Sunday, 4 December 2011

Catechism for the confused: the 'Hebrew Bible' and the Trinity

I've mentioned a few times of late a debate on Church architecture over at Cath News that I've been participating in.  It has, I think finally ground, to a halt, mired in a sea of passe theology and outright error.  I'm not going to post any further over there since each time I post a new stream of interesting heresies of marginal relevance to the actual topic appear in response, along with a rejection of the idea that doctrine cannot change!

Still, the last response by 'Francis' over there did elicit a number of erroneous opinions that I think probably are fairly widely held, and would take more than the 250 words permitted over there to dispel.  I'll skip over his or her views on changing doctrine - I think we've all heard the liberal line on 'creeping infallibility' and the like ad nauseum of late. 

The more important (and widespread) problem raised by the post is the denial of the divinity of Christ.

So I've decided to take a bit of space here to set out what I think are the key issues on the Old Testament, the revelation of the Trinity, and the divinity of Our Lord.  Do jump in if you think I've got it wrong anywhere, or you think it could be said better, this is hard stuff!

One God, three (equal) persons

First though, the the set of statements I want to respond to.

I had stated that "The New Testament reveals the God of the Old Testament to be Father, Son (eternally begotten remember) and Holy Spirit. One God, three persons, all of whom participate in the actions of the others. It is perfectly legitimate to talk of Jesus giving the commandments to Moses, and so forth."

Francis responded:

"[1] Jesus is not the Father: never has been, never will be [true] [2]The Father is, always, greater [false]. [3]The Hebrew Scriptures know nothing of the Trinity [false]. [4] To say that Jesus gave the Decalogue to Moses is as nonsensical as saying that he sent Gabriel to announce his own conception or that he was talking to himself from the cross..[The first two statements are false] [5] To say that Jesus is God is not to say that God is Jesus.[false]"

Attribution: The Father is wholly in the son...the son is wholly in the Father...

Let us start with the first and last of Francis' statements. 

Francis correctly asserts that there are three distinct (divine) Persons in the Trinity.   So the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father. 

What the writer has clearly forgotten, misunderstood or never been taught, however, is that all of the attributes of God are common to the three Persons.  So we talk about 'the Father Almighty', but in fact the Son is also Almighty, as is the Holy Spirit (take a look at the Creeds and the decisions of Lateran IV). 

Moreover, each of the Divine Persons is one and the self-same God.  Thus the Council of Florence actually  defined that 'the Father is wholly in the Son and wholly in the Holy Spirit' and the reverse.  Though we might attribute actions to one Person of the Trinity, in fact that they are actions of all. 

So it is in fact one could say that not only is Jesus God, but God is Jesus, God is the Father, and God is the Holy Spirit.

One God, three co-equal persons!

Francis then goes on to assert that "The Father is, always, greater" [than the Son].

Well no, this is actually a condemned heresy.

The Athanasian Creed provides a good summary of the essentials of our Trinitarian faith:

"And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence.

For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost.

But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost.

The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal.

And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite.

So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty.

So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God.

So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords; but one Lord.

Even if one restricts one's comments to Christ's (by definition limited) human nature, one needs to take care: we do after all owe 'latria' or adoration to the human nature of Christ as well as to his divinity, the reason for devotions such as to the Sacred Heart. We cannot really separate Our Lord's Godhead from his manhood - a doctrine called the 'hypostatic union'.

The 'Hebrew Scriptures'

The root of Francis' problems in this area is surely in part the attitude to the Old Testament exhibited in the use of the term 'the Hebrew Scriptures'.

The term 'the Hebrew Scriptures' can be used to describe the Bible books that Jews currently use.  But it does not describe what Catholics consider to be the Old Testament, nor does it reflect how they should be interpreted.  Nor does it reflect the fact that the Church is the guardian of Scripture, the legitimate inheritors of the Old Testament tradition.

It is worth noting that the Catholic Church has accepted as canonical a number of Old Testament books that clearly had been part of the loose 'canon' of Jewish texts in use (as witnessed by their translation as part of the Septuagint) that late first century Judaism rejected (in part on grounds that has recently been proved to be spurious, such as the claim that the deutero-canonical books were not written in Hebrew) because they gave too much aid to the Christian cause!  You can find a useful set of slides summarising some key implications of the Dead Sea Scrolls for this debate and others here (there is an associated free podcast on the Sacred Page Blog a few weeks back, but I'm afraid I found the style of presentation too breathlessly evangelical to be able to get through!).

Indeed, the evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls shows that the text of the 'Hebrew Bible' seems to have undergone some manipulation in places in response to Christian use of certain verses (you can read English protestant theologian Margaret Barker's interesting summary of the state of play in biblical studies, including the conclusion that where the Hebrew Masoretic Text and the Greek Septuagint seem at odds, we should probably go with the Septuagint here, starting at page 13).

More fundamentally, one should not, as a Catholic, read the Old Testament in isolation from the New. 

I'm not saying that there can't be insights gained from studying the rabbinical tradition of Scriptural interpretation, no doubt the aim of the upcoming Conference organised by the ACU, "Jews and Catholics Reading the Bible" (though one has to wonder how many participants will take the appropriate care in separating out what is and isn't compatible with the faith).

But we do need to keep in mind that much of this rabbinical tradition developed after the fall of the Temple in direct opposition to Christianity and was specifically directed, in part, at refuting its claims (just as many works of the Church Fathers contain polemics against the Jews of their time: historians have plausibly argued that there was clearly a competition going on for the hearts and minds of those in the two 'faith communities' even as late as the fifth century AD).

Vatican II's Verbum Dei devotes a number of paragraphs to setting out that the Old Testament was deliberately so oriented that it should prepare for and the New, and clearly states that the New is hidden in the Old, and the Old is made manifest in the New (LG 14-16).  One cannot, in other words, legitimately read one in isolation from the other.

And in fact, of course, the revelation of the Trinity is strongly hinted at in the Old Testament in a number of places, such as the use of the plural by God to refer to himself in various places, the references to the Spirit (hovering over the waters of creation for example), and in the Messianic prophecies of the psalms and elsewhere, and so forth.

The words used to denote God in the Old Testament cannot be conflated with God the Father

The Old Testament then, does in fact contain the basis for Trinitarian doctrine, albeit in shadow only.  Nonetheless, it is a mistake to simply assume that all the references to God in the Old Testament are references to the Father alone.  We cannot definitively conflate the various words used to mean God in the Old Testament (translated variously as Lord, God, etc) with any one person of the Trinity. 

We can perhaps speculate as to which person of the Trinity was primarily acting in a particular case given their respective missions and the language used in particular references.  But the conventional, traditional view is that references for example to the fatherhood of God in various places in the Old Testament are not in fact necessarily to the Person of the Father, but to the quality of the fatherhood of God in general (See for example Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma).

Moreover, there are other important Trinitarian doctrines that come into play here as noted above, namely the unity of the Trinity, and their mutual penetration and 'indwelling'.  As Our Lord said in John 10, 'I and the Father are one'.  The result of this is, as the Fourth Lateran Council defined, all of the 'ad extra' activities of God (ie works of God outside of the internal relations of the Trinity, even the realisation of the Incarnation) are common to all the Three Persons.

So in fact, Jesus can be said to give the commandments to Moses, as did the Father and the Holy Spirit; Jesus could indeed announce his own Incarnation, not least because he was eternally begotten, he didn't just come into being when he was born! 

So there it is!

The key to keeping all of this straight is to keep repeating the words of the Creeds to yourself, and pull out the Athanasian Creed from time to time...

1 comment:

Anthony S. Layne said...

Thanks for this breakdown, Kate! I'd suspected some manipulation of the Masoretic text post-90 AD, but I hadn't heard of any scholarly work to back it up. But it made sense to me that, given that the Septuagint was a translation so literal as to incorporate Hebrew idioms, the redactors would hardly use a Greek word distant from the sense in which they understood the underlying Hebrew, particularly in the case of almah-parthenos. (I have a breakdown of the issue here: Thanks for the links!