A Trinitarian question.
For a Christian who confesses God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, isn’t the idea of pitting Jesus against the portraits of God in the Old Testament a misunderstanding of what we mean by the word “Trinity”?
Don’t we confess that the Son — the eternally begotten one — was fully present, active, and revealed in the Old Testament as well as the New? In Genesis 1, the son was present. At the burning bush, the son also said “I AM.” Through the whole story, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were three-in-one.
Or am I getting my Trinitarian theology wrong here?
They did not destroy the peoples
as the Lord had commanded them,
but they mingled with the nations
and adopted their customs. (Psalm 106: 34-35, NIV)
I remember the day I was sitting in a Bible study and someone said God would never command the destruction of entire towns. The person was objecting to the Jericho story in Joshua. The argument boiled down to the claim that Jesus would never do that.
Here is the rub, though. We are Trinitarians. When the Bible refers to God, it is talking about Jesus. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all three-in-one, are God.
Jesus in the New Testament is not a filter that we run the rest of the God stories in the Bible through to strain out the parts that don’t appear to us to fit. Jesus is the incarnation of the God who commanded the destruction of Jericho. Jesus, the Son of God, was the same God who sent the angel of death to wipe out the first born of Egypt. Jesus the eternal Word rained fire on Sodom and Gomorrah.
In Psalm 106, we read of the mighty and terrible deeds of the Lord. Jesus of Nazareth knew those Psalms well. They tell his story.
I have read a lot of United Methodist commentary in the last couple years about the importance of Trinitarian faith. I’ve had a member of my conference Board of Ordained Ministry explain that one concern the board has had in recent years is that some candidates come out of seminary without a sufficient ability to clearly articulate Trinitarian Christianity.
And yet, during the last year as the country has seriously considered the election of a man who embraces a religion that espouses a non-Trinitarian religion, I have heard almost no discussion about why the Trinity matters to Christians. I’m not asking for a political argument here. By Wesleyan standards, after all, we’ve probably had several non-Christian presidents in our history. Electing a non-Trinitarian is not my concern.
My concern is more a question. If the Trinity is so important to our understanding of God, why have we seemed to flee from any discussion of the topic?
Is it that we have become such thorough-going pluralists that we recoil at even describing differences among the religions?
Is it that we are afraid of being labeled as political?
Is it that we really are not all that Trinitarian in our theology after all? Do we not actually believe that Jesus Christ was fully God, uncreated, and from the beginning? Is this just so much scholastic game playing to us? Do we not believe the Holy Spirit is God, not just from God?
Is it that we cannot articulate our faith with either confidence or clarity?
I ask these questions as much about myself as I do about you. I have not talked about the theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in any public way in the last year. But if I do not, how can I expect the people in the churches I serve to understand our faith?
I suppose before I do that, I need more knowledge. I have read the United Methodist Chruch’s document on baptism and former LDS members, but most of what I know of LDS theology is bits and pieces. Perhaps learning more is the first step.
Who knows a good accessible resource for doing so?
Ben Witherington III writes about the differences between Mormonism and Christianity. Among other points he raises, is this one regarding the Trinity:
Mormons, thus, not surprisingly, deny the doctrine of the Trinity, calling it an amalgam of Greek ideas with Biblical ideas. Their basic view is that the original doctrine of God and of the ‘priesthood’ and key ideas about sacrifice, and leadership of the NT era were lost, as the church became entirely apostate and needed to be renewed, and that the NT church was not renewed until Joseph Smith came along in the 19th century (who btw, had an interest in Methodism whilst he was in Palmyra N.Y. and apparently took part in some of the revivals in the ‘Burnt Over District’ there in the first part of the 19th century). Mormons see the ecumenical councils which produced the Nicean creed or the Apostle’s Creed or the Chalcedonian creed as in essence contradictory to what Scripture teaches.
As United Methodists we affirm the doctrine of the Trinity in both our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith. The Mormon church rejects Trinitarian Christianity in terms that remind me of The Da Vinci Code.
I suspect that our understanding of the Trinity and of our own faith is so attenuated these days that a dispute over the nature of God does not seem worth making trouble about. I’m not sure how to respond to such attitudes, but I find the notion that we should be indifferent to questions about the nature of God and the identity of Jesus Christ disturbing.
For his part, John Wesley wrote a typically pastoral and generously orthodox (to steal a term) sermon on the sometimes vexing topic of the Trinity. (It is worth noting as we read this sermon that textual critics now almost all reject Wesley’s judgment about 1 John 5:7). The sermon opens with his often-repeated appeals to not count doctrine too dear when assessing the Christian heart of another person, but it plants its feet firmly on orthodox Trinitarian faith as one of those essentials about which we cannot simply “think and let think.”
Sometimes Christians say things that warm a pastor’s heart.
On Trinity Sunday, I invited the congregation to pay attention to how many different ways we use the triune names of God in our prayers and hymns and other elements of worship. Today, in our Sunday Bible class while reading John 14 together, someone pointed out the Trinity in the chapter.
Do you get bonus pastor points when that happens?
I had another member come to me and say words to this effect. “Something has been bothering me this week. You know, in this country, it is just too easy to be Christian. It’s not like in Roman times or other places in the world.”
Neither of these moments will show up in my Vital Signs reporting this week, but they are among several moments that make me feel privileged to have been appointed by the bishop again at Annual Conference Saturday.