Dr Marty Folsom Does the doctrine of the Trinity have any value for the church? Stephen Holmes says, “The doctrine of the Trinity is necessary and precisely useless, and that point must never be surrendered.” (Two Views on the Doctrine of the Trinity, 47). He desires to maintain the unspeakableness of God and to prevent people from using the Trinity to support human agendas. He goes on to affirm a “gaze,” a “glimpse” that leaves us “awestruck” in worship. These visual metaphors of distance betray a world where we are observers who are separated from it—or more pointedly, from Them. But, to be brief and straightforward, the language of ‘function’ is necessarily meaningless in narrating the eternal life of God.” (ibid, 48).
John Macmurray, Scottish philosopher, critiqued the Enlightenment worldview as one that begins with the “I think” of the separated observer and misses what it means to firstly participate in this world, only then to think in response to our involvement in it. If we begin with a separated viewpoint, any resulting knowledge will become knowledge for knowledge sake—a sterile orthodoxy.
In thinking about the Trinity, Holmes prefers the world of articulated doctrine to protect us from heresy, but not to act as though the Triune God is calling us to a life of intimacy and communion with the living God. This begs the question, “what use do the writers of the Bible expect to be facilitated in the lives of believers from their authorial witness to the withness of God made present in Jesus Christ?”
I would like to consider a test case in response to this question. In John’s Gospel, Jesus uses a number of “as” statements. The nature of the word “as” is that it implies “in a corresponding manner.” This implies that one reality, God’s triune relations in this case, is to be used in creating another resultant reality. The first functions to enable the second.
The first “as” we will look at occurs in John 17:22-23. It proclaims, “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” It assumes a oneness of the Father-Son relation as a true description of their manner of being. Jesus asks the Father to complete a consistent unity in the disciples that is not defined by human experience, but by the being of the unity in the Godhead.
When actualized, the human community will be a witness to the sending Father who gives the Son in love. They will be a living affirmation of the Sent One, Jesus, whose love transformed their community. All this is modeled on the second “as,” the manner in which the Father has loved the Son. That manner becomes the character of the community and their witness to the world. The oneness and love of the Father-Son relation are useful as the invitation to fulfillment for the worshiping community (the unity and community are also facilitated by the Spirit who is implicit, not explicit here, but articulated elsewhere in John and Paul).
The centering goal for the human is to relationally affirm with Jesus, “This is eternal life, that they (we) may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. “ (John 17:3). This is not a template for human imitation; it is a prayer for humans to participate in the abiding life of mutual love that is fostered by the Father, Son, and Spirit as the proper outcome of knowing the Triune God.
The simplicity of the divine communion is a complexity of loving relations that are intended to transform the community by virtue of intimate, personal knowledge; this is a plausible goal for doctrine as a reflection on Scripture. Relationality informs the rationality of Trinitarian doctrine. However, given priority, rationality tries to fit God into boxes of comprehension. Tragically, words not only merely glimpse, but they try to grasp the other in an authoritative manner. The love and freedom are lost in exchange for a definition that excludes and divides. They lose their functional value.
The second passage to consider is John 15:10-11, “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.” Here the manner in which the Son has lived in covenant faithfulness in to the Father is central. In keeping the Torah, loving God, neighbor, and self, he has prepared the way for the human community in Him to answer the call, not to legalistic performance, but to living from love that shares Jesus’ loving faithfulness.
The reader is pointed to the Father-Son relation again to see what this love is like, not only to look at, but to be participated in. Additionally, there is an authenticity that results as the fruit of the Spirit—joy. The enacted, encountered life of love, mediated through the life of Jesus, and fulfilled in a community by the Spirit, will be recognized as the echo of a proper vision of the Triune God. This is not a glimpse or a gaze. We do not seek for joy, we seek to abide in a relation revealed that transform us. The fruit is not our manipulation of God to meet human agendas (supposed Social Trinitarian problem), it is the authentic outcome of coming home to the Father, Son, and Spirit (Relational Trinitarian). If we do not listen to, abide in, respond to a Person, we will not be following Jesus’ directives.
Finally, in John 20:21, Jesus says, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” Here we have the Johannine Great Commission. It differs from Matthew’s commission, in that it begins with the Father-Son relation, not “Go make disciples.” Here, one must see how the Father sends the Son in reconciling, self-sacrificing love to abide with us as a prerequisite to an acquired understanding. And the understanding is not a mere affirmation of a good idea, it is a call to share in the Triune Mission to make visible the love the Father has for the world—one that calls to awaken them to the fact that they are the Children of God.
Every church that creates a mission statement that does not begin with an overt alignment within the Father-Son-Spirit mission will create a model of success that misses the point of Jesus directive. It will count bodies in the pew, dollars in the plate, and programs in the bulletin. We need to be story tellers who share who we are as those who are nurtured by the Father-Son-Spirit and extend their life in acts and attitudes that are full of grace and truth, not as concepts, but as faithful action.
We function best as theologians when we are fed by being attached to the vine, meaning continually drawing life from abiding in the communion of the Triune God, and bear fruit that draws its sweetness through the vines and origin of Life. Then we bless the world as they experience Grace made present.
If the biblical address is to fulfill its transforming work in us, we cannot merely gaze on the Trinity. We must enter into knowing the Abba of Jesus, hearing the Voice of Jesus, and the Spirit of Jesus who speaks to the Churches. What does this Spirit say? “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost.” (Revelation 22:17) Is the water mentioned here just about teaching, doctrine, truths, principals to live by? No, we come to drink the love of the Father, poured out in the life of the Son, and shared by the Spirit who thereby brings us into communing fellowship.
The bride, the church, also says “Come.” We must be ready to answer the question, “to whom are we coming?” and believe that it matters, has value, and functions within the mission of God. We speak of our Father, the Jesus who calls us friends, and the Spirit who sets our hearts on fire to recognize the one we come to call “Abba, dear Father.” Then orphans become beloved children, the water turns to wine, and the Spirit blows a fresh wind to enable every tongue to tell an invitational story to invite strangers to the feast where the food is secondary to the Hosts who as One, create belief, not as leap in the dark, but as the taste of falling in love for a lifetime with confidence that is unforgettable.