Godspeak: de-coding the language of the church – The Trinity



Sunday, May 18th – Trinity Sunday

Opening Prayer for Trinity Sunday (Adapted from an ancient Celtic prayer, Carmina Gadelica).

The hand of God keeping me,
The love of Christ in my veins,
The strong Spirit bathing me,
The Three shielding and helping me,
The hand of the Spirit aiding me,
The Three each step guiding me.
Amen.

Old Testament Reading – Psalm 46: 1-5, 10

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”

New Testament Reading – Matthew 3:13 – 17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Last Sunday was Pentecost Sunday and one part of the Pentecost message that we considered was that found in Acts 2:8, “And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” In other words, we saw the importance of communicating the message using words that people understand! A favorite saying that illustrates the difficulty inherent in this simple idea is this, “The biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred”! Communication is just plain tough. In the church we have made it even more difficult by devising our own language. As an example, just look at this collection of words gleaned from the first few pages of a book about Christianity that I read recently:

Salvation, Redemption, Repentance, Justification, Regeneration, Holiness, Sanctification, Atonement, Apocalyptic, Righteousness, Canon, Creed, Evangelism, Eschatology, Incarnation, Resurrection, Theology, Sin.

When was the last time you used one of these words in an everyday conversation with a friend over coffee? This is what I like to cal, “Godspeak”. It is a language all of its own and needs to be de-coded if we are to make Acts 2:8 come alive again today.

In thinking about Godspeak, I recalled a time when, in a seminary class, our assignment was to list all of the Godspeak that we encountered in our reading and then to create a dictionary from the list. My list was very, very long and here are just a few entries under the letter “A”:

Abba
Apocalyptic
AD
Apodictic
Animism
Apollinarianism
Anthropomorphism
Apologetic
Anthropopathism
Arianism
Apocrypha
Atonement

If you don’t know this language, how are you supposed to understand what is going on? Over the next few weeks we are going to de-code a few terms found in Godspeak. As today is Trinity Sunday, we will start with “Trinity” and then move on to the terms “Father”, “Son” and “Spirit”. Let’s see if we can break the code! We will try and answer a few important questions along the way:

• Can we talk about God without re-creating God in our own image?

• How can we find language with which to speak of the infinite?

• Do our descriptions of God limit our understanding of God?

• How wrong do we have to be about God before we aren’t talking about God any more?

One of the reasons we encounter Godspeak at all is because of the long struggle to find the least inadequate way to talk about God. That is a fitting task for people who “wrestle with God” (which is what the word “Israel” means in English). In fact, the struggle to find the least inadequate way to talk about God started right from the beginning. In Genesis we find two different terms used in the text. One of these, Elohim in English letters, means God or gods. The other is YHWH, the name of God that translates roughly as “I AM” or “I AM WHO I AM” – a word considered too sacred to be spoken out loud by the people of Israel who, even to this day, substitute the Hebrew word “adonai” (LORD) when they encounter YHWH in the text of the Hebrew Bible.

We find Elohim – God/gods – used exclusively in chapters 40 – 47 of Genesis while we find YHWH used exclusively in chapters 10-16. While we can speculate what this might suggest about authorship, what we can see right away is that people have struggled to speak about God since the earliest of times.

In fact, when we read about God in the Hebrew Bible, we are not so much presented with a “definition” of God but rather with a constellation of images. Much like walking through an art gallery, we see the authors painting pictures of God with their words. Here are just a few examples:

God as Creator: Genesis 2:7
“… then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”

God as Gardener: Genesis 2:8ff
“And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree …”

God as Dwelling Place: Deuteronomy 33:27a “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.”

God as Master/Mistress: Psalm 123:2 “Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he have mercy upon us.”

God as Shepherd: Psalm 23:1 “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want…”

God as Judge: Psalm 7:11
“God is a righteous judge, and a God who has indignation every day.”

God as Keeper: Psalm 121:5 “The LORD is your keeper.”

God as Helper: Psalm 54:4 “Behold, God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life.”

These images of God sufficed for many people up until the time of Jesus when those who saw him as unique began to wrestle with the problem of how to talk about him. There were many “titles” used to describe Jesus…

Matthew 1:16b “Jesus …. who is called Christ

Matthew 21:11 “… This is the prophet Jesus…”

Matthew 27:37 ”… This is Jesus the King of the Jews.”

Luke 18:38 “Jesus, Son of
David
, have mercy on me!”

John 3:2b “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God…”

John 20:31 “…Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God…”

Matthew 16:13 “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that the Son of Man is?”

John 21:7a “That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord ….”

And, of course, images were painted with words to describe Jesus:

“Images” used to describe Jesus…

Colossians 1:15 “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation…”

Colossians 1:18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead…”

And the Gospel of John is the source of the “I AM” sayings of Jesus…

John 6:35 “I am the bread of life…”

John 8:12 “I am the light of the world…”

John 10:9 “I am the door…”

John 10:11 “I am the good shepherd….”

John 11:25 “I am the resurrection and the life…”

John 14:6 “I am the way, and the truth, and the life…”

John 15:1 “I am the true vine…”

Even as people struggled to find language to talk about Jesus within the bounds of monotheism, there remained the lingering problem of speaking about the Spirit. A few examples selected from the Gospel of John are:

John 4:24 “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

John 14:16 “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may be with you for ever…”

John 14:26 “But the Comforter, even the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name…”

So there we have the problem! What are we going to say when confronted with God – presented as a constellation of images – and Jesus – and the Spirit? How shall we talk about one God when faced with this dilemma?

The first attempts simply acknowledged the idea that these different dimensions of divinity existed. The Apostle’s Creed [mid 2nd century through the 4th century] just states this without any attempt to “explain”:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth,
And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried;
He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
I believe in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, The forgiveness of sins,
The resurrection of the body, And the life everlasting. Amen.

As time passed, ideas on how to relate God the father, Jesus and the Spirit began to be formulated as seen in the Nicene Creed [The Council at Nicea adopted an early form of the creed, the present form emerged from the Council of Constantinople in AD 381. Adopted by the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451.]:

We believe in one God the Father, the Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made truly human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.
Amen

By the time of the Athanasian Creed (ca. 400-450 AD) we find that these ideas are being described as “the true Christian faith”:

Whoever wishes to be saved must, above all else, hold to the true Christian Faith. Whoever does not keep this faith pure in all points will certainly perish forever. Now this is the true Christian faith: We worship one God in three persons and three persons in one God, without mixing the persons or dividing the divine being. For each person — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — is distinct, but the deity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, equal in glory and coeternal in majesty. What the Father is, so is the Son, and so is the Holy Spirit…

Of course, the Biblical narrative shows the co=presence of Father, Son and Spirit in passages such as that describing the baptism of Jesus by John, our New Testament passage for today:

And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

If you are a reader of the King James Version of the Bible you might have come across this passage:

1 John 5: 6-8 (KJV) “This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth. For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one”

The passage seems to be a firm statement of Trinitarian thought but if you look up the text in a different Bible, such as the American Standard Version you will find:

1 John 5: 6-8 (ASV) “This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood. And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three who bear witness, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and the three agree in one”

What happened to “ the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost”?!!! Well, this clause – called “the Johannine comma” is not believed to be authentic in the earliest manuscripts and so most modern translations do not include it!

So, does any of this matter? Well, it might! The Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, is known for a classical piece of Godspeak about the Trinity: “the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, and the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity.”

What this means is that, according to Rahner’s thinking, the way that God acts in the world (i.e. in the “economy”) is the way that God really is in God’s own self (i.e. “immanently”) and vice versa. So if God is revealed as one God in three persons then that is how God really is in God’s own self. That would have to be true unless God is inherently deceptive, which n
o theist believes to be the case.

Interestingly, there is another Godspeak word for describing how the three persons of the Trinity interact with one another and that is “perichoresis” – literally, “to dance around” – the relationship between the persons of the Trinity is such that each participates in the lives of the other – none is in isolation from any other.

And so, with this understanding of God, we can see the consequence of humankind being “made in the image of God”. God is inherently community. The persons of the Trinity are not identical and so God is inherently diverse community. And in the Trinity each participates in the lives of the other – none is in isolation from any other – in other words, God is inherently cooperative community.

As we return to our original questions:

Can we talk about God without re-creating God in our own image? The concept of the Trinity – encourages us to recreate ourselves into this image of God: Community – Diverse Community – Cooperative Community

How can we find language with which to speak of the infinite? Perhaps Rahner’s idea is helpful here: “the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, and the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity.”

Do our descriptions of God limit our understanding of God? Probably there is only one honest answer: Yes! And in the face of that, recall these words: “Be still, and know that I am God”!

How wrong do we have to be about God before we aren’t talking about God any more? The Scriptural narrative excludes some possibilities… (i) Numbers 23:19a “God is not a man” (ii) Corinthians 14:33 “God is not the author of confusion, but of peace…” (iii) Matthew 22:32b “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”

And in conclusion, wouldn’t it be amazing if we lived into the vision of being made in the image of God? Think about community – diverse community – cooperative community – community in which “each participates in the lives of the other – none is in isolation from any other”. Doesn’t everyone want that?

Thanks for visiting!