Why the Trinity Matters (Part 2)
In my previous column,1 I examined the significance of the Trinity from the practical aspect of how the doctrine affects our relationship with God. I continue in this by turning to biblical theology and how it may be affected by our understanding of the Trinity, and in particular, our view of the Son in the Trinity. Viewing the Son as somehow coming into existence through an eternal begetting radically alters the theological import of key Christological passages.
Perhaps the most significant of these passages is Philippians 2:5-8. Theologians label this passage as the kenosis, coining the name based on the Greek verb in verse 7, often translated as “emptying himself.” The intersection of our view of the Trinity with this passage has significant theological implications.
In Philippians 2, Paul appeals to the believers in that city not to center their thoughts and actions on self-glory and self-interest, but to practice humility, esteeming others better than themselves (Phil. 2:3). Thus, one should not merely watch out for his or her own interests but should watch to protect other’s interests as well (vs. 4). On what basis, though, ought we to behave in this manner? Paul appeals to the example of Christ for the grounding concepts.
He begins his argument by appealing to the Philippians to let the mind of Christ dwell in them. Here “mind” is akin to our idea of “mindset,” that is, the operating philosophy that guides the mind’s thinking. But what is this Christly mindset? Paul explains it in verses 6-8. In his opening phrase, “who, though he was in the form of God.” Letting Scripture interpret Scripture, we find this same Greek word used in verse 7, when Christ took upon Himself the “form of a servant,” which is restated as “being born in the likeness of men.” Christ really became a servant and a human.
We do not believe in the heresy of Docetism which asserts that Jesus only appeared to be human but that He never really became so. Taking the “form” of a servant thus denotes that He really became a servant, but the “taking” shows that this servanthood was not something naturally His. Nonetheless, He truly became a servant. Being in the “form” of God, however, is not something Christ took or became. The Greek participle indicates a continuous state of being in the “form” of God, with no hint atbecoming deity. Paul is thus saying that prior to the incarnation, Jesus was essentially and always God. Yet as One who is fully and continuously deity, He did not selfishly clutch what was His by right—the functions and privileges of His deity—but emptied Himself of those rights and privileges to assume the functions and rights of a servant—literally, a low-ranking slave.
Paul’s point is twofold. First, Jesus was essentially God, possessing all the divine rights and privileges, yet He did not guard them selfishly. He sacrificially divested Himself voluntarily of those rights and privileges for a more noble purpose than self-interest, namely to save us. As followers of Christ, Paul called the Philippians to follow this example by divesting themselves of self-interest and sacrificially serving others.
Second, the logical structure of the passage is a message that it isbecause Christ was essentially God that He emptied Himself. God is not selfish or self-serving, but is sacrificial and selfless. Christ, as God, empties Himself because of who He is, voluntarily. It is not because He was ordered to do so by a higher authority.
One evidence of this is that Paul developed a Christian ethics based on the logic of the kenosis in 1 Corinthians 8-10. These three chapters constitute a literary unit in which Paul addresses the deeply divisive problem of eating food offered to idols. Paul opens in 1 Corinthians 8 by arguing that while the “stronger” brother has the right to eat, he should willingly give up that right if it will spiritually damage the “weaker” brother (vss. 8-12). Paul goes so far as to say that he would renounce meat altogether to eat only vegetables if that is what it would take to avoid injuring the weak brother (vs. 13). The moral principle Paul is advocating could be stated, “even though I have the right to do ‘X,’ I will willingly self-sacrifice in this point and not do ‘X’ in order to avoid injuring another.” To reinforce the concept, Paul illustrates this principle in chapter 9 through his own example.
In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul sets forth a moral and legal case that he and Barnabas had a right to be paid as ministers without having to work at a secular job (vss. 1-11, 13, 14). Paul notes, however, that “we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (vs. 12).2 Apparently Paul perceived that receiving pay from the Corinthians would somehow undermine spreading the gospel in Corinth. He accepted support from other churches (2 Cor. 11:8), but refused to accept wages from Corinth, even though he had a right to be paid by the Corinthians. Again, he states, “But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this so that they may be applied in my case. Indeed, I would rather die than that—no one will deprive me of my ground for boasting” (1 Cor. 9:15).3 He made it clear that the necessity of preaching the gospel caused him willingly to renounce his rights, and though free of obligation to please other people, he renounced that freedom to be “slave to all” (vs. 19). These statements reveal a crucial element of the argument: It is because Paul is an apostle that he sacrificed his rights to preach the gospel more effectively. Paul did not sacrifice to become an apostle. Self-sacrifice is an essential part of apostleship, and indeed of Christian life, for the life of the apostle and of the Christian is to be modeled after Christ’s self-emptying as described in Philippians 2.
Paul’s ethical argument to the Corinthians brings us to an important point. Paul’s argument that he engaged in self-sacrifice because he was an apostle is grounded in his theology in Philippians 2 that Christ self-emptied because He was God. Thus, in Pauline logic, because one is a Christian who follows Christ, he or she ought to freely self-sacrifice to protect those weaker than himself or herself. For Paul, the “emptying of self” provided a foundational framework for shaping Christian morality. It is this philosophy of “emptying of self” that he was now applying to the Corinthian situation.
This principle is so critical that when Paul urged the Corinthians to practice sacrificial generosity in alms-giving (2 Cor. 8:1-7), he grounded the argument in a one-sentence summary: “You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (vs. 9). The whole argument, however, hinges on the full deity of Christ for it isbecause He is God that He self-sacrificed. Christ was not a subordinate persona who was following orders, but the joint sovereign of the universe, with all the rights and privileges that go with that office. The moral example of Christ in the “emptying of self” is severely weakened if He is merely an obedient subordinate. The power of voluntary self-sacrifice and self-emptying is lost when one is under orders. Hence Paul argued for the Corinthians to give voluntarily, without compulsion in order to implement Christ’s example (8:1-8; 9:7). It is because we are Christians that we follow our God in the path of voluntary self-sacrifice.
Moving to the larger theological picture, biblically, part of what defines God as God is being from everlasting to everlasting (Ps. 90:2). It is this same everlasting God (YHWH) that David said was his Shepherd (Psalm 23). Hebrews 7:3 ascribes just such an eternal existence to Christ: He is “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.” Melchizedek is like the Son precisely in that there is no record of a father or mother, no record of origins, and in that sense, he “resembles” the Jesus Christ who has no father or mother or genealogic lineage, and, most critically, no “beginning of days” nor “end of life.” The author of Hebrews clearly asserts that Jesus, as Deity, has no origin.
If Christ has an origin, it changes the whole theology of Philippians 2, for He would now be a Son sent by a higher authority whom He obeyed instead of being a self-sacrificial supreme Deity. He would become a “hireling” sent by Israel’s Shepherd as an obedient son (see John 10:11-14) instead of being the self-sacrificing Good Shepherd. Instead of continuing a previous pattern of obedience to a higher authority from eternity, He had to “learn obedience” in His incarnate form (Heb. 5:8) and “become obedient” as part of His becoming a servant (Phil. 2:7, 8).
In Philippians 2 and Hebrews 5, then, the incarnation did not continue a previous obedience but introduced a new experience to One whose rights and privileges meant others had always obeyed Him. Christ did not self-sacrifice because He was a son obeying orders. He self-sacrificed because He is God and self-sacrificial love is the hallmark of divine character. To claim anything less diminishes our sense of the depths of His sacrifice and subverts the sublime greatness of divine grace. In the words of Charles Wesley, “Amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”4 This idea is so much better than “Amazing love! How can it be that thou, a son who came under orders as a hireling for the Father, shouldst die for me?” The Trinity doctrine—especially its teaching of the full and eternal co-deity of the Son and Father—grounds the power and majesty of divine grace!
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. See http://www.perspectivedigest.org/article/74/archives/17-3/why-the-trinity-matters.
2. Italics supplied. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this column are quoted from the New Revised Standard Version.
3. Italics supplied.
4. Http://gbgm-umc.org/umhistory/wesley/humns/umh63.stm. Italics supplied. Accessed September 24, 2012.