Friday, September 12, 2008

Reimagining the Trinity

In my last blog I commented, "Sadly, my experience tells me that intellect and education often displace that simplicity in Christ which characterized His [Jesus'] earliest followers." I must second that emotion one more time here, because so many of the disagreements I'm reading between Ben Witherington and Frank Viola remind me of old battles I fought in seminary. No one ever won those battles, and each party always went away convinced that its own view was the correct one at every turn.
One caveat for this current online conversation: I have to agree with Frank that Ben waaaay too often "uses the rhetoric of absolute certainty" when he offers his views on even the most non-settled interpretational issue. A scholar of his caliber should know better.
IMHO, I think Frank did a good job of responding to most of the key sticking points in Witherington's review of Reimagining Church. I saw one or two smaller points where Frank and Ben were speaking such different languages, and using such different sources, that I don't think the dialogue really moved one direction or the other. I'll name them later. But first, I gotta agree with Frank on some things.

Hierarchy and the Trinity. I distinctly remember completing an assignment about this while I was at Reformed Theological Seminary. I was to read and critique an article by a Greek Orthodox theologian, demonstrating how the traditional Protestant and Reformed concept of God is the right one. But a funny thing happened on the way to the word processor--I decided that the Greek guy's view made more sense. I don't think my professor liked my conclusion.
His basic premise was that personhood is best defined by communion--being with another. It initially sounded to me like modern existentialism, but he demonstrated how Eastern theologians thought that way a very long time ago. Interacting with someone outside of my own theological world made me realize just how much my "Western" categories of thought are just that--Western. We think about everything--our selves, even God-- ultimately in terms of substances. But even a brief glance into the relationship of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit will make us realize that our categories have their limitations.
Witherington has been teaching Methodists for the past 13 years, and has been an ordained minister for much longer than that. Frank is right in observing that Witherington peers into the New Testament through "clerical glasses" which cause him to see hierarchy everywhere. He sees it in every facet of the early Church's story. He even sees hierarchy in the Trinity. But there's another way of looking at the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. The Greeks called it perichoresis, or mutual enfolding. They spoke about it as a dance. I've written on that before, and I think it's beautiful. Not only beautiful, but true to the tenor of Jesus' words in the gospels.
I didn't really mean to get off on this for very long... so I'll move on to one other related thing, then close for today.

Union with Christ. Witherington's comments about our union with Christ sound like echoes of what one of my professors at Reformed always said. My professor explained that our union with Christ is a spiritual union, and not a real union.
I thought he was smoking something. A couple of us raised our hands and asked him to explain what he meant by that. How could spiritual and real mean different things? He used a pretty lame river illustration, and then an even lamer Batman's-grappling-hook simile to illustrate how we don't really become one with Christ, we just become connected to Him in some vague way. Somehow all those arresting statements in the NT are meant to be read, he said, in a "sermonic genre." We wondered if he made that phrase up on the spot. Frankly, it sounded like baloney. Still does.
Witherington actually says, "The body of Christ is not Christ." He says that twice. Then again he says, "The body belongs to the Lord, but it is not the Lord." If you'll go ready 1 Corinthinans 12:12 you'll see that Witherington has just dismissed one of the most important, fundamental truths of the New Testament: The church's oneness with Christ.
If you punched me on the shoulder, would you think me strange for saying "Why did you punch me?" Would you reply that my body is not the same thing as me? Talk about being soaked in Western philosophy! This kind of dualism fits well within Platonism. But it's pretty foreign to the Christian faith. This goes to show you how hard it is for "the wise and prudent" to grasp things that God seems to enjoy showing to "babes."
Being truly ONE with Christ, so that He is both IN you and you are IN Him, certainly doesn't make any rational sense. Heck, claiming that God is three and yet one doesn't make sense either! But we believe it just the same. We can't always explain it to everyone's satisfaction. But that's why they're called mysteries. We won't get very far trying to hammer out an intellectually satisfying vocabulary around these matters. We confess them along with the same Spirit who inspired their declaration in the first place. But no number of graduate degrees will make this stuff any easier to comprehend.
Brother Ben, it's time to become like a little child again. It's a freeing place to be :-)


Blogger Home Is Where The Heart Is! said...


I love the fact that you are an intelligent, well-educated individual who is spiritually filled with Jesus Christ, His Father and all around The All in All (including the Church). I have not and will not write so eloquently as you, however we are definitely One. My education and intellect are well beneath you, but here I am anyway.

Thanks for sharing Truth (real or not),

9:28 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

I have one more reason now to wish I was still in Lithia Springs - so I could punch you in the arm and say, "Wow. Well said, Bro!" :)

5:42 PM  
Blogger gmarie said...

In regard to hierarchy and what the Greeks called perichoresis, or mutual enfolding- well at first I was going to ask you to elaborate but then I went and read your other blog...and I'll quote-
"If you think about it, this explains a lot. I have always gotten confused about whether I am separate from God or one with Him. Sometimes I pray to Him. Other times I feel like He is praying through me. But which is right? Which is better?" "Watch two people dancing. They are two, then they are one. Then they are two again...When two are joined in a dance, something arises between them that is more than simply the sum of two parts."And that is what's happening with us and God. Christ is in us, then He is above us. He is our every breath and heartbeat"-But always He brings us back into who He is, so that folks looking on will hardly be able to tell where He ends and we begin..It's a Dance."
Ok, this was so captivating! Great blog..lovely family-

3:54 PM  
Blogger A. S. Tatum said...

Were you reading Zizioulas? It sure sounds like it! And, if so, I'm glad you enjoyed it!

3:43 PM  

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