Thursday, December 13, 2012

Exploring a Trinitarian Black Box

Trinitarian Professor Oliver D. Crisp of the Fuller Theological Seminary has described the Trinitarian doctrine of perichoresis this way, as a "black box":[1] that is, as an unexplored mysterious system. This doctrinal subset of perichoresis is called the "mutual interpenetration" of the three persons of the impersonal Trinitarian Godhead. The three persons are taught as interpenetrating each other as they love each other within the impersonal Trinitarian Godhead.

The Trinitarian scutum fidei[2] has also been elaborated[3] in order to accommodate or reflect perichoresis, as seen below with its caption:

The Father is in the Son.
The Son is in the Father.
The Father is in the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is in the Father.
The Son is in the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is in the Son.

WARNING: Big words below!

But how can all three persons within the impersonal Trinitarian Godhead mutually interpenetrate each other and remain distinct from each other as depicted above in the perichoretic scutum fidei while the second person has a human nature that was retained from his earthly sojourn in hypostatic union with his divine nature?

After opening this black box and evaluating this doctrine along with the hypostatic union, Professor Crisp concluded:
"what does it mean to say that the three persons of the Trinity interpenetrate one another in their shared life together, whilst remaining, at-one-and-the-same-time one God in three distinct persons? I cannot say because I do not know. This is a divine mystery before which theology must give way to doxology [singing worshipful praise to God]." (page 22/140)
But how can the heart exult in what the mind cannot fathom?[4] Thus one mystery has lead to another. While he certainly is to be commended for attempting to unwrap this enigmatic doctrine, as he said "that trying to understand what perichoresis means with application to the incarnation and Trinity is a worthwhile enterprise, even if it is not possible to fully comprehend it," (page 2/120) one has to notice that scriptures were scarcely referred to in his evaluation. Thus, it can only be exceedingly apparent that this exploration was ultimately an exercise in circular reasoning of astronomical magnitude, as in "Trinitarianism is true because it is."

Thus, instead of reviewing his article then, this blog entry will simply appraise scriptures that Trinitarianism has impressed into supporting perichoresis, and then compare these with the ones Professor Crisp employed.

The scriptures that Trinitarianism has applied (or could apply) perichoretically are John 5:23; 10:38, 14:9-11, 20; 16:14; 17:1, 21 which read from the New International Version (NIV) as:
  • 5:23 that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him.
  • 10:38 But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.”
  • 14:9 Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. 11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.
  • 14:20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.
  • 16:14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.
  • 17:1 After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed:“Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.
  • 17:21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
In response, first it should be clear that honoring and glorifying are not the same as worshiping, and are only reflected in the perimeter of the perichoretic scutum fidei. Additionally, nowhere do the above sited scriptures apply the honoring and glorifying to the holy spirit. Lastly, in John 10:38, 14:9-11 and 17:21 the Greek word 'en,' translated as "in" as in "in the Father" and "the Father is in me," may also be translated as "in union," as seen in John 14:20 and 17:21 where the disciples are also 'en' the Son and the Father. Clearly, "in union" is the intended meaning there, and surely in the other occurrences as well. This finds support in John 17:22, 23, where the NET Bible reads:
"The glory you gave to me I have given to them, that they may be one just as we are one – 23 I in them and you in me – that they may be completely one [footnote: Or “completely unified.”], so that the world will know that you sent me, and you have loved them just as you have loved me."
Here Jesus explains that being 'en' another means being unified with another, as the NET Bible footnote points out. That unified is the intended meaning is also corroborated by John 6:56, where Jesus said: "The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood resides in me, and I in him." (NET Bible) Clearly, Jesus' body and blood cannot literally reside in all Christians simultaneously, for two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time.[5] To his credit Professor Crisp concurs, calling that false and absurd. (page 11/129) Also notice that in John 14:10 the NIV's translation of "living in me" is more accurately translated as "residing in me" in other Bibles. The Greek word translated as "residing" is 'meno,' which can also mean "remain," as in "remains in union with me." (New World Translation) As with honoring and glorifying, the holy spirit is not included in these texts either. Therefore perichoresis does not exercise an exegetical monopoly over these scriptures, as more sensible and contextually harmonious translations may be made of them.

Additionally, included in Professor Crisp's paper are these two scriptures: John 8:58 and John 10:30, in these contexts:
"the apparently contradictory character of Christ’s declaration, in John 8:58, ‘before Abraham was born, I am’." (page 5/123)
"The communication of attributes is merely a device by which we may refer to both natures of Christ via the person of Christ in phrases like, Christ’s declaration, ‘before Abraham was born, I am.’ [John 8:58] Nature-perichoresis is something more than this." (page 22/140)
"presumably, Christ was very much aware of this interpenetration of his human nature, e.g. ‘I and the Father are One’ (John 10:30)." (page 15/133)
Regarding John 10:30, all that has to be pointed out is John 17:21 (and 23 with the NET Bible footnote) to show that unity in will is the intended meaning, as the disciples are to be one with them as well. Lastly, the "I am" in John 8:58 is taken to be a name in Trinitarianism, when it manifestly is not a name, as can be easily seen when replacing "I am" with another name, like "Lord." Thus the Greek words for "I am" need to be translated to be woven into the target language, as in: "I existed before Abraham was born," which harmonizes with the context better.[6]

In conclusion, our exploration of a Trinitarian black box has revealed a paradox, as the scriptures used to support perichoresis do not necessarily do. This is especially seen in that a much more fluid, unhindered interpretation of 'en' and 'meno' exists that collapses this black box and paradox. This is supported by the lucid declaration in Acts 10:38: "You know about Jesus of Nazareth, whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit and endowed with power. Jesus traveled around doing good and healing everyone oppressed by the devil because God was with him." (Common English Bible) Notice how "God" is used in place of "Father." This is best explained by God being the Father, as Jesus openly declared in John 17:1-5, that the Father is "the only true God." Therefore the Father, who is singularly God, bestowed upon Jesus two things: his holy spirit and power. As power is not a person, then neither is holy spirit. Additionally, Acts 10:38 instructs us with the intended meaning of 'en' and 'meno' when it says that God was "with" ('meta') Jesus, just as He was with Joseph as stated in Acts 7:9. Thus it can be clearly seen that perichoresis is unnecessary, intellectually unwieldy, and most of all, without solid scriptural support. As it is not the only interpretation available, and certainly not the best one either, it is in our best interests to expunge perichoresis from our cognizance and perform a clean, crisp break from the Trinitarian paradigm.

Reference Links:

[1] Problems With Perichoresis (PDF document) (page 1/119) Perichoresis is from Greek: περιχώρησις (perikhōrēsis), meaning "rotation." It has been compared to a divine contradance.

[2] See my blog entries: "What a tangled web we weave..." and "Are the Persons of the Trinity separate and distinct or distinct only?" for an explanation of the scutum fidei.

[3] "Using a Diagram to Illustrate Trinitarian Relationships"

[4] While we cannot, perhaps, fully understand the transcendent and immanent nature of the spirit realm where God and the other spirit creatures reside, we can indeed make diagrams of it and conceptualize it, as can be seen in my blog entry "A Simplified Diagram of Reality" Thus, appreciation and worship of God does not demand a full cognizance of spiritual cartography. This only becomes problematic when one's theology is cemented by the unknown and unknowable, is essentially unexplainable, and is revealed to be a succession of black boxes within itself: a theological "matryoshka doll." (Refer to Figure F4 below.) And while Professor Crisp has perhaps succeeded in shrinking the perichoretic black box, he admits it still remains nonetheless. This therefore becomes a barrier for the level of cognizance necessary for a sincere wholehearted doxology.

Figure F4

[5] The NET Bible has a footnote for "resides in me, and I in him" that states in part that the "process of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood leads to a relationship of mutual indwelling." This Trinitarian explanation though seems to conveniently ignore that Jesus' human nature body would be included in this mutual indwelling per the hypostatic union, which frankly is impossible. Thus mutual indwelling is not meant but rather being unified is the intended meaning, as corroborated in the NET Bible footnote for John 17:23.

[6] To understand why that translation harmonizes with the context, consideration of both (1) what Jesus was responding to and (2) what he was saying and where is required. First, in verse 57 Jesus' interlocutors failed to understand what he said in verse 56, due to their murderous intent as Jesus pointed out in verses 37 and 40, and Jesus did not correct them but simply continued responding to them in verse 58. In verse 57 they asked him if he claimed to have been contemporaneous with Abraham, and his response needed only to confirm or deny that. His response in Greek only allows for a mere confirmation, adding that he even predated him. Secondly, John 8:20 informs us that Jesus was speaking in the Temple compound in the treasury area. This would locate him in the Court of Women where four massive menorah lamps are reported to have stood that illuminated this Temple courtyard, and doubtlessly symbolized spiritual illumination for the world. It was before these sacred lamps then that Jesus declared in verse 12: "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." (NIV) Thus, his opponents who had a murderous disposition could judge Jesus as unworthy of being in the Temple based on both blaspheming it (in their view) and existing prior to, and therefore being greater than, Abraham. They also charged him with demon-possession in verses 48 and 52, which would at the very least call for his expulsion from the Temple. (While they did revile him as a Samaritan in verse 48, it is interesting that they did not call him a Gentile violating the Soreg wall, which would have been punishable by death.) Therefore their response in verse 59 of driving him away with stones is compatible with Jesus declaring "I existed before Abraham was born." His enemies may simply have desired to drive him out of the Court of Women, treating him like an unclean leper, rather than spill his blood there.

Excursus: Debris in the Temple
Aerial view of the Court of Women, SW corner. Notice the illuminating Temple menorah lamps.

In John 8:59 it is interesting that Pharisees found stones laying on the pavers in the Temple's Court of Women large enough to instill fear into the heart of a victim. Perhaps this indicates that there was some additional construction being done here and that some debris was there that had not yet been removed. This is also reminiscent of the pericope adulterae account at the beginning of John 8, regardless of its dubious status, where Jesus being at the Temple, perhaps in the same court, found enough dust or dirt on the pavers to write in with his finger (8:2, 6, 8). Later in a similar account in John 10:23, 31 when Jesus was again in the Temple compound, this time under the shelter of Solomon's Colonnade outside of the Soreg, there were also stones laying around to throw at offenders. These accounts may indicate that the Temple zone had areas in need of cleaning, perhaps from a combination of construction, traffic and shattered paver stones. (Another possibility that deserves to be researched is that there were receptacles of stones for throwing at offenders located in various locations in the Temple complex.)

Additionally, the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible states for John 8:59 (with its note for John 10:31 referencing it): "Stoning was a standard expression of mob violence in the ancient Mediterranean world; even inside cities or near buildings, ancient sources show us that mobs usually found stones to throw."

From Jesus—The Way, the Truth, the Life chapter 69, depicting the event in John 8:59

From Jesus—The Way, the Truth, the Life chapter 81, depicting the event in John 10:31, 39

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