May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, shall bless us. God shall bless us; let all the ends of the earth fear him! (ESV)
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A God By Any Other Name
Wednesday of Pentecost 21
21 October 2015
Christians have always struggled communicating the deep theology of the holy Trinity to those who are not insiders. A few years ago, there was a flap over the unwillingness of some Bible translators to describe God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, especially if those translations were targeted for a Muslim audience. It is thought that Muslims would be offended by reading the baptismal formula of "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Mt 28:19
). So there was an effort to call the Son of God "the beloved of God" in some translations. Can we re-image the divine name in such a way that it will be less offensive to our Muslim readers without putting at risk the content of the divine revelation and the substance of the divinity?
What kind of Christianity would be less offensive to the Muslim (or for that matter, anyone else outside the Christian community)? It would be one that is more like Islam; one without a crucifix, I suppose. Perhaps you saw the story of the lesbian Swedish bishop who suggested that a chapel that serves the needs of seamen in Sweden be stripped of crucifixes so as not to offend Muslim worshipers in the chapel. Of course, this isn't about art, but about whether or not Christianity worships the Crucified (Gal 3:2, 1Co 1:23
What is a Christianity that is more like Islam? It isn't Christianity. Why would Christians seek to soft-peddle the distinctive teaching of the holy Trinity with the incarnationally distinctive crucifixion of Jesus? These things must be taught and explained to the Islamic listener sooner or later. To hide this distinctive Christian teaching is to play theological bait-and-switch, by which we may interest Muslims on false grounds, only later to lay on them the doctrine of the Trinity or the crucifixion of God's son. What difference between this and lying is, I am not sure. We may not play fast and loose with the divine names or the distinctive acts of God's Son. The first and second commandments do not include exceptions for Muslims.
Since when have we had the idea that the gospel can be shared risk free? What makes us think that we ought to be able to share Christ without riling up those who hear His teaching? Our Lord Himself has told us what true blessedness consists of: "Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Mt 5:11-12
). So when we stir up persecution because we speak the gospel and name God as He has names Himself to us, we can call ourselves the truly blessed of God. Where is the downside in that?
The ancient heretics of the church tried to undo the names of God over a millennium and a half ago. The Eunomians performed baptisms "in the name of the Creator, the Co-operator, and the Servant," which sounds suspiciously like the now-passé feminist baptismal formula: "in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier." This formula was intended to remove the offense of the masculine names for God. I seriously doubt that this renaming of God caused a groundswell of feminist conversions. Neither will soft-peddling to Muslims the name of the blessed holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A god by any other name is not God.
"If ever there was a time when the Father was not, then there was a time when the Son was not. If ever there was a time when the Son was not, then there was a time when the Spirit was not. If the one was from the beginning, then the three were so as well. If you cast down the one, I am bold to assert that you do not set up the other two. For what profit is there in an imperfect Godhead? Or rather, what Godhead can there be if it is not perfect? And how can that be perfect which lacks something of perfection?
"Surely there is something lacking if the Godhead does not have the holy, and how would it have this if it were without the Spirit? For either holiness is something different from Him, and if so let someone tell me what it is conceived to be; or if it is the same, how is it not from the beginning, as if it were better for God to be at one time imperfect and apart from the Spirit? If He is not from the beginning, He is in the same rank with me, even though a little before me; for we are both parted from Godhead by time. If He is in the same rank with me, how can He join me to the Godhead?
"Or rather, let me reason with you about Him from a somewhat earlier point, for we have already discussed the Trinity. The Sadducees altogether denied the existence of the Holy Spirit, just as they did that of angels and the resurrection; rejecting (I know not upon what ground) the important testimonies concerning Him in the Old Testament. And of the Greeks, those who are more inclined to speak of God, and who approach nearest to us, have formed some conception of Him, as it seems to me, though they have differed as to His name, and have addressed Him as the mind of the world, or the eternal mind, and the like. But of the wise men among us, some have conceived of him as activity, some as a creature, some as God; and some have been uncertain what to call Him, out of reverence for Scripture, they say, as though Scripture did not make the matter clear either way. And therefore they neither worship Him nor treat Him with dishonor, but take up a neutral position, or rather a very miserable one, with respect to Him.
"Of those who consider Him to be God, some are orthodox in mind only, while others venture to be so with the lips also. And I have heard of some who are even more clever, and measure deity; and these agree with us that there are three conceptions; but they have separated these from one another so completely as to make one of them infinite both in essence and power, and the second in power but not in essence, and the third circumscribed in both; thus imitating in another way those who call them the Creator, the Co-operator, and the Servant, and consider that the same order and dignity which belongs to these names is also a sequence in the facts."
Gregory Nazianzus, Fourth Theological Oration, 3-4
Almighty God, grant us ever to rejoice in the saving light of Your gospel and, following the example of Your blessed apostles, spread it to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
For John Meyer, who is convalescing at home, that the Lord would watch over him and grant him healing
For the capital campaign of Memorial Lutheran Church, "A Memorial for the People," that it might be brought to its final conclusion to the glory of God and the benefit of His holy church
For Jed Foronda who is suffering from cancer, that the Lord would strengthen him in body and soul
Art: Dürer, Albrecht The Adoration of the Trinity (1515)
© Scott R. Murray, 2015