The illustrations given below are some of the best I have ever read for understanding the Trinity. I very much recommend this book [details at the end]. Chapter 8 God as Three and God as One Once upon a time there was a committee. It had three members. Now committees are things which exist to find something to do. And so they set up a project. It was a complicated and long-term development project which took a long time to get off the ground. But it eventually got going, and the committee was pleased with the way it seemed to be working. The project was a long way from the committee's offices, however, so communication was something of a problem. Soon the project developed some teething problems, so the chairman paid occasional visits to it, firing some of its directors and hiring new ones. But things got worse, and the committee realized that it would have to monitor the project on a more long-term basis. So the three of them decided that one of them would have to spend some time living and working on the project, and put things right. But which one would it be? 'Not me!' said the chairman. 'Someone has to stay back at the office and keep an eye on things here. ' And so the other two committee members drew straws, and the short straw was drawn by Mr Davidson. So Mr Davidson was sent off to the project. 'Don't forget to keep in touch -- and we'll expect a full report from you on your return' were the parting words of the chairman. This is really a rather pointless story, except that it illustrates only too well the way in which a lot of Christians think about the Trinity! In their thinking, Jesus is basically one member of the divine committee, the one who is sent down to earth to report on things and put things right with the creation. Earlier we looked at biblical models of God (chapter 4), but nowhere in Scripture is God modelled on a committee. The idea of an old man in the sky is bad enough, but the idea of a committee somewhere in the sky is even worse! What, we wonder, might be on their agendas? How often would the chairman have to cast his vote to break a tie between the other two? The whole idea is ludicrous. But how did it develop? Why do some Christians think in this way? The answer is simply that they have been taught about the Trinity so badly that this gross misunderstanding is virtually inevitable. In the remaining chapters we propose to explore why it is that Christians believe in the Trinity, and what it is that they believe about it. Where must our discussion start? Perhaps from the most obvious of all places - the conviction of both Old and New Testament writers that there is only one God, and that is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one' (Deuteronomy 6:4) -- a theme taken up, endorsed and echoed by the New Testament writers (Mark 12:29; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Ephesians 4:6; 1 Timothy 2:5; James 2:19). The four points in the Old Testament in which God speaks of himself in the plural (Genesis 1:26; 3:22; 11:7; Isaiah 6:8) are usually understood as 'plurals of majesty', or the royal we', although many Christian writers, such as Augustine, argued that these verses already contained hints of a trinitarian way of thinking. At no point in the New Testament is any suggestion made that there is any God other than he who created the world, led Israel to freedom, and gave her the Law at Sinai. The God who liberated his people from their captivity in Egypt is the one and the same God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. The New Testament emphasizes that there is only one God (Matthew 23:9; Mark 10:18; 12:29; John 5:44; 17:3; Romans 3:30; 1 Corinthians 8:4, 6; Galatians 3:20; Ephesians 4:6; 1 Timothy 1:17; 2:5; James 2:19; 4:12; Jude 25). It is also clear that God is not identified with Jesus: for example, Jesus refers to God as someone other than himself; he prays to God; and finally he commends his spirit to God as he dies. At no point does the New Testament even hint that the word 'God' ceases to refer to the one who is in heaven, and refers solely to Jesus Christ during the period of his earthly existence. This may seem a trivial observation, but it is actually rather important. Let's pause for a moment and see how far we've got. What we have seen so far is that both Old and New Testaments are united in their assertion that there is only one God, and that 'God' is to be distinguished from Jesus Christ. So far, so good. Earlier we noted Thomas Jefferson's complaints about the 'incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic', but so far we haven't encountered any difficulties at all. The difficulties really begin with the recognition of the fundamental Christian insight that Jesus is God incarnate: that in the face of Jesus Christ we see none other than the living God himself. Although the New Testament is not really anything like a textbook of systematic theology, there is nothing stated in the great creeds of the church which is not already explicitly or implicitly stated within its pages. Jesus is understood to *act as God and for God*: whoever sees him, sees God; when he speaks, he speaks with the authority of God; when he makes promises, he makes them on behalf of God; when he judges us, he judges as God; when we worship, we worship the risen Christ as God; and so forth. The New Testament even hints that he was active in the process of creation itself (John 1:3; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:3). Jesus is the one who can be called God and Lord, who acts as creator, saviour and judge, who is worshipped, and to whom prayers are addressed. It will now be obvious that we are beginning to wrestle with the real problem at issue: in one sense, Jesus is God; in another, he isn't. Thus Jesus is God incarnate -- but he still prays to God, without giving the slightest indication that he is talking to himself! Jesus is not *identical* with God in that it is obvious that God continued to be in heaven during Jesus' lifetime, and yet Jesus may be *identified* with God in that the New Testament has no hesitation in ascribing functions to Jesus which, properly speaking, only God could do. One way of dealing with the problem was to refer to God as 'Father' and Jesus as 'Son' or 'Son of God' (e.g., Romans 1:3; 8:32; Hebrews 4:14; 1 John 4:15), thus indicating that they had the common stock of divinity, but that they could be distinguished, with the Father being thought of as being in some way prior to the Son. The situation is made still more complex, rather than resolved, through the New Testament's insistence that the Holy Spirit is somehow involved in our experience of both God and Jesus, without being identical to either of them (John 16:14; 20:22; Acts 5:9; 8:39; 16:7; Romans 8:9, 26, 34; 1 Corinthians 3: 17-18; 1 John 4:2; 5:8). In some sense, Jesus Christ *gives*, or is the *source of*, the Spirit, but the Spirit and Jesus cannot be directly *identified*. The Spirit of God, which the Old Testament recognized as being present in the whole of creation, is now experienced and understood afresh as the Holy Spirit of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Before we continue any further, we must consider the relation between God and Jesus in more detail. The main point that requires careful discussion is this: if Jesus is God, does this not imply that God is Jesus? In other words, if Jesus Christ is God, must we not draw the conclusion that God is to be identified totally with Jesus Christ? And yet, as we saw above, it is obvious from Jesus' own teaching that he thought that God was still very much in heaven! The paradox we're beginning to wrestle with is expressed well by St Germanus in his famous seventh-century Christmas hymn: The Word becomes incarnate And yet remains on high! But does not this call into question the traditional Christian affirmation that Jesus is God? Perhaps some illustrations may begin to cast some light on the basic problem we're facing here. Let's suppose that you are on a liner as it crosses the Atlantic Ocean from Europe to America. The journey makes a deep impression upon you as you watch the great ocean swell bursting against the ship and covering it with salty spray. You can feel the great untamed power of the ocean as it tosses the liner to and fro. You are overwhelmed by its sheer immensity as day after day passes without any sight of land. But have you actually experienced the Atlantic Ocean? Your immediate answer would be an indignant 'Of course I have!' But on reflection, you might begin to realize the difficulty which lies behind this simple question. Think of how vast the Atlantic Ocean is: its untold depths, its enormous span from North America to Europe, from one icy polar sea to another. Think of the enormous volume of water which goes to make up its bulk. Did you really experience and encounter all that water? After all, your liner cut a remarkably narrow and shallow path through that ocean. In terms of the sheer bulk of the ocean, you probably experienced an infinitesimally small percentage of that ocean. So your claim to have experienced it would have to be called into question. You may have sampled a tiny fragment, but you didn't experience the whole thing. While accepting this point, you would, however, have every right to insist that you did experience the Atlantic Ocean. You know what it is like through encountering it at first-hand. There is just no way that you could have encountered every single molecule of North Atlantic water, but you did have a real first-hand experience of what that ocean is like. Let's take another example to make this point clear. Like many people, I vividly remember the moment when a human being set foot on the moon for the first time. It was astonishing to think that history was being made before our very eyes as we watched the television pictures being relayed from the moon, showing Neil Armstrong setting foot on alien ground for the first time. And that same Apollo team brought back samples of moon-rock from that mission, so that they could be analysed on earth. Now, through the analysis of that rock we came to know more about the moon. True, it was only a sample of the moon that was brought back to earth (to bring the whole moon back would not have been a particularly realistic possibility), but it allowed us a direct encounter with the substance of the moon. It really was the moon which was being studied in laboratories throughout the world after the Apollo mission. With these illustrations in mind, let's come back to the question of the relation between Jesus and God. The doctrine of the incarnation affirms that it really is God who we encounter in Jesus Christ, but that this does not allow us to assert that Jesus and God are identical. In the illustrations we find the same difficulty being experienced. On the one hand, the moon-rock isn't identical with the moon (after all, the moon is still there in the night sky); on the other, it is identical with the moon in that it lets us find out what the moon is like -- it is a representative sample of what the moon is like. Let's develop this moon-rock illustration further. Until about 1950 we knew the moon only as a distant object. It was something far away which we could only find out about by looking at it through our telescopes. But when the first samples of moon-rock were brought back, we suddenly knew about the moon in a new and direct way. In a way God is like the moon. Before Jesus Christ came, we knew about him in a rather distant way. And then suddenly, on account of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, we knew him in a new, direct and exciting way. Of course, this new advance didn't come about because of some human technological advance, but through God's decision to become incarnate, to make himself known to us in Jesus Christ. And so where before God could have seemed to be little more than a distant idea, he now becomes ' a person. And just as people were excited about holding the first moon-rock, and knowing that they held in their hands a bit of the same moon which illuminated the night sky, so the first Christians got excited about being able to touch the one who was none other than God incarnate. (1 John 1:1-4 conveys this excitement well.) We don't need to figure out who God is and what he is like, because he has taken the initiative and told us. Let's suppose that you are back at high school, and you are asked to find out what gases are present in air. How would you go about doing this? Perhaps the most obvious way would be to take a sample of the air in a small container, and then submit this sample to chemical or physical analysis. And on the basis of the analysis of that small sample, you could say what gases are present in the air. Now, what is the relation of that small sample of air to the earth's atmosphere? Obviously, they aren't identical. All the earth's atmosphere hasn't been compressed into your small container. But on the other hand, that sample really is air -- it allows you to find out what the air is like. It doesn't exhaust the earth's atmosphere, but it does allow you to find out what it is like. Jesus allows us to sample God. This is a remarkably helpful way of beginning to think about the incarnation. It really is God whom we encounter, but this doesn't mean that God is localized in this one individual, Jesus Christ. Because Jesus is God, he allows us to find out what God is like, to have a direct encounter with the reality of God. And because God is not totally identical with Jesus, he remains in heaven, in much the same way as the earth's atmosphere remains there, despite the fact that we've taken a small sample of it. As we have already emphasized in an earlier chapter, God is just too big, too vast, for us to handle -- and so God, knowing our weakness and accommodating himself to it (to use Calvin's helpful phrase again), makes himself available for us in a form which we can cope with. The doctrine of the incarnation affirms that it really is God who we encounter directly in Jesus Christ, just as it affirms that God remains God throughout. A similar situation exists in relation to the Holy Spirit. Again, Christianity rightly insists that in the Holy Spirit we really encounter none other than God himself, but that this doesn't mean that God can be said to be identical with the Holy Spirit. ... This is to wet your appetite to maybe get the book and read it. Alister E. McGrath, Understanding the Trinity Zondervan, 1990., $10.99, ISBN 0-310-29681-1 ---- Not that I can improve in any way on what Prof. McGrath has said [he is professor at the University of Oxford], but let me just add a few thoughts on the moon-rock and atmosphere example. Like the moon is unreachable for 'normal man' [or because of our technological progress, make it a planet of the Andromeda galaxy which we will never reach] so is God, who is transcendent and 'beyond' our capabilities to understand and 'touch'. But in the incarnation God presents himself to us, he comes near as to make himself known to his creatures. But as in Islam, God has two aspects, the transcendent and the nearness [nearer than your jugular vein]. And that is what the illustration of the atmosphere is great for. The atmosphere is all around us, we are in constant contact with it and in fact without it we cannot live. If God would withdraw, all life would immediately cease to exist. It is God who sustains all that exists, and if the oxygen would disappear all life would be gone in a matter of minutes. And though the atmosphere is all around us and is our very life, most people do not "understand" it and have rather limited knowledge what it is made up of. In the incarnation, the embodyment God places himself in this "human container" so that we can get to know him better. Though God "in his totality" stays unlimited, the sample which is "boxed in" is limited but nevertheless in essence authentically God. So these two similar examples seem to be very helpful to illustrate how the incarnation relates to the transcendence and the nearness of God, but a nearness which was nevertheless uncomprehended before he became "like us". My prayer is that these thoughts will help us along the way of a better understanding between Muslims and Christians.
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