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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Doctrine of the Trinity in Church History

The Doctrine of Trinity in Church History

“WE BELIEVE
In One God: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, who provides order, purpose, meaning and fulfillment to all creation. That in Jesus Christ, who was born of Mary, God became human and is Sovereign Lord of life and history. That in the Holy Spirit God is present in the world, empowering and guiding believers to understand and live out their faith in Jesus Christ.” (UCCP Statement of Faith)

I. Introduction

The topic for this reflection is at the same time very obvious and yet very obscure! Obvious, because a statement of faith, particularly that of a church belonging to the Reformed Tradition, is nothing but theological and doctrinal. And yet, when we deal with specifics, say the doctrine of the Trinity, which is explicit in the above-quoted paragraph of the UCCP Statement of Faith, the obvious suddenly becomes obscure. For both ordinary church leaders and extra-ordinary church members, the doctrine of the Trinity is “an abstract concept with little or no vital significance either for piety or intellectual reflection.”[1]

It is the thesis of this article that the Trinitarian foundation of the UCCP Statement of Faith must lead to a sound understanding of the nature of the Church and its ministry. Or, to put it in accordance to the previous thematic thrust of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (1986-1990 Quadrennial), this article deals with the UCCP’s Christological foundation, its eccle-siological implications, and its missiological imperatives.

II. The Core of All Creeds

The Trinitarian formula in the first paragraph of the UCCP Statement of Faith affirms in no uncertain terms what is and should be at the heart of all ecumenical creeds throughout all periods of church history. The doctrine of the Trinity came out of a real and deep religious experience, an experience that could not be denied by those who call themselves Christians. During the earliest centuries of the church, God was very real for the faith community in four distinctive and definite ways.

First, God was known as Creator or Source of the Universe. God was also known and experienced as the One who made covenant with God’s people and subsequently with the “new people of God” (the Christian Church). Second, Jesus of Nazareth was confessed as the Christ or the Messiah of God. Also, Jesus the Christ was worshipped as Redeemer of humanity and the Lord of all history. Third, the Holy Spirit of God was experienced as the Giver of faith and courage to all believers as the one who bound persons into a new and vital community. Also, the Holy Spirit was experienced as the Giver of gifts to individuals for the up-building of community life. Fourthly and finally, believers knew and experienced these Three as eternally One. Thus, they confessed that fullness of God was to be found in the correspondence of the Three Persons bound together in mutual love. An American feminist theologian, Letty M. Russell profoundly describes the doctrine of the Trinity as: “One plus One equals One.”[2] For the early church, Russell continues, the doctrine of the Trinity is a vision of a living faith, a distinctive experience of the living God.

In short, for the early Christians as well as for us today, fundamental in our faith is the vision that the One God is a Threefold God: that the One God is the interrelatedness of the Creator (Father), the Redeemer (Son), and the Sustainer (Holy Spirit).

Among the more reliable guides in the exposition of the Trinitarian vision of God is Lesslie Newbigin. His book, The Household of God, is a classic example of an exposition about the Church (its structure and ministry) as seen in the light of the Trinitarian vision of God. More recently, in his book The Open Secret,[3] he makes a perceptive discussion on the Church’s participation in the mission of the Triune God. These are 1) Proclaiming the Kingdom of the Father: Mission as Faith in Action; 2) Sharing the Life of the Son: Mission as Love in Action; and 3) Bearing the Witness of the Holy Spirit: Mission as Hope in Action.

Following Newbigin’s Trinitarian formulation as applied to ecclesiology, we can develop and explicate three concepts on the Church, namely: 1) The Church as the People the People of God; 2) The Church as the Body of Christ; and 3) The Church as the Community of the Holy Spirit. Let me discuss them one by one.

III. The Church as the People of God

In the New Testament, the notion of the People of God suggests that the members of the Christian Church are people of the new covenant and that they exist in continuity with or on the foundation of the People of God which is Israel. The continuity exists because the God who raised Jesus from the dead is the same God who liberated Israel from Egyptian captivity. Thus, the notion of believers as the people of God clearly rests on a conviction that speaks clearly about the nature of God. For instance, in the first place, God is one who makes promises and who is faithful to keep them. In the second place, God calls individuals and makes them a family, a community of nations, Thirdly, God gives to that community a structure for their well-being in the form of laws based on God’s own integrity and sense of justice.

The notion of the people of God has two important characteristics that we need to emphasize. First, there is a strong sense of history of the people of God. In fact, we cannot understand the people of God apart from God’s dealing with God’s people in history. The stories of mothers and fathers of the faith, which had been handed down from one generation to another, necessarily shape the identity and destiny of the Church as people of God. Secondly, the people of God are determined by a powerful vision of the future. God called the people of Israel into a life they would not clearly see or comprehend. For example, Abraham was assured by God to have descendants as many as the sands in the sea and the stars in the sky. And yet, at that point in time, he could not produce even just one son! Later on, those who were brought into captivity in a strange land were told to live in hope because they would be released and allowed to return to their homeland and rebuild it with justice, peace and righteousness.

Therefore, continuity of the Church as the people of God with that of Israel has provided the Church with a powerful vision of the future. Thus, members of the Church must look forward into the kingdom which God promises to establish. The gracious actions and promises of God constitute the Church, as the people of God. It is a community called to love in faithfulness to the God who is faithful to God’s people. Like Israel, the Church as the people of God must be aware that the arena in which God operates is the entire scope of human history. And throughout human history, God’s word comes usually as a word of judgment because God is the norm of justice, integrity and compassion. The God of Israel is known for his solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized in society. Therefore, the Church as the people of God can never separate the gospel imperatives from the demands for social justice and the protection of political and economic spheres of life. Therefore, there is no separation between the “church” and the world” because the One God who is Creator is Sovereign Lord over both. The mission of the Church as the people of God, therefore, is to live in faithfulness to the God who has called it to be God’s people. This has three implications.

First, the Church must recount faithfully the history of the people and of God’s liberating acts. Second, it must develop a community lifestyle that embodies justice and integrity to which it is called. Third, its mission is to move within the broader society so as to promote greater justice for those who are in the periphery, those whom God provides particular care. The Church as the people of God is called and set apart as a community to be a living witness to the presence and power of God in human history and to the call of God to all people to live in justice and peace.

IV. The Church as the Body of Christ

The Church does not only recognize that God is Creator and Covenant-maker, it must confess that Jesus is Lord of human history. This means that through Jesus of Nazareth, we see the intention and purpose of God for human life. This is the earliest theological struggle of the Church: that Jesus of Nazareth was not simply a messenger from God but that through him the fullness of the divine reality is made flesh and blood. The confession that Jesus is Lord provides full significance to the notion that the Church is the Body of Christ. This confession brings about the doctrine of the incarnation which is considered as scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.

The doctrine of incarnation has three distinctive meanings. First, it means God’s complete solidarity with our human situation. Through Jesus of Nazareth, God has shown his real and complete empathy with all human life. Second, the core of Jesus’ incarnation was manifested in his suffering and death. Jesus was God among us as one who suffered and his solidarity with the human condition means his solidarity with all who bear the pain in the world. Thirdly, Jesus was distinctly among us as one who serves. Jesus presented us a model of service freely chosen.

The metaphor of the body when applied to the Church has three implications. First, when we affirm that the Church is one body we refer to our unity in the midst of diversity. Despite the many diverse parts of the body there is an intimate relationship among each part with the other parts. Thus, what affects one eventually affects all. The joy, or the pain of anyone member, is felt by all. This suggests that there is a fundamental solidarity and communion among the members themselves; there is a real and irrevocable relatedness of all that bears the name of Jesus Christ. The Church then is one which seeks to live out communal solidarity among its members, sharing joys and sorrows, hopes and fears, dreams and aspirations.

The second implication is that the Church as one body has only one Head, that is, Jesus Christ. The head is the governing and ruling function within the body. The head also functions as one that unifies and gives direction to the body. Therefore, the Church as the body of Christ is to be conformed to the intention and personality of the one who is the Head. If Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church expressed his solidarity with humanity through suffering and service, then the life of the Church in the world must take on very definite shape. To be the body of Christ is to be formed by Christ’s way of being in the world; that is, to empty oneself and take on the cause of those who are oppressed, those who are burdened and in pain; to stand by them and into give witness to the one in whom oppression and pain and death have been overcome.

The life of this Church requires keeping alive the memory and presence of the Christ on whom the Church depends. This is done in many ways and let me cite three familiar ones. For instance, 1) study and reflection on the Word as it illumines our day to day experience; 2) celebrating those sacramental actions in which the presence of Christ is seen most vividly because they are tied to Christ’s sacramental self-giving; 3) participating in activities which demonstrate solidarity with the suffering people.

The third implication of the notion that the Church is the body of Christ is the cruciality of leadership. Leadership in the Church exists and is very necessary to enable the body to be the body of Christ in the world. Leadership, on the other hand, must be supportive to the solidarity of all members so that they not only are hearers and doers and bearers of the Word. Leadership in the Church, on the other hand, must provide a style that exemplifies participation in the mission of the triune God, namely: proclaiming the kingdom of the Father, sharing the life of the Son, and bearing witness to the presence of the Holy Spirit.

V. The Church as the Community
of the Holy Spirit

The earliest Christians acknowledge that they have the courage to confess their faith only in the power of the Holy Spirit. Through the Holy Spirit, women and men came to know and affirm that Jesus is Lord and to draw together into the community that came to be known as the Church. This model of the Church as community of the Holy Spirit has always been the most difficult to define and, sometimes for the whole Church, the most difficult to live with.

Why is this so?

First, the Hebrew word for spirit is ruach which means “breath” and “wind”. Together, these imply that the spirit of God is the giver of life and simultaneously both elusive and beyond human comprehension. These two ideas (life-giving yet elusive) form the base of the New Testament view of the Holy Spirit. In the first place, the Holy Spirit is always associated with newness or new life. Those who are born again or born anew in the Spirit are new creatures; they are no longer bound by the old conditions of life; they have begun a new life again.

Secondly, the Spirit is the spirit of freedom which means that the new life is a life liberated from the bondages which plague human existence; the bondages of sin and death; the bondages of social sin and oppression. Through the Spirit, the law that condemns and divides life is overcome. Thirdly, the Spirit creates community, a new community where division that characterizes normal human society is overcome, a new community where persons are transformed. In this community of the Spirit, social standards of who is acceptable, who is important, who is powerful, do not apply anymore. Those belonging to this community have all been made one; all can communicate with one another because the age-long barriers of race, clan, gender, social position and wealth are removed.

It is important that we accept the fact that the Holy Spirit works profoundly in the individual persons as well as in communal ways. The Spirit brings transformation of individual lives and gives to particular individual unique gifts. The Spirit enables life of prayer of the believer and unites the human spirit with the Spirit of Christ. These transformed and gifted individuals or “charismatic persons" are gifted precisely for the up-building of the community itself. The private experience of a spirit-filled person is always confirmed by and directed towards the wholeness in the community.
In keeping with the metaphor of Spirit as wind blowing where it wills, there is always something spontaneous and difficult to predict about the contemporary manifestations of the Spirit and thus about the shale and nature of this community. The Spirit has a history of “breaking out” of the life of the Church, often to the consternation of those who are responsible for the on-going institutional forms of church life. Often, the Spirit has brought to the Church individuals gifted as prophets calling the Church itself to repentance, reform and transformation. Sometimes, the Spirit has brought persons together in communities within a larger Church. For example, monastic communities, prayer groups, women church communities, and the basic ecclesial communities, etc.

In Latin America as well as in the Philippines, the basic ecclesial communities provide a way for believers to experience new solidarity and power of the gospel. This experience of unity in power and power in unity gives the community the courage to face political problems. It goes to show that the presence and inspiration of God’s Spirit is created with a new vision of faithfulness and true community. This emerging model of the Church provides that the ministry becomes the work of all members whose motive-strength is drawn from the Holy Spirit.

Leadership, therefore, becomes participative and collective involving a wide variety of persons. Although there is one who emerges as the “gifted” or “charismatic” leader who has discerned and have kept the fire of the original vision. He or she continually shares that vision with others, enabling them to experience the vision of freedom and new life in the community. Thus, the Church life in the community of the Holy Spirit is free to change, to grow; to be transformed by the new operation of the Holy Spirit within the community itself.

VI. Concluding Statement

Thus far, we have discussed the fundamental doctrinal themes in the UCCP Statement of Faith as focus in the real and deep religious experience of the triune God. The reality of the triune God, we stressed, is the inter-relatedness of the Creator (Father), the Redeemer (Son), and the Sustainer (Holy Spirit). These personas are eternally One. They are bound together in mutual self-giving love.

Subsequently, we tried to expound the meaning and implications of the Trinitarian faith to our understanding of the Church and its ministry in the world. Following the Trinitarian scheme, we discussed three notions of the Church as the people of God, as the body of Christ, and as the community of the Holy Spirit.

This threefold foundational understanding of the Church provides us with a direction to understand the mission of the Church in the world. The Church, as the people of God, must at all times be faithful to the God who called the community into being. The Church as the body of Christ must at all times takes seriously the meaning of Christ’s incarnation in total solidarity with humankind in suffering and service which is freely chosen. The Church as the community of the Holy Spirit must, at all times, takes seriously the newness of life that is made available to the Church from the Holy Spirit. Only when the Church submits to the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit that it attains the wholeness, freedom and newness that sustain and build up the community.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

1. The doctrine of the Trinity is a fundamental belief of all mainstream Christian churches in all period of church history. Explain the emergence of this basic belief and what are its important elements.

2. Using the Trinitarian framework, enumerate and discuss the three understanding of the Church: as people of God; as body of Christ; and as community of the Holy Spirit.

3. On the Church as people of God, explain why and how is this related to the people of Israel in the Old Testament and how Christian unity is preserved through it.

4. On the concept of the Church as body of Christ, explain why is this founded on the doctrine of incarnation. Enumerate the three implications of this metaphor in the realization of Christian unity.

5. On the concept of the Church as community of the Holy Spirit, what are the three reasons why it is very difficult to comprehend this concept? Explain also how this concept is very important in the attainment of Christian unity.


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Presented by Dr. Melanio L. Aoanan in a recent theological forum. An ordained pastor of the UCCP, Rev. Aoanan has occupied different leadership positions in UCCP-related colleges and universities. He was the first Dean of the College of Theology at Southern Christian College in Midsayap, Cotabato (1982-88), then as Vice President for Non-Formal Education, Community Extension and Research (1988-1995). Earlier, he was Associate Professor and Chair of the Philosophy and Religion Department of Silliman University, Dumaguete City (1975-1982). He was Professor of Biblical Studies, Ecumenical Theology and Research at Union Theological Seminary, Dasmarinas, Cavite. He was also the Administrative Pastor of the Church Among the Palms, UPLB Campus, Los Banos, Laguna. He is also Professorial Lecturer IV on Ecumenical Theology at the Religious Education Department (Doctoral Level) at De La Salle University in Manila, at the same time teaches Church History and Doctrine (part-time) at Union Theological Seminary.


[1] C. M. Campbell, “Models for Ministry: A New Look at an Old Idea,” Reformed World, 39/6 (June 1987), p. 694.
[2] Letty M. Russell, The Future of Partnership.
[3] Lesslie Newbigin, Open Secret: Sketches for a Missionary Theology. London: SPCK, 1978.

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