I am thoroughly enjoying a supplemental textbook for my Systematic Christian Theology class this week. If you want a practical and thoughtful read on the topic of the Trinity, get this book. As I continue reading through, I can’t stop myself from highlighting one excellent thought after another. The book title is Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith by Michael Reeves.
The following excerpt is from the Kindle version, location 753-810. You are missing nearly two chapters of running thought to get to this point, but hopefully you can still appreciate the following, especially in light of contemporary events in our culture and world.
“And It Was Good”
God the Father is a God who delights to have another beside him (his eternal Son). He is a God who thinks that is good. And thus he is a God who can declare his creation good. If he had been eternally alone, preoccupied only with himself, it is hard to believe he could do that. The new existence of something else beside him would surely be a nuisance, or perhaps appear to be a rival. Take, for example, something the enormously influential Muslim theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1056-1111) once wrote: “God does indeed love them [people], but in reality He loves nothing other than Himself, in the sense that He is the totality [of being], and there is nothing in being apart from Him.”
Because Allah really “loves nothing other than Himself,” he does not really turn outward to express his love to others. Thus there can be no reason why anything else should exist. Really, therefore, “there is nothing in being apart from Him.” Of course, the Qur’an speaks of Allah’s love and of creation, but it is hard to see quite how those things can be. The universe, in Islamic thought, must have only a shadowy, uncertain existence.
And to look around, it certainly seems the case that absolutely singular supreme beings tend to show a marked awkwardness about the existence of creation. In such belief systems, the physical is routinely viewed negatively and with caution. And the hope such gods offer does not usually include ever getting to see, know or relate to them. They offer “paradise,” but will not really be there themselves. Why would they want to be involved with creation?
A stark example of this can be seen in a rather odd collection of second- and third-century beliefs we call Gnosticism. If you’ve read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, or seen the film, you will have come across Gnosticism. In the world of Dan Brown, orthodox Christianity is an authoritarian, chauvinist, intolerant religion: that, apparently, is what the God of Christianity is like and so that is how his servants are. But on the sidelines of history, persecuted and chased into hiding, are the Gnostics; and in Dan Brown’s mind, the Gnostics were the open-minded, tolerant, protofeminist goodies.
Well, now. Let us see. In Gnosticism, everything started with The One. That is, there was a spiritual realm and nothing more. Everything was fine and divine. Imagine the room you are in now being that realm: in the room there is peace and a really good book you’d recommend to your friends. Outside the room, absolutely nothing exists. Then, somehow, something goes wrong. A disturbance in the room. The dog starts throwing up on the carpet, say. Of course, you want to keep reading the really good book, so the disturbance and its mess must be thrown out. But now, as soon as the disturbance is thrown out of the room, something troublesome and obnoxious exists outside the room.
And that is Gnosticism’s account of creation: once there was only the spiritual realm; something went wrong; the problem got thrown outside; now something exists outside the spiritual realm and that became the physical universe. Where Genesis speaks of a good creation and then a fall into evil, Gnosticism imagined first a fall into evil, and creation as the result. For the Gnostics, the One was good; the existence of something else beside it is bad. Thus they could speak of that something else (the universe, our bodies and everything physical) being like noxious vomit spewed forth from the One. The good news, they held, was that, like a dog, the One would return to its vomit and suck it all back up. Then everything physical would be consumed and ingested by the spiritual, all would happily be just One again, and the universe would be but an embarrassing memory in the mind of the One.
Absolutely singular supreme beings do not like creation.
“IT IS NOT GOOD FOR THE MAN TO BE ALONE”
If that was how the Gnostics rearranged Genesis 1, inserting a “not” into every “God saw it was good, just imagine how they read Genesis 2 and the story of the creation of Eve. For them, the chapter starts quite positively: the man is alone. There is only one. That must be good. But then, horribly, and just as the physical realm was excreted from the spiritual, Eve comes out of Adam. Now there are two. And just as the existence of two realms (spiritual and physical) is bad, so the existence of two sexes is bad. More specifically, the existence of women is bad. Thus the final verse in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas reads: “Simon Peter said to them, ‘Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said, ‘I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.’”a The Lord God taking Eve from Adam’s side
That verse does not come across as jarring or awkward at the end of the Gospel of Thomas; it is the natural child of Gnostic thought. The existence of two realms, two sexes, of the physical and the feminine, is a tragedy. But such must be the case with a lonely and solitary supreme being. Intolerant of the existence of anything else, it is only natural that he should prefer to hide both the physical and the feminine away, or use them if he can only for his own self-gratification. And so for women at least, Gnostic salvation would mean gender-bending. Dan Brown’s insinuation that the Gnostics were the tolerant protofeminists sounds very hollow indeed.
And those chauvinist Christians? Believing that God is not lonely, it made perfect sense to say that it is not good to have men alone. As God is not alone, so a human in his image should not be alone. They therefore upheld creation and the physical, femininity, relationship and marriage all as being intrinsically good, created reflections of a God who is not lonely.
Without the Trinity, it is hard to see how such things could be ultimately affirmed. (Of course, one could simply argue that men and women are equal because they are both human, but that is an entirely loveless affirmation, and gives no grounds for seeing those things as absolute goods to be reveled in.) The apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 11:3 that as the head of Christ is God, so the head of a wife is her husband. But if the Son is less God than his Father, is a wife less human than her husband? Without belief in God the Father and the Son, one in the Spirit, why should a husband not treat his wife as a lesser being? Yet if a husband’s headship of his wife is somehow akin to the Father’s headship of the Son, then what a loving relationship must ensue! The Father’s very identity is about giving life, love and being to his Son, doing all out of love for him.
Of course, that is not to say that Christians have always got things right here or lived out these beliefs, but it does start to kick back strongly against the idea that Christianity is inherently chauvinist. Belief in the Trinity works precisely against chauvinism and for delight in harmonious relationships.
And that told historically as Christianity first spread through the ancient Greco-Roman world. Studies have shown that in that world it was quite extraordinarily rare for even large families ever to have more than one daughter. How is that possible across countries and centuries? Quite simply because abortion and female infanticide were widely practiced so as to relieve families of the burden of a gender considered largely superfluous. No surprise, then, that Christianity should have been so especially attractive to women, who made up so many of the early converts: Christianity decried those life-threatening ancient abortion procedures; it refused to ignore the infidelity of husbands as paganism did; in Christianity, widows would be and were supported by the church; they were even welcomed as “fellow-workers” in the gospel (Rom 16:3). In Christianity, women were valued.
aThe Gospel of Thomas, Logion 114, in J. M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), p. 139; see also Logion 22.