Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Wednesday with Wesley: On the Trinity

I have been trying to keep up with the Trinity debate over at the Parchment and Pen. The recent postings on the Holy Spirit are available.
This week Dave and Rob will be posting on their overall theology regarding the Trinity. Since it is Wednesday and it has been awhile, I decided to post excerpts from John Wesley's sermon #55 regarding the Trinity along with some of my commentary.

It should be noted up front that there are points that Wesley raises that can be disputed in this sermon, for example his arguing for the authenticity of the Comma Johanneum. That will not be dealt with in this post, but you can read more about it here. In addition I will be ignoring his  "rants" against Romanists (aka Catholics) and Calvinists. 

Wesley starts off acknowledging that even religious men hold opinions on religious matters some of which are wrong though that would not make them any less a Christian. However, he also holds that some issues are vital to get right - among them is the Trinity:
But there are some truths more important than others. It seems there are some which are of deep importance. I do not term them fundamental truths; because that is an ambiguous word: And hence there have been so many warm disputes about the number of fundamentals. But surely there are some which it nearly concerns us to know, as having a close connexion with vital religion. And doubtless we may rank among these that contained in the words above cited: There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: And these three are one.
While it is highly improbable that the Comma Johanneum (1 John 5:7) is part of the original inspired letter by John, it does capture the essence of the Trinitarian belief quite well: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: And these three are one. I believe that one examines the Scriptures one would find the following facts (see debate entries for lots more details, it is not my intention to defend these facts here):
  1. There is One God (Deut 6:4)
  2. The Father is God (Matt 6:9)
  3. The Son, Jesus Christ, is God (Heb 1:8)
  4. The Holy Spirit is God (Acts 5:3,4)
However far more complicated is understanding how these facts can be described into a coherent theological definition. Wesley argues that
...all who endeavored to explain it at all, have utterly lost their way; have, above all other persons hurt the cause which they intended to promote; having only, as Job speaks, "darkened counsel by words without knowledge." It was in an evil hour that these explainers began their fruitless work I insist upon no explication at all; no, not even on the best I ever saw; I mean, that which is given us in the creed commonly ascribed to Athanasius.
Wesley has a point. The Trinity is an implicit doctrine, that is built precept upon precept. Having searched the Scriptures and discovered the facts as laid out above, one will certainly find that the Scriptures do not reveal how these facts all work together.
I dare not insist upon any one’s using the word Trinity, or Person. I use them myself without any scruple, because I know of none better: But if any man has any scruple concerning them, who shall constrain him to use them? I cannot: Much less would I burn a man alive, and that with moist, green wood, for saying, Though I believe the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God; yet I scruple using the words Trinity and Persons, because I do not find those terms in the Bible.”
Nor will one find the term substance. In fact there seemed to have been debate during the Council of Nicea regarding using terms that were not found in the Scriptures when composing the creed. (See Schaff for some details and Athanasius' De Decretis chapter 5 for his defense in use of the term "homousios"). However even if we don't understand the manner in which the Trinity is true, Wesley warns that:
Still I insist, the fact you believe, you cannot deny; but the manner you cannot comprehend.
To apply this to the case before us: There are three that bear record in heaven: And these three are One. I believe this fact also, (if I may use the expression,) that God is Three and One. But the manner how I do not comprehend and I do not believe it. Now in this, in the manner, lies the mystery; and so it may; I have no concern with it: It is no object of my faith: I believe just so much as God has revealed, and no more. But this, the manner, he has not revealed; therefore, I believe nothing about it. But would it not be absurd in me to deny the fact, because I do not understand the manner? That is, to reject what God has revealed, because I do not comprehend what he has not revealed.
Fair assessment - even if strongly worded. While I hold that the Nicene/Athanasian definitions are the best (and accepted as orthodox) attempt by man to describe and explain what the Scriptures present as fact, this may not be exactly right. These are man's attempt to explain the data but the Bible does not explain how the Trinity works. However as Athanasius explained using terms not found in the Scriptures (like Trinity, person, and substance) are useful in separating and explaining a position and contrasting that with other non-orthodox explanations including Arianism, Modalism, and Adoptionalism. Since these are man's best attempts to explain Biblical data (see the Trinity is like 3 in 1 shampoo), I don't see a Nicene understanding of the Trinity as required for salvation. I do think that the accepting what the Bible teaches regarding God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are essential. Rob Bowman said the same thing here
...what does the Bible tell us we need to know about the Trinity? Obviously, it does not tell us that we need to use words like Trinity or formulas like three persons in one God. These do not appear in the Bible. On the other hand, we are expected to make a faith commitment to the three persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as is evident from the injunction to make disciples by “baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19)
That leaves us with the following points to think through:
  1. trying to describe the Trinity is difficult and often filled with lack of understanding
  2. words used to describe the Trinity are not in the Bible. 
    • Trinity, Person, Substance
  3. belief in the facts not the illustrations is what is important
Wesley concluded with this:
I know not how any one can be a Christian believer till he “hath,” as St. John speaks, “the witness in himself;” till “the Spirit of God witnesses with his spirit, that he is a child of God;” that is, in effect, till God the holy Ghost witnesses that God the Father has accepted him through the merits of God the Son: And, having this witness, he honours the Son, and the blessed Spirit, “even as he honours the Father.”

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