Doctrine for the Rest of Us
Week of Sunday June 3 - Trinity Sunday
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8The windblows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
In the desert of Central Australia there is a place called the Garden of Eden. You come to it after walking the high ridges around a deep inaccessible gorge, The garden is a sudden opening of the gorge, a protected place, filled with plants and pools. It is well named, a total contrast to the bare rock and gullies you have traversed.
It’s a place of wonder in a wild and mysterious landscape. This is the landscape of visions; harsh, dangerous, and yet deeply attractive in its mystery. The garden is held high up in the cupped hands of the gorge. It is enough to stand above it and watch; to simply be in its presence which cannot be entered.
When I first arrived at Kings Canyon, decades ago, even the roads were wild. There was some debate about whether the road would even be passable after recent rain; now it’s bitumen. There were no signs in the gorge; we followed a steep worn path up the side of the ridge, not knowing where we were going, careful on the loose footing.
High above the gorge were traces in the rocks, scrapings, little cairns, each indicating a rough path to follow. Someone had lashed together a bridge across a fissure in the rocks; old tree trunks and stones held together with that Australian staple, fence wire. Like many other visitors, I did not entrust my life to the bridge and tracked back up the fissure until it was narrow enough to cross.
Then we found the garden, too steep to climb down in unless you went further up the gorge. It was enough to simply be there.
Fifteen years later, we brought our young children to the Garden of Eden. There were steps down into the garden, built from permapine. The steps were surrounded with pine fence and neatly strained wire. It’s true that Grandma’s gopher could not make the trip, but it was safe to let a six year old wander on his own.
And although the place was pretty, it was also domesticated. It could almost have been a garden exhibit built in a city park.
This is doctrine. It fences in our experience of the Divine. It says, “This way is safe.”
Stay within the boundaries and you will, literally, be upon the straight and narrow. But to remain within the doctrine of National Parks and Wildlife is to follow a wooden path through a holy place.
Now that they have come and shown us the safe and proper way to reach the Garden of Eden, there is only one way to feel the mystery of the garden. It is to thank them for the service of getting us there a little more quickly, and a little less arduously than the old days, and then follow my six year old through the fence to sally off up the creek.
This is where the doctrine has guided us. Let us now take our eyes off the wooden rails and formulae and see instead the grandeur of the rocks, the green of the plants against red, and the life giving water of the gorge.
The early churches struggled with their experience of the Divine. They lived in a wild landscape of competing religion. Their Jewish heritage towered above them with majestic cliffs. Mystery religions, in all their Corinthian variety and excess, offered exciting short cuts down into the gorge, and the churches learned costly lessons about the loss of love. How did one point to and preserve the Pentecostal mystery and joy, and yet not remove its power, and seek to domesticate the Divine; not that you can domesticate the Divine, but you can build fences that cut you off.
The doctrine of the Trinity came out of the need to understand experience. It is not in the New Testament; the word does not exist there. Wikipedia says
Reflection by early Christians on passages such as the Great Commission: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit"[Matt 28:19] and Paul the Apostle's blessing: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all,"[2 Cor. 13:13] while at the same time the Jewish Shema Yisrael: "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one."[Deuteronomy 6:4]... led the early Christians to question which way the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in unity. Later, the diverse references to God, Jesus, and the Spirit found in the New Testament were systematized into a Trinity—one God subsisting in three persons and one substance—to combat heretical tendencies of how the three are related and to defend the church against charges of worshiping two or three gods.
The doctrine of the Trinity also protects experience. The grandeur of the Kings Canyon ridges also makes them an appalling place. The heat and the cold means they are no place to live. Get lost there, and you will die. We need the safe places of the gorge. And when we discover a place of safety which is also filled with wonder which brings us close to the living God, it is a place to protect and remember. We need the defined pathways of doctrine to help us not get lost, and to help us find our way back there.
We need only to remember that the doctrine is not the Divine.
My nephew was baptised last night. The preacher was a young man who is a plasterer by day. Instead of reading verse upon verse to us, and repeating formulae about baptisms and being saved; he climbed under the fences of doctrine and led us into the garden.
He talked about his hawk. A hawk is the flat trowel a plasterer uses. He showed us two hawks, one cleaned and the other dirty and neglected. He used the simple image of a clean hawk contrasted to one that is dirty, and which applies rough and uneven plaster with marks in it. I was moved by his words.
At one point, I began to feel he was climbing under a fence where it was not safe to go. He began to talk about judgement in ways that risked making God into a monster, but then scrambled back to safety as he talked about the love of Jesus.
Jesus shows us a safe way under the fence of doctrine so that it does not become deadening. In a sense, Jesus is Doctrine for the Rest of Us. He is the one who rescues those of us who find words like co-eternal, homoousios, and monothelitism impenetrable.
I see some of this in John 3.
I often forget that Nicodemus comes to Jesus, as a man of faith. Bill Loader says we see him as a stereotype; as one who does not ‘get’ what faith is about. And yet, as Bill says,
He comes affirming a ... faith: ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, because no one can do these miracles which you are doing unless God is with him’ (3:2). Not a bad confession of faith! (In fact, see John 10:38! But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.’)
Bill then makes this astonishing statement:
The issue is not Nicodemus, the unbeliever, but Nicodemus, the believer, facing Christ. The issue is not really conversion from unfaith to faith, but conversion from one kind of faith in Jesus to another.
In John 3, the problem Nicodemus has is that he is looking at the signs and the miracles, rather than the person of Jesus. The problem with looking at the signs, and having faith in the signs, is still with us. I quote Bill again.
If the primary evidence of God in Jesus (or anywhere else, for that matter) is miracles, then miracles will form the focus of faith and religious experience. Sometimes it will lead to a theology which finds God only in the extraordinary and does not find God in the ordinary. Often a sense of ethics and community suffers. Judging by the frequency with which New Testament writers address the issue, it must have been a common aberration (see the sample references above). It is not difficult to find the phenomenon today. If miracles do not keep coming, people make them up or generate them within or look for alternative stimulants or surrender in depression.
We could see something similar to this arriving from faith in doctrine rather than faith in Jesus. Richard Beck recently wrote about what he called orthodox alexithymia. (Alexithymia is, roughly, words without emotion.)
When theology and doctrine become separated from emotion we end up with something dysfunctional and even monstrous. A theology or doctrinal system that has become decoupled from emotion is going to look emotionally stunted and even inhuman. ... Orthodox alexithymia is produced when the intellectual facets of Christian theology, in the pursuit of correct and right belief, become decoupled from emotion, empathy, and fellow-feeling. Orthodox alexithymics are like patients with ventromedial prefrontal cortex brain damage. Their reasoning may be sophisticated and internally consistent but it is disconnected from human emotion. And without Christ-shaped caring to guide the chain of calculation we wind up with the theological equivalent of preferring to scratch a doctrinal finger over preventing destruction of the whole world. Logically and doctrinally such preferences can be justified. They are not "contrary to reason." But they are inhuman and monstrous.
What keeps us from this is “Christ-shaped caring.” It is what brought last night’s preacher back to safety from an inhuman and monstrous God. It is what we also call compassion, or mercy, which is the Jesus charged emotion that shapes love.
God help us when we have faith only in doctrine.
The difference between faith in Jesus and faith in signs, or faith in doctrine, is like being born and not born. It is like being alienated in and fearful of the desert, and then suddenly finding it is a place of God. It is like weeping over algebra in Year 8, uncomprehending, and then in Year 9 being able to see, and falling in love with its beauty.
To be taken from faith in miracles to relationship with Jesus is a gift from God.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that ‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ We could almost think there is nothing we can do. God might send the spirit wind our way, or God might not.
(I remember reading these verses with a sense of hopelessness; doctrine came to my rescue, as I remembered the words someone had said to me, that “God loves everyone and wants everyone to be saved.” That was a good fence that kept me from wandering off and being lost in despair!)
I think Jesus makes clear to Nicodemus that it is not simply a matter of waiting and hoping. We can do things that put us in the way of the wind.
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. Look up at the Son of Man. This is why God gives his only Son. Look at Jesus. Focus on him, and his being lifted up. Yes, the wind blows where it will, but by being focussed on the person of Jesus, you set your sails to catch the breeze and be propelled into a new appreciation of life.
So, there is One God. God (as “Father”) is the great creator and progenitor of all things. God is Jesus the Word who spoke to us; able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; ...one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.(Hebrews 4:15,5:2) He shows us what it is to be human. And there is the Spirit, enlivening us from Day One, breath of life, God always with us. This is the impenetrable mystery of God; the only way to make sense of something of which we cannot make sense, but only worship.
When I am ‘on the way’ on the high ridges of life, overwhelmed by grandeur, and when I am filled with joy and spirit, I will not be carrying several volumes on the theology of Trinity. But I will remember Jesus, who shows me what it is, and how, to be human. Thanks be to God.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Rick and Ted do the Trinity at agnusday.org