Friday, March 11, 2011

Trinitarian Monotheism, Economics, and the American Revolution

[The following is the first few paragraphs of a paper I delivered at the "Hobbs's Lecture" on March 9, at Oklahoma Baptist university. Read on down and see if you would like to have the rest.]

Trinitarian Monotheism, Economics, and the American Revolution
Chad Owen Brand

In his essay, “Good Infection,” C. S. Lewis talks about two basic things—that being Triune is intrinsic to who God is, thus enabling him to be love since the Father and the Son have existed in a relation of love for eternity—and that we can draw benefit from what it means for God to be Triune by being infected with the impact of God’s Triune nature by the work of the Spirit who applies the benefits of our salvation to us.
The early Christians had a great challenge, the challenge to re-envision the nature of the monotheistic God of Judaism now that they understood that the Son was divine and that the Spirit, poured out on them at Pentecost, was also divine, and to understand all of that in the context of the Old Testament faith that there is only one God. They worked on the language for decades, trying to get it right, since they rightly believed that if they did not get this right, they would probably be off everywhere. And the language that they were eventually satisfied with was the language of the Nicene Creed, along with the additions to that Creed made at the Council of Constantinople. But that alone was not enough.
They also knew that they had to conceptualize God’s relationship to the world in just the right way (a task partly solved by the language of the Creed), and that they had rightly to construe the nature of their ongoing conversations about all things theological (a task that certainly was part of what they were doing at the Council). They probably did not say all of that in just the way that I have said it, but this was part of their intent. One of the reasons for these two tasks was that those two questions had been faced and dealt with by the broad variety of religious traditions that stretched back into antiquity.
Let’s take the first question: what is God’s relationship to this world? There are three possible answers. The first is that God is remote from this world. Some religions argued that God made the world, but that having made it, he wanted nothing more to do with it. Others argued that he did not even make the world in the first place, and in that case he certainly wanted nothing to do with it. Another possibility is that God is completely immanent in the world, that he is virtually identified with the world, and that it is impossible to separate the identity of the world from the identity of God. If the first option could be analogous to God as some distant star right on the very edge of sight, the second would be analogous to the idea that God is like the dew that one finds on wet grass every morning. It is just there. But there is a third option, and that is that God is transcendent, that he is above us, but not far above us. He is above us, but he is reachable, not reachable by our stretching up to him, but by his reaching down to us. God may be variously pictured here as a lightning bolt that stabs out of the heavens, or as a gentle rain that refreshes our souls. This is of course the Christian view and it is enshrined in the Creed that states the maker of heaven and earth sent his son to die in our stead and then sent his Spirit to indwell us and to bring his spiritual presence into our very hearts. That makes Christianity unique among the religions of the world in the approachableness of God by his grace.
Then there was the second question, almost a background question. Just how do we talk about God? This was a serious matter at that first ecumenical council, for the Arians, those who were proposing to reject the deity of the Son, wanted only to quote verses from the Bible. But the other party, the party that won the debate, argued that we ought to be able to use human speech, rational speech, to talk about God, in ways that were consistent with Scripture but that extrapolated from Scripture and went beyond it. How could they defend such an argument? They argued that God had made us rational creatures in his own image, and based on that conviction, that our theology can and ought to be more that simply parroting Bible verses. In that moment, at that auspicious occasion, rational theology was born, and with the birth of rational theology, came, eventually, the rise of reason, the rise of innovation in commerce, the rise of science, and eventually, the iPhone. In other words, the notion of progress is an inherently Christian notion. All because of some cantankerous bishops debating the nature of God in western Turkey in 325 AD. Well, not just because of that.
It may seem odd to us, but the notion of reason and rational speech had never been applied to theological questions before. That is not to say that people had not talked about religion or theology. They had. But the idea that a discourse could lead to progress in understanding and that such progress could then be applied to other disciplines beyond theology so that they all contributed one to another had not. Not till Christianity, and not even to all Christianity, but only to western European Christianity, and that is because of western Christian ways of thinking biblically. The Chinese have had a longer cultural awareness than the west, but science did not originate there. Rodney Stark says that was because for them the universe simply is, and has always been that way. There is no reason to think that it functions according to some natural laws. Chinese intellectuals pursued enlightenment, not explanations. The Greeks did not invent science, though if anyone could, it would have been them. But their gods are inferior creatures and they saw nature as just endless cycles. Even Plato could not get there since his creator Demiurge was not even God, and Plato’s entire approach was to see this world as inferior to the real world of the heavenly forms. That just does not fire up the scientific imagination. But in western Christianity a series of episodes, some of them not even connected to one another directly led to a belief in progress, in science, and in human freedom. We will take the next few minutes to sketch some of the high (and low) points of just how that happened.

(If you would like to read the rest of the essay, email me at and I will email you a copy.)

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