Trinity analogies from John of Damascus

I love these Trinity analogies from John of Damascus, particularly the last two: “Think of the Father as a spring of life begetting the Son like a river and the Holy Ghost like a sea, for the spring and the river and sea are all one nature. Think of the Father as a root, and of the Son as a branch, and the Spirit as a fruit, for the substance in these three is one. The Father is a sun with the Son as rays and the Holy Ghost as heat.”

Eternal Trinity by Catherine of Siena

Eternal Trinity,

Godhead,

mystery deep as the sea,

you could give me no greater gift

than the gift of

yourself.

For you are a fire ever burning and never consumed,

which itself consumes all the selfish love

that fills my being.

Yes, you are a fire that takes away the coldness,

illuminates the mind with its light,

and causes me to know your

truth.

And I know that

you are beauty and wisdom itself.

The food of angels,

you gave yourself to man

in the fire of your

love.

– Catherine of Siena

What do Muslims find most difficult about Christianity?

I recently asked some Muslim friends, “What is the one thing you find most difficult or offensive about Christianity?” and whether this related to belief or behaviour.

The overwealming majority answered that it was the Christian affirmation of the divinity of Jesus that they found most difficult, with many expressing their objections to trinitarian and incarnational understandings of God.

Some comments suggested elements of misunderstanding, even bewilderment, especially when it came to the crucifixion and what God was supposed to have achieved through it. But even where that was the case I doubt better understanding would have bridged the fundamental gap. It was clear that the gospel itself, the good news of God among us, was the issue. Our primary teaching is the primary offense.

Even so, the responses were respectful and a number expressed appreciation for the question, one even suggesting a reciprocation in kind. Most surprising to me, many expressed positive experiences with Christians, as Muslims, again making it clear to me that it was the good news of God among us which was the most significant stumbling block.

How do we overcome this core difficultly that Muslims have with Christianity? Clearly not by education alone, for the primary problem is not ignorance. Clearly not by hospitality alone, for the primary problem is not hostility either. Clearly something more is required. Personally I suspect nothing less than a new experience of God, a sign that surprises.

How would you explain the Trinity?

trikeleHas anyone ever asked you to explain the doctrine of the Trinity?

How did you approach it?

I seldom offer an explanation for the Trinity as it is not the easiest teaching to understand, even for Christians. But I seldom have to offer; I get asked all the time. For as soon as our conversations get to God it becomes clear that my understanding of God, as a Christian, is different, distinctive. And as the apostle says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15)

It is hard for others to understand the Christian understanding of God. Muslims have a very transcendent understanding of God. For them our confession that Jesus is the son of God is blasphemy. God is one! Not three! Hindus, by way of contrast, have a very immanent understanding of God. For them our confession that Jesus is the son of God is just as unacceptable, but for different reasons. You can’t limit God that way! The gods are beyond counting!

Obviously we need to explain ourselves. Of course, even with explaining, the Christian understanding of God will often be rejected. But at least then they’ll be rejecting the actual Christian understanding, not a misunderstanding, and if nothing else at least we’ll understand each other a bit better.

I often use the H20 analogy. That just as water is H20 and ice is H2O and steam is H2O, without water and ice and steam being the same thing as each other, so too the Father, the Son and the Spirit are all one and the same God, yet simultaneously distinct.

Yet another analogy I use is the analogy of the 3 legged stool or table. As a visual thinker who mixes with a lot of visual thinkers the visuals can be just as important, even more important, than the words sometimes. Do you find those approaches helpful, or do you use other approaches? Personally, given the difficulty of explaining this, I think the more approaches the better.

But of course the best, most visible approach is to live like you genuinely entrust your life to a Christlike God. For as another apostle says, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Timothy 4:16) People need to see this affirmation of the Christlikeness of God enfleshed.

What is the difference between the Trimurti and the Trinity?

I have frequently heard non-Christians assert that the Trinity of Christianity and the Trimurti of Hinduism are equivalent “triple god” concepts.

This, however, is a gross misunderstanding.

Yes, the number three features promenantly in both teachings, but that is where the similarity largely ends.

Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer) are temporally differentiated. Not so with the Father (God above us), the Son (God among us) and the Spirit (God within us). They are equally active in every age. In the beginning, in the end, and in between.

In essence, the Trimurti concept and the Trinity concept run perpendicular to one another, as I have tried to capture in the diagram below. Only if Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva were equally active in the acts of creation, preservation and destruction could they more genuinely said to be equivalent.

trimurti

Of course, this is somewhat academic as the Trimurti concept is not generally accepted by Vaishnavites or Shaivites with Hinduism. In my experience the Trimurti is more often bought up by non-Hindu, non-Christian westerners as personal justifications for different paths altogether. My plea is simply this: if you want to follow a different path, fine, but please refrain from misrepresenting the paths of others as you go about it. Do as you would be done by and all that.

 

Aboriginal Christian Painting of the Trinity and the People of God

“Wapirra Trinity” by Clarise Nampijinpa Poulson.

An Aboriginal Art website explains the image this way:

“Her work of art contains, from top to bottom, the following Wapirra (Trinity) Jukurrpa. As usual in the iconography used at Yuendumu, humans are represented by U-forms. Inside the brown, nearly closed arc at the top of the painting are people who live outside of the community of Christ, people who are not yet filled by the Holy Spirit. In the left center of the painting are three more U-forms; these people have begun to turn toward the Christian faith. The nearly closed circle at the bottom of the painting shows the same people as at the top, now filled by the spirit of God and living in Wapirra into all eternity. The Holy Trinity of Father, Son and the Holy Spirit is represented in the form of three brown semi-circles in the middle right part of the painting.” 

The Sacred Marriage

Sacred marriage - trinity,  incarnation and reconciliation

This image, or at least the beginnings of it, came to me as I was coming down from the Blue Mountains this afternoon.

In essence, it’s a Christ centered reinterpretation of the sacred marriage, though, in retrospect, it could equally function as a Christ centered reinterpretation of the tree of life.

There are some obvious references to the Trinity and the Incarnation, but it also captures my understanding of the reconciling power of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Scriptural inspiration includes the following quotes:

Revelation 21:1-4 – “Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death, or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

1 Timothy 2:5 – “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”

Galatians 3:28 – “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Matthew 23:11-12 – “The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

2 Corinthians 13:14 – “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”

Note: I have retained the traditional “Father” and “Son” language, despite the problematic gender bias, as I find the alternatives on offer are generally awkward and struggle to capture the inter-relationships within the Trinity adequately. That being said, here is an alternative interpretation and you’d like to discuss the gender language issues further I’d invite you to continue reading The sacred marriage in Pagan and Christian dialogue.

The Holy Trinity of Liam Neeson

Benjamin Wheatley sent me this image last night: “One Liam in Three Persons” by ninjaink

The artist writes: “As a Catholic, and as a Christian in general, I’m often asked (or told) to explain the nature of the Trinity (one God in 3 Persons). It is a bit of a mystery that takes time and study to completely understand. So I came up with this example, albeit an imperfect one: Liam Neeson. He’s one guy, sure, but if you watch three of his movies at once, he’s ONE Liam, an actor, representing THREE persons… at the SAME TIME! Thank you, Liam Neeson, for helping us to (hopefully) better understand through an imperfect analogy the perfect nature of God.”

Imperfect, ya. Modalism.

Made me laugh though.

Myth Busting

It is often said that Trinitarian teaching was absent in the earliest, most ancient forms of Christianity, that it was a creation of the Council of Nicea. And yet, while you’ll never find an explicit articulation of Trinitianian teaching in the New Testament, there are more than a few implicit reflerences for those with an open mind. Take this line for example:

“For though him [that is, Christ Jesus] we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.” Ephesians 2:18

So, what’s your take on Trinitarian teaching?

Nicene Niggly Bits

I have been revisiting the Nicene Creed recently and something struck me: could it unintentionally encourage Modalism in the minds of some readers?(1)

I think the problem is this: on one level the Nicene Creed is an attempt to articulate how the Father (God above us), the Spirit (God within us) and the Son (God among us) all relate to one another in eternity; but on another level the Nicene Creed is also an attempt to articulate how the gospel story, the church story and the creation story relate to one another in history. It has struck me that there are problems with trying to do both simultaneously.

As it is stands the Nicene Creed explicitly links the Father to the creation story and the Spirit to the church story, but fails to do the reverse. Yet a careful reading of the Bible reveals the Spirit was moving within creation at the very beginning and that the Father sometimes stands in judgment over churches, such that their actions are not always Spirit breathed. Trinitarian theologians know this, but the creed does not actually clarify it. This critique goes beyond my previous critiques of the filoque(2); to the effect that the Son is sent by the Spirit as much as the Spirit is sent by the Son. What I am suggesting here is that the entire structure of the Creed is problematic, that it is too one dimensional to accommodate these tangential ideas of Father-Son-Spirit divinity and Creation-Christ-Church history without risk that they’ll just collapse into one another in the mind of readers. Something to ponder …

(1) Modalism is the name commonly given to unorthodox theological systems that assert God manifested in different modes during different periods of history – as Father in Old Testament times, as Son with the coming of Jesus, and as Spirit after the ascension of Jesus – and that the Father and Son and Spirit never related to one another personally and simultaneously as orthodox Christianity teaches.

(2) The filoque refers to a highly disputed clause inserted into the Nicene Creed by Western Theologians after the Council of Nicea had finished. Basically it is the bit that reads, “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son