Saturday, November 22, 2008

Article 1 of the Thirty Nine Articles --- Michael Jensen

Here is Michael Jensen's brief exposition of the Article 1 of the Thirty Nine Articles. --Bill

Article I: Of Faith in the Holy Trinity

There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.


It is easy to forget just how far from obvious the claim that there is only one God is. In the west, we have become used to the alternative of either one God, or no God. The one-ness of God (if it isn't to be his none-ness) has become rather an abstract piece of data about him.

But this has not been the choice in most of human history. Surely in the vast universe with all its diversity and array and all its flux and change there is room for a variety of gods. In fact, why should we believe that the tumult and struggle we encounter about us does not correspond to a divine tumult and struggle: that there isn't a chaos of gods with their special interests and foibles?According to Scripture - and to a great deal of human experience, too - there are other spiritual beings. But none of them is 'divine': which means one of them is equal to him in the things that make him God.

God's one-ness is a declaration of his supremacy over all other contenders for deity. And the corollory for human beings is that there is no other worthy of worship. Which is to say, no other being ought to be in competition for our allegiance and our devotion. Now, you'll see I've slipped in the word 'ought'. There is a natural imperative that springs from the one-ness of God. If God is one, then there is none other to whom we ought to respond as God. There is not alternative ultimate for us to be directed towards.

Christianity is a monotheistic faith. But it is a very curious form of monotheism. Because the orthodox Christian creeds testify that within this unity is a triplicity. The unity of God is not simple, but complex; it isn't a unity of sameness, but a unity of difference.This is the doctrine of the Trinity.

The Trinity identifies our God – it helps us to name him and to know him, to speak to him and about him. In a world of which presents us with a smorgasbord of gods, the Trinity specifies who it is we worship – “he who raised Jesus from the dead” by the power of the Spirit (Rom 8:11).

The Article emphasises the sheer transcendence of this deity and his freedom, matched by the three-fold cord of his classic attributes of power, wisdom and goodness. But some negatives need to be put, too: he is 'without body, parts, or passions.'

That he is without passions is most controversial to contemporary readers - but what this terms is meant to convey is that he is not prey to his emotions or whims. He is not irascible or moody, a victim of his own nature.The overwhelming consensus in twentieth century theology was that divine impassability had become an untenable doctrine. In the wake of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, it seemed impossible to believe in a God who is not sensitive, emotional and compassionate. Jurgen Moltmann wrote:

‘The doctrine of the essential impassability of the divine nature now seems finally to be disappearing from the Christian doctrine of God.’

While the tradition has fairly consistently taught impassibility of one form or another for 1900 years unbroken, there are of course good biblical grounds for questioning it at least. It would be possible to present a version of the doctrine of God which is impossibly abstract to the degree that it makes the deity into a depersonalised force.

Even Colin Gunton, who expresses his doubts about impassability, concedes in the end that the doctrine expresses...'the ontological integrity of God, his immunity from alteration in his being as the result of things done by creatures. It is linked with his moral consistency and integrity, as well as his sovereignty - the assurance that he cannot be deflected from achieving his purposes.' (p. 131) This sounds more than a little reluctant on Gunton's part. But, I think that while rejecting impassability fits in with the zeitgeist I am not sure that this rejection can be any way said to reflect orthodox Christian teaching, not really.


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