Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Tweeting the trinity: because heresy is meh

I spent a few days compulsively tweeting on the doctrine of the trinity. I've just come to the end of a 12-week class on this doctrine and I enjoyed having the opportunity to collect my thoughts like this at the end. Say what you like about twitter, but it can be a good exercise to try to explain yourself in such a constrained form. Anyway I've gathered all the tweets together here, with a handful of additions and minor changes. Enjoy! And have a heresy-free Trinity Sunday!


#1. Start by abolishing Trinity Sunday, that fateful day on which preachers think they have to explain the Trinity

#2. Teach children to make the sign of the cross when they say the words "Father, Son and Holy Spirit"

#3. When someone offers to tell you the practical implications of the doctrine, just smile and move along

#4. Have you come up with a really helpful analogy of the trinity? Well done! Now please don't tell anyone about it, ever

#5. The doctrine is not a mystery. It is simple & precise. The reality it points to is the mystery

#6. Don't try to get rid of the biblical words. Don't try to stick to them exclusively either

#7. In this doctrine every word is used in a very limited way. Even the numbers 1 and 3 can't be taken literally

#8. Don't partake in meaningless debates about whether "oneness" or "threeness" is more important (see #7)


#9. Don't worry about whether you prefer Augustine or the Greeks. You don't have to pick a favourite, it's not Masterchef

#10. How does Augustine differ? He takes just one principle of "Greek" theology (the inseparability of persons in action) and proves that it's not absurd or unthinkable. That's all.

#11. Cappadocians: it's a simple doctrine even though we don't know what it means. Augustine: yes, and it makes good sense to believe it!

#12. Irenaeus (Greek tradition): this doctrine is shorthand for the unity of God in OT & NT. Tertullian (Latin tradition): ditto


#13. The biggest change in modern trinitarian theology was one of scale: the most minimalist & modest of all doctrines became a Theory of Everything

#14. Ancients: it's the key to scripture (which in turn shapes practice). Moderns: it's the key to practice (even though it's not scriptural)

#15. Ancients: the choice of words is easy & their meaning is restricted. Moderns: the meaning of words is vast & the choice is impossible

#16. Ancients: the word "Father" must be stripped of all connotations except mere relation. Moderns: those ancients thought God was male!

#17. Ancients: the doctrine is a tonic against idolatry (since it names an undepictable mystery). Moderns: the doctrine depicts God as an advocate of my social cause

#18. Ancients: it's the worst theory about God apart from all the other ones that have been tried. Moderns: it's the greatest theory ever!


#19. The canonical principle. OT and NT are a diverse but coherent witness to one God

#20. The creation principle. The one God is creator of all things and so is not on the same plane as anything else

#21. The spirituality principle. God is spirit. God has no body and is not comprised of anything like a material substance

#22. The simplicity principle. Because God is spirit, and because the creator transcends space, time, & matter, God must be indivisible and without parts

#23. The abstraction principle. Words can be used to speak of God only if they are stripped of all connotations of space, time, & matter

#24. The revelation principle. How do we find the best words to use? We'd better stick to revelation. (These words will still need to be abstracted as per #23)

#25. The fitness principle. Language about God should be used in a way that’s fitting to God's character. (Early Christians had a special term for this: theoprepes)

#26. The fitness principle comes solely from Greek philosophy and is by far the biggest piece of "hellenisation" in this doctrine

#27. But this piece of Greek philosophy was used critically against the Greeks: it was used to distinguish monotheism from pagan anthropomorphism (where, e.g., the gods literally make love and “beget” offspring)

#28. So there is a true hellenisation at this point (and really only at this point) but it is a critical and subversive use of Greek philosophy. It distinguishes the one God of Israel from the gods of Greek culture


#29. The ingredients of the doctrine, supplied by revelation, are the words "one God", "Father, Son, Holy Spirit," "begotten" & "proceeding"

#30. From these words is constructed a formula that refers in shorthand to the knowledge of God revealed in OT & NT

#31. The revelation of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is an unveiling of the incomparable and unknowable uniqueness of the one God

#32. The "oneness" of God is not a number. It refers to God's incomparable mystery. This is mysteriously revealed (not contradicted) by the "threeness"

#33. The "threeness" is not a number. It refers to the incomparable fullness of the life of the one God, who is God as Father, Son & Holy Spirit

#34. So the words "one" and "three" have to be abstracted away from their ordinary numerical meaning, and from any image of three things. The doctrine is not a mathematical puzzle

#35. God is one. The divine attributes (love, will, power, goodness, justice, mercy, freedom, etc) are attributes of the one God, not of the Father or the Son or Spirit

#36. God is one. When we say that the Son acts, we mean that the whole triune God is acting in the revelation of the Son. There is no separate act of Father or Son or Spirit

#37. God is one. When we say that God is “personal”, we are referring to the one God. In God there is one mind, one will, one act, one who says “I”. Father, Son and Spirit are not distinct personalities with distinct wills

#38. According to revelation, the Son is begotten; the Spirit proceeds; the Father is neither begotten nor proceeds

#39. "Begetting" has nothing to do with the body or passion or temporal beginning. "Proceeding" has nothing to do with spatial movement. The one God of Israel is nothing like the Greek gods

#40. Abstracted away from ordinary usage, "begetting" and "proceeding" designate relations of origin, nothing more

#41. These relations of origin are distinct (the Spirit is not begotten, the Son does not proceed) but we don't know how, or what this means

#42. "Father" & "Son" have nothing to do with gender or procreation or superiority or a temporal before and after

#43. Abstracted away from ordinary usage, the words "Father" and "Son" designate relations, nothing more. The Father is the Son's source

#44. Because “Father” is a relational word, God cannot be “Father” unless there is also “Son”. If God is eternally Father, then there is also an eternal Son

#45. Apart from a relation of origin, in what other way does the Son differ from the Father? In no other way, or none that we could ever know

#46. Son and Spirit are different relations to the same source (the Spirit is not begotten; the Son does not proceed). In what other way do they differ? In no other way, or none that we could know

#47. So we distinguish Son and Spirit with words whose meaning is unknown to us. We can only confess that the two words (“begotten”, “proceeding”) mean different things

#48. That's how the language of revelation is used in this doctrine. The doctrine is an abstract minimalism that doesn't explain God but only confesses what is found in revelation

#49. The scriptural words are indispensable. But they are a guide, not a restriction. Sometimes other words are useful to clarify what we mean

#50. Examples of useful non-scriptural words: "being", "person", "relation", "homoousion", "light from light", "mode of being", and of course "trinity" and "triune"

#51. Such words are useful for clarifying the language of revelation, but are not central or indispensable in the same way as revelation


#52. In recent theology, much has been written about the grandiose implications of the doctrine. I think its usefulness is much more limited but also more precise

#53. The doctrine is not a revelation of God. But it is a reliable framework for reading OT & NT as a coherent witness to the one God

#54. The doctrine doesn't have any adequate words for talking about God. But it's a procedure for speaking faithfully and truly with inadequate words

#55. The doctrine doesn't have special insight into God's uniqueness. But it is a refusal of projection & a constant warning against idolatry

#56. The doctrine is not a special theory of spirituality. But it explains why responding to God is more about participation than about submission, adoration, obedience etc

#57. The doctrine is not "prayerful" in any mysterious way. But it explains the coherence of prayer. Whether you address the Father, Son or Spirit (or all three), you are praying to one and the same God

#58. The doctrine explains the logic of the economy of salvation. When we see the Son acting, it is the triune God acting in the revelation of the Son

#59. The doctrine shows how the language of revelation can be used confidently and with precision to speak of unknowable mysteries

#60. The mystery is in the reality, not in the doctrine. The doctrine is not "apophatic", unless by that we mean the way it reduces words to a minimal content

#61. So can we speak of God? Yes! (because of revelation). Do we know what we mean? No! (because what's revealed is a mystery)


#62. Practical afterword: This doctrine doesn't create communal bliss, gender equality, social liberation etc. It just helps you not to be an idolator

#63. Philosophical afterword: This doctrine conveys very minimal knowledge. But Augustine argues that we still know God better than we know ourselves. (His proof: anything we know about God is unchanging and eternal; whereas our self-knowledge is doubtful because we're always changing.)

#64. Liturgical afterword: A fitting communal response is not “Trinity Sunday” but the whole church year as a symbolic participation in the economy of God’s saving work as Father, Son and Holy Spirit

#65. Pedagogical afterword: Doctrine is there to be taught; that's what the word “doctrine” means. The doctrine of the trinity is not practical. It has no direct application. It shapes imagination & practice in the long run but only if it's studied, taught, and understood. So learn it! Teach it!

#66. Doxological afterword: Worship the one triune God! (not the doctrine) - they’re not the same thing. “What can all our Christian statements be but a serious pointing away to the One who will himself tell those who have ears to hear who he is?” (Karl Barth).

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Duodenal doodling

Nietzsche’s excellent question as to why, if Christians are redeemed, they don’t look redeemed, is more excellently answered by Evelyn Waugh: “Think what I would look like if I were not a Christian.”

Donald Trump has finally revealed his favourite Bible passage. “It’s from the Book of Job,” he told Fox & Friends (pronouncing the “o” as in “Hobbes”): “chapter 41: I see it as a kind of self-portrait.”

What’s the difference between a Wagner concert and a Trump rally? The music is better at a Trump rally.

Being born is overrated. It’s a start, that’s all.

The way of Jesus is the way of detours and digressions, following him in whatever direction he happens to stray.

What’s the difference between Jesus and a Zen master? The guy who asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” – a Zen master would have whacked him with his keisaku. Come to think of it, that’s what Jesus did too. The parables of Jesus – consider them short narrative keisakus.

I just saw an episode of the cheerlessly hilarious British comedy Fleabag in which Fleabag’s boyfriend Harry says to her, “Don’t make me hate you. Love is painful enough already.” And I thought: that’ll pray.

Does any preacher – or any writer – ever really know whether they are giving their audience pearls or poop? If they do, it’s undoubtedly the latter.  

You can choose your friends but not your family – with the notable exception of your library.

Premodernity: Paranoia
Modernity: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Postmodernity: Narcissism and sociopathy
(From A Dummy’s Guide to Epochal Personality Disorders in Western Civilisation)

“My reaction to the instruction that all the dioceses in the C of E coin 3-word vision statements is identical to a modest proposal: ‘For Christ's Sake!’.” (Letter to the Church Times – needless to say, unpublished)

I have always thought that the fourth little piggy gets a raw deal, and more recently that perhaps s/he is a victim of domestic abuse, or a tragic example of free market scarcity economics. I mean, the third little piggy has roast beef while the fourth little piggy has none? Not on my watch as a grandpa! So as I wiggle her fourth digit and say “… and this little piggy had …”, my munchkin Delilah gleefully exclaims: “a pizza!”  (Obviously not pepperoni.)

The only way to write good non-fiction, particularly academic stuff, is to reads lots of good fiction.

Dogs or cats? Fool! You espouse a zoological version of double predestination. In the new creation, dogs and cats will lie down together. The cat on top of the dog.

I am a universalist-minus-one. That is to say, if hell exists, it has a population of me.

On second thought, I’m inclined to think that everlasting torment also awaits all who edit, publish, or read abridgements of Moby-Dick. (Mercifully, I will be in solitary confinement.)

My big problem with the divine omniscience is that people who think they know everything are such dicks.

Marriage is the great cure of loneliness. And the great cause.

Don’t shoot the messenger – unless, of course, it’s a cold call. Then make sure it’s a head shot.

The best way to make good use of one’s time is to waste it.

On a good day I remind me of myself. At least I think I will.

Old age is like a motorway on which you’re driving along in the slow lane while time flashes by in the fast lane.

When will I stop writing? Possibly when I am dead.

The Big Joke is that when you finally figure out that there’s nothing to figure out, it’s always too late.

The Communion of Saints – aka the Grateful Dead.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Receiving my name

Recently I read a book of magic: Patrick Rothfuss’ novel, The Name of the Wind. Like many tales of arcane entanglement with the forces of darkness, Rothfuss fixates on the idea of naming. Anyone can dabble with the lower forms of sorcery, but the magic so deep and true as to have dissipated into folklore is naming. To know the True Name of a Thing is to have mastery over it. Whisper the name of the wind and you can summon a hurricane. Speak the name of fire and you could extinguish the sun.

Which, of course, reminded me of academia. Academic life consists mostly in listening to questions and replying with The True Name of the Thing: “It sounds like you’re talking about Dyotheletism, no?” Naming can stun the layperson into silence, allowing the academic to have full control over the conversation. Such naming is a Dark Art.

The temptation to power in theological academia lies first in the naming of heresies. “What you are saying sounds a lot like Apollinarianism”. An academic will wield these names willy-nilly to produce fear and shut down discourse, when they ought to whisper these names in the confessional. I think like Nestorius and pray like Arius, which is why I need the creeds.

The strongest argument against atonement theories is not their precision or anachronism, but their names. Ransom. Satisfaction. Recapitulation. These words are never appropriate as Names of Power, but only as marvels sung out in prayer.

In the animated film, Spirited Away, Sen and Haku both forget their own names, but they remember each other’s. Our identities are only as secure as our memories, which is why we entrust them to one another and to God for safekeeping.

Intercession is the act of praying names. The names do not pass from our lips to God’s ears, but by an act of union with the divine will they pass from God’s memory to our hearts.

Sometimes our own names get a little loose, and don’t sit well anymore. So God steps in and adjusts them as he did with Sarah, Abraham, Peter, and Paul.

Christians are welcomed into the church through a ritual of names. The child is named, God is named, and we remember our own Christian names. Without baptisms, we might forget them.

At baptism our names are wed to God’s, so that when we greet one another in the name of the Lord, we speak our true names.

In the liturgy our names are given to us, hidden under the name of Christ. I become myself in reciting the creed, praying the Lord’s Prayer, hearing absolution, receiving the benediction, holding out my hands for the bread and having the cup lifted to my lips. My name is spoken only in the acts of repentance and forgiveness.

To be forgiven is to follow Paul, speaking our names only indirectly in our proclaiming Christ's death and resurrection.


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