Interview with the Rev. Daniel Gifford: Trinity, Incarnation, and Christian Scripture
During the fall 2013 semester, I did an independent study with Professor Daniel Breyer on philosophical theology. We discussed topics dealing with the Trinity, Incarnation, and atonement, as well as providence, Scripture, and Resurrection. In order to fully understand these topics and why the Christian tradition follows them, we thought it would be a good idea if I interviewed a local priest about these issues.
What follows is my Q-and-A with the Rev. Daniel Gifford from Epiphany Catholic Church in Normal.
Following the Christian tradition, the Trinity is one being divided into three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Many do not believe this is possible since it does not make sense to have one being be all three persons.
“I think that what they’re experiencing is that they’re encountering the mystery. It’s not to say that they’re not rational.” Gifford said. “Reason is ultimately a person of the Trinity, God. The logos, right? Wisdom. So wisdom orders all of creation and with a specific reason, a specific logic and sometimes that makes sense to us and sometimes that doesn’t. So, then when we go back to where that reason, where this logic within creation comes from; it comes from the creator we’re not always going to understand it. So, sometimes we understand reason in the subjective sense. If I say, I can’t make sense of it then it’s not reasonable, but that’s false, because reason is ultimately the order of reality. So just because I say I can’t make sense of it because it’s not reason, then what have I done? I’ve made myself the master of reality. Basically what I would say when people have speculations, to question and seek truth is a good thing. But to challenge it and say it’s not possible is, I think what they’re doing with it is encountering the mystery, which our intellects are impoverished to understand. It doesn’t mean we can’t make sense out of it.”
Going off of this, it is important to note the role monotheism plays in Christian belief. There have been arguments that the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father. Therefore, there are at least three Gods. Many ask is this argument false? How is monotheism a logical explanation to the Trinity?
“It’s encountering the mystery,” Gifford said. “The Father and the Son are distinctly different persons, but they’re one in the one Godhead, the one divine substance. It is monotheism because it’s still one God and that’s the beauty of when we understand how it affects our faith. In John’s ‘Prologue,’ he talks about the Trinity, and how the Word was with God in the beginning and is God. He later explains how we are all children in God. What does that mean? We are made in his image and likeness. In the call to communion, none of us are made as isolated individuals. That’s part of where we see the image of God in us. We see it in marriage; marriage is the first clear image of the Trinity because two persons come from one body and made to be in one body, to be united and truly become one and yet remain two persons, and what comes forth from them a third person. So, when you think about that and think about what happens in the rest of the sacraments, then things like 1 Corinthians makes sense; that we are one body but many distinct parts. We retain our individuality while being united in Christ, and being united in Christ, being brought into the mystery of the Trinity. We see in ourselves, in the church reflected the reality of what the Trinity is. That’s part of why it’s not to say that the intellect is bad or that faith isn’t reasonable. It’s to say that faith and reason are meant to work together.”
Jesus came among us humans as God Incarnate. He was one person with two natures: human and divine. However, if Jesus came as a divine being, it would mean he was omniscient, omnipresent, eternal, and perfect. But, a normal human being would not have any of these traits. How could it have been possible for Jesus to have both natures?
When faced with this question Gifford asked, “Why is it that a human being can’t have, and I’m not saying the statement is false, attributes such as omniscience and omnipresence?”
An immediate response would be because humans can’t be perfect. There are murderers and rapists who we would not want to call all-good and all-knowing beings from their atrocious acts.
“Humanity is not defined based on the capacity of the sin,” Gifford explained. “Because to look at that, to say, ‘This is what humanity is’; well that’s not what humanity is. When we hear stories on the news of murders don’t we say to ourselves, ‘There’s something inhumane about that’? I think inherently we recognize that sin actually makes us less human. Why? Because we’re not doing what we’re made to do. It goes back to the order of creation, and communion. We’re not called to live for ourselves or to act selfishly; we’re called to use our intellects to discern what is good and to choose to do that good not just for ourselves, but for the glory of God and for the good of others. When we look at those moral imperfections, for me, that’s the easiest question to answer because those aren’t what make us human.”
Pope Francis expresses these same sorts of views on this topic when speaking on the issue of poverty.
For instance, in Crisis Magazine he says, “For us Christians, poverty is not a sociological, philosophical, or cultural category. No, it is a theological category. I would say, perhaps the first category, because God, the Son of God, abased Himself, made Himself poor to walk with us on the road. And this is our poverty: the poverty of the flesh of Christ, the poverty that the Son of God brought us with his Incarnation. A poor church for the poor begins by going to the flesh of Christ. If we go to the flesh of Christ, we begin to understand something, to understand what this poverty is, the poverty of the Lord.”
Many humans are “inspired” by these acts stated by the Pope and Father Gifford on what it means to be a Christian. Several are also “inspired” by God even though we cannot directly interact with him as we would a priest, teacher or parent.
To begin explaining this, Gifford said: “He speaks to people in all different ways. There are saints who have had audible voices or visions, and those are private revelations, those are things that were not mandated to believe were legitimate, and furthermore, the church goes through a long process guided by the Holy Spirit to discern whether or not they even could be legitimate. The key point in the process is to make sure nothing conflicts with public revelation or scripture.
“Part of the confusion is that when we speak of divine inspiration in terms of scripture, we’re speaking of something that is at the same time something a little less than what we think it is and at the same time a little more than what we might think it is because we are inspired by God in different ways, but not inspired the way the Biblical writers were inspired. But at the same time we recognize that every scriptural text has both the divine author and the human author. The human authors we learn about have the process of writing scripture very naturally but when we talk about divine inspiration we don’t talk about a hand reaching down and moving their pen, it probably didn’t happen that somebody whispered in their ear and told them what to do, what to say. It probably didn’t happen that it was Luke’s job at the time that he was working on writing the scriptures he had appointments where he would sit down in front of God and God would tell him what to write down,” he concluded.
Many wonder on how we are sure the Bible is the Word of God and that people were influenced by him to write it. Could anyone write a book and tell people it is the Word of God, and they must believe everything in it?
“No, because public revelation ended in Christ,” Gifford explained. “If you’re claim was not ‘this is the Word of God,’ but your claim was something more modest, that this came out of prayer, it would still be a bold claim from the author to say that the Holy Spirit helped me with this, but at the same time we encounter Christ in prayer, we encounter the work of the Holy Spirit. So, if your claim was a more modest claim that you sought the guidance of the Holy Spirit and believed that you received it, then that’s the sort of thing that can be confirmed. That’s the kind of thing that, like I said, even if the church were to make a judgment, I’m not sure it would quite qualify even as private revelation because usually private revelations are things like visions. But at best, it would be private revelation. So the church would not come out and say, ‘Everyone has to come out and read this book that so-and-so wrote.’ But they might make a judgment that this is helpful for believers and legitimate to read. I’ve shared with people that something they’ve written I believed the Holy Spirit guided them. Does that mean I’m saying it’s divine inspiration at the level of the Scripture? No. Does that mean I’m saying it’s the Word of the Lord? No. But I think that it’s a particularly helpful, powerful, and truthful piece of writing.”
From this, we question then if our lives are determined by God since the Bible does give us a base on how to live our lives especially with how we treat others and the appropriate rules we should follow. Concerns such as free will and providence are important to consider since many are not sure whether we do have the entitlement to control our lives. We ask, “Does God control our every move? Do we even have free will or does God have a specific plan for each of us?”
“I have full confidence that there’s free will and there’s providence,” Gifford said. “So, God does have a plan, and part of it comes down to God being omniscient; he knows what’s going to happen, he knows how to correct for our failures. But part of the reality of redemption with a big R, on the macro level, is the redemption of all creation; it wasn’t God’s plan for Adam and Eve to sin, for the rest of humanity to be forgiven of sin. But, at the same time, I think we can say God knew it was going to happen and that he had a plan for redemption. I think the same thing can be said on a micro level too. At times even when we know we have free will, sometimes we abuse it and choose not to do God’s will or ask him what his will is. God kind of knows what’s going to happen and that he has a plan to make things right, and to still lead us in his path.”