Man desperately needs to believe in an overarching meaning in order to view his own life of some great significance. When he fails to look to the sovereign Creator as his source of truth, he only wanders in the imaginations of his own mind and self-will.
The Mind of the Cosmos
The Greeks assumed there was an order to the world, a principle of meaning, a wisdom, power, logic, or scheme of things that man could ascertain. They called this impersonal order to the cosmos the logos. John appropriated the word in his gospel to identify this truth not as an impersonal characteristic but in terms of the person Jesus Christ, the Creator-God who was incarnate in human flesh and “dwelt among us,” whose divine glory John had personally seen (John 1:1-14; cf. Luke 9:28-32).
John was not borrowing a term casually. He was confronting Greek thought head-on. In declaring Jesus to be the logos, John was saying that in order for man to understand the cosmos and its meaning one had to look to Jesus Christ. The world was itself made by Him (John 1:3,10), who declared He was “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
Governing Person Not Principle
Jesus was born at a time when the near universal philosophic and religious perspective of the time was that the incarnation of deity was a repugnant idea. To the dualist, the non-material realm was a higher one and matter the locale of evil. When this prevailing idea entered the church through converts, the language of “flesh” and “spirit” was seen in a dualistic mindset. Such converts assumed the task of “fixing” the Christian message by interpreting it in terms of their dualistic perspective. This is why the first great theological debate after the apostolic era was regarding dualism. For four centuries after the Ascension of Jesus the church fought over the nature of the incarnation. There was a strong opposition by dualists to any literal incarnation of God that was not officially resolved until the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451. The Chalcedon formula held to the uniqueness of the God-man Jesus Christ as the only mediator between God and man. This meant that there was no impersonal governing principle for man to discern and interpret, as in Greek thought, but rather a governing person, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Implication of Chalcedon
It is a myth that the church formulated doctrines such as the Trinity. What they did over many generations was respond to the dualistic attempt to deny the incarnation of God in human flesh. This led to multiple defenses and definitions of both Christ’s nature and the incarnation. The formulations of the early church were not creative but descriptive of what they felt the Scriptures taught and the apostles themselves believed (the “apostolic tradition”).
Chalcedon was a great theological victory, but its impact extended much further, as the theological implications of the unique and exclusive mediatorial role of Jesus Christ worked themselves out over the course of Western history. For all its very real faults, the Roman church did develop a Christendom that was God-centered in its perspective, so Chalcedon’s stand on the uniqueness of the mediatorial role of Jesus had a profound effect.
Since Chalcedon held Jesus to be the unique God-man, it put a theological limitation on all men and institutions, as they could not make what would be a blasphemous claim to that role. Men had often claimed that prerogative in the ancient world. Monarchs of antiquity were typically said to be either divine or priest-kings, chosen mediators and spokesmen of their gods. Julius Caesar and Augustus were declared divine at their deaths, but later emperors claimed divinity during their reigns. The Republic was then dead, and Rome returned to the ancient pattern of absolute authority in a king who assumed a claim to divinity. To oppose any ruler who claimed divinity was thus both treason and blasphemy; it precluded the possibility of opposition, much less liberty. Any “rights” were no more than exemptions, privileges granted by the state whose head was divine or embodied a divine order.
Even the Roman Church rebelled against Chalcedon in practice when it acted as the continuing incarnation of Jesus Christ. It took centuries for the theological implications of Chalcedon to work themselves out in the political arena. If Jesus Christ was the unique link between God and man, then no man or institution could claim that role. Both church and state had a role in God’s order, but both were limited in their jurisdiction. Neither could claim a “divine right” to absolute rule.
The One and the Many
The doctrine of the incarnation cannot, of course, be separated from that of the Trinity. Again, this was not a doctrine the church would have created, as it is ultimately inexplicable. The definition of this doctrine, though, does have important implications for human thought, ones we ignore at great peril.
The doctrine of the Trinity reveals that there is both simplicity and complexity in the godhead, both unity and diversity, yet with both in perfect harmony. We are limited creatures both by virtue of our creaturehood and our fallen natures. We tend to oversimplify to find an idea or principle we can grasp, then force-fit it across the board. In other words, we “dumb” down the complexity we find and then operate in terms of that simplistic reduction.
There is an old expression that has been referenced in philosophy for many years, “the problem of the one and the many.” It is a summation of the gamut of ideas on how to metaphysically understand the seemingly disparate and conflicting ideas of simplicity and complexity.
We are commonly confronted by the question of the one and the many even if that term is not used. Some years ago, it was a common group exercise to posit a question about men on a lifeboat. One was mortally injured yet was consuming the limited water rations. The question was should the man (the “one”) be given water or should it be saved for those (the “many”) who might survive until rescued. In such an exercise, the morality debated was whether the responsibility was to the one or the many, the individual or the group. Of course the “problem” was stated so as to hint that the “one” individual was certain to die anyway, so the “solution” was typically in favor of abandoning the individual (or worse). It was a justification for murder by means of an ostensibly higher motive for the good of many, a rationale not as foreign to our world as we would like to believe.
Another example of the problem is in approaching a troubled marriage—which is most important, the individuals or the institution? Marriage counsellors sometimes hold to the one extreme or another. There is a view in some Christian circles that the insitution of marriage is all-important and that the individual must suffer any abuse to maintain it. Others see only the happiness of the individuals. Men tend to over-simplify the complexity of life to find a single principle, but the Trinity teaches us that in God neither oneness nor plurality are ultimate. In the case of the marriage covenant, neither of the individuals is ultimate, nor is the institution. Marriage is a covenant to work together under God’s law to further His Kingdom.
Left to his own reckoning, man tends to extremes, either oneness and some form of collective unity or to diversity and individualism. The one usually prevails in politics and society and most often in the forced unity of statist power, because the state can always claim to be the highest collective voice of individuals and hence the representative of the “greater good.” It is not without reason that the Scriptural allusions to organized opposition to and persecution of God’s people reference the absolutist ancient regimes—Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. If there is both oneness and plurality in God Himself, our reductionist over-simplifications should be avoided and the role of both should be acknowledged in all human relationships and activity.
Liberty and Christian Independence
Our talk of liberty often represents just an anarchistic freedom from the “oneness” of statism, but that is only a first step. The larger issue is what we seek freedom to. What path does our liberty place us on? If it is only one of individual autonomy, we are choosing one simplistic answer, the atomistic “many” over another, the collective “one” of statism. Too much thinking about liberty is merely a rejection of statism, but our calling is not to a mere negation, even of evil.
When man is governed by God’s law he has a very real level of independence from other false attempts at unity or an anarchistic independence. The avoidance of debt, for instance, produces a freedom unknown to the slave to debt and the giving of tithes and offerings frees a man both from the legitimate guilt of robbing God and to a joy in wealth as a steward of God. Instead of playing god, man submits to the true God and His law.
When a man is governed by God’s law, he has a freedom of conscience. Our culture today frequently manipulates by ascribing guilt, but when a man knows he has fulfilled his obligations and his charitable duties before God, he has a sense of freedom that transcends man’s accusations. Such freedom under God is available to all men, regardless of the political and social context of their lives.
Politics today should be seen as a defensive movement to protect ourselves against the encroachment of statist claims. The offensive movement we need is that of citizens building the Kingdom of God by faithfulness to every Word of God. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33). Our purpose is not merely to be survivors of the collapse of humanism, but to be “more than conquerors through him that loved us” (Rom. 8:37).