Saturday, December 26, 2009

God Becomes A Man: Part Two

Christians believe that the birth of Jesus, or the nativity, was the ultimate revelation of God.

In Christ, God became intimate with His people. (Intimacy is appropriate self-disclosure within a personal relationship.)

In Christ, God opened Himself up. He invited us to peer into His being because He wanted us to know Him better.

To our surprise, it turns out that not only is God different from us -- which we knew from the Old Testament -- think about how the word ‘holy” means “alien!” – His differences from us are beyond our comprehension.

In the Old Testament, God’s central message to His people was: “I am One.”

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 rabbi, writing about the shma, (“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”) explains that He is saying in essence, “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!

In the nativity however, God revealed Himself as a baby. As time went on, we discovered that this baby was not only God, He was also fully man. Not only that, this fully man/fully God person prayed to God and promised to pour out the Holy Spirit who will be “another Comforter.”

We have never understood it.

We never will!

God is beyond our understanding.

(I can hear God saying something like, “I told you that wouldn’t believe it even if I tried to tell you!”)

The bottom line is that we, like Jews, believe that God is One. Since the incarnation, we know that in some sense beyond our comprehension, He is also three.

It makes me think of the old book, Flatland. The circles try to understand spheres, who, in the two dimensional world of the circles, appear to mysteriously shrink or expand without explanation. Of course, the explanation is simply that the spheres come from a higher dimension where the apparent paradoxes and contradictions make perfect sense.

The baby came into our world from somewhere else. Plato called that other place “the realm of forms.” The writer to the Hebrews has this idea in mind when he tells us the Christ came from “the temple in the heavenlies that was not made with hands.”

It’s all beyond us.

Fortunately, we are not called to understand God. We are called to worship Him.

We make a decision to believe what He has told us about Himself. However, that is not the same thing as understanding what we believe. We make these choices about belief because we know that if we could understand everything about God, there would be no need for faith.

God is God and we are not. Our intellect will always struggle with the great paradoxes and mysteries of God’s nature that are beyond our capacity to figure out.

Faith is about trusting that our God will not deceive us.

He actually is what He reveals Himself to be.

After our Lord came to the earth, it would take Christians about three centuries to develop a language of faith to express what they believed about the nature of God.

Sometime in the second century AD, Christians begin to recite what we now call the Apostles’ Creed. It confessed a belief in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who was One God. However, the creed did not attempt to clarify the issue further.

As the years went by, Christian leaders and thinkers gradually began to use a new term to express their belief about God; 'trinity', a shortened form of tri-unity, or 'three in one'.

Then the Church Fathers (people who participated in early church councils) borrowed a Latin word from the theater to express how Father, Son and Holy Spirit were distinctions within God’s nature: 'persona'. Although we normally translate that word into English as 'person', the original word 'persona' never referred to an individual, as it does for us today. It meant 'mask' (as worn by an actor), 'character' (as in a play), station, rank or condition.

Obviously, when they decided to use the word 'persona', the Church fathers were using a metaphor. They wanted to help us understand the nature of God as He had revealed himself in The New Testament.

Like all metaphors, the word 'persona' has both strengths and weaknesses.

A mask hides the real face of a person.

A role is something an actor assumes, not his own personality.

Father, Son and Holy Spirit however, are not God’s masks; they are who He is.

Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not roles God assumes; they are revelations of His actual nature.

So, the word 'persona' has often confused as well as enlightened people about what we believe.

Greek speaking Christians decided not to use the word persona for those very reasons.

However, Western Christians have continued to use the word, despite its limitations. 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.

Anyway, if your mind is turning around and around, don’t feel bad! The fault is not with your intelligence. The best minds of the Christian church throughout history have found it difficult to express what the divine Godhead is like. They still do!

If God is really like the being that the Church Fathers proclaimed, it is important that we try to understand them. And if He is not, the sooner we know that, the better.

All Christians have to deal with the issue sooner or later though because it is so central to what most believers throughout history have confessed about the nature of God.

The important thing to know is that early Christians struggled with all of this and finally brought it to a conclusion. God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is One.

He is also, in some sense, three.

He is, to put it another way, a Triune being.

All Christians believe this, including those who deny it. Because even if we were to reject the 2nd and 3rd century terminology about the nature of God, we are left with Biblical passages like this one in Acts 2:33 to explain:

“This Jesus, being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, has poured forth this which you both see and hear.”

And just think: all of this once “lay in such mean estate, where ox and ass are feeding.”

1 comment:

David Peterson said...
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