Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Trinity: A Deal Breaker

When my daughter was three years old, she had a childlike understanding of the Trinity. She gladly accepted it in complete faith. Her understanding of it seemed spiritual rather than intellectual in nature. And she had what seemed to me a pretty profound way of explaining it. She would say: "Here's the Father [pointing to her left]; here's the Son [pointing to her right]; and here's the Holy Spirit [pointing in front of her]." And then she would move her hands around them in a triangular motion making a whooshing noise to show their unity as one. Well, it was as good as any other explanation I had heard! She had received the truth of the Trinity "like a little child." And in doing so, she set a good example for her mother!

The Trinity, mysterious and befuddling as it may be, reflects the supernatural power and divine nature of God that is beyond our conceptual grasp as human beings. The Trinity challenges us to accept God on His terms, rather than trying to fit Him into a box of our own cognitive construction. The Trinity takes control away from us in our all-about-me world, and gives all glory to God. In other words, the Trinity prevents us from creating our own fictitious god and forces us to live by faith in a God that is bigger than we can understand. 

Interestingly, there is a universal trait that all cults and false religions hold in common: they all reject the Trinity. I have yet to learn of a cult or religion outside of Christianity that accepts the doctrine of the Trinity. Indeed, Mormons claim Jesus died on the Cross to atone for our sins. Jesus is also seen by Mormons and in much New Age thought as divine. Islam teaches that Jesus was a great prophet. Jehovah's Witnesses believe He was an archangel. But He is never accepted by any false religions as part of a triune Godhead, equal to God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. The significance of this cannot be overstated. 

But because the word, Trinity, is found nowhere in the bible, the concept is passed off by some as a theological invention that was added later to Christian doctrine, but is not necessarily integral to Scripture. This has led some Christians to downplay or misunderstand the crucial importance of the doctrine of the Trinity. For example, I felt prompted to write this blog post after hearing mature believers I know make statements like, "the Trinity isn't actually in the bible," and "maybe there are more than three members of the Godhead, but we just don't know about them." Sometimes, people treat the Trinity like a theoretical interpretation, a footnote, or something better left to theologians and seminary students.

But the Trinity is fundamentally important to the Christian faith, and Scripture makes this abundantly clear. Toward the end of His ministry, Jesus alluded to His rightful position as being equal to, and the same as, God, stating: “I and the Father are One” (John 10:30). Jesus showed that He was God when He said to the Jews in the temple, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58). The Trinity was understood by the early church. The opening statement of John's Gospel famously captures the truth of the Trinity: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made." (John 1:1-3). And in verse 14 we learn that: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14). The Word refers to Jesus Christ. Jesus also demonstrated that He had the power to forgive sins (Mark 2:1-12) as only God can, and Scripture tells us clearly that there is only one God (Deut. 4:35, 2 Sam. 22:32; Isa. 37:20; John 5:44; Rom. 3:30; 1 Cor. 8:4-6; Gal. 3:20; Eph. 4:6; 1 Tim. 1:17; James 2:19; Jude 25). As believers we are commanded by Jesus to go in the name (not names) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). These are just a few examples of how the truth of the Trinity is consistently woven throughout Scripture. There have been many, many biblical commentaries on this and mature believers should be aware of it.

The Trinity is central to the Christian faith and should not be marginalized. It is the basis for our belief in the unique and innate deity of Christ. Those who deny the Trinity open the floodgates to all sorts of heresy, including polytheism and self-deification as in the Mormon faith and New Age philosophies, or the reduction of Jesus to mere man, prophet, or good teacher.

Despite this, many believers choose to downplay the significance of the Trinity, which is often due, it seems, to the growing influences of pluralism and political correctness in our society. Engaging in interfaith dialogue, for example, is an increasingly popular form of outreach in American churches (e.g. Rick Warren's Saddleback Church). During such dialogues between people from different faiths, there is a tendency to stick to safe topics that highlight common ground between religions to promote friendship and peace. The Trinity, which is a polarizing deal-breaker when seeking common ground, is often conveniently ignored by Christians during these sessions. 

The intention behind interfaith dialogue is most often a good one: to reach out in the love of Christ to our neighbors. Jesus was clear that this is highly important when He said to the Pharisees “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt 22:35-40). What is debatable, however, is whether interfaith dialogue is a biblically sound way to fulfill this commandment. It is doubtful that any dialogue that results in watering down the gospel and glossing over the stumbling block that is Christ's true identity is not actually showing love to one's neighbor at all.

John Piper put it well: "...we would be happy to sit down with any Muslim group and commend Christ to them, and let them talk to us about their prophet, but we’re not going to smooth things over and talk in vague language about how we have the same God and the same love of God, call Mohammed a prophet, call Jesus a prophet, quote Scripture selectively so that it sounds just like the Koran, we’re not going to do that."

Former US Congressman, and self-described evangelical, Mark Silanjer, in his recent book, A Deadly Misunderstanding, writes about his experiences seeking common ground between Islam and Christianity. In dialoguing with Muslim clerics and leaders in the Middle East, he found that the biggest “stumbling block” he encountered was “always about Jesus.”[1]  This is not surprising; the pivotal nature of Christ's work on the Cross will always present an obstacle to those seeking common ground with other religions. But Silanjer, in his quest for compatibility, passes off this stumbling block [the biblical view of Jesus Christ] as a “diversion.”[2]  In his effort to promote love, peace, and friendship between neighbors, Silanjer ends up glossing over the Trinity, saying he respects the idea, but “nowhere is it to be found in the Bible”  (an increasingly common argument that is thrown about today). Silanjer finds the “attributes of Deity—God, Holy Spirit, and Messiah” to exist in the Torah, the New Testament, and the Qur’an alike. He explains how he has “asked distinguished clerics, both Muslim and Christian, if they could explain to me the interaction of these three deified attributes, and after much bantering back and forth, in the end they all have given me the exact same answer: ‘Mark, it’s a mystery.’ So what are we all arguing about?” Silanjer’s implication that the Trinity holds little significance because it is a mystery, and his description of three “attributes” in place of three Persons in one God, shows a radical departure from biblical teaching. He marginalizes the Trinity, passing it off as a “theological red herring,” and implies that it should be by-passed as an inconvenient barrier to true peace and reconciliation.[3] Silanjer exemplifies for us how seeking common ground between faiths can quickly end in theological syncretism if the end goal is friendship and compatibility above all.

Not all interfaith dialogue leads to such extreme misuse of Scripture. Seeking common ground with Muslims can be helpful as a starting point in initiating spiritual conversations with Muslim friends. Muslims admire Jesus and claim Him as a prophet of Islam. To talk about Jesus with a Muslim can be useful because they already respect who they think He is. It is not generally advisable to begin conversations with Muslim neighbors by laying out all our theological differences. But the motive behind reaching out to unbelievers, should ultimately be to share the gospel, not just to make friends as an end goal. Otherwise, we have moved from pleasing God, to pleasing people alone. There is certainly a danger that through the process of interfaith dialogue the original intention to spread the gospel is obscured, and relativistic compromises made, in an effort to maintain the amicable relations that have been established. But in reaching out with the love of Christ to our Muslim neighbors, we must not lose sight of the fact that ultimately we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Cor 1:23). [Incidentally, most Muslims do not believe that Jesus was crucified, but that He was taken up to Heaven without actually dying on the cross. Therefore, they deny the resurrection].

In the end, the Trinity can be a deal-breaker in interfaith relations and we need to be okay with that. If we choose to gloss over or deny the truth about Jesus we are committing a grave sin against God. Jesus said, "But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven. Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother,  and the daughter in law against her mother in law." (Matt 10:34-36).

The world will reject Christ. But we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to go and make disciples of all nations (Act 1:8; Matt 28:19). Even though it is tempting to finesse or tweak the gospel in ways that might appeal to different people, we should stop over-thinking it and stop doubting in the power of the Holy Spirit to convict hearts. All we need to do is surrender ourselves to God, serve others in Christ-like love, and be always be ready to explain, with gentleness and respect, why our hope is in Christ (1 Peter  3:15).

[1] p137
[2] p137
[3] p146


Samuel Maynes said...

If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism and the Trinity, please check out my website at www.religiouspluralism.ca. It previews my book, which has not been published yet and is still a “work-in-progress.” Your constructive criticism would be very much appreciated.

My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or "Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the "body of Christ" (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

* The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

For more details, please see: www.religiouspluralism.ca

Samuel Stuart Maynes

A. Maeve McDonald said...

The ideas you are trying to synthesize are not consistent with a biblical view of the Trinity, but are mere perversions of it that are incompatible with God's Word.

Samuel Maynes said...

If you read the Preview on my website at www.religiouspluralism.ca, you will see that I am merely expanding on what is already inherent (but sometimes obscured or hidden) in the orthodox concept of the Trinity. Indeed, when we examine world religions, we see in the personalities they portray and the language they use, a reflection of one or other (or some combination) of the three divine psychological personae.

I think that Genesis 1:26 (in the beginning), where God says “Let us make man in our image,” suggests that later on he might also have said, “Let us help humans make their religions in our image.” It is quite probable that the inspiration for human religions reflects particular aspects of the threefold psychology of One God in Trinity expression. On the face of it, maybe God is telling us something about his multi-dimensional self, through the diversity of major religions, which can be seen to fall into three basic attitudes to (or perspectives on) the Divine.

In the past, religious misunderstandings have caused immense grief, but civilization is rapidly approaching the point where the very survival of the world depends on overcoming anti-social religious conflicts, and the negative impacts of increasing population on the planet. The human race can no longer afford religious strife that divides people and disturbs urgent cooperation on mutual issues such as conservation and sharing of resources, combating climate change, stimulating healthy economic growth, etc.

Peace in the world requires peace among religions. Religious pluralism is a necessary paradigm shift whose time has come. Absent any better idea, the Trinity Absolute concept of One God in three phases or personae is the only adequate metaphysical vehicle necessary and sufficient for a real form of religious pluralism that is more than just lukewarm toleration and talking past one another.”

Samuel Stuart Maynes