Is it possible to say anything literal about God? Within a biblical (Semitic) perspective, one can make at least the following literal statements about God (without exhausting the magnificence of any Divine activity or attribute): God creates, loves, self-discloses, judges, forgives the penitent, empowers, redeems, and suitably protects and provides; as such, God is holy, glorious, awesome, majestic, personal, knowing, good, flawless, independent, incomparable, inexhaustible, gracious, just, merciful, purposeful, generous, invisible, everlasting, consistent, present, powerful, and sovereign. God is known by God’s acts. "... it is essential to realize that according to the Bible the knowledge of God is not reached by abstract speculation, as in Greek philosophy, but in the actual everyday business of living, of social relationships and of current historical events. God is not known by thinking out ideas about him, but by seeking and doing his will as made known to us by prophetic men and by our own consciousness of right and wrong." [from "God" in Richardson, A Theological Wordbook of the Bible (1960), p. 89]

     Doctrines formulated within philosophical and theological perspectives heavily influenced by particular forms of Greek abstract thought deny that any literal statements about God are possible. Within this way of thinking, figurative uses of language, including metaphor (a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in drowning in money); broadly: figurative language) and analogy (inference that if two or more things agree with one another in some respects they will probably agree in others), are believed to be the only suitable language about God. For example, the statement “God is personal” is regarded as a metaphor or analogy.

The Trinity

     The doctrine of the Trinity, resulting from Greek philosophical influences in the early Church, is clearly figurative language that reveres God as Holy Trinity, even though the term Trinity does not appear in the Bible. The biblical uses of "Father," "Son," and "Holy Spirit" do not reflect a developed trinitarian doctrine. As far as we know, Trinity was first used by Theophilus of Antioch about 180 A.D. as an attempt to describe the fulness of God as revealed in Christ. The doctrine is also an imperfect attempt to develop a partial understanding of God’s inner life and being as a communion of persons.

     More technically, and please be patient with this complex paragraph, the classical doctrine states that God exists as three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – who are united in one substance. “Persons” is not used as in ordinary speech meaning three personalities, but as distinctions of mutual coinherence (i.e., co-involved in the essential, insepararable quality of the divine) in the Godhead. In the 4th century the doctrine was finally formulated in terms of the mysterious coequality of the persons of the Godhead. The Trinity may be understood on different levels: a uniquely Christian theological meaning of “God”; a conviction that attempts to gather up the Christian experience of the God of the Hebrew tradition; and, as speculation about the substance, essence, and inner dynamic being of ultimate reality.

One contemporary theologian has written:

The concept of Trinity is thus widely seen again as an essential and distinctive description of the fullness of God as revealed in Christ. That revelation involves a fundamental threefoldness, signified by the terms Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God confronts us in Jesus Christ; God is truly present as the Son or eternal Word. But God is also apprehended as the Father, who sends the Son and to whom the Son points. And God is known as the Holy Spirit, opening the hearts and minds of humans in faith. Yet it is the same God who is present throughout. The words Father, Son, and Holy Spirit refer to one and the same God, but the Christian cannot say who God is without pointing to the distinctive form and content of self-giving in Christ and the illumination of the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity is thus a summing up of the Gospel. [Claude Welch, “Trinity” in A New Handbook of Christian Theology (Abingdon, 1992), pp. 500 f.]

     In more ordinary language we might reflect on the Trinity in this way: Our Triune God is the Father (loving creator of the universe), the Son (the Word who reveals New Covenant Life), and, the Holy Spirit (provider of strength, comfort, healing and inspiration). Furthermore, it is helpful to affirm the Trinity as a poetic symbol pointing to the God we worship, the God who cannot be completely explained in precise human categories.

     Needless to say, the Christian experience of God in this threefold understanding has been interpreted in more than one way. Some views were judged unbalanced or inadequate and therefore ruled out by early Councils of the Church; other elaborated views of the Trinity compete for primacy to this very day.

     It is also very important for us to keep foremost in our minds that interpretations of all human experiences are developed in the context of various historical periods, each with its own ways of thinking, its own emphases. We may expect the threefold Christian experience of God, labeled “The Trinity,” to undergo different explanations at diverse times and in varied cultures. None of the explanations is God or the actual experience! The reality of God remains firm as does the basic Christian experience of God. However, human formulations of that reality and of that common experience will continue to vary.

     Whenever total theological clarity about the Trinity eludes us, as it always will, we might remember that we do not worship doctrines, anymore than we worship portraits of cherished persons. Our personal and corporate relationship with the God of Abraham and Jesus does not depend on a finalized blueprint of God's own self-existence. Nonetheless, we continue to attempt to avoid erroneous and misleading notions.

[See Reflections subsite and sermons for Trinity Sunday.]

The Holy Spirit

     Having discussed “God the Father” in Unit 2 and “God the Son” in Unit 4, we must not forget “The Holy Spirit,” the “third person” of the Trinity.

     Also called “The Holy Ghost,” a poetic term of a different historical period, the Holy Spirit is a Christian symbol of the Creator’s activity in the world. A central theme throughout the Bible is that God inspires, influences, empowers, and strengthens his people; God neither controls them like robots nor programs them like computers. This is a very important belief of the Christian Faith.

     Nevertheless we meet Christians repeatedly who expect God to control of their lives, to control the wills of other individuals, and who pray that God will “program” themselves or others. The notion that God ever intervenes in such a way to control anyone’s will is utterly foreign to biblically based Christian views. God never makes anyone into a puppet, regardless of the person’s intentions or actions! In fact, such controls are regarded as “demonic” in the Bible.

     That the Holy Spirit is present in one’s life is obviously a matter of trust. Something might happen in an individual’s life such that the presence of the Holy Spirit is felt. But again, this is a matter of personal faith, personal witness, and never scientific or historical objectivity.

     Some Christians claim to know with absolute certainty that they have special gifts from God through the Holy Spirit. Such people who parade their gifts in public frequently lack humility, love, and faith. However, others with great trust and love, celebrate and witness to their experiences of the Holy Spirit with personal humility and for the benefit of the Church.

The Holy Scriptures

     Throughout this commentary we have frequently referred to the Bible. For Jews the Hebrew Scriptures (or what Christians call the “Old Testament”) constitute the whole Bible or in other words “The Holy Scriptures.” For Christians, The Holy Scriptures consist of the Old Testament and the New Testament, or in other words the Old (Ancient) Covenant and the New Covenant. Other books called the Apocrypha are included in the Bible by some Christians and not so by others.

     The Prayer Book Catechism states: “We understand the meaning of the Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church in the true interpretation of the Scriptures.” Many Christians would regard this as an overstatement, because holy and scholarly churchmen and women continue to differ on matters of interpretation. On many scriptural passages the Church as a whole does not have a singular understanding regarded by all informed faithful as absolutely true.

     Amidst its many possible interpretations, however, the Bible provides the fundamental faith of who Christians are (each is a unique child of God) and what we are called to do (to love God, our neighbors, and ourselves). The sense of identity and vocation engrained in the Bible offers a meaning of life unique among the holy writings of the world’s religions and the philosophies originating in human speculation.

     Most of the Hebrew Bible, which contains the evolving Covenant, was written in Hebrew; a small portion was written in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. Its books were written over several hundred years. The Hebrew people selected particular documents as being authentic writings about their Covenant with God. They contain folklore, poems, stories, regulations, history, records, and other types of literature.

     One of the major problems in interpreting the Bible is distinguishing among its various types of literature. For example, which passages are intended as history? How can we determine which writings are historical, which are legendary, and which are truth-bearing myths? Specialists in every generation study languages, documents, archaeology, and other resources, in order to make these distinctions and interpret these writings. (The sane general methods are used to understand ancient writings of every culture.)

     “Fundamentalists” usually insist that every word in the Bible is to be taken literally with the exception of a certain amount of figurative language in biblical parables, poems, and music (e.g., the Psalms). These literalists are to be found among Jews (especially Orthodox Jews) and Christians. However, Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist and other Christian scholars are not (for the most part) literalists; they take a “critical” or “analytical” approach in order to discover the meanings of the various types of biblical literature. Yet, uninformed members of these traditions believe that biblical literalism is their only choice.

     Non-specialists have resources on which they can rely whenever they want to know what is meant in a particular passage. The New Interpreter’s Bible, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, The Anchor Bible Dictionary are but three of the many fine reference works available. As new discoveries about language, history, and customs are discovered, revisions and new resources are published.

     Why is the Bible called “The Holy Bible?” “Holy” means “sacred,” or specially related to God. Each community of faith (whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc.) decides for itself what its “holy” writings are. Each believes that their own scriptures are inspired, revealed, and/or enlightened. There is no objective method by which a religion can prove its own is “the real thing.” The designation of writings as holy results from the consensus of each religion’s leadership and people. What makes the Bible true and holy for Christians (the Hebrew Bible for Jews) is that it reflects and shapes their experiences; it speaks to their lives; it provides a comprehensive view within which Christians understand the meaning of the universe and their individual lives. For Christians, the Bible with its many literary forms is “God’s Word” (not God’s words) for humanity; it is a sacred collection of writings that reveal the Creator’s most important self-disclosures through God’s actions in human history - actions that communicate all that an individual needs to know in order to live in harmony with God, the universe, and others.

[See the many entries within the Bible subsite of Worship Notes.]

To conclude this unit, please read the section below from “An Outline of the Faith.”

Q. What is the Trinity?
A. The Trinity is one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit

Q. What is the Holy Spirit
A. The Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Trinity, God at work in the world and in the Church even now.

Q. How is the Holy Spirit revealed in the Old Covenant?
A. The Holy Spirit is revealed in the Old Covenant as the giver of life, the One who spoke through the prophets.

Q. How is the Holy Spirit revealed in the New Covenant?
A. The Holy Spirit is revealed as the Lord who leads us into all truth and enables us to grow in the likeness of Christ.

Q. How do we recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives?
A. We recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit when we confess Jesus Christ as Lord and are brought into love and harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation.

Q. How do we recognize the truths taught by the Holy Spirit?
A. We recognize truths to be taught by the Holy Spirit when they are in accord with the Scriptures.

The Holy Scriptures

Q. What are the Holy Scriptures?
A. The Holy Scriptures, commonly called the Bible, are the books of the Old and New Testaments; other books, called the Apocrypha, are often included in the Bible.

Q. What is the Old Testament?
A. The Old Testament consists of books written by the people of the Old Covenant, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to show God at work in nature and history.

Q. What is the New Testament?
A. The New Testament consists of books written by the people of the New Covenant, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to set forth the life and teachings of Jesus and to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom for all people.

Q. What is the Apocrypha??
A. The Apocrypha is a collection of additional books written by people of the Old Covenant, and used in the Christian Church.

Q. Why do we call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God?
A. We call them the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible.

Q. How do we understand the meaning of the Bible?
A. We understand the meaning of the Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church in the true interpretation of the Scriptures.