Saturday, December 01, 2007

Can Jesus Forgive Sin?

In a previous post, I discussed agreements and disagreements that I have with Wayne Grudem's chapter (22) on "Man as Male and Female" in his textbook on Systematic Theology.

Disclaimer: I am at best an amateur theologian. I am over-eduacated, but my formal schooling is not in theology. In discussing the Trinity, I am in over me head. I do not have a complete understanding of the three-in-one. Thus, my critique of Grudem will be woefully lacking in footnotes and academic rigor. That said, I think most Christians with even a superficial understanding of the Trinity, Jesus' divinity, and a bit of common sense will find flaws in Grudem's treatment of subordinationism in role and function within the Trinity.

According to standard Christian teaching, one God exists eternally in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each person is fully God. Each person is distinct from the other two. There is only one God. On this one teaching, Judaism and Islam disagree with Christianity. They believe in one God in one Person, and thus deny that Jesus could be divine, and if not divine, has no authority to forgive sin. Someone who wants to say that all religions are right must choose a side regarding the Trinity and Jesus divinity and authority to forgive sins.

Athanasius was a bishop in the 300s A.D. when the church was wrestling with this concept of God as three in one. He understood that if there is no Trinity, then Jesus did not have authority to forgive sin. In this he struggled against Arius, another bishop, who claimed that Jesus was like God, but was not fully God. Instead of being fully divine, Arius taught that Jesus was subordinate to and dependent on God the Father, similar to the Islamic view of Jesus as a powerful, even pivotal, prophet. Athanasius' view was affirmed in the Nicene Creed, which described Jesus as "of the same essence as the Father." The Athanasian Creed, which Grudem accurately says is "still used in Protestant and Catholic churches today," puts it thus:

"Nothing in this trinity is before or after, nothing is greater or smaller; in their entirety the three persons are coeternal and coequal with each other."

I might even agree with Grudem that each person of the trinity has its own functions in the world, its own roles and relationships with the other two persons. I say "might" because I feel that I am stepping here from the solid rock of Scripture to the uncertain footing of inference. If each person is distinct, then it follows logically that each would have roles and relationships. But, it would also follow that to the degree that the three are distinct, they cannot be one. Clearly, we humans do not completely understand this aspect of the divine, and it would be dangerous to infer too much regarding distinct roles and relationships. Nevertheless, let's grant that the three persons might have their own roles and functions. Grudem argues that the role of the Son is eternally submitted to the will of the Father. The Father eternally exercises authority over the Son; the Son eternally has limited authority.

Jesus certainly had limited authority when incarnate, but we read in Philippians that Jesus voluntarily put himself in that position by temporarily setting aside his divine attributes to become human. That is not the issue here. The issue is whether Jesus was fully God when he set the attributes aside and when he picked them back up later.

The idea that Jesus had limited authority is contrary to the Athanasian Creed and contrary to the traditional view of the Trinity. It is beautiful enough to bear repeating, "Nothing in this trinity is before or after, nothing is greater or smaller; in their entirety the three persons are coeternal and coequal with each other." (emphasis added) Jesus is fully divine, and thus under no person's authority. As Athanasius understood, if Jesus is not fully divine, then we cannot be certain that he had the authority to forgive sin.

For this reason I disagree with Grudem's teaching of authority within the Trinity. This has major implications for Christian faith and practice, because Paul uses the relationship of Jesus to the Father as a parallel to the relationship of husband to wife, and by extension, of men to women in Chapter 22.

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