Tag Archives: trinity

A Decent Society

December 2018 Pulse

In his erudite and captivating book, Conscience and Its Enemies (2013), Robert George discusses the essential features of a decent society. According to the Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, the three pillars on which a decent society rests are (1) respect for the human person, (2) the institution of the family, and (3) a fair and effective system of government and law.

As a Roman Catholic, George established these foundations of a decent society on the basis of Catholic social doctrine (rooted in the teachings of the Bible and Christian tradition) as well as natural law.

The first pillar has to do with taking seriously the inviolable dignity of every human being. The Bible distinguishes the human creature from the rest of God’s creation by emphasising that it alone is the bearer of the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27).

‘The divine image is present in every man’, declares the Catechism of the Catholic Church. ‘It shines forth in the communion of persons, in the likeness of the unity of the divine persons themselves’.

When a society recognises, values and respects the human person, writes George, its institutions ‘and the beliefs and practices of the people, will be such that every member of the human family, irrespective not only of race, sex, or ethnicity but also of age, size, stage of development, or condition of dependency, is treated as a person – that is, as a subject bearing profound, inherent, and equal worth and dignity’.

A society that fails or refuses to nurture respect for the human person and acknowledge the sanctity of human life will embrace an inhumane utilitarianism that tramples upon the dignity of the individual for the sake of some nebulous ‘greater good’.

The second pillar is the institution of the family. With characteristic perceptiveness and clarity, George writes: ‘The family, based on the marital commitment of husband and wife, is the original and best ministry of health, education and welfare’.

For Pope John Paul II, the family is fashioned in such a way that it reflects the triune God himself. In his Letter to Families (1994), the late pontiff states that ‘the primordial model of the family is to be sought in God himself, in the Trinitarian mystery’. The family as a ‘communion of persons’ (communio personarum) is grounded in the triune God, who is Being-in-Communion.

So foundational and important are families to society that where they fail to form or where too many break down, writes George, ‘the effective transmission of the virtues of honesty, civility, self-restraint, concern for the welfare of others, justice compassion, and personal responsibility are imperiled’.

The third pillar of a decent society, according to George, is a fair and effective system of government. Based on the biblical revelation of the sinfulness of our fallen humanity, George provides an argument for the need for law and government that is consistent with Scripture (Romans 13) and the Christian tradition.

Law and government are necessary, he writes quite plainly, ‘because none of us is perfectly virtuous all the time, and some people will be deterred from wrongdoing only by the threat of punishment’.

Together with conservatives, past and present – e.g. Edmund Burke (in the 18th century) and Roger Scruton (in ours) – George believes that law and government are meant to protect the safety and morals of society and advance general welfare.

It should be quite obvious to many that we live in the world in which each of these pillars has come under assault – sometimes by totalitarian regimes and their dehumanising ideologies, and sometimes in the name of the ideals of modern liberal democracy, such as autonomy and rights.

In countless clinics across the world, foetuses are being routinely killed because women want to exercise autonomy over their bodies and parents want to exert their rights.

Take, for example, the routine abortion of foetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome.

Iceland could boast that no babies with Down are born there. This is not due to the ‘genetic exceptionalism’ of Icelanders, but the policy of prenatal screening and abortion. It is reported that in the United States, 90 percent of babies diagnosed with Down are aborted because genetic counsellors having been pushing this option very hard.

Canada legalised euthanasia in June 2016. Since then, over 1,029 patients have been euthanized. The Canadian Paediatric Society reported that doctors and paediatricians are increasingly asked by parents to euthanize their disabled or dying children or infants. Pro-life doctors who refuse to be party to this are required by law to refer their patients to other doctors who would provide the service.

Abortion and euthanasia are just two of many examples of the assault on the human person that we witness in modern civilised society.

Marriage and family have also been subjected to severe battery in our time.

The growing acceptance and legalisation of same-sex marriage has radically redefined marriage and altered the structure of the family. In fact, such legislations have in effect resulted in the abolition of marriage.

Science and technology have also contributed to the assault on the family. One example is assisted reproductive technologies that ‘create’ a child with the genetic contribution from a third party – through the use of donor gametes.

 Attacks on the family are also not uncommon in the academy, especially in the West.

George explains: ‘The line here is that the family, at least as traditionally constituted and understood, is a patriarchal and exploitative institution that oppresses women and imposes on people forms of sexual restraint that are psychologically damaging and that inhibit free expression of personality’.

The assault on government and law is seen most acutely in the totalitarian governments in modern history. Within regimes like Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China, all power is located in the particular leader or group that controls everything, from politics to culture. In such regimes, the only form of power is the political.

But the rule of law has come under assault even in democratic countries, not just in totalitarian ones. This happens when ideology is allowed to shape the law, and the rule of law is manipulated and bent according to the ideological whims of the powerful. When this occurs, the rule of law is nothing but the rule of politics.

Christians in different vocations – teachers, doctors, civil servants, politicians, policy-makers, lawyers, judges, etc – must strenuously resist and oppose the forces that would destroy the moral and social fabric of society.

They must do their best to promote the three pillars of a good society – respect for the human person, preservation of the family and a fair and effective system of government and law – and prevent society from coming into the grips of the new barbarism.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Maker of Heaven and Earth

September 2017 Credo 

The Apostles’ Creed begins with the acclamation: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and earth.” To believe in God as Creator is to affirm that God is the Lord of the earth and not merely the tribal God of the Christians.

The belief that the Triune God created everything out of nothing (ex nihilo) by his word (ex verbum) has long been a key tenet of historic Christian teaching. “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made … For he spoke, and it came to be” (Ps. 33:6 & 8; Ps. 104:30). All things were made through Jesus the Word, “without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3; cf. 1 Cor. 8:6; Col 1:15-17).

The notion of creatio ex nihilo, though not explicitly stated in the Genesis creation account, is nevertheless consonant with it. “The universe,” we are told, “was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (Heb. 11:3). The Lord himself asserts “I am the Lord, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself” (Isa. 44:24; cf. Acts 17:24; Rev. 4:11).

That creation emerged “out of nothing” at the command of God means that there was no eternal pre-existent matter prior to God bringing forth everything that exists. As theologian Colin Gunton puts it, the Creator is not simply the Potter who works with clay but also the One who brought clay into existence in the first place.

Creation “out of nothing” is in sharp contrast to the ancient Greek belief that matter is eternal rather than created. This notion of the cosmos as self-generated and self-managing is one that surfaces as well in modern atheists like Richard Dawkins. According to them, the origins of the world lay not in the will of a personal transcendent Creator but in the random natural processes of the material world.

While claiming to be speaking scientifically, these atheists’ assertion of a self-caused world is at heart a strident philosophical naturalism that takes as an a priori the impossibility of the existence of God or the reality of the spiritual. Because God cannot exist, He does not exist, and the idea that God created all things is therefore impossible. Such is the tautological ‘logic’ of unbelief!

Christian theology maintains vigorously the distinction between the Creator and His creation without confusion. The world is not merely an extension of God; it has an objective existence distinct from the Creator, though not outside of His control.

This guards against any pantheistic conflation of the two, as in the various forms of religious or philosophical monism in which the world is seen as an emanation of God. Neither does it allow for any divinization of the cosmos, as in the modern green environmentalist veneration of Gaia. To deify the cosmos is to replace the worship of the Creator with reverence for the earth, which is idolatry.

The relationship of creation to the Creator is one of contingency and marked by total dependency. The world owes its origins to God, and it continues to exist only because God sovereignly upholds and sustains it by His Word and the Holy Spirit. In Christ, “all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17), which points to a Creator-God who is engaged and involved in the running of the universe.

This goes against the deistic notion that the Creator, after bringing the universe into being, maintains an essentially hands-off policy vis-à-vis the universe. Thankfully, God in His mercy sovereignly ensures that all the physical conditions necessary for human life are in place and in full functioning order for the sake of His creation.

In this sense, we may understand the universe not merely as a fait accompli, a once-for-all act, but as one that continues to come into being over time under the superintending hand of God. The early church theologians describe this as a creatio continua, a continuous creation. While creatio ex nihilo underscores God’s transcendent otherness, creatio continua points to God’s immanent presence and work within creation.

Through an act of divine deliberation, God created all things and then upholds and guides it to its intended end. God did not need to create the world. There was no external compulsion that made the creation of humankind and everything else in the universe necessary. He did so freely, as an act of love.

God keeps His own counsel as to why He lovingly and freely created the world in the first place. What we know from Scripture is that creation was meant to glorify God, to declare His power and display His attributes (Ps. 19:1; 33:6-9; Rm. 1:19-20). Creation is as such purposive, and, as shall see below, teleological in the sense of creation finding its destiny in Christ.

This coheres with what we know from the Genesis creation account, that the Creator “saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31; cf. 1 Tim. 4:4-5). This strong affirmation of the goodness of the physical cosmos goes against all forms of Gnosticism and Manicheanism that elevate the spiritual at the expense of the bodily and physical.

Christians celebrate the creation goodness of the earth. For this reason, there is impetus for the scientific exploration of the wonders and mysteries of the natural world. At the same time, we acknowledge that humans are created as embodied beings who relate to God spiritually in and through the physicality of their bodily life.

The world today on this side of Eden is not what it is supposed to be. Yet despite the distortive effects of sin, God has not allowed His good intentions for creation to be derailed. In Christ, God has begun the process of reversing the effects of sin on creation and redeeming disobedient humanity. A true doctrine of creation is thus irreducibly Christological. In Christ, fallen creation will be restored and creation’s destiny finally realised.


 

Rev Dr Mark Chan is Earnest Lau Professor of Systematic Theology and Director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia (CSCA) at Trinity Theological College (TTC). He teaches hermeneutics, homiletics and other theological subjects at TTC.

Word Made Flesh

August 2017 Credo

Who is Jesus Christ?

This question continues to exercise inquiring minds throughout the centuries, even as the enigmatic figure of the first century Rabbi never ceases to fascinate and capture the human imagination.

This is evidenced in the countless books that were written proposing endless theories about Jesus, not to mention the numerous television documentaries (especially by National Geographic).

The answer that Scripture gives to this question is at once clear and provocative. Jesus Christ is the eternal Word of God who ‘was made flesh, and dwelt among us’, declares John in his Gospel (1:14).

The Apostle Paul says that Jesus is ‘the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation’ (Colossians 1:15). The writer of Hebrews adds: ‘He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature’, who upholds the universe by his power (Hebrews 1:3).

Jesus Christ is the image, reflection and imprint of God because he is God himself. He is the second person of the triune God who has taken up human nature in the incarnation.

Understandably, many people today would reject the truth of the incarnation because it sounds so incredulous to the modern ear. Moderns would have no problems at all with seeing Jesus as an exceptional rabbi, or a nationalistic revolutionary, or even a shaman or mystic.

But even some Christians have found the idea of the incarnation dubious, and questioned if it is altogether necessary for Christianity to continue to perpetuate this claim.

In 1977, the authors of a collection of essays published as The Myth of God Incarnate and edited by the late John Hick controversially called to question the traditional dogma of the incarnation.

In 2005, Hick published The Metaphor of God Incarnate in which he argued that the incarnation must be understood metaphorically and not literally. For Hick, to make the claim that ‘Jesus is the incarnation of God’ is not very different from saying that ‘Winston Churchill incarnated the British will to resist Hitler’.

Liberal Christians like Bishop John Shelby Spong of the Episcopal Church in America reject the incarnation, and insisted that traditional Christology is bankrupt in the modern scientific age.

But the doctrine of the incarnation is not a metaphysical aberration that has somehow infected the early church’s understanding of Jesus Christ, a distortion brought about by Hellenic philosophy. As we have seen, it is clearly found in the New Testament and it has shaped the church’s prayers and liturgy since her inception.

Belief in the incarnation was given creedal form in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (formulated in the First [325] and Second Ecumenical Councils [381]) and the Chalcedonian Creed (451) amidst fierce battles against erroneous concepts of Christ.

In the Nicene Creed, the church maintains that the Jesus who died and rose again is the eternal Son of God, who is of the same essence with God the Father. In the words of the Creed, the incarnate One is ‘the only-begotten Son of God … God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God’.

In the incarnation, the eternal Son of God was ‘made flesh’, as the King James translation has it. Other versions (RSV, NIV, ESV) render it as the ‘Word became flesh’.

It is extremely important that we understand what Scripture means when it speaks of the eternal Word ‘becoming’ human flesh. There are at least two erroneous ways of understanding this ‘becoming’.

The first error is to think that in ‘becoming’ flesh, the eternal Word ‘comes into’ an existing human being, Jesus of Nazareth. To think of the incarnation in this way is to fall into the ancient heresy called ‘adoptionism’ (associated with Paul of Samosata). Adoptionism reduces Jesus to merely another prophet in whom the Word of God dwelt.

The second error is to think that in the incarnation there occurred a transmogrification of the eternal Word (Son) into a human being. According to this understanding, at the incarnation the eternal Word ‘changes into’ the man Jesus.

The early theologians of the church were very careful to stress that the incarnation is not just another version of the ‘mythical transformations’ of the gods that we find in some religions. They insisted that since God cannot be subjected to change, in taking on human flesh the second Person of the Trinity did not become other than himself.

Rather, in the incarnation the eternal Son of God takes up human nature without ever ceasing to be God. To put this in another way, in the incarnation the eternal Son does not ‘change into’ a human being, but he ‘puts on’ human nature.

The early Fathers were fond of using the imagery of Aaron donning his high-priestly robe to depict the incarnation. Just as Aaron remained unchanged after assuming his priestly dress, so the Word or Son does not cease to be God when cloaked in human flesh.

Hence, according to the Chalcedonian Definition the Son of God in the incarnation is very God and very Man. The divine and human natures are united in the second Person of the Trinity ‘without confusion, without change, without division, without separation’.

It is also crucial to note that in the incarnation, the eternal Son plunges into the depths of the human condition by taking upon himself post-lapsarian Adamic flesh, i.e., fallen human nature.

Following Hebrews 2:14, Athanasius (296-373) in his great treatise De Incarnatione maintains that in the incarnation the Son ‘takes a body of our own kind’.

As Thomas Weinandy explains, for Athanasius ‘the humanity assumed by the Word was not some generic immunized, sanitized or quarantined humanity, but a humanity taken from the sinful race of Adam …’

As we have seen, the Chalcedonian Definition postulates that the divine and human natures are united in the person of the incarnate Son without confusion, that is, with their integrity intact.

How are we to even begin to understand this with regard to the acts of Jesus of Nazareth? The theologian William Placher suggests that we think of this great mystery in this way.

Because Jesus Christ is God incarnate, he did things that only God can do – he forgave sins, resuscitated the dead, and saved humankind from sin and death. But because Jesus Christ is God incarnate, because he took up our human nature and became a man, he did other things that are associated to being human – he ate and drank, he became tired.

And if we ask who was it that did all these things, the answer is: Jesus Christ.


 

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Who is in Whose Image?

April 2017 Credo

Many doctrinal debates have taken place within the Christian community, some of them in an atmosphere of intense acrimonious dispute. Some have been settled quite satisfactorily, others continue to simmer, while yet others have been newly sparked.

We shall look at three examples, one that took place long ago and has been settled, one that is more recent and still going on, and a third that is emerging.

The first few centuries of the church were spent in clarifying the doctrine of the Trinity and the Person of Christ. In AD 325, the Council of Nicaea, the first such ecumenical council, was convened to deal with a heresy associated with Arius who taught that Jesus was a created Son of God, thus a lesser being than God. Arius claimed that “there was once when the Son was not”. Opposing his view was Athanasius and almost all of the bishops gathered in Nicaea. They ruled that Arianism was heretical and came up with the Nicene Creed, stating that Jesus is “very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father…”

The Nicene Creed was further expanded and fixed at the next Council in Constantinople (AD 381), a form that has been used till now. It emphasises that Jesus is “eternally begotten of the Father”. Another creed, attributed to Athanasius also emphasises the “co-eternality” of the three Persons in the Trinity.

Subsequently, theologians have also clarified the internal relations within the Trinity. How does one deal with the submission and obedience of Jesus to the Father during His earthly life? Though we cannot comprehensively discuss Trinitarian theology here, we can say that theological orthodoxy emphasises both the equality in being of the three Persons as well as the Father as the “primary source” in the Godhead, in that the Son is eternally begotten of the Father while the Spirit proceeds from the Father (and Western Christianity would say, also the Son).

If we fast-forward to the 20th century, we come across another debate, this time about the relationship between men and women, and in particular husbands and wives. On one side are the egalitarians, who insist that in Christ there is no gender distinction in that women and men are equal in being and status (cf. Gal 3:28). On the other hand are the complementarians who hold that while there may be ontological equality, there is a functional hierarchy in that wives are to submit to their husbands (Eph 5:22). There is a range of views among complementarians, stretching from a light view to one that sees Scripture as forbidding women from assuming leadership or ministry positions in church (cf. 1 Tim 2:11-12; 1 Cor 14:33-35). This debate is still in progress.

Enter a third debate which brings together the two debates mentioned above. In June 2016, a heated debate began among various complementarians, when American Presbyterian pastor Liam Goligher strongly criticised theologians Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware for seriously distorting the traditional doctrine of the Trinity. Grudem and Ware, both complementarians, are accused of distorting Trinitarian theology to support their views on gender roles.

Others have since entered the fray from both sides. Grudem, Ware, and their supporters argue that they are holding firmly to the equality of the three Persons of the Trinity, even while subscribing to the eternal functional subordination of the Son. Their opponents accuse them of introducing a neo-Arianism merely to find support for their views of the marital relationship.
While the debate rages on, a few points must be kept in mind.

Firstly, the term “subordination” is not very helpful. Those who use this term are accused of actually proposing “subordinationism” which is just one step away from Arius’ heresy. The biblical word is submission – whether we are talking about how we should relate with one another (Eph 5:21), how a wife should submit to her husband (Eph 5:22; 1 Pet 3:1) or how Jesus submitted to the Father (Matt 26:39; Phil 2:6-8; 1 Pet 2:23).

Subordination gives the idea of a lower status or being, and can be seen as the result of coercion. Submission gives the idea of a choice. Can the fact that Jesus submitted to His Father during His earthly life be then turned into the concept of His eternal subordination (though functional in nature) is the issue that is hotly debated. The problem may be one of using the wrong vocabulary (“eternally begotten” is an excellent phrase) and the need for clear definitions.

The second issue is one of methodology. When we think of and talk about the Trinity, we are dealing with mystery, on which some light has been shed from what God has revealed of Himself in His Word and in Christ.

But we must not forget, as Karl Barth said, that God is also totally other (totaliter aliter). We use metaphors and analogies to describe and understand God – God is our Father, our Shepherd, Master, and so on. We must realise that while human analogies are helpful, they are also limited. We must be careful of pushing analogies (cf. analogia entis) too far and ending up tinkering with the doctrine of God.

An example will help explain this. Some people have difficulty relating to God because their earthly fathers were violently abusive and irresponsible. Consciously or unconsciously, they “do theology” by using an inductive method – constructing God from their own limited experience. Therapy and transformation for them would involve a “deductive method” of doing theology, starting from God, our perfectly loving Father, and then recognising that earthly fathers can be poor models of Him.

When we try to extrapolate onto God the circumstances of our own psychological and social existence, we may end up making God in our image, rather than discovering that we are made in His image – and are being remade into the image of His eternally begotten Son.



Bishop Emeritus Robert Solomon served as Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000-2012. He had served previously as a medical doctor, church pastor, principal of Trinity Theological College and president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore. He now has an active itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in Singapore and abroad.

Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God? Offering a Fresh Perspective by Questioning the Question

April 2017 Feature

The question whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God has been asked by many for a long time.

A recent article in Christianity Today notes that this question is ‘a perennial one’, that it was one of the ‘top questions of 2014’, and that the evangelical community and the American population are split over it.[1]

It has received increased attention in recent months following the comments made by Wheaton professor Larycia Hawkins who stated on Facebook in December 2015, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

Since then, various church leaders and theologians have weighed in on both sides of the debate, adding further to the confusion.

On the one side are those who argue that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, even though Muslims do not acknowledge the Trinity as Christians do. The relationship between Christianity and Judaism is used as a parallel.

As Miroslav Volf argues,

‘For centuries, a great many Orthodox Jews have strenuously objected to those same Christian convictions: Christians are idolaters because they worship a human being, Jesus Christ, and Christians are polytheists because they worship “Father, Son and the Spirit” rather than the one true God of Israel. What was the Christian response?… Instead of rejecting the God of the Jews, Christians affirmed that they worship the same God as the Jews, but noted that the two religious groups understand God in partly different ways.’[2]

On the other side, Nabeel Qureshi has objected to Volf’s arguments by emphasizing the rejection of the Trinity in the Islamic Tawhid.

He writes, ‘The Trinity is an elaboration of Jewish theology, not a rejection’. By contrast, Tawhid is a categorical rejection of the Trinity, Jesus’ deity, and the Fatherhood of God, doctrines that are grounded in the pages of the New Testament and firmly established centuries before the advent of Islam. Most of the earliest Christians were Jews, incorporating their encounter with Jesus into their Jewish theology. Nothing of the sort is true of Muhammad, who was neither a Jew nor a Christian. Islam did not elaborate on the Trinity but rejected and replaced it. Additionally, Volf’s assumption that Jews did not worship something like the Trinity is unsubstantiated. Many Jews held their monotheism in tension with a belief in multiple divine persons. Though the term “Trinity” was coined in the second century, the underlying principles of this doctrine were hammered out on the anvil of pre-Christian Jewish belief. It was not until later, when Jews and Christians parted ways, that Jews insisted on a monadic God. The charge of Christian hypocrisy is anachronistic.’[3]

While Qureshi makes valid criticisms of Volf’s views, there are some problems with his own article. He admits there is a very general sense in which Muslims and Christians worship the same God (‘There is one Creator whom Muslims and Christians both attempt to worship’), yet he goes on to insist that ‘Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God.’

Qureshi also says that the question whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God is a good question (‘Like all good questions, the answer is more complex than most want’). However, it seems that the root of so much chaos and disunity within the body of Christ concerning this question is that it is a bad question.

Very often, the reason why a question is difficult to answer is because there is something wrong with the question. In this case, the problem is that it is ambiguous. It can have the following different meanings:

(1) ‘Do Christians and Muslims recognize that there is one Supreme Being who created the universe and who revealed to certain persons mentioned in the Old Testament such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses, and they intend to give glory to this Being’?

(2) ‘Do Christians and Muslims recognize that the one Supreme Being who created the universe is a Trinity (three divine persons within the one being of God), and they intend to give glory to this Being?’

If (1) is meant, then the answer is clearly ‘yes’. If (2) is meant, then the answer is clearly ‘no’ because Muslims deny the doctrine of the Trinity.

This denial does not negate the fact that they (like Christians) recognize that the universe has a Creator and they seek to worship this Creator, unlike those who ‘worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator’ mentioned in Romans 1:25.

To give an analogy: Peter and John are trying to contact the architect of a certain building, but Peter thinks that the architect of the building is James, while John denies that the architect is James but thinks that the architect is Andrew.

Are Peter and John trying to contact the same person? This question is similarly ambiguous, but once we disambiguate it, the answer is simple:

(1) Do Peter and John recognize that the building has an architect, and they intend to contact this architect?

(2) Do Peter and John recognize that the architect is James, and they intend to contact James?’

If (1) is meant, then the answer is clearly ‘yes’. If (2) is meant, then the answer is clearly ‘no’ ; John denies that the architect is James.

So the next time somebody asks you this question, the first thing to do is to ask what he/she means by ‘worship the same God’. Once the question is disambiguated the answer is simple and straightforward. Christians need not be confused or disunited over it.


Notes

[1] http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/february/wheaton-college-larycia-hawkins-same-god-reinstatedochawk.html 

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/12/17/wheaton-professors-suspension-is-about-anti-muslim-bigotry-not-theology/ 

[3] http://rzim.org/global-blog/do-muslims-and-christians-worship-the-same-god 



Dr. Andrew Loke
 (PhD, Kings College) is Research Assistant Professor at The University of Hong Kong. A former medical doctor, he is the author of ‘A Kryptic Model of the Incarnation’ (Ashgate, 2014) and ‘Debating the Christian Faith’ (Tien-Dao, 2014). He has published articles in leading academic journals such as Religious Studies. He is also the author of the ETHOS Institute Engagement Series booklet, ‘Science and the Christian Faith‘.

 


 

The Forgotten Trinity

January 2017 Credo

In 1989, the British Council of Churches published a collection of essays with an interesting and arresting title: The Forgotten Trinity. The authors of these essays – prominent theologians in the UK – lament the neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity by the modern Church.

To be sure, the Trinity is given special mention at strategic points in Christian worship. The Church baptises her new members in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit in obedience to the Great Commission set out in the Gospels (e.g., Matthew 28:19). And at the end of the service, the minister often blesses the congregation by using the Pauline benediction (2 Corinthians 13:14) with its trinitarian formula.

But beyond these specific rituals and allusions, very little attention is given to the doctrine. By treating the doctrine of the Trinity as little more than a theological appendage, evangelical churches appear to be following in the footsteps of their liberal counterparts.

The doctrine of the Trinity must never be seen as an optional extra.

In his book entitled Wrestling With Angels Rowan Williams writes perceptively that ‘Trinitarian theology, in so far as it is concerned with what “kind” of God Christians worship, is far from being a luxury indulged in solely by remote and ineffectual dons; it is of cardinal importance for spirituality and liturgy, for ethics, for the whole of Christian self-understanding’.

Thus, far from being a doctrine that should be relegated to the far margins of orthodoxy Christianity, the Trinity must be placed at the very centre. In fact, we may say that it is the article upon which the Church stands or falls in the sense that without it there can be no Christianity.

The doctrine of the Trinity is based on God’s revelation, the divine self-disclosure, and not on the Church’s metaphysical speculations or imaginings.

Together with Israel, the Church professes that there is only one God. The formal form of this profession can be traced to the famous Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 which declares: ‘Hear, O Israel, our God, the Lord is one’.

The monotheism of Israel is further underscored in the Decalogue, especially in the first commandments which says: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me’ (Exodus 20:1). This commandment is reinforced by the categorical prohibition and condemnation of idolatry that immediately follows it (Exodus 20:4-6).

The Church has always embraced and defended the monotheistic faith of Israel that is rooted in and shaped by the revelation of God in the Old Testament.

But as the Church reflects on the significance of Christmas and Pentecost, she begins to see that the one God she professes and worships is triune. For at the first Christmas, the eternal Son of the eternal Father (John 1:1-2) ‘became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14). And at Pentecost, the third person of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit was poured out to empower the Church to be Christ’s witness in the world (Acts 2).

Thus, through the revelation of God in salvation history, the Church realises that there is no plurality of gods – there is only one God, and all other claimants to deity are imposters and fakes – in a word, idols.

But on the basis of the same revelation, the Church also realises that the one true God is plural, or more precisely, triune.

In the one God, there are three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – who are co-equal and co-eternal. Each person is the whole of the divine essence and is therefore fully God. Thus, the Father is fully God, the Son is fully God and the Spirit is fully God.

Yet each person is distinct from the other in the sense that the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Spirit. But because each person is fully God, each person possesses all the divine attributes. As the great fourth century theologian Athanasius has so insightfully put it, everything we say about the Father (that he is omnipotent, omniscient, sovereign, etc) can be said about the Son, except that the Son is Father.

The concept of God as triune – as Being-in-Communion – is unique to Christianity. And this has led some of the most eminent theologians of the Church like Thomas Aquinas to conclude that knowledge of the triune God is possible only by divine revelation.

The doctrine of the Trinity therefore distinguishes the Christian concept of God from all human conceptions of deity. It rejects polytheism, so rife in the Greco-Roman world, and insists that there is only one God, not many.

But the doctrine also insists that Christian monotheism must be distinguished from the ‘bare’ or ‘generic’ monotheisms that we find in Islam and some versions of philosophical theism. God cannot be reduced to a simple monad, either of the Platonic or Islamic variety.

Yet, the Christian concept of God brings together the one and the many. The one true God is a relationship of three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who are of the same essence (Greek: homoousious).

In guarding this precious truth concerning the being of God, the Church has resisted all easy solutions and opposed all metaphysical and philosophical compromises. In the process, she has also exposed and rejected numerous erroneous conceptions of God.

These battles were fought because the Church believes that the doctrine of the Trinity is of primary importance. It is not an optional extra.

The doctrine of the Trinity tells us something true about God, based on the divine revelation. The doctrine can thus be described as an exact tracing of the being of God.


Roland Chia (suit)_Large


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.