Blog Archives

Should we really try to understand the Trinity?

[This is a guest post by Daniel Fender. Daniel is a Th.M. student at Western Seminary and a pastor at The Gathering Community Church in Portland, OR. Daniel is participating in this summer’sTh.M. seminar on Jonathan Edwards.]

Is the Trinity best left a Mystery? Is it foolish to consider the inner workings of the Eternal God? Many evangelicals believe it is at least a bit arrogant.  Mystery and Trinity go hand in hand in most peoples Christian experiences.  We can capture how the average evangelical understands the Trinity in a simple mathematic formula. The Trinity = A Mystery.  The contemporary trend is increasingly to leave Mysteries to fend for themselves. They fall out of our thinking because they are deemed out of our reach.

For Jonathan Edwards, the Trinity was far too valuable to leave as an unfathomable Mystery.  After all it is Edwards who says in Religious Affections, “If the great things of religion are rightly understood, they will affect the heart.”  And the Trinity for Edwards was arguably the greatest thing of religion. The Trinity provided the eternal foundation from which human nature and all of the created order derived its substance, form and purpose.  Because God is the greatest thing of religion understanding the nature of the Trinity should affect the heart.

At the same time we must acknowledge that when Edwards plunges head long into An Unpublished Essay on the Trinity, he is both a man of his own time and a man grappling with the unchangeable nature of God. Let us not forget that he spoke and wrote to a different generation. The entire essay begins with what in Edwards’ day was common:  “‘Tis common when speaking of the Divine happiness to say that God is infinitely happy in the enjoyment of Himself …” Yet today ‘tis not so common to think that way!  God’s enjoyment of God is not so quickly contemplated (let alone understood) today.

For Edwards however, the relationships and inner workings of the Trinity are wrapped up in God enjoying God. “In the perfectly beholding and infinitely loving and rejoicing in, His own essence and perfections, and accordingly it must be supposed that God perpetually and eternally has a most perfect idea of Himself.” Throughout the entire essay Edwards pushes us to think on what is revealed concerning the Trinity.  The chief reason for this is that Scripture reveals not only the fact that the nature of God is triune but that this triune nature is worthy of our contemplation because God has chosen to communicate something about it in the Bible.

However to Edwards following the train of thought that the revelation of Scripture details does not remove all mystery.  Rather it focuses the wonder of the Mystery. As Edwards confesses toward the end of the Essay:

I think the Word of God teaches us more things concerning it to be believed by us than have been generally believed, and that it exhibits many things concerning it exceeding [i.e., more] glorious and wonderful than have been taken notice of; yea, that it reveals or exhibits many more wonderful mysteries than those which have been taken notice of; which mysteries that have been overvalued are incomprehensible things and yet have been exhibited in the Word of God tho they are an addition to the number of mysteries that are in it. No wonder that the more things we are told concerning that which is so infinitely above our reach, the number of visible mysteries increases. (Italics mine)

In other words, the more you see and understand about the nature of God the more amazed you will be and the more the mysteries will increase.  Edwards notes that it is this way also in the natural world when we use a microscope. “…[Y]et the number of things that are wonderful and mysterious in them that appear to him are much more than before, and, if he views them with a microscope, the number of the wonders that he sees will be increased still but yet the microscope gives him more a true knowledge concerning them.” Thus the more you look into the Trinity the more you will understand. And the more you understand the more your understanding will multiply the sense of wonder, awe and mystery.

by David Restivo (via Flickr)

This is a very different understanding to Mystery than many take today. We are far to easily satisfied with the quick (and lazy) label of Mystery. Yet as a form of literature a Mystery demands our attention and a constant organizing and reorganizing of the clues until the Mystery is solved. In fact, until it is solved we are troubled and distracted.  Yet when the Mystery is solved, even partially, we then enjoy each section of the story and clue with more appreciation and depth. In many ways the Trinity is a mystery; but a mystery that demands our enjoyment, and for that reason, demands our attention and thought. Yet as Edwards exhibits the thought demanded of us it is not speculative philosophical ponderings unfettered by any authority. No; the thoughts that we must think are derivative. We have a conception of the Trinity because the Father sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. And the Son has sent his promised Spirit. And the Father, Son and Spirit seem to be enjoying one another more than we ever thought God would. God is really happy about God! And we are called into this joy!

After Edwards shows text after text of Scripture which inform his understanding he then briefly summarizes his conception of the Trinity:

And this I suppose to be that blessed Trinity that we read of in the Holy Scriptures. The Father is the Deity subsisting in the prime, un-originated and most absolute manner, or the Deity in its direct existence. The Son is the Deity generated by God’s understanding, or having an idea of Himself and subsisting in that idea. The Holy Ghost is the Deity subsisting in act, or the Divine essence flowing out and breathed forth in God’s Infinite love to and delight in Himself. And I believe the whole Divine essence does truly and distinctly subsist both in the Divine idea and Divine love, and that each of them are properly distinct Persons.

Thus Edwards understood the Son to perfectly embody the Idea (or thoughts) of God and the Spirit to embody the Emotions of God (Or God’s enjoyment of God). If this seems like a rash or quick resolution to a great Mystery, understand that it is his conclusion and summary not his Scriptural reason or logic for getting to this point. (You’ll have to read An Unpublished Essay on the Trinity!)

Yet despite how conclusive all of this sounds, Edwards gladly admits:

But I don’t pretend fully to explain how these things are and I am sensible a hundred other objections may be made and puzzling doubts and questions raised that I can’t solve. I am far from pretending to explaining the Trinity so as to render it no longer a mystery. I think it to be the highest and deepest of all Divine mysteries still, notwithstanding anything that I have said or conceived about it. I don’t intend to explain the Trinity. But Scripture with reason may lead to say something further of it than has been wont to be said, tho there are still left many things pertaining to it incomprehensible.

How much can we understand about the Trinity? How much does the Word of God reveal? How much time and energy should we give to contemplating the Mystery of the Trinity?  What do you think? And why?

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]

Eccentric Existence 11 (Sin)

[We’re continuing our series on David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology.]

For Kelsey, living faithfully before God in the quotidian is “dying life.” As finite beings, we are constantly poised on the edge of death, constantly dependent upon God, the source of life. As we respond faithfully to God in our context, we flourish. But, if we respond unfaithfully before God, “dying life” turns into “living death” (402).

The Nature of Evil

Kelsey makes a very helpful distinction here between “sin” and “evil.” For Kelsey, evil is anything that violates the integrity of God’s creatures:

Evil may be understood as a violation of creatures….It is a violation of what the violated ones are, either as instances of some natural kind or as individuals in their particularity. (403)

It is, therefore, anything that hinders the “well being” of God’s creatures and prevents them from being and doing everything that God created them to be and do. But, it’s important for Kelsey that evil does cause creatures to become any less creaturely. That is, we are still God’s creatures, possessing dignity and (potentially) serving to manifest his glory in the world. Thus, he critiques the Augustinian notion that sin should be understood as a “privation of being” because he thinks it suggests a diminution of our creaturehood. Instead, he argues that we should see evil as distortion rather than privation. (I’m not entirely certain that this is as different from the Augustinian notion as he suggests, but the distinction is still helpful.) And, since we remain God’s creatures, we retain our dignity and purpose despite the ravages of evil:

evil may be said to damage their well-being but not to damage their flourishing as God’s glory….Consequently, violation of their creaturely integrities in no way undercuts human cretures’ dignity and their inherent claim on their neighbors for unconditional respect. On the other hand, the fact that who they are and how they are able to be is also the glory of God becomes very ambiguous and obscure when they are violated by evil. (407)

And, Kelsey rightly points out that when our existence has been distorted by evil (either our own or others’) it often takes on a life of its own, resisting efforts at amelioration and spreading to those around us. So, the violated becomes violator and the death spiral continues.

The Nature of Sin

Sin, on the other hand, is best defined as “living foolishly in distorted faith” (408). Thus, “Sin is folly – that is, an inappropriate response to the triune God relating to us creatively” (408). Unlike evil, then, which primarily has to do with the impact that we have on our fellow creatures, sin is theocentric; it refers exclusively to our faith response to God.

In one of my favorite sections, Kelsey addresses the origin of sin in the world. He adopts the Kierkegaardian notion that “sin posits itself” and argues that we cannot “explain” why sin entered the world.

Every theological explanation of how sin entered creation either turns out to be circular, presupposing the very thing it sets out to explain, or explains it away by reclassifying it as another type of evil. (410)

Thus, the origin of sin is a “mystery.”

Sin is a type of negative mystery. It is not mystery in the sense of something in principle explicable but about which we present have insufficient information for an explanation. Nor is it mystery in the sense of something too richly complex for our finite minds to be able to grasp its rationale. Rather it is mystery in the sense of something undeniable real but a-rational, without cause or reason. (411)

The Origin of Sin

Although the entrance of sin into the world is a mystery, Kelsey affirms that human existence as we now have it is sinful. He agrees that we all act in sinfully distorted ways that renders us guilty before God. But, he goes further and affirms that there is a deeper sense in which we are all sinful before God. And, Kelsey rejects any suggestion that our sinfulness comes through some kind of genetic connection to Adam and Eve. Instead, he seems to argue that we are born into a sinful state because we are born into quotidian relationships that are already sinfully distorted. Thus, our own existential “how” is distorted from the very beginning.

every personal body is born into an everyday world that is already constituted by exchanges of giving and receiving among personal bodies whose existential hows and personal identities are sinful. (435)

So, we enter the world sinful because we are always already in sinfully distorted relationships. But, Kelsey argues that this doesn’t necessarily mean that we are “guilty” (i.e. morally culpable) from the beginning. Instead, he argues that impurity and shame are much better descriptions of our sinful state at birth:

However, I suggest, the objective status one enters by violating relationship with God by responding inappropriately to God’s creative relating might better be designated by impurity before God than by guilt before God. Subjective awareness of this status might better be described as feeling shame rather than feeling (subjective) guilt. (436)

Thus, we have the status of being “sinful” at birth and are always-already subject to the dynamics of a sinful world, but we don’t become morally culpable until we begin to express our own existential hows in sinfully distorted ways.

Sins vs. Sin

That gets us to Kelsey’s explanation of the difference between “sins” and “sin.” For Kelsey, sin in the plural refers to the “distortions of faith’s existential hows” (412). In the previous post, we discussed the ways in which we are to respond faithfully to God in our everyday context (existential hows). Now, Kelsey argues that “sins” are the myriad (infinite?) ways in which those faith responses can be distorted. So, practices of delight become sentimental practices; practices of wonder become exploitative practices; and practices of perseverance become practices of self-abegnation. For each, Kelsey offers insightful discussions of the ways in which sinful practices actually mirror faithful practices.

Sin in the singular, on the other hand, is “best understood as a living human body’s personal identity distorted in an inappropriate trusting response to God relating to her creatively” (422). Thus, for Kelsey, sin (in the singular) is more about one’s identity than one’s practices (though the two are ultimately inseparable).

When their quotidian personal identities are defined by acknowledgement of some aspect of their quotidian proximate contexts as the basis of their reality and value, their personal identities are distorted in a bondage of limitless dependence on that by which they consider their identities to be defined, whatever it may be. (424)

The key here is that when we allow our identities to be fundamentally grounded in creaturely realities, as opposed to the Creator, we get involved in relationships of “limitless dependence” (427). Since neither party is capable of fully meeting the needs of the other, the relationship lapses into a never-ending spiral of dependency, ultimately undermining the true existence of both.  Thus, instead of being eccentric beings, fully and fundamentally defined by our relationship to the Creator, we become “deficiently eccentric” (426), locked into our finite and sinfully distorted relationships.