Monday, March 17, 2008

Who is God?

Back in the 1980’s, while I was working on my doctoral dissertation on T. F. Torrance, I came across a statement by Karl Rahner, the Roman Catholic theologian, which rocked my world. He voiced what must be the most devastating criticism ever leveled at Western Christianity. “We must be willing to admit that, should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain virtually unchanged.”1 Of course, Rahner is not alone in his criticism, as the last three decades or so of Trinitarian literature has shown, but his point still stings. Every Christian believes in the Trinity, as a matter or orthodox faith, but what difference does it make in our thinking or living? Rahner’s question stares us in the face: Of course, you are Trinitarian in your confession, but in practice are you not monotheists?

If Rahner, and others, are correct, and I believe they are, then the reality of God’s being as Father, Son and Spirit in shared Trinitarian life has had no significant influence upon our understanding of the whys and wherefores of creation, or of Israel’s calling, or of Jesus’ incarnation and work, or of the nature of salvation and the coming of the Holy Spirit. So where does that leave us? If our theology, if our understanding of creation and of Israel’s very existence, and of the coming and work of Christ has not been shaped by the apostolic vision of God as Triune, then what vision of God has shaped our theology and of these parts of our theology? It is a simple, but utterly devastating question. How ‘orthodox’ are we? If the doctrine of the Trinity should have to be dropped as false what would have to change? What part of our vision of creation or of Israel’s history; what part of our discussion of Jesus’ coming and his life and death on the cross; what part of understanding of the Holy Spirit’s coming and work would have to change? What would have to be rewritten?

Note carefully this classic Protestant definition of God taken from the revered Westminster Catechism.

Q. 7. What is God?

A. God is a Spirit, in and of himself infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection; all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, everywhere present, almighty; knowing all things, most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.2

Let me go on record as saying that this is the saddest definition of God that any Bible reader could ever state. Where is the Trinity? To be fair, the next question asks, “Are there more Gods than one” and goes on to mention the Father, Son and Spirit, but that begs the question as to why the Trinity—not to mention love—is entirely absent in the definition of God. No doubt there are Scripture verses that can be used to support every word of this definition, but how could anyone who reads the New Testament ever start with the question, “What is God?” Aristotle, not Jesus, would be proud. The question is not ‘what’ but ‘who,’ as my teacher, Professor James B. Torrance always insisted, and what reader of the New Testament, asking the question, “who is God?” would ever come up with any answer that does not begin with Jesus Christ? “He who has seen me, has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

Any truly Christian question about God begins with Jesus and with a worshipful allegiance to him of both mind and heart that is determined to allow him to inform us about God. In bowing our minds to Jesus as the true light, we, like the apostles and the early Church, come to his Father, and to his anointing in the Holy Spirit as the deepest truth about the being of God. In Jesus we see that God is fundamentally a relational being, and that there is nothing deeper about God than the stunning and beautiful fellowship of the Father, Son and Spirit. So to the question, “Who is God?” we answer, God is Father, Son and Spirit, three equal persons living in an other-centered love and fellowship that is so deep, so true, so beautiful that they share all things together in utter oneness.

In this light we can rethink everything we thought we knew about God, about creation, about the election of Israel, the coming and work of Christ, the mission of the Spirit, and calling of the Church, heaven and hell—and everything in between. The question is not, “What is God?” but “Who is God?” and “do you have the nerve to ask Jesus, and to let him tell you about his Father and why the Triune God made the world?”

1. Karl Rahner, The Trinity, p. 10. See also Bertrand de Margerie, The Christian Trinity in History, intro., p. xviii; Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God: The Doctrine of God, p. 1 and C. M. LaCugna, “Reconceiving the Trinity as the Mystery of Salvation,” p. 1.

2. “The Larger Catechism” in The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): Part 1: The Book of Confessions (Louisville: The Office of the General Assembly, 1991), 7.117.


Anonymous said...

Hi there!

Your remarks are truly telling as to what has happened to the faith. You see, legalism, dualism, godism, templism, and all sorts of "do this" isms have caused us (Christians in general) to view God in terms of a "what" (And a rather small one at that!) rather than in terms of the "Great Who." Therefore, we miss seeing Jesus as the Father's beloved Son and thus miss experiencing, as opened to us by the Holy Spirit, the Divine fellowship. As John says about this fellowship:

I Jn 1:1-3--That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched-- this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. (NIV)

The best to you!

J. Richard Parker

C. Baxter Kruger, Ph.D. said...

Thanks Richard. More light Jesus, more light.

Pastor Jonathan said...

Thanks for this fantastic post. I will be using the quote from Rahner extensively!

Reading the Westminster definition of God (Q.7) I realized that it is very similar to the Muslim description of God. Like the authors of the Westminster Confession the Muslims are also drawing heavily on Aristotle.

As I'm sure you know (but some of your readers may not)Islam preserved Aristotle's writings during the early medieval period and the Church of the high and late middle ages adopted his philosophy when they obtained it from the Muslims. Then the Reformed tradition inherited it from the medieval Scholastics.

No wonder our modern society blithely says "oh, Christian, Muslim, what's the difference, they're both talking about the same God." As long as our theology remains so un-biblical and un-trinitarian our society is right about us!

C. Baxter Kruger, Ph.D. said...

Jo-Nathan, You got it. How Aristotle, on the heels of Plato got to be so 'orthodox' is one of the great mysteries of the Western tradition (thank you Auggie). But so it is. The saddest part is that many evangelicals don't even see anything wrong with the influence of Greek philosophy upon our fundamental theologyy.

Happy Eater. Your communion service was the best I have ever experienced, period. Give John my best. Tell him to play like Jesus is real, cause he is.

Anonymous said...

Check this out from Kim Fabricius over at:

"Ten propositions on the Trinity

1. The Trinity is not an optional doctrine, it is essential. God’s unity is not behind God’s threeness, God’s unity is in God’s threeness. This is not speculative mathematics, it is a descriptive theology of revelation.

2. The Trinity is not an academic doctrine thought up by clever scholars, rather it grew out of the Christian experience of worship, i.e. it expressed the early church’s pattern of prayer to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit.

3. The driving force of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity was Christological and soteriological, i.e. it served to articulate the Christian experience of salvation in Christ. The first Christians already knew God; through Jesus they came to know God as Jesus’ Father and Jesus as God’s Son; while in the Spirit Jesus continued to be present to them, forming a family of prayer to the Father and building a community of witness to Christ.

4. The church’s thinking was this: As God discloses himself in worship and salvation, so God must be in Godself. In the technical language of (Karl) Rahner’s Rule: the “economic” Trinity is the “immanent” Trinity, and the “immanent” Trinity is the “economic” Trinity. What you see is what you get, and what you get is what there is.

5. At the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity is God’s being-as-communion. God’s unity is not monadic, it is relational. The doctrine of the Trinity is the church’s exegesis of I John 4:8b: “God is love.” Father, Son and Spirit indwell each other in love, giving, receiving and returning love in an eternal dynamic of gift-exchange.

6. If God is Trinity, do Jews—and Muslims—know nothing of God? Not at all. God can be known without being fully identified. In fact, “the church’s identification of the one true God as the Trinity does not preclude, but rather requires, that Abraham and his children know how to refer to this God, and so are able to worship him” (Bruce Marshall). Indeed the activity of the Spirit in the world encourages the church to be open and attentive to the presence of God in all the major religions.

7. Is the language of the Trinity sexist? Not at all. No responsible theologian has ever thought of the Father and the Son as male, nor of the Spirit (as is currently fashionable) as female. The issue is not gender but personhood. In fact, it is a strictly monotheistic God, not the Trinity, that is patriarchal—and oppressive.

8. Father, Son and Spirit are constituted by their mutuality, i.e. they are who they are only in their inter-relationships. So too human beings, made in the image of God: we are who we are only in relationship with others. Margaret Thatcher said that there is no such thing as society; on the contrary, there is no such thing as an individual: there are only persons-in-relationship.

9. Clearly the Trinity is not an irrelevant doctrine, it has very practical—indeed political—implications. That God is essentially and eternally God-in-relationship of equality and mutual fellowship—could there be a more cogent critique of hierarchies of domination and exclusion, or of an economics of greed and exploitation?

10. Finally, that God is Trinity means that God is mystery—but a mystery not to be explained but entered. God calls us to participate in his very being, joining in the divine dance that issues in creation and concludes in redemption. In Rublev’s great icon of the Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit are seated around three sides of a (eucharistic) table. The fourth side awaits a guest."

By Kim Fabricius