This continues a dialog with statements 4-6 of Ben Myer’s blog post on how to avoid heresy with the Trinity:
#4. Have you come up with a really helpful analogy of the trinity? Well done! Now please don’t tell anyone about it, ever
This is a really interesting statement. The second sentence is an invitation to silence. It also hopes we maintain a level of contentment with the mystery of the Trinity. It suggests that analogies are not to be explored or shared. All language is a sort of analogy, with words representing an actuality, so we are now invited to live without language or symbols to represent the Trinity. Is this really the goal of the Jesus of the Bible or the Spirit who moves us to cry out, “Abba, Father”?
What is an analogy? Ana-logia, meaning another word, best refers to our understanding of Jesus as the Analogia of God. He makes the Otherness of God a Word in Himself that opens our understanding. “If you have seen me you have seen the Father.” He, in Himself as the Visible Image of the invisible God, opens the way to the Father and Spirit. In His language and stories He maintains a priority on God as the reality, and things of this earth as a corresponding shadow. That is the appropriate ordering in our thinking.
Trinity is a word analogy. Using the word Trinity is using language to depict the threeness of God who exist in unity. It is an analogia in a simple sense. There is a Personal God who is the Reality. “Triunity” uses numbers and concepts of unity to convey the presence of a God who is actually made known in Jesus. He is an actuality as God who can reveal God and who can identify completely with humanity.
Jesus also uses metaphors and analogies in parables. Stories like the Prodigal Son and images like being the Good Shepherd are echoes in the mouth of the One who knows the reality He is representing. Thus, He is the Image of God that becomes the Grand Analogy and uses analogies. And He is the One who is both human as reflection and God in the same being—reconciling God and humanity in Himself. He makes the analogy complete by representing both God and human. Consequently, we can enter into an experience and understanding of His Father and the Spirit who is sent.
Jesus’ use of analogy opens relations. His use is helpful in providing images that reveal relationships and the activity of God. These are invitations to those relationships where we are branches and He is the Vine. Yes the Father is there taking care as well as the Vine-dresser. This is not revealing the “nature” or “character” of God in ways that capture or reduce God to our experience of a vineyard. The analogies are helpful in revealing the kind of relation we might have as we enter the field of the Personal Other who is Father, Son, and Spirit in a common life of love that transcends ours. But through the analogy, we are fully expected to enter and engage.
Jesus’ use of analogy opens our ears. The analogies are helpful in hearing the Father meet us as ones who were lost, but now know that we have been found. We discover that the Son is not just the Son of God, but is our Brother and calls us friends. Only seeing Jesus in action can fill out what it means to be invited to indwell and abide in His life as our new home. The analogy of the wind that is uncontrollable and invisible, yet moves around us, opens our awareness that this Personal Presence is active and changes our game as we are guided in new directions.
What are we trying to avoid? We want to avoid taking life as our text and then using our experience as a lens to see God—projecting our experience as an analogy onto God. This act is simple mythology and idolatry. This projection creates God in our image. But is this the only option? No, we can affirm the priority of God as the reality of which we experience a shadow. God the Father is the source of all families, the actuality of lived family life. We experience a shadow, an echo of what God has made. But we must never confuse the source with the shadow.
All of our language can be revitalized. With God, we must ask how its meaning is fulfilled in Jesus as the Analogy of God. He gives meaning to love, peace, holiness, compassion, death, and life that provide the content of the meaning as an expression of God’s life. We then can live our life participating in His kind of love without forcing our kind of self-serving love on Him. Hence, we are being renewed according to the Image of the One who created us. These are images and analogies that are helpful because we let the persons of the Trinity address us, change us, and invite us through the analogies to go where we are intended—back into the embrace of God as it has been extended by God.
We need to become wise with analogy. We need to move from analogies of the nature of God—water, eggs, light—and learn analogies of relation to the Trinity—voice, image, music—so that we are not putting God in a category box, but are attuning to God’s address to us for relationship.
Thus, please do not use analogies that take things that you like and projecting them onto God. But please come to know the Father, Son, and Spirit to such a depth that they can daily show you analogies of relations that originate in God’s Triune life of love. May the Spirit open your ears to hear the Trinity at work with you. We are invited to join in and invite others to analogously live the life of love made real by the telling of analogies that transform our relationships. Let’s use analogies—skillfully and invitationally.
#5. The doctrine is not a mystery. It is simple & precise. The reality it points to is the mystery
Again, this is a helpful distinction. A doctrine is a simple statement that gives us language to depict that which is part of reality. If I say “Universe,” we know that it is a vast, unbounded mystery, but the word is simple and inclusive of the unbounded in space and time.
To say that the doctrine is simple is to affirm that there is one God and no others. This one God exists as three persons. One God in three persons is a simple and precise statement. But then it gets complicated. Jesus said that the Father and He were one. Thus, oneness must not be quite as simple as one sun in our solar system. The oneness of God is a simple, unchanging unity of life that must always be held without separation or division—not able to be divided. If we see Jesus we see the Father. By the Spirit we are brought to share the love of the Father and Son. We enter the unity of God.
Three is always complicated because it does not pair well with one. When we do find analogies, they sometimes break the unity apart, like three separate individuals—or a shamrock. Often the analogies keep the unity but lose the relations of the three and turn into a sequence of morphing forms of the one—like water. Sometimes the three are such a unity that one cannot discern the particularity of the three that occupy the focus of the biblical drama—God as an infinite, distant being. So it is simple and precise to say three, but to say three “whats” is where it gets complicated. When we say persons, we are inclined to think human individuals, which is a tragic step! That is a grand mistake because Person as a term used of God is not the same as a human or individual.
Therefore, before we can use the simple and precise, we have to be modest and concise. We have to clarify what we are not saying (God is three humans or three Gods) and what we are saying (person is a term of existing in relation and God is the unity of the one life of three inseparable persons who we see because Jesus opened the window to know God as this being in relation).
Analogy requires humility. We cannot overstate and claim certainty regarding God’s nature, but we can be confident that God wants to be known and has provided the adequacy for that outcome. Jesus shows us the Father as He shows us Himself, and the Spirit is still showing us the Father and the Son. The Father has been making His heart available by the acts and revelation of the Son and Spirit who came because of the love of the Father.
Human love is not simple. It is complicated by all the forces of self-service and neediness that motivate us (along with the joy of loving those who love you back). But God’s love is simple in that it is expressed in manifold ways from this one shared life of love that is made visible and human in Jesus. It is simple in its unity and complex in its outworking. The Father’s love is complex in its outworking through the Son and Spirit. The same love that speaks the world into existence also sends Jesus to the cross as an act of reconciliation. Love is firstly God’s to express, not for us to compartmentalize into our thinking. The One Love takes on endless forms of expression.
The simple and precise words point to the mystery of God. But mystery is not the same as not knowable. Mystery is not being unavailable. Nor is mystery being incomprehensible. The depths of the sea are a mystery, but they are available to enter with great caution and appropriate training; they can be comprehended as wet and wild and not controllable. We can learn to sail on top, or sit on its edges and have its effects change us as we encounter its mystery and reflected glory. It is still mystery, but it invites humility and care, as well as enjoyment and wonder. But God made and holds the Universe together—the seas of the earth are less than a bead of sweat on the brow of God. That metaphor is a simple analogy of the incomprehensibility of God and the ocean. God is not the ocean, but we have a relation to both that leaves us both knowing and unknowing at the same time. That is mystery.
However, Jesus promised to be with us until the end of time. Thus, we must never conceive of mystery as abandonment. Mystery with the Trinity is presence that is always filled with promise and wonder. We take Jesus at His word and walk each day as a fresh expression of His personal presence, including knowing His Father and being about what He is doing. Also, we yield to the mystery of the Spirit who attunes us to the Voice of the Shepherd so we may follow and know the One God who loves us—mysteriously and marvelously. This is the life of worship, to have doctrine that opens our spirit to know the mystery in whom we move and breathe and have our very existence. Consequently, we live as children of God, innocent and expressive without the fear of getting our words right, but opening to the relation that is fragrant with mysterious joy.
#6. Don’t try to get rid of the biblical words. Don’t try to stick to them exclusively either
We need to be grounded and flexible learners. The concern here is that our vision of God is shaped by the Bible as the primary pointer to what is true of God as provided by this God-breathed book. Let us affirm that always. We need to acknowledge the problem that most people do not know Greek or Hebrew—we are dependent on others to translate the original words of the Bible.
Then, there are many translations, from the King James to The Message. Who has the exclusive right to decide which words to give the original meaning? Words change their meanings, so that we need to use other words to explain them. Even a word like love has more than one word in the original languages. The Triune God is love, but what does that mean when we look for an English translation that engages the unique love of God? We need the words of the Bible and other words to keep learning. So we must keep words and keep clarifying and updating to learn to hear what is being said.
Then there are the words that came into being over the centuries, like the term Trinity itself. It is not in the Bible as a biblical word, but it reflects what is meant when we say that the One Jesus reveals the One God as Father, Son, and Spirit. All English words in the Bibles we read were not in the Bible originally. New words had to express the ancient ideas and events. Plus, we came to see that there are images that clarify what could not be seen earlier. When you see a movie a second time you see more.
Church history is a study of changing words and clarifying meaning. As the church kept reading the Bible it had to come up with terms for God’s nature and the implications for the Christian life. To say the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father is using biblical words. But perichoresis is a term that expresses this relational mutuality of indwelling. It images all kinds of ways that the relationships are mutual—including loving and knowing—that draw our understanding into one embracing term that identifies the richness of the relation. So we cannot exclude enriching terms not present in the Bible, but we need to show how they reflect the biblical concepts.
Learning comes with new words. Every discipline that studies the world and reflects on it needs to find new language for what was undiscovered before. If we did not give a name to atoms, we would merely be ignorant of their existence; they would not cease to exist. Once we understand atoms, genes, DNA, germs, viruses, and all the other unseen things of the world, we are able to act in a way that is appropriate to the knowledge and its possibilities and problems. New words give new awareness and faithful ways to live in the light of that knowledge.
We need the Bible and a lot more. We need to be attuned to the God whose book this Word is as the expression of the Living Word. Does He only speak Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek or some ancient language? No, we believe He speaks so we can understand in our language. If we pray about cancer, but that word is missing from the Bible, we can be assured He hears us and intercedes as our High Priest with the Father.
Words attach us together. We need the words we have as a point of reference and connection. We need new words as a point of discovery. Together they allow us to grow into the complexity of the world and God’s own life towards us.
Therefore, let’s keep coming back to the Bible. Also, let’s try to grasp the meaning of the words without needing the exact words. Let’s keep reflecting on the meaning and create new words that keep us attuning to the Voice and Revealed Life of God. He and the Spirit invite us to come and drink water and to eat the words that proceed from the mouth of God. He is not short on creativity in speaking words that change everything.
We need language to share in the real world. If we cannot speak words about the Trinity that are grounded in the meaning of the Bible, we are adrift. If we cannot speak words that are beyond the Bible, we are captive to our own fences and protective bars. These merely keep us from knowing God as our love of the assurance of being right shuts out all other voices—including the Voice of God. To avoid heresy we must have the innocent heart of a child learning words for the first time, and confidence that God wants to be known and will guide us—like on the day of Pentecost. He is the Master of words and meeting people where they are with ancient words made afresh. We need words that are a prism to take in light and bring color that reveals God’s presence as living and active.