I recently had lunch with a friend who has always impressed me with his knowledge of the Bible. Though I must admit – as I have also told him more than once – the Bible for him is mostly the letters of Paul. Nevertheless, with Paul as his anchor and guide he has in the past managed to delve deeply into the truths of the Christian revelation.
He shocked me, however, in this my latest encounter with him. He has come to a new understanding of the Christian message that excludes faith in Trinity or the divinity of Christ. So he is basically an Arian; and he did indeed refer to Arius and other ‘heretics’ of the first centuries as the heroes of the faith that he reveres.
To be truthful, I found myself agreeing with much of his exegesis that he used to support his new understanding. I also have sometimes questioned the dogmatic definitions of God as Trinity; they are too confident! But instead of denying the Trinity I prefer to resort to the apophatic approach that was very dear to those very same fathers of the church in the fourth century that established the doctrines of the Trinity.
The apophatic approach is the way of negation, which provides a defence against taking our doctrines as complete representations of God. So I have always seen the Trinity as a metaphor, an approximation in human terms of the ineffable. It should come as no surprise that the Orthodox tradition, though rich in iconographic representations, does not allow a literal icon of the Trinity. Though ‘icons’ of two men and a dove to represent Father, Son and Holy Spirit have crept in, in imitation of western paintings, the Orthodox tradition allows only one icon of the Trinity – and it is not even called an icon of the Trinity. That’s because it is not an icon of the Trinity. It is a representation of the scene in Genesis 18, where three men receive hospitality from Abraham and Sara. And thus the icon is called The Hospitality of Abraham. One such icon sits at the entrance to our church building in Portland, as our church is named Holy Trinity.
The text in Genesis 18 opens with the statement, “The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre,” and then immediately goes on to say, “Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby.” So these three men were the Holy Trinity out for a walk in the desert? Highly unlikely. Were they angels, messengers and representatives of the Most High God? Probably – and the three figures are indeed shown with angelic wings in the icon. But they are also shown with definite identifiers of trinitarian ontology. The figure in the middle gives it away. The halo around his head has a cross inscribed within the circle and three Greek letters, ὁ ὢν. The cross and these three letters are inscribed within the halo in every icon of Jesus Christ. The reference of the cross is obvious, while the three letters form part of the self-identification of Jesus in Revelation 1:8 and Revelation 22:13. The next thing to notice is that the middle and third figures both incline their heads and bodies toward the first figure. Now we can complete our identification: The first figure on the left represents the Father, the middle figure is the Son, and the third figure is the Spirit. Both the Son and the Spirit receive their being from the Father, which is why they both incline toward the first figure. But these identifications are only meant figuratively. This is not a literal icon of the Trinity. It simply takes Genesis 18 at face value and interprets the three men who appeared to Abraham and Sara as somehow representing the three persons of the Trinity. But the iconographic tradition adds ontological symmetry and the dynamic of movement within the symmetry. A fairly sophisticated slice of trinitarian theology is found in this scene of a hospitality in the desert. Let’s leave it at that.
The church fought for the establishment of icons because they added a mystical dimension to theology that mere words and conciliar decisions could not fully express. Icons are genuine expressions of faith. They remind us of the centrality of the incarnation and the human extension of God. My friend now chooses to see Jesus as only a man. He rejects all statements of “the death of God” or “the crucified God” – anything that connects the Cross of Golgotha to God in the flesh. In this manner my friend is saying the Cross has nothing to do with God’s being, since there is no Father-Son relationship. The Cross is thus reduced to a mere instrument for the expiation of our sins. An entire dimension of Biblical teaching is completely lost in such a reductionist revision of Christian truth.
Paul’s letters are the cipher upon which forensic theologies are built. Yet, even Paul sometimes touched on something deeper. Consider that great passage in Philippians 2:5-11.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (ESV, English Standard Version)
There is nothing about an expiatory death here. Of course elsewhere Paul did define the expiatory significance of the death of Christ. But here in Philippians, the entire dynamic of pre-existence-incarnation-death-glorification is expressed solely in the context of Christ’s relationship to God the Father and the exalted status of Jesus Christ as Lord. One doesn’t have to be a trinitarian to see that there is something more than a man dying on a cross here.
I respect my friend and I have always valued his approach to Bible study. But I fail to see how his commitment to the forensic significance of Christ’s death survives the reduction of Jesus to mere man. I feel the church has overreached in its dogmatic definitions. The apophatic approach was forgotten when intricately detailed dogmas were articulated to describe God’s inner essence and the interpersonal relationships of the three persons of the Trinity. Way overboard, in my opinion. Gregory Palamas in the 14th century attempted a less presumptuous approach to knowing God, but he too ended up inventing a new language of essence and energies that led to new confusion and neo-gnostic monastic practices. But I cannot join my friend in his rejection of the Trinity. The Trinity is at the core of everything that Christianity is about. But it is much more than any dogmas can define. I prefer to meditate on our icon of the Trinity than spend much time trying to understand the Nicene Creed.