“Pentecost is nothing less than the establishment of the church as the new covenant people of God, as the body of Christ. The Spirit given at Pentecost constitutes the body of Christ as a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Eph. 2:22), as the temple of God in which the Spirit of God dwells (I Cor. 3:16). Accordingly, all who have been incorporated into that Spirit-baptized body and have a place in it share in the gift of the Spirit (I Cor. 12:13).” (Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Perspectives on Pentecost, p. 21)
Category: Trinitarian Reflections
Our cosmos (with its entire integrated web of creaturely relations) owes its very existence and sustenance to the love-relationship between the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.
John Zizioulas succinctly sketches the concept of theosis as follows:
“The eternal survival of the person as a unique, unrepeatable and free ‘hypostasis,’ as loving and being loved, constitutes the quintessence of salvation, the bringing of the Gospel to man. In the language of the Fathers this is called ‘divinization’ (theosis), which means participation not in the nature or substance of God, but in His personal existence. The goal of salvation is that the personal life which is realised [sic] in God should also be realized on the level of human existence. Consequently salvation is identified with the realization of personhood in man.” (John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion, pp. 49–50)
While this way of describing salvation sounds very strange to Western ears, it suggests a way of thinking about theosis that doesn’t compromise the essential distinction between God and man, between Creator and creatures.
An urgent task before the church in the 21st century is to escape the ghetto it has constructed for itself and its mighty gospel.
The two great contemporary opponents of the church are secularism (modern and “postmodern”) and Islam. Neither opponent particularly cares about the church so long as it stays in its ghetto. A ghettoized church will not speak in absolutes, and so it cannot threaten the scientific dogmas of modern secularism, the more impressionistic dogmas of postmodern secularism, or the iron will of Islam.
But neither of these opponents can keep the church in the ghetto; the church keeps itself in the ghetto, and it must come out, in obedience to the gospel.
A starting point for the church must be to recognize that any human idea or practice governed by the dogmas of secularism or the unbending will of Islam is fundamentally at odds with the way the world really is, and therefore inherently self-destructive. This needs to be made clear again and again. There are those who want to say that every religion, philosophy, and ideology is simply trying to interpret the world; and that, because all interpretations are equally fallible, all are equally valid and equally suspect. A Christian who accepts this has already surrendered to the confines of the ghetto. It is simply not true that Christianity offers one more interpretation of the world in an already glutted marketplace of interpretations. The world is a certain way, and either human interpretation and practice accord with the way the world truly is, or they do not. To deny that the world really is a certain way is to accept wholesale ontological relativism, and surrender the Christian faith. It may be that as Christians proclaim the way the world really is, they will not be believed – at least at first – but that in no way changes the truth of their message, or the urgent necessity that they themselves believe it so they can emerge from the ghetto and proclaim it.
The world is fundamentally Trinitarian because the Triune God created it. Any ideology opposed to Trinitarianism is already shipwrecked interpretively and practically; it can neither think rightly about the world nor act rightly in the world, because it refuses to accept that the world is the way it really is.
A Trinitarian cosmos is a relational cosmos. The God who is in relationship within Himself as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit created a world to which He stands related and which stands related to Him; He made creatures in certain relationships with each other as well as with Him. Human beings were particularly placed within this tapestry of relationships so as to relate in particular ways with God, with each other, and with the lower creatures.
To say no more than this is already to be fundamentally and irreconcilably at odds with all forms of secularism and with Islam. But once again: to say anything else than this is not only to cease professing Christianity, it is to cease thinking about the world and living in the world according to the way the world really is, according to the way the Triune God created it.
A church that professes and lives in accord with Trinitarian cosmology will be a church that can turn the world upside down (or, more precisely, right side up). There is no sphere of human thought or activity that will not be transformed as it conforms to the grammar of Trinitarianism. A few examples, selected from a multitude, will suffice to illustrate.
Modernism is particularly enamored of its empirical sciences. Its unexamined premise is that one can intelligently study the creatures of the cosmos while totally disregarding a set of interpretive possibilities opened up by Trinitarian cosmology. Such possibilities it has ruled out of court long before it comes to any data. This seems impermissible on the first principles of empirical science until one considers that, in its dogma of macroevolution, modernism has managed to construct an entire cosmology that justifies its unexamined premise: if the creatures of the cosmos began in an undifferentiated mass, and only later developed relationships, there is no reason even to consider the possibility that they may have begun their existences already in a state of relational diversity, each with a purpose in the glorification of its Creator, each with a purpose in the service of His human image-bearers. Modernist science may claim that the unavoidable conclusion from its data bank is that macroevolution is true; but surely its conclusions are suspect when it rejects certain interpretive possibilities before even examining the data.
Consider for instance the derision heaped on the idea of a young earth that gives the appearance of being very old. Trinitarian cosmology can offer one very simple interpretive possibility here: what if God, being Triune, wanted to create a world that, from its first moment of existence, was not only a complex tapestry of present relationships, but already from that first moment stood in relationship to a past? “Ridiculous!” Really? Even if God created a blob of undifferentiated mass and energy at the beginning of all things (which then took billions of years to evolve), someone could immediately have asked, “So where did this come from? It sure looks as if it has a past!” If one goes back to a “creation” at all – or even just some first moment without any Creator – one will always end up with something that looks like it has a past but doesn’t. (One might choose to believe instead in everlasting matter and energy, but one should be honest enough to admit this belief doesn’t fit anywhere within the parameters of modern science. But I digress. . . .) What can modern “science” say “scientifically” about this interpretive possibility opened up by Trinitarian cosmology? Nothing. It can spit at it because it rejects the cosmology, but what is such spitting but the venom of religious bigotry?
Take another example from the empirical sciences. There is various data that indicates man and other organisms share a common ancestor. Here again, Trinitarian cosmology offers an interpretive possibility that is ruled off the table long before modernist science gets to the table: what if God, being Triune, created man with significant genetic features linking (relating?) him to other organisms? What if He intended that man, when he finally cracked the DNA code, should marvel at the honor of bearing God’s image when, at his biological roots, he is so much like the “dumb beasts”? What if man were intended to see that, along with being “a little lower than the angels,” he is also just a tiny smidge higher than the critters of the world? What if God intended man to get a huge belly laugh out of this, and to walk a bit more humbly with his God? “Ridiculous!” Well, yes, we’ve heard that before. . . .
Farther afield from the ghetto, what might a church impassioned about Trinitarian cosmology say in the field of human ethics? If God made the cosmos a tapestry of relationships that mirror His own glorious love as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, might we not say that certain human activities promote the relationships in which God created man to live, while others do not – and might we further say, then, that certain human practices are actually dehumanizing? Would this have any implications for our appropriation and appreciation of digital technology? Would a Trinitarian cosmology be able to mount economic proposals that preserve both the diversity of a free market and solidarity through true charity? Might it be able to rebuild urban neighborhoods without the iron fist of big government (Trinitarianism is fairly uncomfortable with consolidation of power) or the erasure of cultural and ethnic diversity? And so much more could be asked.
Or what might we say of the epistemology that flows from Trinitarianism? Maybe it’s easier to think about the epistemology flowing from anti-Trinitarianism. The man who rejects his relationship to his Creator – what of his thought world? He no longer thinks of himself as he really is, or of the world as it really is; and by his declaration of intellectual autonomy he has cut himself off from any authoritative answers to any questions (the mind of man cannot transcend the mind of man), or even the ability to ask authoritative questions. He is adrift in a sea of pure particularly – having begun with himself, how can he establish the definite existence of any “other” from which he might hear something other than his own mind – which is another way of saying he is adrift in bottomless relativity, which is to say, irrationalism.
It would be delightful to go on to aesthetics and explore whether, because the world is a certain way, some art is beautiful, while some “art” is mere distortion – rebellion against the true relationships of the tapestry we call the world. But this has run on too long already. God grant His church the courage and imagination to leave the ghetto and live in the world as it really is.
The business of being human in God’s world is pretty complicated. Here’s an attempt to sketch out the main contours. Criticism invited:
“The things of the senses cannot of themselves distract from God. All the things of earth, in being very good, declare God, and it is only by the mediation of their boundless display that the declaration of God may be heard and seen. In themselves they have no essences apart from the divine delight that crafts them . . . and so have nothing in themselves by which they might divert attention from the God who gives them, no specific gravity, no weight apart from the weight of glory. Only a corrupt desire that longs to possess the things of the world as inert property, for violent or egoistic ends, so disorders the sensible world as to draw it away from the God that sensible reality properly declares; such a desire has not fallen prey to a lesser or impure beauty, but has rather lost sight of corporeal, material, and temporal beauty as beauty, and so has placed it in bondage.” (David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 255)
“The Bible is supremely a manual of worship, but too often it has been treated . . . as a manual of ethics, of moral values, of religious ideas, or even of sound doctrine. When we see that the worship and mission of the church are the gift of participating through the Holy Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father and the Son’s mission from the Father to the world, that the unique center of the Bible is Jesus Christ, ‘the apostle and high priest whom we confess’ (Heb 3:1), then the doctrines of the Trinity, the incarnation, the atonement, the ministry of the Spirit, Church and sacraments, our understanding of the kingdom, our anthropology and eschatology, all unfold from that center.” (James B. Torrance, Worship, Community & the Triune God of Grace, p. 9)
“As man is given by the Spirit to share in Christ’s authority, he cannot do so without love, both for the created order in general and for the particular beings, human and other, which stand within it in various problematic relationships. Love does not bear the dominating and manipulative traits that have been given to it in some attempts to characterize the Christian ethic. It achieves its creativity by being perceptive. It attempts to act for any being only on the basis of an appreciation of that being. Thus classical Christian descriptions of love are often found invoking two other terms which expound its sense: the first is ‘wisdom’, which is the intellectual apprehension of the order of things which discloses how each being stands in relation to each other; the second is ‘delight’, which is affective attention to something simply for what it is and for the fact that it is. Such love is the fruit of God’s presence within us, uniting us to the humanity of God in Christ, who cherishes and defends all that God the Father has made and thought.” (Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, p. 26)
A beautiful example of Trinitarian hymnody from the Reformation period:
Lord, keep us steadfast in thy Word
And curb the Turks’ and papists’ sword
Who Jesus Christ thine only Son
Fain would tumble from off thy throne.
Proof of thy might, Lord Christ, afford,
For thou of all the lords art Lord;
Thine own poor Christendom defend
That it may praise thee without end.
God Holy Ghost, who comfort art,
Give to thy folk on earth one heart;
Stand by us breathing our last breath,
Lead us to life straight out of death.
(Martin Luther, 1541)
“A religious fellowship in which the differentiating relations between Father, Son, and Spirit had ceased to shape ritual and theology would no longer be the church, no matter how otherwise dedicated it was to one or another Christian value or slogan.” (Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, vol. 1)