important things 5: terms, claims, nutshells

I'm sorry for my delay in getting back to this series. Thank you who are following along for your patience. I hope you are having a good summer.

Last post I ended by saying I would continue, this time, with what happened to me as I wrestled between my own two viewpoints or interpretations of Scripture. The first interpretation was influenced by eleven years as a student of Gutenberg College teachers, basically following many ideas espoused by Jack Crabtree (specifically expressed in his article that I'm responding to). The second interpretation, beginning in 2011, came from an immersion into Orthodox Christianity.

Today I'll present my observations about "Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, brought into existence by God, his Father."

Until I studied in the Orthodox church, my Trinitarian understanding originated in what I now view as a broken or incomplete tradition--that which came to me through history via Roman Catholics and Reformers (and probably others). This tradition distilled a definition of God into one sentence: Within the nature of the one God exist three Persons. I think my trouble with this defining claim began long before I listened to Jack Crabtree. Traditionally we find the Creator of all, the one true God, explained in ten words! Amazing.

Perhaps a problem with our Western culture's way of thinking is this desire to put many created things in a nutshell, let alone seeking to analyze God's true nature and plunk it down on paper. But of course human beings do this, have done this, not only in the West. Sometimes language is all we've got, and the moment calls for explanations.

The Orthodox understanding begins and ends (if one can say it has an ending) with Man and God. Adam and God. Eve and God. Cain and God. Abram and God. Jacob and God. David and God. Esther and God. Habakkuk and God. Zachariah and God. Symeon and God. Mary and God. Joseph and God. Peter and God. Paul and God. John and God.

None of these was seeking to diagram or explain God. Each was dealing with his or her own encounter with God. Just as each encounter with a person leads to specific things in the history of any life, so each encounter with God recorded in the Bible led to specific things. These encounters were with a Person. The reason this is said to be a capital P Person is that He is other than any person of mankind. This Person the biblical authors record meetings (and other sorts of encounters) with is not of our kind, is not a "kind" at all, being uncreated. There is none of our kind like this. There is only one God.

What I began to recognize is that, while the Bible doesn't describe any other being that is God, it also doesn't contain any writings that describe any other being that is Man, or human. Humanity illustrates something (as do all living creatures) by being created as one "thing." Which is why I can say Man encounters God and be talking about more than one human person, with no confusion on the part of my hearers. Language easily allows for Man (or even just man) to be plural.

Mankind, then, might be said to be a plurality. We know this by experience. This plurality of unique beings can still be called one Being. This is true, even though mankind is a very scattered, sundered being, spread hither and yon in ways beyond just space and time. Man is very disunified. Everyone goes his or her own way. And yet we all share mankind-ness. 

This sharing of our created kind-ness, or nature, or essence, still does not have sovereignty over us. What I mean by that is, I share humanity with others, but first of all, sovereignly, I am a unique identity. I don't exist as a generic human within humanity who contains my unique features. I exist as a unique identity, never before experienced by others until I came to be, who bears recognizable human features. We know from observing nature that this is true with every kind of thing: leaves, horses, snowflakes, and so on. Each molecule and star appears on the scene as a unique one of its kind. There is no repetition of identity in creation.

While instinctively I knew this concept, I had never observed this sort of understanding of mankind until I entered into what is unveiled and hymned in every Orthodox service. Not that it happens in a spooky way. The recognition is simply there and interacted with, by those who wish to at their own pace, soberly and with gratitude. Naturally involved with recognizing identities sharing the nature of man (as well as identities sharing the nature of angels, the "bodiless hosts") is a recognition of Identities sharing the nature of God. I have come to believe that this is why God made man the way He did, as one of gazillions of illustrations for us of reality.

In Orthodox interpretation, just as we find in other biblical traditions, God is the Source of everything. We use the term "God" to mean the Father, the One who created all that exists. That's really our starting point; we can't begin to comprehend anything "before the beginning" in what is God's territory of understanding and knowing. All we can do, soberly and with gratitude, is work with what God has revealed to humanity. The Bible tells us that God illumines the world via His one unique, only-begotten Son, the Revelation.

My wrestling match, from the day in 2011 when I willingly entered the Orthodox church, was between two possibilities. I already agreed (with Jack and the Orthodox, it became apparent) that God is not boxed into a nature that He must somehow share with two other beings known as God.

What I saw was my need to make a choice. First, I had accepted with Jack's help the concept of God being Jesus' Father by bringing the human Jesus into existence at a certain point in history, planned from before creation but not taking on any reality (not coming into the story) until nine months before his birth.

The second possibility I began to recognize was of God being Jesus' Father by some means incomprehensible to any creature (a total mystery to human beings where we are right now on the spectrum of existence), but related to the illustration we have of a man fathering a son--that God, the unoriginate, uncreated Creator of all, lives as a multiplicity of Identities, who have been, are, and ever will be complete, perfect Persons acting in perfect concert with one another, in the willing communion of Love which is God's highest Name, God's essence or nature. These Persons from before eternity share the nature of God, the same nature that human beings can become partakers of (2 Peter 1:4).

This second option involves the fullness of the story that the Orthodox believe the Bible is written about, regarding the Person Who was with God in the beginning, as the Apostle John tells us, through Whom all things were made. This Word by which all was spoken into existence came, not from nowhere, like I did as a created thing, but from somewhere, from the Father. No one has seen God at any time, but this Word has made God known, has enlightened the world. He did so by "being made flesh," "becoming flesh," "taking flesh." That Messiah which had been prophesied and illustrated throughout Jewish history came from the Father and, by the action of another Divine Person, the Holy Spirit, along with a human woman, was born into the line of humanity. Jesus is a combination of God and Man, a combining for the purpose of interaction, which is a rescuing action for mankind in his present, fallen state. 

Jesus in Orthodox Christian understanding is not a bizarre creature, split down the middle in the throes of belonging to two separate nature boxes, as the Western Christian tradition might cause one to try and picture. Rather, Jesus embodies the attributes of God's Nature along with the attributes of man's nature while remaining one sovereign Person, the One willed from before time by God to join these two natures into perfect concert with one another. In the same way God personally wishes to be "one with" each member of humanity, as He is in absolute unity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so His Son became an illustration of perfect unity between two natures, in harmony becoming as one while ever identifiable in the two.

And so we find me using language alone to try and express God in a nutshell. Forgive me; I know it can't be done. But I hope these paragraphs are helpful in delineating the two options I faced. After much deliberation I chose to study in the stream of Orthodox thought and practice, not, I hope you can see, because I found Jack's wording to be totally wrong, but simply because, knowing where it likely came from (a reaction to Western thoughts), I saw I preferred the fuller, deeper-digging task I had discovered. 

Next post I wish to discuss two possibilities for understanding how and why Jesus "taught his Jewish disciples the true meaning and significance of what they had already learned as first-century Jews who had been taught the Scriptures in the synagogue."

Installment 6 is here.


Fresca said…
This delightfully reminds me of how much I enjoyed the semester I wrote both a paper on Augustine and the Trinity AND one on the Cappadocian Fathers.

That's when I first read the famous--and funny, I think!-- statement of 4th cent. St. Gregory of Nyssa on what a hot topic the Nature of Christ was (because of Arius):
"In this city (Constantinople) if you ask a shopkeeper for change, he will argue with you about whether the Son is begotten or unbegotten.
If you inquire about the quality of bread, the baker will answer, 'The Father is
greater, the Son is less.' And if you ask the bath attendant to draw your bath, he
will tell you that the Son was created out of nothing."

And to think some of us are still pondering it all today! in our various ways...
deanna said…
Oh, I would have loved to read your paper, Fresca (do you still happen to have it lying around?) to see where you were coming from.

St. Gregory's statement is famous -- and quite a delight in a sense, too. Your bringing it up makes me want to write a post about it -- maybe I will!
Fresca said…
Heavens! I think I do have that paper on the Cappadocians!
I worked so hard on it, I saved it. One on the Trinity too!
I'll see if I can find them to Xerox for you.

A few years later, a friend invited me to go to Turkey with him, knowing my interest in Cappadocia. It was amazing to be *in* the actual landscape.
Favorite memory:
eating preserved cherries in the evening on the roof of a shoddy hotel, watching birds circle to roost.