Teaching Theosis and Communion within the Trinity

“If He (the Holy Spirit) is not from the beginning, He is in the same rank with myself, even though a little before me; for we are both parted from the Godhead by time.  If He is in the same rank with myself, how can he make me God, or join me with the Godhead.” Gregory of Naziansus, On the Holy Spirit

I have been teaching on the trinity in class for the past week and a half.  It has probably been one of the most frustrating things I have ever had to teach.  The main problem I am facing is that the majority of Evangelical Christians hardly ever talk about the trinity.  As soon as I mention one being, three persons or one person, two natures I can see my student’s eyes glazing over.  I am using vocabulary that they have never been exposed to.  And one of the problems with teaching the trinity is that I can’t use any other language.  This language was painstakingly hammered out by our church fathers and we receive their language as a gift (at least those who tend to think that tradition is a good thing).  The danger that the church fathers were trying to avoid was making the trinity too simple, too intelligible.  That’s what the heretics did.  As soon as you leave the language for analogy or anecdote you’re in trouble.

It was much more important for the church fathers to not so much understand the trinity, but to be drawn into it.  Here again is territory that Evangelicals rarely wander into willingly.  I asked my students what they thought it meant to be drawn into the community of the trinity.  I might as well have been asking what does yellow smell like?  The problem lies with their view of salvation.  To them, salvation is only a legal action that takes away your guilt.  The relational aspect only focuses on Jesus, since he is in this view pictured as our only ally.  The God who is judge only tolerates us because of Jesus, more specifically his voluntary bloodshed.  In this scenario, there is not much fellowship going on between Father and Son and there is not even a mention of the Holy Spirit.  (To be fair I am sure there are better characterizations of this view, but I am trying to explain the majority view of my students, which are largely drawn from the churches they attend.)

So, for what its worth, here has been my approach with my own students and it consists of two emphases or shifts in perspective.

1. First I attempt to change my student’s perspective on salvation by telling them that salvation begins at the incarnation, not the cross.  The mystery of the incarnation is that divinity has united with humanity, and there can be no salvation if these two natures are not joined.  And the only one who can join them together is God himself by taking on humanity.  I pull in the narrative of Genesis 1-2 in order to show that God’s good creation is a sign post of what is to come.  The true image of God will be his own Son and through him God will be with his creation in a way that we never thought possible.  Salvation then becomes about participating in the life of the Son, who participates in the life of the Father, who gives us the Spirit.

2. If salvation is viewed as participating in the divine life (i.e. theosis or divinization), then all of a sudden we need the Holy Spirit to be involved.  This is perhaps the biggest change that occurs in their thinking.  I conduct a poll on the first day of the unit by asking what each person of the trinity does.  Every student can tell me what the Father and Son do, but when we get to the Spirit the only response (and I literally have not gotten another one) is that the Holy Spirit guides.  The Spirit is the paradigmatic Jiminy Cricket living inside us, nudging us not to tell a lie.  But what if the role of the Spirit is less about moral guidance and more about a person’s ontological transformation into a holy temple?  (This is after all what Paul seems to argue that Christians have become in 1 Corinthians 6:19.)

So what is the pay off and why in the world would I try to spend any time communicating this to my students?

Most of my students tend to view the point of Christianity as ending up at the right place and avoiding the wrong place.  Theosis is a way to talk about the Christian life as one of continually figuring out what it means to participate in the Trinity’s way of life.  It helps to emphasize that the point of salvation is to know God, which means eternal life is a present as well as a future reality.  Perhaps if this idea catches on in our churches and Christian schools, then we would see less Christians in name only and more Christians who understand that the goal of their life is to be changed into a little Christ through the Spirit.

7 thoughts on “Teaching Theosis and Communion within the Trinity

  1. The bible teaches the trinity. We don’t. How can you even think to try to explain something that is unexplainable. For sure, that is what is leading to all your frustration. It is finished. Just relay the scripture, let it teach. The statement you made on Evangelicals is somewhat true as i have seen this to also be true of Galatians 2;20, So many of my 60 years of life I have seen just the opposite taught from the pulpit regarding our deadness. People don’t like being dead. We like our life. The problem is we have been crucified with Christ. On the Holy Spirit, here is how the Spirit makes us wise. On the night before he died, Jesus told his disciples that he would send the Holy spirit and ‘when he, the Spirit of truth, come … he will glorify me …’ (John 16:13-14). The Spirit does not make us wise in some magical kind of way, giving us little nudges and insider tips to help us always choose the best stock to invest in. Rather, he makes Jesus Christ a living, bright reality, transforming our character, giving us new inner poise, clarity, humility, boldness, contentment, and courage. HE SIMPLY POINTS US TO JESUS, as Jesus points us to the Father. We are Holy as HE is Holy. We are sons of God IN HIM. All of this leads to increasing wisdom as the years go by, and to better professional and personal decisions. HIS GLORY. It is no longer my life to live but HIS. HIS FAITH,HIS POWER, HIS LOVE, HIS WILL. Old things have passed away. That is the question you and everyone must ask themselves. Are you still holding on to your life? You must lose it. You must obey. You must be humble. You must surrender to the authority of Christ. Its not about your degrees and your fine house and car. All chaff. Its about Jesus. Simply Follow HIm, DO what the Lord is doing. He will lead you there. It is His plans that matter, our plans are chaff. The surrender with all this…… is freedom. It is good.

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    1. Thanks for the comment! I agree that scripture teaches the Trinity, but my experience with at least my own students tells me that they are not being taught about it in depth. Also, when they do start to think about it, they usually make the same pitfalls that the early heretics made. So it has been beneficial to go through those guys in order to help them stay within the right boundaries. The most I can do is try to protect the mystery of the Trinity, which is what the church fathers were trying to do. The problem is that modern Americans hate mystery, which means my students tend to find this a frustrating topic =).

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      1. Thanks for explaining. So true!
        And Thank youl for doing what you do.
        May God continue to pour into you that you may pour out to others <
        Merry Christmas!!

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  2. I am really glad that you take the trouble to try to teach that which the Fathers of the Church spent centuries trying to find a language to describe. Of course the Trinity cannot be “explained” in the sense that I can explain a practical task. Neither for that matter can my wife be “explained”. I think she would be rather offended if I tried to do so! But to seek to teach the promise of theosis is the most wonderful thing that we can ever do. What a transformation would be effected upon all of us if we were to be gripped by this promise. Don’t give up!

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    1. Thanks for the comment and the encouragement! I agree that to explain the Trinity in a practical manner looses much of the mystery. As long as I am teaching I will be trying to unpack the Trinity, no matter how many of my student’s eyes glaze over =).

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  3. Yeah the temptation for simplistic analogy rather than the careful language is difficult to resist for many Christians. Though I am sure you are aware of them you might also incorporate some of the following angles as well (in simplified form of course):
    1. Show how certain passages and themes of Scripture put “pressure” on the church to hammer out the language of the creeds (here I borrow the phrasing from C. Kavin Rowe; Bauckham and Yeago would make a similar point). Besides, Rowe’s well-known articles, the chapter entitled “The Spirit who rests and remains on God’s Son and his brothers” in Father, Son and Spirit: The Trinity in John’s Gospel, Kostenberger/Swain is an excellent example of how the classical Trinitiarian logic can be unfolded from the exposition of Scripture. Swain’s reworked dissertation, The God of the Gospel: Robert Jenson’s Trinitarian Theology, is an excellent study on narrative identity that would ground this approach. And Brian K. Kay’s Trinitiarian Spirituality: John Owen and the Doctrine of God in Western Devotion reaches similar conclusions on how the fate of Trinitarian theology and spirituality is tied to our emphasis (or lack thereof) on the narrative of the gospel.
    2. Fred Sander’s Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything tries to show how many of the loci and church practices that people are more familiar with actually only make sense in light of the Trinity. So that is perhaps a way into the topic that might appeal more to them.
    3. It is a heavy analytic read, but buried within James Anderson’s Paradox in Christian Theology: An Analysis of its Presence, Character, and Epistemic Status are some very helpful everyday analogies for why apparent paradox and a sometimes apophatic approach may make sense. And in some ways the simplistic analogies are helpful for an apophatic approach because they enable you the chance to explain the views denied, i.e. what is wrong with each analogy.

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  4. Yeah the temptation for simplistic analogy rather than the careful language is difficult to resist for many Christians. Though I am sure you are aware of them you might also incorporate some of the following angles as well (in simplified form of course):
    1. Show how certain passages and themes of Scripture put “pressure” on the church to hammer out the language of the creeds (here I borrow the phrasing from C. Kavin Rowe; Bauckham and Yeago would make a similar point). Besides, Rowe’s well-known articles, the chapter entitled “The Spirit who rests and remains on God’s Son and his brothers” in Father, Son and Spirit: The Trinity in John’s Gospel, Kostenberger/Swain is an excellent example of how the classical Trinitiarian logic can be unfolded from the exposition of Scripture. Swain’s reworked dissertation, The God of the Gospel: Robert Jenson’s Trinitarian Theology, is an excellent study on narrative identity that would ground this approach. And Brian K. Kay’s Trinitiarian Spirituality: John Owen and the Doctrine of God in Western Devotion reaches similar conclusions on how the fate of Trinitarian theology and spirituality is tied to our emphasis (or lack thereof) on the narrative of the gospel.
    2. Fred Sander’s Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything tries to show how many of the loci and church practices that people are more familiar with actually only make sense in light of the Trinity. So that is perhaps a way into the topic that might appeal more to them.
    3. It is a heavy analytic read, but buried within James Anderson’s Paradox in Christian Theology: An Analysis of its Presence, Character, and Epistemic Status are some very helpful everyday illustrations for why apparent paradox and a sometimes apophatic approach may make sense. And in some ways the simplistic analogies are helpful for an apophatic approach because they enable you the chance to explain the views denied, i.e. what is wrong with each analogy.

    Like

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