The Difference a Trinity Can Make

I grew up in an evangelical, Protestant church, which meant that much of the focus of my Christian upbringing was on the importance and study of scripture.  I am very thankful for this background.  It has given me a great appreciation for the accessibility of scripture and fed my thirst for knowledge.  But there was one thing that was hardly ever mentioned, the Trinity.  Of course the belief in the Trinity was affirmed, but you would be hard pressed to find one sermon or class on it.  So in honor of Trinity Sunday, I thought I would write a short reflection on what a robust Trinitarian theology can do for our everyday spiritual formation.  This is something I have come to appreciate more recently due, ironically, to some very Catholic–leaning Protestants that have helped widen my perspective.

Before I move into the specifics, I want to add that my increasing study of the Trinity came alongside with an increasing study of church history.  The glaring gap in the Protestant church today is our lack of understanding of the Church Fathers before the Reformers.  I believe this gap will continue to be detrimental to the continued survival of Protestantism.  If it does survive in a post-Christian America, it will be severely weakened because it has denied itself of a primary source of nourishment.  We do ourselves a disservice to no longer know the works of Athanasius, Irenaeus, and so many others.  Our faith is not something we have made up.  It is an inheritance that has been passed down to us, protected and articulated again and again by each generation.  It is these early Church Fathers who gave us the language of Trinity, and hence why most Protestants hardly ever talk about it or even know how to explain it apart from analogy.

So why does the Trinity matter?  Isn’t it just a product of the philosophy of the day and nothing more?

Here is what I have come to learn and appreciate through study and contemplation on the Trinity.

1. A deeper understanding of salvation.

Salvation has always been explained to me very simply as “justification by faith.”  I was a sinner, I couldn’t pay the necessary price, but God paid it for me by sending his son to die for me.  Salvation was described as a legal action with God as my judge.  This is not to say that God is not a judge or that justification is not used as an image for salvation.  But it is not the only image used and God is more often referred to as my Father than my judge.  The image of the Trinity is one where  the Father and Son are eternally passing back and forth a love that spills over into creation.  All life and existence are possible only because of their connection to the source of existence.  This means that salvation, and the only possibility for life and existence, is to be drawn into the source, which happens to be an eternal relationship characterized by love.  It is not just the cross that makes this possible, salvation begins at the incarnation.  Jesus is sent not just to die, but to share what is his: sonship and knowledge of the Father.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus says that salvation is to know the Father.  This sounds very different from the justification analogy or the Roman road.  It also reveals that salvation is a process of continued and deepening knowledge of God.  I think more Christians can relate to salvation as a process than a “Damascus road” experience.  This creates both humility and excitement, for we learn that we will never be able to know all there is to know, at least not this side of eternity.

2. A greater appreciation of the Holy Spirit

My evangelical background was very Jesus–focused.  Again, that is not a bad thing, but it left out a pretty key player, the Spirit.  The more I learned about the Trinity, the more I realized that my liturgy and prayers essentially had only been addressing Jesus.  Once I started paying more attention to the Spirit, I started to learn about its crucial role in new creation and my own spiritual journey.  I knew those things before, but I started to address the Spirit directly.  Our actions matter, even the small adjustment of closing my prayer with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  It helps me keep all three persons on the forefront of my mind.

3. A healthier view of the Bible

Many Christians in my context growing up came dangerously close to replacing the third person of the Trinity, the Spirit, with the Bible.  I believe Cessationists actually do this when they say that the gifts of the Spirit are no longer available post-canon.  The Bible is given a god-like status to the point where even the Bible has become an idol.  Yes, even the Bible can become an idol, in fact Bibliolatry is characteristic of many of our “Bible wars.”  I always grew up learning that the Bible was my foundation.  Again, I have a very high view of scripture, but the Bible cannot be my foundation.  The Bible is ultimately a revelatory tool that is used by the Spirit to form us.  But our foundation must be the Father, Son and Spirit, any other foundation is idolatry. (I can already anticipate the angry comments to follow that statement).  Again, let me clarify, I believe that the Bible is inspired by the Spirit and is vitally important for figuring out who God is, but the Bible is not God.

So it turns out the a deeper look into the Trinity has changed quite a lot in my own spiritual journey.

What are some other areas you can think of that are impacted by a robust view of the Trinity?



Did “God” Die on the Cross?

Yesterday, I engaged in some friendly-fire over twitter with the honorable Dr. Jim West.

The issue: is it precise enough to say that ‘God died on the cross’ or must Christians add the qualifier ‘God the Son died on the cross’?

First, I agree with Jim’s initial concern: the Father did not die on the cross. I also agree that the phrase “God the Son died on the cross” is correct. However, I think an equally strong (and precise) point is made when one states that on the cross “God died.”

As a student of Cyril, I take issue with hedging our bets on Jesus’ divinity: Mary is the Theotokos, not the Christokos. Whatever is true of Jesus is true of God, without qualification, for he is fully and completely divine.

I think there are dangers and temptations lurking around both preferences. I worry that such “precision” in terms leads to tritheism and that folks hear “a third of God had a really bad weekend.”* Jim worries that without the qualifier I’m open to be heard as suggesting either that the Father died or a complete denial of the Trinity.

What do you think?

* Fred Sanders has a brief, but well-written, section on this issue while discussing one of Charles Wesley’s hymns in Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective.


The Christian God is Surprising

As a pastor, I often worry that some Christians do not seem to have a very Christian view of God.  My fear is that far too many people have never allowed the Triune God, revealed in the person of Jesus, to redefine their beliefs about God’s own character and nature.  Instead, we grasp on to our preconceived notions of what God must be like and struggle to understand how his actions fit into our already-formed theologies.  All this to say, I think we should learn to be much less surprised by God’s actions and much more surprised by his character.

For instance: Christians celebrate Christmas, the Incarnation, the act of God becoming man.  We are surprised to find God growing in a womb.  We are surprised to find God lying in a manger.  We are surprised to find God calling Mary his mother.

But what if the real surprise of Christmas is not that God did something extraordinarily out of character?

What if the real surprise of Christmas is that God’s character is extraordinary?

Perhaps the manger is not an anomaly in the life of God.  Perhaps the manger is an expression of who God is from all of eternity – the Triune One of self-sacrificial love, committed to the life of his creation regardless of the personal cost.  The One who stoops down in humility and gentleness to be with and rescue his people – perhaps this is who God has been revealed to be [John 1:14-18].

Likewise, Christians celebrate Good Friday, the crucifixion, the day when God died.  We are surprised to find God being spit on and mocked.  We are surprised to find God being nailed to a cross.  We are surprised to find God take his last breath.

But what if the real surprise of Good Friday is not that God did something extremely unusual by dying for his enemies?

What if the real surprise of Good Friday is that God is extremely unusual in that he recklessly loves his enemies?

Perhaps the cross is not an anomaly in the life of God.  Perhaps, as Philippians 2 states, he does not die “in spite” of being God but “because” he is God.  Perhaps the cross is an expression of who God is – The Triune One who, by his very nature, is committed to loving and offering forgiveness to his enemies even while they kill him? [Luke 23:26-34]

I wonder, have we truly let God define himself?  I’m not always convinced.  But I have developed a test to determine whether or not we have really let our view of God be shaped by his own revelation: what will Jesus be like when he returns?  Will he come to kill and destroy or will he come in the spirit of the manger and of the cross?  I’m not suggesting that we ignore Revelation, I’m just suggested we read it well, cognizant of its literary devices, purposes, and canonical context.  I’m suggesting we finally let go of our own dreams for a violent and tribal God so that we won’t be surprised when the Crucified One returns.

Christmas is over.  Good Friday is on the way.  And I am…  surprised.


Teaching Theosis and Communion within the Trinity

“If He (the Holy Spirit) is not from the beginning, He is in the same rank with myself, even though a little before me; for we are both parted from the Godhead by time.  If He is in the same rank with myself, how can he make me God, or join me with the Godhead.” Gregory of Naziansus, On the Holy Spirit

I have been teaching on the trinity in class for the past week and a half.  It has probably been one of the most frustrating things I have ever had to teach.  The main problem I am facing is that the majority of Evangelical Christians hardly ever talk about the trinity.  As soon as I mention one being, three persons or one person, two natures I can see my student’s eyes glazing over.  I am using vocabulary that they have never been exposed to.  And one of the problems with teaching the trinity is that I can’t use any other language.  This language was painstakingly hammered out by our church fathers and we receive their language as a gift (at least those who tend to think that tradition is a good thing).  The danger that the church fathers were trying to avoid was making the trinity too simple, too intelligible.  That’s what the heretics did.  As soon as you leave the language for analogy or anecdote you’re in trouble.

It was much more important for the church fathers to not so much understand the trinity, but to be drawn into it.  Here again is territory that Evangelicals rarely wander into willingly.  I asked my students what they thought it meant to be drawn into the community of the trinity.  I might as well have been asking what does yellow smell like?  The problem lies with their view of salvation.  To them, salvation is only a legal action that takes away your guilt.  The relational aspect only focuses on Jesus, since he is in this view pictured as our only ally.  The God who is judge only tolerates us because of Jesus, more specifically his voluntary bloodshed.  In this scenario, there is not much fellowship going on between Father and Son and there is not even a mention of the Holy Spirit.  (To be fair I am sure there are better characterizations of this view, but I am trying to explain the majority view of my students, which are largely drawn from the churches they attend.)

So, for what its worth, here has been my approach with my own students and it consists of two emphases or shifts in perspective.

1. First I attempt to change my student’s perspective on salvation by telling them that salvation begins at the incarnation, not the cross.  The mystery of the incarnation is that divinity has united with humanity, and there can be no salvation if these two natures are not joined.  And the only one who can join them together is God himself by taking on humanity.  I pull in the narrative of Genesis 1-2 in order to show that God’s good creation is a sign post of what is to come.  The true image of God will be his own Son and through him God will be with his creation in a way that we never thought possible.  Salvation then becomes about participating in the life of the Son, who participates in the life of the Father, who gives us the Spirit.

2. If salvation is viewed as participating in the divine life (i.e. theosis or divinization), then all of a sudden we need the Holy Spirit to be involved.  This is perhaps the biggest change that occurs in their thinking.  I conduct a poll on the first day of the unit by asking what each person of the trinity does.  Every student can tell me what the Father and Son do, but when we get to the Spirit the only response (and I literally have not gotten another one) is that the Holy Spirit guides.  The Spirit is the paradigmatic Jiminy Cricket living inside us, nudging us not to tell a lie.  But what if the role of the Spirit is less about moral guidance and more about a person’s ontological transformation into a holy temple?  (This is after all what Paul seems to argue that Christians have become in 1 Corinthians 6:19.)

So what is the pay off and why in the world would I try to spend any time communicating this to my students?

Most of my students tend to view the point of Christianity as ending up at the right place and avoiding the wrong place.  Theosis is a way to talk about the Christian life as one of continually figuring out what it means to participate in the Trinity’s way of life.  It helps to emphasize that the point of salvation is to know God, which means eternal life is a present as well as a future reality.  Perhaps if this idea catches on in our churches and Christian schools, then we would see less Christians in name only and more Christians who understand that the goal of their life is to be changed into a little Christ through the Spirit.