The Coherence of Christian Theology III

The Incarnation and the Trinity

Without the Incarnation, we would have no certain knowledge of the Trinity. We would have hints and indications, for our Christ-centered reading can now see them in the holy texts of the Old Testament. But we would have no clear revelation from God. Only the revelation of God in Christ makes known to us the fact that God is a Trinity of Persons. In the Son, God is revealed as the Father; in the Son we are given the promise of the Pentecostal advent of the Holy Spirit. Christ, himself, testified that he and the Father are one (John 10:30), and took on himself the holy Name, “I AM” (John 8:58). In Christ’s birth, the Holy Spirit overshadowed the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:35). In Christ’s baptism, the Holy Spirit manifested himself with the Father and the Son (Luke 3:21-22). Apart from Christ there is no revelation of the Trinity.

This means that attacks on the reality of the Incarnation, arguments which seek to diminish the truth about Christ’s Person, are also attacks and arguments against the teaching of the Trinity, and similarly, arguments against the Trinity are an attack on the Incarnation. If one seeks to diminish the Personhood of Christ, one will also diminish the Personhood of the Father and the Holy Spirit. But if we diminish the Personhood of the members of the Trinity, we no longer have a Trinity, but a variety of modes in which God manifests himself. We may still ascribe Personhood to God (as does Judaism and Islam), but we have no Trinity.

Yet if we have no Trinity, we have no Christianity. The belief in the Trinity is inscribed in the Nicene Creed, the only affirmation of faith accepted universally by all the Church. I do not mean to denigrate the other creeds (such as the Apostles’ Creed) which have come down to us, but rather to emphasize that the one Creed which has universal acceptance from all the Church necessitates a Trinitarian understanding of God for all Christians. So, if we deny the Incarnation, we deny the Trinity which Christ revealed to us, and, in effect, we deny the Christian Faith.

I have drawn some sharp lines of demarcation here, with regard to the implications of the Incarnation and belief in the Trinity, a line which says, “This is Christian” and “This is not Christian.” But I want to emphasize why the conjoining of the Incarnation and the Trinity is both important and a blessing to us.

If God is not a Trinity of Persons, as Jesus revealed, then Christ is little more than an avatar, the embodiment of a divine principle or force, but not fully God. God is making a revelation in Christ, if Jesus is nothing but an avatar, but is not revealing himself (Hebrews 1:3). Furthermore, Jesus cannot be a unique manifestation of God, since there can be many avatars of God without diminishing other manifestations. Yet if Jesus is uniquely God, not only can he reveal God’s Person, God himself, to us, but there can be no other manifestation of God that attains this revelation or reaches this height of glory. In other words, if there is no Trinity, as classically understood, then Jesus is not uniquely God in the flesh. He may be an avatar, but there may be greater avatars to come. Jesus need hardly be considered the last and greatest. Furthermore, if Jesus is only an avatar, he does not fully manifest God or the divine principle. He may represent the highest revelation yet known, but this hardly need be a complete and final revelation. Furthermore, if there were no Incarnation, we would have no knowledge of the Trinity. The two doctrines are inseparably connected at the point of the Person of Jesus.

The blessing of the revelation of the Trinity in the Incarnation is that God is revealed as both a unified essence and as a union of Persons. God is a unique being, a singular essence, of which like there is no other. If God were not a Person we would be hard pressed to avoid the risk of failing to distinguish this essence from any other unique physical or metaphysical essence. For all we know, God may just be something like gravity, or the mystical aether once thought to form the essence within which the universe existed. But if God is a Person, even a Person distinctly different from our human experience of personhood, then not only is he supremely unique, as he may be as a force, but more to the point, it is possible to have fellowship with him, for only persons can said to be in fellowship with one another. I have accidental encounters with rocks. I do not have fellowship with them. I may “know” rocks, but not in the same way I know my wife. Or, for that matter, God.

In other words, the Incarnation opens up the reality of the Trinity to us—dimly as we can comprehend it—which itself opens up the real possibility of relationship, fellowship with God. We can relate to God as persons. We need not annihilate our personhood so as to achieve some sort of impersonal union with an impersonal force or principle. We may, as it were, become ever more human, not less, in our fellowship with God.

Which brings me to the next implication of the Incarnation: the accomplishment of union between ourselves and God.

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