my head without having to check google for the correct spelling or the Bible for the correct verses so if I get anything wrong, please don't pick on it.

It all began with Judaism and the Old Testament is very clear about this.  God is ONE.  Not two or three but ONE.  The most important call that a faithful believer will say twice a day is the sheema which is this: "Hear O Israel, the Lord thy God is one Lord".  The unitary nature of God is important throughout the belief of everyone from Abraham to Moses to all the Prophets, major and minor.

You may ask yourself how much clearer one can make about the unitary nature of God.  THE LORD THY GOD IS ONE LORD.

Now we come to the New Testament.  Let's remember that this is a BRIEF guideline.  The Trinity in 10 seconds.  I need to cycle to church soon to play my instrument in the church ensemble and I've got to be quick.

The Synoptic Gospels are very clear about Jesus.  The Father knows when the Second Coming of Jesus will be but Jesus doesn't know that. Jesus prays to God. Jesus emphasizes his role as someone sent by the Father and he has to obey God the Father.  When the rich young ruler called him good, Jesus responded with a terse "Only God is good".  John's Gospel which scholars tell us is the latest of the four is quite different.  From the get go in the very first verse in the first chapter, we read that "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God".  In Greek, "the Word was God" is not as simple as it might appear in English.  Even great evangelical scholars like Leon Morris tell us that it can be translated "the Word was divine" or had the qualities of God but of course Morris goes on to say why "the Word was God" is preferable to him as an evangelical.  In my younger days before I became jaded by the problems of my religion, I regarded "and the Word was with God" as more definitive of the Godhead of Christ than "the Word was God".  The reason for this is the Gospel writer used the accusative mood "πρὸς τὸν θεόν" and not the dative "παρὰ θεὸς".  Of course I was grasping at straws as I always have been to justify the teachings of my church.  Rather than admit that the writer's Greek was flawed, I chose to believe that the accusative mood was an indication that Jesus being God could not be with God but the "with" was more an "acting upon" - like a spiritual reactionary co-mixing of each other and the accusative best expressed that.  Of course that was all rubbish.  The human mind is highly inventive when it comes to justifying the ways of God to men.

But elsewhere in John, we see clear verses that deifies Christ.  I have no time to go into them but you can look them up.  Briefly, "Before Abraham was, I am" and doubting Thomas going on his knees and calling Christ "my Lord and my God" are all found ONLY in John's Gospel.

With the passage of time as Jesus was worshipped more and more, it was unthinkable not to elevate Christ to full Godhead.  But wait, it doesn't end there.  How much God is Jesus?  The greatest early Christian thinker Origen did not deny the divinity of Jesus but he wrote that Jesus was the first creation of God the Father.  Jesus is the begotten son of the Father.  Naturally the Father has to exist before him.  After all, St Paul wrote that Jesus is "the firstborn of all creation".  You can twist a sentence any way you like and you can look at it in Greek, English or Urdu but the firstborn of all creation MUST be a creation.  It's as elementary as that.  You would have thought Origen did right to say that.

But poor Origen was posthumously pronounced a heretic when the church moved on to decide that Jesus was co-eternal with the Father.  That means it's heresy to say Jesus was created.  Would the Church declare St Paul a heretic for writing that Jesus is "the firstborn of all creation"?  Of course not.  You can't do that to St Paul because his writing is the Word of God.  All we have to do is to decide that the firstborn of all creation is not a creation.  This is religion, remember?  And no decent person questions religion.  So today, you will find a Christian totally unfazed when he reads the verse - it's like water off a duck's back.
What about the Holy Spirit?  The Filioque caused a schism within the church.  We say in the creed that "the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son".

But that's not how an Orthodox would say his creed. His Holy Spirit proceeds only from the Father whereas the Holy Spirit of the rest of us  (RCs and Protestants alike) proceeds from the Father and the Son. But what is the big deal, you may legitimately ask?  What does it even mean for the Spirit to proceed from the Father and the Son or from the Father alone?  After all, the Church has decided that the Holy Spirit too is co-eternal with the Father and the Son.  But what's the difference and what does it mean?  But this difference has caused a huge split in the church and has been the cause of wars and bloodshed.  Can you imagine that?  Just because someone believes that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son and not the Father alone is a reason for you to kill him and the other way round too?  And you don't even know what it means?  I've tried very hard to understand what the church has come up with and to see which church is right and I'm confused.  Now, the Holy Spirit is also referred to as pneuma which is "wind" and he proceeds from either the Father alone or the Father and the Son.  What meaning can that have?  My immediate thought is something I dare not even think of because our Lord tells us that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is a sin that is unforgivable.  But I do want to know what it means before I can understand why people would kill over a disagreement that they don't even understand.  Can one say that all three - Father, Son and Holy Spirit are co-eternal so it really doesn't matter who proceeds from whom because they've always existed anyway?   No,  he must take a stand or he risks being called a heretic.  The creed I recite ALWAYS says the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son but that's because I don't live in Greece or Russia.

All Christian traditions that survive to this day accept that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one God but in three persons.  But the Old Testament and all the Patriarchs and Prophets insist that the Lord our God is one Lord.  But the church will say of course God is one Lord but he is three Persons.  The sheema doesn't say "Hear O Israel, the Lord thy God is one Person" because God is one Lord but in three Persons.  But if you think about it, how on earth could the Old Testament writers envisage that one day, we will say that God is one but three Persons?  I'm sure if they had a vision that we'd come up with this formula, the sheema would have addressed our situation more specifically and it'll probably read "Hear O Israel, the Lord they God is one Lord and one Person".  But then the church would never have contradicted the Old Testament so openly as to insist that God is in three Persons.  What the church would have done is probably to say that God is one Person but in three Entities.  That's the beauty of religion.  You can always use another word and if the meaning is confusing and mystical, so much the better.  Besides, we are always told that we can't really understand the Trinity because that is how great God is.  There is no way the Old Testament could have ensured that people in the future who claim to use it do not flout its most basic tenet as contained in the sheema.  There is always some way of getting round it.

But for those of us who have been in the faith all our lives, the name of the Holy Trinity is precious and our bodies naturally react at the invocation of the name.  Even though my faith is what it is today, my entire being reacts instinctively whenever the name is invoked and my hand will rise to my forehead to make the "holy sign" almost as if it has a life of its own.  It's the same with the Creed.  There is one part in the Creed where we should bow but I have noticed that only old people bow so I ain't doing it!  But the Creed was at one time a battle cry and the yardstick by which dissidents and people who differ from us were killed.  Why then do I not feel a revulsion for it?  How can I bow when it's said? How can I cross myself after it's been said?  But we still do it and I will do it for the rest of my life.  The killings were all in the past and they serve as a reminder to us that there should be no violence.

The Archbishop of Canterbury ruled a couple of years ago that no convert should be required to accept the virgin birth as a prerequisite for acceptance into the church.  But the virgin birth is in our Creed and shared by ALL churches: "I believe in..... Jesus Christ who was born of the Virgin Mary".  When we would once kill someone for denying the virgin birth or for saying that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and not the Son, today, the good Archbishop has declared that we don't even debar such a person from being received into the church.  We have certainly come a long way since the early church.

As we observe Trinity Sunday, let us remember that there are many of our brethren who are unable to accept the virgin birth or who believe that the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone, whatever that means and I assure you, nobody knows what it means - it's conveniently and charmingly called a "mystery" of faith.  Let us remember also Origen and think fondly of him even though he was posthumously branded a heretic.  Origen was a great Christian thinker and how was he to know that the church would decide that Christ was co-eternal some decades after his death?  After all, he was being faithful to the Bible or more specifically to what St Paul wrote in the Epistles.  Rather than look for differences, let us learn to be inclusive.

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