Last revised: June 17, 2020
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TRINITY SUNDAY — YEAR A
RCL: Genesis 1:1-2:4a; 2 Cor. 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20
RoCa: Exodus 34:4-6, 8-9, 29-34; 2 Cor. 13:11-13; John 3:16-18
Doctrine of the Trinity
1. James Alison. Alison sees the doctrine of the Trinity as intimately related to the doctrine of original sin, which is the central topic of The Joy of Being Wrong. For example, from the introduction to ch. 7, entitled “The Trinity, Creation, and Original Sin,” he writes:
The revealing of the Trinity is both the making clear who God really is, breaking through distorted notions of God, and the making clear what are the mechanisms which produce the distorted perception of God, thus making clear who humans are. It is the being locked in these latter mechanisms that is the content of Original Sin. (p. 186)
I think it would be worthwhile to share a bit lengthier elaboration of this point from earlier in the work (from a section in chapter 3, “The Search for a Soteriology,” titled “Trinity: The Monotheism of the Victim”):
What we have then is a gradual process of the re-casting of God in the light of the resurrection of Jesus, such that it becomes seen that the previous discourse, within which Jesus had operated, and within which his victimary self-understanding was forged, was in fact a provisional discourse. In the light of the resurrection it gradually becomes possible to see that it was not that God was previously violent, now blessing, now cursing (Deut. 32:39), but had now brought all that ambivalence to an end. Rather, it became possible to see that that was all a human violence, with various degrees of projection onto God. God had been from the beginning, always, immutably, love, and that this love was made manifest in sending his Son into the midst of the violent humans, even into the midst of their persecutory projections of God, so that they might treat him as a human victim, and thus reveal the depth of the love of God, who was prepared to be a human victim simultaneously to show the depth of his love for humanity, and to reveal humanity as having been locked into the realm of the Father of lies [John 8:44].
The process we have seen in the Pauline writings and in the Johannine epistles is then the definitive demystification of God and human beings, such that it becomes possible to look again at the crucifixion and the resurrection and develop a perception of God only as derived from that event. So, it becomes possible to see the crucifixion as the meeting point between, on the one hand, a human act of violence, and, on the other hand, the love of the Father, who sends his Son into humanity as an act of love, the Son who gives himself freely to being victimized by human beings as part of his imitative love of the Father, and the Holy Spirit, who is the inner dynamic of the relationship between the two of them. Jesus on the Cross gives up his Spirit to the Father. The Father at the resurrection gives back the Spirit to the Son, and the two of them are then able to give this same Spirit, the Spirit of the crucified-and-risen victim to humans as induction into a new way of being human — becoming children of God,1 quite outside the violence of the “world.”
The understanding of God as Trinity then is the understanding that the Cross of Christ, made alive in the resurrection, was in fact a relational reality — a reality of giving and of self-giving that was saving as revealing and revealing as saving. The Trinity is revealed as the salvific density of the Cross. It is the understanding of God made available by the intelligence of the victim, which can thus be seen as the dynamic which produced a huge change in the discourse about God. (pp. 108-109)
4. James Alison, a video homily for Trinity A; in 2020 Alison began a new website during the pandemic, “Praying Eucharistically,” which included weekly homilies. Alison explains how the Passion, Easter, and Pentecost is an invitation into the ‘inside’ of reality, including who God is. We are invited into the love of God.
2. René Girard, Things Hidden…, pp. 215-223. Sections regarding the Divinity of Christ and the Virgin Birth move toward a doctrine of the Trinity with an emphasis on Christ’s divinity and incarnation.
3. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation; see the section entitled “The Revelation of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity,” pp. 209-217.
4. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled; the work of Paraclete (see below) is a foil to Satan’s work, so a Girardian like Bailie suggests a “demonic trinity” of “the diabolos, the skandalon, and the satan” (p. 210), a trinity that he has sketched out in the first couple of sections of chapter 11.
5. René Girard; much of what a Girardian would say about the Trinity derives from Girard’s work on the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, who in John’s Gospel is the Paraclete. Link to a page on “The Anthropology of René Girard and the Paraclete of St. John.” Girard makes this explicit, for example, in the closing paragraphs of I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, where he begins his conclusion:
What is this power that triumphs over mimetic violence? The Gospels respond that it is the Spirit of God, the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. The Spirit takes charge of everything.
And he goes on to explain the Paraclete of St. John as the foil to the satanic powers of mimetic violence. Unveiling the satanic powers of mimetic violence has been the task of the book as a whole, the work of evangelical anthropology, which itself is only revealed through the Holy Spirit unleashed on this world through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
6. Girard first expounded on the Paraclete in the last chapter of The Scapegoat. I give you a number of those key paragraphs in the page on Girard and the Paraclete. After quoting John 16:8-11, the paragraphs immediately preceding those on the Paraclete that I give you are:
There is between the Father and the world an abyss that comes from the world itself and from its violence. Jesus’ return to the Father signifies victory over violence and the crossing of the abyss. But at first no one perceived this. For those who are in the world of violence Jesus is merely dead like others. There will be no astounding message from him or his Father after his return to his Father’s side. Even if Jesus has become divine, the process will take place constantly in the style of the ancient gods, in the perpetual circle of violence and the sacred. Under these circumstances, the victory of the representation of persecution by the persecutors seems assured. Yet, Jesus tells us, that is not how things come to pass. By maintaining the word of the Father against violence until the end and by dying for it, Jesus has crossed the abyss separating mankind from the Father. He himself becomes their Paraclete, their protector, and he sends them another Paraclete who will not cease to work in the world to bring forth the truth into the light.
Even if the language astonishes us, even if the author of the text sometimes seems dizzy before the breadth of vision, we cannot help but recognize what we have just been discussing. The Spirit is working in history to reveal what Jesus has already revealed, the mechanism of the scapegoat, the genesis of all mythology, the nonexistence of all gods of violence. In the language of the Gospel the Spirit achieves the defeat and condemnation of Satan. Based on the representation of persecution, the world inevitably does not believe in Jesus. It cannot conceive of the Passion’s power of revelation. No system of thought is truly capable of creating the thought capable of destroying it. To confound the world, therefore, and show that it is reasonable and just to believe in Jesus as sent by the Father and returning to the Father after the Passion (in other words as a divinity that shares nothing in common with those of violence), the Spirit is necessary in history to work to disintegrate the world and gradually discredit all the gods of violence. It even appears to discredit Christ in that the Christian Trinity, through the fault of Christian and non-Christian alike, is compromised in the violence of the sacred. In reality, the world’s lack of belief is perpetuated and reinforced only because the historical process is not yet complete, thus creating the illusion of a Jesus demystified by the progress of knowledge and eliminated with the other gods by history. History need only progress some more and the Gospel will be verified. “Satan” is discredited and Christ justified. Jesus’ victory is thus, in principle, achieved immediately at the moment of the Passion, but for most men it only takes shape in the course of a long history secretly controlled by the revelation. It becomes evident at the moment when we are convinced that, thanks to the Gospels and not despite them, we can finally show the futility of all violent gods and explain and render void the whole of mythology. (The Scapegoat, pp. 206-207)
This astounding passage leads into what we will reflect on below: the persistence of the satanic powers to veil what has been unveiled in the cross. Even a foundational doctrine such as the Trinity can be made into a mystery accepted as mystery instead of as the mystery revealed.
7. The doctrine of the Trinity can be seen as risky business, in fact, as a strategy that can backfire terribly against the incredible Jewish advance into monotheism. Girard realizes this when he begins chapter 10, “The Uniqueness of the Gospels,” of I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, with the following crucial observations:
To summarize the main point about the Bible and mythology: in the myths an irresistible contagion compels the unanimous communities to see their victims first as guilty and later as divine. The divine stems from the deceptive unanimity of persecution. In the Bible, by contrast, the confusion of the victimization process and the divine is dissolved and gives way to an absolute separation of the two. As already noted, the Jewish religion no longer turns victims into divinities or divinity into a victim. Monotheism is both the cause and the consequence of this revolution. Then in the Gospels once again we find not only the first two stages of the mimetic cycle but also the third, which the Jewish Scriptures dramatically rejected: the divinity of the collective victim. The resemblances between Christianity and the myths are too close not to awaken the suspicion of a fall back into the mythical.
Jesus is a collective victim, and Christians see him as the one true God. How do we avoid the conclusion that the affirmation of his divinity has any other cause than that of the mythic deities?
It is likely that from the beginnings of humankind all the gods grow out of the single victim mechanism. Judaism conquered this Hydra with a thousand heads. The originality of the Hebrew Bible in relation to the myths is obvious, and it appears to be annulled by the divinity of Jesus.
The Christian commitment to the one and only God not only does not resolve everybody’s doubts; it often reinforces them. To reconcile the divinity of the biblical Yahweh with the divinity of Jesus, as well as with the Holy Spirit, to whom the Gospel of John explicitly ascribes a role in the redemptive process, the theology of the great ecumenical councils elaborated the concept of the one God as a Trinity. This concept comes across to Judaism as the return of polytheism, now badly disguised. The Muslims also, defining themselves as “strict monotheists,” are quite clear that in their eyes Christians are lax monotheists, at the very least.
The same goes for all those who observe Christianity from the outside. From a philosophical, scientific, or even religious perspective, the religion that proclaims the divinity of Jesus Christ gives the impression of being nothing other than a myth that diverse influences have modified but that is not essentially different from the ancient myths of death and resurrection.
Christian dogma has always inspired distrust in Judaism and Islam, and nowadays many Christians are beginning to share that attitude. The Cross appears too strange to them, too outdated, to be taken seriously. How could one believe that a young Jew, killed nearly two thousand years ago by a type of torture long since abolished, could be the incarnation of the Almighty God?
Christianity has been losing ground for centuries in the Western world, a decline that continues to accelerate. Now not only isolated individuals abandon the churches, but entire churches, led by their clergy, switch their allegiance and go over to the camp of “pluralism.” This pluralism is a relativism that claims it is “more Christian” than the adherence to dogma because it is “kinder” and more “tolerant” toward non-Christian religions. (pp. 121-122)
So does Girard believe we need to give up the doctrine of the Trinity? No! We simply need let the Paraclete open our eyes and ears to the gospel anthropology that helps us to discover the uniqueness of the Gospels in revealing our forgiveness for the sin of the world. Opened by the word of grace, we can see that the New Testament “spells out everything we need to reject our own mythic view of ourselves, our belief in our own innocence” (I See Satan, p. 127). And so we can finally see who God really is.
8. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, ch. 45, “The Spirit of Unity and Diversity,” is basically a chapter on the doctrine of the Trinity, that the Trinity shifts our understanding away from God as: violent, static, dualist, hierarchical, and exclusive. He concludes:
Sadly, too often our forbears wielded a warped and jagged understanding of the Trinity as a weapon. In so doing, they reinforced violent, static, dualist, hierarchical, and exclusive understandings of God. But it’s still not too late. If we open our hearts, we can feel the Spirit guiding us now to let the healing teaching of the Trinity continue its joyful revolution. Perhaps we are now ready to bear it . . . and to dare to practice it. Because if God is not violent, static, dualist, hierarchical, or exclusive, neither should we be.
To join the movement of the Spirit is to let our Trinitarian tradition continue to live, learn, and grow. . . so the hostile one-versus-otherness of Earth can become more like the hospitable one-anotherness of heaven. From beginning to end, the Spirit leads us into vibrant diversity and joyful unity in beautiful harmony. (p. 229)
9. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2011, titled “The Model of the Holy Trinity“; a sermon in 2017, “The Love Flow of Trinity.”
11. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” wrote a brief essay on the Trinity in 2017, “Living the Mystery of the Trinity.”
Reflections: Trinity as Mystery Revealed
A word that often pops up quite early in a discussion of the Trinity is mystery: the feeling is that there is much about the Trinity that we simply accept as a mystery. Trinity is never a word used in the New Testament, but mystery (Greek: mysterion) is. And for the most part it is used in the opposite way as we generally use mystery today. Instead of the mystery of who God is in the Trinity being simply accepted as mystery, the New Testament speaks of the mystery of who God is as revealed through Jesus Christ. In short, the New Testament witnesses to the mystery of God revealed. (Link to a word study on mysterion in the New Testament.)
So why would the Trinity develop as something which apparently obscures once again the mystery revealed? Why would we accept a re-veiling instead of a revealing? Here’s my proposal as a Girardian: because covering over again who God is means we can also cover over again the revealing of who we are. Our responsibility for violence can once again go underground, hidden beneath a veil of the gods who command us to do violence. Responsibility for our righteous violence is once again the responsibility of the gods.
Perhaps the key passage of the New Testament in this regard is 1 Corinthians 2:1-10:
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3 And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4 My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. 6 Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. 7 But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden [lit., “a mystery kept secret”], which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” — 10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.
Here we see a lengthy discussion by St. Paul of the mysteries revealed in Jesus Christ. It doesn’t take fancy language or learned wisdom. It takes what Paul has told them several verses earlier: “but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Cor. 1:23-24)
And at the heart of this passage, 1 Cor. 2:1-10, is the reason I stated above: “None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” In other words, the last thing we want is for our sacred violence to be revealed as our violence and not the gods. If we would have known this to be the work of the cross in the power of the Spirit (the Paraclete), then we never would have done it.
So, with our cover blown off, what is our next strategy to somehow put the lid back on, to make it mystery accepted again, rather than mystery revealed? How about a doctrine so obscure that it can take our eyes off the cross again with a fascination for mystery and logical puzzles? Have you ever noticed the cross becomes progressively lost in the development of the creeds? The Apostles’ Creed, the simplest and by virtue of its brevity, can keep the cross more prominently at its center: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” The Nicene Creed holds onto language of Christ “crucified under Pontius Pilate,” even making responsibility for the cross clearly human. The word Trinity is not mentioned in either of these great creeds; they simply witness to the Trinitarian structure.
On the other hand, have you ever noticed that the cross is missing from the Athanasian Creed? After a lengthy discourse on the philosophical relationship of the persons of the Trinity, we simply get towards the end (no longer at the center), “He suffered death for our salvation.” It doesn’t tell us the first thing about how he died. No trials, no Pilate, no cross. I would suggest that with this creed, written after Constantine made Christianity the imperial religion, the “rulers of this age” have had some success in obscuring the cross from our eyes. If the real, incarnated events surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of Christ can be made to take the background, perhaps the drama of “our salvation” can take the shape of some cosmic drama played out in heaven, in the realm of Platonic ideas, more than on earth, and we will lose once again the simple language of St. Paul which gives us the mystery unveiled in the crucified Christ. We get our violence re-veiled instead of our violence unveiled. We get the wrath of God again, instead of God is Love, period. We get the cosmic, heavenly drama of the loving Jesus paying a ransom for us so that we might not die at the hands of a violent, angry, punishing God. Isn’t this a common view of the mystery of salvation that the average Christian clings to today?
I don’t want to leave the matter with the implications that the Trinity needs to be discarded as a doctrine. On the contrary, I firmly believe that the language and relationships of the Trinity are very much rooted in the New Testament. In short, they are rooted in the language of the cross and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and the relationships of Jesus the Christ with his heavenly Father and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete. As involving the mystery of the incarnation, the wisdom and knowledge revealed to us is anthropological as well as theological. And, once again, the evangelical anthropology of René Girard provides a key for us and for our evangelical theology. The victory is already won at the cross, but the unveiling of this is the continuing work of the Paraclete through history. As we quoted from Girard above:
Jesus’ victory is thus, in principle, achieved immediately at the moment of the Passion, but for most men it only takes shape in the course of a long history secretly controlled by the revelation. It becomes evident at the moment when we are convinced that, thanks to the Gospels and not despite them, we can finally show the futility of all violent gods and explain and render void the whole of mythology. (The Scapegoat, p. 207)
I believe that an evangelical anthropology is a huge step in this historical process of revelation. To ponder the Trinity without it risks the danger of having things hidden once again in ‘mystery’ that were revealed in Christ.
These reflections are an excerpt from a sermon by the same name, “Trinity as Mystery Revealed.”
1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 95-102. He treats the Genesis creation accounts in the context of his brilliant, ground-breaking section on “Creation in Christ,” which I also excerpted two weeks ago.
2. James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment, chapter 1, “The man blind from birth and the Creator’s subversion of sin.” In the above excerpt from JBW, Alison lays out the mythologizing tendencies of cultures to tell the stories so as to substantiate their own societal order. The Genesis 1 story already begins a process of demythologizing which begins to undo this tendency, but there is still one way in which it was used to legitimate societal order, one which Jesus poignantly struggled against: i.e., the ordering of life around the Sabbath such that it became in charge of human beings, instead of the other way around. In short, it was a false transcendent used to control people. Alison illustrates this in his unpacking of the John 9 healing on the Sabbath, which also recalls the John 5 Sabbath healing. First, there is Jesus’ act of inclusion:
Well, Jesus’ attitude is far removed from magic thinking: not only is it far removed, but he gives us a lesson in the subversion from within of this mentality. He proceeds to carry out an inclusion. First he spits on the earth, and from the clay he makes a paste and anoints the blind man’s eyes. Here we have a Hebrew pun, disguised by the Greek of the text. Clay is adamah, and it is that from which God originally made “Adam,” mankind, in Genesis 2:7. So, here, what Jesus is doing is the act of finishing creation. The man born blind had palpably not been brought to the fullness of creation, and Jesus finishes off the process by adding the missing clay. The blind man still does not see, and Jesus sends him to a pool where baths of ritual purification took place, and when he comes out, the blind man begins to see. Now, this question of the pool of Siloam is interesting, because it is normally interpreted as a reference to the waters of baptism, and I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that, because Baptism is (or should be) the rite of inclusion par excellence. However, I think that what is important here is not the allusion to the rite, but to the inclusion: it is from his bathing in a Jewish pool that the blind man comes to be fully included in the Jewish people…. (p. 6)
But the rest of the story is about the Pharisees’ act of exclusion, especially using the Sabbath as a fulcrum point for their theology of exclusion:
Once cured, the former blind man is taken to the Pharisees. They immediately have a criterion by which to judge if the cure came from God or not. The cure was carried out on a Sabbath, so it cannot come from God. Now the objection is more interesting than it seems. Of God it is said in Genesis that he rested on the Sabbath, after creating everything. So the commandment which obliges people to rest on the Sabbath is a strict injunction to imitate God. And the person who doesn’t rest on the Sabbath is a sinner, because he is neither obeying nor imitating God (which comes to the same thing). Here too we see an element of John’s code. In John 5 Jesus cures an invalid on the Sabbath, and the authorities reproach him for this. Jesus declares to them: “My Father is working up until the present, and I also work” (John 5:17). The reply is rather more dense than it seems and constitutes a formal denial that God is resting on the Sabbath, as well as an affirmation that Creation has yet to be completed, and that for this reason Jesus carries on with his work of bringing Creation to fulfillment on the Sabbath. Now, back at John 9 we note that when the disciples asked Jesus at the beginning of the story who sinned that this man should have been born blind, he replied that neither he nor his parents, but that: “He is blind so that the works of God may be manifest in him” (John 9:3). That is to say, for John the matter of the Sabbath, the healing, and the continuing of Creation go absolutely together. The cure on a Sabbath has as its purpose to show God’s continued creative power mediated by Jesus. For the same reason, the reaction of the Pharisees is a sign of a profound disagreement with Jesus as to who God is and how God acts. Either the Sabbath serves to bring about a separation between those who observe it, and are thus good, and those who do and are not, and God is defined, which also means limited, by the Law. Or alternatively the Sabbath is a symbol of Creation still unfinished, and is an opportunity for God to reveal his loving-kindness to humans, and God is identified by his exuberant creativity. (pp. 9-10)
Alison also unpacks this story of John 9 at a key moment in his unpacking of the doctrine of original sin as “the joy of being wrong” (link to an excerpt of his entire section “The Johannine Witness,” though I give the latter half of it below). It also brings in the doctrine of the Trinity. I give you, then, his conclusion to the unpacking of John 9 in The Joy of Being Wrong:
We have here, then, a further subversion from within. Just as Jesus subverts the notion of judgement from within, so also the notion of sin is subverted from within. Jesus doesn’t abolish the concept of sin, or simply define it much more strongly than before. (2) He subverts the notion of sin from within, in the light of the resurrection of the crucified one, in such a way that what sin is is shown to be much more drastic than previous interpretations, but from quite a different direction. Sin is not what excludes in the person of the excluded one, but the dynamic act of excluding in the persons of the excluders. We can go further with this Johannine approach to sin. There are indications present in chapter 9 that more is intended in this story than a merely casual description of a particular incident regarding sin. The question of the sin as being related to the origins of humankind is hinted at in Jesus’ use of clay in his restoration, or fulfilment, of creation, as well as in the insistence that the man was blind from birth. The relation of this story to something original is understood by the former blind man himself, who reckons that never (ek tou aiônos) has such a healing taken place. In the light of John’s irony this means much more than that a particularly spectacular miracle has taken place, such as has never taken place before. It also suggests that there has been present a blindness from the beginning of the world that only now is being cured for the first time. Furthermore, when Jesus speaks, at the end, about judgement it is clear that he is not concerned with a particular local incident, but about a discernment relating to the whole world (kosmos). Here we have a highly subtle teaching about the whole world being blind from birth, from the beginning, and Jesus, the light of the world coming to bring sight to the world and being rejected precisely by those who, though blind, claimed to be able to see. All humans are blind, but where this blindness is compounded by active participation in the mechanisms of exclusion pretending to sight, this blindness is culpable.
What we have then in chapter 9 alone is a worldview of the sin of the world and the way Jesus comes to remove that sin, on his way subverting the understanding of sin completely. When this worldview is linked to other Johannine passages we begin to get something close to what one might call a theology of original sin. In the first place consider the passage already alluded to in chapter 8, where Jesus discusses with the Jews who had believed in him their paternity and his. It is now commonplace that this passage is the Johannine equivalent of the woes to the scribes and Pharisees which appear in Matthew and Luke, and where the ultimate criterion is the same: participation or not in a religion based on murder. Matthew and Luke specifically indicate that the history of murder of which this generation is accomplice goes back to Cain. When John refers to “your father the devil [who] was a murderer from the beginning” this is also a reference back to the primordial murder which Genesis places at the beginning of human culture. Related to this primordial murder is a culture of lies, lies related to murder, as well as a blindness that cannot see the truth. Abraham was part of the way out of this culture based on the murderous lie, and if Jesus’ interlocutors had been sons of Abraham as they claimed they would not be trying to kill him, but they are trying to kill him, and therefore are sons of Cain, whose desires were produced by the devil. Where Paul talks of sons of wrath, John talks of sons of the devil. who was a murderer from the beginning. The idea is the same: from the beginning human culture is radically mendacious and murderous. This can only be understood in the light of the Son who reveals the true Father, and thus true sonship.
This subversion of the original order of the world is brought out again in John 16 where Jesus tells the disciples, in the context of warning them about persecution and being killed, that he will send them the Defense Counselor.
And when he comes, he will convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more; concerning judgement because the ruler of this world is judged. (John 16:8-11)
It is exactly this of which we have been talking. The understanding made available after the resurrection of Jesus enables sin, righteousness, and judgement to be seen in an entirely different light. Sin is now recast in terms of Jesus. To believe in Jesus is to believe in the forgiveness of sins made available by the victim risen as forgiveness. Those who do not believe in Jesus remain in sin, because they remain in the mode of casters-out. It is those who receive the cast-out one who are enabled to live without sin. Righteousness is defined in terms of Jesus, because he goes to the Father, therefore goodness is seen in terms of the loving obedience by which Jesus gave witness to his Father even to death: righteousness is the mutual self-giving of the Father and the Son which we call love, and love lived out under the circumstances of victimage. Judgment is redefined in terms of Jesus because in what appeared to be the judgement and expulsion of Jesus, it was really the ruler, or Archôn, which can equally well be Satan or the governing principle of the world, who was revealed for what he is, and thus judged. Thus, when John shows the subversion from within of the understanding of sin that is operated by Jesus’ death and resurrection, he is quite specifically doing two things. The first, is to depict sin as, in fact, the condition of blindness within which all humans live, unless enlightened by the Light of the World. This blindness is related to a governing principle that has been present from the beginning of the world, and this governing principle is directly linked to an initial murder which has determined the content of the sort of blindness that is being described. This murder-related blindness is able to be perceived for the first time thanks to a different murder (that of Jesus), and the resurrection that enabled the victim to be received as forgiveness. The first beginnings of “sight” about sin consist in the recognition of one’s complicity in the murderous order of the world, and therefore of the degree of one’s blindness. All other understandings of sin are understandings that are blind to the real order of the world, and are thus all the more blind when they claim to have some insight into what is good or bad without being aware of the dynamism of expulsion that in fact structures their “vision.”
The second thing John is doing in his subversion of sin is linking directly the subversion of the understanding of sin with the subversion of the understanding of the Father. This is what is meant by the Holy Spirit convicting the world with regards to the understanding of righteousness (vv. 8-11). (3) The new understanding of righteousness was made available by the resurrection opening up the free flow of love between Father and Son. For John, as can be seen from these passages, the change in the perception of God that is brought about by the resurrection is also, simultaneously, a change in the perception of sin. I will return to this crucial point later, since, as I hope will become apparent, the doctrine of original sin is the anthropology that is uncovered by the resurrection as the necessary counterpart to the discovery that God is Trinity.
It is quite wrong to say that John knows only of the “sin of the world” or structures of sin, but not of original sin. It is clear from his texts that there is a distinct understanding that the sin of the world has origins, and origins of a quite specific sort. The passages I have indicated bear clear witness to John having understood as one of the first fruits of the resurrection the making available of the understanding that we are all wrong (blind), and that this does not matter. Being wrong can be forgiven: it is insisting on being right that confirms our being bound in original murderous sin. (pp. 122-125)
3. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, ch. 1, “Awe and Wonder,” uses this passage as a primary text.
Reflections and Questions
1. Is it clear how the above shows that even the highly demythologized creation story in Genesis 1 can be used in mythological ways to Lord over human beings, rather than human beings lording over the Sabbath? I have recently begun to wonder, too, about the part about being made male and female being used to Lord over gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ. We talk about “orders of creation.” But we need to keep in mind the manner in which “orders of creation” are used for a morality of expulsion. When brothers and sisters in Christ experience the inclusion of the Gospel and still express their experience of being created with a differing gender attraction, why can’t we listen to them? Is being made male and female, in a rigid fashion with no “natural” deviations, truly God’s order of creation? Or another of our orders of society that we have used since the foundations of our worlds for murderous exclusion? This is where we also need to listen to science, then, which can also be the work of the Paraclete to reveal to us the true nature of things — a nature which is generally more diverse than we are ready to accept under our sense of orderedness.
1. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 142. Schwager cites v. 17 in introducing the reader to the “Fifth Act: The Holy Spirit and the New Gathering”:
The fundamental difference between the time characterized by the appearances of the risen one and the coming time of the Holy Spirit can be — at least at certain points — historically determined. The time of the appearances was still a time of uncertainty, even of fear. It is striking how strongly this element appears in practically all the Easter accounts. The women at the tomb were, according to Mark, seized with “terror and fright” and “were afraid” (Mark 16:8). At the appearance on a mountain in Galilee, some of the disciples, according to Matthew, were “uncertain” (Matt. 28:17; see also John 20:24-29). In Luke, too, we find that the disciples “were startled” at the appearances in Jerusalem, had “great fear” and thought that they “saw a spirit” (Luke 24:37). According to John they had even gathered behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews” (John 20:19, 26). In contrast to this mood of doubt and fear, from Pentecost onward the behavior of the disciples is completely different. They come out into the open and dare to profess faith in their murdered and resurrected Lord. How are we to understand this transformation more precisely and what significance does it have?
The key to Schwager’s answer to this question is given, I think, in the following:
Despite the concrete problems, the gathering of the faithful aimed at overcoming social, linguistic, gender, and religious barriers. The Acts of the Apostles emphasizes that all were “together” (Acts 2:46) and “of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32), and according to Paul there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female,” since all are “one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28). What was behind this concern for unity was not merely the realization of a noble ethical ideal; far more crucial was that this was how God’s plan for salvation was being fulfilled. The new gathering, which Jesus had begun with the message of the kingdom of God, had initially broken down because of people’s resistance. There was even a counter-gathering, a cooperation of different forces against God’s messenger, which Jesus answered with the surrender of his life for the many. The new post-Easter gathering — and the Spirit which made it possible — is to be understood as the fruit of this surrender. The heavenly Father answered the rejection of his Son and the Son’s obedience in a double fashion: through the resurrection of the crucified one and through the sending of the Spirit into those for whom the crucified one surrendered himself. The realization which emerged from consideration of the glossolalia, that pneumatic experience did not primarily come from outside but sprang from the disciples’ inner selves, thus has a deep significance. Because the crucified one let himself he drawn into the dark world of his adversaries, far from God, and there lived out his obedience to the Father, the deep godless realms of the human heart themselves became the place where the divine spirit can from now on reach and touch people. The Pentecostal gathering is for that reason not merely an outward gathering; the visible coming together of the faithful is only a sign, intelligible to our world, of that unification which, starting from the cross, finds fulfillment in the depths of people’s hearts through the sending out of the Spirit. (pp. 144-145)
2. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, ch. 37, “The Uprising of Partnership,” cites this passage as a background text to the primary text of Acts 16:11-40, the story of Paul and Silas being jailed in Philippi for freeing a slave girl, and then liberating their jailer, too. He concludes:
Paul wasn’t in any rush. He decided to stop and spend some time here at Lydia’s house, where the rest of us have been waiting. We quickly gathered the newly forming ecclesia. Paul and Silas shared the story you just heard. Everyone is brimming with excitement, overflowing with joy. We are partners in an earthquake of liberation! As we move forward together in this partnership in mission for peace and freedom, injustice at every level of society will be confronted, and people at every level of society will be set free! (p. 190)
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from May 26, 2002 (Woodside Village Church); and sermon from May 18, 2008 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
1. See John 1:11-12, the chiastic center of the prologue: “He came to his own home and his own received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God.”
2. Exactly the same notion of subversion from within can be applied to the Matthew’s handling of the relationship between Jesus and the Law: he came not to abolish, but to fulfil the law. However, this fulfilment is not a mere tightening up of the law, but a re-casting of the law around the persons of victims, who therefore become the criteria by which the law is to be understood. Thus the fulfilment of the law is a subversion from within of the current understanding of the law and was rightly seen as subversive by those who regarded themselves as the guardians of the law.
3. It is no accident that John uses the same term here as Paul when Paul is making exactly the same intellectual shift in Romans 1:16-18. We have here a nexus of ideas very close to the original kerygma.