Mark Twain wrote a wonderful story called the Prince and the Pauper. It is about a prince who discovered that a poor boy who often came by the palace looked enough like him to be his twin. So, one day the prince and the pauper traded places. The pauper got to experience royal life and the prince got to experience the life of his subjects. Christians believe that something like this really happened. God became a man and experienced human life, so that human beings could enter paradise and have eternal life.
We are speaking about Jesus, of course. He was a Jew who claimed to be God (see John 10:24-34). He was a wonderful teacher, or rabbi. He claimed to be the legitimate King of Israel. We believe that He was God. We also believe that He was fully man. Christians believe that this God-man, Jesus Christ, offers a way for human beings to become God’s immortal companions. We also believe that as King of the covenant nation of Israel, Christ has granted citizenship to all that believe in Him and accept Him as their King. In other words, Christians believe that the Christian church is the spiritual continuation of the ancient nation of Israel, and that Christians are citizens of that nation.
Sound preposterous? It is preposterous! That is, unless it is true.
If you have the slightest idea that it might be true, I suggest you look deeper into the story for yourself. To do that, you will have to read the Bible. So allow me to give you the “Cliff Notes” version of the Bible.
The Bible is the spiritual history of Israel, the life and teachings of Christ, and the beginnings of the Christian Church. Christians accept the Old Testament, or God’s revelation of Himself to the ancient Hebrews. We also read the New Testament, a collection of writings that introduces Jesus and the Christian Church. It tells us (in Acts 15) that the Church made a decision early in its history to include gentile (non-Jewish) peoples, if they believed in Jesus. It tells us that the purpose of the Church was to help us obey Jesus Christ, to help us grow in Him, and to take His offer of salvation to all the nations of the world. However, the early Christians intended to build upon the revelation that God had already given to His ancient Hebrew people. They certainly did not see their faith as “a new religion. ”
It was their commitment to remain faithful to God’s revelation to the ancient Hebrew people that caused Christians a most difficult theological problem: what to do about their doctrine of God. Being Jews, the early Christian leaders prayed a special prayer, called the Shema, every day. That prayer says, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” (Deuteronomy 6:1-4). That prayer is a declaration of monotheism (the belief in one God). It is a pledge to be faithful to the One invisible and almighty God of Israel.
Jews have always been willing to die for that monotheistic belief. Indeed they often have died for that belief, both in ancient and in modern times. The early Christians, being Jews – or at very least believers in the Jewish God – shared all of these convictions.
However, Christians had a dilemma. They believed in God, to whom Jesus had prayed and called Father. They believed that Jesus was Himself God “come in the flesh” (as St. John puts it (in 1 John 4:2,3). They also believed in the Holy Spirit, whom they had experienced after the resurrection of Christ. They said that He too was God! Did that not make Christians tritheists (believers in three gods)? Which were they; monotheists or tritheists?
What a problem! They believed in one God. But they also believed that the Father was God, that Jesus was God and that the Holy Spirit was God. They believed that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were somehow distinct from one another. Yet they continued to fiercely declare that there were not three gods … only one! “What could they possibly mean?” their Jewish brothers were continually asking.
It took Christians about three centuries to develop a language of faith that would fully express what they believed about the nature of God. Sometime in the second century AD, Christians begin to use what we call the Apostles’ Creed which declared their faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. However, the creed did not attempt to further clarify the issue. As the years went by however, Christian leaders and thinkers gradually began to use a new term to express what they believed about God. It was the word “trinity, ” a shortened way of saying tri-unity, or “three in one.”
Then the Church Fathers (the people who participated in the early church councils) borrowed a word from the theater (of all places!) to express how Father, Son and Holy Spirit were distinctions within God’s nature. In Latin, that word was “persona.” Although the English word “person” is how we normally translate the Latin word, in those days a persona never referred to an individual as it does for us. According to the Langerscheit-Shorter Latin Dictionary (McGraw Hill Book Co.:1969) the word meant a “mask” (worn by an actor), “character” (part in a play), station, rank or condition.
Obviously, by deciding to use the word persona, the Church fathers were using a metaphor to help us understand the nature of God as we had come to understand Him in the New Testament. Like all metaphors, the word persona has strengths and weaknesses. A mask hides the actual face of a person. A role is something an actor assumes in contrast to his actual personality. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not God’s masks; they are who He is. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not roles the God assumes; they are revelations of His actual nature. So the word persona can confuse as well as enlighten. Greek speaking Christians decided not to use the word persona for that very reason. However, Western Christians have continued to use it, despite its limitations because we really have no other word that works nearly as well. I once heard an Eastern Orthodox theologian say that “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” are the interior names of God, they tell us what God is like inside Himself. That comment helped me a lot.
Anyway, if your mind is turning around and around, don’t feel bad! The fault is not with your intelligence. All the best minds of the Christian church have found it difficult to express what the divine Godhead is like. They still do! They often get frustrated!
Nonetheless, let’s try again! If God is really who the Church Fathers proclaimed, then it is important that we try to understand them. In the Old Testament, God reveals that He is One and that this truth is extremely important. Israel’s God was unique. One rabbi says that when God told Moses, “I am what I am!” He was saying something like, “If I told you what I was really like, you would never believe it!” Another writes that in the shema (“Hear O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is One”) God is saying “I am in a class all by myself. There is no one like me.”
God wanted His people to understand that He was not some celestial pagan king, capable of being bribed and manipulated. God was above all of that. He was in a class by Himself. One!