*** Last week, I had my first guest blogger ever, Chelsea George. Her post has received the third most views of any post in the history of Thinkchristiandaily so far (Check it out from February 2nd). This week, I bring you my second guest blogger in the history of Thinkchristiandaily, Tyler Sherron. Tyler is a college friend of mine who has a big brain, and is a super fun person. I hope you appreciate his post as much as I did as you read. He helps us think through the Holy Trinity, and he clears up a lot of the questions you and I may have about this difficult subject. Take your time and take it all in, because there is some very good stuff here…
I’m Tyler Sherron, one of Brandon’s college friends from Cedarville University. He went on to great things at Parkside Church under Alistair Begg while I pursued a degree from Dallas Theological Seminary. He is now on pastoral staff; I’m a teaching assistant for a church history professor at DTS. Just last Thursday I subbed in and taught a lecture on the Trinity. As I prepared, I recalled a story Brandon might remember. It must be something like seven or eight years ago that we both took a Christology course from Dr. Ryan Peterson. I was agitated. I thought the lectures were “high-minded,” upper crust matters of theological/philosophical speculation, a waste of time. We read notoriously confusing theologians like Karl Barth, even his footnotes! You see, I was one of those evangelical types who thought theology had no bearing on gospel work. The two should remain quite separate, so I thought. I now, as it turns out, have a degree in theology!
But to continue, Brandon and I left class one day, a class where we discussed the two natures of Jesus Christ, how He could be at one time and in one person both God and man. Heavy stuff! Afterwards, as we walked back to our apartment, I asked him if it really mattered (with quite the sarcasm I should add). I wanted him to belittle it in a way, to say no and confirm my more fundamentalist/evangelical priorities. Instead, looking at me with suspicion and a half grin, he emphatically said, “Yes!” (a chuckle in his voice). I think he was worried about me at this point. He even suggested that I go see a professor. Ha! What I did not know then is that I was downplaying one of the few linchpins of the Christian faith. So really, Brandon’s reaction was quite mild.
I share this only to say that theology is not abstract, irrelevant, or a waste of time,at least not the important stuff. (I am sure whoever reads this can think of several debates/topics that never bear much fruit.) The Trinity is not one of them. Though a handful of the brightest have tried to crack it (Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Edwards, Barth, among others), each providing rather complex arguments that take loads of effort and many reads to comprehend, we always retreat to Athanasius and his pastoral/practical answer. It is astonishing that despite 1700 years of advance in philosophy, language, and theology, and with much greater minds I should add, we still point to Athanasius and his understanding of the Trinity in terms of redemption. Instead of asking the more philosophical question of how there can be multiplicity in singularity (one God and three Persons), we humbly concede that inquiry and ask instead what God had to do, how he had to enter our realm, to redeem mankind.
With this short essay I want to introduce Brandon’s readers to Athanasius and his little work entitled On the Incarnation, to give only a good taste. It is a classic, Indeed. I told my class that if they were to choose one book to read by an old-time theologian, it would be this one! Augustine’s Confessions and Edwards’s Religious Affections would be a close second. Third would be Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. Brandon’s Top-10, posted a few weeks ago I think, has several of these on it, even Athanasius’s work. It’s a good list!
At any rate, to begin we need to go back to the fourth century. The Church was fragmented, spread out, and persecuted. In what is known as The Great Persecution, Diocletian, the emperor of the then-powerful Roman empire,sanctioned in 303 AD the burning and pillaging of Christian villages, the destruction of Bibles, and the torturing and murdering of Christians, among many other horrors. But this all ended rather quickly when one of Diocletian’s commanders forced him to abdicate the throne. In the power vacuum, several generals tried to take control. One of those was named Constantine. As he met with Maxentius in the Battle of Milvian bridge (a famous battle at the gates of Rome), he had a vision of a flaming cross in the sky that said, “Conquer by this.” He would later have a dream that told him to put the name of Jesus on their shields (this would be the Greek letters Chi, Rho). Constantine won against all odds and then made a pact to tolerate Christianity (because he thought the Christian God had handed him the throne). It would eventually become the sole religion of the empire in 381 under emperor Theodosius, ushering in a little more than a millennia and a half of church/state blending.
But this provided something interesting. For the first time in our Christian history, bishops could communicate, collaborate, and disagree, all in order to agree upon the teachings of Christ and the Apostles. And the first great debate, what became a century-long controversy, was over the doctrine of the Trinity. Imagine that! Also, imagine having a century of debate in America over something like that. That’d be weird to us, but not them. To them, it was not a matter for ivory theologians or brittle philosophers. Their very salvation depended upon the relationship of Jesus Christ to the Father.
The spark came from a presbyter in Alexandria named Arius. He feared a doctrine known as modalism, which taught that God manifested as each person of the Trinity at different moments, so that God could manifest as the Father, as the Son, or as the Holy Spirit, but never two at the same time. Arius was correct in thinking that this compromised our redemption because it meant that Christ was not areal person on the cross. This is important because for Christ to redeem us He must be all that we are; to assume our sins He must be entirely human, not just a manifestation of one. So Arius birthed the teaching that Christ was the first of all creatures, the best and most holy of them all, of course. He took quite literally the familiar phrase “only begotten son of God” in John 3:16.
Arius’s teaching was the kindling that burst open in empire-wide debate. This upset the emperor because he wanted Christianity to unify his empire, not divide it. He feared being perceived as too weak to keep the empire together, so he sent out invitations to upwards of 300 bishops to come to his summer palace in Nicaea to settle the issue in 325 AD in what became known as the Council of Nicaea. (Imagine mutilated bishops without eyes, some without arms, and others with disfigurements from burns and what not from Diocletian’s persecution not more than 25 years ago, all together in a gilded, diamond-encrusted palace.)
Alexander, Arius’s embarrassed bishop, and Athanasius led the assault against Arius’s view. They argued that he made Christ less than God, which, for them,compromised redemption. If Jesus Christ is not God, then He could not bear God’s wrath. Only divinity can withstand the wrath of divinity. In addition,and more important, a sin against an infinite God becomes an infinite sin that requires an infinite payment. If Christ is less than infinite, then His death on the cross comes up void. The matter for Athanasius was the atonement, not some philosophical abstraction.
The bishops agreed with Athanasius and labeled Arius a heretic, his doctrine heresy. The issue, however, would not settle until years later. Arianism was far-spread and popularly accepted, and Constantine placed a premium on unity instead of truth. In fighting this trend, Athanasius began to look more and more like a rebel,and so he was exiled. He would be exiled seven times total over this issue. It would take some time, the approval of the famed desert monk St. Antony, and some linguistic agility by later thinkers called the Cappadocian fathers to prop the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, and to show that it was not modalism. They explained how there could be one God, one essence or substance, subdivided in three distinct persons. The phrase of the era was “distinct, not separate.”This is important.
But the point here is to return briefly to Athanasius’s take on the Trinity. I said earlier that it was pastoral and practical. Pastoral, because Athanasius saw God’s entering of time and space with the purpose to redeem mankind. Like Moses’s plea for God to not destroy the Israelites for making a golden calf, Athanasius informed God that could not let His people, who are made in His image, go to waste. Practical, because he asked no philosophical question of God’s being three in one, only that of what had to occur for Him to redeem us, the manner in which He had to step into human history. Toward this end, he knew that the incarnation had to be that of the God-man. Jesus had to be fully God. As my mentor, Dr. John Hannah tells his students, “A lesser cannot satiate a greater, if the criteria of satiation is the greater himself.” To bear the wrath of God and to fully pay the eternal sin, Jesus had to be much more than a creature; He could not be less than God. He had to be equal with the father, and yet at the same time distinct. To assume our sins, He had to be all that we are. He had to be real. He had to suffer as we do, be tempted as we are, and walk among us. He who was nailed to the cross could not be less than human, or only a mirage.
These were Athanasius’s concerns. The Trinity can be a matter of high speculation. But when we quit slicing the bologna, we all return to Athanasius. We form our thoughts of God through the lens of our redemption. I want to stop here because I want you to pick up Athanasius’s tiny work. It is only 60 pages long. C. S.Lewis has a wonderful introduction in which he encourages readers to read the old theologians. He debunks the stigma of their abstractness, as unapproachable tomes or treatises. Rather, they are pastoral, practical. They nourish. They’re written by bishops and pastors who bear the same responsibility of ministers today, to visit the sick and dying, to counsel the struggling parishioner, and to somehow craft sermons in the mix. So take Brandon up on hisTop-10 and grab Athanasius’s On the Incarnation.
*** To see the top-10 list visit the January 17thblog post.