A little Updike (and a little Monty Python) for Trinity Sunday

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event* a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

– John Updike, ‘Seven Stanzas at Easter’, in Telephone Poles and Other Poems (London: Andre Deutsch, 1964), 72.

* A little note: ‘The event’, of course, to which Updike here refers is, principally, ‘Jesus’ resurrection’; but because this particular resurrection is the event which is the Triune life itself, I see no reason to not allow these words to inform our ‘God-talk’. That thousands of sermons will be preached today that mock Updike’s critical and weighty point – and echo a word more like that of Monty Python’s Three-Headed Knight met by the brave Sir Robin – seems a good reason to repeat Updike’s point today. If, however, you happen to be one of those disoriented souls who happened to land on this post in search of a Pythonesque sermon on ‘the trinity’, and because you figure that Trinity Sunday is the day you better say something about this neglected ‘topic’, then here’s what you were looking for (and your congregation would be most grateful if you looked no further!):

Still, my recommendation is that you go with Updike, even if – and perhaps especially if – you dinnae hay a scoobie what he is trying to say. Happy Trinity Sunday.

The Quest for the Trinity: a review

The Quest for the TrinityStephen R. Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012). ISBN: 9780830839865.

The Quest for the Trinity makes plain again that Steve Holmes is among the most erudite and trustworthy theologians working today. His acquaintance with the tradition’s own wrestlings to articulate its speech about God, and its nuances and real game-shifting moves, is extraordinary, and his ability to communicate these in an accessible, albeit at times dense and somewhat dry, 200-page account is nothing short of remarkable.

The book has an encyclopaedic and ecumenical character about it. Holmes writes with a disciplined handle on the primary literature, its various nuances and theo-historical location, and is conversant with, but not distracted by, much recent secondary literature. His treatments on Irenaeus, Origen, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, Hilary of Poitiers, Augustine, Aquinas, Hegel, Schleiermacher and Dorner, in particular, as well as of the various anti-trinitarian movements between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, are exceedingly helpful and clearly laid out.

Holmes is concerned to defend the thesis that apart from some relatively minor disagreement and development, the doctrine of the Trinity was basically settled by ecumenical consensus in the fourth century, enjoyed ‘essential stability’ until the eighteenth century, and has been the accepted position of the church, with no significant modification, until the modern period and its various ‘recoveries’. Holmes believes that rather than representing a genuine recovery of a lost doctrine, however, the modern ‘trinitarian revival’ represents a departure, misunderstanding, and misappropriation of the received tradition, sometimes in the name of underwriting some social, political, or ecclesial programme. He builds a strong case, and those who believe particularly that unambiguous continuity with traditional articulations of doctrine central to the faith remains an indispensable feature of doing theology responsibly today will find much here to bolster that claim.

Of course, there are additional ways to tell the story of faith’s efforts to think and speak about God – ways which are no less responsible to revelation, which are not necessarily at odds with the articulations offered by the Fathers but which offer some different ways of expressing such claims, and which remind us that we might be better to acknowledge a greater plurality of expressions within the one tradition.

Whether Holmes holds that such different accents represent voices too insignificant to hear, or too far removed from settled orthodoxy, or whether it is due to editorial concerns, he chooses not to engage with modern contextual (including feminist) accounts of the Trinity, or with the work of Christian mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen, John of the Cross, and Julian of Norwich, or with some other ways that faith has sought to ‘speak’ of the Triune God: for instance, ways that some visual artists and poets and musicians have taken. Here, the catholic and innovative work of Sarah Coakley is to be much welcomed (for it represents both a fruit of the tradition that Holmes is keen to guard as well exhibiting something that is actually demanded by it), along with that of J. S. Bach, William Blake, Dorothy Sayers, and Marlene Scholz.

These niggles aside, The Quest for the Trinity is an extraordinary and timely achievement, and no reader – even those who may finally remain not entirely convinced of Holmes’ thesis vis-à-vis modern accounts and retellings of the tradition – could fail to learn much here, and to be challenged again about what it means, and about how, to speak of Father, Son and Spirit, and of the ‘persons’ of the Trinity. Such a challenge is most urgent, particularly for those of us whose task it is to preach the gospel, and it may be most timely for those of us who have looked primarily to the likes of Rahner, Zizioulas, Pannenberg, Moltmann, Gunton, Jenson, Volf, and/or Plantinga to interpret the history, and articulate the meaning, of the doctrine for us. On those parts of the tradition given attention by Holmes, teachers and students alike will find here a reliable and fruitful guide, and, for some of us, a challenge to rethink what we may have been taught about the apparent gulf that exists between Latin and Greek doctrines of the Trinity, and about accounts that have painted the Fathers to be working at some odds with the authors of the Bible. Indeed, if Holmes’ thesis is anywhere near correct, then most of what passes for ‘trinitarian theology’ today will have to be re-thought.

James Torrance on ‘Prayer and the Triune God of Grace’

James Torrance 4In 1997, Professor James Torrance gave four lectures on the theme ‘Prayer and the Triune God of Grace’, a theme beautifully articulated in his essay ‘The Place of Jesus Christ in Worship’ (published in Theological Foundations for Ministry, edited by Ray Anderson) and in his 1994 Didsbury Lectures (published as Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace), among other places.

The titles of the lectures were:

1. Prayer as Communion: Participating by Grace in the Triune Life of God
2. Prayer and the Priesthood of Christ
3. Different Models of Prayer: Stages in the Life of Prayer
4. Covenant God or Contract God: Is Prayer a Joy or a Burden?

I posted the links to these just over 4 years ago, but those links are now dead, and a number of people have contacted me recently asking me to make them available again. So here they are, resurrected!

Part 1 [MP3]

Part 2 [MP3]

Part 3 [MP3]

Part 4 [MP3]

Part 5 [MP3]

Part 6 [MP3]

The substance of the lectures – indeed, the substance of JB’s public ministry – is articulated in his hymn, ‘I know not how to pray, O Lord’:

1. I know not how to pray, O Lord,
So weak and frail am I.
Lord Jesus to Your outstretched arms
In love I daily fly,
For You have prayed for me.

2. I know not how to pray, O Lord,
O’erwhelmed by grief am I,
Lord Jesus in Your wondrous love
You hear my anxious cry
And ever pray for me.

3. I know not how to pray, O Lord,
For full of tears and pain
I groan, yet in my soul, I know
My cry is not in vain.
O teach me how to pray!

4. Although I know not how to pray,
Your Spirit intercedes,
Convincing me of pardoned sin;
For me in love He pleads
And teaches me to pray.

5. O take my wordless sighs and fears
And make my prayers Your own.
O put Your prayer within my lips
And lead me to God’s throne
That I may love like You.

6. O draw me to Your Father’s heart,
Lord Jesus, when I pray,
And whisper in my troubled ear,
‘Your sins are washed away.
Come home with Me today!’

7. At home within our Father’s house,
Your Father, Lord, and mine,
I’m lifted up by Your embrace
To share in love divine
Which floods my heart with joy.

8. Transfigured by Your glory, Lord,
Renewed in heart and mind,
I’ll sing angelic songs of praise
With joy which all can find
In You alone, O Lord.

9. I’ll love You, O my Father God,
Through Jesus Christ, Your Son.
I’ll love You in the Spirit, Lord,
In whom we all are one,
Made holy by Your love.

[For those who may be interested, I have included this hymn in my essay ‘“Tha mi a’ toirt fainear dur gearan”: J. McLeod Campbell and P.T. Forsyth on the Extent of Christ’s Vicarious Ministry’, published in Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (eds. Myk Habets and Robert Grow. Pickwick Publications, 2012).]

Paul Fiddes on why we speak of God as ‘Trinity’

‘We only speak of God as Trinity, as a complex of relationships, because we find God revealed in the cross which involves a set of relationships. When we ask, “Who is God?” we are confronted by an event which we can only describe in relational terms: we speak of a son relating to a Father in suffering and love. There is a son crying out to a Father whom he has lost (“My God, why have you forsaken me?”) and so there is implied a Father who suffers the loss of a son, with a Spirit of abandonment between them. At the same time as they are most separated they are most one, for they are united in loving purpose: in love the Father gives up the Son and in love the Son gives up himself for us, and the Spirit of love is between them. In these relationships the world and human beings are necessarily included, and any other Trinity is a spinning out of hypotheses. It is for us that the Father gives up the Son to death, and so the “for us” is included in whatever is meant by the eternal begetting of the Son by the Father. There can be no self-sufficient, self-contained society of the Trinity, for God has not chosen to be in that way’. – Paul S. Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 123.

Bruce McCormack’s 2011 Kantzer Lectures now available

Back in September, I posted on Bruce McCormack‘s 2011 Kantzer Lectures on the theme ‘The God who Graciously Elects’. I tried watching these at the time via the livestream, but the stream itself, or something at my end of it, was really quite inadequate. That said, what I did hear of the lectures was, as expected, fantastic. I’m pleased to announce that the lectures are now available for MP3 download:

Lecture One: Tuesday, September 27 |
“Is the Reformation Over? Reflections on the Place of the Doctrine of God in Evangelical Theology Today”.

Lecture Two:  Wednesday, September 28 | 
“From the One God to the Trinity: The Creation of the Orthodox
Understanding of God”.

Lecture Three: Wednesday, September 28 |
“The Great Reversal: From the Economy of God to the Trinity in
Modern Theology”

Lecture Four: Thursday, September 29 | 
“The God Who Reveals Himself: The Mystery of the Trinity in the New

Lecture Five: Monday, October 3 | 
“Which Christology?  Refining the Economic Basis of the Christian
Doctrine of God”.

Lecture Six: Monday, October 3 | 
“The Processions Contain the Missions: Reconstructing the Doctrine
of an Immanent Trinity”.

Lecture Seven: Tuesday, October 4 |
“The Being of God as Gift and Grace: On Freedom and Necessity, Aseity
and the Divine “Attributes”.

The lectures are also available to watch via Henry Centre Media.



By the way, if you’re the praying kind – i.e., if you’re someone who tries to be human – please consider ascending a few breaths for the people of Christchurch who have just, about an hour ago, experienced another earthquake.

Systematic Theology Association of Aotearoa New Zealand – annual meeting

The annual meeting of STAANZ (Systematic Theology Association of Aotearoa New Zealand) will be held in Auckland, at Epsom Baptist Church, 6 Inverary Rd, Epsom, beginning a 0900 on Wednesday 7 December and concluding at 1700 on Thursday 8 December. The topic this year is ‘Trinity’. There is a call for papers, and abstracts can be emailed to Nicola Hoggard-Creegan before the end of August.

A Lenten Reflection: Rublev’s icon of the Trinity and the healing of Nicodemus

The well-known 15th-century Russian Orthodox icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev rehearses the story of Abraham’s encounter with the three heavenly figures at Mamre (so Genesis 18:1 – ‘The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day’). The icon invites us to both consider and to be considered by the very centre of Christian truth. The triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is re-presented from left to right. Ante Jeroncic, Georgij Yu. Somov and others have offered interpretations: the three persons form the circumference of a circle, attesting perhaps to the divine unity; each of the persons embrace a staff in their left hand, a sign of authority; each of the persons is clothed in blue, a symbol of God’s eternity; each of the persons has overlapping wings, a communication of their intimacy. The colour of clothing too is significant: gold recalling the Father’s glory, purple the royalty and suffering of the Son, and green the life-giving mission of the Spirit. And then there’s the table (the location where koinonia takes place), the house (symbolising, perhaps, the created order and/or the church), the tree (shorthand for the cross), and the mountain (a recollection of the theophanies, of the Mount of Transfiguration, and of the location of covenant renewal).

There is little doubt of the icon’s beauty (as Ante recalls in a follow-up post), even while this icon invites us to reconsider what we mean by beauty. And it does this in a very simple yet profound way. It does this via the sets of hands which point towards the chalice in which is what appears to be a roasted lamb. It is in this gesture that we are invited to rethink all that we might mean when we talk about glory, and power, and God. For this gesture recalls that the God with whom we have to do in Jesus Christ is the God who is so fully one with us that his very being is re-constituted in the action of becoming flesh, of taking the form of a slave, and of dying the very death which has become a way of ‘life’ for us. It also recalls that just as it takes the doctrine of the Trinity to make any sense of the cross, it takes the cross to unveil for us the heart of the Triune God.

The gesture of the central figure – the one whom the Church proclaims as ‘very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father and by whom all things were made’ – invites us to reconsider, and, indeed, to put to death, all of our preconceived images of what God may or may not be like, and to allow our image of God to be finally determined in one place and in one place alone – in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Mary and Joseph’s firstborn son who alone is the image of the invisible God, and who constitutes the form that divine beauty takes in the world. To talk about God and to talk about beauty is not, in the first instance, to recall a set of religious doctrines or a philosophy of beauty. Still less is it to impose such upon a being which we then name ‘God’. It is, rather, to atten­d to a movement in history enacted for us, a bloody and deathly movement, namely the story of Jesus of Nazareth the Word of God made flesh for us, living for the Father’s joy in the power of the Spirit and who, from the side of broken and recalcitrant humanity offers God the praise and thanks due to God’s name. In other words, God’s love finds its clearest and most decisive voice in this particular person whom the Father has set his love upon and who is not ashamed to call us his sisters and brothers. What makes this particular act beautiful is the persons who undertake them and their mutual self-surrendering love for one another, and for the healing of the world, which is there revealed to us.

After Jesus had died, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for Jesus’ body. St John tells us that Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. John also tells us that Joseph did not do this alone, but that he was accompanied by someone who had appeared much earlier on in the narrative, namely Nicodemus, the wealthy aristocrat, pharisee and learned rabbi who earlier had visited Jesus at night during an earlier first visit to Jerusalem (John 3). Now here he is again, on Jesus’ last visit to that violent and hard-hearted city. This time, Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds worth. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen (John 19:39–40). In this violated and now lifeless body of a young teacher called Jesus, Nicodemus is given to see the very fullness of beauty – for in Jesus he is confronted by one who loves the Lord with all his heart, soul, mind and strength, and who loves human beings – even his enemies – even unto death. And in Jesus Nicodemus is confronted with himself and with the world’s operations. Such a vision of divine beauty reconstitutes Nicodemus’ world, a new reality is taking hold of him, a reality which is causing him to question all that he had once held to be good and true and beautiful. Such a vision of divine beauty sees Nicodemus no longer arranging a backroom meeting with Jesus at night, but sitting at this table that Rublev paints, sitting in Christ with the Spirit and with the Father and sharing in a life reconstituted by the chalice-directed hospitality at their centre.

In a wonderful collection of sermons preached at St Andrew’s church in St Andrews in 1996–97, and subsequently published as At the Cross: Meditations on People Who Were There, Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart recall that

for Pilate and the chief priests the cross refutes Jesus’ claim to be king, if refutation were needed. But for Nicodemus it refutes Pilate’s and the chief priest’s respective claims to represent divine rule. In this radical polarizing of the alternatives Nicodemus can no longer have any truck with political compromise. He finally burns his boats. He throws in his lot with Jesus. He publicly honors him as king. He steps completely outside the circle that binds the governor’s residence and the high priest’s council chamber together. He accepts whatever it might mean to find God’s rule exemplified, even implemented in the humiliated and suffering Jesus. He commits himself to whatever that might involve by way of reversal of conventional thinking about power and status, about what really matters and what really gets things done in the real world. He commits himself to whatever it means to think that neither Pilate nor the chief priests in fact have the last word as they think they do, that beyond the petty game they play with each other actually God holds and plays a trump card of which they have no conception. When Nicodemus saw Jesus crucified and when he recognized this crucified Jesus as truly the king who rules for God, then (might we not say?) Nicodemus was truly born from above, born again of the Spirit of God. For “no one,” Jesus had said to him, “can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. (pp. 111–12)

Richard and Trevor then share this prayer with us:

Lord Jesus, with Nicodemus we recognize you
as the ruler of all
not in spite of your cross
but because of it.
We see your power in your weakness,
your glory in your humiliation,
your sovereignty in your self-giving service,
your victory in your death.
Help us not to be taken in by the illusions of evil,
by the apparent dominance of the forces that oppose God in this world
by the apparently overwhelming influence
of forces that corrupt life and destroy creation.
Help us to resist them.
Keep us from the temptations of power and influence,
from using them to serve the idols
of self-advancement or the causes we favor,
from treating other people as means to our ends,
from disregarding others on the way to our ends.
Help us to recognize the power of truth and love,
help us to acknowledge you as the only Lord.
Your kingdom come.

[Having just returned from lunch with the US Ambassador to New Zealand, David Huebner, this prayer takes on a richer challenge for me.]

Maundy Thursday blessings.

Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: Part IV, On the Trinity

‘God is persons and nothing else. There is no waxy residue of divinity that is not wrapped up in these three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That’s who God is. God is (est) each of these three persons, but the persons are distinct from one another (non est). God is both: alone in majesty and at the same time forever radiating love through each person of the Trinity … We are only able to love each other because the Father loves the Son through the Holy Spirit. We want to be with one another as friends, lovers, and neighbors for the same reason. That’s not an argument that would appeal to most theologians, but that’s what the Trinity meant for us’. – Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery, 81.

Who said it?

william-blake-sketch-of-the-trinity-2Time again for another ‘Who said it?’ competition. From whose mouth/pen did the following words come:

God’s trinitarian history for us makes him what he is for himself. There is no immanent Trinity supratemporally ‘behind’ God’s temporal, worldly history, so that he would be who he is independently of this history. This history is who he is.

Closing on Tuesday. No cheating.

[Note: I’ve had to repost this because for some strange reason the comments were off. Apologies to those who wanted to cast a vote but were unable. You can do so now. And I’ve extended the closing date: it’s now Tuesday.]

… and the answer is?

Seized in the divine economy

‘The trinitarian name of God gives us the final glance into what God is. However, it has truth and power only then, when it does not lose its connection to the act of God out of which it arises. The theological tradition has not always emphasised this connection clearly. Rather, the inclination has been to turn the dogma of the Trinity into a description of God that stands for itself, not telling us anything about his relationship to us. Under these conditions, it [the doctrine of the Trinity] does not only remain worthless but easily becomes damaging. That is, it generates an appearance of knowledge of God which consists merely in words. The New Testament does not participate in this employment of the doctrine of the Trinity because it grounds all its statements about God in the divine action that seizes us’. – Adolf Schlatter, Das christliche Dogma (Stuttgart: Calwer Verlag, 1977), 356.

‘The Triune God: Rich in Relationships’ – A sermon by Jürgen Moltmann

When we hear the names, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, we sense that in the mystery of God there must be a wondrous community. It is the one name of God in which “the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit” are so different that they are named successively, yet bound together with the conjunction “and.”

When we want to emphasize the oneness of the divine mystery we usually use the term “trinity;” when we want to emphasize their difference, we use “triunity.” Regardless of the terminology we use, we hold that God is no single Lord in Heaven who rules everything, as a temporal ruler would. Nor do we mean some sort of cold power of providence who determines all and cannot be affected by anything. Remember, the triune God is a social God, rich in internal and external relationships.

It is only from the perspective of the trinitarian God that we can claim that “God is Love,” because love is never alone. Instead, it brings together those who are separate while maintaining their distinct characters. From the perspective of the triune God, one can say, along with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “only a suffering God can help.” The God who is with us and for us in his suffering love can understand us and redeem us.

There are two classic Christian images of the Trinity which can prove useful both in sermons and in teaching. The first is the amazing icon done by Andrei Rublev in orthodox Moscow in the 15th century. The three divine persons are seated at a table. In the slight inclination of their heads toward each other and in the gestures of their hands, a deeper unity of the three is suggested. A chalice on the table symbolizes the sacrifice of the Son on Golgotha for the redemption of the world.

The painting originated in the story of Abraham and Sarah (Gen 1:18), who receive and richly entertain “three men” from whom they receive God’s promise of a son, in spite of Sarah’s (laughably) advanced age. A later interpretation claims that the three men were “angels,” while some claim Sarah and Abraham actually met the triune God. Rublev omitted Abraham and Sarah from the painting, leaving only the three “angels.” Thus in his rendition it is impossible to tell which is the Father, Son or Spirit. In this way, the painting expresses the ultimate unrepresentability of the triune God.

The other image of the Trinity is a “Gnadenstuhl” from the Latin Church of the Middle Ages. In it, God the Father, with an expression of deep sorrow on his face, holds the crossbar of the cross from which his dead son hangs. The Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, descends from the Father onto the Son. Where in many paintings of this sort the eucharistic chalice stands in the midpoint of the three persons, here the cross stands in the middle of the triune God. It is the breathtaking image of Easter Saturday, after Christ was killed, but before his resurrection for the redemption of the world by the life-giving Spirit. This image of the Trinity can thus rightly be called the “Pain of God” or the “Death of God.”

The death of Christ and the eucharistic representation of its salvific significance is in both pictures the heart of the triune God. I know of no Christian image of the Trinity in which the cross is missing. The redemptive cross of Christ is always deeply involved in the divine mystery, but turns it into a revealed mystery. The ancient theo-paschite formula rightly exclaims: “One of the Trinity has suffered.” I would like to add “where one suffers , the others suffer along.” The Son suffers death in our God-forsakenness, the Father suffers the death of his beloved Son and the Spirit binds the other two together through unspoken sighs. It is only by comprehending the depth of this chasm as the “pain of God” that we can fuIly understand the incommensurable joy of the Easter celebration of the victory of life and the beauty of the new creation of all things.

The history of Christ is thus a trinitarian history, otherwise one cannot call the gospel the “Gospel of the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). The history of Jesus is first a Spirit-history. It is through his baptism by John in the Jordan that the experience of the Spirit of God upon him is revealed, and with it, the revelation of God: it was in the Spirit that he heard the voice “You are my beloved Son.” From that point on, he knew that he was the messianic child of God. In the Spirit it was possible for him to refer to God as “Abba, beloved Father.” It is thus in the Spirit that God and Jesus, the “Father” and “Son” are both bound together, yet also uniquely distinguished.

With this, the Spirit-history of Christ becomes the Christ-history of the Spirit. The Spirit of Christ comes out of the Spirit of the Father and just as Christ is sent from the Father, so too is his own spirit sent to his own people and to the whole world (John 20:21-22). This change of subject in the history of salvation is described in a trinitarian manner in the so-called “departure speeches” in John’s Gospel: Jesus must “go forth” (die) so that the Paraclete may come. The Paraclete comes because Jesus asks the Father to send the Paraclete in his name (John 14-16). Good Friday and Pentecost are two sides to salvation: the redemption of the world out of God-forsakenness, and the new creation of all things.

We enter into the trinitarian history of Christ through baptism. It is for this reason that the first confessions of faith are baptismal confessions. The life “in the Spirit” and in “discipleship” is the practice of faith in the triune God. In both faith and in life, everything depends on the God-sonship of Christ. Those who lose sight of this lose their ability to be children of God. Those who forget this lose their future in God, which Paul states is a “hereditary right” of the future world. It is sonship that binds together God and Jesus and provides the foundation for trinitarian faith. If this connection were broken, then Jesus is merely one more good person and God is merely the unfeeling Lord of Heaven. In the 19th century, this led to a “Jesus-humanism.” Today it leads to an “Islamization” of Christianity. It is only through the recognition of the triune God that Christian dialogue with Jews and Moslem’s becomes interesting and dialogue-worthy.

Even more important, however, is the recognition that if Jesus were not “God’s son,” if God were not “in him,” then his suffering would have no divine meaning for the redemption of the world. It would disappear into the endless history of the suffering of murdered people. But, if “one of the trinity suffers,” then healing can come to wounded humanity and hope can enter a dying world.

Jesus’ prayer, “In this you may all be one, as the Father is in me and I in him that you may be in us” (John 17:21) calls for the unity of the Church and for ecumenism. John describes the communion of Jesus with the “Father” not merely as “with each other, ” or “for each other,” but “in each other.” “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” Therefore, “whoever sees me, sees the Father,” for “I and the Father are one” (John 14: 9-11, 10, 30). It is a unity based in mutual indwelling.

The trinitarian unity of the Son and the Father through the Spirit is a model for the relationships of men and women in the Spirit of Christ. The unity of the Church resides neither in the monarchy of God, nor in God as a supreme, divine essence, but in the trinitarian communion of God. However, this trinitarian community is so wide and so open that the Church and the whole world can “live” within it. The prayer of Jesus that “you may be one in us” is a prayer that is answered. Whether we know it or not we not only believe in the triune God, but also “live” in the triune God.

This reciprocal, sometimes called mystical, “living in God” also belongs to the trinitarian life: “those who live in love, live in God and God in them” (1 John 4:6). “We in God and God in us” is not meant merely as some sort of fleeting, mystical rapture, but is a daily relaxing quiet and intimate “living.” I find this picture of a mutual indwelling ever more beautiful and convincing. The triune God is a “habitable” God: he allows us to become one within him. If the world becomes “inhabitable” for God, then the restless God of history comes to his rest. The Church is an icon of the trinity. Its community of freedom and equality illuminates the image of the triune God. This is best expressed in the base communities in Latin America and in some Pentecostal communities, communities of social justice and personal freedom, modeled on the communities of the early church which lacked nothing because they held all in common.

Finally, we can move beyond the human community and into the creation-community. The Spirit of Life holds everything together in that it enables the various creatures to live with each other, for each other and in each other, created through divine love and destined for eternal joy.

SJT is out

The latest edition of the Scottish Journal of Theology (Volume 61 – Issue 01 – February 2008) is out and comprises the following articles, including a timely essay by Dr Ben:

Abstract: T. F. Torrance has made a significant contribution to theological method with his model of the stratified structure of theological knowledge. According to this model, which is grounded in Torrance’s realist epistemology, the knowledge of God takes place at three distinctive levels of increasing conceptual refinement. First, at the level of tacit theology, we intuitively grasp God’s trinitarian reality through personal experience, without yet understanding that reality conceptually. Second, at the level of formalised theology, we develop an understanding of the economic trinitarian structure which underlies our personal experience. Finally, at the meta-theological level, we penetrate more deeply into the structure of God’s self-revelation in order to develop a refined conceptualisation of the perichoretic relations immanent in God’s eternal being. The conceptuality achieved at this meta-theological level constitutes the ultimate grammar and the unitary basis of all theological knowledge; and a concentration of thought at this level offers the promise both of thoroughgoing theological simplification and of a shared ecumenical vision of the essential content of theological knowledge. Central to Torrance’s entire model is the homoousial union of Jesus Christ with God: the homoousion enables a movement from a personal encounter with Jesus Christ to a knowledge of the economic Trinity, just as it further enables a movement from the economic to the ontological Trinity. Although our theological thought thus moves towards increasingly refined concepts and relations, it remains always grounded in and coordinated with our personal knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Steve Holmes evaluates McCormack’s TF Torrance Lectures

After posting his four reflections, Steve Holmes (who is obviously not lecturing this week and so has more time to devote to blogdom) now stands back and asks, ‘How to evaluate McCormack’s novel account of kenosis?’ He writes:

On trinity: ‘… it seems to me that [McCormack’s] basic position is securely orthodox, certainly much more so than all of the recent theology that, misled by the word ‘Person’, insists on finding three instances of many or most divine properties (will; operation; knowledge; …) within the Godhead.’

On creation: ‘If there is a criticism which is in danger of sticking, I think it is to do with creation.’

On kenosis: ‘McCormack’s account of kenosis is, or at least could easily be rendered, orthodox. Is it, however, compelling? Alongside the constructive work in these lectures was a line of critique of classical Christology which established the need for the fresh construction. Simply and bluntly, I found this critique unconvincing. It was, in essence, Herrmann’s critique of metaphysics: the problem with Christology prior to Schleiermacher was its investment in certain metaphysical commitments that were alien to the gospel. This led to irreconcilable tensions, in patristic Christology, which only Cyril’s (supposed) Origenism allowed him to escape, and throughout the tradition into the nineteenth century, with the incompatibility of the anhypostasia and dithelitism coming to the fore. It is these metaphysical commitments, giving rise to the tensions they do, that drive the need for a revisionist Christology … I don’t feel the pressure that is driving Bruce.’

Full post here.

Trinity Sunday: Some Thoughts

‘Have you an infant child? … You have no need of amulets or incantations, with which the Devil also comes in, stealing worship from God for himself in the minds of vainer men. Give your child the Trinity, that great and noble Guard’. – Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 15, 365.

‘Worship the Trinity, which I call the only true devotion and saving doctrine’. – Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 43, 405.

‘The impotence of which many complain in the Church of the hour is not unconnected with the relegation of the doctrine of the Trinity to a theological appendix, even when it is not denied … And, on the other hand, the joy and the up–lifting that we have in meditating on the revealed depths of the Triune God is part of the blessedness which is the Church’s consummation; and it gives us that self–possession of the holy which both inspires and preserves us among our best activities for man’s weal. Such a doctrine, full as it is of difficulties for mere thought, when it is taken with serious depth by a Church of faith answers more difficulties than it creates. And such truth should be matter of adoration rather than criticism to an intelligence which is not merely exercised in speculation, but itself converted to the manner and movement of the Eternal Mind as it is revealed in Christ’. – PT Forsyth, The Principle of Authority, 230-1.

‘Not although God is Father and Son, but because God is Father and Son, unity exists [in the Godhead]. So God, as He who establishes Himself, who exists through Himself, as God in His deity, is in Himself different and yet in Himself alike. And for that very reason He is not lonely in Himself. He does not need the world. All the riches of life, all fullness of action and community exists in Himself, since He is the Triune [One]. He is movement and He is rest. Hence it can be claimed to us that all that He is on our behalf – that He is the Creator, that He has given us Himself in Jesus Christ and that He has united us to Himself in the Holy Spirit – is His free grace, the overflow of His fullness. Not owed to us, but overflowing mercy!’ – Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, 44.

1. God is love! The Father is love and the Son is the Son of His love,
The Son in this true love wants only to do all that pleases the Father above,
The Spirit of love from the Father above pours out all of this love in the Son—
So the Father, the Son and the Spirit all love and together in love they are one,
Yes, the Father, the Son and the Spirit all love and together in love they are one.

2. God is love! A river of fire that can never be quenched or run dry,
A love full and free that for eternity could not be just kept up on high:
The Father, the Son and the Spirit all love and together in love they are one,
And the love was spilled over to make all creation so others could join in the fun—
Yes, the love was spilled over to make all creation so others could join in the fun!

3. God is love! Now look at that love in the earth and the sky and the sea!
All of God’s creatures in wondrous profusion all being what they’re meant to be:
The plants and the animals, fish and the birds, and the wonderful woman and man.
All in order and harmony, working in love to partake in God’s glorious plan!
Yes, in order and harmony, working in love to partake in God’s glorious plan.

4. God is love! And in that great love which God had before all things began,
The Father of love with the Spirit and Son set out on this glorious plan:
To make a new Heavens and Earth and a Family full of the fire of His love
Where the children of God in the Spirit and Son would be one with the Father above.
Yes, the children of God in the Spirit and Son would be one with the Father above.

5. God is love! And sure of that love He created in love you and me
So whatever happened His love would prevail and we still could His Family be.
In spite of God’s love and against His goodwill we determined from God’s love to stray.
So then through all the pain God’s love could come again in a deeper, more wonderful way.
Yes, then through all the pain God’s love could come again in a deeper, more wonderful way.

6. God is love! And through all the ages of sin and of shame and of fear
God’s judgements on evil and words of His grace made all of His purposes clear:
To raise up a people to honour His love and declare all His praises on high
Till the children God promised to Abraham’s offspring outnumber the stars in the sky—
Yes, the children God promised to Abraham’s offspring outnumber the stars in the sky.

7. God is love! And when the time came as foretold in God’s glorious plan
The Son of His love from the Father above became everlastingly Man:
Poured all of Himself into our humble flesh so with us He would ever be one
As the brightness and image and fullness of God in the Father’s beloved only Son—
Yes, the brightness and image and fullness of God in the Father’s beloved only Son!

8. God is love! Messiah has come and God’s glory shines out from His face
As Christ by the Spirit goes driving out evil and pouring out grace upon grace
Till hung on a cross and abandoned by all, bearing all of the guilt of our sin,
There He glorified all of the love of the Father to bring all the Family in—
Yes, He glorified all of the love of the Father to bring all the Family in.

9. God is love! And out of the darkness God causes His brightness to shine,
Gives life to the dead and raises them up by the power of His Spirit divine.
He raised up Christ Jesus and lifted Him up to the heavenly places above
To make Him the firstborn of many such children redeemed by the power of His love.
Yes, to make Him the firstborn of many such children redeemed by the power of His love.

10. God is love! And see now His people forgiven and made all His own,
And see now Christ Jesus as Lord over all bringing everything up to His throne!
The Spirit is given, the word is sent out, earthly kingdoms now tremble and fall.
And the children stream in through the heavenly gates for the Father to be all in all—
Yes, the children stream in through the heavenly gates for the Father to be all in all!

– Martin Bleby, New Creation Hymn Book Volume 2, 281

The Painting: William Blake’s, ‘The Sketch of the Trinity’. God the Father, under the wings of the dove-like Holy Ghost, accepts the Son’s offer to give his life for man. The figure of Satan hovers below the clouds. Image taken from Notebook of William Blake. Originally published/produced in England; circa 1787-1818.

On being a Christian

One of the books that I’m currently re-reading is Tom Smail’s, The Forgotten Father. I’d forgotten how remarkable this book is as it seeks to bring us to the heart of the Gospel in the Fatherhood of God. As Forsyth noted, we cannot put too much into that word ‘Father’ though we can, and do, certainly put too little into it. Smail begins his chapter on ‘The Father, the Son and the Cross’ by reminding us that it takes the Trinity to make sense of the atonement, and he ends the chapter by reminding us that it takes the Father to make sense of our humanity.

Here’s a quote: ‘To be a Christian is to believe that it is the Father who defines our identity and is to be believed against all inner and outer accusations to the contrary when he says to us, “This son of mine”. To know that is not to skulk in the back pew; it is to come forward with confidence to receive the inheritance. The robe which is the garment of sonship is accompanied by the ring which is the insignia of authority and the sandals that distinguish the free man from the slave. The son who comes home is invited back into his lost inheritance, to delight again in his father’s company and goodness and to rejoice.’ Thomas A. Smail, The Forgotten Father (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980), 129.

The love of God

What ought we say about the love of God? In the cross, God’s love for himself, his name and his authority, and his love for his creatures, is taken up and met in one action wherein God exhibits the very nature of his being as unconditional Holy Love. That’s why not only is the doctrine of the Trinity necessary to make sense of the atonement, but the atonement is necessary to reveal the Trinitarian fellowship of God. The Holy Love that defines the perichoretic life of the Triune God has, by the grace of the Father in the action of the incarnate Son and by the mission of the Spirit, overflowed freely towards those outside of God’s community that creatures may enter into the Holy Love communion that the Triune God has ever known and spoke creation into being for participation in.

In Jesus Christ, God has shown not only only that he does not want to be God without us, but that he does not want us to be without him. And in the action of the Holy Spirit, the Triune God is present and active among us to hear and answer our prayers, to sustain us in all the happenings of life, and to continuously bring home to us afresh the good news of the Father’s sanctifying action in Jesus Christ, guaranteeing our inheritance, and empowering us to live in the reality of being ‘holy and blameless’ before God (Eph 1:4).

Given this statement, what ought we make of H R Mackintosh’s notion that ‘God loves us better than he loves himself’? I have often wondered about this statement. What is Mackintosh asserting here? Is he saying that there are different degrees of love in God? Is it any more than hyperbole to emphasise the extent and nature of God’s love? Is he here driving the wedge between God’s love for himself and his love for us that does not exist in Jesus Christ? Isn’t God’s love for us the overflow of his self-love in the trinitarian communion?