Quotes from the Fathers and Mothers of the Christian Faith: Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity

950701f716f292ee7eca7ed5558406ee

Today I’m sharing one of my favorite quotes from Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity. Gregory of Nazianzus was a fourth century Bishop who helped defend and articulate the Scriptural understanding of the Trinity.

By way of preface, I have two thoughts:

1. I want to encourage my readers to see this quote, not as speculation, but as prayerful and reasoned contemplation on the Trinity.

2. The Trinity is not an abstract doctrine that has little to do with life, on the contrary, when a person becomes a Christain, they are caught up in the life of the Trinity. When someone confesses Jesus as Lord and Savior, they do so through the work fo the Holy Spirit, and to the glory of the Father. We confess Jesus and believe in him by faith, and when we ,do we are brought into his eternal relationship with the Father through the Holy Spirit. For our salvation to truly be salvation, Jesus must be God, the Holy Spirit must be God, and the Father must be God, and not three Gods, but one God.

With this in mind here is the quote:

I give as a companion and protector for all your life, the one divinity and power, found in unity in the three and gathering together the three as distinct; neither uneven in essences or natures, nor increased or decreased by superiorities or inferiorities; from every perspective equal, from every perspective the same, as the beauty and greatness of heaven is one; an infinite coalescence of three infinites; each God when considered in himself; as the Father so the Son, as the Son so the Holy Spirit; each preserving his properties. The three are God when known together, each God because of the consubstantiality, one God because of the monarchy.

When I first know the one, I am also illumined from all sides by the three; when I first distinguish the three, I am also carried back to the one. When I picture one of the three, I consider this the whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part has escaped me. I cannot grasp the greatness of the one so as to grant something greater to the rest. When I bring the three together in contemplation, I see a torch and am unable to divide or measure the united light. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 40.41.

The first thing to note is that confession occurs in the context of a baptismal sermon. In other words, this is Gregory’s passing on the mystery of the Trinity to those who are about to be baptized. The Doctrine of the Trinity is not mere knowledge; this is the heart of the Christian life.

In the first paragraph, Gregory offers the basic contours of the Christian understanding of the Trinity: God is One and Three who are totally equal and eternally God. When considered separately Father, Son and Spirit are each fully God, while they are distinct because of their particular properties (i.e.,. The Father, begets, The Son is begotten, and the Spirit processes from the Father through the Son). Their equality and distinction establish eternal and real relations who are all one God. In this tightly packed paragraph, Gregory offers an outline of what God has revealed about himself in Scripture. This outline does not comprehend God, but it gives us a door into the mystery of who God is. The fact of the matter is that Gregory confesses what he does because he has already been caught up in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

In the second paragraph, Gregory offers the same material through a different lens: the lens of prayer and rational contemplation. The first paragraph confesses the boundaries of the mystery of the Trinity; the second paragraph invites us to enter that mystery by means of personal communion. When we pray to God the Father, in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Triune God brings us into his very life. We are illumined by the Three who are One and the One who is Three. When Gregory contemplates God he does not comprehend God, but he is embraced by God. As he is embraced by God, he catches a mere outline and a glimpse of who God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This glimpse does not discourage him but encourages him to contemplate and seek the face of God.

Humanity was made to know God and be known by God; this is an eternal journey that begins now, by confessing Jesus as Lord and Savior. As we come to know our triune Savior more, we start to catch a taste for the incomprehensible joy of life eternal with him.  Though we only now see as in a mirror dimly, we will one day see God face to face. This quote from Gregory enlivens my desire to know and love the Triune God. I hope it does the same for you.

Desiring the Renewal of the Church? Look to the Trinity

 

222c640e641f279fafa30226a67e6f26.jpgIn my reading this week I skimmed Gordon Fee’s God’s Empowering Presence to see how he frames and articulates the person and work of the Holy Spirit in Paul’s writing. In his conclusion, Fee argues that the path for the church’s renewal is the living experience of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, including, but not focused on the gifts of the Spirit. Here is an extended quote:

A genuine recapturing of the Pauline perspective will not isolate the Spirit in such a way that “Spiritual gifts” and “spirit phenomena’ take pride of place in the church, resulting in churches which are either ‘charismatic’ or otherwise. Rather, a genuine recapturing of the Pauline perspective will cause the church to be more vitally Trinitarian, not only in its theology, but in its life and Spirituality as well. This will mean not the exaltation of the Spirit as such, but the exaltation of God; and it will mean not focus on the Spirit as such, but on the Son, crucified and risen, savior and Lord of all. Ethical life will be neither narrowly, individualistically conceived nor legalistically expressed, but will be joyously communal and decidedly over against the world’s present trinity of relativism, secularism and materialism, with their thoroughly dehumanizing affects. And the proper Trinitarian aim of such ethics will be the Pauline one – to the glory of God, through being conformed to the image of the Son by the empowering of the Holy Spirit. 

In recapturing the dynamic life of the Spirit there will also be the renewal of the charismata, not for the sake of being charismatic, but for the building up of the people of God for their life together and in the world. What must not happen in such a renewal is what has so often happened in the past: holding the extraordinary charismata in such awe that they are allowed to exist untested and undiscerned (Gordon Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, 902). 

Having spent a lot of time wrestling with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, the renewal of the church, etc., I found this turn to the Christian life as a life in relation to the Trinity as very refreshing to the extreme. Further, because Fee contextualizes the gifts of the Spirit in the Trinity, and opposes isolation or emphasis of the gifts for their own sake, the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church is ordered to the end goal of transformation into the image of Christ to the Glory of God the Father. Thus, charismatic gifts are for the good of the church and should be desired because they have a particular purpose: to make us like Christ to the glory of God the Father.  This means that we must be free to question and test the extraordinary charismata, to see if they are fulfilling their Trinitarian end goal.

Do you want to renew the church? Seeking the happy land of the Trinity in prayer, worship, and study are where it begins. Because in seeking it, you’ll find, if you are a Christian, it is the happy land you’ve always been in ever since you said: “Jesus is Lord.”

 

 

John Calvin on Union with Christ

 
b200b64b0aa56328799020e1954b8f20*

As I continue to research the doctrine of Union with Christ and other topics, I want to post significant or insightful quotes and offer some reflection on them.

Have you ever struggled with the feeling that all that stuff that Jesus did in his life is great, and sometimes you can sense that it means something to you, but it feels kind of cold and distance? Growing up in the Church I thought that a lot. Jesus died for me, 2000 years ago, but it didn’t get into my inner life, it didn’t sink down into my mind and heart and bring real change. So I was surprised when I found that this is actually a real problem and one that the doctrine of Union with Christ, rooted in the Inseparable and joyous life of the Triune God answers. Calvin sums it up the problem and solution splendidly in the following quote.

After presenting his doctrine of the knowledge of God, creation, and redemption in Books 1-2 of Institutes of Christian Religion, Calvin turned to the Christian life in Book 3. This is how he opens this book:

“First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separate from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. Therefore to share with us what he has received from the Father he had to become ours and to dwell within us. For this reason, he is called “our head” [Eph 4:15], and ‘the first-born among many brethren” [Rom 8:29]. We also, in turn, are said to be ‘engrafted into him” [Rom 11:17] and to ‘put on Christ [Gal 3:27]; for as I have said, all that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him. It is true that we obtain this by faith. Yes since we see that not all indiscriminately embrace that communion with Christ which is offered through the gospel, reason itself teaches us to climb higher and to examine into the secret energy of the Spirit, by which we come to enjoy Christ and all his benefits.” The Institutes of Christian Religion III.1.1.

This is a crucial passage on union with Christ in Calvin’s writing, and we can observe several essential things about union with Christ in it.

First, there is a Trinitarian pattern to Union with Christ. To receive the love of the Father and the salvation the Son achieved on humanity’s behalf, we must be united to Jesus Christ. For this to happen, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Father and the Son, must dwell in us. Salvation is accomplished in Christ, and applied to the Christian, in faith, through the Holy Spirit.

Second, Union with Christ puts us back on the right track towards humanity’s end goal. The end goal of union with Christ is humanity’s incorporation into fellowship and communion with the Triune God; so that we can be friends with God as we were created to be.

Third, note that salvation is only attainable in union with Christ. There are only two positions humanity can have in relation to Christ; outside, where there is no salvation, and inside Christ through the Holy Spirit, where salvation, life, and all goodness is.

Fourth, it is through the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity that we enjoy Christ and his benefits. The Holy Spirit is how Jesus Christ dwells in us and we in him. No Holy Spirit, no Union with Christ. In my growing up imagination, this was the link that was missing. I needed to see that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, dwells in me and brings me into communion with The whole Trinity. The Holy Spirit applies the work of Christ in my life, personally.

Finally, the benefits that the Spirit applies – often summed up with words like justification, sanctification – are all found in personal union with Christ. That is not to say that justification and sanctification are the same things, rather, these are the double grace of union with Christ. We are declared in right standing with God because we have died with Christ and risen with him – passing through the judgment of our sin in Jesus – and we are continually being made new in the image of Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit – who gives us the character, virtue, and life of the perfect human: Jesus Christ.

Union with Christ is the heart of the Christian life, it is how we are made right with God, brought into communion with God, and renewed in his image.

*Forgive the irony of using an Icon of Christ while quoting John Calvin. I appreciate a lot of his theology, but I disagree with his rejection of Icons, though I respect his concern about Idolatry.

The Triune Shape of the Gospel

the-holy-trinity

Human words have a nasty habit of losing their meaning when we overuse them. Say your name 100 times, and it begins to sound weird. This happens to me with important Christian words.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I’ll say, “we are saved by grace through faith” and pause and think, “wait, what do those words mean again?” How do we remedy this? By seeing how every Christian word connects to who God is and what God does (This is done primarily through the disciplines of Corporate worship, Bible meditation, and study). Leaving these words aside for another time (I am working on something on grace at the moment), I want to turn to an essential   word for Christians, the well-worn word “Gospel.”

By way of reminder, let’s just peruse a few places in Scripture where the word is used.

Mark 1:1: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Mark 1:14-15: Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand;[a]repent and believe in the gospel.”

Romans 1:16: For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

1 Corinthians 1:17: For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

Philippians 1:27: Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel,

What is the Gospel? According to John Webster, it is the “good news of Salvation in Jesus Christ, especially as a matter of public proclamation” (263). It is the good news that salvation has been accomplished and is found in Jesus Christ. But when this good news about Jesus Christ is preached, the hearers are led to the Father by Jesus, and the Father and Son give the Holy Spirit to dwell in the one who hears and receives the good news. When the Gospel is preached its content becomes a reality in those who receive it. When the Scripture says the “Gospel of God” or the “Gospel of Jesus,” we must understand this to mean that the Triune God both the origin and the content of the Gospel (Webster, 263).

Meditating on Romans 1:16-17, Webster unfolds this in greater detail.

“Originating in God’s omnipotent rule over all things the gospel concerns salvation, the comprehensive reordering of God’s relation to humankind. In the gospel, God is reconciled to sinful creatures as fellowship is restored through the life, death, and exaltation of Jesus Christ. As such, the gospel is the revelation of God’s righteousness: God’s character and work as the holy one, who in Christ effects the sinner’s acquittal, renewal, and restoration to life in fellowship with the Creator and Savior” (263).

Webster is a mouth full, but he really helps me order my thinking about the Gospel. The Gospel originates in God, who desire to reconcile sinful humanity to himself through the life death and resurrection of Jesus. This restoration of fellowship reveals that God is righteous, he makes what was wrong right through Jesus Christ’s work of salvation including our justification, sanctification, and glorification. While Webster does not note it here, Christians receive the content of the Gospel when we are indwelled with the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel, then, is the content of the whole story of salvation; what God has done for sinful creatures in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. It is also the bringing about, or application of this great work fo salvation in individual believers lives.

So, when we say “preach the Gospel” we mean preach the content of the saving acts of the triune God for human salvation (justification, sanctification, and glorification). And when we preach this Gospel this same God works it into peoples lives.

When we say, “believe the Gospel,” we mean believe in the reality that God the Father sent his Son to restore right relationship with sinful human creatures, and the Father and Son sent the Holy Spirit to bring sinful creatures into that relationship, to make them holy and new.  The Gospel is the triune God’s active work of saving and restoring humanity to communion with God the Father, in the Son through the Spirit. The Gospel is the content of salvation and the enactment of salvation in peoples lives to the Glory of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Gospel then is both the most simple reality – God saved Sinners – and the deepest of infinite mysteries because it is grounded in the eternal and infinite life of the Triune God of Grace.

By way of conclusion, I want to offer a quote from a book I just finished. It is about how the Gospel is grounded in the reality that God is Triune, The Deep Things of God by Fred Sanders. I would highly recommend it. Sanders quoting a famous Puritan Theologian John Owen. Note how his telling of the gospel closely resembles Webster’s description of the content of the gospel.

“When God designed the great and glorious work of recovering fallen man, and the saving of sinners, to the praise of the glory of his grace, he appointed, in his infinite wisdom, two great means thereof: The one was the giving of his Son for them, and the other was the giving his Spirit to them. And hereby was way made for the manifestation of the glory of the whole blessed Trinity; which is the utmost end of all God’s works” 151).

_____

The Quotes from John Webster are in his article “The Gospel,” In The Dictionary of Theological Interpretation of the Bible,” 263-264.

The quote from John Owen comes from his book The Holy Spirit, 23.

The Cruciform Mission of the Holy Spirit

It is tempting, in a world silently influenced by the philosophical idealism of Hegel, to disconnect the person and work of the Holy Spirit from the economy of salvation and from Jesus Christ himself. The idea of the Holy Spirit as the World Spirit, or the Spirit in every person, is distinctly unchristian. Often it is less noticeable than this kind of language, and used to justify progressive theological moves, “God is doing a new thing.” Though ironically, I’ve heard the same passage used in charismatic contexts in reaction to progressive movements. A natural reaction could be to order our understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit to conversion and illumination of the Scriptures, two things the Spirit definitely does; avoiding all talk of prophetic gifts or otherwise. However, this would be an overreaction. The real issues at hand is an unbalanced theological apprehension of the connection between the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ. I propose that the work of the Holy Spirit must be understood as making Christ’s person, life, and redemption present in us, which includes the whole spectrum of gifts expressed in the Scriptures. In other words, the Spirit blows as wind, but the wind is Christ-formed. To see this, I want to briefly examine several scripture passages that specifically use the image of wind for the Spirit, to show how the Holy Spirit’s work is intrinsically connected to Christ. In what follows I will make a few exegetical observations that suggest the warrant of my thesis, consider what the gift of the Holy Spirit means in light of its Christo-formic structure, and then consider the objection that this leads to a diminishment of the Holy Spirit’s person and work.

 

Let’s first turn to Genesis 1:1-3 where we see the Spirit, of God, or the wind/breath of God hovering over the chaotic waters. The triune God creates the world and orders it in goodness. John 1:1-3, which draws its logic from Genesis 1:1-3 says that the Word of God was with God and was God and all things were made through him. These passages read together help us see that The Spirit of God orders creation Christologically. If all things are made through him and for him and all things together in him, then the Creator Spirit does not just give new life willy-nilly, he gives it in the form and shape of the Son of God, the Word of God.

Passing over the creation of humanity, another place where we see divine wind at work is in Ezekiel 37:9-14: the valley of dry bones. In this vision, Ezekiel prophesizes to the four winds, and the breath enters an army of dry bounds resituating them. The Spirit (vs. 14) brings these bones to life, reviving the dead. This vision of the resuscitation of dead Israel turns our theological imaginations to the second Adam, Jesus Christ. He is Israel, and all of humanity, recapitulated, who the Spirit of God raised from the dead (Rom. 8:11). The resuscitation of Ezekiel 37 is fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus Christ who is raised by the Spirit of Life, who is the Holy Spirit.

Our theme continues in John 3:8. This verse, I would suggest, does not imply a flighty, or unknown movement, but instead, the movement of the Spirit with a most definite telos: communion with God, which can only come about by being born again in the death and resurrection of Christ through the Baptism and the Holy Spirit. Still, the focus of life in the Spirit is its Christo-formed means and goal.

The mighty rushing wind of the Spirit at Pentecost surprised the early church, not because it was a new thing, but because of their slowness of heart and insensitivity to what the Spirit spoke of through the prophets. It took Peter proclaiming the word of Scripture to open the eyes of the Jewish people present in Jerusalem to see what the filling of the Holy Spirit meant. It was not some new thing unexpected, it was simply not seen; for it was expected by the prophet Joel and promised by Jesus. And significantly, the focus of Peter’s sermon is not the speaking in tongues or the experience of the Holy Spirit, but the fact that Jesus Christ w sent the Holy Spirit after his ascension so that his church could proclaim the gospel in word and in deed. “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The receiving of the Holy Spirit is the sign and seal of salvation in Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:13-14), and the way of new life in the new creation, the life in Christ (Romans 8:1-2).

Thus, the blowing of the wind metaphor must be read in light of the work of Jesus and the fulfillment of the vision of the new creation. It should not be used to justify the subjective feelings of or directions of a body of people, conservative, or liberal.

What of the gifts of the Holy Spirit? Are they not a new thing, something that brings new revelation and power? Perhaps it is better to speak of the Gift of the Holy Spirit; the gift of himself, which is also the gift of Christ in us. This is not to exclude the manifestation of the Holy Spirit, but to properly order it to the primacy of Jesus Christ. In John, the gift of the Holy Spirit is not spoken of in terms of charismatic experience, but rather of indwelling, abiding, and sanctifying (see John 14-16). Further, the fruit of the Spirit are fruit of Christ’s life (Galatians 5:22-24) given to us in through the Spirit. Living in the Spirit means belonging to Christ in the form of his crucifixion and resurrection. In other words, the gift of the Holy Spirit is Christ whole life, and what follows is the sanctifying work of making us like Christ. The Holy Spirit is, after all, the Giver of Life, and who is life but Jesus Christ?

 

But, some may object that I am simply conflating the Holy Spirit with Jesus. Doesn’t the Holy Spirit need his own person and personality? Simply put, no, he doesn’t. This is a gross anthropomorphism and projection of human personality into the triune God. In saying this, I do not deny the unique personhood, properly understood as subsisting relation, of the third person of the Trinity. Instead, I am arguing that the Spirit’s mission is intrinsically related to the Son’s. The Spirit is sent to form the body of Christ and sanctify believers.

Will we not simply forget the Holy Spirit again if we don’t articulate particular roles for him? No, again. I would propose that church ignores the Spirit, not because he doesn’t have enough to do, but because we don’t like the nitty-gritty work he does: repentance, obedience, and profound transformation into the image of Christ. Again, conforming us to the image of Christ.

Finally, someone might ask, what about the prophetic gifts of the Holy Spirit? Doesn’t the Spirit speak to us for the upbuilding of the church, and doesn’t this entail “a new thing”? Here I say yes and no. First, The freedom of the Spirit is the freedom of cruciformity. It is true that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17), but the Lord in this sentence is Jesus Christ! (Note that the Spirit is also called Lord in this verse, affirming his distinct divinity as well). Freedom in the Spirit looks like Jesus in the Garden saying, “Not my will but yours be done” (Mar 14:36). The freedom of the Spirit is freedom from Sin, not freedom from inhibitions. Second, if you express your gift in a way that rebels against the Scriptures and the authorities over you, check yourself. All prophetic gifts must be practiced with a holy hesitancy only proper to the gift given. Further, the gift of prophecy must be submitted to a life of continual conversion and discipline. The Spirit is the Lord and giver of Life, and the life he gives is Jesus’s life, so we should practice this gift with discipline and rigor, perhaps with the same rigor of the Old Testament prophets (look at Ezekiel 1-6). Prophetic ministry is not a gift for hippy Christianity.

There are many other aspects of the Holy Spirit that I have not touched on, especially healing, and the illumination of Scripture for believers. But I will leave it there for now. In summary: The Holy Spirit gives us Jesus’s life to conform us to his image to the glory of the Father.