Nicodemus, Trinity, Heretics

Posted: May 27, 2021 in Uncategorized

What is there about Nicodemus that disturbs you? If it is the idea that doubt has good qualities rather than bad ones then that might just be good.

I invite you to hear that Nicodemus was a pilgrim. He was a sincere religious seeker. A student who uses his precious study time to expand his search beyond the standard texts and distractions of the day. I invite you to also to hear Nicodemus as a member of the religious institution of his day, who is a mover of theological boundaries. Willing to risk leaving behind the so-called ‘truth’ as he and his colleagues have known it, in order to explore something new.

So, if you accept that invite you will instead of questioning his motives, recognize him as both open and honourable. You will do this because Nicodemus must be allowed to respond to ‘the new’ or ‘the different’ in a variety of ways rather than prescribing a single mode. How else can he and we discover that our lives and our thinking might be different? Nicodemus, then, is Patron saint of the curious.  And for many of us, our patron saint. So may he protect the curious in each of us.

The next invitation is to see the Trinity as an invitation to explore your thinking. Here I remind ne of the St David;’s Mission Statement “Honour The Mind, Live the Questions and Explore the Adventure of Humanity.” “Honour the Mind reminds us that ‘The Trinity’ as a theological concept or the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity (as it is officially called), has only been observed since the 14th century, and only in the Western Church. It is also observed as a result of an edict issued by then pope, John xxii. Although it was the 2nd century theologian Tertullian who was the first to name God as a trinity. The second thing to remember is that the Trinity has been the subject of plenty of controversy over the ages, primarily because the doctrine of the Trinity is not found in the scriptures. The third thing is that it is the only Sunday in the Lectionary which celebrates a doctrine. And if you are old enough and can remember the 1960s John Robinson Honest to God debates, you may also recall that Robinson said: “I was once asked a question after one of my talks: ’How would you teach a child the doctrine of the Trinity?’  It was one of the easiest questions I have ever received.  The answer was: ‘I wouldn’t’.” (Robinson 1967:86)

So, for a piece of theology which was supposed to bring unity in the church amid political intrigue and a host of opposing theological opinions, of ‘suspected heretics’ and dissidents’, I am not so sure such a doctrine can claim to be a success!

 Suchocki, professor emerita of Claremont School of Theology and executive director of ‘Process & Faith’ said: “despite (its) divisive history, the doctrine of the Trinity is more important today than ever, and for two very practical reasons: the first is that the doctrine can keep us from the idolatry of thinking God is just a human being, only bigger and better than the rest of us.  The second is that the doctrine tells us that the very deepest form of unity is one that includes irreducible diversity.” (Process & Faith web site 2006)

I was having a debate the other day about the importance of being a sceptic in today’s world. Not just because of the state of information and news and truth. Cyber hacking and media manipulation and the acceptance of fictional lobby as legitimate activity. The debate was about the importance of avoiding a single truth about anything and what impact that has on life? It one can’t have a truth what is there left. It can be said that this is both a scientific question as well as a theological one. I suspect that the debate about the doctrine of the Trinity is part of that scene. How to ‘Live the Questions?’ might be the context. As a helpful doctrine it gives a place from which to move and as an unhelpful doctrine it locks us in the belief or not belief debate.

I think this is what John D Caputo might call radical theology, not because one believes in it but because it invites us to debate the naming of God as God. It invites us to explore the naming of God as an event and not just a concept to believe in. The dynamic of the doctrine being about relationships invites us to be sceptics and explore the dynamic nature of theology not just as a theory of God but rather as a dynamic event in itself every time it is raised. What Caputo calls a theology of ‘perhaps’ always a dynamic event and what I call a theology of ‘Almost’ a dynamic living about to be event, ‘the kingdom is already come here and now and yet still about to come as well. The trinity invites us to be a sceptic, value doubt as Nicodemus reminds us and embrace potential, unknowing and the ‘almost’ The dynamic of the Trinity also invites us to see that living life is about valuing it as an ‘insistence’ Again a dynamic event of creating. This is what Caputo might say is the God in life as the insistence of life as opposed to the life itself. God is love fits here also in that it is in the loving that love exists it is in the insisting of loving that love transforms. Theologically this means that radical theology is always to come. Doubt as Nicodemus portrays and our scepticism becomes the event of transformation.

Finally, we might explore the adventure of humanity. Embrace scepticism, doubt and living the questions as a positive engagement and perhaps the Trinity remembrance might become an opportunity to celebrate All Heretic’s Day. Here we might want to thank our Unitarian colleagues because Unitarians (and many ‘progressives’) certainly brand themselves honourably with the title ‘heretic’.  Many of them were reformers, questioners, and seekers.  They defied the religious conventions of their times.  They blazed new paths and made greater choices for us today” (Lane. Unitarian Church of SA. web site 2008).

They questioned many things about Christian doctrine.  In particular the notions:

  • that God favours some with salvation and condemns others to perdition;
  • that individual men and women are permanently depraved and highly dependent upon the so-called doctrine of the ‘Atonement’ for their redemption, and
  • that God is a trinity of co-equal, consubstantial and co-eternal persons.

In all these cases the Unitarians proposed a different theology. They proposed:

  • that God’s love is available to all and that no one is condemned to perdition;
  • that people are mostly humane and that human effort is a welcome contribution towards the quality of human life, and
  • by indicating God’s oneness and God’s participation in the whole of creation.

For their efforts they were ruled to be ‘heretics’, because they held doctrine “contrary to the orthodox or accepted doctrine of a church or religious system… [or] any opinion or belief contrary to established theory”.

“These early heretics favoured a critical approach to religion that appreciates the place of reason, human thought and the right to think for oneself.  And, they advocated the right of private judgment and the necessity for personal integrity to be upheld in the face of imposed creeds and confessions of faith.” (Lane. Unitarian Church of SA. web site 2008)

Two prominent people in this world were Lloyd Geering (NZ), and Charles Strong, in Australia. Strong (1844-1942), described his theology as ‘broad or liberal’ which, he said, was absolutely necessary to a minister of the gospel “in order for the development of a healthy Christian life.” (Badger 1971:51)

Born out of doubt and scepticism such a theology had several characteristics:

  • it was fluid;
  • thinks of God as an indwelling, energising Spirit;
  • God was manifested in Humanity – Humanity was God’s ‘Son’; love and justice were always working together;
  • allied itself with science, and
  • is based on human experience rather than an infallible book.  (Badger 1971:285)

So today as Trinity Sunday, The day of Nicodemus and All Heretics Day; might be about the invitation to be curious about life and theology. To rethink assumptions with an altered perspective. Trinity might be more than a name for a day or a doctrine. It might be the call to participate in an even of transformation, to not just ask the questions but rather live them, and not just about conducting an autopsy on our past, but rather engaging in the exploration of what it means to be a human as we look to the future through the eyes of new possibility To be born anew! To consider how life might be different? Maybe today can be a day that places us in the company of earnest and compassionate teachers
whose openness defines a new community of hope and grace… As traditional theological boundaries (Honour the Mind) are pushed, and pushed again, ( Live the questions) with honesty and creativity. (Explore with confidence the future of humanity) Amen.

Badger, C. R. The Reverend Charles Strong and the Australian Church. Melbourne. Abacada Press, 1971.
Lowry, E. L. “Strangers in the Night” in W. B. Robinson (ed) Journeys Toward Narrative Preaching. New York. The Pilgrim Press, 1990.
Robinson, J. A. T. But That I Can’t Believe! London. Fontana Press, 1967.
Vosper, G. Amen. What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief . Toronto: HarperCollins, 2012.

John D Caputo The Insistence of God, A Theology of Perhaps. Indiana University Press2013

Doug Lendrum, with David W Williams & Emma McGeorge Almost A Memoir 2020

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