This post began as a response to questions from Viola Larson about how I understand the relationships between Jesus, God, and the Trinity. As I was writing my response, I decided to post it as a main blog entry rather than as a comment to a previous post. So, this is not just to Viola, but to anyone who is still reading this blog. But thank you, Viola, for your good questions that compel me to flesh out my thoughts on these issues.
Jesus is definitely part of the Trinity. But, the paradox of the Trinity is that though the Trinity is one, each person of the Trinity has a distinctive character and relates to humanity in a different way. If there was not some differentiation between the three persons of the Trinity, the whole concept would be meaningless.
If Jesus was simply YHWH of the Old Testament enfleshed, it would make no sense for Jesus to pray to God or talk about God the Father as a distinct reality. God the Father and Jesus are not exactly the same thing—yet in a trinitarian sense they are both part of the Godhead. That’s why this is truly a paradox. What’s more, I don’t think there is an orthodox trinitarian theology that suggests that Jesus and God are the exact same thing. Again, that would strip the concept of the Trinity of all its meaning. (For a fascinating study that does in fact assume that Jesus is the embodiment of YHWH, with all of YHWH’s history, check out Jack Miles’ Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.)
As for the question of worship, I think the idea that the persons of the Trinity are distinct and relate to us in different ways is key. It makes perfect sense to me, and in no way questions the divinity of Jesus, to suggest that we can (and perhaps should) relate to Jesus in a different way than we relate to God (the Father, Creator, or whatever qualifier you want to use). In fact, it may just be that what we learn about God in the divinity of Jesus is that there is an aspect of the trinitarian Godhead that especially and profoundly abides in humility, meekness, weakness, and a complete redefinition of power. If we supplant that with the kind of adoration, praise, and attribution of power that had previously been reserved only for YHWH, then it seems that we are ignoring an important and vital aspect of the revelation of God in Jesus.
Again, it makes perfect sense to me that we would relate (in worship or otherwise) to the three persons of the Trinity in different ways. To this point, how many hymns or songs lavish the Holy Spirit with the kind of praise that is directed to God (or Jesus)? There are plenty of hymns that talk about the Holy Spirit or invoke the presence of the Holy Spirit. But I’m hard pressed to think of one that praises the Holy Spirit (other than the doxology or the Gloria Patri, which are two of our only truly trinitarian worship songs). When was the last time you heard a praise band or traditional church choir sing praises to the Holy Spirit like we heard directed at Jesus at Triennium?
Given all of this, if I were to try to express in greater detail what feels idolatrous about worshiping Jesus in the ways I’ve identified, it is that we are taking the kind of worship once directed only to YHWH (i.e., in the book of Psalms) and focusing it on an expression of God’s self-revelation who intentionally avoided that kind of praise or exaltation. If Jesus had wanted to make himself a walking God among humans, if Jesus had wanted to be adored and worshiped as a king or God on earth, he could have easily done that. Instead, he took every opportunity to avoid those very things.
I realize, of course, that even some of the earliest Christians began worshiping the resurrected Jesus in this way. But its within the realm of possibility to suggest that they got it wrong too and missed the point that Jesus was trying to make in his life and death. It wouldn’t have been the first time that Jesus’ disciples didn’t understand what he was trying to do.
At the same time, I’m sure there were early Christians that did not worship Jesus in this way but were nonetheless faithful followers of Jesus that believed he was the Messiah. Take Jesus’ brother James, for example. Given what we know about James from biblical and non-biblical sources, I can’t imagine him worshiping Jesus in this way. I suspect that he continued to worship God in the temple, while fully believing that his brother was the Messiah. (What James thought about Jesus’ divinity is not clear to me.)
In the end, more than anything I guess I’m wanting more balance in our worship. I’m willing to include Jesus worship as long as we are sure to include the full gospel story of Jesus and other ways of worshiping all three persons of the Trinity. But I think I will continue to be uncomfortable worshiping Jesus in this way for the reasons I’ve been trying to articulate. And I don’t find anything heretical about suggesting that we relate to the three persons of the Trinity in different ways. I don’t find anything heretical about suggesting that it is more appropriate to focus on the divinity revealed in Jesus’ human humility and weakness and to relate to this aspect of divinity in a way that corresponds to such humility.