Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Defense and Explanation of the United Methodist Doctrine of Trinity

I think this is one the best papers I have written in a long time. In fact, I liked it so much I actually used it three times. This paper originally started out as my "God" paper for systematic theology. For that paper I focused on Trinity and used the Articles of Religion as a starting point. Parts of that paper were then used in my final for that class. For my Methodist History and Theology class I had to write about one of the articles or religion, so I took the systematic paper as a base, gave it a more Wesleyan tone as well as being a bit more argumentative. The results is what follows. Interestingly enough I got a B+ on the systematic paper but an A with glowing comments on this paper. I know only a couple of people might actually read the whole thing, but enjoy anyway.

A few years ago a comprehensive study was done to examine the religious views of teenagers. The National Study of Youth and Religion shows that there is a dramatic shift in the religious landscape in the United States. The vast majority of teenagers, ninety percent, identified that they view God as something such as a “divine butler who exists in the background of their lives waiting to be summoned when they have a problem.” Perhaps it is this sort of thought process that has led to the popularity of T-shirts that express statements such as “Jesus is my homeboy”. These alarming trends put several traditional Christian doctrines at risk of being left at the wayside. One of the most critical and uniquely Christian understandings of God that is at risk is that of Trinity. In some ways the doctrine appears to be safe. A survey conducted by Group magazine of teenagers who attend service project trips they run showed that currently 87% of self identified Christian teenagers have been taught that Jesus is God. However, of that number 38% believes that good deeds can merit eternal salvation and 22% believe that Jesus committed sins on earth. There is a clear disconnect between what they have been taught and what they believe, and some of those beliefs are in direct opposition of the idea of Jesus being God. Another threat to Trinitarian doctrine is that for decades, seminary trained professors have been taught theological positions such as that of Paul Tillich or Process theology which denies a Triune God. All major church traditions have a doctrine on Trinity but the one that will be used for this discourse is that of the United Methodist Church. The doctrinal standard of the United Methodist Church are the articles of religion compiled by John Wesley, and article one states the church’s position on Trinity: “There is but one living and true God . . .And in unity of this Godhead there are three persons, one substance, power, and eternity-the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” The doctrine of Trinity is one that is vital to the United Methodist Church and all Christian expressions, because it is a cornerstone that many other core beliefs are grounded in. Trinity needs to be better taught and understood in the United Methodist Church so that the church can strongly proclaim the unique gospel of Jesus Christ in a continually post-modern, pluralistic culture.

To address the matter of Trinity is to address the very nature, character, and essence of God. To fully and properly address the whole subject of God’s nature would require hundreds of pages. The point of this discourse is to examine the Methodist doctrine of Trinity. Thus, to deal with the validity of the doctrine of Trinity there are certain presuppositions that must be made as a starting ground. All of these presuppositions do have their own basis in tradition, and have their own valid critiques as well as their own supporting arguments. The first presupposition that must be made in understanding Trinity is the infinite nature of God. The Methodist’s confession of faith encapsulates the vastness of God’s infinite nature: “[God] is infinite in power, wisdom, justice, goodness, and love.” The second presupposition that must be made is that God has Divine sovereignty. This presupposition has to be made to consider Methodist doctrine because Wesley gave more emphasis on this aspect of God’s nature than any other. Divine sovereignty can be a sticky subject and one that is open to interpretation. For Wesley God’s sovereignty over creation was not separated from God’s other attributes such as justice and love. Wesley’s idea of Divine sovereignty is not one where God’s control is an overpowering iron fist. In explaining Wesley’s practical theology on this subject Randy Maddox writes, “the best way to capture Wesley’s conviction here is to say that he constructed God’s power and sovereignty fundamentally in terms of empowerment, rather than control or overpowerment.” Thus, Divine sovereignty is absolute but it is utilized in a loving way that brings people to respond to God instead of being irresistible. There is a final presumption that needs to be made in order to properly consider Trinity, but this presumption is so crucial to Trinitarian doctrine that it needs to be considered itself.

The final presupposition that needs to be made is that God is fundamentally relational. The idea that God is relational entity was crucial to Wesley. Stanley Grentz also asserts the relational nature of God, but Grentz ties this nature back to Trinity. Grentz writes: “The doctrine of Trinity declares that God is relational.” Grentz then continues: “not only is the immanent Trinity relational, the triune God enters into relationship with the world he creates.” To speak of Trinity in any context requires the presupposition that God is relational by nature. As has been shown, many theologians from a variety of persuasions affirm this relational nature of God. However, a doctrine of Trinity, such as that held by the United Methodist Church, requires that the relational nature of God originates in and pours out of the intimate relationship that exists within the Godhead. Thus, there is a presupposition that God relates to creation, but this presupposition is a natural result of the Trinitarian doctrine to which considerations now turn.

Relationship is the basis of the Trinity. The doctrine of Trinity expresses the experienced reality of how God relates to the whole of creation. A valid and often leveled criticism against Trinitarian doctrine is that a fully developed concept of Trinity does not appear anywhere within the scripture. However, as Grentz points out, “no dimension of the Christian confession is closer to the heart of the mystery of the God we have come to know.” Trinity may not be explicit in the scripture, but scripture does support the doctrine. Trinity was born out of multiple experiences that the early church community and scripture testified as true. The first of these testimonies is the oneness of God. God as understood by Christian tradition, is the God of Israel, and God declared boldly to Israel, “Hear, O Israel; the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Christian tradition embraces this decree. The second testimony is that Christian tradition also recognizes the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The Arian controversy was fought early in church history over the divinity of Jesus. Scripture identified Jesus as a unique agent. The first chapter of John identifies Jesus as the Logos or the Word which the gospel reports: “In the beginning was the word. The Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” The Arian controversy debated if Jesus was God or was merely the first creation of God. The controversy eventually ended in favor of the divinity of Christ. Thus God was one, but God was also two. To further muddle the issue was the Holy Spirit. The scripture witnesses to the Spirit as that which connects the individual to God. The church understood the workings of the Spirit as those of God. Thus the one God had related to and been understood by the community of faith in three different ways. Yet the scripture communicates that these three entities are not merely modes of one another, but are unique and interdependent on each other. An example of this interdependence can be seen in one of the epistles of John: “Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.” Another scriptural example of this interdependence is present in Jesus’ discourse at the last supper: “All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.” The doctrine of Trinity takes the three scriptural testimonies and experiences the early church had of the divine and holds them together in a way that honors all three testimonies. God is One, but God is also equally Father, Son, and Spirit. For this to be then the three persons of the Trinity must be unique persons but of the same substance, and it is the issue of substance that should be considered next.

The Methodist doctrine of Trinity affirms that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three persons of one substance, power, and eternity. The paradox of three persons derived from substance is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Trinity for many. The substance of God is that of God which makes God Godself. This substance is present in all three members of the Trinity, and it is this combined substance that creates God’s essence. Grentz explains, “The one God, therefore, is not an undifferentiated, solitary oneness but subsist in multiplicity, the three members of the Trinity. In fact, there is no God but the triune God; God is none other than Father, Son, and Spirit.” The essence of God’s self is Trinity. Thus, when Christians affirm that the God is one, they affirm that this one essence of this one God is the combined Father, Son, and Spirit. Furthermore, these Three are all from the same substance.

While the three members of the Trinity are inseparable as one, they are also all unique. However, all theologians who support a Trinitarian doctrine do have to cede a point brought up by Clark Williamson. The Bible is not very clear as to what unique roles the various members of the Trinity fulfill. Williamson writes: “The Bible is a lovely mess on this point; it will not allow an easy sorting out of the separate roles of the three persons.” This is a true observation, but it does not need to be a hindrance to understanding Trinity. It would actually be problematic if the members of the Trinity had clearly defined roles. Clearly defined roles for the Trinity members would mean they were either separately unique persons or modes of one person. Thus, when the triune God relates to creation, individuals may identify with one aspect of Trinity, but all three members are present. For example, many Christians understand Jesus as the entity that makes forgiveness of sin possible but the Spirit and the Father are also present. Another example is that when God declared the “Lord is one” all three members of the Trinity were simultaneously making the declaration. This inter-dependence and mutual working of the Trinity in relating to humanity is understood as the economic Trinity. Grentz once again explains, “the economic unity of the Trinitarian members also means that each is dependent on the work of the others for the fulfillment of the one divine program.”
The doctrine of Trinity, which the United Methodist Church subscribes to, stands on a strong basis of tradition and has well supported theological legs under it. Despite that, the doctrine of Trinity may be considered controversial in some circles. Greg Stier, a youth ministry expert, observes a trend that teenagers are increasingly individualizing their faith understandings. Comparing teenager faith to Starbucks, Stier sarcastically writes: “When forming their opinions about faith based matters, picture most 13-18 year olds ordering up a Grande Carmel-Kabbalah latte with a dash of Buddhism and a Hindu Krishna cookie on the side” This individualization of religion is taking place in a vastly pluralistic marketplace of ideas where all religious expressions are given the same value. Trinitarian doctrine can be considered controversial because the doctrine is uniquely Christian. The current President of the United States, George W. Bush, has publicly stated on multiple occasions that he believes all religions pray to the same God. This line of thought has gained a lot of adherents in the post-modern world. Yet the doctrine of Trinity stands in opposition to this. Trinitarian doctrine refuses to keep God characterized as something nebulous that can apply to all situations. Instead the doctrine, out of the experience of the church, defines God character. If the United Methodist Church is t to take Trinity seriously, then to speak of God is to speak of Trinity. Thus, it is faulty to say that all religions pray to the same God unless all religions pray to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Taking Trinity seriously will set the church apart and above the pluralistic religious climate that characterizes the times.

There is another angle from which Trinitarian doctrine can be controversial today, and it is once again because the doctrine of Trinity sets Christianity apart from other faiths. A recent report, the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, showed that 70% of Americans affiliated with a religion believe that multiple religions can lead to eternal life. The doctrine of the Trinity states that Jesus is fully God, and this is vitally important because Jesus divine nature is essential for salvation through atonement. In the Methodist tradition, Trinity takes an especially strong Christological understanding. Maddox writes:

“When Wesley considered the Godhead specifically in light of the needs of fallen humanity, the second and third ‘Persons” of the Trinity moved to the forefront. They both came into consideration because of our twofold need: it is through the Incarnate God that we are graciously reconciled, and through the Indwelling God that we are graciously empowered for our healing.”

Wesleyan doctrine holds at its heart that justification, which is right relationship with God, come through faith, and “the work of Christ, therefore, is the foundation of the entire doctrine of justification.” Any theological framework which has a Christology that sees Jesus as wholly necessary for justification must also have a Trinitarian doctrine.

There is significance that in the United Methodist articles of religions that t is article one that address Trinity. The doctrine of Trinity is vital to a Christian understanding of God. For this reason, this doctrine should continue to be a shaping factor in the church today. The doctrine of Trinity guides the United Methodist church to how it should understand and relate to the God that the church gathers to worship and serve. More importantly, the doctrine of Trinity is one of the most foundational doctrines that makes the United Methodist church Christian. The draw of a post-modern pluralistic culture mixed with desperation for new members to cut off the bleeding out of members that the church has been experiencing for decades is the recipe for a perfect storm. While it is unlikely that the United Methodist Church as a whole will drop its doctrinal basis it is very possible that some pastors or even full congregations will move away from a Trinitarian understanding of God. To do so is to essentially abandon Christianity. In the end, Trinitarian doctrine must stay a shaping factor in the United Methodist Church because Trinity is the uniquely Christian understanding of the God that loves humanity enough to redeem its fallen state by the sacrificial act of God’s very self.


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