Who is God?
The God of the Church: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
This is the next-to-last sermon in our series on “Who is God?” Last week, I talked about the Holy Spirit as the God in the Church. This week I want to talk about the Holy Trinity as the God of the Church – the final definition of God that sets the standard of Christian belief and worship. This passage here at the end of Matthew's Gospel is the first explicit appearance of the formula in Scripture – tossed in, almost off-handedly, in what we call The Great Commission. If this was all you knew about the Trinity, you might not get a hint of how important this formula was to become to the Church. But the Church worried over the definition of God like a dog chewing over a bone. Again and again, trying to understand what had been communicated to us in Jesus Christ.
Who is Jesus? What is he? Is he really one of us, a member of the human race, with the heart and brain and soul of a Man? How can he be that, and also be God? In what sense is he “God?” Is he God in the same way as the Father – widely understood to be the God who revealed himself to Israel – as he is God?
In the titanic argument we call the Arian controversy, a Fourth Century Christian teacher in Alexandria put forth the idea that the Son of God, who became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, was the highest created being, through whom God the Father made all other things, but that he was not, could not be, God in the same sense as the Father - not without abandoning monotheism and becoming no better than the pagans. And Arius had an ironclad example to offer. If the Father begets the Son, then the Father must, in the ordinary course of things, exist before the Son; therefore, the Father is the eternal God, and the Son is the firstborn of all creation - a sort of demigod, higher than any angel, but still lower than God Himself.
To this, the orthodox party, led by Athanasius, another teacher from Alexandria, replied that the begetting of the Son by the Father is from eternity, where there is neither before nor after. C.S. Lewis explained it this way. Suppose there are two books lying on a shelf, one on top of the other, and then suppose them to have been there from all eternity, in just that position. In that case, the book on the bottom has caused and is causing the position of the bk on the top from all eternity, but neither was placed there before the other. The actual analogy the fathers of the Council of Nicea came up with is that of the flame and a ray of light: the flame sends out the ray, but the flame does not precede the ray – they are coterminous in existence. And thus, we get the expression of the Nicene Creed, which says, “We believe . . . in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”
In other words, God is a social being. He has always known himself in the exchange of life and love between the Father that begets and the Son that is begotten, each at once the holder and the held. While remaining one God, the Mind of God has more than one center of consciousness; more than one Person inhabits the Godhead. In a human being, this would be defined as something like schizophrenia; but then, we are not as God, for whom this eternal relationship w/in himself is normal.
This, by the way, answers a question sometimes asked by children (and others), namely, Before God created the world and its people, was he lonely? Is that why he created us? And the answer is, No. Except for that terrible separation between the Father and Son that happened on the cross, God has never felt alone. God is not normally capable of feeling lonely. So he did not create us to fill his emptiness, but out a desire to share his fullness. He created us out of the overflow of the love between the Father and the Son, that there might be more persons to share in the joy he has felt for ever.
This is not an obvious definition, and it was not immediately accepted. It took a lot of thought and argument, and other models for God were proposed. ne model for God is what we call modalism, which you will find taught in some Pentecostal churches under the name “oneness.” This teaching says that God is one in being and one in personality, but that he plays diff roles at different times, or wears different masks, appearing now as Father, now as Son, and now as Holy Spirit. And there are plenty of other attempts to solve the problem of the relationship of the Father and the Son in the Godhead. But the orthodox formulation, which you find in the Creed, is what stuck. Every other possible solution landed you in difficulties and eventually contradicted what the Scriptures taught and what the experience of the Church was.
And what of the Holy Spirit? What of the third person of the Trinity? (By the way, that term, “trinity” was first used by a man named Tertullian, over 150 yrs after Christ's ministry, and it took a while to catch on. The Council of Nicea in 325 defined the orthodox position on the relationship between the Father and the Son, but it didn't address the issue of the Spirit. So was the Holy Spirit really God, or was he just a metaphor for God in action?
Well, once again, intense thought and argument went into this. The definition of the Holy Spirit eventually arrived at says that the relationship between the Father and the Son is so powerful that the relationship itself assumes personality and becomes a third, co-equal Person within the Godhead. Which sounds really weird, but think about it this way: we talk about the “spirit” of a team, or a company, or some other group, as if it were somehow separate from the attitudes of the individual group members. Well, with God, that Spirit becomes real, not merely notional.
Or, to take an example from music, you all know that when you pluck a string, it vibrates, and the longer the string, the lower the pitch of the note it makes. But a vibrating string not only vibrates at the frequency of the whole string, but at the same time vibrates in frequencies of half the string, a third of the string, a fourth of the string, etc. These faint overtones are called “harmonics,” and they give the note plucked or sung a rich, slightly fuzzy character. Now, in the form of music called barbershop quartet singing, you have four male singers who are singing in very tight harmony. Each singer seeks to produce a note right on his pitch, and when all four singers are dead on pitch, their voices create out of each note’s harmonics a fifth note on top of the chord, which is called “the bird” – ‘cause it sits up there, like a bird in a nest. So really good barbershop harmony produces five-note chords from four human voices.
In terms of God, we say that the Father communicates being to the Son, and the two of them exchange their love, and the back and forth of love from the Father to the Son and from the Son to the Father becomes a third Person who knows the mind of each and through whom the power of their relationship is communicated, not only to God, but to all that he creates. The Creed says, “We believe . . . in the Holy Spirit . . . who proceeds from the Father and the Son” (or through the Son). And since there is neither before nor after with God, the Holy Spirit is also co-eternal with the Father and the Son. God has always been three in one and one in three, and we know this not only through his revelation of himself to us, but thru our long meditation upon the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, we don’t teach this doctrine because we think it’s easy; it’s not. We teach it because we’ve tried every other formulation we could come up with to fit the facts, and this is all that works. And I’ve just rushed through about a semester of high-altitude theology in a few minutes here, and some of you are going, ”Wow! I’ve been waiting for someone to explain this to me for years!” while others are going, “Oh, man, when is he going to be done with this?” So let me tell you why this stuff matters.
Let’s suppose that you are bldg your dream house. Your life savings are invested in this home. And about halfway through the process, you discover that your contractor is only marginally acquainted with the concepts of Square, Level, and Plumb. You’ve got a problem.
I don’t know how many people I’ve heard say that theory is all airy-fairy and of no importance and what really counts is practicality, but I’ll tell ya, when you’ve placed your hopes upon someone with a screwy understanding of theory, you find out just how important theory is. Poor theory will tend to produce poor results. Now, I don’t have to understand the theory of, say, the internal combustion engine, to insert the key and drive my car away. I don’t have to understand the principles of electronics to boot up my computer and surf the ‘net. But the people who build cars and computers better understand these things, or I’m going to be very disappointed in the products they made and I foolishly bought.
And what I have noticed over many years, is that church leaders who sit loosely to orthodoxy come up with some really screwy ideas. Which is not to say that everybody who affirms the orthodox definition of God you find in the Creeds will agree on social issues or moral values or how some passage in Scripture is to be interpreted. But when you don’t start from the right place, you wind up in some very strange places, indeed.
I see a lot of church leaders who start with some value – a social issue or a moral judgment – that they think is of utmost importance. And they then go to the Scriptures to find support for that, or to answer only the problem they bring to the Scriptures. And they believe only in that God who is as concerned about their view of things as they are. In other words, they begin with a definition of God that includes the thing they care about, and then they force everything else to bear out their original premise. Consciously or not, they are skewing their theory to deliver the results they want. And when I’ve asked some of the people with the odder ideas or who are selling the latest whizbangery or pushing the hottest issues what they really believe about God, what I’ve found is they think orthodoxy is old-fashioned. They’ve moved away from the Creeds because that model of God doesn’t fit the thing they care about, doesn’t promote the value they’ve already decided religion should be promoting. In some cases, they haven’t moved away from the Creeds; they don’t even know the Creeds. Either way, they’re just making it up as they go along. What are the chances that they’re going to build something that will not only take you where you want to go today, but will take you where you need to go tomorrow, and will stand the test of time so that you will feel confident claiming that faith as you lay yourself down to enter eternity?
There is no entrance exam to get into heaven – no pop quiz, no minimum score. Salvation doesn’t depend upon “understanding” at all. But we teach that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a trinity in unity and a unity in trinity, because we desire to know him the best we can, and offer him our best in worship by declaring his nature to each other; AND because we have found as a practical matter, that churches with leaders – both clergy and laity -- who are carefully taught and who unfeignedly profess what we believe about God are less likely to led astray, less likely to invest their lives and souls in ideas and movements that will ultimately disappoint them or hurt them.
We want to know the power and love of God, and we want others to know the power and love of God as well. So we want to make the corner of the house square, and the foundation level, and the walls plumb – because we are building for eternity.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.