DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Sermons from the margins


The Song the Angels Sang

"Firmly I believe and truly, God is three and God is one." There in a nutshell you have the most distinctive and most perplexing of Christian doctrines, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

I want here to consider first of all where the idea of the Trinity came from, and second why it is still important for us.

It is not surprising that the first Christians believed that God is one. They were all Jews, and had been brought up to recite twice daily the text

Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One. (Deuteronomy 6.4)

The amazing thing is that they went beyond this and insisted that God is also "three".

How can such a thing have happened? Not only did it go against the teaching of their Hebrew Bible, but it also created difficulties when, from the second century onwards (before the New Testament was put together), Christians began to express their faith in terms of Greek philosophy.

We tend to think of the Greeks as having dozens of gods like Zeus and Apollo and Aphrodite. In fact, serious Greek thinkers in the tradition of Plato were as insistent as were the Jews that ultimate divinity had to be single and undivided.

So why did Christians, almost from the beginning, believe and teach that the Father, Son and Spirit were distinct yet all divine?

No one can say for certain. But it seems to me that the only convincing reason is that personal experience drove them to it. Their experience of Jesus in his earthly lifetime, and their experience of having their own lives transformed after Jesus was no longer with them, combined to convince them that the Son and the Spirit were not simply agents of God or symbols of God, but actually were God�s own self.

Whatever the reason, they were faced immediately with a problem. How could they justify such a radical departure from the plain teaching of their Jewish scriptures that God is one?

Well, they made a start by looking again at the those same scriptures to see if there were any clues. And their search was soon rewarded. In the very first chapter of the very first book of the Hebrew Bible they found this:

And God said, Let us make man in our own image� (Genesis 1.26).

Why "Let us"? Why "our image"? Surely it should be "Let me make man in my own image"? But it definitely says us and our. So who is God talking to? We thought he had created the universe all on his own. There must have been someone else.

They kept searching, and found another possible answer when they came to the Book of Psalms. There they read:

By the Word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath [Spirit] of his mouth. (Psalm 33.6)

In the light of this verse, there are now three possible answers to the question, "Who created the universe?"

Answer one: God (as it says in Genesis 1). Answer two: the Word of the Lord (as it says in Psalm 33). Answer three: the Spirit of the Lord (as it also says in Psalm 33). So perhaps after all it is not impossible to consider that the creator is in some sense three as well as being one.

I know that this sounds terribly far-fetched to us. But desperate situations call for desperate remedies, and the early Church was desperate to find biblical backing for its religious experience. And that experience led them inescapably to the belief that Jesus who had spoken God�s word directly to them, and the Holy Spirit who had invaded their lives in the wake of Jesus� death, were not merely agents of God but were God�s own self.

Once the idea took hold that there was a "threeness" about God, other scripture texts could be found in the Hebrew Bible to support the idea. Take the great vision of the Lord enthroned in majesty, reported by the prophet Isaiah. What was the song that the angels sang to worship God? "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts". Well there you are. Holy, holy, holy; one, two, three; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Still far-fetched, you say. But it brings us closer to home. At most celebrations of the Eucharist the threefold "Holy" is used to address God at the most solemn part of the service. Why do that if we do not make some sort of link between the Eucharist and the angelic vision of Isaiah?

Like it or not, we are heirs to the interpretation of the Bible by those first Christians.

So much for the way the doctrine that "God is three and God is one" came about. But why do we still celebrate it? Why might it still be important to us today?

The most obvious answer is to say, "It is important because it is true." Well, yes. It is true. But we believe lots of things to be true without making them the single most distinctive doctrine of our creed. And we believe lots of things about God without insisting on them to the point that they drive a wedge between Christianity and every other religious tradition in the world.

For that is what the doctrine of the Holy Trinity does. Against all religions who say there are many gods, Christianity insists there is only one. And against the other monotheistic religions - most notably Judaism and Islam - it insists that God is three.

So what is it about the doctrine of the Trinity that makes it important enough for Christians to claim that every other religion in the world has got its teaching about God wrong?

I hesitate to give a one-sentence answer to such a momentous question, but here goes. The doctrine of the Trinity is essential because it rules out any and every attempt to over-simplify what we mean by "God" and "religion". 

If philosophers and scientists try to reduce God to the cause behind the universe, they may have accounted for the first person of the Trinity, but what about the second and third?

If "Jesus people" try to reduce religion simply to following the teaching of the sermon on the mount, they may have accounted for the second person of the Trinity, but what about the first and the third?

And if "charismatics" try to put all the emphasis on spiritual gifts such as healing and speaking in tongues, they may have accounted for the third person of the Trinity, but what about the first and the second?

It is because the doctrine of the Trinity is so perplexing that it is so important. It is a constant reminder to us that God is not an object that we can analyse and explain. God is beyond our understanding. We can and we must use all our intellectual powers to seek and to know God, for there lies the answer to the mystery of human existence itself.

But the Trinity ensures that we shall never fool ourselves into thinking that we have solved the mystery. In the end, the best - and the least - that we can do is to worship the mystery in whose image we are made and, like the seraphim in Isaiah�s vision, cry, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord."

That is why the doctrine of the Trinity remains central to the Christian faith.

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