“Who do you say that I am?” -Jesus, Mark 8:29
Who is Jesus?
I get very nervous around clergy who dodge this question. There are all manner of open questions in life. Questions of politics, identity, and justice are often multivalent and complex, and should be treated as such. When Christians repeat the (well-worn but still useful) phrase, “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity” the list of essentials is, for me, pretty short (not much longer than the Nicene Creed, in fact).
But for Christians, there are some non-negotiables, else the descriptor has no value. Chief among these are the two most sacred mysteries of Christian confession: the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ as fully human and fully divine, and the Trinity (the revelation that God is three and yet one, without division but with distinction).
Why does it matter that the Triune God is most fully known in Jesus? William Placher recounts:
The Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance tells how, as a young army chaplain, he held the hand of a dying nineteen-year-old soldier, and then, back in Aberdeen as a pastor, visited one of the oldest women in his congregation – and how they both asked exactly the same question: “Is God really like Jesus?” And he assured them both, Torrance writes, “that God is indeed really like Jesus, and that there is no unknown God behind the back of Jesus for us to fear; to see the Lord Jesus is to see the very face of God.”
With apologies to Tillich, there is no “God above God” other than the Holy Trinity. While it is very much the case that the economic Trinity (God’s work as revealed to us) does not tell us everything about the immanent Trinity (God’s essence), if we trust God and what God has revealed there must at least be a correspondence between these. God in the immanent Trinity remains a mystery human intellect cannot comprehend; Jesus, however, as the Word of the Father sent in the power of the Spirit, tells us much about who God is: he is the loving Father who welcomes the prodigal home, the one who heals, restores, and makes new, the One who would rather suffer exclusion, torture, and death than watch His creatures do so. To see Jesus is to see God. This is Christian confession. This is the Good News.
“If the Holy Spirit leads us to know that Jesus Christ, as we come to know him in the biblical stories, is the self-revelation of the one God, then Father, Son, and Spirit cannot be three separate Gods. Indeed, such a God cannot be just any one God, but must be the God whose identity we have come to know in the biblical narratives about Jesus. Thus, in Moltmann’s formulation, ‘The doctrine of the Trinity is nothing other than the conceptual framework needed to understand the story of Jesus as the story of God.’ The one God thus known does not hold power in reserve, apart from the love revealed in the crucified Jesus or the Spirit’s indwelling in our hearts; there is no God beyond the God triunely revealed, a God of love.”
Incarnation and Trinity: on these twin pillars Christian revelation stands (and they stand or fall together). Embrace them, and you have a more beautiful, hopeful, loving God than any other religion, philosophy, or worldview has ever conceived.
But to deny, forget, or marginalize these is to begin doing something other than Christian prayer, thinking, and living. Deny who Jesus is, or deny the Trinity, and the faith “once and for all delivered” is lost. (Jude 1:3)
To see Jesus is to see the very face of God. Thanks be to God.
Source: William Placher, The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox 2007), 139-140.