Bible Struggle

A dialogue about the Bible

Recently MF from the USA wrote to freelance theology, expressing some personal difficulties with the Bible. Below is the exchange of ideas between MF and Jon the freelance theologian.

MF wrote:
Here’s a question that is more about the Bible itself than what’s in it. It’s kind of a complaint about the Bible. You’re an expert and live in it. But what are the rest of us supposed to do? I recently bought a book about how to read the Bible. My problems are pretty typical. I can’t remember what I read from day to day. Sometimes a passage just doesn’t connect for me, even when I can tell it’s important.

It feels hopeless sometimes. The Bible is IT, Christianitywise. But it’s a million pages long … it’s written often from a very, very different cultural perspective than any I am familiar with … (like, modern people don’t have “Lords” any more, so the image now seems distant and medieval).

I’m no scholar or linguist. I need my mind to make a living! But this book suggests I find mind-space to understand exegesis, hermeneutics, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic … all these things, while still needing inspiration, clarity, and sometimes comfort.

Here’s my complaint. Why did God – the great leveller – give us a primary way of knowing him that ordinary people can’t ever be good at?

You would think the creator of atoms and galaxies could have found a more elegant way for us to know him. Often, I am out in the woods, where I pray and take my rest – and feel God to be walking with me there far more than in my readings. That doesn’t seem right, and it distances me from the ardour of fellow Christians.

I’m smart, but I’m not academically smart. I’m also old (54), so the idea of mastering this thing in my lifetime is starting to seem impossible. Don’t get me wrong. I love God. I love the poetry. I love the stories. But how can a normal guy get a handle on ALL THIS STUFF?

In response, Jon the freelance theologian wrote:

All I can say is don’t get too hung up on this. I know that sounds odd, but Christians can be very good at feeling guilty for not doing things ‘right’ or being holy enough. Ironically, there is no explicit statement in the Bible commanding Christians to have a ‘quiet time’ or spend hours and hours reading the Bible trying to make sense of it.

The thing is – and it’s important to admit this as intelligent people, despite what some fundamentalists will say – the Bible is often obscure, confusing and can be incredibly boring in places. Not everybody has the time to learn the original languages, study the cultural contexts and then apply them to the frenzy that is 21st century life. It’s better to admit that you don’t have the time to understand a complex document than do what some people do and say that it’s really simple and contains all the answers to life. Waving a Bible around, in the manner of some well-known ‘Bible teachers’, and calling it the Word of God doesn’t make it easier to read and apply. In fact the more you wave it around, the less time you have to study it.

There’s nothing wrong with opting to read the more straightforward parts of the Bible, like the Gospels and Acts, some of the Psalms and Paul’s letters, particularly the shorter ones (you might get more out of the letters to Timothy than the mammoth theological treatise which is the letter to the Romans). It’s very rare you need to know what obscure passages in Jeremiah mean, or who begat who in Chronicles, or anything much to do with Revelation.

Also, while the Bible might be “IT”, the Christian perception of God is as an active God, working in the lives of Christians through the Holy Spirit ever since Pentecost. Reading other stuff is allowed – and it doesn’t have to be weighty theological tomes either. If you have the time to read at all, a balanced diet of contemporary teaching and easily understood bits of the Bible should keep you spiritually healthy (and sane).

However, your main question – why did God chose to reveal himself this way? – is worth a second look and there are a number of points to be made.

Firstly, as mentioned above, Christians perceive God as active and involved through the Holy Spirit, both in the lives of individuals and in the corporate life of gathered believers (or ‘church’). The Bible as the record of God’s dealing with humanity is a product of the earliest believing communities. Christianity differs significantly from Islam with regard to the Holy Book. In Islam, the Qur’an is the divine revelation and Mohammed is the means by which humans received the revelation. In contrast, in Christianity Jesus Christ is the revelation of God and the Bible is the means by which human beings learn about Jesus.

Unfortunately, too often in the protestant evangelical world, there has been a subconscious adoption of an Islamic-style reverence for Scripture. The Bible is hugely important for Christians – that goes without saying. It is the only trustworthy record of events Christians have regarding the life of Jesus. It has subsequently been recognised as authoritative and divinely-inspired by nearly two thousand years of continuous Christian witness. But it is not the means that God chose to reveal himself to the world. God’s ultimate chosen method, in Christian theology, is through the Incarnation – the life, ministry, example, sacrificial death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Christ.

The second point follows on from the statement that the Bible, as found today, is the product of the believing community. During the first couple of centuries of the Christian Church, there were debates over which writings should be referred to as being accurate. Just like today, there were plenty of people who had their own ‘unique’ (i.e. weird) theological ideas. To prevent people from creating their own Christian or semi-Christian sects, the leaders of the early Church compiled a list of books that were deemed accurate and authoritative.

This formation of what became known as the ‘canon of Scripture’ was a lengthy process. The decisions were made based on a number of factors, the primary ones being how long the books had been in existence and whether they were written by the Apostles or those close to them. It was not a popularity contest, but another key element was how much the various books were used and by how many churches.

It could be said then, that the Bible has had its authority conferred on it by Christians. This does not necessarily undermine its authority. The ongoing action of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church implies that the formation of a set canon was God-intentioned. The canon was declared ‘closed’ in order to prevent people adding the ‘revelations’ they had received and there have been many such people from the second and third century Montanists through to Joseph Smith who founded the Mormon Church in the nineteenth century. But the doctrine of a ‘closed canon’ does not mean that God cannot speak into any time or place of His choosing. Again, as already mentioned above, good teaching from any age may be more accessible and helpful to an individual than certain sections of the Bible.

Finally, the people chosen to write the Bible were, by and large, ‘ordinary guys’ too. They did some extraordinary things and lived through some extraordinary times, but they were ordinary human beings, prone to doubt, unbelief, sin and failure. Their stories make up the record of God interacting with humanity and there is something encouraging about that. Sometimes the people who wrote what we read were so ordinary their names are not recorded in the Bible at all. God uses ‘ordinary guys’, even if they cannot get a handle on everything.

Visitors commenting on freelance theology

Question from SS, could be UK or USA

I’ve been interested to read your site for a few days, and would have liked to follow up on a few things. I wondered if you had considered adding comments to your site, or whether you had decided against it for various reasons (e.g. – increased time demands).

As some of the topics (e.g. Islam, homosexuality etc) can provoke an impassioned response among people, it is more appropriate to encourage further questions or comments by email. These are occasionally published on freelance theology as ‘dialogues’. This is the best way to maintain the impartiality of the site, as commentators could post offensive, obscure or irrelevant comments that would undermine the ethos behind freelance theology.

If you would like to comment about anything you read on freelance theology, then please feel free to email. All emails are acknowledged and almost all questions are answered, although some answers may take some time!

Dust to Dust

Question from AH, United Kingdom

Is there a particularly Christian way of burying our dead? Should it be done the old-fashioned way without cremation, just putting them 6 feet under, or is cremation an OK way to spend your afterlife? Would there be a difference if you cremated someone, ‘urned’ them and dug them down, or just cremated them and scattered the ashes in the wind?

It used to be that the Christian community insisted on full burial as the only proper way to ensure the glorified resurrection as promised in Scripture. Later, as a means of exerting its power, the established Church insisted that burial should take place in consecrated ground.

There is no specific means of disposing of a body outlined in the New Testament. Believers will receive new, immortal, perfect bodies upon the resurrection (see 1 Corinthians chapter 15, verses 35-55). While within the early Christian communities burial was presumably the norm, following on from Jewish tradition, Paul makes it quite clear that whatever the eventual fate of the body, the believer has already been ‘buried with Christ’ through the rite of baptism (Romans 6, verse 4, see also Colossians 2, verse 12). This is the death that matters to Paul – the death of the ‘old self’. The resurrection, when it happens, will occur ‘in the twinkling of an eye’ when ‘the dead will be raised imperishable’ (1 Corinthians 15, verse 52).

In the passage in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul notes that, as with seeds, there is a difference between what is ‘sown’ and what is ‘raised’ and there is also continuity. Wayne Grudem comments: “On this analogy we can say that whatever remains in the grave from our own physical bodies will be taken by God and transformed and used to make a new resurrection body.” [Grudem, Systematic Theology, IVP 1994, p.833] This explains how the sea will ‘give up the dead who are in it’ on judgment day, as described in Revelation chapter 20, verse 13.

The Bible is quite aware that bodies decompose; dust returning to dust (Genesis 3, verse 19). Yet it would seem that is quite a trivial problem to a God who can take whatever remains and refashion the physical body in a perfect and incorruptible form.

The claim that Jesus descended into hell in the Apostle’s Creed

Question from GT, United Kingdom

Before communion in my church we say the Apostles’ Creed, which includes the phrase “He descended into hell” (referring to Jesus). This doesn’t get mentioned all that much when the Easter story is told – where does this bit of information come from, and how much do we know about it? The Apostles’ Creed also includes a profession of belief in “the Holy Catholic Church” – doesn’t this seem a slightly odd thing to be saying in a church that isn’t Catholic? Where does the Apostles’ Creed come from?

As Christianity spread in the first few centuries after the death of Christ, there arose a need for a statement of belief that defined the ‘gospel’ in clear terms. The fore-runners to the Apostles’ Creed as we know it today are the earliest and simplest ways that Christians arranged their beliefs in a set pattern. Later the Nicene Creed expanded on these simple statements, although technically the Nicene Creed found in many of today’s churches is not the finished article from the Council of Nicea in 325AD, but the longer version, which includes a clause about the Holy Spirit and was ratified at the Council of Constantinople in 381AD.

The origins of the Apostles’ Creed are not known exactly, but creeds with similar phrases began appearing in early Christian liturgies (set, formal words spoken in church services) very quickly. However, unlike the Nicene Creed, which was the product of a gathering of theologians, the Apostles’ Creed was not written or officially approved at any specific time. It gradually took shape and most of it has been part of the liturgy of the Western Church since at least the time of Augustine (354-430) in the fifth century. There was a belief, promoted by Augustine, that the Twelve Apostles (with Matthias replacing Judas Iscariot cf. Acts chapter 1) composed it after the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, with each apostle contributing a line or particular statement of the creed.

The descent into Hell first appeared in a statement of faith called the Aquileian Creed in the fourth century and was obviously an element of popular Christian belief that was deemed important enough to become part of the basic teaching of the Church. It is based mainly on two references in the first epistle of Peter. In 1 Peter chapter 3, verses 18-20, Jesus is described as being “…put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.” The ‘spirits’ referred to are viewed by commentators as being either fallen angels or sinful human beings now resident in the underworld. The ‘prison’ has a certain resonance with the Old Testament concept of Sheol, the grave or pit. But the wider context of this passage could mean that those ‘spirits in prison’ were people who heard the message of judgment and failed to repent in the time of Noah. The writer might just be saying that the pre-existent Christ inspired Noah’s ‘message’. (For more on this see Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, IVP 1994 pp 589-592).

In 1 Peter chapter 4 Christ is described as judging the ‘living and the dead’, “For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged [equally with living men]” (verse 6). Whether this is a correct interpretation of this verse is open to debate. The writer of 1 Peter may be talking about people who have heard the gospel while alive and then subsequently died. However, in terms of early Christian use of Scripture and given the comment shortly before, this has been interpreted to mean that Jesus’ death was somehow retroactive.

A heroic descent into the underworld to rescue the spirits of those who had died was a popular theme in the myths of the region and so it was not difficult for early Christians to accept their hero doing the same. The descent into Hell allowed the early Christians to sidestep the tricky question of what happens to those who died without ever hearing the gospel and meant they could confidently proclaim Abraham, Moses, David et al as being in Heaven.

In fact the whole phrase, in the earliest versions of the creed to include it, use the Greek word ‘Hades’ meaning ‘grave’ rather than ‘Gehenna’, which means ‘place of punishment’. It could be that the original statement was ‘he descended to the grave’, i.e. ‘he was buried’. It is highly likely that somewhere along the line two versions of the creed – one saying ‘he was buried’ and the other saying ‘he descended into Hades’ – were merged, leading to the idea of Christ descending into Hell. There is a Platonic edge to this, with Jesus’ body committed to a grave, while his heroic spirit descended to the (real) grave, i.e. Sheol/Hades/Hell. Medieval theology, which relied heavily on Platonism, could see Jesus’ burial in the garden tomb as representative of his journey to the final resting place of humanity. It would seem that the Biblical ‘support’ for the phrase is secondary with Scriptural passages being interpreted to justify an established and popular doctrine, rather than the other way around.

There remain some Biblical problems with the idea of a descent into Hell. Jesus’ words to the penitent thief on the cross (“today you will be with me in paradise” – Luke 23, verse 13) imply that Jesus did not descend into hell after he died. In the account in the fourth gospel, Christ’s work is “finished” when he dies on the cross (John 19 verse 30). Again in Luke, Jesus commits his spirit to the Father as he dies (Luke 23, verse 46). These inconsistencies with the idea of a descent into Hell are difficult to resolve, but it is possible to view the phrase as figurative rather than literal – in dying to atone for a world under judgment those who believe can avoid Hell as their ultimate destination.

The final statement of the Apostles’ Creed is confusing because of how lazy Christians have become in classifying churches. ‘Catholic’ is probably derived from the Greek adverb ‘kath’ holou’, meaning ‘on the whole’ and in terms of the Church it means ‘universal’, ‘widespread’ and ‘covering a broad range’. It soon came to mean ‘orthodox’ as well, as opposed to the many sects that called themselves churches in the early days of Christianity. So, for example Augustine contrasts the Catholic Church, which adhered to the ‘true faith’ with the schismatic Donatist church in North Africa.

Technically contemporary churches that are referred to as ‘Catholic’ should be called ‘Roman Catholic’ because they adhere to the teachings and apostolic authority of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. By dropping the adjective ‘Roman’ there is a danger of believing other churches are not catholic. In fact, every church that proclaims the true faith derived from the Bible and the teaching of the apostles as preserved in the traditions of the earliest churches is a Catholic Church.

I hope that answers a few of your questions about the Apostles’ Creed, GT. Thanks for contributing to freelance theology.

God’s Handwriting

Question from MF, USA

In what language were the 10 Commandments written by the finger of God, or even by Moses, given that the Hebrew people had no written language at the time? Egyptian hieroglyphics? Phoenician? Assyrian cuneiform? Or did the Hebrews have a written language hundreds of years before the Babylonian Captivity?

The Ten Commandments (also known as the Decalogue) are recorded in Hebrew in chapter 20 of the Book of Exodus and chapter 5 of Deuteronomy. According to these accounts, Yahweh wrote on the original stone ‘tablets’ and gave them to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 32 verse 16; Deut. 5 verse 22,). Moses then smashed the tablets when he saw the idol of the Golden Calf that had been set up in his absence by the Israelites (Exodus 32, verses 15-19). Later, after the Levite priesthood slaughtered the idolaters (Exodus chapter 32, verses 25-35), God instructed Moses to chisel out new tablets, on which he would write the words again (Exodus chapter 34, verse 1, Deut. 10, verses 2-4).

Hebrew as a distinct language has been found in documents and inscriptions dating back to 1000 BC. The exodus and subsequent conquest of Canaan are usually dated by Biblical historians at sometime between 1300-1200 BC. This means there are only 300 years between known examples of written Hebrew (admittedly a primitive dialect) and the events at Mount Sinai.

Hebrew itself seems to belong to the Canaanite family of Semitic languages, along with Phoenician, Moabite and possibly Ugaritic. The word ‘Hebrew’ itself is not used of the language until the Hellenistic period, shortly before the time of Christ. The other major Semitic language family in the area was Aramaic, which due to the conquest of Israel had become the principal language of the common people in Christ’s day, with Hebrew being retained in religious settings – the Temple, synagogues and religious writings.

The ‘Hebrew slaves’ in Egypt at the beginning of the book of Exodus probably spoke a rudimentary form of Hebrew that was very similar to other Canaanite languages. This was probably their identifying feature among the many slave communities that existed in Egypt at that time. Presumably it was spoken by the Israelites during the exodus, which is why they were able to relate to the Moabites so well. In Numbers chapter 25 the men of Israel are ‘seduced’ by Moabite women and begin worshipping the Moabite Gods. Roots in a common language would explain why, after leaving the radically different culture of Egypt, the Israelites found it so easy to lose their ‘unique’ identity, simply because it was no longer unique.

If the events recorded regarding the giving of the Ten Commandments on Sinai are true, then it is likely that the ‘Yahweh-inscribed’ stone tablets were written in Hebrew. However, there is no way of verifying this, as Moses placed the second set in the now-lost Ark of the Covenant (Deut 10, verse 5). What we do know is that the only records we have of the Ten Commandments are in Hebrew – they do not appear in other languages until translated from the Hebrew centuries later.

Faith in the Incredible

Freelance theology is dedicated to answering every theological query, but obviously some of the answers encourage further questions. Here is one such dialogue between Jon the freelance theologian and MM, United Kingdom.

MM wrote
I have just read your response to the question posted about the ‘eternal gulf’, as experienced by CM in relation to their Muslim friend. It was good to read an independent and serious Christian opinion on this, but I feel you have made one crucial mistake. Referring to the Incarnation of Jesus, you describe the claims surrounding it as ‘incredible’; whilst this may be understood as an expression of awe, in literal terms the word chosen means ‘not able to be believed’. As you have explained the root of the word ‘creed[s]’ in your response to the question ‘What does the Bible say about the Trinity?’, it seems a shame to use the word in a way that could trip up a pedantic reader, or one who does not accept the truth of the Incarnation.

Jon the freelance theologian responded
There is a reference within the context of the article (‘Uncommon Ground’) to how the Islamic comprehension of God allows no possibility for the Incarnation: “The claim that Jesus is the “Son of God” is nonsensical to a Muslim, because the Qur’anic view of God is absolutely monotheistic.” In this sense, something that Christians take for granted is ‘beyond belief’ for a Muslim.

Even within Christianity, the Incarnation remains a difficult concept to grasp, involving as it does various paradoxical statements. Most theologians would eventually admit that a certain amount of faith comes into play once the spheres of reasoned argument and historical study come to an end. Technically, ‘incredible’ means ‘hard to believe or imagine’, and can be used informally to mean ‘marvellous or amazing’ (Collins English Dictionary). All of those definitions can be applied to the Incarnation.

Original questions or comments on previous posts are welcomed – just write to freelance theology.

Was there rain before the flood?

Question from JT, United Kingdom

In The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, he claims that there wasn’t any rain until the flood. So my question is: “Did Noah ever see rain before the flood?”

The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren’s popular devotional book, approaches the Bible from a certain viewpoint, namely a literalist understanding of Scripture. This approach can actually have it’s advantages, but care is needed on asserting ‘facts’ from Scripture, particularly if the Bible is less than clear on some things. Also, it assumes that for Scripture to contain absolute truth, it has to be factually correct throughout.

In the section of the book in question, Rick Warren is trying to draw an important principle from the Noah story and he points out that there are many reasons why Noah could have decided not to build the Ark. “First, Noah had never seen rain, because prior to the Flood, God irrigated the earth from the ground up. Second, Noah lived hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean… Third, there was the problem of rounding up all the animals…” (op. cit. p.71)

The subject of Noah’s flood has appeared previously on freelance theology and it seems that many people get hung up on the mechanics of the Flood without considering the point of the story. The idea that Noah had never seen rain is a case in point. Creationist accounts of the formation of the world often use Genesis chapter 2 verses 5-6 (“Yahweh had not sent rain upon the earth… but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground”) to explain why the Flood was such an unexpected catastrophe. The Flood was caused when the ‘water in the sky’ (that had been put there in Genesis chapter 1 verse 7) was released without warning. Incidentally, Creationists often credit this ‘water in the sky’ as the reason for humankind’s longevity before the Flood, as it may have filtered out harmful solar rays and the like.

The problem with this kind of scientific (and the word is used loosely) exposition of Genesis is that the bigger issues of the Creation stories, namely the marring of God’s image in humanity and the failed relationship between creator and creature, are often lost behind complicated explanations. Rick Warren’s exposition of the bigger issue – namely Noah’s faithfulness to God’s commands, despite the circumstances – is more important. “If God asked you to build a giant boat, don’t you think you might have a few questions, objections, or reservations? Noah didn’t. He obeyed God whole-heartedly. That means doing whatever God asks without reservation or hesitation.” (Warren, op. cit. p.72) Ironically, the throwaway reference to disputable theology has perhaps hindered the effectiveness of his message.

Nice things people say

It’s always encouraging when people write and say nice things about freelance theology and occasionally some of them are recorded for posterity.

From CP: Thanks for your update. I like the site a lot, and forwarded it to a couple of friends.

From CF: Thank you Jon. You are a first class theologian.

From MM: today was my first visit [to freelance theology], and having intended only to scan read one question and response, I have spent at least an hour reading all the questions and answers posted. Having been brought up the Anglican church, I have been reading the Apostolic Creed for many years; until today, I had never understood (or questioned!) why Jesus is ‘eternally begotten of the Father’. Thank you for teaching me something new and providing me with an essential detail about the Trinitarian and Eternal nature of God.

If you would like to comment on anything you have read on freelance theology, then please write in! Compliments are always welcome!

Who Do We Pray To?

Question from MF, USA

Why, if The Holy Spirit is among us since Christ’s ascension into heaven, do we not pray to that figure but instead to Jesus – who is not currently among us and won’t be until he “comes again”?

There are a couple of theological points to make here. Firstly, in a Christian, Trinitarian model, praying to one person of the Godhead is the same as praying to all, due to the essential Unity of the Trinity (one God in three persons). This might sound confusing (and provoke all kinds of further questions), but it is worth bearing in mind. In technical doctrinal terms this is called coinherence, ‘perichoresis’ or mutual indwelling.

The second point is that we have a number of models of prayer in the New Testament. Jesus began his instructional prayer pattern ‘Father in Heaven’ (Matthew chapter 6, verse 9). In the first chapter of Acts, Peter addresses his prayer ‘Kyrios’, the Greek word for Lord used of Jesus earlier in the same section, which has led commentators to believe the prayer was addressed to the ascended Jesus (c.f. chapter 1 verse 6 with verse 24). However, this initial section of Acts immediately precedes the dramatic arrival of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.

In Ephesians chapter 6, verse 18, Paul urges the Christians receiving his epistle to pray in the Spirit, not to the Spirit. The Spirit therefore acts as a guide to the Christian regarding what to pray, described in Romans chapter 8, verse 26 as the Spirit interceding. Paul’s understanding of Christian life was of a Spirit-led, Christ-centred, life so prayer naturally involved the Spirit.

Given these New Testament models, there has been a recent increase, in churches that style themselves as Spirit-led at least, to directly appeal to the Holy Spirit (as in the form of ‘Come Holy Spirit’ etc.). Whether this is doctrinally correct is moot given the first theological point made above. It probably has more to do with the intention of the person praying the prayer. If the person wants a manifestation of the Spirit’s power, or some kind of ‘sign’, then it would be obvious to address it directly to the Spirit. From a confirmed Trinitarian point of view, perhaps prayer should be addressed to all three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Trinity in Scripture

Question from GT, United Kingdom

What does the Bible say about the Trinity?

The Bible is not a ‘systematic theology’ so the complex doctrines of the faith, such as the Trinitarian nature of God, are never laid down in Scripture as unarguable fact. The development of the doctrine of the Trinity took place over a few centuries, but there are a couple of points to make about that.

Firstly, the theologians who argued for the Trinitarian view of God saw themselves as explaining and defending both the Biblical revelation of God and the historic faith of the church held since the time of the apostles. Secondly, the description of God as Trinity was not the development of an idea in isolation. The creedal formulations of early Christianity were a response to other points of view, which were being subsumed into the faith, but were in danger of turning Christianity into a belief system not unlike the Gnostic cults of the time or the Greek ‘philosophical’ systems. For example, concepts such as ‘Logos’, used in John’s prologue, meant different things to different people. It is a thought-form borrowed from Greek philosophy that meant more than just ‘Word’ as translated in John chapter 1, it also meant ‘creative principle’, ‘divine mind’, ‘demiurge’ (the being that existed to allow the Transcendent One to interact with the evil material world), or any number of other ideas.

The theologians often referred to as ‘church fathers’ had to face these twin problems – the Bible was clear about the character of God, but vague about the nature of God and the information that was given could easily be misconstrued and cause confusion. Over the course of the fourth century, during the ‘Arian controversy’, this vagueness gave way to complicated statements of the faith; the creeds (from the Latin word ‘credo’, meaning ‘I believe’ and also the root of the English word ‘credible’).

The Arian controversy is worth summing up briefly. It was based loosely on Greek philosophical ideas that stated that the ‘One God’ created an intermediary who interacted with the world. This obviously paralleled the Christian idea of a ‘Father’ and a ‘Son’. In this system the ‘Father’ had to precede the ‘Son’, so the Arians catchphrase became ‘there was a time when the Son was not’. In some time before time, the Father dwelt alone, then created the Son and through the Son created the world. This all sounds very complicated and artificial to modern minds, but it tapped into the kind of religious beliefs that were popular and it was a thorough-going logical system, which made it very attractive.

The problem for those who opposed Arianism was that Jesus Christ was considered the Son of God and not merely a created being. How else to explain classic Bible verses like Jesus’ statement ‘I and the Father are one’ (John 10 verse 30)? This led to the classic formulation at the Council of Nicea in AD325 that Christ was ‘begotten’ not created. The ‘Son’ was therefore distinct from the created order – a fact that was considered vital if he was part of the plan to save creation – and, because the ‘Father’ could not be a father without the Son, the Son had to have existed eternally. Hence the phrase used by those early theologians that the Son is ‘eternally generated’ by the Father.

That would be complicated enough, but then further disputes arose over the deity (or not) of the Holy Spirit. One theologian who held to the Nicene Creed was Gregory of Nazianzus and his argument for regarding the Holy Spirit as fully divine came to be accepted as almost the final word on the matter. Shortly before the Council of Constantinople in AD381, Gregory preached this sermon as the fifth in a series of orations that covered the nature of God from a Trinitarian standpoint. Interestingly he recognised the difficulty faced by Trinitarians regarding the paucity of Scriptural references for the doctrine, paraphrasing his opponents’ argument as ‘from whence are you bringing in upon us this strange God, of whom Scripture is silent?’ (Gregory’s Fifth Theological Oration can be found in anthologies of Patristic texts. A very good, readable version can be found in the Library of Christian Classics, Volume 3, published by SCM in 1954).

Gregory’s argument for accepting the Holy Spirit as divine hinged on a number of activities undertaken by the Spirit according to Scripture as well as the Spirit’s attributes. For example, the Spirit sanctifies, so must be divine for only God can make something holy. In that sense, the Holy Spirit must be divine because only God is intrinsically holy. (There are numerous other instances in the Bible where the Spirit is described in divine terms or undertakes divine activity.) The threefold blessing of ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’, which had been a part of the Christian baptismal rite since apostolic times, was also considered an indicator of the equality of status among the divine persons.

The earliest Christians were very keen to read back into Scripture the various doctrines of the faith, so they had no problems reading the Old Testament and discovering ‘references’ to Christ and even to the Holy Spirit. Sometimes that meant they took texts well out of their Biblical context, or interpreted stories where certain mysterious characters, for example Melchizadek in Genesis chapter 14, were regarded as pre-Incarnation representations of Christ. This use of Scripture has to be regarded with caution, but there are hints in the Old Testament of a plurality in God (Isaiah chapter 6 verse 8 being the classic example). Then in the New Testament, the Messiah refers to God as his Father (implying a shared nature), is referred to himself as divine in several places by the New Testament writers and introduces a third entity, the Parakletos (John chapter 16, translated as Counsellor or Comforter), in a way that implies this new person is an adequate replacement.

This giving of a ‘new counsellor’, the Spirit, was where Gregory believed the life of the Church began and this became his key argument for the divinity of the Spirit. The Old Testament revelation was of the Father-Creator, the New Testament revealed the Son-Redeemer and the ‘third transition’ – the institution of the Church or community of saints – revealed the Spirit. “Now the Spirit himself dwells among us, and supplies us with a clearer demonstration of himself.” (Library of Christian Classics, Vol. 3, p.209) The unvoiced commentary is that those who disputed the deity of the Spirit, did not know the Spirit and were not really Christians.

In conclusion, then, the Bible never lays out the doctrine of the Trinity in a neat ordered way. It was left to later generations to take what had been revealed in Scripture and arrange that revelation into an ordered doctrine that did not conflict with what was revealed in the Bible. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis discusses the concept of a three-personal God and sums up this development of the doctrine of the Trinity.

People already knew about God in a vague way. Then came a man who claimed to be God; and yet He was not the sort of man you could dismiss as a lunatic… They saw Him again after they had seen Him killed. And then, after they had formed into a little society or community, they found God somehow inside them as well: directing them, making them able to do things they could not do before. And when they worked it all out they found they had arrived at the Christian definition of the three-personal God.” (C.S. Lewis, op. cit. page 139)