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Friday, May 30, 2014

Rainbows and Earthworms, or Making Sense of God's Nature

When it comes to Protestant doctrines the COGs despise, the Trinity has to be in the top five. And the belief that the Holy Spirit is a person - not the power of God - goes hand in hand with it. I always accepted both as false because it was what I was taught as long as I can remember. But I never understood the deep loathing many (mostly Ambassador College grads) felt for them. Something about how the Trinity had pagan roots (didn't everything?) and how it was a closed system that didn't allow for more members in the God family. Sounded plausible, I guess.

Over the past year, I've wrestled to understand beliefs about the Trinity and the Holy Spirit. While my COG upbringing created a barrier, it's not like I had any personal antipathy toward them. I just didn't get it. I've read the Bible and I've read theology textbooks. One of my best, sweetest friends even tried to explain it by showing me a pamphlet with a picture of a triangle. Right. That cleared things up in a jiffy.

It only took twelve months to penetrate my thick skull, but I am starting to see that what maybe Protestants have been telling me - that the Trinity can't be explained by human logic - isn't so crazy. I still haven't found any secret diagram, and I'm done trying to put God in a box. Frankly, it's silly to insist that humans can fully understand everything about God's nature and how He works.

This probably sounds like a cop out to you, because it always did to me. I remember having a conversation with a Protestant pastor whom God brought into my circle of friends last year. The son of Irish missionaries, this man studied at one of the most prestigious seminaries in the United States. He is bilingual and has served God in countries I've never heard of. He is wise beyond his years. But when I asked him to explain the Trinity to me logically, he told me it was not possible.

"How can man fully understand God?" he asked me. "It would be like explaining a rainbow to an earthworm. Even if he could see it, would it ever make sense to him?".

Mildly irritated, I wondered why on earth I was listening to this "man of God" who couldn't even explain his belief about His Creator's nature. But as I mulled over the conversation later, I realized maybe he wasn't just being poetic. Several scriptures describe man as a worm in comparison to God. In Job 25:6, Job opines that man is nothing more than a maggot before God. David similarly describes himself in Psalm 22:6. Even God uses this comparison in Isaiah 41:14.

Once I was done being annoyed, the humility of his answer struck me. He wasn't afraid to say, "I don't know." His answer was unpretentious, unlike many recent responses I'd gotten from COG ministers, who often made something up or changed the subject in response to my difficult questions. If you're reading this blog, you might have already discovered these are some of the tactics COG ministers use when questioning members approach them. Many COG doctrines come from proof-texted scriptures these ministers use in isolation to discredit certain Protestant doctrines that don't have simple answers. In the COGs, we are used to having a simple explanation for everything, even if the explanation is a dumb one. Come on, you know it's true. Only the things Herbert W. Armstrong said must be taken on faith are allowed to be illogical.

This post isn't intended to prove the Trinity is true, or even to fully examine the nature of the Holy Spirit. If that's what you're looking for, take a look at Primer to the Trinity Doctrine.

I am simply trying to take the mystery out of a couple topics where I know many struggle, even after exiting the COGs.

When Protestants say they believe in the Trinity, they don't mean that they can perfectly explain, label and diagram how God manifests Himself. What they mean is that the Bible tells us there is one God (Deuteronomy 4:35) and never will be any more gods (Isaiah 43:10). That the Father is God, that the Son is God and that the Holy Spirit is God (more on that Holy Spirit thing in a minute). They are simply reading scripture and making the best sense of it that they can, and accepting that explanation on faith. Because, at the end of the day, there is nothing equal to God and nothing to which we can adequately compare Him (Isaiah 40:25).

But the Trinity doesn't make sense, and God has to make sense, one frustrated relative told me. Really? How much that happened in scripture can you explain logically? Please explain to me how God created matter out of nothing. How someone immortal can become mortal. How we exist in Him (ACT. 17: 28) but the universe is not God. If you're still unsure of my point, read Job 38 through 42.

When you boil it down, we already take many things about God on faith. Teachings about the Trinity are no different. We are only uncomfortable with them because we have been taught that they are wrong, and that God's nature must be explainable according to the rules of logic in our tangible, material world. Why is it any more irrational to believe the doctrine of one God in three persons than the COG doctrine that claims to be monotheistic, yet believe two God beings exist and that a whole pantheon more is on the way (a belief that is problematic in light of Isaiah 43:10).

But the word "Trinity" isn't found in the Bible! Well, neither is the word "Bible!" The words "reproduction analogy" or "God in embryo" aren't in there, either, but HWA didn't have qualms about fleshing out a teaching he felt scripture supported. HWA did the same thing Trinitarian theologians do - piece together scripture in efforts to get a clearer picture of a concept they believe is portrayed in the Bible.

Hold on, you say, doesn't the Trinity have its roots in pagan religion? It was only recently that I realized a very important voice was noticeably absent from the COG's anti-trinity teachings - that of Alexander Hislop. Hislop was a nineteenth-century Scottish Presbyterian minister who wrote extensively about what he believed were pagan worship practices carried forward into Catholicism and Protestant Christianity. Hislop's theories have been widely discredited, but the COGs still quote him extensively as a source on all things pagan (UCG considers his book The Two Babylons "a definitive work on pagan customs that survive in today's religious practices," according to a recent article, "Christians Who Don't Celebrate Easter - What Do They Know?").

So Hislop is their trusted expert, except when it comes to the Trinity. In The Two Babylons, Hislop posited that the three-in-one tradition consistently appeared in pagan religions because it was a true concept deeply ingrained in mankind from the time of creation.
"While overlaid with idolatry, the recognition of a Trinity was universal in all the ancient nations of the world, proving how deep-rooted in the human race was the primeval doctrine on this subject, which comes out so distinctly in Genesis,"
-Alexander Hislop, The Two Babylons, p. 17
If the COGs revere Hislop as their authority on paganism, you'd think his belief that the Trinity isn't pagan would carry more weight with them. Instead, the COGs try to pin the origins of the Trinity on the Greeks, primarily Plato, and find a way to tie church fathers who promoted the Trinity to Greek philosophy, geography or religion. Remember Zeus and all his crazy kids? Yikes! Nothing that comes out Greece can be good.

Unless HWA gives it his stamp of approval, like he did with tabula rasa, the Greek philosopher Aristotle's theory that humans enter the world neutral as babies. HWA endorsed Aristotle's idea and wrote about it in his book, The Incredible Human Potential (Chapter 11). This theory is unbiblical, has implications for salvation, and is easily disproven by scripture (like Jeremiah 17:9, Psalm 51:6, Job 14:4 and Psalm 58:3, for starters), even according to some COG ministers, but UCG and other groups still embrace this idea in their literature today.

I hope you are starting to notice a pattern. To the GOG's, Hislop is the definitive authority on paganism in modern Christianity, except when he disagrees with HWA. On that point, Hislop was deceived. Greek philosophy is rooted in paganism and not to be trusted. Except where it supports HWA's conclusions. Then it provides brilliant insight into the human psyche. The Bible is the inerrant word of God, except for where it disagrees with HWA. Then rogue translators inserted their personal beliefs. Jesus was the Son of God, the great I AM, all knowing - except where His description of the Holy Spirit disagrees with what HWA taught. When Jesus describes the Holy Spirit in terms of personhood - as a Comforter who will guide and teach believers (John 14:6), it is biased translators speaking. When Jesus uses parallel structure to put the Holy Spirit on par with Himself and the Father (Matthew 28:19), He cannot be taken at His word, and must be redefined until He comes into alignment with HWA. And when Peter tells us that to lie to the Holy Spirit is to lie to God in Acts 5:3-4, HWA tells us this same passage could be used to prove Peter was part of the Trinity.

The truth is, HWA set himself up as the authoritative voice above everything and everyone. We all know he set himself up as the final authority in the Worldwide Church of God. He broke apart families through his divorce and remarriage policy, and then married a divorcee when it suited him. He discouraged medical treatment in the WCG membership, then sought advanced medical treatment himself when his own health hung in the balance. He forbade, then allowed, wearing makeup and celebrating birthdays almost on a whim. So it's appalling, but not surprising, that when HWA disagreed with Jesus Christ and certain passages in the Bible, HWA's belief came out on top. Even today, decades after his death, when HWA's teachings seem inconsistent with scripture, we have all been conditioned to pull out our COG lexicon and put on our COG prescription glasses to see words and explanations that aren't there. HWA often said not to believe him, but to believe our Bibles. Well, it's time we started doing that.

  • Acts 13:2 tells us the Holy Spirit spoke to a group of prophets and teachers fasting and worshiping God at Antioch. The Holy Spirit told the group to set Barnabas and Saul aside for a work to which He called them. Can a power speak? The Holy Spirit is also recorded as speaking to Philip in Acts 8:29 and to Peter in Acts 10:19. A prophet named Agabus quotes the Holy Spirit in Acts 21:11.

  • Ephesians 4:30 tells us that we can grieve the Holy Spirit, presumably when we exhibit traits like bitterness, anger and malice (and others, according to verse 31). Isaiah 63:10 also indicates humans can grieve the Holy Spirit. Can one grieve a force? Does a power have emotions?

  • Romans 8:27 describes the Holy Spirit as making intercession for the saints. This verse is doubly problematic for the spirit-is-a-power viewpoint. Can a power intercede with the Father on our behalf? Also, this verse seems to indicate a distinction between the Father, who hears the intercession, and the Spirit, who makes intercession. This verse makes no sense if the Spirit is simply a power or force.

  • In Acts 16:6-7, the Holy Spirit forbade Paul and Silas to preach the gospel in Asia, and did not allow them to go into Bithynia. Aside from creating a science-fiction force field, how does a power accomplish these things? On the flip side of the coin, the Holy Spirit appears to endorse the decisions of the Acts 15 conference in verse 28 of the same chapter. How does a power communicate approval?

  • Mark 3:29 and Luke 12:10 tell us that blaspheming the Holy Spirit is the only sin that will not be forgiven. Can one blaspheme a power or force, or does the word blaspheme refer specifically to an act toward God?

  • Many verses would be redundant if the Holy Spirit were simply a power. Consider Acts 10:38, where I've taken the liberty of inserting the words "power of God" for the words "Holy Spirit": "How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the power of God and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him." Try the same exercise with Luke 4:14, Romans 15:13 and 1 Corinthians 2:4. They make no sense.

  • John 14:26, 15:26 and 16:13-14 all use the masculine pronoun he to refer to the Holy Spirit in the original Greek text. This contradicts HWA's claim that only neuter words appear in the original text (such as pneuma, the Greek word for "spirit") and shows he was mistaken when he insisted the Holy Spirit should always be referred to with the pronoun it.

So why does this matter? Does it really make a difference whether you believe the Holy Spirit is the power of God instead of a person? I could make a case either way. On the one hand, the point of this whole post is that we can't fully understand God. On the flip side, blaspheming the Holy Spirit is the unpardonable sin. Does calling the Holy Spirit a force if He is a person qualify as blasphemy? I'm not sure.

The bigger issue, as I see it, is the fruit the belief produces in our lives. In the COGs, where we believe the Holy Spirit is a force, we are taught to use the Holy Spirit to change ourselves. Sure, there is some talk of submitting to it or following its promptings, but it usually is described as a power tool for us to wield to blast the sin out of us. You have the power of God within you, at your disposal! Come on, people, get with it! That was the message a large percentage of sermons drove home.

Unfortunately, this approach leaves us vacillating between self-righteousness for all we have accomplished and despair for what we haven't. That's because it puts us in the driver's seat of a process we were never meant to lead. When we combine this view with the COGs' misunderstandings about what it means to be justified and born again, we are set up to fail. Don't get me wrong, we should refrain from sinning as much as we possibly can. It's a noble goal to try to eliminate sin from our lives, but it's also an exercise in futility.

The mainstream Christian view is that the Holy Spirit is a being living inside us, guiding us and changing us from the inside out. The goodness in us is His goodness and not our own. The light in us that we shine is Him. We are responsible to obey, to submit to His prompting and to cooperate with Him, but we are not in the driver's seat. In this view, it's all about Him and what He does within us.
The COG belief about the Holy Spirit teaches us to look to ourselves and rely on our efforts, somehow grabbing hold of the Holy Spirit to amplify those efforts, to make our goodness more like His goodness and our light more like His light. In this view, it's all about us and what we do with Him.
The Protestant belief teaches us to focus on God instead of ourselves, placing our faith in Him completely for both sanctification (removing sin) and salvation, instead of depending partially upon our own efforts. The distinction may seem subtle, but it makes all the difference in the world.

Yes, I know that the earliest church leaders didn't overtly teach the Trinity, and debated about the Holy Spirit. Neither became official church teaching until the 4th century, although the concepts were being discussed much earlier. I don't have a problem with that. It makes total sense that the Church didn't start speculating about these things until long after Jesus' death. Christians were too busy being hunted down and martyred to argue in-depth about abstract theories. I have a hard time picturing brethren having fractious debates about these things while hiding in the catacombs. Once they emerged in relative safety, that is when the deep discussions started, and that is when ideas starting taking off in every direction. As with most things, the motion to definitively settle a matter doesn't arise until there is a true need. The new explosion of incompatible speculation on all sorts of topics, not just the nature of the Holy Spirit, is what created that need.

Most people who have studied sociology have heard of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. This theory asserts that man can only address higher levels of human need once physiological needs and safety have been addressed. I can see this applying to the early church - different theories on God's nature were discussed, but it was only once Christians were no longer on the run and had their physical needs consistently met that they had time or desire to sit and debate these abstract concepts. Besides, those who cry foul because of the doctrinal time-frame are the ones who accept HWA's claim that God allowed the truth to be suppressed for 1900 years. You would think those same people wouldn't get all bent out of shape over a couple of centuries. The door swings both ways.

I know it feels good to think we have God all figured out. Remember, I was in your shoes for decades. I prefer for things to be logical, easily explained and in their proper spot. I can try to put God in my neat, clearly-marked box, but I'll have to shave off some of His infinite nature to make Him fit. Then I'm no better than Aaron, fashioning my own golden calf, making a form that better meets my needs and preconceived notions.

God is who He is, and He doesn't always make sense. It doesn't make sense that 90-year-old Sarah gave birth to Isaac. It doesn't make sense for God to turn the heart of a prostitute and make her part of our Savior's lineage. Who would suspect that Christianity's greatest persecutor, Saul, would become Christ's greatest missionary, Paul? Most importantly, what rational being would submit Himself to a brutal death to save us while we were still His enemies?

No, God doesn't always make sense. And we should be thankful that He doesn't.


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It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; ) Acts 17:11
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3 comments:

Dillon said...

Yes I agree, Hislop is the Pope of Armstrongism. If the UCGs were so consistent, they would know that Hislop believed in the Trinity. They now need to be consistent and thrash Hislop as well. An Armstrongite may say "well, if he was right on Christmas and Easter it doesn't mean he's correct on everything." SO YOU DO ADMIT HISLOP WAS WRONG?! Well then get a load of this: If Hislop was wrong on other things then you cannot use him as definitive source on "how to distinguish a true church from a false one" If Hislop is wrong on "other things" he's not an infallible source. If Hislop believed in the Trinity then you have no excuse whatsoever for not doing so. Plain and simple.

Dillon said...

I would also like to make another comment against the Armstrongites. If long hair on a man is so shameful, why does God command Samson to do a shameful thing in order to be set apart as holy? If men growing long hair is a sin, was God telling man to sin in order to be sanctified? Sinning does not make you holy yet the Nazarite vow, which involved men growing long hair, made Samson holy. If men growing hair long is morally a sin, you cannot say there is an exception to the rule. That is intellectually dishonest. For example: homosexuality and blasphemy a morally sinful, would God then make an exception to the rule and say "you can blaspheme Me for seven days and you will be set apart as holy" or "Have sexual relations with a catamite for five nights and you shall have more blessing from Me." Obviously not! If something is morally sinful it would not even be included in ceremonial laws as not even the ceremonial laws condone morally sinful ideas either.

Michael D. Maynard said...

Well put Martha,

Maybe the Greek philosophers that HWA hated so much were more right than were more correct that we imagined in the COG's (past tense)

Plotinus taught that there is a supreme, totally transcendent "One", containing no division, multiplicity, nor distinction; likewise, it is beyond all categories of being and non-being. The concept of "being" is derived by us from the objects of human experience and is an attribute of such objects, but the infinite, transcendent One is beyond all such objects and, therefore, is beyond the concepts which we can derive from them. The One "cannot be any existing thing" and cannot be merely the sum of all such things (compare the Stoic doctrine of disbelief in non-material existence) but "is prior to all existents".

I think this Greek had it right! Even David wanting to make a house for God is somewhat comical in a sense.