by Margaret Bradnum
from Signs of the Times No. 40 - Jan 2011

What do we mean when we say 'God'?

Something like the principle behind the universe,  something too big for us to comprehend; a great MYSTERY.

The mystery seems to be accessible to us however; and people now and in the past testify that they have come across evidence of its existence in a whole variety of ways.

People have particularly experienced it as strength and POWER; something that enables them to cope: and MESSAGE; something that comes through to them as call or challenge.

In the Old Testament we possess the religious writings of the people called Israelites. The writers often testify to an experience of POWER, and an experience of MESSAGE as well as having an awareness of a MYSTERY behind both.

The POWER, described as the BREATH or SPIRIT of God, might be experienced in craft or strength or wisdom - anything which nowadays we might describe as "inspired".

The MESSAGE might come directly through thoughtful reflection  or in an altered state of consciousness or via someone else, a messenger!

The MYSTERY was mysterious and not to be described. It was also rather frightening!

Much later on the new sect of Christians developed these ideas further. They had been changed and challenged by a man called Jesus of Nazareth. He lived as a son of God in a close and intimate way, and spoke of God as his Father. People came to believe  that he was a messenger from the MYSTERY. He was in his very being a MESSAGE. He was a word from, and about, the hiddenness of God.

People had been aware of communication of one sort and another for centuries,  but in Jesus something special had happened. Jesus was the carrier of the WORD, he exemplified the WORD. He communicated call and command and challenge as never before. The WORD revealed through him the nature of the MYSTERY.  It was like a son revealing the nature of his father.

Language about the WORD had its roots in the Old Testament in relation to creation and the inspiration of the prophets.

It turned out that the concept also had a lot of resonances for other people  whose background was in Greek philosophy. They used it for the divine spiritual reality pervading the material universe. Consequently at one time Christians used WORD language  a lot as it made sense to so many people.

Because of the language used in the New Testament about Jesus' close relationship with God, Christians also often used the term SON when talking about the MESSAGE.

God was FATHER, WORD and SPIRIT. 'SPIRIT' and 'WORD' were of the essence of God.  They were active in creation and in the inspiration of the prophets and in the coming of Jesus.

Over the centuries that followed these beliefs were refined into the doctrines of Christianity. The awareness of threeness that went back centuries became the doctrine of the Trinity!

We now have to stop for a minute and consider how human beings have used God-language down the ages.

Long ago, before people knew how big the universe is, they really thought the gods and goddesses  they believed in lived up in the sky. Because of this heritage, because of the use of terms like Father and Son, and simply because it is easier for most people to think in pictures rather than concepts, Christians have often expressed their ideas about 'the Father' and 'the Son' using God-pictures of an old man up in the sky and a young man up in the sky even when they knew perfectly well that these were no more than pictures.

Spirit was always a lot easier. Everyone always knew that this was a spiritual reality. In fact 'the Father' and 'the Son' are spiritual realities  as well and nowadays we need to try to find language that makes that clear.  This has proved easier for the FATHER than for the SON.

Even in the early centuries of the Christian church people found their beliefs about SPIRIT/POWER and also about FATHER/MYSTERY easier to understand and express than their beliefs about SON/WORD.

  • The MYSTERY was the ultimate 'FATHER', behind everything that exists, the mysterious SOURCE of all being.
  • The 'SPIRIT' (or breath/wind of God) still came through in strength and POWER and inspiration.
  • The MESSAGE or 'WORD' from the mystery came through as call and challenge; communication and revelation.
  • God was MYSTERY, MESSAGE and POWER; or SOURCE, WORD and POWER; or, more usually, FATHER, SON and SPIRIT.
  • The total package, the total threeness, was GOD.

The main problem for Christians was understanding and explaining  how the man Jesus related to the divine principle of the WORD.

At one extreme was the idea was that Jesus was just a man, the Jews' expected deliverer. At the other was the idea that he was a kind of spirit-being, just appearing to be human. Many people thought he was a good man who had been empowered by God's Spirit in a very special way.

For a long time however the dominant idea was that the divine SON or WORD had clothed itself  in the body of Jesus in order to communicate with humanity. The danger of this way of thinking was that the real person, Jesus, tended to disappear!

Some people then tried to find language to express the idea that the divine WORD was united to a real person, Jesus, in such a close and intimate way that it was impossible to tell the difference between them.

This does not work too well with a mental image of the SON as a heavenly being but if we are thinking of the SON/WORD as a spiritual reality, in the same way that we think of the SPIRIT as a spiritual reality it is not too difficult to think that a human being could be filled with or permeated by it.

In the end it was decided that the vital beliefs were that:

  • In Jesus the really divine WORD had been present; "God with us";  a unique concentration of God essence.
  • This Jesus was as human as we are, though, unlike us, he was really, really and uniquely good:  a window, through whom we see God.
  • The WORD and Jesus were united in such a way that there was only  one centre of consciousness and activity.
  • This combination had never happened before or since!