Paul Vanderklay is a minister in the Christian Reformed Church of North America who started a YouTube channel after being swept by the Jordan Peterson phenomenon. Several thousand people have been attracted to his deeply thoughtful analyses, his Dutch charm and Santaclausian laughter. Besides those qualities, he is very open minded, yet very solidly grounded in orthodox christianity. And he doesn’t mind exploring his theological presuppositions. Like Francis Chan, he has started to contemplate that there was a lot of theology, a lot of Church history—sixteen centuries of history, in fact—before the Protestant Reformation.
He loves C.S. Lewis. I love C.S. Lewis. I love Paul. I hope and pray that his exploration will bring him closer and eventually back to his One Catholic and Apostolic Church. We surely need people like him back at home, but I understand all the difficulties that taking such a momentous step entails. Take your time, Paul! But come back home someday!
In this conversation, Paul Vanderklay engages with unitarian Sam in speculations on why would the Church find it necessary to come up with the very complicated and so-difficult-to-understand (I guess that’s why they call it “mystery”) doctrine of the Holy Trinity. I always thought that it was the other way around. I still do. I don’t think that the main drive of the Church for developing a doctrine, like the doctrine of the Trinity, is to achieve a certain goal. Rather, doctrines are “shoved down our throats” by Jesus himself, to then leave it to us to figure them out. And we do the best we can, aware that it’s never going to be the way it really is, but just as we see them “like through a dark glass,” even after Pentecost.
We didn’t come up with the Trinity. I bet we would have never gotten into such a quandary if it wasn’t because Jesus kept talking about and to this Father guy over and over, and then about this other one with the weird Greek name that He promises to send once he leaves, because for some reason they don’t seem to want to be in this world together.
They say He’s merciful, and I’m sure He is, but He didn’t have a whole lot of patience with requests like “show us the Father!” and such. And I think that maybe it’s because He was in a hurry to deliver all the pieces, and somehow relied on this Paraclete guy to explain how they all fit together in this bewildering puzzle. And the puzzle pieces come in riddles that we must first figure out, so we can see the shape—which alone might take centuries—and look for a place where they can fit—which might take some more centuries (thanks to God for the Church Fathers that did a lot of that for us!). “My body is true food, and my blood is true drink”…. “What God has brought together let no man put asunder”… “I am in the Father and the Father is in me”…. And later, “I am going to the Father”…. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And on pile the riddles…
Anyway, Jesus did promise extra help and followed through few days after disappearing in the clouds (it was “after hours extra help”), on Pentecost day, when the mighty wind came rushing in and stoking tongs of fire over the twelve (yes, I counted them: Matthias was already there) and Mary. Just as promised. (That’s one good thing about Jesus, you know? He does follow through). But to whom did He promise this extra help? Here comes the breaking point, because despite protests by the proponents of individual interpretation rights (sola Scriptura), Jesus didn’t promise the Holy Spirit in this sense, individually to each one of His followers—He promised it to His Church as a whole, in the head of the twelve Apostles. We can’t escape the fact that Jesus, other than on the sand, didn’t write a single word. But He did found a Church, just one, over the rock of Peter. And gave authority to that Church to give us Scripture and to interpret it.
Francis Chan says it really well:“guys like me, we go in our rooms, study the scripture all week for our sermons, and come up with our own ideas, and become enamored with them…In the meantime thousands and thousands of other guys do the same in their rooms… How is it then a surprise that we have more than 30 thousand Christian denominations?”
I feel for unitarian Sam. He doesn’t seem to be the kind of person who is so enamored with his own idea that he finds it too hard to let go of it. As far as I can surmise, he does want to hold what is true, he does honestly want to believe what God wants him to believe, for maybe somewhere in his heart he knows that He has to follow Jesus without fully understanding how or where (like everybody else). And I feel for Paul… Because I think that he wants to tell him he is wrong, that God is One in three Persons, that all three Persons are God, that Jesus is the Son. That Jesus is divine! But he has no authority to tell him what to believe. Doesn’t unitarian Sam have the God given right to interpret the Bible on his own?
Jesus had an idea too, and He presented it to the Father while sweating blood in the Garden —”let this cup pass from me”—, because He doesn’t understand why He has to drink that cup (talk about mysteries!) and yet, He surrenders His will (and his idea) to the Father. And picks up the cross. This is the model He’s showing us: “obediens usque ad mortem, mortem autem crucis” (obedient to death, and death on a cross!). That’s what I felt like shouting at Sam: “Let’s do the same. Let’s obey! And then pick up that cross, and crucify our ideas when they aren’t the Father’s ideas. Adam’s disobedience in the old Garden cut us away from the life giving love of the Trinity; Jesus’ perfect obedience in the new garden reestablished that life giving connection. Now we get a second chance at love, and love is shown in obedience to His commands (John 14:15).
“Faith alone!” Yes! Faith alone. Luther was not so far wrong. As long as we understand faith properly, he was totally right. Because faith is not just intellectual assent. Like Paul Vanderklay says, “a Christian is somebody who trusts Christ more than they trust themselves.” That is faith. And what follows trust? Obedience.
How would we know of Abraham’s faith if it is not through this absolute trust that brings him to the brink of sacrificing his own son. Why? Because God told him so (how in a thousand universes did he know that it was God’s voice? Thank goodness he was still listening till the very last second, as he raised the sacrificial knife, right?). That is faith. Absolute trust that God knows more and better and God loves us more and better than we can ever dream. Thus, absolute obedience. It would be stupid to disobey He who never fails and always loves. We say that Israel is the chosen people, but the truth is that God did not choose the people of Israel. Israel was unfaithful many times. But Abraham was faithful because he obeyed. That’s why God chose him to be the father of His people, the father of “a great nation”.
But why? We may ask… To me the reason is clear: the Fall came through disobedience; therefore, the redemption should come through obedience. Hence Abraham on Mount Moriah; hence Jesus in Gethsemane; hence a hierarchical Church with the authority to transmit the will of God. Jesus wasn’t naive. For some reason he had to leave. And he knew that the only way to preserve even the possibility for redemptive obedience was to leave behind a hierarchical structure, and a last resource in case of insurmountable disagreement… Hence Peter, the rock upon which the Church is built.
Obedience is crucial for a follower of Christ. Obedience born of a faith that is nothing but trust in the love of the Father constantly inviting us to love Him back, thus entering back into that life giving relationship of love. Remember: “whoever loves me, follows my commands,” says Jesus the Christ.
And how do we know His commands unless He leaves a “spokesperson” with us, a spokesperson to whom He grants authority? The Holy Spirit will teach us! But not each one of us. Wouldn’t Jesus know that without an interpretive living reference His Church would break up into many thousand denominations? Jesus didn’t leave us a riddle ridden Bible for each one to interpret it on their own. He left us His Church, that comes alive on Pentecost day when the Spirit descends over the twelve, thus confirming them in the authority to forgive sins (John 20:23) and to celebrate the breaking of the bread. And a specific promise to Peter, a promise of a special assistance from the Holy Spirit, to bind and loose, and to feed and tend the Good Shepherd’s sheep. A special triple charge of a responsibility that echoes his triple negation, as if forewarning us not to expect his successors to be free of moral shortcomings.
We may hate and mistrust hierarchy for its failings, but we need it, so we can imitate our master in Gethsemane. Disobedience cut us away from the tree of life; obedience allows us back. We need obedience. That’s what true faith really means.
And without authority, there’s not even the possibility for obedience.