Signpost for Sunday 11th. June, Trinity Sunday: Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a; Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20.
I have been reading some essays by Rowan Williams, and one of them reminded me of a word I have not seen for some time: pneumatology: (The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: “2. Theol. The, or a, doctrine of the Holy Spirit 1881”).
One essay that I read set me off on a line of thought, so I will try to formulate it in the context of the readings. The two short readings both include the Three-in-One form: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and are effectively an invitation to attempt to find out more about the Three-in-One from the rest of the New Testament.
There appears to be more than one way that the work of the Spirit is described. Luke seems to describe the Spirit as a sort of conduit, bringing sporadic and powerful interventions. In Acts, he uses phrases like Paul, filled with the Spirit, … and, Peter, filled with the Spirit… almost as if this was an abnormal event. Of course, since Luke is such a good story-teller, and takes care that what he records is accurate, his presentation may represent what those witnessing the events could actually perceive. Sometimes the people of God pick up this view and regard one or two things as the primary, or possibly the only, evidence of the work of the Spirit.
Ideas like this led the Corinthian congregation to ask questions, and Paul could respond in more depth and detail than could be provided in a book like Acts. In his letter to the Corinthians he gives an extended view of the gifts, given by the Spirit, for the common good of the people of God, but he adds: I will show you a more excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, and have not love, I am a noisy gong, or a clanging cymbal. This love enables the congregation to work together, and provides the framework in which the gifts can work for the common good.
In his letter to the Romans he writes: You did not receive a Spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirits that we are children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if in fact we suffer with him so that we may be glorified with him.
Here Paul explains that we are being drawn by the Spirit into the family of the Three-in-One. Here is the work of the Spirit. The Spirit brings us to new birth in the everlasting family: she gives us new life, we are born in the Spirit. (She seems to me to be the appropriate pronoun.)
But the family into which we are born is not a risk-free environment: The Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world, so we, as brothers and sisters also face risks. This is how the Three-in-One works as a unity.
Finally, John, in a letter sums things up for the redeemed part of the family: Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not been revealed. What we know is this: we will be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
Signpost for Sunday 22 May, 2016, Trinity Sunday: Prov 8:1-4,22-31; Ps 8; Rom 5:1-5; John 16:12-15.
When I was a third-year student at the Theological Hall, at Knox College, fifty years ago, I had to prepare two “exercises”. My predecessors had been required to prepare three – Old Testament, New Testament, and Theology, but Church History had assumed an equal status by my time, and rather than make us prepare four, we were reduced to two. Whew! I was fortunate to do Theology for Dr Nichol and New Testament for Dr Pollard. My Theology exercise was on “The Nature and Origin of Sin in the Theology of Emil Brunner”, and I have forgotten everything about it except the title. I still have my expensively typed and bound copy, and there is probably one in the Hewitson Library.
New Testament was a different kettle of fish. As a student, I was already an experienced lay preacher, and I saw no point on doing an extensive piece of exegesis if no sermon resulted. So that exercise has an appendix. I used that sermon in another exam requirement later that year, and have preached (and revised) it on a number of occasions since. It was on 1 Peter 3; 17 to 4; 6 and the Descent into Hell. I last used it on Easter Six, two years ago.
For the past three Trinity Sundays, Brye and Paul have tried to make a satisfying meal out of the Doctrine of the Trinity. At the same time they have questioned the purpose of the Classic Creeds. My experience of the Descent into Hell is leading me towards two conclusions about the Creeds. One is that we can do what I did in that sermon – find what can be rescued from the language of the three-decker universe and the other mythical accretions that cling to our historic presentations of the faith.
The other is a growing conviction that the main purpose of a Creed is discipline, or in many cases, the exercise of the power of exclusion. Adoptionism, Sabellianism, and Arianism are the doctrines that Paul told us last year were excluded by the earliest Creeds. These were largely found in the Patriarchy of Antioch, and the Antiochene Church took the Gospel to China and perhaps as far as Indonesia before the rise of Islam. There were Antiochene Patriarchs in Beijing and in Lhasa. The Patriarch of Beijing helped the Bhuddist missionaries in China translate their scriptures into Mandarin. Perhaps the Antiochene Church was not as amenable to discipline as the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Rome might have preferred. And they were heretics, so the Western Church wrote them out of the Western version of Church History. They are still around today. Twenty-five years ago I met the Antiochene Archbishop of Baghdad, for example.
The modern Anglican Church tried to draw up a new Creed to solve the modern problems it faces, but in spite of having a disproportionate number of New Zealanders on the committee, they failed; and the Windsor Declaration sank with little trace. It might prove a weapon in a future war within the church.
So my plea this Trinity Sunday is; please do not take the Creeds too seriously. They are only historic events. They are not sacred documents.