|The One and Triune God and the life of his people.|
|Written by Dr Rowland S. Ward|
|Wednesday, 12 December 2007 00:09|
THE ONE AND TRIUNE GOD AND THE LIFE OF HIS PEOPLE*
Dr Rowland Ward is minister of Knox Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia, Melbourne
This is his address as Moderator of Synod 1996.
I suppose there might be the thought in the minds of some that the subject of the Trinity is hardly the one that is suitable to our present need. It might be regarded as of absolutely no practical value.1 Or another might say, "This is 'high' doctrine, difficult for even the best minds. Is not a rousing call to faithfulness and service the need of the hour?" But faithfulness to whom? and service for what end? As ministers and elders we are all aware of how easy it is for professionalism to characterise our activities, to be so immersed in the work that has to be done that we forget why we are doing it or for whom we are labouring.
Many of you will know of a little book by Tom Wells entitled A Vision for Missions.2 At first you think the book will be about mission strategy with lots of graphs and analysis, but in fact it advances the thesis that "God is worthy to be known and proclaimed for who he is..." and spends most of its space in speaking about the character of God and what God has done for us in Christ. There lies the true foundation and impelling motive to missionary endeavour. Similarly, I wish to relate the nature of God as Triune to the life of the church since this is the most basic means of addressing the problems of the church as we near the beginning of the 21st century.
To conceive of God other than as the Trinity is to imagine a god who has no existence. John Calvin (1509-64) writes:
But God also designates himself by another special mark [in addition to his infinity and spiritual nature] to distinguish himself more precisely from idols. For he so proclaims himself the sole God as to offer himself to be contemplated clearly in three persons. Unless we grasp these, only the bare and empty name of God flits around in our brains, to the exclusion of the true God.3
Trinity as a word
Tertullian (AD c160-c220), the Roman advocate who became a Christian about AD 197, contributed the term 'trinitas' to the doctrine of God as it was formulated in the 4th century. He used this term in his writings against Praxeas (AD c215), who had taught that it was the Father who suffered on the cross. But neither Tertullian nor the Councils of the 4th century supposed that they were doing other than setting out and clearing of misrepresentations the teaching about God found in the pages of Holy Scripture. That they used the language of their time was inescapable; that there were many unholy political skirmishes and worse in the conflict which raged on the subject is acknowledged; that they advanced speculations to account for the facts of Scripture is also true; but that they did correctly discern the leading points of Scripture is also our belief, and this has been succinctly incorporated in our Confession of Faith.
God is one in being or essence but within the singleness of his being there are three personal distinctions. Put plainly, we may say that God's life is not a solitary, lonely one, but has a richness and fulness reflecting the fact that God is a fellowship. Now to say God is a fellowship is not to say he is a committee, for a committee implies various individuals each with their distinctive origin, and might easily lead us to tritheism, belief in three Gods. To say God is a fellowship is to say that there is an intimacy of loving relationship, and reciprocity in the nature of God.
Some Biblical illustrations
As one who lies in the bosom of another is fairly supposed to be most intimate with him, to know all his secrets, and possess all his affections, so is it, we are to understand, in the union of the Father and the Son. It is more close than man's mind can conceive.12
Likewise the Spirit is referred to in terms of this intimacy and fellowship. Jesus says:
If you love me you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor to be with you forever - the Spirit of truth....When the Counsellor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me...He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears...He will bring glory to me by taking what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.13
While it is proper to see anticipations of the doctrine of the trinity in the Old Testament,14 it is really only as we see the redemptive action of God disclosed in the New Testament that the distinctions in the very depths of deity itself are appreciated. By the same token, the truth of the Trinity would never have gained hold if it had not been intimately connected with the Christian understanding of salvation. Thus, the strictly monotheistic disciples have no embarrassment in affirming the deity of the Son and the Spirit in such a manner that we might well call the New Testament a distinctively trinitarian volume.
Again, it was the contribution of Athanasius to the debate over the person of Christ in the 4th century that he made people see that our salvation depended on Christ's deity. "The logic of his argument goes something like this: Only God can save. Jesus saves. Therefore Jesus is God."15 The subsequent creedal recognition of the deity of the Spirit was inevitable.
1. Autotheos (God-of-himself): This refers to the self-existence of the Son as to his divine essence as maintained with much emphasis by Calvin16 and the generality of Reformed writers since. The aim is to vindicate the Nicene formulation and free explanations of it from overtones of subordinationism which might suggest, for example, that the divine essence of the Son and the Spirit was derived from the Father.
Without entering the labyrinth of discussion, the important point is that the role of each divine person in redemption reflects distinctions which go back to the inner life of God himself. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are each distinguished by a personal property whose nature is such that we are reminded that "God lives from all eternity as self- communicating, self-giving love and communion."19 God wills himself to be called by these names since they reflect real and eternal relations.20 The Father eternally possesses fatherhood in relation to the Son, the Son is eternally the Son of the Father, and the Spirit is eternally from the Father and the Son.
3. Filioque (and the Son): The famous 'filioque' clause in the confession of the Western church ultimately refers to the role of Christ in eternal relation to the Spirit. The Western Church (Roman and Protestant) confesses that the Spirit proceeds 'from the Father and the Son.' The Eastern (or Greek) Church, in its interpretation of John 15:26, refuses this 'double procession' clause both because of the way it was promulgated and because the more ardent objectors suppose that it implies two sources of deity in the Godhead, the Father and the Son.21
Not all Greeks accept this argument, and perhaps we have some confusion of thought, for even the Father's deity is not caused nor does he give deity to the Son or to the Spirit. The One and Triune God simply is. His essence is one and underived, but there is an eternal distinction of persons, the Father being first in order.
4. Perichoresis: This term refers to the mutual indwelling in love of the divine persons, perhaps reflected most strikingly in Jesus' statement "I in the Father and the Father in me," or again, "All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you."22
One does not expect every believer to be able to articulate the nuances of trinitarian theology, but every healthy part of the church has convictions of trinitarian character since the Christian experience of salvation is never satisfied apart from recognition of the Father as the author of salvation, the Son as the purchaser and the Spirit as the applier. Indeed, we might say that only in the Reformed conception of salvation is justice done to the doctrine of the Trinity. This is as much as to say that where there is not this conception the doctrine of the Trinity is imperilled in practice if not in theory also.
Trinitarian theology today
Characteristic of much recent theological discussion is a reluctance to discuss the person of Christ in terms of his pre-existent life, but a readiness to affirm a purely functional view. In other words, Christ is not regarded as God the Son from eternity but is regarded as functioning on earth as God's agent or representative in whom God is revealed.23
The Gender of God
The name of God in Scripture does not designate him as he is in himself, but in his manifold revelation and relation to the creature. Nevertheless, this name is not arbitrary, but God reveals himself as he is...In Scripture 'to be' and 'to be called' indicate the same thing from different angles. God is that which he calls himself, and he calls himself that which he is.26
The Son had glory with the Father before the world was (John 17:5). While some feminist theology involves reaction from inadequately expressed teaching about God, its fundamental approach can be characterised as one which does not take proper account of what is revealed in Scripture. The attempt by some to ascribe gender to God is quite misguided.
The Biblical presentation
1. A specific passage: Matthew 28:19-20 (The Great Commission)
(2) In any event, I would argue that Matthew 28:19 in its original intention does not prescribe a formula so much as succinctly sum up the fact that through the work of redemption the character of God has been declared definitively and he is to be recognised accordingly. Hence the initiatory rite of baptism as well as the teaching conveyed is to occur in just such a trinitarian context. This explanation fully corresponds with the situation in the early church as reflected in Acts and the Epistles. Where the gospel is rightly preached, people believe Jesus is the way to the Father, and rely upon him through the work of the Spirit (1 Cor 12:3).
2. An extended passage: The Ephesian Letter
It is important to note the tone of doxology and devotion throughout the passage. There is nothing cold, hard and rationalistic about it. Similarly, although there is very strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God it is the sovereignty of the Triune God and not of some despot or arbitrary deity.
The action of the Triune God for our salvation is regarded as involving a new creation (1:3-2:10), the fruit of the incomparable riches of God's grace in Christ Jesus (2:8), a bringing from death to life. It results in a new community (2:11-3:21) which transcends barriers of race and background and, as the church, is the Heavenly Father's family on earth, characterised by new conduct ((4:1-6:20). This new humanity in Christ, this new community, lives a life worthy of its calling (4:1), and imitates God in its life of love (5:2), with Christ as the great exemplar (5:2).
Characteristic, therefore, is unity in the truth (4:1-16 cf. John 17:20-23), a unity which allows for the diversity of gifts implicit in the metaphor of the body (4:16 cf. 1 Cor 12-14) and the pursuit of holiness (4:17ff): the old self put off and the new self put on (4:22-24). This is applied particularly to truth-telling, anger, stealing, purity of speech and behaviour.
In further application (5:15ff), the rejection of the drinking which results in uncontrolled, unwise and ungodly behaviour is contrasted with the Spirit whose constant infilling is seen in controlled, wise and godly conduct. The presence of the Spirit is seen from the four key imperatives which depend on the exhortation "Go on being filled with the Spirit": speaking, singing (5:19), giving thanks (5:20), submitting (5:21), the last-named being expanded and applied in marriage, family and economic areas (5:22-6:9). In short, we have fellowship, worship, thankfulness and right relationships as a result of the work of the Triune God for and in his people.
We are made in God's image and thus made for communion in relationship with God and with others who bear his image. It was not good for the man to be alone (Genesis 2:18) and the communion of marriage and family reflects a fundamental requirement of real human life. Ephesians 3:15 suggests that God is not merely like a human father but "the pattern and archetype of all fatherhood".29 Over against the individualism which promotes the ego, alienates and separates, we must affirm and demonstrate the life that is self-giving, which reconciles and includes, while at the same time recognising the distinctiveness of each individual.
Despotism and Coercion?
The belief in God as Triune, and thus in mutual self-giving and reciprocity, is also fundamental in anchoring a proper doctrine of atonement. Any suggestion of coercion on the part of the Father towards his Son is completely ruled out. There is never any conflict of will or purpose but a perfect harmony of love: it not only pleased the Father to put his Son to grief, but it was the delight of the Son to drink the cup the Father had given him (John 18:11), because it was the loving desire of both Father and Son, together with the Spirit, to bring many sons to glory. Sometimes we can give the impression that redemption is a mere legal arrangement of almost impersonal character, when it is the loving purpose of God who himself is the way back to himself.
Abraham was stopped from sacrificing his son, his only son, whom he loved, by the voice of God from heaven (Genesis 22), and the Genesis account is noteworthy in indicating no resistance on the part of Isaac. But God the Father's love was so great and the Son's love so great that the Father did not stay the knife from his Son, his only Son, whom he loved, and the Son, because of the joy that was set before him - the joy of fellowship with redeemed sinners! - endured the cross, despising the shame. While the Son knew terrible fear as he anticipated his suffering, and his sweat was like drops of blood (Luke 22:44) he did not resist but willingly and lovingly went to the cross. Instead of a voice from heaven or a legion of angels, there was a loud cry from the earth which still resonates through the ages and expresses the impenetrable mystery of the immeasurable love of God: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"
It is that mysterious breach in communion, that utter isolation, that endurance of hell, if you will, in an intensity that cannot be fathomed, which constitutes the ground of our reconciliation, our inclusion, our assurance of eternal life with God. We are called to realise our life in communion, a communion of love through him who loved us. Whatever disagreements we may have, may it be said: "Behold how these Christians love one another!" We love God and we love one another because God first loved us with a love so amazing, so divine that it demands my life, my soul, my all.#
End Notes* The substance of an address as Moderator to the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia, Armidale, New South Wales, on 27 March 1996. This Synod commemmorated the 150th anniversary of the Church's founding.
1. So Immanuel Kant as cited in J. Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom (Minneapolis 1993) 6.
2. Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh 1985.
3. Institutes, I, xiii, 2 (trans. F.L.Battles).
4. William Chillingworth (1602-44), Anglican latitudinarian scholar, was the populariser of the phrase in his The Religion of Protestants a Sure Way to Salvation (London 1638) pt. i, ch. vi., 56.
5. Cf. J.Calvin, Institutes, I, xiii, 3-5.
6. H.Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith (Grand Rapids 1956) 157.
7. Q & A #6.
8. Cf. B.B.Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies (Philadelphia 1952) 36.
9. The Latin word persona has a range of meanings from 'face' or 'mask' to 'person' in the modern sense of a self-contained individual. In trinitarian thinking it means much more than a mask such as was worn by an actor in a play - the modalistic explanation - but less than the modern sense of self-contained individuality.
10. John 1:1. The Greek preposition I have rendered 'face to face with' is pros, which implies movement towards.
11. John 1:18. The preferred reading, which certainly does not weaken the truth of the essential Deity of Jesus, is 'only God' or 'God the one and only' rather than 'only Son' or 'only begotten Son'. The translation 'only begotten' arises from interpreting the compound word monogenes in terms of its two component elements, and is followed by the older lexicons, but more recent study has shown that the word has the sense of 'only' or 'unique'. [The use of the phrase 'begotten not made' in the 4th century is distinct and legitimate in its place.] The expression 'in the bosom' is literally 'into the bosom' (eis ton kalpon), cf. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids 1971) 114, n.118.
12. J.C.Ryle, Expository Thoughts on John, Volume 1 (London 1869) 42.
13. John 14:15-17; 15:26; 16:13-15.
14. Cf. B.B.Warfield, 'The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity' in Biblical and Theological Studies (Philadelphia 1952) 28-31.
15. Alister McGrath, A Cloud of Witnesses: Ten Great Christian Thinkers (Leicester 1990) 20.
16. Institutes, I, xiii, 25: 'Therefore we say that deity in an absolute sense exists in itself; whence likewise we confess that the Son since he is God, exists of himself, but not in respect of his Person; indeed, since he is the Son, we say that he exists from the Father. Thus his essence is without beginning; while the beginning of his person is God himself.' For discussion see B.B.Warfield, 'Calvin's Doctrine of the Trinity' in Calvin and Augustine (Philadelphia 1956) 189-284.
17. Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) 2:3.
18. Cf. Ambrose (c.339-397) "For here the voice is silent, the mind fails; not only my mind, but even that of angels.' [Of the Christian Faith, NPNF II: 10.212]. The explanations of the Nicene Fathers concerning the nature of the act which they called 'eternal generation' were not subscribed by Calvin (or Charles Hodge) nor are they endorsed by WCF 2:3; cf. B.B.Warfield, Calvin and Augustine, 250.
19. C.M.LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco 1993) 354.
20. Note the discussion in John Murray, Collected Writings 4 (Edinburgh 1982) 58-81.
21. A good survey from the Eastern viewpoint is in T. Ware, The Orthodox Church (Harmondsworth 1993) 210-218.
22. John 17:21; 16:11.
23. For a helpful survey see K. Runia, The Present-day Christological Debate (Leicester 1984).
24. Cf. J.Moltmann, God in Creation (San Francisco 1985) 98-103. Biblical theism distinguishes God the Creator from his finite creation, while pantheism identifies God and the universe. Panentheism (or process theology) holds that while there is a sense in which God exists beyond the universe, essentially the cosmic process is God.
25. Cf. J.Moltmann, The Crucified God (San Francisco 1974) 207. Note John Murray's assessment of Claude Welch's 1952 volume In This Name: The Doctrine of the Trinity in Contemporary Theology : 'Our doctrine of the Trinity must be that of which God is, in and of himself, immanently and eternally, irrespective of creation and redemption. If our doctrine of the Trinity is not that, then the God whom we conceive of is not the eternal, self-existent, and self-sufficient God, but a God of whom temporality is an attribute.' [J. Murray, Collected Writings 4: 281]
26. H. Bavinck, The Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids 1951) 85.
27. H.Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith 161. Notice also B.B.Warfield's perceptive remarks on Matthew 28:19 in 'The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity' Biblical and Theological Studies, 42.
28. The KJV does not render the Greek aorist participle (believing/having believed) correctly at this point and conveys the false idea of a time interval or second blessing, a sealing after believing. The truth is that, if we do not have the Spirit, we do not have God's seal of ownership, and we are not in Christ at all.
29. John Macpherson, Commentary on St Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians (Edinburgh 1892) 262, cf. also John R.W.Stott, The Message of Ephesians (Leicester 1979) 134. Interestingly, the standard 19th century works on the Fatherhood of God by R.S.Candlish and T.J.Crawford do not appear to discuss Ephesians 3:15.
30. Note the article by A.P.Pauw: 'Heaven is a World of Love': Edwards on Heaven and the Trinity, Calvin Theological Journal 30 (1995): 392-401.
31. John Smith, Advance Australia Where? (Sydney 1988) 225.
# The last part of the address was expanded in delivery ex tempore and cannot now be reproduced.
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