But Wait, There’s More: The Three-In-One God

 

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Twenty-first century pastorates are a bit different; many of us find ourselves serving as ministers to people via Facebook or IM. I know that I have at least half a dozen people who consider me their pastor, but for various reasons cannot or do not want to attend the church where I hold the pulpit. I cherish these relationships, but they also require me to function slightly differently than I would if I could refer them to a bible study or class I lead. This leads us to today’s post: Is Jesus God? Is God Jesus? If so, how?

I imagine that my fellow pastor/professor/theologian/biblical scholar friends are laughing right now, as these questions are literally the stuff of dissertations and careers. Looking at my not insubstantial book collection, I can see no fewer than fifteen titles on the unorganized shelves that directly relate to Christology. So please know that my musings are not meant to be, nor are they, definitive. But if we pastors cannot elucidate such basic concepts in simple language, we really should not be calling ourselves preachers and teachers of the Church.

The Council(s) and the Controversies

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After the death of Jesus, the Apostle’s Creed emerged seemingly out of nowhere. Tradition holds that each of the Twelve Disciples (we assume not Judas Iscariot, but rather his replacement Matthias) contributed to the creed (or its forerunner), and Patristics note that it is mentioned throughout the writings of Church Fathers. While we are uncertain of how it emerged, it is an attempt to set forth the basics of what one needs to believe in order to be a card-carrying member of Team Jesus.*

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic and apostolic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

Let me say that I ascribe to the Apostle’s Creed with very little nuance needed. This pretty much summarizes my faith. But let’s break it down. Notice, the divinity of Jesus (or the Holy Spirit) is not set forth in the creed; this, according to some historians, opened the door for later controversies, most especially Arianism. Also notice that this seems to be saying that we believe in one God, one person, and one spirit. So, are we pantheists? Are we polytheists? Are we Jewish plus? Questioned abound.

The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed

Arianism arises from the ideas of Arius, a Libyan theologian who was dead set against emerging Trinitarianism (discussed below). The foundation of his ideas was threefold: God the Father and the Logos (John’s term for the second person of the Trinity; “Word” that becomes flesh as Jesus Christ) were not of the same substance or essence (ousia); that the Son (Logos) was a created being; and as a created being, there was a time in which the Logos did not exist. Arius referred to the Logos as a “creature,” a being that was divine in that it was created ex nihilo, and was a participant in the creation of the universes, but a being that is not coequal with God. Seem complicated? It kinda is. But it boils down to this question: Are Jesus and God the same thing? Arius said no. And he was excommunicated.

In fact, when the Council of Nicaea met in 325 C.E. to address the divinity of Christ, they formed a creed that many people think they know. But most don’t. Why? Because there is an entire section dedicated to refuting Arianism that was later pulled out in the Council of Constantinople (381). Imagine hearing this recited in St. Peter’s Basilica each week:

But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.

Arianism has never fully been put down in Christian circles–Unitarians by and large accept the Apostle’s Creed and agree with Arius, but have issues with subsequent creeds–but it has been a heresy since the 4th century, for whatever that is worth. Needless to say, the issue of Jesus’ divinity was not settled in 381 C.E., with the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. (And, again, apologies to all my friends who are early Church historians for glossing over so many details that it is just simpler for me to say that there is much, much more to the story.)

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, True God of True God, Begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father, by Whom all things were made; Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man; And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried; And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; And ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of the Father; And He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, Whose kingdom shall have no end. And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceedeth from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke by the Prophets; And I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the Resurrection of the dead, And the Life of the age to come. Amen.

Those who are interested in minutia should research the filoque controversy  or how the statement “not one iota’s difference” emerged from the Council of Nicaea. What we can say, though, is that there were early and very violent disagreements among followers of Christ regarding his divinity and relationship with the Trinity. In fact, there is no explicit biblical statement supporting a Trinitarian view of God. The term first emerged through the writings of Tertullian , a second century theologian who wrote about three persons (tres personae) united in one substance (substantia); the unity he called tri-unity, or Trinitas. While Tertullian’s particular vision of the Trinity was adapted and altered over the years, his contribution became the foundation for orthodox thinking regarding the relationship of the persons within the Godhead.

The Councils of Constantinople and Chalcedon

But controversies continued. At the Council of Constantinople, the bishops rejected Apollinarianism, the idea that the divine Logos overtook the mind and soul of the human Jesus. In other words, Jesus was more divine than human. This was rejected because, according to atonement theology, Jesus must be fully human and fully divine to achieve the salvation of humankind. This gave way to what is known as Hypostatic Union, the two natures (human and divine) united perfectly in one person. A few decades later, in response to Hypostatic Union, another controversy, this one called Nestorianism, which argued that Christ has two natures, but that there is no union. He would go from “mode to mode.” Again, problems with needing to adhere to atonement theology prevented Nestorianism from being a viable, orthodox Christology.

All of this came to a head with the Council of Chalcedon in 451 C.E., and the resulting creed, which again solidified the dual nature of Christ united in one person, and present in tri-unity within the Godhead.

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.    

We describe this as “fully human, fully divine.” If you push most theologians to his or her limit, we would have to defer to the divine mysterium. Somehow, Jesus is fully God but also fully like us, except for the sin part. This is the view that won out. At least until the Protestant Reformation.

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So what does all of this mean? That the question is not simple and is not without controversy. Orthodox theology would say, “Yes. Jesus is God. Jesus is human. Jesus is both fully and completely, and is so because his death on the cross must atone for original sin.” If you don’t believe in original sin or if you do not accept atonement theology, the nature of Christ becomes more difficult. Or easier, depending on your viewpoint.

I always tell congregants that I don’t necessarily think that I am correct, but I will always explain how I have alighted upon my own decisions regarding central issues in our faith tradition. I have spent a goodly amount of time assembling a quick journey through the history regarding Christ’s nature, and I affirm that this is what we historically have believed regarding Jesus. He is unlike anyone or anything else; he is truly God, truly human, truly the Messiah, and truly perfect. And if that works for you, awesome. Great.

But if it doesn’t, does that mean you are out in the cold? Not at all. The truth is, what we have within the canonical scriptures are a selection of ideas about Jesus, but not the full picture. Texts such as the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Judas, the Sayings Gospel of Thomas, the Infancy of James, and a whole host of other gospels were written at the same time that Church Fathers were wrestling with these questions. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, sets forth the idea that salvation is achieved through Wisdom, and that the divine nature is within human beings other than Jesus. We see from the earliest levels until today the notion of the “moral influence” of Jesus’ life on followers; the notion that Jesus is the finger pointing toward the moon, but is not the moon itself. Scores of scholars and theologians have argued that the greatest mistake Christianity made was worshiping Jesus rather than following him. Luckily, we do not burn people at the stake anymore for daring to question orthodoxy.

I find that there are generally two types of people who seriously consider religion: those who want certainty and those who want direction. Those who want certainty are very comfortable in orthodoxy. Questions are answered clearly and definitively. There is a right way and a wrong way. There does not need to be debate because the debates have already occurred and the Holy Spirit has spoken. The other type of people–and here is where I place myself–are those who like that religion gives direction, but want the autonomy and ability to puzzle things out for themselves.

I do not believe that Jesus had to die in order for God to be satisfied for the debt we owe as a result of original sin. I do believe that Jesus died as a result of sins, but the sins of arrogance, fear, greed, indifference, and the need for power. I believe that through his life, Jesus definitively (yet not exclusively) revealed the mind of God, providing human beings a template on how to lead an existence that brings forth love, peace, justice, compassion, and joy. I attest to the resurrection of Christ–this will need to be another post unto itself–and believe that the Holy Spirit is God’s gift to human persons, but the Holy Spirit has been called countless names throughout time. I attest completely to the existence of a creator God, to whom Jesus was intimately connected and for whose sake Jesus gave his life in order to bring hope to those cast aside by humankind.

Is Jesus God? Well, let me ask you a question. What do you mean by God?

*Credit for “Team Jesus” must be given to Deacon Gilah Pomeranz.

On behalf of my people…

I am a white male. Ten years ago, I added Christian to that self-description. While not wealthy, my family is financially stable; my parents grew up in working class homes and, because of the availability of state-funded scholarships and the low price of tuition, both secured excellent educations. As a result, I grew up with food on the table and a roof over my head. To be sure, I have had a job since I was thirteen years old, but I have never known true poverty. For most of my life, I have lived paycheck to paycheck, but when the bottom has dropped out, my family has been able to swoop in with a safety net. I tell you all of this because I want to make one point crystal clear: I have never known what it is like to be in an economic, racial, or gender minority. As a white, Christian, American male, I’ve most often walked into a room and seen people who look like me; turned on the television and seen people who look like me; and, on the whole, I grew up idolizing musicians, actors, and other celebrities that look like me. I have never known that it is like to “represent” my gender, race, or faith tradition. I’ve never had the pressure of being the only white, Christian male in a classroom, or been the first white, Christian male to perform a specific job or join a particular group. And while in primary and secondary school I was bullied and teased about as much as anyone else, I was able to slink into the background because, well, there were plenty of other white males around me.

So this is new for me: I would like to apologize for my people.

This has nothing to do with liberal white male guilt. It really doesn’t. But it does have to do with the fact that white, Christian males have really been stinking up the place lately. From Representative Darrell Issa’s sham of a “hearing” on women’s health to Rush Limbaugh’s disgusting attacks on Sandra Fluke (the Georgetown law student charged with being a “slut” and a “prostitute” by El Rushbo because she had the audacity to point out that birth control pills can help prevent the development of ovarian cysts), I have found myself wanting to go up to every woman I meet and explain that not all of us are Neanderthals with no understanding of the female reproductive system. While Issa argues for smaller government, he and other white males in legislatures both State and Federal want to insert (literally) Uncle Sam’s influence into the vaginas of women across the country. Yet, many of these males—I return to his rotundity, Rush Limbaugh—seem to have a basic ignorance about the inner workings of the female anatomy. Rush and Bill O’Reilly think that a woman has to take a birth control pill every single time she has sex, as though it operates like a tablet of Viagra. To wit, Rush has screamed repeatedly into his microphone of hate: “Did it ever occur to you [women who find it difficult to pay for necessary contraceptive care] to stop having so much sex?!” Every time I hear this sound bite, I want to run up to a random woman and say, “I’m so sorry for my people. But I can assure you, I understand the difference between a Fallopian tube and a drinking straw. I paid attention in my government-funded health class, and I work hard at my church to make sure that boys are able to say vagina without giggling and that they don’t regard menstruation as ‘Satan’s doing.’”

I fight the urge to really do this, of course, because , once started, it would be impossible to stop. If I apologize for the trans-vaginal probe bills and my people’s basic ignorance of the female anatomy, I most certainly will need to apologize for the nonsense coming out the mouths of Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Mitt Romney. Only white men who have never really known persecution can, with a straight face, accuse the first African-American president (who, in the spirit of full disclosure, is a member of my Christian denomination, the United Church of Christ) of oppressing Christians. Only men who each have multiple graduate degrees can accuse a self-made man like President Obama of “being out of touch” and call him a “snob.” I can see myself, depleted of fluids, hallucinating from the sheer exertion required to continue my apologies, crawling from household to household, crying and gnashing my teeth, assuring the good people of this country that not all of us are so ridiculous. That we not only pay attention to history, but that we place it in its proper context. Assuring all who will listen that there are not vomitoriums across the country filled to overflowing because we just now read President Kennedy’s 1960 speech on the separation of Church and State.

So I apologize, America. I know a good number of white Christian males who are solid, reasonable people. And I am not trying to assume the mantel of a “minority.” I understand that I am still a white Christian male. But I do, in some way, feel like I am surrounded by a bunch of people who are so different from myself. Suddenly, individuals of the same gender and who are covered by skin of the same hue don’t look like me. I have a hard time finding myself in the Congress and on the airwaves.

So the next time you see me or one of my ilk, and our behavior is different from those other white, Christian males you see on television, I totally understand if you turn to your friends and say, Well, he’s not REALLY a white, Christian male.  

Facebook Fracas: Friction, Futility, and Faith

In his essay “On Racist Speech,” Georgetown Law School Professor Charles Lawrence III argues that the purpose of the First Amendment is “to foster the greatest amount of speech.” To me, this goes to the heart of the American democratic experiment. Censorship by State or Church is not acceptable, primarily because it is usually those who are being oppressed by said institutions who find their voices silenced. However, Lawrence cites an important exception, the so-called “fighting words” exemption, defined as those words which “by their very utterance inflict or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” He maintains that racist speech falls under this category, and therefore should be silenced, because racist speech does not intend to proliferate more speech, but rather aims to stifle it or to incite violence.

I think the same thing can be said for people who are aggressive, rude, vitriolic, and intentionally disrespectful on Facebook. Their speech aims to incite anger, to elicit emotional responses from people with no real intention of moving toward understanding or dialogue. And while some may argue that this is not new, I think it is worse than ever. Frankly, I am sick of it and I won’t tolerate it on my page anymore.

Why do I bring this up? I recently had an unfortunate incident on my own Facebook page which I do not wish to recount in toto. The important points are as follow: my post was hijacked by one person, who took my original comments and turned the discussion into something I did not wish to explore. The conversation continued when another friend responded; when the language turned heated, and unnecessarily hostile, I asked for it to cease and desist. Three times I asked, and three times I was largely ignored. Finally, one of the parties involved—honestly and sincerely—recognized that the overly-charged rhetoric was counter-productive, extended an apology, and removed the offending posts. (In fact, I can tell that this has been an opportunity for reflection on the part of this friend, and I have no hostilities or ill-feelings of any kind toward this person; we remain good friends.) The other party did not follow suit, but rather turned his vitriol toward me. I will not dignify the bulk of the charges by repeating them here. However, I was told that asking for a change is tone means that I am overly-sensitive, unable to argue, and not a clear thinker. As a professor, writer, pastor-in-training, and, I hope, an overall intelligent and caring person, these charges upset me greatly. Perhaps I am too attached to ego; perhaps I am giving too much credence to a person who enjoys being confrontational; whatever the case, the words hurt. I began to think about quitting Facebook.

As part of this reflecting, I have come to the following conclusions: The experience bespeaks a larger gestalt that is gripping our country. The overly-charged rhetoric of American politics has trickled down to discussions on Facebook; interactions that should be conducted with respect and openness now are infused with insults, derogatory language, and anger. The sound bite culture in which we find ourselves, I think, has resulted in people writing with less care, less nuance, and less thought than ever before. We read sloppily and shallowly as well: people will look at the headline of an article, or the first couple sentences of a post, and will immediately hit “comment” before taking the time to appreciate the conversation that has unfolded, or the totality of the content in the original article or post. Some people swoop in, have a violent case of logorrhea, and swoop out, leaving chaos and resentment behind. This is a microcosm of the larger debate we see in Washington, D.C., a place where entrenched ideologies are more important than working toward consensus. As President Obama said in his State of the Union last night, “We need to end the notion that the two parties must be locked in a perpetual campaign of mutual destruction; that politics is about clinging to rigid ideologies instead of building consensus around common sense ideas.” I have found this to be true of Facebook and online commenting: We need to turn down the temperature, and extend some respect to one another. We need to take the time to think about our comments, and not to jump so quickly to ad hominem attacks. There is such a thing as cyber-bullying, and I simply will not allow it on my Facebook page.

Back to my thoughts regarding my future on Facebook. Previously this offending party had caused such a furor among my friends, a few messaged me privately and said they felt uncomfortable with the hostilities. When I told the party to simmer down, I was accused of censorship and the stifling of speech. At the time, I took this to heart and thought about whether this was true. Am I trying to silence this person simply because we disagree? Should I allow this person to attack Christianity or people of faith, and simply understand that this is part of a free society? I now can say, confidently, that it most certainly is not. I do not accept that my Facebook page can be treated like free air-time for an individual’s SuperPAC ad. Uncited “facts” are wedded with vitriolic aspersions and aggressive posturing to such a degree, I can almost hear the ominous music in the background and I begin reading the comment in a low, gravelly voice. I do not believe it is censorship when I ask for a change in tone; I do not believe it is stifling of speech if I pull down those comments that are “killer” statements. Yet these are the accusations that are hurled at me. There is no attempt at real dialogue that I can see; what I witness is the desire to shut down other voices, to stop real discussion, and to inject anger and division into what otherwise could be a fruitful conversation. I have grown tired of such approaches, and I have to either accept that I will swoop in and remove these comments or I will have to leave Facebook completely. Either I think it is futile to have real discussions on Facebook, or I have faith that my friends will understand that I require a certain degree of respect on my page, and when it is lacking I have to become the 2 am bouncer: “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

Perhaps it is overly dramatic of me to spend so much time and energy reflecting on this, but I do not think such is the case. Today, I attended a Boundaries training seminar for the United Church of Christ, and the topic focused on Facebook, along with some other issues. I thought about my path of discernment, how I wish to be a servant of God and a person of service to my community. I think that it is important that my page be a place where we can discuss faith, literature, politics, world events, and a wide variety of other topics without feeling shouted down. I received numerous messages from people asking me not to leave Facebook because of this experience, as my posts and voice are something they cherish. That is humbling and gratifying. Yet, I will not subject them to ridicule or bullying. Most certainly, this does not mean that I will be the content police. Those who disagree are encouraged to post, as long as it is done respectfully. And if I violate these rules myself, I expect to be called out. I am not perfect, by any means.

In the end, I have come to really cherish my Facebook community. Facebook allowed me to agitate for justice when two friends were viciously attacked in the Oregon District; I wrote a letter that was signed by over 50 people, all largely because of Facebook. Facebook allowed me to share the final weeks of my precious dog’s life, and to receive positive thoughts and energy from others. Facebook has become a platform in which I can connect with some of the most intelligent, thoughtful people I know. In truth, it is the only way that I can stay in touch with a number of people that I truly value. But I am changing the way that I Facebook. I will not allow aggressive, divisive voices to hijack my page and to poke at my friends. I will not allow for the negativity to invade my life and the lives of those I care about; if that is a person’s sole aim, that person will find him- or herself locked out of what I think is a pretty good community.

And to quote Forrest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.”