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God of Christianity

March, 2019

Installment 3 of 20, translated from the book Christ Is the Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever: Writings on the Basics of Faith and Doctrine. (Ed. Ari-Pekka Palola, SRK, 2018)

In these times, many a secularized person thinks and also says out loud, “I believe in God, but not as the church teaches.” Belittling biblical and Lutheran doctrine has become a catchphrase-like norm. The significance of the national Lutheran church [Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland] has greatly diminished. Many people no longer regard the church and its message as significant. As life becomes more superficial, there are more and more people who do not know the basic tenets of Lutheran faith and doctrine. The biblical representation of God is only slightly familiar or totally foreign to an ever-growing portion of [Finnish] people. 

God’s Essence and Attributes

Traditionally, theology has differentiated God’s essence, what He is like in and of Himself, from God’s attributes, which means how He appears to us. There have been attempts to describe the characteristics of the hidden God from these two vantage points. The internal attributes of divinity include, for example, eternality, immutability, immortality and omnipresence. Although God is beyond time and place, He nevertheless guides the course of human history and each individual’s life.

The external attributes of God pertain to His relationship with creation. According to these, God is in essence almighty, all-wise, omniscient, full of truth and perfect in goodness. This last attribute is the basis for, for example, God’s name in various languages [including English]: God, Gud and Gott. The differentiation of these into internal and external attributes indicates how human reason is incapable of comprehending God’s essence.

God revealed His name to Moses from within a burning bush: “I AM THAT I AM” (Exod. 3:13–14). Jahve became God’s name in the Hebrew language and it is the only actual proper name for God in the Old Testament. The Jews, however, did not utter this holy name, but rather they used a euphemism Adonai (Lord). In the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament, and in the New Testament the Greek word Kyrios (Lord) was used. The same name was used for Jesus.

In the Bible there are dozens of definitions and different depictions of God. He is a Spirit, the only eternal, the beginning and the end, the first and the last (John 4:24; 1 Tim. 1:17; Rev. 1:8; Rev. 22:13). He is a righteous and holy God who does not allow himself to be mocked (Rev. 16:5; Gal. 6:7). Although holiness and righteousness reveal God’s own essence, He is nevertheless unsearchable and incomprehensible to our understanding.

On the other hand, the Bible—especially in the New Testament—describes how God is love (John 3:16; 1 John 4:8, 16). He is not only holy and righteous but also a merciful and loving Father.

The God revealed in the Bible is not an indistinct pantheistic power, but rather He is a living and distinct God (Deut. 6:4; Mark 12:29; 1 Cor. 8:4). Nowadays many religious and spiritual philosophical currents represent pantheism, which is the understanding that everything is divinity, or that the universe and God are one. This assumption is not compatible with the Christian image of God.

All in all, God’s essence and attributes remain a mystery to us. We cannot understand God’s mysteries through external knowledge. As Martin Luther stated, we cannot “climb into God’s majesty” and examine Him.

Arguments for the Existence of God

The so-called arguments for the existence of God are human attempts to prove God’s existence based on human reasoning such that people can be convinced God exists. According to the ontological (= study of being or existing) argument for the existence of God, there must exist a perfect being, God, because people have a mental picture of such a being. According to the cosmological (cosmos = universe) argument for the existence of God, there must be a driving force which causes the universe to move and which is itself motionless. A more precise form of the same argument is the final (referring to the end or purpose) argument for the existence of God. According to this, the logical order evident in nature presumes that some force has planned this order.

According to the teleological (explaining something in terms of its end, purpose or goal) argument for the existence of God, the course of history indicates that there is a supernatural designer and director that directs all development in His desired direction. According to the historical argument for the existence of God, the fact that all peoples have some sort of concept of God shows that God must exist. According to the moral argument for the existence of God, His existence is based on moral demands. The fact that a person is able to distinguish good from evil in his or her conscience proves that there exists an external creator of norms, who is God.

The aforementioned arguments for the existence of God are in and of themselves important examples of people’s attempts to express their faith in a rational or intellectual manner. But if faith in God were based on proof, then it would not be faith. Proving God’s existence with human methods is impossible and in general is contrary to the whole concept of God. A proven God is no longer God. Proving God is not required in order for God to exist.

Examples show that faith in God is not only theoretical knowledge, but it covers the entire course of a person’s life. Furthermore, the examples show that faith in God is, in a certain sense, universal but also such an ambiguous phenomenon that it usually appears to be the enemy of Christian faith rather than its ally. It is important to emphasize that Christian faith is something entirely different than general belief in the existence of a higher being.

Martin Luther’s Views on God’s Essence

According to our Reformer Martin Luther, it is questionable to undertake an examination of God’s essence sidestepping God’s revelation and actions in salvation history. A person’s natural knowledge of God leads him or her astray.

Luther describes the substance of a person’s natural knowledge of God as follows: “What does it mean to have a god? Or, what is God? A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the whole heart; —the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust be right, then is your God also true; and, on the other hand, if your trust be false and wrong, then you have not the true God” (Large Catechism, the explanation of the First Commandment).

According to Luther, the opposite of trusting in God, for example trusting in wealth, education or power, testifies in its own way of people’s tendency to believe in God. “That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god” (Large Catechism). In these cases the person’s faith in God has changed such that he or she worships and serves the created more than the Creator (Rom. 1:25).

According to the Bible and Luther, “natural man”—a person in a state of unbelief—can never be in a neutral position before God. People are by nature rebelling against God while simultaneously subject to God’s judgment, or according to Luther, they are “condemned and judged sinners”

God’s essence—righteousness, wisdom, truth and goodness—was important to Luther, but even more important were His actions. God does not settle for being righteous Himself, but rather He wishes to use His own righteousness to make sinners righteous also. God’s internal essence, according to Luther, remains to the human mind an unsolvable mystery into which it is wiser not to probe. It is pointless to ponder the heights of God, because we cannot fathom them anyway.

The following were burning questions to a young Luther: How would I find a merciful God? Is God good? Is He just? Is He good to me? To find an answer, Luther began—compelled by his conscience—to seek God where He reveals Himself, in the essence of Jesus Christ. He alone can reveal God. This is God’s special, saving revelation which is hidden from human reason. That is why Luther distinguished “the hidden God” from “the revealed God”: God has revealed Himself in a saving manner in Christ, which is the only way to know God.

The Crucified Christ as the Revealer of God’s Essence

After Luther found living faith and comprehended the righteousness of faith, the most important matter to him was the gospel that is based on Christ’s perfect merit and that makes people free. “The true theology and knowledge of God is in the crucified Christ.” This was the essence of Luther’s theology. Apostle Paul had the same thought. He did not want to be aware of or know anything beside the crucified Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 2:2).

The theology of the cross, which enlightens God’s essence, was one of the central and enduring aspects of Luther’s thinking. In Luther’s teaching, the triune God’s self-giving love and the theology of the cross are inseparably joined together. God reveals Himself in a human way in Christ. Only in Him is the complete revelation of the hidden God. It can be received only through faith born of the Holy Spirit.

To summarize, the theology of the cross has two dimensions. The first dimension is the question of what God is like. Secondly, the theology of the cross depicts how God makes a person a partaker of salvation. The basic premise of the theology of the cross is of God’s goodness and strength hidden in weakness. God’s love seeks sinners, not the outwardly pious.

According to Luther there is an essential difference between God and humans. Moses was not allowed to see God’s face, nor was Philip shown directly what the Father was like. The only thing a person can see of God is the face of Christ. A person is unable to know God in his lofty heights and holiness, but rather He can only be known in suffering, disgrace and on the cross. Preaching of the cross, however, is foolishness to this world (Luther, Heidelberg Disputation). The first two chapters of the first Epistle to the Corinthians are also relevant to this topic.

Luther described the correct knowing of God, which is one of the key points of his theology of the cross. One cannot learn to know God through knowledge and reason. He is hidden and acts through contrasts. God’s mysteries can only be understood through faith, suffering and the cross (Heidelberg Disputation).

The theology of the cross comprises the work of both hands of God. With His left hand, which is to say through the sermon of the law, God removes a person’s trust in his or her own goodness and merits. Then the person realizes that he or she is empty and sinful before God. This is God’s “alien” work. The work of His right hand, then, is God’s proper saving and justifying work. This means that a sinful person is saved by the effect of God’s grace through believing the gospel. God must first do the the work of His left hand because otherwise a person would imagine that he or she is acceptable to God based on his or her works (Heidelberg Disputation).

With his theology of the cross, Luther criticized on the one hand the belief in human wisdom’s ability to obtain knowledge of God through reason, and on the other hand people’s illusion of attaining salvation by doing good works. In Luther’s opinion, both are caused by people’s typical attempt to seek merit before God and by theology and philosophy becoming entangled with one another.

Triune God—the Doctrine of Trinity

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity, which is the doctrine concerning the triune God, is Christianity’s most important and fundamental article of faith, or dogma. It is the foundation of faith in God and the doctrine of salvation; this foundation is the basis for all other Christian teaching and proclamation.

The starting point and basis of the Christian doctrine of Trinity is that God has one undivided divine essence, in which there are three Persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Actually the doctrine of Trinity clarifies best God’s divine essence, will and actions in the salvation history. Only through the doctrine of Trinity can we understand God becoming flesh in Christ (incarnation), Christ’s death and resurrection, as well as the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit in the word of the gospel.

The aim and goal of the doctrine of Trinity is to answer the question of who is the God of Christianity and what is that God like? The doctrine of Trinity and the doctrine of Christ’s two natures distinguish Christianity from other religions. All other points of doctrine are connected with the aforementioned doctrines. The doctrine of Trinity is thus not a random doctrinal question, but rather a point of doctrine that upholds the whole Christian faith. It has a crucial significance, for example, in pondering whether the god of Islam is the same as God of Christianity. The Trinity doctrine has also had great significance in identifying and rejecting false doctrines. The first doctrinal statements of the Church councils in the 4th century pertained to the Holy Trinity.

In practice, the Trinity doctrine—the notion of one God in three persons—is evident in divine worship texts, prayers, hymns and especially in the Creed. In addition, the church’s sacred acts are performed in the name of the Triune God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In both cases one quiets oneself before the Holy God revealed in the Bible.

The Triune God in the Bible

The Trinity doctrine’s starting point and basis is the Bible’s revelation of the salvation history. The words “trinity” or “triune” themselves do not occur in the Bible. The Early Church began using these terms in order to express briefly and clearly the essential revelation of the Bible. Both the Old and New Testaments prove that God is one. Meanwhile the Bible shows how in His saving work, God has revealed Himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Material for the Trinity doctrine can be found in the first verses of the Old Testament. The statement in the creation narrative, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” could be translated as “through His Firstborn.” The creation narrative also speaks of the Spirit of God (Gen. 1:1–3).

According to Luther, creation was the shared work of the Persons of Trinity such that each of them had an individual role in it. In creation, God the Father spoke, and the Son was the Word with which the Father spoke. The Father created all through the Word. Luther emphasized that the Word is an equal and identical Creator with the Father. The Holy Spirit then made alive that which God the Father had created through the Word (Explanation of the Book of Genesis).

It may seem surprising to many that the familiar Benediction (Num. 6:24–26), contains a Trinitarian deep structure. God’s blessing and keeping are the work of the Father. He makes His face shine upon us in His Son and is gracious unto us. When He lifts up His countenance upon us, He stays with us as the Holy Spirit and gives us His peace.

In the New Testament there are many statements pertaining to the Trinity. Several New Testament portions reveal that Christ was present in the creation (e.g. John 1:3, Col. 1:16, Heb. 1:2). The Trinity is also evident in the message of Jesus’ birth (Luke 1:35), and also at Jesus’ baptism, in which the triune God revealed Himself in all three Persons in a manner perceivable with human senses (Matt. 3:16–17). At Jesus' baptism, there were the words spoken by God the Father and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove.

The most familiar statement pertaining to the Trinity is in the mission, baptism and teaching command, in which Jesus commanded that all nations be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost (Matt. 28:18–20). Paul had many explanations for the Trinity and the Trinitarian formula—formula pertaining to the Trinity, the most well known of which was the Apostolic blessing: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14). The Trinity formula is also in the salutation of the First Epistle of Peter (1 Pet. 1:2).

From the Trinity Statement to the Creeds

The Trinity doctrine developed from a need to conceptually define Christian truths when Christianity spread into the Hellenistic and Roman world. We see from the history of the old church that a lot of time and effort has gone into defining the Trinity doctrine and into warding off ideas that obscure it. The need to formulate the Trinity doctrine and the common creeds of the church that are based on it arose especially as a result of false doctrines. The creeds of the old church attest to the fact that there was a dire need for a definition of the doctrine that all the Christian world could agree on.

The Apostles’ Creed emerged as a three-part creed in the second century based mainly on the baptismal creed used in Rome. It is the most straightforward evidence of the contents of the Trinity doctrine. It tells of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit without explaining the relationships between them in detail. The three articles of faith in the Apostolic Creed—Creation, Redemption and Sanctification—indicate how the triune God presents Himself and all His gifts to us.

Within the Early Church in the 3rd and 4th centuries there emerged two types of false doctrines to disprove the Trinity doctrine. According to so-called Monarchianism, God is absolutely indivisible. He is one person, and the Son and the Holy Spirit are only manifestations of God. The other significant false doctrine was Arianism, which taught that only the Father is eternal. The Son, meanwhile, is created by the Father at a point in time, subject to the Father, a divine being but a separate being from the Father. In practice both ideologies nullify Christ’s salvation work.

In the old church the Trinity doctrine of the so-called divine economy became prevalent. Its most significant developer was Church Father Tertullian (d. circa 220). According to the divine economy, the Trinity is examined from the standpoint of God’s external work, i.e. His salvation work. Salvation history is not limited to one action only, which is why its functions are designated to different Persons of God. The Father is the Creator, the Son is the Savior and Redeemer and the Holy Spirit is the Sanctifier and Giver of Life.

The First Council of Nicaea in the year 325 rejected false trinity doctrines and emphasized that the Son is of the same substance as the Father. This resulted in the Nicene Creed, which was amended at the First Council of Constantinople in 381.

The Nicene Creed contains a number of statements that more precisely define faith in the Trinity. It emphasizes that the Son is “begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” These definitions were used to defend against Arianism. Monarchianism was rejected by emphasizing how God became man: “who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven. And was incarnate of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary and was made man.”

The Council of Nicaea addressed the Holy Spirit only by stating, “We believe in the Holy Spirit.” Later there appeared false doctrines in which the Holy Spirit was regarded either as an impersonal divine influence or as an angel-like being. Because of these, this article of faith was expanded at the Council of Constantinople by emphasizing the Holy Spirit as a Person of the Trinity, “who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified.” This meant that the Holy Spirit is the same substance as the Father in the same way as the Son is.

The Athanasian Creed, which dates back to the 5th century, is less known in Christianity today than the Apostolic and Nicene Creeds. That Athanasian Creed focuses almost entirely on defining the Trinity doctrine. Its statements can be regarded as a summary of the principles of the Trinity doctrine.

One of the main principles is that the Persons cannot be confounded with each other, nor may they be divided from the common substance or being. There is one divine Godhead, which is present in three Persons, in the Father, in the Son and in the Holy Spirit. All the Persons are identical in eternity and in glory, and all have the same attributes. Each of them is recognized as God and Lord, without there being three Gods or three Lords.

The Athanasian Creed attempts to explain the differences between the three Persons. Later this issue has been expressed by saying that the difference is not in attributes but in relationships, but the Athanasian Creed presents the issue in concrete terms: “The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son, neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.” In this Trinity, none is earlier or later than another, nor greater nor lesser, but rather all three are equally coeternal and uniform.

The Athanasian Creed is regarded as expressing Church Father Augustine’s (354–430) perception of the Trinity. We worship “one God in Trinity, neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.” There is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one.

The internal actions of the Trinity can be divided to different Persons. They can be differentiated such that it is characteristic of the Father that he was not begotten, of the Son that He was begotten, and of the Holy Spirit that He proceeded from the Father and the Son. However, the Trinity’s external actions, i.e. salvation works, are indivisible. In all the crucial phases and events in the salvation history, all three Persons have been active. For example, creation is not just the Father’s work, nor is the birth of faith only the work of the Holy Spirit, but rather in all of God’s actions a person encounters the indivisible Trinity.

Luther interpreted this fittingly: “We could never attain to the knowledge of the grace and favor of the Father except through the Lord Christ. But of Christ we could know nothing either, unless it has been revealed by the Holy Ghost” (Large Catechism).

The Position of the Trinity Doctrine in the Lutheran Confessions

The Lutheran confessional writings are founded on the Trinity doctrine. The main confessional writings of our Church [Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland], the Augsburg Confession, begins with an explanation of the Trinity doctrine: “There is one Divine Essence, which is called and which is God: eternal, without body, without parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, the Maker and Preserver of all things, visible and invisible; and yet there are three Persons, of the same essence and power, who also are coeternal, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”

It is obvious that the Augsburg Confession did not begin with a statement concerning the Trinity doctrine for tradition’s sake but rather because the Holy Trinity was understood to be the foundation upon which salvation and justification are based. The Trinity doctrine was not a central problem in discussions and debates with representatives of the Roman Church. In the first part of the Smalcald Articles, Luther in fact stated: “Concerning these articles there is no contention or dispute, since we on both sides confess them.”

In the Large Catechism’s explanation of the Apostolic Creed, Luther included long passages which emphasized the Trinity doctrine from the standpoint of salvation history. The emphasis was on the revealing and saving work of the Persons of the Trinity. It is expressed succinctly in the explanation to the Apostolic Creed in the Small Catechism: God is the Creator of the whole world, the Giver of Life and Provider of all temporal needs. Christ has redeemed a “lost and condemned” person from death and the power of the devil. The Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian Church and keeps it in union with Jesus Christ in the true faith.

Christ and the Holy Spirit reveal to believers God’s innermost essence and the Father’s love, favor and grace: “Here in all three articles He has Himself revealed and opened the deepest abyss of his paternal heart and of His pure unutterable love…Giving and imparting to us everything in heaven and upon earth, He has given to us even His Son and the Holy Ghost, by whom to bring us to Himself…The Father gives Himself entire to us, all creatures; the Son, His entire work; and the Holy Ghost, all His gifts” (Large Catechism).

Significance of the Trinity Doctrine

The core content of Lutheranism is the Christian faith in salvation that adheres to the Bible. From this follows the effort to preserve the whole fullness of faith and to transfer unchanged that which is unrelinquishable from generation to generation.

In Luther research it is commonly held that the doctrine of justification is closely related to Christology, i.e. the doctrine of Christ. Christology is indeed one of the primary keys in interpreting the doctrine of justification. As such, the doctrine of justification remains the gospel’s main article of faith and as its core, on which the “Church stands or falls.” In the Smalcald Articles, Luther explained scriptural bases for justification. The reference to Christ and justification according to Rom. 4:25 was not only the first, but also the main article of faith: “Of this article can nothing be yielded or surrendered…And upon this article all things depend which we teach and practice.” Luther noted: “Now, since it is necessary to believe this, and it cannot be otherwise acquired or apprehended by any work, law, or merit” (Smalcald Articles).

Less attention has been paid to the relationship between the Trinity doctrine and the doctrine of justification. But if Luther’s teaching about justification is expressed succinctly “by faith alone, by grace alone, by the merit of Christ alone,” it can be difficult to understand without taking the Trinity doctrine behind it into consideration.

The Augsburg Confession first spoke of the Triune God and God’s creation work. After this it addressed the human problem along with the effects of inherited sin, and finally it discussed the doctrine of Christ, the Son of God and His divine and human nature. Only after these articles the Augsburg Confession introduced justification, i.e. the concept of people’s salvation by grace, for the sake of Christ, by faith. The article on justification was followed by articles on faith created in the heart through the work of the Holy Spirit, faith and its good fruits, the congregation and what it is like, baptism, communion, confession, repentance and the use of the Sacraments.

The Article of Faith pertaining to justification—by grace, by (the merit of) Christ, by faith—summarizes the scriptural and also the Trinitarian salvation order in God’s work. Also, the order of the Articles of Faith is clearly Trinitarian and also clearly based on the divine economy. It can thus be deduced, based on the structure of the Augsburg confession, that the Trinity doctrine is the foundation or culmination of the gospel connected to God’s divine economy, although the doctrine of justification is the center and core of the gospel.

The point of the Trinity doctrine is to explain how God accomplishes salvation of a sinful person. It is entirely God’s work, not human work, and in it the fullness of the instruction of faith is accomplished in the only correct way. If the Trinity doctrine is abandoned, Christ will be understood to be a mere moral teacher and example, and the Holy Spirit will be explained as a religious force that creates a spiritual experience. Religion would then be understood either as following moral or law-minded rules or as a mere soul-related phenomenon and a spiritual state of emotion.

Observance of moral rules has its place in terms of societal righteousness, but they do not save a sinful person. A person cannot—even with his or her best efforts—reconcile himself or herself to God. A person does not want to see or admit his or her complete corruption, sinfulness, state of unbelief nor the fact that he or she is subject to God’s wrath. In such a state he or she flees and resists God’s call. Moralistic law-mindedness and rational-idealistic, human-centric religiosity have a common root: a person’s own outward, virtuous attempts to be acceptable before God. In such a case the Christian faith, along with its truths and values becomes relativized, and Christian faith can then be seen and experienced as just one ideology among others.

Martti Sallinen

 

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