Confusing?

Chuck Scriven is confused by Trinitarian theology and history. First, some details. The Athanasian Creed is much later than the Nicene Creed, not earlier. The Symbol of Chalcedon is not a creed.

He says, “No attempt, however valiant, will resolve the puzzle of how Jesus could have had, at the same time, all the traits of God and all the traits of humanity.” This is confusing, because he doesn’t define “traits.” Nor is this a term that is used in either Scripture nor in the early Christian creeds and confessions.

What follows is even more confused. He has no concept of the historical discussion of the Trinitarian relationships. The Son praying to the Father evokes in him an image of a “God above God.”

The bottom line is that his theology seems to be adoptionistic. He focuses on the humanity of Jesus to the extent that his divinity becomes mere metaphor. So the best he can say of the incarnation is this:

It means that God’s true colors shine through Jesus. Jesus is different from us. But he is different in degree, not in kind. He is different in that in his life the divine will and way became, by the Father’s grace, singularly visible on earth.

Christian teaching on the Trinity is not that difficult to understand. It has the following Biblical basis:

  1. The Biblical affirmation that “the Lord is one.”
  2. The command to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
  3. The Biblical narrative in which the Son prays to the Father, the Father creates through the Word (who is the Son), the Father sends and the Son breathes the Spirit, the Spirit witnesses to the Father and the Son. These narrative passages establish the relations between the three persons of the Trinity.

The rest of Trinitarian theology, as developed up to and at Nicea, is just an attempt to preserve this Biblical content. The use of Greek terms does not change this fundamental fact; the word ousia (or, in Latin, substancia) is used to speak of what Father, Son, and Spirit share as one God, while the word hypostasis (or, in Latin, persona) is used to speak of what is unique. Over the centuries some tried to imagine that the Son had a beginning in time (Arius, thus denying the full divinity of Jesus) or that the three persons are just three masks (Sabellius, thus denying the relations between the persons) or that Jesus was just a man who had a more special relationship with God (adoptionism).

Some scriptures speak of Jesus’ humanity, and affirm it was just like ours: he grew, he developed, he was hungry, he was tired, he thirsted, he wept, he got perturbed, he was tempted, he suffered. Others affirm his divinity, and his unity with the Father from eternity: through him all things were made, and apart from him nothing was made. The mystery of the incarnation is that the Son of God humbled himself, took on our human weakness, being made like his brethren in every respect, to suffer and die on our behalf; having been raised by the Father he now sits at the Father’s right hand, interceding for us; and he will come again in glory.

This is the substance of Trinitarian thought. It is a mystery, but it need not be confusing. It is overwhelming, but it can be spoken of lucidly. A good start is Robert Jenson, The Triune Identity.