Guest Post by The Rev. Dr. Don Carlson
THE HOLY TRINITY
May 26, 2013
First Sunday after Pentecost
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 – Before the oceans and mountains were born, Wisdom was set in place.
Psalm 8 – When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.
Romans 5:1-5 -Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
John 16:12-15 – When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine.
The question on Holy Trinity is whether you’re going to preach the texts or preach the day. I’m going with the day and am going to get at it by way of the Nicene Creed.
Quiz time. What were the “four great heresies” of the early church – Arianism, Apollinarism, Nestorianism, and Eutychianism – all about? Most of our so called “heresies” today have to do with sex or Biblical interpretation. All the great heresies had to do with the person of Jesus Christ, and usually with the surrendering or minimizing of his “human nature.” The early church at least knew a real heresy when they heard one. And this is why the second article of the Nicene Creed is the longest. The debate at Nicaea between the followers of Arius and those of Athanasius was about the person and nature of Christ. (The original version of the creed in 325 simply concluded, “We believe in the Holy Spirit.”)
And so we have creedal language that drives nails into the theological coffin of Arius,
“…the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, light from light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made…”
But that was the theological reason for the council. Constantine had called the council for political reasons. He was going to use the newly legitimized and legalized Christian faith (the Edict of Milan by Constantine; later, the Edict of Thessalonica by Theodosius) to unify his empire, therefore he could not abide any division within the faith if he wanted a unified empire. He probably didn’t care what decisions the council made as long as there was agreement. However, Constantine was blindsided by the theological/political import of the council’s final creedal statement.
Here are some insights from Marcus Borg’s book Speaking Christian.”
Moreover, an issue was at stake that Constantine seemed initially not to understand (recall that his interest was not the particular result, but agreement). Like Roman emperors before him, Constantine was hailed as divine, Son of God, and Lord. But he was not, to use the language of the creed, “begotten and not made.” He was not “of one substance,” “one Being” with God. Athanasius’s interpretation put Jesus above the emperor. Whether Arius’s interpretation made Jesus and the emperor equal is less clear. But emphatically, the Nicene Creed made the status of Jesus as divine and Son of God higher than the status of the emperor. Within a few years of Nicea, Constantine realized this and became “Arian,” that is, an advocate of the lesser status of Jesus advocated by Arius. So did his imperial successors for much of the fourth century.1
Ah, now we’re into it! Now we’re getting away from merely erudite systematic theologies of the supposed “inner workings” or “internal economy” of the Trinity. Now we’re getting into what this creedal confession might mean, not for “God in heaven,” but for “us on earth!” Borg continues,
Thus a major issue at stake in the Nicene Creed is: Is Jesus above all of the lords of this world or is he one among a number of lords? The issue continues to come up for Christians today. Is Jesus above the lords of culture or is he one allegiance among a number of allegiances? Are we to give our allegiance to Jesus in the religious realm and our allegiance to others in the other realms of life? Are our religious and political loyalties separate? Or is Jesus lord of all lords? The answer of the Nicene Creed (and the New Testament before it) is clear. Jesus as Lord and Son of God transcends all other lords.
Given this, standing and saying the Nicene Creed is a subversive act. Its affirmations negate the claims of other lords upon us. God as known in Jesus is Lord, the one and only Lord. The lords of culture- and they are many- are not.2
Of course, one person’s orthodoxy can well be another person’s heresy. And the confession that “Jesus is Lord” – when pushed to its fullest implications – really is heretical to much of “American cultural Christianity,” just as it was to Constantine’s “Roman cultural Christianity.” Maybe it would be good to rummage around in all this a bit on Trinity Sunday. What are we really doing when we stand and say the Nicene Creed?
I believe it was Luther who said that omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence are masks that hide God. Once we have said all of these “omni-adjectives” we really haven’t said much. We literally don’t know what we’re talking about because all of them are beyond our frame of reference. They seem to describe God but actually hide God. “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, In light inaccessible hid from our eyes…”
This is also true when we sing a hymn that many will sing on Trinity Sunday,
“Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!”
Our problem is that we confuse the original “person” notion/language with our modern and post-modern concept of the “person” as an individual. Borg also does a good job with this in his discussion of the Trinity.
In both Greek and Latin, the meaning of the word translated into English as person is quite different from its modern meaning. In the fourth century when trinitarian doctrine was formulated, the word persona in Latin and its Greek equivalent prosopon referred to the mask worn by actors in the theater. Actors wore masks not for the sake of concealment (as we might wear Halloween masks today), but to play different roles. The etymology of the Latin persona reflects this; its roots mean “to speak through,” “to sound through.” In a quite literal sense, persona as a mask is something an actor speaks through. Applied to the Trinity, the ancient meaning of persona/ prosopon suggests that for Christians the one God is known and speaks in three primary roles or ways: as creator and the God of Israel; in Jesus; and through the Spirit.3
As Lutherans, we have at times been accused of being too “Christocentric.” Personally, I have no problem with such accusations. In the “person” of Jesus Christ, in the Incarnation, in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we have the clearest and fullest revelation of God. As Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” and also “The Father and I are one.”
And yet, while Jesus is the fullest revelation that we shall see on this side of the grave, it is still as “masked” or “veiled” revelation. As Paul wrote,
“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
In the end, the whole “doctrine of the Trinity” is an effort, not to explain the Trinity, but to hang on to the mystery of the Trinity. And leaving aside our modern (not so much our post-modern) leanings, a true mystery is not something to be solved ala Agatha Christie; rather, it is something to be embraced in wonder. In the words of another great Trinitarian hymn,
“Holy Father, Holy Son,
Holy Spirit, Three we name thee;
while in essence only One,
undivided God we claim thee;
and adoring bend the knee,
while we own the mystery.”
How might we preach “holy mystery” on Holy Trinity?
I have used “heresy” a lot in this piece. I have also quoted Marcus Borg. There are those who think they are one and the same. I do not; and so, a story.
When I was at Luther Seminary I took Johannine literature from Professor Janis Rosenthals. He, along with Professor Edmund Smits, had escaped the iron curtain of Europe following World War II. He had been a doctoral student of Rudolph Bultmann and so, in addition to dealing with his thick Latvian (?) accent, we also had to wade through Bultmann’s The Gospel of John. Bultmann was considered a heretic by many, especially in this country, for his “demythologizing” of scripture. (Again, at least the early church could identify a real heresy!)
One day in class Rosenthals told us of the last time he saw Bultmann (who had been a member of the Confessing Church) before his death. Traveling back to Marburg, he found the elderly theologian sitting alone quietly in his room. Rosenthals asked him, “Professor, what are you doing?” After a few moments Bultmann looked up and said, “I am waiting for Jesus.”
And then, after a pause, Rosenthals looked at us all and said through angry tears, “And there… There was their heretic!”
(1,2,3 Borg, Marcus J. (2011-04-12). Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power-And How They Can Be Restored (Kindle Locations 2500-2503). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.)
Yours in Christ,
Don Carlson, Assistant to the Bishop Rinehart