Trinitarian Theology and the Emperor’s New Skin Dr Marty Folsom

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The famous boy who cried out that the emperor had no clothes stood against those who proposed that the very finest clothes were worn by the greatest person in the land, the King. But there were minimalists at work who profited by their claims of offering the best in the land, but they could not deliver the reality, beauty, or truth of what they offered.

A similar situation occurs in the study of theology. Rather than being a new problem, it is just in a new phase. However, it is an extremely important battle and the future of the church will rise or decline based on what I see is the need to admit when the Emperor in this case has no skin.

Theology is called to be a science, to know the living God and to make visible, actual, and accessible the revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. At the same time, it must maintain an appropriate mystery that does not reduce God-talk to human experience silhouetted on the wall. Theology is not anthropology in a loud voice. Theology must begin with God and only then speak about who God is and what God is up to. But we must beware imposters.

In finishing The Doctrine of the Trinity: Two Views this evening, it suddenly struck me where we have been fooled. In researching the simplicity of God discussion (that God is not composed of parts) I saw clearly saw that this argument finds its roots in the philosophical discussion on the perfections of God—logical conclusions to protect God’s greatness.

This use of terms is employed in philosophical argument to try to describe God. The list of perfections also includes God’s omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, apathy, immortality, and all those other terms that take human concepts of human experience and then abstract them to the absolute to fit the bigness of God. They are not terms found in the Bible, but are the ramifications of the logic of perfection: take something like knowledge and make God the absolute knower, which is called omniscience. It is thinking based on what is known then projected large. Some may argue that they are all there in the Bible, but if they are they are presented as part of personal relations with the world, not as abstract philosophical conclusions. To say that in Him we move and breathe and have our very existence is not the same as claiming God is omnipresent.

In the Classical View, God must be simple because that is what a complete perfect being would be, not needing component parts to add up to the whole. So the persons in the Trinity must not be allowed to appear to have separated identities, consciousness, or voices that could look like tritheism—three Gods. But in the end, one is left with an abstract, perfect, distant God who cannot be confused with humanity and the material world.

That’s when it hit me. This view, that is supposed to give glory to God’s greatness, is like the clothes given us by Plato. He believed in another world that held the perfect form of reality. This Classical God fits very well there. One can quickly see that God becomes abstract, losing contact with the physical world, which is deemed to be unstable and imprecise.

In Plato’s world there also is a built-in dualism, splitting the world of perfect ideas from the material world of messy relations. For the Simplicity proponents, God exists in a world of perfection for us to observe at a distance, with wonder at the unity and purity of God. But this God does not function in our space and time in person. That God is beyond space and time, with no skin in the game. The Emperors new skin is as deep as an abstraction and impossible to see.

As I surveyed the flow of books arguing for the simplicity of God, I found they all argue from the same sources. Augustine, readily accepted with commendations for his platonic wisdom, and Aquinas, with a whole further developed set of terminology to “attribute” to God’s divine perfections, borrowing from Aristotle. In reality they were not giving God new skin, they were simply giving us a reasonable, abstract God reasoned from ancient Greek philosophers. This philosophical grounding flows through the whole history of Christianity which has a proclivity to value the spiritual, rational, mental, and interior exploration. The church regularly neglects the physical, material, sexual, relational, and external engagement. It has an inherited dualism from these giants of philosophy and theology. Suddenly it hit me why the Simplicity proponents were so resistant to the personal God who may engage humanity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They cannot accept the actuality of engaging in personal knowing and being known. It violates their logical, perfect God.

Battles are raging in theology today. One is carried on in the church. There is a duel between whether we should try to be relevant and reasonable and go with the God of the Philosophers or follow a God who personally engages humanity and is willing to be abused and misunderstood. This is the Perfect God challenge to the dynamically Personal God.

Also, there are those who want to make God practical. They want to use the Triune God to establish principles for the individual, marriages, churches, society, and every other human organization that can use God’s power to be harnessed for success. This is the Practical God crowd confronting the Mysterious, Personal God.

Both the Perfect and Practical God theologians are trying to give God new skin, one beautifully abstract, the other amazingly practical.

I might add that Scientism’s battle has proposed another God, the God of Objectivity. They have rejected the clothes of the church and given us clothes without beauty, clothes to separate us, and thrown out the Emperor. No skin here either. We are alone in the world to find our way, maybe with the help of others, if it improves survivability.

Karl Barth resisted beginning theological thinking with philosophy, science, or psychology for all of the above reasons. With none of them do you get the God who comes to be known in the flesh. In none of them do you avoid taking human experience and attempt to put “skin” on God in the guise of relevance to meet the contemporary cultural inclinations.

Only by affirming the humanity of Jesus with skin on—the Incarnation—do we have a God who comes and reveals His Father for a relationship. Only in the Jesus of the Bible do we have a Spirit given who is not confused with our spirit, but daily facilitates a relationship with Jesus and His Father. Only with this Jesus who is fully God and human do we have the one who Atones in every sense of the word—restoring humanity back to God, facilitating the God-human relation that is the meaning of Reconciliation, and allowing us to live each day as those who actually know a God who wants to be known as friend.

The Jesus of the Bible is not afraid to be shamed and humiliated. He is willing to embrace the whole spectrum of humanity inviting us to come home without cleaning up our mind, practices, or self-fulfillment before we sit at the table. We simply come as humble children to the table to be fed and fostered by the Father, Son, and Spirit who have chosen to be a God with us and for us. That means not a God who is abstract and distant, merely the answer to our needs and questions, a theory, or a psychologist.

The amazing flip side of this situation is that, once we are aligned to God in this way, we have a meaningful context to pursue understanding the world and ourselves as those made by God. We have a proper basis for science as knowing the world created by God as caretakers. We have a proper basis for caring for persons, not separated individuals, participating in the healing of relations, the very task of the biblical God.

We can come to think about the world in meaningful ways that do not begin with human agendas of need and proofs. Those actually just elevate the human as judge. Rather, we need to pursue wisdom as applied knowledge for acting in life. In short, we do not need to reject science, psychology, or philosophy, but we must use them as proper materials to live out God’s purposes in the world. He indwells us and has skin in the Game.

Ray S. Anderson recounted in class once that a woman had come to him and said, “I believe that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent as we are taught, but does God know me? Does God have power to do anything in my life? Is God here for me?” This articulates what I would call the Great Theological Wrestling Match of the Ages. She had a theoretical God with no skin as is far too common.

The challenge for us is whether to allow God to show us Himself, or try to create a reasonable God. Jesus came and asked fishermen, zealots, and tax collectors to follow Him. These simple people had to learn from Him alone, and in the end they learned to love His Father and to be filled with His Spirit.

Should we try to make Jesus the best, the greatest, the most perfect, the most practical, the fulfillment of every human agenda? Should we let Jesus come with His skin on or must we try to put our skin on Him? If it is the latter, then we will resist a real relation with the actual persons of the Trinity.

Fortunately, all our constructs do not stop God from still being the One who is for us and with us as promised. They just really mess up our relating in a way that seems to miss the earthy, struggling, fellowshipping way of the Bible’s story, one splashed out as God’s messy revelation for alienated humans.

As I hope you can see, I am not only calling into question those who are part of the current Trinitarian debates, I am challenging parts of the whole history of theological thinking. If you have not read Colin Gunton’s The One, the Three and the Many, it is there that he gives a thorough unpacking of this problem far beyond what I have unpacked here. I also recognized last night why several of these contemporary theologians who stress the Simplicity of God attack him so. He is one of those who, along with the Torrances and Barth, cries out that the Gods of church, science, and psychology—when pursued without the God-Human Jesus as exclusive starting point—have no skin. There is a power struggle at work here. The way forward is one of humble service to the God-With-Skin, and getting our skin in the game of loving here on earth as it is in heaven.