I remember a less than flattering incident when I was young. My sister and I wanted to watch different programs on TV. I think she wanted to watch ‘The Patty Duke Show’ and I wanted to watch ‘Lost in Space’. This was before the days of remote controls. So we sat in front of the TV for a whole hour switching stations to-and-fro, arguing over which program to watch. It wasn’t a pretty sight!
Some fights aren’t worth having. Some fights are worth having. The aim of today is to look at two early Christian thinkers who understood God’s self-revelation and who competently defended the truth of the Trinity. And then we’ll apply their insights as we look at two examples of modern day trinitarian controversy.
First, though, we must be clear about what we are defending. For the most important truth in the universe is not a complicated truth. Paul lays out the core facts in 1 Cor 15, ‘that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve’. The gospel is about the death and resurrection of Jesus. Everything we believe flows from the death and resurrection of Jesus. Everything we do flows from the death and resurrection of Jesus.
There are two sides, two book-ends, to this gospel. At the back-end are the activities of a triune God. The Father sends the Son who willingly dies as an atonement for sin. The Father raises the Son to head a new humanity. Then the Father and the Son send the Spirit into this world. The Spirit is the ‘Sanctifier’, the one who takes the death and resurrection of Jesus and makes this work count in our world. The engine room of the gospel is one God in three persons.
At the other end, at the front-end of the gospel, is the redemption of creation. The new heavens and the new earth. And caught up in this cosmic sweep are those who put their faith in Jesus. As Paul says in Rom 10:9, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’. Saved from what? Saved from the final destruction of this broken world. Saved from the condemnation of sin and the power of death. Saved for a new, eternal home so beautiful that its beyond description.
On that fateful day on a plain in Shinar, humanity collectively turned its back upon God. ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches for the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth’ (Gen 11:4). Not a name for God, but a name for ourselves. A world without God. Now there is conflict. Whose name will ultimately rule the world? The name of men and women? Or the name of the Lord who owns the universe and built it for his glory?
Here is the fodder for a good fight. But it’s not a fight between equals. For as Paul tells us in Colossians, the Lord Jesus has already ‘disarmed the powers and authorities, he has made a public spectacle of them, victoriously defeating them by the cross’ (Col 2:15). In this conflict the stakes are high, but the outcome is assured.
So the bell rings and its time for round one.
Irenaeus lived about 100 years after the crucifixion of Jesus (130–200 AD). He belonged to the generation after the Apostles—the age of early Christianity. Irenaeus is best known for his work ‘Against Heresies’ (180 AD). Don’t you love it? It’s catchy title and bound to win friends.
Irenaeus refers to false teachers this way:
These men falsify the oracles of God, and prove themselves evil interpreters of the good word of revelation. They also overthrow the faith of many, by drawing them away, under a pretence of [superior] knowledge. […] By means of specious and plausible words, they cunningly allure the simple-minded to inquire into their system; but they nevertheless clumsily destroy them (Adv. Haer. 1, Pref. 1).
Irenaeus is thinking particularly of Valentinus and the absurd ideas of his disciples. Valentinus taught that what is eternal, what is divine, cannot come in contact with what is material, what is earthy and solid. He taught that there is a huge gap between God and his creation. He said that the supreme being is irreversibly separated from this world.
If we following this thinking then the Lord Jesus Christ cannot be God. For how can he be when the divine and material are forever separate? Fully man but never fully God. According to Valentinus, the eternal Son wasn’t born a virgin and the divine-Christ was loosely connected to the human Jesus. The eternal Son did not suffer and die. In this form of Gnosticism, the Son is an inferior being, created by the Father and unable to reveal the truth about the Father.
Valentinus dismembers the Trinity. In this system, the gospel is torn to shreds because of the great abyss between this world and heaven. The Son and the Spirit are less significant beings. So, according to Valentinus, how is one saved? When life ends there must be a desire to escape from the material world. And a person must work their way through the intermediate space until he reaches heaven. It’s old fashioned salvation by works.
Irenaeus did what any Bible-believing person should do: he picked up his Bible and looked for answers. And after studying the word of God, he proposed a three-fold answer. First, he put the Trinity back together again by stressing the oneness of God in three persons. There is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Three persons sharing the divine nature as one God.
Second, Irenaeus argued there is no abyss between God and this world. As Irenaeus read his Bible, he could see that there is nothing wrong with God having direct contact with creation. When he read Genesis 1, he noticed what we notice—that God made the world. It was made to glorify him. Matter is not intrinsically evil. When God said ‘Let us make man in our own image’ (Gen 1:26) he did not get the angels to do his dirty work. Irenaeus speaks of the Father creating using his ‘two hands’: the Son (being one hand) and the Spirit (on the other hand) by whom and in whom he made all things.
Irenaeus then goes onto argue that the eternal Son collided with this world, that he was born a virgin and that he is identical with Christ the Saviour. The Word of God became man, the Son of God became the Son of Man. Irenaeus says, ‘that what we had lost in Adam—namely, to be according to the image and likeness of God—that we might recover in Christ Jesus’ (Against Heresies 3.18.1). Irenaeus noticed that there is a descending grace from heaven: from the Father, through the Son to the Spirit. A ladder from heaven descending into our world. Then a reverse movement from us: from the Spirit, through the Son, to the Father. The Trinity entered this world and engaged this world for our sake and for the redemption of creation.
Third, and contrary to Valentinus, God not only has direct contact with his creation but he is also distinct from his creation. There can be no confusion between God and this world. There can be no pantheism. God stands over and above this world and he is intimately involved with this world.
The brand of spirituality associated with Valentinus won’t go away. New Age isn’t so ‘new age’. Valentinus pillages the Trinity and what we get is old-fashion salvation by works, whether it be by crystals or tarot cards, secret codes or fasting or self-denial. Astrology is the ‘exchanging of the glory of the immortal God for (celestial) images’ (Rom 1:23).
Irenaeus takes us back to the word of God. There is one God in three persons who created this world, who sustains this world and who rescues this world. The eternal Son became flesh, fully God and fully man. He alone ‘was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people’ (Heb 9:28). We don’t need second class mediators for Christ himself is the mediator of the new covenant (Heb 9:15).
The bell rings and its time for round two.
We are no longer in the age of early Christianity. We are in the age of the Christian Empire which begins some 247 years after the death of the Apostles Peter and Paul. The Roman Empire is still around, but is not longer an openly hostile force. In the days of the apostles, persecution and hostility came from the Jewish people. Men like Stephen were stoned to death. Then in 70 AD, the Roman Empire became the sparring partner which climaxed with the Great Persecution under the Emperor Diocletian in 303. But when the Emperor Constantine was converted in nine years later, the church found time to once again seriously fight amongst itself.
The controversy was largely over the person and work of Jesus. Athanasius was a key figure whose influence is seen between 256 and 346 AD. Athanasius is described by one historian as ‘wily, brutal and unscrupulous, and he was harsh and unforgiving to his opponents’. (The ideal Presbyterian minister!) However, the same writer goes onto say, ‘His strength lay [in] his perception that the Christian doctrine of redemption required the sharing of the same substance by Father, Son and Spirit’ (W. Frend, The Early Church, 146). Athanasius understood his Bible and he was committed to defending the truth of God’s revelation in Jesus.
After Irenaeus, discussions about the Trinity drilled deeper into the relationship between Jesus and the eternal Father. However, there was still a tendency to think about the Son as a lesser being, subordinate to the Father.
This is when the bombshell hit hard! Arius was an influential priest in Alexandria, Egypt. In some ways he sounds much like Valentinus. Arius argued that the Son of God was not eternal. He said that the Son had a beginning, that he was created. Therefore there was a time when the Son did not exist. Arius said that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are divided and differ from one another. But Arius went a little further than Valentinus. He wanted a new orthodoxy, he wanted the church to worship a Jesus who was someone less than divine. Arius wanted Christians to worship a creature rather than the Creator himself.
It sounds like a no-brainer! Surely no-one would swallow this lie! The trouble for the church was that Arius and his followers were great salesmen. They could sell ice to the Eskimos and they could sell false teaching to the church. Arius and friends came up with a powerful little jingle, ‘There was when he was not’. Remember that music is a great way to not only teach the truth, but also spread mistruth. With echoes of Valentinus, Arius wanted to protect God from creation, he wanted to shield God from human experiences and suffering. He said that Jesus was a kind of middle being, neither God nor man nor angel, but somewhere in between God and the highest kind of creature.
What happens in a theological emergency? We call a Session meeting. We get the elders together. And in 325 AD all the bishops got together at the Council of Nicea and they collectively said that Arius was wrong. The Council issued a creed which said that the Son is one and the same in nature with God the Father.
But don’t think the problem’s sorted. Arius continues his agitation and his propaganda and his intrigue. And right now the wheels are falling off the cart. There were Arians and semi-Arians and creeds and rumours and innuendos. Some people saying the Son is the same as the Father (homoousious), others are saying he is simply like the Father (homoiousios). And the battle raged across the church.
This brings us back to Athanasius. ‘Who ever thought, he exclaimed, ‘that having abolished the worship of creatures we are to return to it again’. Elsewhere he writes, ‘If our Saviour is neither God nor the Word nor the Son then let the Arians no longer be ashamed to think and talk as pagans and Jews do’ (Macleod, Shared Life, 39–40).
So how did Athanasius respond to the pronounced that Jesus was created by God? What do you say when the deity of Christ is challenged?
Macleod sums up Athanasius well. ‘The very heart of Christianity, as [Athanasius] saw it, was that Christ be worshipped, and the church’s concept of him must agree with her practice. Arianism would be idolatry; the worship of a creature […] A Christ who is less than divine could never be a real Saviour. If he himself were not truly the Son of God, how could we become sons of God through him?’ (Macleod, Shared Life, 39–40).
At the cross a great exchange took place: Christ took upon himself our sins and we received his righteousness. Athanasius also noticed that a great exchange also took place in the Incarnation. In becoming man, Christ took upon himself what it means to be human. He did this to be our representative. He did this in order to be the head of a new humanity. In exchange, Jesus gave humanity the grace of being able to partake in the divine nature. As Athanasius himself said, ‘He was made man that we might be made God’ (Letham, 130). Have you ever considered that if there were no exchange at the Incarnation, there could be no exchange at the cross? Athanasius urges us to read our Bibles well.
We learn the lot about the Trinity by considering men like Irenaeus and Athanasius who laboured to clarify the Bible during turbulent times. We can admire their strength and commitment to defending the truth. But the temptation is to leave these men behind. To admire and to move on. To allow cobwebs to collect on our spiritual heritage. But the Teacher in Ecclesiastes says, ‘Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before’ (Ecc 3:15). There is nothing new under the sun, the things of old carry on in a new way.
The bell rings and its time for round three.
I’ve had Jehovah’s Witnesses knock on my door a few times. These well meaning folk are modern day Arians. What they believe appears regularly in their magazine, ‘The Watch Tower’. Here it is declared that ‘Jehovah is the only true God and is the maker of heaven and earth and the Giver of life to his creatures’. We may well assent to this belief. After all, God is the ‘only true God’. And is he not the ‘maker of heaven and earth’? Is he not the ‘Giver of life to his creatures’?
However, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christ is a creature who had a beginning. Can you hear Athanasius? ‘Who ever thought that having abolished the worship of creatures we are to return to it again’. Jehovah’s Witnesses say that Jesus was the Chief Executive Officer of God. He was the archangel Michael. They say he was a god but not an eternal God. They say that Jesus did not share the same divine essence as Jehovah.
These thoughts arise from a version of the Bible called the ‘New World Translation’. The word ‘version’ needs to be taken lightly, for as Macleod says, it contains ‘unsophisticated reflections of theological bias’ (Macleod, 130). For example, come with me to Titus 2:13, where Paul refers to ‘the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ’. We read this as meaning that Jesus is two things: he is our great God and he is our Saviour. But what happens if we say that there are two persons here? First, our great God; second, our Saviour, who is the lesser being of Jesus?
There about eighty other places in the New Testament where a grammatical construction such as this refers to one and the same person. The Greek grammar irrefutably says (Sharp’s Rule) that there is one person referred to in this verse, who is both our God and our Saviour. Athanasius reminds us to look at the bigger picture. He takes us to the Incarnation and the cross and the great exchanges that work for our salvation only if Jesus is God in the flesh. Athanasius reminds us that at the heart of Christianity is worshipping the Christ who is the eternal, second person of the Trinity.
If Jehovah’s Witnesses have a low view of Christ, then they have an even lower view of the Holy Spirit whom they refer to as the ‘invisible, active force of God’. So the New World Translation capitalises words which refer to God and Christ, but it never capitalises the word ‘spirit’. So the Spirit is depersonalised and referred to as an ‘it’. For example, in Rom 8:16, ‘The spirit (lower case) itself (not himself) bears witness with our spirit’.
Jehovah’s Witness so stress the unity of God that they relegate the Son and the Spirit to lesser beings. They are Unitarians, modern day Arians, and so a study of the Arian Controversy and watching how men like Athanasius handle the word of God helps us mount a firm response to modern day Arianism.
Next in line is the best selling book by William Paul Young called, ‘The Shack’. It’s sold about 10 million copies and you can buy the book at Koorong for $16.95. In this work of fiction, Mackenzie Philips' youngest daughter, Missy, goes missing on suspicion of being murdered in an abandoned shack. Four years later, in the midst of his sadness, Mack receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, inviting him back to the shack for a weekend. So God and Mac spend a weekend at the shack as Mac wrestles with the question, ‘Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain’?
The Trinity is a central idea in the book. And whether it be fiction or not, the book is designed to shape the way we think about and approach God. So when Isaiah approaches God, he sees ‘the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up’ (Isaiah 6:1). The glory of the Lord brings him to his knees, ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips’ (Isaiah 6:5). When we read Irenaeus and Athanasius, we see that they have a deep sense of the holiness of God. But in ‘The Shack’ we find a man who stands in the presence of a triune God and he uses foul language, he expresses anger at God and he snaps at God in his anger. There is no sense of awe as we, through Mac, come into the presence of God.
The book represents God the Father as Papa who is an African-American woman. Notice the masculine name but the Father is a woman. Jesus is in the form of a man of Middle-Eastern appearance and the Holy Spirit is portrayed as an Asian woman named Sarayu. Within this confusing representation of the Trinity, there are two points for us to notice.
First, the book falls into modalism which means at best blurring the distinctions between the Trinity. Remember last week, remember the confusion faced by Tertullian? Praxeus confused the persons in the Trinity. So when Mac is speaking to Papa, he notices the scars on her wrists, the same scars inflicted upon Jesus on the cross. And here we see Papa, the Father, with scars on her wrists. But the Father was not on the cross! It was only ever Jesus who became human, only he is the God-man, only he is God made flesh. We must maintain proper distinctions between the members of the Trinity. The Father is not the Son, nor is the Son the Father. Young confuses the roles within the Trinity.
Second, Young removes the idea of submission from the Trinity as repugnant to reason. We shall talk about this more next week, but from the Trinity we learn that authority and submission are good. The Son submits to the Father, and the Spirit submits to the Son and the Father, and this happens without compromising equality in worth and essence. But Young goes as far as to say that submission itself is inherently evil—that its possible only where there is sin.
Conclusion. The Trinity will always attract controversy. Men such as Irenaeus and Athanasius confirm our confidence in the Bible as the Word of God and teach us how to handle the Bible in the face of controversy. As the Apostle Paul says, ‘For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God’ (1 Cor 1:18).