Thursday, October 27, 2011

One God, three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit

I originally wrote this in September 2007 and I am re-posting it slightly edited.

Tonight I will be discussing God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with the adults in our parish who are preparing for baptism. confirmation, and Eucharist. It is always important to keep in mind that using human language to discuss or describe God is perilous to some degree. Nonetheless, we are confident that we can really say some things about God that are true, that are reasonable. This is made possible by two things: we are created as beings capable of reasoning; God has deigned to reveal Himself to us (i.e., God wants to know us and be known by us). In other words, by relying on faith and reason. So, getting to the heart of language in speaking of or writing about God as a communion of persons, in the Greek hypostases, the origin for which we must go back to the Arian controversy of the third and fourth centuries, which culminated in the Council of Nicea in AD 325.

But let's jump ahead several centuries to St. Thomas Aquinas, the great Dominican synthesizer and systematizer. Though it does not originate with Aquinas, in his writings we uncover two distinct modes of discussing God: God qua God, perhaps best summed up by St. Anselm's deceptively complex so-called ontological proof of God's existence; God as Trinity, as a community of persons revealed in Jesus Christ. These two together represent the old way of discussing God immanently and economically.

It is also important to keep in mind the analogia entis (i.e., the analogy of being) when reading Aquinas. In fact, Aquinas believed that we can only understand God qua God by way of analogy. The Catechism of the Catholic Church deals with this quite well:

40 "Since our knowledge of God is limited, our language about him is equally so. We can name God only by taking creatures as our starting point, and in accordance with our limited human ways of knowing and thinking.

41 "All creatures bear a certain resemblance to God, most especially man, created in the image and likeness of God. the manifold perfections of creatures - their truth, their goodness, their beauty all reflect the infinite perfection of God. Consequently we can name God by taking his creatures" perfections as our starting point, 'for from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator'.

42 God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, imagebound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God --'the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable'-- with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God.

43 "Admittedly, in speaking about God like this, our language is using human modes of expression; nevertheless it really does attain to God himself, though unable to express him in his infinite simplicity. Likewise, we must recall that 'between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude'; and that 'concerning God, we cannot grasp what he is, but only what he is not, and how other beings stand in relation to him.'"

In other words, when seeking to know about God and use language to discuss God, we start with what we know/experience. I believe it was Nicholas Lash (if not him, then it was John Macquarrie) who once said, "A theologian is one who watches her/his language in the presence of God". In stating this Lash is not referring to swearing, but taking care and recognizing the limits of our language, which means accepting our finite nature and ontological limitations of our understanding and, hence, of our language.

The big breakthrough on Christian terms in knowing God and knowing about God is, of course, the Incarnation of the Son of God, which makes it possible for us to move beyond "the God of the philosophers" to the "God of Jesus Christ". Hence, as Christians we do not hesitate to state, based on both faith and, to a lesser extent, reason, that God is not just a person, but a community of persons, a trinity. Hence, the personalization of God. Speaking of God as a community of persons is a distinctly Christian way of talking about God, a very scriptural way of talking about God, which means that such Godtalk stems from God's self revelation in the (very human) person of Jesus Christ, who personalizes God by calling God "Abba"- Father.

Stepping back in this theological two step of faith and reason, Scripture and tradition, we can note that our Trinitarian understanding of God is rooted deeply in Greek philosophy, but it takes as its starting point the paradoxical datum of scripture (i.e., Jewish Scriptures and the NT), from which we learn that there is One God ("Hear, O Israel! . . . Deut 6:4) and (yet) three divine persons (i.e., Father, Son, and Spirit- Jn 17:22; Jn 14:26). So, understanding God as a community of persons flows directly from this paradoxical datum, which is part and parcel of God's self-disclosure. Hence, we would not know that God is Father, Son, and Spirit had God not revealed this to us. So, this belief in God as a community of persons is, properly speaking, a belief of faith, not of reason. However, even what we hold on faith is reasonable (i.e., it is not illogical or contrary to reason). Faith and reason working together, even in the interpretation of Scripture (nothing can be said to have been read and not interpreted) is how we arrive at our understanding of God. Whether Greek philosophy is the only way of making sense of this fundamental datum of God's self-disclosure is a discussion for another day, however.

It seems to me that fundamental error of many Christian theologies is the divorce of faith from reason. This error was exacerbated by Kierkegaard in the nineteenth century and, to a lesser extent, by Barth in the twentieth. Besides, as Balthasar showed in his The Theology of Karl Barth, Barth's substitute for the analogia entis, his analogia fidei, in the end becomes the analogia entis because we cannot escape our humanity. We cannot escape our contingency or our reasonable nature, our in-built need and desire to make sense of things, of finding out about ultimate reality. This divorce is highly destructive. The danger of this divorce is the main point of Pope Benedict XVI's controversial Regensburg lecture of sveral years ago.

I have read recently where somebody set forth the notion that God, according Scripture, is not a person. At least in light of the books we know as The Bible, this bold assertion cannot be sustained. After all, as previously noted, did Jesus not call God Father and invite us to collectively do the same? So, from a Christian perspective this thesis is not only problematic, but erroneous. Being a bit less obtuse, I admit that there is a sense in which (the sense of talking about what I termed God qua God at the beginning of this post) a case can be made for this assertion from the Jewish Scriptures. On closer examination, taking our cue (sticking with popularly accessible authors) from Jack Miles' God: A Biography and Robert Alter's The Art of Biblical Narrative, along with his The Five Books of Moses , and the writings of Jacob Neusner, with whom Pope Benedict has carried on a years long dialogue, at the end-of-the-day I cannot even accept the proposition "God is not revealed as a person in the Jewish Scriptures". However, being careful about our Godtalk, we must not conflate person (i.e., hypostasis) and human person. Theologically, Jesus Christ is but one person, the second person of the Trinity, in whom two natures (two physis-one human/one divine) are united. The adjective human makes a universe of difference and is what I think is at the root of the statement "God is not a person", even according to Scripture. I can therefore accept the proposition "God [qua God] is not a human person".

For my money, apart from John 17:20-26, the most profound statement of God's personhood in all of sacred scripture, which our Holy Father took as the starting point for his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, is 1 John 4:8-16. Because "God is love" and because love is other-centered, God cannot be a lone monad existing somewhere on the fringes of the physical universe, a non-relational non-person.

As already stated, rejection of understanding God via the analogy of being, or any other human mode, is to rest content in a weird form of agnosticism that is untrue to human desire. As with all Godtalk, so much more can/should be written (a literally infinite amount), but this will have to suffice for now from me.

1 comment:

  1. Greetings Scott Dodge

    On the subject of the Trinity,
    I recommend this video:
    The Human Jesus

    Take a couple of hours to watch it; and prayerfully it will aid you to reconsider "The Trinity"

    Yours In Messiah
    Adam Pastor


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