Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Dialogue With Jimmy McCarty on the Trinity, Christian Identity, Orthodoxy versus Orthopraxy, and Churches of Christ

Over the past week my friend Jimmy McCarty and I have been having a back-and-forth email conversation about the Trinity, what constitutes Christian identity, orthopraxy versus orthodoxy, and the intersection of all of these matters in our particular ecclesial tradition, the churches of Christ. Jimmy is a PhD student in religious ethics in Emory's Graduate Division of Religion, having moved to Atlanta from Los Angeles a year ago. We thought others might benefit from our dialogue, so enjoy!

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Jimmy: What's the biblical basis for the claim that Jesus was raised by the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit? Seems like someone's forcing a Trinitarian reading where it isn't totally present unless I'm forgetting something... I've always thought the question about who raised Jesus, the Father or Jesus himself, was rather ambiguous in scripture.

Brad: Regarding your question about the Trinity, there's two ways to answer that. One is that, for such a claim, it is grounded not in the fact that Scripture says it, but that the church confesses the triune God, and insofar as that God is truly triune, everything the one God does he does so as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Therefore, God the Father raised God the Son in the power of God the Spirit.

On the other hand, given that I think Trinity is biblical, this sort of claim seems to me clearly evident in Scripture (though of course there are always ambiguities and a scope beyond this particular of a formation). That the Father raised the Son is simply an extension of the fact that often, especially in Pauline language, "God" names "Father" while "Lord" or "Son" names Jesus. For example, Philippians 2 says "and God also highly exalted him [Jesus], giving him the name that is above every name [Lord], that at the name of Jesus, every knee ... every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." So that's one side.

The other would be that Jesus is raised in the Spirit. Romans 1:4 and 1 Timothy 3:16 seem to be the closest to saying something like this -- but again, they only point us to the larger reality that "the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead" is in fact the Spirit of the Risen One. Which only leads to a theological understanding of the Holy Spirit as God's inexhaustible presence and force for Life -- in the midst of and through death. That is, resurrection life.

There's a great meditation on this by Peter Leithart. It gets at some of the ambiguities you mentioned, albeit super Trinitarian.

Jimmy: That's helpful. Not surprisingly, it seems some of my hesitations about the Trinity are the same as my hesitations about the who raised Jesus question. It just seems so convoluted to get to any coherent understanding. I see where your grounding comes from, though, and think the command to baptize in the name of Father, Son and Spirit is one of the strongest arguments, so it makes sense to be Trinitarian in baptismal rites. I just always get nervous when Trinity becomes a requirement for faithful Christianity, so it's inclusion in your liturgy made me ask.

Again, I lean Trinitarian, I'm just nervous about making it dogma. There's a part of me that thinks that if you confess Jesus as Lord (whatever that might mean) that's enough for me to count you as Christian.

Also, having just come from small town Tennessee -- one of the lifebloods of CofC -- there are still a lot of ministers with no training from our universities and many congregations that actually frown upon their ministers having a Bible degree. I do think they're dying though... Just a friendly reminder since it seems you've had a unique CofC experience in some ways.

Brad: Yeah, it's always helpful for me to remember that our autonomous situation means "trends" in many ways aren't even nameable. Such a bizarre time for our tradition.

It would be an interesting sociological experiment to ask and explore whether we can even call "churches of Christ" a coherent, identifiable tradition/movement. How many concrete splits are there, within churches that still claim the name?
  • ICOC - though technically they did claim a new name
  • CoC - evangelical/mainstream
  • CoC - sectarian/fundamentalist

It's probably helpful for all future discussion purposes to note that I have had literally no direct contact whatsoever with either the ICOC or the sectarian/fundamentalist strains. Now, of course there is going to be a midway point between the mainstream/evangelical types and the sectarian (where would you place your L.A. church?), but it seems like speaking communally, they can be identified. You can even have progressive sectarians and conservative mainstream-ers, but there's something there regardless.

It would be interesting on a purely qualitative level to know two statistics: first, what percentage of churches fall in the mainstream category; and second, what percentage of persons fall in the mainstream category. I wonder if the former would be a smaller overall number than the latter -- i.e., there are more sectarian churches, but less overall people in them.

In any case, always interesting to think about that stuff.

Regarding the Trinity, for me, it's less about dogma/creed/heresy and "signing on the dotted line" than about which God we are worshiping. I may have told you this story before, but I had a friend in high school who was in a semi-cult-ish church-type group [the details of which not being pertinent to public discussion]. Anyway, they didn't believe God is triune because it's "not biblical." But my friend didn't think this was important between he and I, and wanted to say we were both Christians, etc. I said that that couldn't be true, if we wanted to be honest with each other, because when we said "Jesus is Lord" we meant different things. He said it didn't matter. I said, as an absurd example, that if by "Jesus is Lord" I meant "Jesus the Palestinian Jew was and is ruling God of the cosmos" and he meant "Jesus the Palestinian Jew was a golden retriever," we simply would not be saying the same thing, even if our words were the same. His response was that we would be, so therefore it didn't matter.

That is an absurd example, but it names the precise matter: what do we mean by our words? I'm happy to let a thousand sleeping dogs of ambiguity lie, so long as we have a few essentials down. Jesus' divinity and the character of the God we confess and worship are two of the handful for me. A few others would be that Jesus was crucified, died, and was raised from the dead, and that that event is salvific; that this God is the God of Israel who created all things; that this God is love and will make all things new; etc. But I just can't get around the centrality of God as triune, as nothing less than a biblical and requisite doctrine of God for all Christian teaching, faith, and proclamation.

Now, if the question is whether we should use the word "Trinity," or something equivalent, I'm open to talking. I'm not sure there is any better language available to us, and I want to claim the tradition wholeheartedly, but I understand the issue there.

Jimmy: I'm not sure if it's legitimate to count black churches of Christ as another unique expression of the tradition, but it's worth considering. There is something unique about them, but most tend to fall into the sectarian/fundamentalist mode rather than the mainstream one.

I think your question about which God we are worshiping is a legit one. And I'm glad you recognize the absurdity of your example if for no other reason than the words "Jesus is Lord" cannot mean Jesus is a golden retriever (or any other dog for that matter)! Also, your description of his church as "cult-ish" is very poignant. Part of my hesitation about drawing lines that exclude some who claim the name Christian comes from the experience of having been accused of being in a cult by other Christians because I am a member of the CofC. I'll wear the name Christian whether others want me to or not. That's just the way it's gonna be! So, I feel the duty to offer the others the same courtesy. The golden rule or some other touchy-feely Jesus thing.

Now, back to your question about the God we are worshiping: I firmly disagree with the God of the prosperity gospel (perhaps the American version of the Deuteronomistic God), but I cannot say those who believe this are not Christian even though I do not believe in that God. Perhaps you can make a distinction between the who-God-is question and the what-God-is-like question, but I think that at some level they are the same question.

This does not mean that I think all "Christianities" are created equal. In my opinion there are some that are clearly horrible, and some that are better than most, but the fact that some are really bad doesn't mean they no longer qualify as "Christian" in some sense.

So, what are the essentials to claim the name Christian?

1. Jesus was God in the the flesh.
2. Jesus is Lord.
3. Jesus was murdered, buried and raised from the dead after three days.
4. God is known as Father, Son and Spirit (not necessarily Trinitarian since I include modalists as legitimately Christian).
5. God is known in the Christian scriptures.

Any variation from this seems to me to exclude one from bearing the name Christian in any historically recognizable way. Now, there's a whole lot more to be said about other matters, but it seems to me if you differ from me on any other issue I can think you are terribly mistaken but still be Christian in some sense. (Now, remember I wrote this up rather quickly so I may modify this list in a future discussion!)

Brad: I'm intrigued by your notion (which I've heard you express before) about not wanting to exclude someone who claims to be Christians, and/or not wanting to say someone "isn't a Christian" who claims to be Christian.

You'll have to help me in understanding more precisely what that means. There are lots of ways to read it, but in any case, I don't have the same hesitation at all. Probably the main reason is, you and I aren't bishops or formal leaders in an institutional church; if we were, saying "yes" or "no" to "this person is or is not a Christian" would be the answer, and it would simultaneously answer whether they were or could be members of said institutional body. That kind of position and situation would be dealing in profound power, and I absolutely would have to re-think much of how to approach whether someone was "in" or "out."

But given that that is not the case, and we are talking descriptively as persons without institutional power -- and, just as importantly, without societal power to determine whether someone may claim for themselves a particular religious moniker or practice -- I just don't have those similar hesitations. Historically, "Christian" identifies a particular set of commitments spoken and enacted. More importantly, as a Christian and thus speaking theologically, I believe that Christian truth claims are in fact true, and therefore "Christian" actually names something real and identifiable.

Because reality and human experience are both fallible and given to sin, I'm all for the big tent, and intentional reticence in claiming "yes" or "no" to others' claims to be Christian. And every church, group, theology, etc., will be imperfect in expression and practice.

That said, if a person or group self-identifies as Christian, and their understanding or articulation of what it means to be Christian does not hold up historically or theologically -- even within the big tent -- I just don't know what it would mean to say, "Well, I can't say you're not." My first response wouldn't be to inform someone that they aren't what they say they are. Either descriptively in the third person, I would say that they aren't; or in a real, personal conversation, I would say that, given our respective claims, only one of us (me or the other person) could truly be a Christian, because they are actually contrary claims. That might mean I'm wrong instead of them, but I would prefer for us to agree that our claims are mutually exclusive than to say we won't say the other isn't Christian.

I had this situation with my cult-ish friend, as well as with Mormon friends. I'm happy for Mormons to say that I don't belong to the true faith, and therefore am not a true Christian -- they would be lying or dishonest to their own convictions if they said otherwise! That is, I am happy to be a Mormon heretic.

As for claims about cult status, I understand the power of the insult that someone might look at CoC and say it's a cult. But again, this seems to be mixing multiple issues. That you will wear the name Christian whether others want you to or not, and your accepting the duty to extend to others the same courtesy, has to do with cultural power and religious freedoms. The question is whether you are in fact a Christian, and whether others are as well -- not what you or I or others claim to be the case.

Does that distinction make sense? I guess boiled down, I would say: sociological hospitality and theological hospitality are different spheres. Sociologically, of course anyone can claim to be anything, and I believe as a Christian we must and ought to honor others' claims freely (here's where nonviolence comes in!). Theologically, religious claims are not equal, and if we are to speak and relate to one another truthfully -- almost always what I value most in relationships and human community lived out together -- then it is a false humility to say someone else "may be" or even "is" a Christian if one's convictions utterly disagree with them.

Let me know if I'm talking in circles or speaking somewhat coherently. Glad to be in on the theological email gravy train with you today.

Jimmy: Well, your sociological/theological distinction is striking since I do both! And I know sociology has affected my theology and vice versa. Milbank would be very disappointed in me.

I do not accept that neither you nor I have any societal power to wrongly exclude others from the Christian tent. We are both rather privileged and in fact do have such power. Also, historically, societal and religious power has been used to do just that. I think we must deal seriously with that fact. We may not agree about the power we have, but at least we should recognize that I am working from the perspective that I do have, however limited, such power and therefore some responsibility to use the "power" that is granted me as a minister, theologian and professor in a responsible way.

Now, as to your description of actual conversations had between people who disagree: I have often told people certain beliefs they hold are not Christian. However, this does not mean they are not Christians -- my beliefs have changed, and are changing, so many times, that it's hard to link Christian identity with too many doctrines. I've been a Christian the whole time!

I am slow to link Christian identity with orthodoxy (at least a broad understanding of that). For me, being a Christian has much more to do with orthopraxy. I'm much quicker to condemn a Trinitarian crusader than a non-Trinitarian martyr (and there have been those who have died for the name of Jesus who have not confessed the Trinity), for example. (And, hence, our differing status as a theologian and ethicist, at least to some extent). Obviously, some balance between belief and praxis is necessary, but how they are balanced is the issue at hand, at least so it seems to me.

As a side note, I don't think Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses or other such fringe groups fit my list of criteria to be Christian, so I think I'm safe on that level. The real test, it seems to me, is between Catholics and Baptists, Coptic Christians and Korean Christians that hold some shamanistic beliefs. Can all these people be considered Christian? It seems they can -- except sometimes that Trinity thing gets in the way!

Anyways, I feel like I'm rambling now. You were making sense, am I?

Brad: Ha -- I hope I never gave the impression of endorsing Milbank. He's a fascinating conversation partner, with brilliant insights, and also happens to be wrong a lot. In an incomprehensible way.

You are definitely making sense, but we're going to have to define some terms. In what sense do you and I have cultural power "to wrongly exclude others from the Christian tent"? Of course we share and participate in webs of power, and as educated males with history in the church -- who play to write, teach, influence, etc. -- there is extraordinary power there. But my claim is simple: Neither of us is in any position to inform another person or group that they are, as such, Christian or non-Christian, in a way that would actually decide the matter. Of course, historically that has happened repeatedly and horrifically -- but two of my central ecclesiological convictions are that the church be free and that the church be nonviolent. Meaning, there is no institutional structure from which to pronounce "Yay or nay" on others' identity (the ecclesiastical temptation), and neither is there a magisterium which speaks infallibly (in a real sense, the pedagogical sectarian temptation), and neither is there a claim that "we" have it all right (the fundamentalist temptation) -- and, finally, there is no state-centered coercive power to force practice or conviction or to make salvific claims (the Constantinian temptation).

So I acknowledge power -- but given that I want to refuse all those temptations, what kind of power remains that you are weary of?

Jimmy: I was definitely talking about those cultural expressions of power. Inasmuch as you are talking about institutional modes of power, you are correct about our relative impotence.

And I would never sin against you by claiming you have any allegiance to Milbank. I was just recognizing another heresy I am apparently guilty of according to some.

Brad: Glad to know you would never, at the least, label me a Milbankian. But what if I claim to be a Milbankian, yet am not...

It seems that to some extent we're getting into the question of what it means, ontologically, to "be" something, and therefore to affirm or deny another person's "being" something. In this case, the question is whether a person (or group, but we'll keep it individual for now now) "is" a Christian. As I understand you, you would respond to a person who says, "I am a Christian because I confess Jesus Lord -- that is, as a golden retriever," by saying, "That position is not Christian" or even "That confession does not accord with the confession that makes one a Christian" -- but you would refrain from saying about that person that he or she "is not a Christian." Is that correct?

If so, it does seem we've waded into philosophical waters about ontology and identity. I'm not trained to swim here, so I've only got middling thoughts, but I'll share anyway.

Basically, I just want to say that, whenever I offer a descriptive account of someone's Christian identity, or lack thereof, I do so with the ever-present disclaimer, "To the extent that Christian identity can be perceived and named." Because I recognize, of course, that I am not the judge (*), and that my assessment does not determine the case, my expressed judgment is only to the extent that I can perceive the matter and that words have meaning that matches reality. If a person says, "I am a Christian," and bows down to a golden retriever and worships him as Lord, I can't imagine not being able to say, "To the extent that Christian identity can be perceived and named, that person is not a Christian."

(*) I should note that I have noticed in some conversations that determining Christian identity often entails with it the assumption of whether someone is saved. I don't assume this connection as a necessary corollary, so I don't feel threatened by such judgments (whether about myself or others), but I understand why it would for those who do assume it.

Now, you bring up two important points: first, few cases are this absurd, as most involve interdenominational questions of doctrine and practice; and second, there is orthopraxy alongside orthodoxy. I like my example of bowing down to a dog, though, because most doctrine/orthodoxy can only be perceived through action. So that's why the "minimal list"/big tent works for me, not because they're simply inward beliefs, but because they are expressed in life.

The question seems to arrive in the discernment of orthopraxy through righteous deeds or through constitutive practices. Because Christian identity is first and foremost the identification of a sinner, it is unclear what it might mean to say that righteous deeds (often what "orthopraxy" names in disguise) identify a Christian. Besides, no Christian theology has ever claimed that non-Christians cannot or do not perform righteous deeds on a regular basis. Not to mention the fact that we should never (as I know you agree) claim Christian identity for those who don't claim it for themselves, simply because they "live like Jesus"!

So what might be practices that constitute Christian identity? (Oh no, Hauerwasian territory!) These would seem to be correlates to the "minimal list" named earlier: baptism into and belonging to the communal body of Christ; partaking of the body of Christ in the meal; confession of Jesus as Lord (speech is action!); confession of self as sinner; submission to the authority of Scripture; enacting of the Spirit's gift(s); saying and doing gospel in the world (=service, sacrifice, reconciliation).

Which returns us to the question: So how might we say if a person or group is not Christian? If these things are not spoken and done in community. If they are not, it doesn't mean someone isn't "saved," or that they don't know God, or that they are bad human beings, or that they are not a spiritual journey, or that they are not guests in the house of the Lord. But by what other means would we make the judgments?

Of course, the final close of the circle is to get back to the list: What makes it on the list? Is the Trinity on it? With the overwhelming majority of the church (but not, admittedly, the unanimity of it), I say yes, and without qualification. That said, I acknowledge that it is an open question whether Trinitarian confession leads to greater moral action. (Check out Richard Beck's suggestive blog post on this question.) On the other hand, I certainly believe the Trinity comes out in practice -- otherwise in what name do we baptize? who comes on us in baptism? whose meal do we eat? to whom do we pray the Lord's Prayer? And so on.

Jimmy: Great thoughts!

Some responses: I still don't think your retriever example is a legit one because the word's "Jesus is Lord" categorically cannot mean "Jesus is a golden retriever." If someone were to say that, I would not say "That is not a Christian thing to say but you are still a Christian," I'd probably try and get the person some mental help. You know as much as anyone words actually mean something, and "Lord" cannot mean "golden retriever." Now, if one person says "Jesus is Lord" and means "Jesus was a Palestinian Jew who is also the Son of God seated at the right hand of God the Father in heaven" and another says "Jesus is Lord" and means "Jesus is the one whom I obey and follow because of his status as God (though, perhaps, not in any trinitarian sense) and preeminent religious teacher" I'd say they're both Christians.

As to your clarification about orthopraxy, I appreciate your thoughts. I think they're very helpful. However, I've got a few responses.

1. You're right that non-Christians can "do justice and mercy," but that is still constitutive of what it means to be a Christian. To make this simplistic, the difference is that Christians do it in the name of Jesus. Also, I think the Christian vision of life/the world/life in the world, is unique (and doesn't have to be Trinitarian to be unique, though I agree it makes it more compelling in many ways and more unique), though I won't go into that here.

2. I appreciate your move to religious rites and rituals, and agree that those are things that Christians do (and can be used to identify Christians). However, my initial response was, "If that's all that identifies a Christian/Christian community, then Jesus' death wasn't worth it." Harsh, but if partaking the Lord's Supper doesn't lead to actual table fellowship/sharing of goods with the outsider, then it's not Christian (but those who miss the point, and millions do, are still Christians in some sense), for example. Also, this is what makes me so frustrated with Hauerwas, sometimes. It seems to me he implicitly limits the realm of God's intentions, goals and (productive?) activity in the world. I recognize this is my read of him, and many would disagree with me, but it's my read nonetheless.

3. An important point, I think, that is left out of your move to religious practices, is that non-Trinitarians do all of those things and faithfully. Modalists/Unitarians can baptize in the name of Father, Son and Spirit without having a Trinitarian understanding, for example.

4. I'm on board with your distinction between being a Christian and being saved, for what that's worth.

Okay, I think that's enough for now. (Again, I'm basically with you on the Trinity except for it's place as dogma to be Christian.)

Brad: All right, here's some point-for-point responses.

0. You're right about the Jesus-dog thing, but it is at the very least a helpful example for me for two reasons: first, I actually had a conversation with someone where they affirmed the equivalence (of course not the truth) of the proposition, and the person in question is a self-identified Christian, who is not mentally unstable, who is in fact one of the five most brilliant persons I have ever known. Meaning, it's not made up! And therefore, second, that we have to establish that words mean something, and that even something so simple as "Jesus is Lord" or "I worship the God of the Bible" has to be worked out. (This is where I'm a bad Coc-er and a bad Reformer: the perspicuity of Scripture, particularly to random individual readers, especially when those readers are American Protestants, is a highly questionable doctrine in its popularized form.)

But I accept the point that your much more nuanced differentiation between meanings is more likely and more difficult. Nevertheless, let me be clear. I want to say and believe it is coherent to say two things about a modalist or non-Trinitarian self-identified Christian: historically, that person does not accord with what basic beliefs constitute Christian identity; and theologically, that person does not believe as a Christian should. I guess the remaining question you want to press is whether I would then go on to say that that person is not a Christian. And to that, I give ground: at this point, I don't think I'll go that far. But that is for other reasons, perhaps to be explored below.

(Number 2 before number 1.)

2. I wholly understand and share your frustrations with any position or construal of the Jesus community that would entail its being "fully Christian" when its meal doesn't actually function the way the meal is supposed to. I'm curious as to where you go with identity here, because we can both agree that "the meal isn't Christian if it doesn't lead to or involve sharing with the outsider"; but then you still say that those who do this "are still Christians in some sense". Well, what is the "some sense"? Can you be Christian, do/perform actions/practices of Christian identity poorly or even sinfully, and remain Christian? That is, can you "be" Christian poorly or sinfully? I think all I want to say is: given that we are sinners, there is no question that we will in fact be Christians sinfully and poorly. What if the Christian who does Eucharist exclusively today (and thus is only Christian "in some sense") begins to do Eucharist hospitably in a year? Does he/she thereby become fully Christian? What if that has happened, but they aren't practicing their baptism without prejudice (i.e., they look down on another ethnicity)? Then is there still a qualification to their "being" Christian? Etc.

This observation is pointing me back, not even so much to practices, as to what constitutes Christian identity at all. And I might put it as simple as possible in this way: a person is a Christian if he/she is a baptized member of Christ's body who confesses Christ as Lord. In this way, confession, baptism, Eucharist, and community come together nearly as one. Thus we ward off the "in some sense" qualification in two ways. On the one hand, we can say that in baptism a person is made by God's own gracious action a child of the Father and a brother of Jesus, and therefore a Christian; yet given the ongoing penultimate reality of sin, the journey of life will forever be a living into this given identity. And on the other hand, belonging to the community of Jesus means that whether "I" have fully arrived at practicing Eucharistic sharing, I belong to that community whose life is the Eucharist -- and by God's grace, in the journey of life I will come, through the shaping of the Spirit, to live out the Eucharist with the needy and marginalized.

I know that this ultimately doesn't answer the problem of how one could ever "be" a Christian who doesn't actually practice justice in the world, but my response would be straightforward: that unjust person is a Christian just to the extent that as a fellow baptized believer and member of the same community, I can and must go to that person and call them to repentance. This seems to answer your question about changing beliefs over time -- you don't have to be the most sophisticated Trinitarian in the world to be a Christian (that is, your salvation is not based on your cognitive philosophical capacities), for two reasons: you were baptized in the triune name, and you belong to a community that will continue to educate and teach you over time in the truth of the Trinity. So regarding justice, I simply did not understand or practice the implications of God's justice for the poor before the summer of 2006 -- but God confronted me through brothers and sisters who led me to repentance and transformation in the Spirit. I was always a Christian, but I lived into my identity more fully after the fact. And regarding the Trinity, a similar pattern can be traced.

1. Thus instead of saying "doing justice and mercy is constitutive of what it means to be a Christian," I would respond that "doing justice and mercy is constitutive of the Christian identity into which men and women are baptized and live into over their lifetimes." Let me know what you make of that.

3. You make a good point about modalists/Unitarians. But do they do these practices in a Trinitarian community, that is, a community that worships and teaches the Trinity? If not, and the Trinity is the true God and the God narrated and revealed in Scripture, what community is it we are talking about?

Here's one way for me to ask this question: if you're fine saying that fully Christian confession must say that Jesus is fully divine, yet nowhere in Scripture does it say "Jesus is fully divine," as this is a (correct!) interpretation of Scripture, how do you arrive there if you deny the necessity of the Trinity? Is it only the Spirit's divinity that is problematic? Or the articulation of non-modalism (which is only saying that Father, Son, and Spirit are not "masks" for the "real God back there")? Is it an aversion to the creeds, which rule out modalism and its theological siblings, because they don't have authority in the way Scripture does? But who says Scripture has full or final authority? Scripture itself certainly doesn't and can't, for there is no "it" as such to know or talk about "it"; moreover, that there are x books rather than y books is a product of the church's own writing, editing, collecting, and binding. The same communities that decided Jude and Revelation would make it into the canon we have in our hands gave hermeneutical authority to the rule of faith, which came into concrete authoritative form at Nicaea and Constantinople. So on what grounds or on what basis do we say Scripture has its authority that cannot be swept out from beneath us? And is there an answer to that question that allows one to say it is clear the Son is divine, and one must confess it to be Christian, without also being able to say the same about the Trinity?

Jimmy: I think we have come to some shared ground here -- at least until that last paragraph (which I've read a few times now trying to discern). I'll have to get back to you on that.

I am on board with your language of being a Christian sinfully as roughly equivalent to my "in some sense" language. I'm simply "okay" with being "sinfully" a Christian in one's doctrine as well.

Oh, and your retriever story is valid inasmuch as it is a true story. Just remember, there's a thin line between genius and crazy! See: Van Gogh, Michael Jackson, Howard Hughes...

Just for fun, though, are you familiar with the churches of Christ that refuse to baptize in the name of Father, Son and Spirit (which we have assumed is the practice in our conversation)? They baptize in the name of Jesus Christ (see Acts 2:38). Their argument is that the examples of people being baptized don't use the formula at the end of Matthew 28, but only in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Not surprisingly, they tend to go out of their way to refuse the doctrine of the Trinity. I think they are mistaken, but they are still Christians (no matter how badly).

[End of the dialogue so far; we will see if more comes of it!]


  1. Re trinitarian view - Jesus says "I am" which is to say he IS one with the Father. No one can deny that Jesus is saying I am "Yahweh" to His audience. This is said after he is baptised in water and Spirit, and is in each Gospel told to us that he was begotten by the Father through the Holy Spirit. All that is in the Father is in Jesus, by the Holy Spirit ("God is Spirit").


  2. I really appreciate this much awaited and anticipated discussion, brothers.

    The quotation of the Shema in Deuteronomy 6 by Jesus in the gospel according to Mark is touted by some as his agreement and endorsement of the Jewish interpretation on the Shema. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus no more interpreted, agreed with or gave his endorsement of the Shema than did the scribe who answered, a telling and significant word choice by Mark, "wisely". It seems safe to say the scribe parroted the accepted view of his fellow scribes. The irony behind Jewish and Christian interpretations on the Shema is the former hold fast to it for their singularity claims (while "simply", as one man put it, disregarding the noun plural ending) and the latter hold fast to it for their plurality application of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

    The entire interaction between Jesus and the Sadducees beginning with the resurrection to the quotation of the Shema (with that bothersome plural noun ending) to the scribe's reply to Jesus' (unanswered) question on Psalm 110 (with that bothersome plurality of Lord(s)) may be the most powerful teaching without interpretation in such a context that the reader can bring things together and ponder their significance and meaning. One of those things is the resurrection from the dead. It blows me away that Jesus begins and ends his reply to the Sadducees, "you are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures . . . You are badly mistaken."

    As much as some profess and genuinely believe in the resurrection they still see death as a trick even God could not pull off. This has been the lie Satan has rolled forward since the garden continuing his deception. Where once he lied "You will not die" he revised his lie to "God cannot save you from the finality of death." If Jesus is God, goes the reasoning, he cannot die because God cannot die, but Jesus died. Therefore, he cannot be God.

    The resurrection of Jesus is God's penultimate in-your-face blow to Satan. God came into the world. He laid down his life and demonstrated for the benefit of man and the abject (surely an understatement) appall of Satan death is nothing to him and has nothing on him.

    The One-ness of God interpretation by the Jews (as well as Muslims) is to ascribe a quantitative value of one to the God of the Shema. This is unfortunate. The context of the Deuteronomy passage was to impress on Israel the unity of all the commandments of God. As an aside, but much related, this was the import of the prophet like Moses: The lineage of messengers from God who were to be obeyed just like Moses on down to Jesus, the apostles and the believers today who proclaim a message with an ancient unity which goes back to the garden of Eden.