TRINITY INSTALLMENT FOUR

The previous installment focused on Dr. Alister McGrath’s book Understanding the Trinity, wherein a number of praiseworthy items in his discussion were noted. Unfortunately, Dr. McGrath appears to be on less stable ground in his discussion of the essential nature of the Holy Spirit and of the family-based role of this divine Member within the Trinity. In his presentation of Church dogma regarding the Trinity he avoids delving too deeply into God’s intrinsic nature or attributes by substituting in its place a lengthy experientially-based account of Him in terms of His interaction with mankind. He is careful as well near the outset of his discourse to distance himself from any notion that the Trinity may include a female Persona. He does so in his chapter entitled Thinking About God by noting that intellectual models are subject to misapplication through the improper assumption that every attribute of a model must apply to its counterpart in reality. He cites as an example the wave characteristic of sound as a model for light, as was quoted directly from his work above.

But is the assumption of a Divine Mother in the economy of God necessarily a misapplication of the human parent model? It could be, but that’s a long way from must be. Nowhere does Dr. McGrath justify the necessity that he associates with that application. Instead, he elevates a mere illustrative example to the status of a law, which is either less than honest or less than brilliant. (Actually, I recognize my lack of qualification to cast such judgment on a man who possesses doctorates in both theology and science; indeed, I suspect quite strongly that he is neither dishonest or less than brilliant. Rather, I think that his presentation here is an overzealous attempt to distance himself from an extremely controversial topic.)

Moreover, as we have already noted, a short twelve pages further along, Dr. McGrath equivocates a bit regarding the possibility of motherhood in God’s economy, citing a number of Scriptural passages that describe God in a role more appropriate to motherhood than to fatherhood.

Almost at the end of his book it can be seen how Dr. McGrath rescues himself from this apparent inconsistency: as discussed in more detail below, he does not posit a distinct member of the Godhead who possesses the attributes of femininity; instead, he attributes this characteristic to the same Person as the Father. But rather than solving the problem of the feminine side of God, he comes dangerously close both to ultra-monotheism and modalism. Beyond that, he defines a God with gender characteristics indeed, but in the same Person. According to 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10, this suggests a model for a human malady known as hermaphroditism, which is contrary to Scripture, even to the extent of being labeled as unrighteous:

“Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.”

I find it hard to believe, given its treatment in Scripture, that in His own organization God would wish even to hint at sexual perversion, or even sexual difficulty.

The essence of McGrath’s description of Jesus may be encapsulated in this passage, found in his chapter entitled God as Three and God as One: “The difficulties really begin with the recognition of the fundamental Christian insight that Jesus is God incarnate: that in the face of Jesus Christ we see none other than the living God himself. Although the New Testament is not really anything like a textbook of systematic theology, there is nothing stated in the great creeds of the church which is not already explicitly or implicitly stated within its pages. Jesus is understood to act as God and for God: whoever sees him, sees God; when he speaks, he speaks with the authority of God; when he makes promises, he makes them on behalf of God; when he judges us, he judges as God; when we worship, we worship the risen Christ as God; and so forth.” Dr. McGrath goes on to characterize Jesus in his incarnate form as not actually comprising the fullness of God, but merely as a representative sample of God suitable for furnishing humanity with some comprehension, consistent with their limitations, of the far more complete spiritual God who resides in heaven. He claims in a similar vein that the Holy Spirit, like Jesus, is another manifestation of God, in this case one that indwells the believer, that furnishes another way by which redeemed mankind can encounter, or experience, God.

Dr. McGrath ends with this commentary: “We can now see why Christians talk about God being a ‘three-in-one’. One difficulty remains, however, which must be considered. How can God be three persons and one person at the same time? This brings us to an important point which is often not fully understood. The following is a simplified account of the idea of ‘person’ which may be helpful, although the reader must appreciate that simplifications are potentially dangerous. The word ‘person’ has changed its meaning since the third century when it began to be used in connection with the ‘threefoldness of God’. When we talk about God as a person, we naturally think of God as being one person. But theologians such as Tertullian, writing in the third century, used the word ‘person’ with a different meaning. The word ‘person’ originally derives from the Latin word persona, meaning an actor’s face-mask – and, by extension, the role which he takes in a play.

“By stating that there were three persons but only one God, Tertullian was asserting that all three major roles in the great drama of human redemption are played by the one and the same God. The three great roles in this drama are all played by the same actor: God. Each of these roles may reveal God in a somewhat different way, but it is the same God in every case. So when we talk about God as one person, we mean one person in the modern sense of the word, and when we talk about God as three persons, we mean three persons in the ancient sense of the word. It is God, and God alone, who masterminded and executes the great plan of salvation, culminating in Jesus Christ. It is he who is present and active at every stage of its long history. Confusing these two senses of the word ‘person’ inevitably leads to the idea the God is actually a committee, which, as we saw earlier, is a thoroughly unhelpful and confusing way of thinking about God.”

One certainly could not accuse Dr. McGrath of being a tritheist. On the other hand, despite his denial on the back cover of the book that he entertains the heretical notion of modalism, he’s on shaky ground there, being right on the edge or over it according to his own words.

Dr. Mcgrath is somewhat unique among other well-established theologians in that his scientific training has furnished him with an ability to be objective in his presentation and make use of useful intellectual tools such as models to make his points. Further, he at least addresses some notions that others avoid like the plague, as if they themselves might be infected by ideas they may have been taught were close to blasphemous. He has in common with the others, however, several notions regarding the Holy Spirit that are generally accepted within faithful Christendom: while all Members of the Trinity possess the same substance and are fully and equally God, they differ with respect to functional role; the role for the Holy Spirit conforms most closely to that associated with executive companion and motherhood; the Holy Spirit is a background Entity, more self-effacing than Father and Son; the Trinity (as confessed by the church) is a mystery beyond man’s comprehension. The ‘others’ who share these particular view with Drs. McGrath and Ware include Dr. Peter Masters (The Faith) and James R. White (The Forgotten Trinity).

I agree quite thoroughly with all of these points except the last, with which I disagree quite thoroughly. To me, the incomprehensibility in understanding the Trinity is another typical case of man’s brain outsmarting his heart. What should be an extremely simple and intuitive understanding, man has turned into a riddle, in the process wrapping himself tightly around the intellectual axle.

A case could be made that in the many attempts made by scholars of Scripture to describe the Holy Spirit, they end up implying an association of the Holy Spirit with Wisdom. Wisdom, of course, is given a lengthy treatment in Proverbs, with a female gender association.

As I have noted, I appreciated Dr. McGrath’s extensive use of models. I believe that they are so effective, as a matter of fact, that I’d like to offer one of my own: that of a war ship. In this model the commanding officer, or CO, would be the functional counterpart of the Father. Under rigid shipboard discipline there is only one leader of the entire vessel, and that is the CO. He must make the tough decisions and live with the consequences; correspondingly, it is his will, and his alone, that must be instantly obeyed by the rest of the crew. The counterpart of Jesus in this model is the action that results from the CO’s orders. The next in the chain of command is the executive officer, or XO. The XO has the responsibility of executing, or carrying out, the CO’s commands; like the XO’s counterpart the Holy Spirit, it is the XO who makes the will of the CO actually happen. While the XO is subordinate to the CO, he is in an understudy mode, being in constant readiness to assume command should some misfortune befall the CO. Therefore, the XO is capable of being CO, but willingly assumes a subordinate position for the sake of the ship’s welfare. One can readily perceive that the CO and XO are an interdependent pair, each having different but complementary functions. It is in these complementary functions that the CO serves in a male role and the XO in a female role. One might well argue that on a warship, both CO and XO are eminently masculine. Both, to be sure, are cut from the same masculine cloth, just as the Holy Spirit is male with respect to substance, proceeding from the Father. On the functional side of things, however, one must be careful to note that the XO doesn’t initiate the basic commands, but rather responds to them in a subordinate manner by carrying them out in fulfillment of the CO’s will. This responsive characteristic, I would assert, is eminently feminine. Note in this context the synergy in the complementary interaction, which indeed is suggestive of a male-female relationship. The only thing that could bring it closer and more effective would be the level of communication intrinsic to a love-based relationship, i.e. the marital union, which for that reason, in my mind, remains a more representative model of the relationship between Father and Holy Spirit than the shipboard chain of command.

Maybe it’s not the case with God, but in the (human) marriage union, there is some functional ambiguity. I would love to visualize a well-groomed lawn, thus commanding my wife to mow it promptly, watching benignly from my deck chair as she executes my edict forthwith. I don’t do that, however, comprehending somehow that it’s not going to work out as I would wish. The end result would be that I would mow the lawn anyhow and work under the additional burden of having to peer out of black and swollen eye sockets. At any rate, I’d much prefer doing a little grunt work while enjoying a loving relationship with my life partner that points to the way we were made by God.

Actually, my wife and I share an uncommonly happy relationship, much of which I attribute to our understanding of the Holy Spirit in a Family context. We view each other in terms of “complementary other”, which strengthens our mutual love, and, viewed as a representation of the Godhead, opens the door to a much closer bond with God. I have considered this appreciation of the nature of God to be so important that the desire to share it was a strong motivating factor in the writing of my book Buddy, which is available in ebook or paperback form either through Signalman Press or Amazon. While Buddy is primarily an adventure novel, it also presents a detailed rationale for considering the Holy Spirit to be, like the Church, functionally female.

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