Saturday 31 August 2013

John Calvin vastly delighted in the Trinity: Do we?

Gregory of Nazianzus stated: "One God; one in diversity, diverse in unity". This proposition means that when we contemplate the one, we are contemplating the three because they are one undivided being. Equal weight must be given to the oneness, threeness and co-unity of the three (Triunity); all three persons are equal in deity, purpose and eternity; each person is fully God. The Athanasian Creed affirms that "we worship One God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance".

John Calvin saw that this designation of the one true God is a special mark by which God "distinguishes himself more precisely from idols" and a passage from Gregory of Nazianzus "Oration on Holy Baptism", which Calvin said "vastly delights me", is a superb trinitarian boundary marker:

"No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the splendour of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish them then am I carried back to the One. When I think of any One of the Three I think of him as the Whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of that One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the Rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light".

This trinitarian truth "vastly delighted" John Calvin, but could the contemporary church in the West say the same today? Have we similarly been gripped by the purity, majesty and holiness of the Triune God? We should be, we should pray to be, we should desire so. May God's grace help us to see a Trinitarian recovery in the Western church in our own generation, Amen.

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Is the analogy of "light through a prism" appropriate to teach the doctrine of the Trinity?

A German friend of mine asked me this question in relation to the analogy of "light through a prism". It is an important point to explain because the Nicene Creed teaches of the eternal generation of the Son of God by using the following language:

We believe in ... in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made:

Now the Lord Jesus is described as being "Light of Light" and this most probably came from one of the four "God is" attributes given in the New Testament. Do you know what they are?

* God is spirit (John 4:24)
* God is faithful (1 Cor. 1:9)
* God is light (1 John 1:5)
* God is love (1 John 4:8)

How do we understand what "God is love" means? Do we look for human analogies of love in the family to describe this "God-kind-of-love"? No we do not, because it will be imperfect and therefore it will not responsibly handle the truth concerning the eternal and infinite God. Instead, we must turn to holy Scripture. The Scriptures teach us that God's love is known in the sending his Son and in his Son dying on the cross to make propitiation for sin. Concerning this truth we read that:

John 3:16 "“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

1 John 4:9-10 "In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins".

Now concerning light, the same biblical approach needs to be followed because John the apostle states: "God is light, and in him is no darkness at all" 1 John 1:5. The context of this passage is to contrast the being and attributes of God, which is of light without darkness and sin, with that of the lives of some professing Christians. Now natural light of the sun is created by God, in order to provide heat and light for the created order. Romans 1:20 teaches "For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse" ... but this does not mean that anything in Creation can be used to describe God-as-he-is-in-himself and this includes "natural light". God is not created or natural, but God is spirit!

Now let us consider white light refracted through a prism into the three primary colours of red, blue and yellow and ask the question; does this analogy help to describe that the Trinity is made of one God, who is also three distinct persons? The primary colours can be mixed to make a different colour, for example blue+yellow = green, so that actual colour becomes something else. Immediately we have to ask the question, can God the Son become the Father or something else and the answer is no. Therefore, before we go too far with this analogy, immediately we realise that this illustration has already begun to break down.

I imagine that the desire to use "light through a prism", as an analogy, is a genuine attempt to explain that God is one, yet three distinct persons. However, when you choose colour schemes on your Apple or Microsoft Word documents, they usually show them on a two-dimensional circular image, where it is clear to see it is hard to pinpoint where blue begins and red starts, thus blurring the distinctions. God the Father, is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, the Holy Spirit is not the Father: They are together "One God and three distinct persons". In conclusion, we cannot recommend or support the "light through a prism" as an analogy to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. Instead, let us remain within the boundaries of Scripture and the Nicene Creed (381) to aid us. I hope this helps us all, in order to uphold the truth concerning the Persons of the Triune God.

Tuesday 20 August 2013

Are Analogies for the Trinity Useful, Biblical or Helpful?

Following the writing of my chapter in "Engaging with Keller" on the Trinity, I have been surprised to read that some people have no problem with analogies of any kind for the Trinity. A young man called Daniel Wells has blogged on each chapter of the Keller book and pretty much rejected most things written by each contributor. In critiquing my chapter, which he did not like, he writes: "In conclusion, while I am not necessarily endorsing Keller’s use of the ‘divine dance’ analogy (I think a theological endorsement of a poetic metaphor is somewhat strange), I don’t think a case has been made to show that is undermines or contradicts the ecumenical creeds. Ultimately, I think it is okay for me to teach my children, my church, or an unbeliever about the Trinity by pointing to an aspect of creation and use it as an analogy for the Godhead (so long as it is intelligible)".

Now this kind of comment is not uncommon among well-meaning Christians and it reveals to me, a significant doctrinal downgrade, most especially on the doctrine of the Trinity. I wrote this in the book "Engaging with Keller" on page 98: "We have to be honest. The Western Evangelical church can hardly be credited with top marks for its approach to the Trinity". The popular use of analogies for the Trinity clearly demonstrates an unhelpful approach to defining the triune God. Three of the most common analogies for the Trinity that I have come across are an egg, water and a man.

* An egg which has three parts; the shell, the egg white and the yoke. The Nicene Creed states that "I believe in ... one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made". The Westminster Confession states: "In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit (2:3)". Now as we think of the egg analogy, the three constituent parts of the egg are not of the same substance; the shell is made of one thing, the white of something else and the yoke of another substance. Therefore we conclude that the use of an egg analogy for the Trinity is not only unhelpful, but it is thoroughly unbiblical in asserting that there are three persons of different substances. In effect it is a Tritheist analogy which is heresy.

*Water, which can be found as ice, liquid or steam. These are three different states of the same substance, so this appears closer to what we would need to describe the Trinity, but does it really? As we think through this analogy, again it fails miserably, because it teaches with good intentions by a teacher no doubt, that there is one substance with three different and variable states which can change into something else. Liquid can become steam or ice can become water thus teaching inter-changeable roles or states. But, the three persons of the Trinity do not exist like that. The Father is eternally the Father and he has never been the Son. Similarly the Holy Spirit cannot become the Son or the Father. The three persons are distinct. The Westminster Confession summarises this truth plainly: "The Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding: the Son is eternally begotten of the Father: the Holy Spirit eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son" (2:3). Again this analogy of water is wholly unbiblical and it contradicts the historic Trinitarian Creeds.

* A third analogy I have come across is that of a man. One who may have three roles, yet be the same person; a father, a son and also a husband. What more shall I say? You will have already applied your own powers of logic on this fallacy and concluded "Stop, I cannot stand it!". This analogy teaches the heresy of modalism where there is one God with three different faces. This is plain wrong.

As we have briefly found in this blog post, analogies from Creation which are projected onto the Trinitarian being of God are not useful, they are unbiblical and not helpful. On the surface, they may appear to be beneficial, but upon closer inspection they actually teach false ideas concerning God. The new covenant name of God is "The Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit" Matthew 28:19 and this one name distinguishes the three persons. May we pray for a recovery of true trinitarian doctrine that is faithful to historic creeds and confessions in order to provide the church with valuable boundaries for the church's doctrine, apologetics, teaching and worship.

Monday 5 August 2013

Reformed with a Smile ... and Outward-Moving!

As a church we had an evangelistic book-table in the city centre of Sheffield recently. If I had doubts about how lost our nation was, then they were all dispelled after meeting so many godless and lost people. Two things were apparent in all the people we met:

1). We must be committed to evangelising the lost in the West.
2). Many professing Christians have little idea concerning sound doctrine or an understanding about the doctrine of the church.

As reformed presbyterians, I believe, and with all humility, that we have real answers for the spiritual condition of the West. I hope that the title of this blog post is not trite, but I wanted to convey that we desperately need churches which are both "serious-minded" and "warm-hearted". Hence I wrote "reformed with a smile". I have actually borrowed this from someone else whom I heard using it, but it is a good slogan, I think. Furthermore, as Cornelius Van Til so ably explains in his book "Christian Apologetics", it is only a reformed worldview which is able to biblically defend the gospel in the face of hedonism, atheism, buddhism, hinduism, materialism or anything else.

The Lord Jesus Christ taught his disciples: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work. Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

This is not the time to shrink back. May the reformed section of the church advance, with godly confidence, because the church needs help to recover sound doctrine again. We need to serve the Lord with joyful zeal. May God help us in this overwhelming task. Blessed be God for Jesus Christ, Amen!