“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.