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How Classical Theism Has Shaped My Life

Isn’t it enough that we believe that God is good, that he created the world, that there is life after death, and that our actions garner for us divine punishments or rewards? C. S. Lewis wrote about mere Christianity; why isn’t mere theism enough? Why must Christians insist on those four theological distinctions—Trinity, incarnation, atonement, and resurrection—that set Christianity apart from all other religions? Are such “dry” and “dusty” doctrines necessary, or may they be discarded in the name of religious pluralism? Don’t we all, after all, mean the same thing by the words God and salvation?

I am afraid we do not. The doctrines of the Trinity, incarnation, atonement, and resurrection are not theological window dressing; neither are they expressions of a certain time, place, or culture. They are statements about the nature of reality; apart from them, Christianity loses its meaning, its power, and its good news.

In what follows, I will attempt to defend the centrality of these four doctrines to the Christian gospel, but not in the manner of a systematic theologian or even a reason-based apologist. I will, instead, defend them autobiographically, by sharing the role they have played in my spiritual walk. For if they are true, they must be true in the heart as well as in the head, in practice (praxis) as well as in theory (logos), emotionally and intuitively as well as rationally and logically.


As an English professor who integrates much history and philosophy into his teaching, I have long been aware of Hobbes’s argument that people form themselves into groups for the sake of protection. Because life in nature is nasty, brutish, and short, it is in our best interest to bond together into families, villages, and cities. I had always thought that Hobbes’s utilitarian justification for man’s propensity to establish communities squared with common sense—that is, until I reflected more deeply on the Trinity.

Genesis 1:27 clearly teaches that we were made in God’s image, but what does that mean if God is trinitarian rather than unitarian? What if, to borrow a thought from Chesterton, the reason that it is not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18) is because it is not good for God to be alone? Perhaps we create communities because we were made in the image of a creative God who is his own community?

Hobbes was wrong. We do not form families, villages, and cities merely for the sake of protection. There is something in us that yearns for fellowship with other people. We are, by nature, social creatures who gravitate toward communal living. Why should that be? If nature is all there is, and if nature operates along a Darwinian ethos of natural selection (“survival of the fittest”), then we should all possess an “every man for himself” attitude. That this is not the natural orientation of man—that we, in fact, consider people who think that way to be sociopathic—points to another source for our gregarious nature. Because we were made in the image of such a God, we yearn for fellowship and love. More than that, we yearn for a type of salvation that includes participating in that triune love. Click To Tweet

Yes, animals group themselves for the sake of protection and procreation, but humans, while certainly being motivated in part by an instinctual drive to be safe and to mate, are also driven together by other, less tangible reasons. We need companionship and camaraderie as much as we need protection; we need love and loyalty as much as we need procreation. There is nothing in nature that can account for our deep longing for intimacy and understanding. But there is also nothing in the idea of a radically unitarian God that can account for it.

Which leads me to something essential I learned from C. S. Lewis, who himself learned it from Augustine. We all, Christians and mere theists alike, are quick to proclaim the good news that God is love. But what does this statement, which appears in scripture (1 John 4:8, 16), mean? If God is unitary, then, before he created the world, he could not have been love—for there would have been no one and no thing for him to love. God can only be love eternally if he is at least two persons. And that is precisely what Christian orthodoxy teaches. For all eternity, the Father has loved the Son, and the Son has loved the Father; and that love is so great, so real, that it is itself a Person, the Holy Spirit.

Because we were made in the image of such a God, we yearn for fellowship and love. More than that, we yearn for a type of salvation that includes participating in that triune love. Salvation, I have learned over the years, means so much more than obtaining a get-out-of-hell free card. It means joining the dance of love that has been going on within the Trinity since before matter, space, and time began. Indeed, Lewis also taught me, every time I pray, I receive a glimpse, an intimation of that dance: for when I pray, the Father stands before me, the Son beside me, and the Spirit behind and within me.


Although I am an evangelical Protestant, I was raised, and came to know Christ, in the Greek Orthodox Church. That has been a blessing for me, for it is has helped me to avoid a trap that many who grow up in the evangelical world often fall in to: the snare of putting all one’s focus on the Cross. Jesus did suffer and die for our sins, and the Cross is absolutely central to the gospel. But our salvation rests on more than the Cross; it rests, as well, on the twin miracles of Christmas and Easter.

Jesus could not have died were he not fully man; his death could not have atoned for the sins of humanity were he not fully God. There is no greater miracle, no greater mystery, no greater magic than the incarnation. Jesus was not half man and half God, nor was he a man with a God consciousness (the Arian heresy), nor was he a God who simply appeared to be a man (the Gnostic heresy). He was 100% human and 100% divine. God became man; the Word was made flesh (John 1:14). It is not just that God came down to us; he seized hold of our humanity and took it up into himself. He assumed all that we were, all that we are, and all that we will be—but without assuming our sinful nature.

He died and rose for us as the only-begotten God-man, but he also lived for us as the only-begotten God-man. How freeing it was for me when I realized that. Christ could sympathize with me, not only in the extreme pain and terror of martyrdom, but in the everyday trials and confusions and indignities that come with living in a fallen world. He knows what it means to be snubbed and misunderstood, abandoned and humiliated, rejected and betrayed. He is a God who knows from the inside what it means to be a man. The God of mere theism knows nothing of that; he may shower down a blessing or two on us, but he cannot say that he knows what we are going through.The incarnation is the magic at the heart of reality, that which restores all that is broken. Click To Tweet

Too often Christmas sermons put a heavy emphasis on Good Friday. Yes, the child in the manger will someday be the man on the Cross, but we do not need to be reminded of that so insistently that we lose the wonder and joy of that first Christmas in Bethlehem. God become man! All is fresh; all is new. I hope that I never lose that wonder and joy! How it is possible that God can become man while remaining God I cannot say, but I will always revel in that good news. The Cross awaits, but at least for this golden moment, we can return to Eden, to innocence, to direct intimacy with our Creator.

What need have I for esoteric wisdom or occult rituals or nature worship when the incarnation makes real every good impulse that we have toward magic. There is such a thing as white magic: a magic that is not about power or domination or control, but about sympathy and unity and transformation. It is the magic I experience again each time I take my students to Narnia or Middle-earth. It is that which draws people, even atheists, to fantasy, even, perhaps especially, when they do not know what is drawing them. The incarnation is the magic at the heart of reality, that which restores all that is broken.


For evangelicals, the atonement tends to mean only penal substitution: that when Christ died on the Cross, he paid the penalty for our sin, taking our place and so satisfying God’s holy wrath. I fully affirm this, not because of Anselm, but because the oldest explanation of the atonement is given in Isaiah 53! Still, penal substitution does not, and should not, exhaust the power and significance of the atonement.

In addition to taking the punishment for our sins upon himself, Jesus’ blood paid the ransom to redeem us from the power of Satan, sin, and death. It is not just by his stripes that we are healed, but by the fact that he gave his life, and blood, to purchase that redemption. For me, the ransom theory has always increased the drama of Holy Week, and, indeed, of the entire history of the Bible. It is not just our sins that are at issue; it is the sacred meta-narrative that began with creation and fall and that will not end until the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven like a bride.

But the story, I have come to learn, is even more dramatic than that. According to the atonement theory known by the Latin phrase “Christus Victor,” Good Friday, when linked to Easter Sunday, marks the overthrowing of Satan. When the atonement is seen from this point of view, it calls up the many exorcisms that marked the ministry of Jesus. Jesus took upon himself the punishment for our sins, but his victory was more wide-ranging than that. When he rose again after his crucifixion, Christ crushed once and for all the power and dominion of our two greatest enemies: Satan and death. To embrace the atonement is to embrace that victory that has already been won, even if it will not be brought to a final end until the last judgment. That cosmic victory is now, but not yet.

Over the years, I have come to realize that theological liberals who are allergic to anything that smacks of the supernatural have clung to their own anti-miraculous version of the atonement. According to them, Christ’s death on the Cross was not salvific but exemplary. By dying the death of an innocent martyr, Christ left behind for his followers a model of self-sacrificial living.

When I was a younger Christian, I was tempted to reject this theory out of hand. I do not do so anymore. As long as penal substitution, ransom, and Christus Victor are kept at the forefront, it is good to be reminded that Jesus told his disciples that if they want to follow him, they must deny themselves and take up their cross (Luke 9:23). As it says in one of the first chorus songs I learned when I became an evangelical: the Cross before me, the world behind me; no turning back, no turning back.


In addition to teaching Romantic and Victorian poetry, the Greek and Roman classics, and the works of Lewis and Tolkien, I have had the opportunity several times at Houston Christian University to teach classes on film. One of those classes was devoted to the cinema of Frank Capra and included the watching and analyzing of one of my top-ten favorite films: It’s a Wonderful Life. Alas, I slowly came to realize, that most wonderful of films is built around some very bad theology.

At the heart of the movie lies the fallacious belief that when we die, we become angels. Breaking from that error marked an important development in my spiritual and theological growth. Neither the Bible nor the church has ever taught that we become angels when we die. Angels are not the souls of departed saints but a wholly different type of creature made by God before he created man or beast.

Whereas angels are fully spiritual, and animals are wholly physical, we human beings are the great amphibians of the universe: incarnational beings who are not half soul and half body but fully soul and fully body. We are not souls trapped in bodies, as the Platonists thought; neither do we have material souls that will disperse along with our material bodies, as the Epicureans thought. We are enfleshed souls, or, if you prefer, ensouled bodies. So were we created by God in the beginning; so will we persist in the New Jerusalem. Both our bodies and souls were created good, both fell, and both will, in the end, be redeemed.

What is the proof of that great promise? The bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead. When the Second Person of the Trinity “agreed” to the incarnation, he was not doing so for a mere thirty-three years. When Jesus ascended to heaven, he did not go back to being pure spirit, like the Father and the Holy Spirit; he continues even now to be fully God and fully man. When he assumed our humanity, he did so for all time. Now, and for always, Christ remains the incarnate Son of God and Son of Man.

In the end, we too will be given resurrection bodies like that of Jesus, but with one major difference. Christ’s resurrection body alone will bear, for all eternity, the scars that were inflicted on his human flesh when he hung on the Cross for our salvation.

Trinity, incarnation, atonement, resurrection: these are the mighty distinctives that not only set Christianity apart from all other religions, but make of it a divine drama, a sacred meta-narrative that shatters our small, self-righteous notions of God. God is real and active: at once an inscrutable mystery—for who can understand in human terms the paradox of the three-in-one that is God and the two-in-one that is Christ—and a tangible, ever-present savior—for his atonement took place in earthly space and time and his resurrection is the historical pledge that our bodies too will one day rise and be glorified.


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