Monday, September 26, 2011

Which Trinity?

This weekend, I had two unrelated experiences which have mingled in my head as a new idea. First, in browsing blogs I ran across the phrase the ‘The Bible is not the fourth member of the Trinity’ for the first time. Sadly, I did not note which blog I was on at the time and the idea appears on many blogs preventing me from giving proper credit. Second, I attended a lecture by Luke Timothy Johnson, a former Benedictine monk and active Catholic with some serious research and authorial chops, who spoke among other things on the reality of a living Christ. His lectures are likely to give inspiration, credited or not, for many posts yet to come from this blog. I’d like to explore these two ideas briefly to outline them, and then bring them together to show the mingling they have been up to in my thoughts.

Taking the observation on The Bible first, this is a great statement on the perils and pitfalls of the position of an inerrant and literal understanding of the writings in Scripture. Certainly, the texts contain many assurances the constancy of God’s Word, and of its perfect nature. But the Bible never puts forward a claim that these New Testament texts, and no others, are the ones which are the record of the Word of God. The Bible, as I would hope we all know, is not a discreet object that sprang forth from the brow of God like Athena from the head of Zeus in Greek myth. It is a combination of the holy writings believed to be in use by the Jewish people among whom Christ was born, and selected writings by the followers of Christ and the leaders of the church that was established from his teachings, separating it from the further evolution of the purely Jewish faith of Israel/Judea. The writings which comprise it were in flux for centuries, and even at the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther openly questioned the composition (Specifically, doubting the authority of Revelation). Further, to this day “The Holy Bible” is comprised of different writings depending on the particular church you join, with books such as the Wisdom of Solomon, the Four Maccabees, Enoch, and many others being part of canon in some churches, good reading but not Scripture in others, and outright off the shelf in still others.

Christ did provide in his assurance that not the least of the written Hebrew characters would be forgotten or left unfulfilled, an outright assurance that all the prophesy and law of the Lord would come to pass, and provided reasonably strong assurances, if stopping short of a direct statement, that the books of Jewish scripture known in his time were a trustworthy record of the law and prophesy already revealed. Further, he provided that the Word of the Lord was inerrant, and would not be stopped or left unfulfilled. But Jesus was not the author, to our knowledge, of any of the New Testament as constructed by any modern church; he is only a character within the text. As such, we cannot even assert an authorial intent that the lessons and words recorded were the Word of God he gave assurance of. Working only from the Bible we have no figure of authority who ever names a single text of the New Testament as being the literal Word of the Lord which was promised to be inerrant and perfect by Christ, we only have the recordings of witnesses or second hand recipients of that perfect word, and those who claim otherwise must either engage in circular logic “The authority comes from the object we are questioning the authority of” or accept that a body on earth has been granted authority to invest authenticity, and thus inerrancy, to works that they review.

Now let me change over to the lecture by Luke Timothy Johnson. In his lecture, Johnson stressed the vital fact of Christ’s continuing life to our identity as Christians. That the Christ we know is not a dead Jew who taught nice things in Galilee, but he is the eternal and living Lord, the life-giving one who is still with us today. This is a Messiah who carefully prepared his students to carry on his mission, focusing his teachings while he was among them on the knowledge they would need to create his church, continue his teaching, and demonstrate the ways to prepare the people of earth to welcome to Holy Spirit. Jesus knew that his work would not end abruptly with his Resurrection, but would continue to grow and expand so long as his followers continued to teach his word and welcome others into fellowship, a fellowship not just with the Christians of the day, but with the Holy Spirit and Christ himself. We are not members of a church that was founded by a good teacher who on his deathbed asked us to do a few things to help keep his memory alive, but by of a church that is still led by him in real and meaningful ways, receiving communication and comfort from him, and knowing he is with us always. It is too easy to mentally box out the resurrection.

We affirm that Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again. But it is easy to let ourselves think of this as three separate statements, and so I like the subtle alternate meaning of the wording being put forward by the Catholics: We proclaim your Death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection until you come again. Even when we voice the belief in the Resurrection and in Christ’s new life, how easy in the way we act and the way we speak of him to make this an event in history, not a state. Christ lived, and then he died. Christ was resurrected, and then he went away, so we may as well treat him like a dead guy. Christ will come again, we better get ready for when we arrives. Just think how many cultural jokes follow the basic pattern of “Christ will return, better clean up.” Expressing an idea that he isn’t already here, he won’t be with us again until his return. But take the alternate wording (Being adopted into Catholic liturgy this year), and see the subtle change. Christ’s death is the past, The Resurrection is the present, and the future is his return in full glory. Each of us is invited to know the Risen Lord. Christ is as real to any of us, and is as available to reveal the Word, as he was to Paul. There was never an expiration date on the chance to know the Ascended Christ. This isn’t a period of waiting and trying to keep busy while Christ is absent from us, this is the period of his resurrection, when those who have heard his word profess their faith and go forth to continue his work.

Now let me bring these two ideas together, or rather, let me quote from 2 Corinthians 2-6, which shows the link I feel between these ideas. “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” The epistle goes on to express that the ministry to come is of the Spirit, and not of the written word. With the living Christ to provide guidance, understanding, and clarification, the servants of the Lord can now go forth as agents of a Word which lives, not merely one which is dead ink on paper. If we truly believe in the resurrection and have humbled ourselves as servants of Christ, isn’t his ongoing, living and unfolding ministry a more meaningful Gospel and a more complete Word than a collection of historical writings about a 30-40 year window in the more than two millennia that Christ has been known to us personally?

I’m not going off on a wild anti-New Testament rant here, far from it. I think that in the light of a living Christ, the evolution, selection, and alteration of what writings go into the Bible over time actually becomes more clear and more important... that if we can rest easy that the writings of man may be incomplete and even contain error, but that the Ever Present Word of the Lord is guiding us, drawing us to study those texts which will help us know him best, and revealing new ideas to us only as they are needful, if we can trust God then we can afford to separate the wheat from the chafe, to use the Scriptures as a tool to know him, but be able and willing to cast aside those details and passages which may be of historical or social interest, but are not an eternal part of his Word. Scholarly pursuits to find the oldest manuscripts, correct translations, and make a more perfect body of knowledge about these writings can certainly help us know more about Jesus, but if he lives, they are not our only tool; we can know him personally right now.

All this and I have not yet touched on my title, my readers must have the patience of saints. Let me now put forward two different views of the Trinity, views shaped by the arguments above. If the Bible is Inerrant and Complete, the Word of God, a vital and irrefutable resource for us to find the will of Christ on the topics of our day, the ultimate authority on the Ministry of Salvation, then it must be a record of that which has been concluded. If one argues that Christ could perform another miracle or provide a revelation, but elects not to so as to avoid making the Bible incorrect or incomplete, then no matter how you phrase it, in effect you are making the risen Lord subservient to the Scripture. In this world, The Trinity is God the Father, eternal Judge of the laws in the Written Word, The Holy Spirit, agent of the Father which provides witness and comfort to those who Follow the Rules, and The Holy Bible (understudy for The Son who is dead and thus too ill to come to church today). We are back to a church following a kind dead Jew. A Christ unable or unwilling to act outside of the limits of a book edited and compiled by man is clearly no part of an equal Godhead of three persons. This is a church which was founded by Jesus, not a church which is lead by him. A church which celebrates what he did, and what he taught, not what he does and what he teaches. A church which needs an assurance of what Jesus will ask of them before they are willing to promise to follow.

Conversely, we have the Word as followers, those who have received the living Christ and carry the Spirit forward. This church has a Trinity of the Father, the eternal lawgiver who keeps all promises, the Holy Spirit, the medium of transmission of grace and love which allows followers to know the living Son, and The Risen Son, the Messiah who died to fulfill justice and open a new era of mercy, who sits at the head of his Church and through the Spirit provides ongoing guidance and revelation of his teachings to his people. This is a church which must embrace change, and be willing to face the reality of uncertainty. Following a vital and active Jesus means we may not always know where we are going, but we have the Spirit and follow in faith. A church which seeks to understand his will now, and to see that it is done. And, a church in which the will of Christ is made known to us by the Spirit, and as such places the Trinity beyond any box, unlimited by a book. In fact, if we read John 17 20-23, we see that in this church, by opening ourselves to the Spirit and the living lord, Christ gives us an awesome invitation, the invitation for the faithful to know the power and bliss of the Trinity: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

I know which Trinity I give all glory and praise to, Thanks be to God.

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