The Trinity and life in God

By Brian Edgar

The Christian doctrine of God as Trinity is fundamentally simple, thoroughly practical, theologically central and totally biblical. It is not, as sometimes suggested, an abstract or philosophical construction with an unusual perspective on mathematics which makes three equal to one! It is not a doctrine which is incomprehensible in presentation, irrelevant in practice, unnecessary theologically or un-biblical in form. It is in fact the distinctive Christian doctrine and essential for Christian life and discipleship.

This is the conviction which pervades my book The Message of the Trinity: Life in God (Leicester: IVP, 2004) in the Bible Speaks Today Series (General Editors: John Stott, Alec Motyer and Derek Tidball).

The aim is to show that the doctrine of the Trinity means that God can be known intimately and personally as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Although the term ‘Trinity’ does not itself appear in the Bible it is a thoroughly biblical doctrine. The word itself comes from the Latin trinitas which connects three (tres) with one (unus) but the idea precedes the word. The early Christians could not avoid the idea of God as Father, Son and Spirit as they reflected on the events surrounding the person of Jesus Christ and their own experience of him as Lord. Consequently, the doctrine of the Trinity is not found or proved in a single verse of Scripture alone, for it permeates the thinking and the writing of the early church. It is something found in the whole testimony of scripture concerning the story of salvation and is an unavoidable implication of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Message of the Trinity is published by IVP.

The Table of Contents and the Introduction can be found below and a sample of one of the chapters can be found here:   Chapter 10 is entitled, “Resurrection: commissioned to discipleship”. (Link to no 2 below)

Contents

Introduction

Part 1. The Trinity of love

  1. The God of grace, love and fellowship (2 Corinthians 13:13)
  2. A Trinitarian Blessing (Ephesians 1:1-14)

Part 2. The Trinity in the Old Testament

  1. The Lord our God is One (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)
  2. The Wisdom of God (Proverbs 8:22-31)
  3. The Spirit of God (Ezekiel 37:1-14)

Part 3. The Trinity in the experience and teaching of Jesus

  1. Incarnation: divine coming (Luke 1: 26-56)
  2. Baptism: heavenly empowering  (Mark 1:1-14)
  3. Mission: spiritual encounter (Matthew 12:22-32)
  4. Teaching: knowledge of God (John 14: 15-31)
  5. Resurrection: commissioned to discipleship (Matthew 28.16-20)

Part 4. The Trinity in the experience and teaching of the early church

  1. The Day of  Pentecost (Acts 2:1-47)
  2. Christian Experience (Romans 8:1-17)
  3. Christian Community (1 Corinthians 12:1-11)
  4. Christian Security (Galatians 3:26 – 4:7)
  5. Christian Unity (Ephesians 4:1-16)

The Day of the Lord  (Jude 20-21)

A modified form of the Introduction may be found below.

1. The doctrine of the Trinity is comprehensible

Unfortunately, the doctrine of the Trinity has developed a reputation as a belief which is difficult to understand. This is not helped when it is expressed in mathematical terms (as though the aim was to explain ‘three in one and one in three’) or in philosophical terms such as those in use in the fourth century (such as ‘person’, ‘hypostasis’ousia’ and ‘essence’). This is not to say that such terms are completely unhelpful because when in the third and fourth centuries a crisis emerged regarding how to reconcile belief in one God with the worship of Christ the Fathers of the church realized that such questions ‘cannot be answered in purely biblical language, because the questions are about the meaning of biblical language itself’. The introduction of non-biblical terminology and thought forms offered new and creative opportunities for exploring the nature of God, but it also introduced risks. The increasingly philosophical and speculative nature of trinitarian discourse led away from biblical simplicity and the comprehensibility of the doctrine of the Trinity suffered as a result. This is illustrated in Augustine of Hippo’s well known and oft quoted comment on the persons of the Trinity, ‘When the question is asked ‘What three?’ human language labors altogether under great poverty of speech. The answer, however, is given, ‘Three persons’ not that it might be spoken but that it might not be left unspoken.’  This kind of agnosticism about the characteristics of the three persons of the Trinity means that the attributes of God are inevitably discussed in terms of the divine one-ness and the implications of the three persons for understanding the divine nature is minimized. The aim of this book is to show that God can indeed be known as Trinity, as Father, Son and Spirit, through reading and prayerful reflection upon the Scriptures.

2. The doctrine of the Trinity is logical

Is the doctrine of the Trinity logical? Yes, but logic alone does not enable the Trinity to be understood. It is more a matter of faith. Many are convinced that the Trinity is comprehended when it is expressed in reasonable, logical terms and one common attempt to explain it logically is to utilize the analogy of someone who is simultaneously a father, a son and a husband. Despite the superficial attractiveness of this, it really isn’t very helpful. For example, I have those three roles or relationships, but it is always essentially the same me who has them because when it is all boiled down I exist in one way and in one way only. I am not like Father, Son and Spirit who interact and relate together. I am just me. And the whole point, of course, is that God is not like you or me.  We have to admit that we really cannot imagine what it means to exist in that way, but that does not mean that the idea is illogical. Just as it is impossible for a rock to imagine what it is like to exist as a person, so it is impossible for us to really imagine what it means for God to exist in more than the one way in which we do. But just because we cannot imagine it is no reason to say that there cannot be another form of existence which is different to our own. The problem lies with our imagination rather than the concept. We have at least one advantage over the rock which cannot conceive of being human because we human beings can at least conceive of the idea of God, even if we cannot actually imagine what this means! This is not unusual, there are many things we can conceive of which are difficult to imagine. For example, I am not sure that I can really imagine a million of anything. When I try it seems pretty much the same as when I imagine ten million, even though there is a considerable difference between them. It is possible for us to conceive of the difference without being able to imagine it.  We can conceive of God as Father, Son and Spirit even if we cannot imagine what it would be like for God to live in that way. It is not foolish to believe in, think of, or worship a God we cannot fully understand. There is a tremendous mystery involved in worshipping God but no irrationality.

3. The doctrine of the Trinity is practical

The most influential figure of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), argued that ‘the doctrine of the Trinity provides nothing, absolutely nothing, of practical value, even if one claims to understand it; still less when one is convinced that it far surpasses our understanding… (it) offers absolutely no guidance for conduct.’ A little later in the face of the severe criticism of both reason and Scripture as foundations for theology, the father of modern liberal theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), chose to base his theology in human religious experience. Consequently he found little use for the Trinity and relegated it to a mere 14 pages -  a kind of post-script to his otherwise lengthy (751 page) description of The Christian Faith. These twin accusations of impracticality and irrelevance led many into what is essentially a unitarian understanding of God and the effects of this are still felt today.

One example of this is the common attitude that worship is best understood simply as something that people do for God. When understood in that way the responsibility of worshippers is to offer praise, thanksgiving, prayers and the thoughts and desires of one’s heart to God in gratitude for his grace. Worship is, therefore, what we do before God. But as James Torrance shows this is insufficiently trinitarian and is even human centred to the point that worship becomes a work rather than a grace. It is unitarian because pastor, priest and people are on one side, offering worship to God who is on the other side, hearing the prayer and receiving the worship. Trinitarian worship is the gift of participating through the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father. Trinitarian worship means having God coming onto our side and lifting us up. Worship is fellowship (or participating or sharing) in the life of God. The Trinity provides ‘a participatory understanding of worship and prayer.’  Worship, therefore, is properly centred upon God not only as the object of worship but also as the leader and the inspirer of worship. This takes nothing away from the act of offering praise and thanksgiving but rather than focusing on what we can do for God the emphasis falls upon the work of Christ and the life of the blessed Trinity. That is, upon the Son who takes us into the Father’s presence through his sacrifice and intercession and on the Spirit who is the enabler and the inspiration of worship. In this way worship becomes an act of grace rather than a work that we do. Worship understood as a work with a stress on our faith, our worship, or even my worship and my commitment cannot bring one into the presence of God any more than good deeds can bring one to salvation. None of this rules out the human element of response in worship, the problem is that it has become the pre-eminent, and often the only theme in much contemporary worship. The Fathers of the Reformation referred to this as ‘legal worship’ born out of an obligation that worship depends upon what we do and upon our enthusiasm, commitment and action rather than ‘evangelical worship’ which is the outcome of the grace of God shown in Christ Jesus through the Holy Spirit. The unitarian way of worship ultimately engenders great weariness while trinitarian worship is led by Jesus Christ (Heb. 8:1-2) and emphasises grace before gratitude. This one example shows how the doctrine of the Trinity is a practical, grace-filled doctrine which will take us into the heart and life of God.

4. The doctrine of the Trinity is foundational

In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in the doctrine of the Trinity which is due largely to the influence of Karl Barth (1886-1968) who, in 1932 began his magisterial series of Church Dogmatics with a volume on ‘The Doctrine of the Word of God’ which showed that ‘the doctrine of the Trinity itself belongs to the very basis of the Christian faith and constitutes the fundamental grammar of dogmatic theology’. Just as grammar provides the rules for putting together the various elements of language so the doctrine of the Trinity  provides the basic structure and the ground-rules for all theological reflection. Any doctrine which is not trinitarian in character is not Christian. In the time prior to Barth the doctrine had languished as a result of the spread of liberal theology based on the work of Schleiermacher. Barth believed that, ‘in any continuation along this line I can see only the plain destruction of Protestant theology and the Protestant church.’  In a brilliant exposition of the Trinity Barth showed the way in which it could revitalise theological thinking. He tied the doctrine of the Trinity to the theology of God’s self-revelation. Revelation occurs precisely and only because God is Trinity. God’s nature as Father, Son and Spirit is identical to his nature as God the revealer, God the revelation and God the revealing. Revelation is the revealing of God-self and a direct implication of being Trinity.

Soon Barth was not alone in promoting the cause of the Trinity, although others often took a different approach to exactly how this doctrine should be understood. For example, in 1944 British author Leonard Hodgson advocated a much more ‘social’ view of the Trinity – one which stresses the three-ness more than Barth did – and in 1952 American Claude Welch critiqued both Barth and Hodgson, while over a considerable period of time influential German Catholic theologian Karl Rahner promoted a closer relationship between the doctrines of Trinity and salvation. Although trinitarian theology is now firmly entrenched in contemporary theological thought this has not occurred without dissenting voices. Classic liberal, pluralist, radical feminist and process approaches to theology have all had difficulty with it. But in recent times if one doctrine has provided anything  approaching an integrating focus it has been the doctrine of the Trinity. This is not to say, of course, that there is complete agreement, but a vital and refreshing dialogue is taking place. The notion that the doctrine of the Trinity is obsolete has been put in abeyance and it has been widely agreed that the doctrine of the Trinity can provide a solid foundation for theological thinking. Of course, not everything that is called ‘trinitarian’ is biblical or even helpful but properly understood the doctrine of the Trinity is as essential for theology as bones are for a body. The uniqueness of Christianity emerges entirely from it and without it everything which is truly Christian disappears.

5. The doctrine of the Trinity is essential

The doctrine of the Trinity is not only ‘essential’ in the sense of being important, but also in the sense that it describes the essence, the inner life of God who lives uniquely and perfectly as Father, Son and Holy Spirit as well as the external, salvific work of God who sent Jesus in the power of the Spirit to redeem the world. These two dimensions, the ‘inner life’ and the ‘outer work’ represent the eternal and temporal nature of God and are often referred to as the ‘essential’ and the ‘economic’ aspects of the Trinity. Together they remind us that God has not merely appeared to us in a trinitarian fashion in order to save the world while actually being internally different. God is trinitarian in essence. This means that we can have confidence that the God who is revealed to us really is the God of salvation and the God of love.

It is important to hold these two dimensions together. Allowing the economic and temporal aspect to become dominant eventually leads to modalism. That is, the various works of salvation are distributed to the three persons, so creation becomes solely the work of the Father, redemption is the work of the Son alone and sanctification the specific work of the Spirit. On the other hand, understanding the Trinity solely in terms of the ‘essential’ Trinity is no better. To focus on the inner life of God without due reference to the work of salvation, can lead to very speculative theology. ‘From the fourth century onwards’ notes Alistair Heron, ‘the doctrine of the Trinity was in grave danger of taking off into the air, of becoming a mystic formula concerning the inner life of God which could and did increasingly detach itself – especially in the west – from the history of Christ and the Spirit at work in human life.’ Some of the most creative advances in recent times has come from the exploration of the inner life of God but it is also a most speculative area of thought and some have built theological enterprises on top of dubious foundations which are insufficiently related to the work of salvation. In biblical terms the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be separated from the salvation of the world and any so-called trinitarian theology which neglects that dimension of thought will go astray.

6. The doctrine of the Trinity is structural

The doctrine of the Trinity not only foundational in the sense that it describes the nature of God, it is also structural in the sense that it provides a biblical pattern or model for the development of all other doctrines.

(a) The diversity and unity of the Trinity is a model for our thinking about the unity (John 17:20) and the community (1 Cor. 12:4-7) of the church. To say that God is triune is to say that God lives in community. The church reflects this truth and can never be authentically Christian if it is either autocratic and authoritarian or uncaring and unconnected. The church should reflect the life of the Trinity as a loving community of equal yet different and related persons in mutual submission.

(b) The Trinity is the source of mission because the sending of the church into the world is a continuation of the Father’s love which led to a sending of the Son and the Spirit. Trinitarian love (not fear, obligation or duty) is what lies at the heart of Christian mission (Matt 28:19).

(c) The doctrine of humanity depends upon the doctrine of the Trinity and without it our understanding of humanity would be deficient. Historian W. E. H. Lecky showed that the idea of the sanctity of human life in western society developed as a result of the Christian doctrine of God as Trinity.  It affirmed the value of persons and showed that to be human is to be personally related to a personal God and ultimately led to the establishment of a vastly higher standard of care for all people, whether slaves, gladiators, infants, the ill and dying or foreigners. In expounding the doctrine of the Trinity Augustine (354-430AD) used the idea of relationship in such a new way that it stressed the reality, the personality and the value of the individual in sharp contrast to the common idea of the day that the real person was an impersonal, inner ‘spark’. Charles Norris Cochrane spoke of this as ‘the discovery of personality’. Ultimately this transformed society’s attitude to the value of people. Everyone was important, everyone had value and everyone existed in relationship with others and with God.

(d)  The Trinity is also the Christian’s paradigm for social and political life. The community and equality of Trinitarian persons shows us the mode of God’s reign as king and ultimately counteracts political authoritarianism and tyranny. Lesslie Newbigin says that the Christian  understanding of God ‘shaped the barbarian tribes of the western extension of Asia into a cultural entity that we call “Europe” – it was this way of thinking that shaped public discourse.’  Conversely, Colin Gunton finds the source of many of today’s problems in a defective view of the Trinity. The more the modern western church stressed the monarchy (or the one-ness) rather than the tri-unity of God the more God was perceived as a ‘transcendent and apparently oppressive single deity’. This led to a lack of relatedness between people and God until the most extreme form of modernism became completely secular and abandoned God. He also argues that ‘in both the failed experiments of modern totalitarian régimes and the insidious homogeneity of consumer culture there is a tendency to submerge the many in the one’.  In searching for a more communal and personally related church and society the great need for our world today is for Christian theology to present a gospel of God as Trinity which not only converts individuals but which also provides a new foundation for public dialogue. The aim is to transform society by demonstrating that the world does not operate by impersonal processes; showing that the human person is not just a sophisticated machine or a biological organism; proving that relationships are real, important and achievable; and persuading people that though Christ and the Spirit there is meaning and purpose in life.

(e) The doctrine of the Trinity also enables us to think properly about the physical nature of the world in which we live. The world is neither merely mechanical nor biologically determinist. Its existence is contingent upon God who created it, who sustains and who will ultimately transform it. The doctrine of the Trinity tells us that the same God who has created the world has entered into it in Christ, lives within it through the Spirit and will redeem it. In God the world has a future. The Trinity accounts for the diversity, richness and openness of the world.

(f) The Trinity offers hope and a new vision to a fragmented world. That is, it also helps us understand the evil, injustice and suffering of the world. The suffering of the Son on the cross, forsaken by the Father is perhaps the most challenging dimension of trinitarian theology, yet it is also the richest and most positive statement about the way God has dealt with sin and suffering. Through Christ and the Spirit God knows, understands and deals with sin and suffering.

The doctrine of the Trinity is not only needed for an understanding of God, it is essential for the whole structure of theology.

8. The doctrine of the Trinity is Biblical

The doctrine of the Trinity is grounded firmly in the revelation of God recorded in Scripture. However, everyone reads and interprets the Bible from one or another point of view and in broad historical terms there have been two main approaches to the process of discerning the Trinity in Scripture. For much of the history of the church the Scriptures were read from the point of view of faith as sacred documents which contained the word and the wisdom of God. For a long time, and for many people this meant reading the Scriptures from the perspective of trinitarian theology as it was expressed in the creeds and councils of the third and fourth centuries. The doctrine of the Trinity was seen as a universal and timeless truth about God. Subsequently, a second and more critical study of the Scriptures began with the Renaissance and was developed through the time of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. This reading of Scripture ‘from below’ rather than ‘from above’ meant beginning with a high degree of skepticism and treating the Bible as a very human book grounded in a specific set of historical contexts. This process revealed a process of historical development, observed variations in approach between books of the Bible and concluded that many trinitarian statements were a result of the importation of foreign concepts. No longer was everyone convinced that trinitarian thinking was be found in the various writings of the New Testament and so some denied that it was an essential Christian belief while others proceeded to develop theologies of Trinity out of philosophical concepts independently of the biblical narrative.

Neither approach is entirely satisfactory.

(a) With regard to the more traditional approach it is necessary to reject any suggestion that the doctrine of the Trinity is best understood in terms of the philosophical categories and terminology of the fourth and fifth centuries (person, essence, hypostasis, eternal generation, procession, ousia and so forth) rather than with the New Testament presentation of the Father’s sending of the Son to redeem the world and the coming of the Spirit in fullness upon his people. Yet the traditional approach does rightly make the point that the Trinity is best discerned from the standpoint of faith.

(b) With regard to the post-enlightenment approach this study of the Trinity adopts many of the analytical, literary, historical and grammatical tools of modern scholarship while rejecting the skepticism which always assumes that the doctrine of the Trinity is a development of the later church and difficult (or impossible) to discern in the New Testament. It is, in fact, impossible to eliminate the trinitarian thinking which permeates, for example, Corinthians, Ephesians, John’s gospel and Romans. Although not always self-consciously formulated it is ‘one of the clearest inferences to be drawn from Scripture.’ This conclusion is not based upon slender evidence for, as Wolfhart Pannenberg comments, ‘the starting point for this teaching is not simply in a three-membered formula but in all that the NT has to say about the relation of the Son to the Father on the one side and to the Spirit on the other.’

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