22 May 2016
“God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5) In the name …
I think there once was or maybe still is a television show where chefs were judged on what they could concoct in a certain amount of time and limited to a certain list of ingredients. The winner was the one whose meal used everything in the most appealing way possible according to the palates of the judges. In the Bible we find the ingredients for our Christian theology of the Holy Trinity, but those ingredients of Father, Son and Holy Spirit were never mixed together into the single concept of the Trinity until centuries after the last word of the Bible was written. This may seem a bit strange especially for religious fundamentalists and biblical literalists, but I see in this movement the guidance of the Spirit within the church. I see the Trinity as progress slowly evolving through God’s inspiration to help us better understand how Jesus can be both human and divine, in time and eternal, Saviour and Son of God. The Trinity is evidence for the continuous revelation of God to us.
A Jewish biblical scholar, Geza Vermes, argues that at the time of Jesus Judaism was primarily a religion of deeds, a way of life. This was the religion into which Jesus of Nazareth was born, and the religion that He grew up in. Much of Jesus’ gospel message is similarly about how to live godly lives. After Jesus’ death, however, as Christianity was forming, a move toward theological speculation replaced this emphasis on how we live. I can’t go into detail, but maybe this will suffice. During His ministry, Jesus proclaimed: “‘Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’” (Mk 10:15) Compare that with Paul: “Do not be children in your thinking … but in thinking be adults.” (1 Cor. 14:20) In Jesus there was an immediacy and excitement to living the faith; after His death the church became more studied in her temperament, more reserved and careful in her theology. Jesus emphasized the what and why of how we lived, but as Christianity matured we were judged by how we believed. And again, this change was born out of the struggle to come to understand who Jesus was.
In the oldest Gospel’s first chapter, Jesus stands out as “one having authority and not as the scribes.” (1:22) The scribes relied on proof texts from Holy Scripture. Jesus’ authority was in Himself. He didn’t quote others; He spoke the Word of God. And yet He referred to Himself as “Son of man,” which ties Him together with all the rest of us in our shared human weaknesses and mortality. So after His death people who believed in Him began to ask more earnestly if He was more than prophet, more than Messiah, more than a son of God. Peter’s sermons at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles refer to Jesus as “a man,” “this man,” and even “servant.” The Epistle to the Romans begins by saying that Jesus was declared to be the Son of God, but only at His resurrection. The same author in Philippians repeats an ancient church hymn that sings of Jesus being “in the form of God … but [He] emptied himself … being born in human likeness.” He is God from birth. These earliest believers were torn by what to believe, and who can blame them when we realize they were trying to figure out how Jesus brought God into our world and into our human nature and yet remained fully God.
And it didn’t get any better once the Bible was finished. There’s a very early book called the Shepherd of Hermas that speaks of the Son of God, but he’s referring to the Holy Spirit, not Jesus. Around the same time a Christian teacher who died for his faith wrote: “We reasonably worship [Jesus], having learned that he is the Son of the true God himself, and we are holding him in the second place, and the prophetic Spirit in the third.” (Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 13) A little while later the first Christian theologian of the western church wrote: “While I recognize the Son, I maintain that he is second to the Father.” (Tertullian, Against Praxeas 7.9) Up until the Nicene Council in 325, orthodoxy held in one way or another that the Son was subordinated to the Father, that Jesus was God-like, but not fully equal to God. This started to change at Nicea.
The Roman Empire’s new emperor Constantine favoured Christianity and used it to unify his kingdom. A theological squabble was not at all helpful. The Emperor, therefore, convened an Ecumenical Council over which he presided as the bishops’ bishop, and he wasn’t even a baptized Christian. When Christianity was not the official state religion, theological disputes would be argued over and debated for centuries, but Constantine wanted unity and he demanded a decision. He didn’t much care which way the decision went, he just wanted a decision. A priest named Arius claimed that Jesus, the Son, was of like substance to the Father, which would have been completely orthodox in earlier years, but the Council of Nicea decided something more, that the Son is of the same substance as the Father. When the bishops realized that they couldn’t refute Arian’s position only from Scripture, they composed the Nicene Creed that churches recite still today all the world over. That should have been the end of the controversy, but Arianism reemerged and it went back and forth in the church. At one point, the bishop of Rome even signed the Arian Creed. Things were so confused that in 361 a new Roman Emperor gave up on Christianity and tried to return the Empire to its old pagan religion. But by 381 things settled down in Christianity’s favour and a second Council even figured out what to do with the Holy Spirit.
Jesus died in about 30AD. It took the church 350 years to come up with the teaching of the Trinity. This isn’t an embarrassment. This is testimony that our belief as Christians is never stagnant. Our faith is always evolving and leading us to a point only known to God, and only revealed when we’re ready. But we rejoice already because as Paul says to us this morning: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” If we become so focused on the finish line, we may fail to find joy in the journey and the love of God that is already ours. So let us embrace the journey and see where it takes us, but in the meanwhile let us rejoice that because of the Trinity God is always with us. And for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo