Church of the Triune God: Understanding God’s work in his people today
Edited by Michael Jensen, Aquila Press, Sydney, 2013, 224 pp.
Every group has their own standards about who is ‘in’ or ‘out’. I went to an academically selective high school (i.e. you had to do well on a series of exams to get in) where, by definition, everyone was a nerd. Yet we still had a ‘cool group’, and we teased the nerds for being so clever, though I doubt most of the students at the local comprehensive school would have recognized our categorizations.
Similarly, while it might be one of the last things you would categorize as such, there’s a certain ‘trendiness’ in theological circles in talking about the Trinity. In Bible-nerd circles it’s been flavour-of-the-month for years now.
In my opinion, this fascination with the Trinity is great, but sometimes executed poorly. On the one hand, it’s wonderful that we’re recognizing and talking about how the very nature of God is crucially important, and it should thoroughly inform our lives and doctrine. If we’re on about loving and serving God, knowing who he is ought to be high up on our list of Important Things To Do.
Unfortunately, much of what passed for trinitarian reflection amongst my fellow students at theological college, and some of what we heard and read, fell into one of two common traps. Firstly, talking about the Trinity easily becomes so abstract that it is difficult to see how it relates to anything else. Secondly, implications or analogies to human situations can be drawn too quickly and directly and they become rather forced. (My theory, for what it’s worth, is that it is common in the New Testament to draw direct parallels from the actions and character of Jesus and the apostles to us: Jesus was a servant of others; go likewise with a servant heart. When we get to the Trinity, we want to do the same thing, but what is it for us to act ‘trinitarianly’? For the most part I think that’s a category error, and a failure to reckon with the differences between God and humanity.)
Given this background, I’m thankful for the recent Church of the Triune God: a book in celebration of the teaching and passion of Robert Doyle, a lecturer from Moore Theological College. Edited by Michael Jensen, it’s a collection of excellent essays on the themes he was so captivated by throughout his teaching career: the Trinity and the church.
This is a book in two parts. The first section is a collection of reflections on Doyle’s favourite theologians and their interactions with trinitarian thought. Chapters on Athansius, Augustine, Calvin, Barth, TF Torrance, the Anglican tradition, and DB Knox make up this first part of the book, with their authors writing on how the themes of the church and the Trinity were addressed by each theologian. The second section turns to a series of topics in the life of the church—preaching, prayer, living for others, mission—and reflects on what the doctrine of the Trinity has to say to each of these activities of God’s people. These two strands combine to make an interesting and varied read.
Books on the Trinity are rarely easy reads. This is a bit of a shame, although it’s easy to understand why. As soon as you get beyond a sentence or three about the Trinity (One God in three persons; the Father is not the Son; the Son is not the Spirit; the Spirit is not the Father; etc.) then the language and concepts quickly get rather involved. Describing the Trinity using any form of analogy is notoriously difficult. This book is almost an exception to that rule, but not quite. If you’ve never read about the Trinity before, this is not the book to start with. It’s written for those with some background—unsurprisingly, as it’s celebrating a theological lecturer, by his colleagues and students.
It is, however, down the more accessible end of the spectrum. Some essays are excellent starting points. Andrew Cameron’s chapter, in particular, explains not only how the persons of the Trinity relate to one another, but how that can be reflected in our lives as the church. In much the same style as his excellent Joined-Up Life, he explains himself abundantly along the way, defining terms clearly, warning the reader where it’s a little difficult, but encouraging perseverance because the result is worth it.
There’s lots to like about this book. I appreciated how the authors show the doctrine of the Trinity reflected in the life of the church, but avoid simple or direct equivalence from the life of God to our life. For example, Mark Baddeley writes:
For Athanasius, the Trinity is about how radically and fundamentally different the relationship of the Father and the Son and the Spirit is to anything like the relationships that exist between human beings (p. 15).
Direct application of the Trinity to the life of the Church is rare for Athanasius. He does, however, make some connections: humanity is made in the image of God, and the unity of the church reflects the unity of God in Trinity. More commonly, however, the trinitarian nature of God shapes how he acts towards us in revelation and redemption. It is then these acts of God toward us that shape our life:
God’s saving acts give the Church its nature and characteristics, not God’s own divine nature operating immediately upon the Church (pp. 19‑20).
So rather than observing and celebrating the nature of God as Trinity and then asking how we can be imitators of him directly, Athanasius’ method is to see how the Trinity acts in ways that affect us. We can’t properly understand revelation or salvation without the doctrine of the Trinity. This is echoed by John McLean as he writes about Calvin:
How then do we come to know the true God? Calvin’s general answer is ‘Scripture’. The substance of revelation conveyed by Scripture is God’s self-revelation in Christ by the Spirit. (p. 59)
But it’s not all about our understanding: the chapter on TF Torrance especially deals with our participation in the triune life of God. Benjamin Dean explains how Torrance understood the church as being constituted by relationship with Christ; the church is in communion with the Father through the Son, in the Spirit, as the persons of the Trinity are in communion.
The whole first section is bound to be encouraging: you’ll be reminded of biblical truths; you’ll be urged to delight in the love of the Father who redeemed you by the Son in the power of the Spirit; you’ll learn something new about these remarkable thinkers and writers God has graciously given to benefit his people.
However, I found the final section to be where this book really came into its own. As mentioned above, Andrew Cameron’s chapter is excellent. He paints a picture of how trinitarian theology is the much-needed antidote to our culture’s fascination with the myth of self-fulfilment. He starts with Robert Doyle’s own analysis of the current context, that “the greatest moral good has become to remove all barriers to an individual’s self-
fulfilment” (p. 142). Drawing on a clear explanation of how the Father, Son, and Spirit relate to one another in mutual, self-giving love, he critiques our evangelical culture in which we have largely abandoned the ‘one-another-ness’ that flows from being a church after the image of God (p. 158). It simultaneously taught me something, got me thinking further in ways I needed, and whipped me into shape.
Other chapters in this section are also fruitful, reflecting on how the Trinity shapes, explains, and enables various aspects of church life to happen. Activities such as preaching or prayer aren’t some kind of trinitarian imitation, they’re possible because of the Trinity:
Preaching is speaking God’s words concerning God’s Son in the power of God’s Spirit for the building of God’s people to the glory of God (p. 163).
The overwhelming evidence in the New Testament is that prayer steeped in the knowledge of God as Trinity is mainly prayer to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit (p. 182).
Prayer, preaching, and mission are therefore trinitarian activities in which we participate as faithful members of Christ.
The Trinity really is at the heart of all of theology, and affects how we engage with the rest of doctrine—although it’s not always easy to work out exactly how. This book helps to do a lot of that work, pointing out how Father, Son, and Spirit are at the centre of revelation, salvation, the nature of the church, prayer, preaching, evangelism, and so much more. It may not be a book for absolutely everyone, but I do recommend it: it will be good for your soul to be reminded of the God of the universe, present with us through his Son, in the power of the Spirit.