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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At the same time we must acknowledge that when Edwards plunges head long into An Unpublished Essay on the Trinity, he is both a man of his own time and a man grappling with the unchangeable nature of God.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.]

What reveals who you truly are?

Who are you? If someone really wanted to get to know you and find out what kind of person you truly are, how should they go about doing that? They could talk to people who know you well: your spouse, friends, coworkers, children, or people at church. But, would that reveal the true you? They could find out how you spend your time, what you invest your money in, and what hobbies you have. All of these things would tell them something about you, but even then, would they really know you? What if they took a peek at your computer and checked out your browsing history? I’m sure that would be enlightening.

But, would it tell them everything?

What reveals who you truly are?

I don’t know what it is for me. You could look at my books, read my blog posts, even ask my wife and daughters, but I don’t think any of these things really tells the whole story about who I am.

I don’t know what could.

You’d think it would be even harder for God. After all, he’s God. How could we possibly know even a small fraction of what it means to be God – his glory, majesty, power, grace, goodness, wisdom, love, justice, and more. If I can’t think of a way to show people who I am, surely it must be that much harder for an infinite God.

But, God doesn’t have that problem. He knows exactly how to reveal himself to us. And, he has done just that.

Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. (Jn. 14:9)

What an amazing statement. No hesitation, no uncertainty, no doubt. Philip asks Jesus to show them the Father and without missing a beat, Jesus points to himself—I reveal the Father so perfectly that if you have seen me, you have seen the Father.

Take a moment and think about that.

Some guy—a regular person, a construction worker—tells you that he and God are so tight that if you just look at him, you will see the Father. How would you respond?

And, Paul agrees.

According to him, Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15; cf. 2 Cor. 4:4). Although we were all created to be God’s image bearers in the world, revealing God in creation, Paul sees Jesus as the only one who really gets it right. The only hope for the rest of us is to be re-shaped in the image of Jesus so that we can again image God the way we were supposed to (Rom 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:49).

Indeed, Jesus reveals God so perfectly, that the author of Hebrews says that “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3).

How can a human being reveal the infinite God? I don’t know. But, he did.

Immanuel…God with us.

From the very beginning of the story, God has been revealing himself to us, reaching out to us and calling us to know him. Although always failed to understand, God never gave up. Instead, he promised that one day he would send a true prophet who would come and tell us about God.

Once again, God has done more than we expected. He didn’t send just another prophet with words we could ignore.

He sent the Son himself.

God promised, Jesus came, true revelation.

[You can read the rest of the posts in this series on the Gospel book page.]

Morning links (9/15)

Okay, I finally got one too many comments from people who either couldn’t figure out what “flotsam and jetsam” means (originally a nautically term referring to the debris left after a shipwreck, it’s also used to refer to “odds and ends” in general), or who wondered if I’m just a big Little Mermaid fan (which, by the way, says more about you than it does me). So, I’m going to drop that title for a while and go with something that will hopefully be a little clearer. But, just in case there’s still some uncertainty out there, let me explain:

  • “Morning” = that period of the day between when I wake up and when my coffee has finally kicked in.
  • “Links” = those underlined/colored/highlighted words on the screen that take you places when you click on them.

Now, that we’ve taken care of that business, here are some links for this morning.

Eccentric Existence 4 (a trinitarian framework)

We are looking at David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence.  In the last post, we saw that Kelsey argues that what makes an anthropology distinctively Christian and theological is the fact that it begins with the claim that the triune God as revealed primarily in and through Jesus Christ relates to human beings in creation, redemption, and consummation. Thus, Christian theological anthropology is Trinitarian, christocentric, and oriented around these three relations. Before we move from the introductory material into the main argument of the book, it will be helpful to understand the four main ways in which this Trinitarian framework shapes the content of a theological anthropology.

Relations and Community

Kelsey spends a fair amount of time discussing the shift that takes place after Nicea from an emphasis on the economic Trinity to the immanent Trinity. In the process, theologians began to spend much more time reflecting on the perichoretic nature of the triune relations. And, this has implications for the way that we develop a theological anthropology guided by these Trinitarian reflections.

The character of God’s eternal life privileges a distinct set of images for the type of existential ‘how’ that constitutes human flourishing. The communion in self-giving love that constitutes God’s life presupposes and requires that the beloved is an irreducibly other reality than the lover. Indeed, such communion nurtures the flourishing of the beloved precisely as other. (72)

So, even without predetermining the actual content of a theological anthropology, this Trinitarian framework indicates that its basic shape will privilege relationship and community in its vision of human flourishing.

Mystery

Kelsey is actually rather cautious about introducing the idea of mystery into his discussion of theological anthropology. He warns,

 Although Karl Barth grumped that ‘transcendence’ is the most tedious concept in theology, ‘mystery’ is surely a close runner-up, so loosely is it commonly used. (72)

Tightening up the definition significantly, he argues that properly used “mystery” refers exclusively to God himself. He alone is the true mystery. But, insofar as a Christian theology begins its understanding of the human person by looking to this essentially mysterious God, there will always be an element of “openness” and “transcendence” in theological anthropology. Since he’s written over 1,000 pages on the subject, this obviously doesn’t mean that Kelsey doesn’t think we can say anything constructive about the human person. But, as we will see, he does think that there is a lot about our understanding of human beings that must remain “open.” Indeed, we will see that he thinks we can say a lot about the shape of human flourishing in the world, but he is quite reticent to offer much in the way of particular content. And, much of that is driven by the fact that God himself is ultimately mysterious.

Human Flourishing

And, that segues nicely into the third feature of his Trinitarian anthropology. For Kelsey, the Trinitarian relations provide the key for understanding human flourishing.

Therein lay its anthropological implications, for it defines human flourishing. By such engagement humans are called to analogous life which is their flourishing. Their flourishing lay in a community in communion analogous to that of the triune God, marked by mystery – that is, by analogous glory, incomprehensibility, and holiness, analogous to that of the triune God. (77-78)

As we’ll see throughout the discussion, Kelsey does not think that everything we need to say about the human person can be derived directly from Christology or the doctrine of the Trinity. He indicates at the very beginning of the work that he has a high view of what non-theological anthropologies can provide to our understanding of human beings. But, he does think that the Trinity offers the only legitimate starting point for a Christian understanding of human flourishing.

The Three Relations that Constitute Theological Anthropology

As I’ve mentioned several times, the entire shape of Kelsey’s theological anthropology is driven by the three ways in which God relates himself to humanity—creation, redemption, and consummation. A proper understanding of the Trinity, though, nuances these relations in two important ways.

First, each of these three relations involves all three persons of the Trinity, but with their own distinct pattern.

Formulated abstractly, these differences of pattern are the following: It is the Father who creates through the Son in the power of the Spirit; it is the Spirit, sent by the Father with the Son, who draws creatures to eschatological consummation; it is the Son, sent by the Father in the power of the Spirit, who reconciles creatures. (122)

So, as Kelsey unpacks the significance of each relation for understanding anthropology, he will need to pay close attention to these distinctive Trinitarian patterns.

Second, he also argues that although all three of these relations are fundamentally important, we do need to notice several important “asymmetries” in these relations.

  • God’s relating to create is ontologically prior to and logically independent from the other two relations. The idea that God creates human beings does not necessarily entail that he will need to redeem them or consummate his creation in any way. But, for there to be anything for him to redeem or consummate, he must already have created. So, stories of creation will have a certain primacy in developing a theological anthropology. Though never in a way that undermines the significance of the other two.
  • God’s relating to consummate and God’s relating to reconcile as “complexly interrelated” (122). In other words, there is a sense in which stories about the redemption of humanity and the consummation of God’s redemptive plans for humanity are intertwined and inseparable. This means that the two will be mutually informing in the context of a theological anthropology.
  • Nonetheless, stories of redemption and consummation remain distinct stories, and neither should be subsumed under the other. There is a sense in which the idea consummation is logically independent of redemption. That is, it is conceptually to tell a story about bringing creation to its proper consummation without implying that it has fallen and is in need of redemption. On the other hand, stories of redemption seem necessarily depending on stories of consummation. That is, a story about redemption would seem to imply some story about the completion of that redemptive process.
  • So, although each of these stories needs to remain independent of the other and should be told with its own narrative logic, there is a complex pattern of relationships among the three stories that influences the way each will function in developing a theological anthropology.

The Problem of the Hiddenness of God in Luther’s Theology

[Since I just recently uploaded a paper that Pat Roach wrote on the concept of divine hiddenness in Martin Luther’s theology of the cross, I thought it would be worth re-posting his summary and a link to the paper: The Problem of the Hiddenness of God in Luther’s Theology.]

One of the most important contributions to Christian thought made by Martin Luther is his theology of the cross.  In this theology we learn that God hides Himself in His revelation, for the purpose of drawing out faith in the person.  The living and true God has most powerfully made Himself known to humanity in an unlikely way and in an unlikely place – the cross of Jesus Christ.  The scandal of this revelation is that this is not where we would reasonably expect to find God.  The all-powerful maker of heaven and earth has not made Himself most fully known by categories of reason, or by a display of raw force.  Instead, God has revealed Himself in the opposite of these things, in the weakness of His crucified Son.

But for Luther there is a second way in which He speaks of God’s self-concealment.  The Lord not only hides Himself in the revelation of Christ crucified, but He hides Himself outside of His revelation as well.  This second hiddenness is God hiding behind and beyond revelation in the mystery that forms His work of saving some and damning others.  It is in this mysterious, inaccessible realm of hiddenness where “God himself” exists, beyond His word, and not in it.

There is an apparent tension between these two kinds of hiddenness. If the concealed God of the second hiddenness is the real God, free and unbound in His will, and unknowable as He truly is, this seems like an altogether different God than the one revealed/hidden in the cross, i.e. the first hiddenness.  The God revealed in hiddenness in revelation is gracious, calling all to know Him in the His crucified Son, for it is there that salvation and mercy is found for humankind, unexpected as it might be.  But the God who hides Himself outside of revelation, seems altogether different.  He is the one who in power and incomprehensibility chooses some to be His elect, and reprobates others to damnation – and for reasons that are unknowable, inscrutable, and apparently unrelated to His self-revelation in the cross.

In my paper , I examine the key sources for understanding Luther’s theology of God’s hiddenness, The Heidelberg Disputations (1518), The Bondage of the Will (1525), and The Commentary on Genesis (1535-1545), to show how the doctrine unfolds and develops throughout his ministry. After considering these primary sources, I will look at how this tension in Luther’s theology has been addressed, along with their strengths and weaknesses.  Then I will give my own attempt at providing an answer for how the first hiddenness relates to the second hiddenness, by looking at Luther’s view of the role and function of faith in the Christian life.