You Can’t Sideline the Trinity (Or, Realize that Every Sunday is Trinity Sunday)

trinityIn closing his tremendous section in the Reformed Dogmatics Volume 2: God and Creation on the dogma of the Trinity–God’s being one being, yet three persons–Bavinck gives a number of arguments for importance of the Trinity. That God is Father, Son, and Spirit gives us the truth of the fact that God is a living God without pulling us into the various errors of pantheism, monism, and deism (p. 331). He is the one who is Three whose internal life is truly lively with the generation of the Son of the Father and the procession of the Spirit from them both. What’s more, out of this fullness  of eternal life consisting in mutual glorification, blessedness, is the ground for a doctrine of creation that, again, doesn’t fall into those various errors. Instead, because God is triune, out of the movement and perfection of his own inner life he can make a world that is not himself, upon which he is not dependent or in needy, yet can truly be an object of his love and self-communication (p. 332-333).

Beyond these meta-theological questions, though, Bavinck says that this doctrine is of “incalculable importance” for the Christian religion–the actual lived, practice of knowing and worshipping the True and Living God. Bavinck states:

The entire Christian belief system, all of special revelation, stands or falls with the confession of God’s Trinity. It is the core of the Christian faith, the root of all its dogmas, the basic content of the new covenant. It was this religious Christian interest, accordingly, that sparked the development of the church’s doctrine of the Trinity.

This isn’t just a matter of philosophic speculation, or having our doctrinal ducks in a row so that our early church bishops could have something to fight about and feel important. No, deep down, every Christian who properly owns the name knows that something more fundamental, more primary, valuable than a tidy metaphysical set-up is at stake; salvation, the history of redemption itself, hangs in the balance:

This is so strongly felt that all who value being called a Christian recognize and believe in a kind of Trinity. The profoundest question implicit in every Christian creed and system of theology is how God can be both one and yet three. Christian truth in all its parts comes into its own to a lesser or greater extent depending on how that question is answered. In the doctrine of the Trinity we feel the heartbeat of God’s entire revelation for the redemption of humanity. Though foreshadowed in the Old Testament, it only comes to light fully in Christ. Religion can be satisfied with nothing less than God himself. Now in Christ God himself comes out to us, and in the Holy Spirit he communicates himself to us. The work of re-creation is trinitarian through and through. From God, through God, and in God are all things. Re-creation is one divine work from beginning to end, yet it can be described in terms of three agents: it is fully accomplished by the love of the Father, the grace of the Son, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Not only does the question of the Trinity matter for the broader history of redemption, but God being Father, Son, and Holy Spirit matters at a personal level too. It is something that a Christian ought to feel in their own “flesh and bones”, so to speak. The Trinity is essential to the life of faith:

A Christian’s faith life, accordingly, points back to three generative principles. “We know all these things,” says article 9 of the Belgic Confession, “from the testimonies of holy Scripture, as well as from the operations of the persons, especially from those we feel within ourselves.” We know ourselves to be children of the Father, redeemed by the Son, and in communion with both through the Holy Spirit. Every blessing, both spiritual and material, comes to us from the triune God. In that name we are baptized; that name sums up our confession; that name is the source of all the blessings that come down to us; to that name we will forever bring thanksgiving and honor; in that name we find rest for our souls and peace for our conscience. Christians have a God above them, before them, and within them. Our salvation, both in this life and in the life to come, is bound up with the doctrine of the Trinity; yet we grant that we cannot determine the measure of knowledge—also of this mystery—needed for a true and sincere faith.

I’m writing this post today because, in the broader church calendar, this is “Trinity Sunday”, a Sunday traditionally set apart for preaching on, teaching about, and honoring God as Trinity. And there is wisdom setting aside a Sunday to explicitly do so. The one caution I would throw up is to say is this: take care that we don’t think the doctrine of the Trinity is one we can save for one Sunday a year, to reflect on. It’s not to be sidelined, or put in the corner again until next year, as we preach on the “main things” of the gospel or the Christian life.

Why? Because in all of Christianity, in the gospel, we have to do with God–restoring right relationship with him, living before him, being transformed into his Image. But what we must remember is that there is no other God than He who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words, today might be Trinity Sunday, but every Sunday we have to do with the things of the gospel, we have to do with the things of the Trinity.

Soli Deo Gloria

Can We Be Angry at Prodigals? The Frustrated Compassion of Jesus (TGC)

Recently, while reading Luke 15 and the parable of the prodigal son, I began to reflect on the character of the father. Preaching on this parable tends to highlight the father’s loving welcome, his compassion and grace upon both sons, his willingness to come out to greet both sons at great cost in terms of social shame and dishonor, and his great joy at receiving the lost son. This is right and good. But I think it’s worth considering Luke 15:20:

And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.

We often focus on the fact the son was a long way off when the father saw him. The father was sitting there, waiting, hoping for his wandering son to come home. The welcoming heart precedes the prodigal’s repentance. Long before you ever thought to come back, God was there, waiting to run to you. So with our own prodigals, we wait with open arms, ready to receive with joy all who come in repentance seeking grace.

But what is the father allowed to feel in the meantime? There’s danger in reading too much into a parable beyond the plot as it’s developed, or delving deeply into the psyches of characters whose existence spans about 20 verses. Still, it says in the text the father saw him and then he “felt compassion,” moved to action.

What did the father feel before he saw the son coming home? Can we imagine him frustrated and angry? Are we to suppose during the months, or even years, the prodigal is away the father is only and solely feeling a mild, welcoming compassion? Is there no place for a holy frustration at destructive choices he sees his beloved child making? Is there no place for hurt, for grief at the pain of rejection in the midst of his unrelenting love and mercy? Are these feelings allowed for gracious Christians?

You can read the rest of my article at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Interpreting the Text to Death with Kierkegaard

kierkegaard 2It is a truism today to say that the Bible needs to be interpreted. In fact, it was a truism back when the Bible was being written that it’s not simply a matter of just “reading” the thing all the time. Even the Bible says that it’s hard to understand (2 Pet. 3:16). Or, as the Westminster Confession comments:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (2.7)

We’ve known for a long time then that even though the basics are clearly laid out, there are at least some parts that are not at all obvious or plain. For thousands of years now, Christians have wrestled with, commented on, and interpreted the text of the Bible. This is part of why we have seminaries with classes in hermeneutics, study of the original languages and ancient cultures that form the setting and background of the text, dictionaries, commentaries that are thousands of pages long, and journals where scholars devote dozens of pages to analyzing the nuances of a single word in the context of a single verse. Without a doubt, our knowledge of the text has expanded and been deepened by the faithful work of scholars and interpreters over the last few generations and this is a good thing.

The people of God need preachers who will roll up their sleeves and carry on the task of discerning what the Lord has spoken and is even now speaking in the text. Poor interpretation is at the root of so much bad preaching and teaching in the church, which leads to bad living by the church.

Of course, under-interpretation, simplistic readings, and a lack of textual nuance aren’t the only danger we run when it comes to interpretive task. Indeed, Kierkegaard tells a cautionary parable about the danger that can come with an unbridled focus on interpretation:

Imagine a country. A royal command is issued to all the office-bearers and subjects, in short, to the whole population. A remarkable change comes over them all: they all become interpreters, the office-bearers become authors, every blessed day there comes out an interpretation more learned than the last, more acute, more elegant, more profound, more ingenious, more wonderful, more charming, and more wonderfully charming. Criticism which out to survey the whole can hardly attain survey of this prodigious literature, indeed criticism itself has become a literature so prolix that it is impossible to attain a survey of the criticism. Everything became interpretation—but no one read the royal command with a view to acting in accordance with it. And it was not only that everything became interpretation, but at the same time the point of view for determining what seriousness is was altered, and to be busy about interpretation became real seriousness. Suppose that this king was not a human king—for thought a human king would understand well enough that they were making a fool of him by giving the affair this turn, yet as a human king he is dependent, especially when he encounters the united front of office-bearers and subjects and so would be compelled to put the best face on a bad game, to let it seem as if all this were a matter of course, so that they most elegant interpreter would be rewarded by elevation to the peerage, the most acute would be knighted, etc.—Suppose that this kind was almighty, one therefore who is not put to embarrassment though all the office-bearers and all the subjects play him false. What do you supposed this almighty king would think about such a thing? Surely he would say, “ The fact that they do not comply with my commandment, even that I might forgive; moreover, if they united in a petition that I might have patience with them, or perhaps relieve them entirely of this commandment which seemed to them too hard—that I could forgive them. But this I cannot forgive, that they entirely alter the point of view for determining what seriousness is.” –For Self-Examination, pp. 58-59

With this little parable Kierkegaard throws up a large, flashing, red warning sign for those of us enamored with the endless study of the text. The danger comes when interpretation becomes an excuse for disobedience. Kevin Vanhoozer has pointed out that the proper interpretation of the text of Scripture requires performance. Ingenious readings are not the point—hearing and rendering a fitting response to the voice of God is. When the task of interpretation eclipses our actual response to God speaking to us out of the silence, calling us to repentance, commanding us in righteousness, convicting us of sin, consoling us in pain, and drawing us to communion with Himself, things have gone awry. At that point you have sentenced the text to a slow and agonizing death by commentary.

Obviously, this isn’t an anti-intellectual call to “just read the Bible” without trying to engage at that deeper level. Study the Bible. Wrestle with it. Don’t be satisfied with simplistic readings of difficult passages. Go read big books on the subject. At the end of the day, though, we must never forget that when the “Word of the Lord” came to the prophets it didn’t come as a word to be inspected, dissected, and thereby domesticated, but as the mighty command of the King who intends for his subjects to hear and obey his voice. We study in order to hear–we interpret in order to obey.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why Does it Matter that the Holy Spirit is a Person?

holy spiritMany of us are confused about the Holy Spirit. The Father we have a decent conception of, the Son too (Godman, Lord, Redeemer, etc), but the Spirit? We honestly don’t know what to do with “it.” And that’s one of the main problems. Some of us think of the Spirit primarily as an “it”; a thing, a force, and not a person. But according to the Scriptures the Holy Spirit is a person, coeternal, and coexistent with the Father and the Son. What’s more, it matters that we know that he’s a person.

This is one of the realities R.A. Torrey emphasized in his later teaching on the Holy Spirit. In a lecture* aimed at proving the personality (personhood) of the Spirit from Scripture, Torrey first argued for the importance of the question. (I kind of love that, by the way. People used to argue for why they were going to argue.) He knew some might write it off as an abstract, unimportant question, so he very quickly made three arguments for why we should care to know this.

First, “it is of the highest importance from the standpoint of worship.” Look, if the Holy Spirit is a person alongside the Father and the Son, then he deserves to be worshipped alongside the Father and the Son. If we treat him as just an impersonal power or force sent from the Father, or something like that, we will be “robbing him of his due.” We won’t be treating him with the adoration, honor, glory, and majesty that a Divine Person is worthy of. According to Jesus, God desires to be worshipped in Spirit and in Truth (John 4). If you miss the personality of the Spirit, you’re actually missing out on both of those dimensions. You are missing out on the joy of knowing Him for who not just what he is.

Second, “it is of the highest importance from a practical standpoint that we know the Holy Spirit as a Person.” From the Spirit comes the power to do all that God calls us to do in this world. But, Torrey says, if we think of the Spirit as a mere force, then we will be constantly asking silly questions like, “How can I get hold of the Holy Spirit to use it?” much like Simon the Magician. We don’t know to ask in prayer, “How can the Holy Spirit get a hold of me and use me?” The difference between these two questions is the difference between pagan use of the divine and a biblical understanding of God as Lord.

What’s more, on the one way, we will ask how to get more of the Spirit instead of asking how the Spirit can get more of us. Torrey says the first way necessarily leads to pride, strutting about as if you belong to a better class of Christians because we have “more” of the Spirit as force. When you understand the Spirit is a person, you realize you have to humble yourself to be of any use to him. He is the one who comes and takes a hold of us, fills us, disposes of us, and glorifies Jesus through us as he wills.

Third, “the doctrine of the personality of the Holy Spirit is of the highest importance from the standpoint of experience.” Here Torrey points us to the experience of Christians, both in his own ministry, and throughout the centuries that attest to this. Knowing the Spirit as a person means the possibility of deeper communion, joy, and love, as we come to know our God as he dwells within us. God does not come to us through a lesser, impersonal intermediary. He does not speak to us at a distance and relate to us from far away. Instead, Father and Son send the Spirit, another Advocate, who comes to inhabit us, and bringing us into the very life of God through union with Christ.

We could go on at length on the importance of the personhood of the Spirit. We will stop here for now. Maybe take some time to pray. If you have not considered the reality that the Holy Spirit is a person, stop and meditate on that. Pray that God would give you a sense of it, both intellectual and spiritual. If this is not new to you, stop anyways. Maybe pray Torrey’s prayer, “Lord, how can the Spirit get a hold of more of me? In service? In communion?” Or maybe simply praise God that through the gift of the Spirit, God gives you the gift of himself.

Soli Deo Gloria 

*reprinted in Fred Sanders’ How God Used R.A. Torreypp. 203-227

A Trifecta of Joy Commands

joyThere is a delightful little trifecta of commands in the middle of Paul’s laundry list of exhortations towards the end of his first letter to the Thessalonians:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

In that little burst of admonition, Paul gives us a snapshot of the life of joy that God intends for his children. Not only his children in easy circumstances, but even those like the Thessalonians who were under serious threat of harm, persecution, and loss.

What does it mean to rejoice, though, and how can we do it always? Well, Calvin points out its parallel passage in Philippians 4:

In like manner, in Philippians 4:4, having said,

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known to all. Be not anxious as to anything. The Lord is at hand.

He afterwards points out the means of this—

but in every prayer let your requests be made known to God, with giving of thanks.

In light of this, he says that rejoicing always, or being filled with joy regularly is, “moderation of spirit, when the mind keeps itself in calmness under adversity, and does not give indulgence to grief.” That is not to say that a person never grieves, nor that the person is slap-happy all the time, burying their emotions and plastering a fake smile on their face. He says that the person doesn’t “give indulgence”, doesn’t coddle, doesn’t nurse, doesn’t cultivate grief in the soul in every situation, nor even in those that might tempt us to despair. Instead, Paul “presents as a source of joy a calm and composed mind, that is not unduly disturbed by injuries or adversities.”

How do we do this, though? Well, through prayer. Calvin knows that it is very easy to be “borne down by grief, sorrow, anxiety, and fear”, so he says Paul “bids us repose in the providence of God.” What’s more:

as doubts frequently obtrude themselves as to whether God cares for us, he also prescribes the remedy — that by prayer we disburden our anxieties, as it were, into his bosom, as David commands us to do in Psalm 37:5 and Psalm 55:22; and Peter also, after his example. (1 Peter 5:7.)

Prayer brings us into the gentle presence of our Fatherly God. Prayer reminds us that all things are in the hands of the Lord of History. What’s more, it actually effects change as the prayer moves the God who moves all things. Once we do this, “giving thanks in all circumstances” becomes a thinkable reality. As Calvin expounds it,

For, in the first place, he would have us hold God’s benefits in such esteem, that the recognition of them and meditation upon them shall overcome all sorrow. And, unquestionably, if we consider what Christ has conferred upon us, there will be no bitterness of grief so intense as may not be alleviated, and give way to spiritual joy. For if this joy does not reign in us, the kingdom of God is at the same time banished from us, or we from it. And very ungrateful is that man to God, who does not set so high a value on the righteousness of Christ and the hope of eternal life, as to rejoice in the midst of sorrow. As, however, our minds are easily dispirited, until they give way to impatience, we must observe the remedy that he subjoins immediately afterwards. For on being cast down and laid low we are raised up again by prayers, because we lay upon God what burdened us.

Prayer reminds us of our many benefits in Christ, which allows us to consider the joyful, thanks-inducing reality beyond the current circumstances. There is always reason for joy for the Christian and so Paul tells us to constantly be praying, unburdening ourselves, and tapping into the deep reservoir of comfort we have in Christ.

Finally, we need to remember that this is all God’s will towards us in Christ. God’s intention is for us to live a life of constant joy, in all situations, in prayerful communion with him, pouring out thanksgiving for all of his manifold blessings. These are not burdensome commands. These are, as John Piper has put it, the “duty of delight.” This, indeed, is the endgoal of both God’s commands and his promises: our delight in his glory.

So then, today, remember the trifecta of joy commands: rejoice, pray, and give thanks.

Soli Deo Gloria

Edwards: Heaven is a World of Triune Love (W/ Some Help From Strobel)

Cheesy

Cheesy “Heaven” Image, because nobody clicks on pages with Jonathan Edwards.

Recently, I’ve been on something a Jonathan Edwards kick. Though I’d been kind of interested in Edwards before–his The End for Which God Created the World and a collection of his sermons exercised a deep influence on me a few years ago–I hadn’t really dug deeply into his voluminous and wide-ranging works (sermons, treatises, miscellanies), partially because I felt I needed a guide into them. Some might think, “A guide for Edwards? Really?” Yup.

See, generations of U.S. History students have been spoiled for reading Jonathan Edwards simply because they’ve only been exposed to hostile expositions of his classic Great Awakening sermon “Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God” at the age of 15, or so. The unfortunate picture that emerges is of a hell-obsessed, brimstone preacher, with little to no theological imagination except in expositing the tortures of the damned. Push a little beyond that, though, and you come to find out the revival preacher was also a creative theologian, pastor, and philosophical innovator of the highest order. Indeed, according to many intellectual historians, it’s likely he’s the first and most original theologian the Americas ever produced, capable of being ranked among the greatest intellects of his age across the Atlantic.  Theologian Robert Jenson, himself no slouch, has called him “America’s Theologian.”

As it turns out, Edwards was rather metaphysically-sophisticated, and, in some places, kind of a quirky odd-ball in the Reformed tradition, which plays out in places you wouldn’t expect. For that reason, I decided to get my hands on Kyle Strobel’s Jonathan Edwards’ Theology: A Reinterpetation. It’s been an eye-opener. Thing is, this isn’t just a modest field-guide for the novice reader. Strobel’s work comes in the midst of a recent wave of Edwards scholarship in the blossoming field of “Edwards Studies”, with an aim to correct a lot of the discussion that’s gone before, and reset a lot of the conversation surrounding the basic shape of Edwards’ theology. Now, from where I stand as a total non-expert and unqualified observer, I can’t judge how much he does that. What I can say is that’s been a fascinating, helpful read so far.

At the heart of Strobel’s argument–insofar as I’m following it–is that Edwards’ Reformed theology (not philosophy, mind you), is a vision of the Triune God whose fundamental existence is one of “personal beatific delight.” The God from whom are all things and to whom all things are oriented, is the one whose inner life is that of the Father and Son’s mutual gaze in the delight of the Spirit. The Father’s own knowledge is the Son whom he loves and delights in through the love that is the Spirit. But it does not end with the Father’s love of the Son, in the Spirit. As he writes in Heaven is a World of Love:

And the Son of God is not only the infinite object of love, but he is also an infinite subject of it. He is not only the beloved of the Father, but he infinitely loves him. The infinite essential love of God, is, as it were, an infinite and eternal, mutual, holy, energy between the Father and the Son: a pure and holy act, whereby the Deity becomes, as it were, one infinite and unchangeable emotion of love proceeding from both the Father and the Son. This divine love has its seat in the Deity, as it is exercised within the Deity, or in God toward himself.

From this eternally happy and glorious self-knowledge and love, flows God’s purpose in creation and the history of redemption: God’s benevolent self-glorification in the communication of the overflow of that good to creatures. Everything else from Edwards’ quirky take on the attributes of God, his understanding of heaven, earth, and hell, the structure of redemptive history, the nature of union, justification, sanctification, and glorification, and so on, has its ground in Edwards’ irrefragably trinitarian theology.

And yes, thinking these things through with Edwards and Strobel really is as heady, intoxicating, difficult, and rewarding it sounds.

Heaven is a World of Triune Love

One particular section that caught my attention was the way this vision grounds Edwards’ vision of heaven as “a world of love”, which he gets into in a sermon by the same title I have already quoted above. Edwards’ vision of heaven is fascinating for a number of reasons, not least of which is his appreciation for its dynamic, historical character. Yes, according to Edwards, even heaven has a history, with different eras ushered in by the different stage of Christ’s historical work of redemption. Heaven and earth and more intimately bound up with each other, in that respect, than many of us typically appreciate.

But what makes heaven a world of love? Well, God, of course:

Here I remark that the God of love himself dwells in heaven. Heaven is the palace or presence-chamber of the high and holy One, whose name is love, and who is both the cause and source of all holy love…And this renders heaven a world of love; for God is the fountain of love, as the sun is the fountain of light. And therefore the glorious presence of God in heaven, fills heaven with love, as the sun, placed in the midst of the visible heavens in a clear day, fills the world with light. The apostle tells us that “God is love;” and therefore, seeing he is an infinite being, it follows that he is an infinite fountain of love.

Like Bavinck, Edwards knows that the best part of Heaven or the New Creation is that it is the dwelling of God himself. God is not secondary or tertiary to the good of heaven, but the central focus of it. God is what makes heaven heavenly.

It’s not enough, though, to talk about God as the fountain of love, as the source of love, or the presence of love. We must press forward and understand that it is because this God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that heaven is a world of love:

There, even in heaven, dwells the God from whom every stream of holy love, yea, every drop that is, or ever was, proceeds. There dwells God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit, united as one, in infinitely dear, and incomprehensible, and mutual, and eternal love.

There dwells God the Father, who is the father of mercies, and so the father of love, who so loved the world as to give his only-begotten Son to die for it.

There dwells Christ, the Lamb of God, the prince of peace and of love, who so loved the world that he shed his blood, and poured out his soul unto death for men. There dwells the great Mediator, through whom all the divine love is expressed toward men, and by whom the fruits of that love have been purchased, and through whom they are communicated, and through whom love is imparted to the hearts of all God’s people. There dwells Christ in both his natures, the human and the divine, sitting on the same throne with the Father.

And there dwells the Holy Spirit — the Spirit of divine love, in whom the very essence of God, as it were, flows out, and is breathed forth in love, and by whose immediate influence all holy love is shed abroad in the hearts of all the saints on earth and in heaven.

Strobel points out that this vision of heaven is one of “personal beatific delight” in God (106). The God of Heaven is the God given us in the Son, our Mediator in two natures, who reveals the Father who sent him and the Spirit who comes to us as another Advocate to apply the Son’s work in our lives. In other words, the delight is one that believers (and angels as well) receive through the mediating work of Jesus, which continues even in heaven and is effected in us by the Spirit. In this way, Christians participate in a secondary and derived sense, in “God’s own personal beatific delight.”

This delight doesn’t consist only in the believer’s union with God, but, if I’m getting it right, in the greater union believers have with each other. Strobel says, “seeing and knowing God in this manner results in unity among the members” as they jointly grow in their love, knowledge, and worship of the Redeemer to whom they are mutually united (106). The communion of the saints is part of the delight of heaven brought about by, founded on, and participating in the communion of the Triune God.

At the heart of Edwards’ vision of heaven, then, is this:

…infinite fountain of love — this eternal Three in One — is set open without any obstacle to hinder access to it, as it flows forever. There this glorious God is manifested, and shines forth, in full glory, in beams of love. And there this glorious fountain forever flows forth in streams, yea, in rivers of love and delight, and these rivers swell, as it were, to an ocean of love, in which the souls of the ransomed may bathe with the sweetest enjoyment, and their hearts, as it were, be deluged with love!

That is a vision to stir the affections, create a longing in our hearts, and a vision of hope that ought to press us to anticipate our future with God even now.

How?

Well, first by seeking after the glory of the Triune God through prayer. Remember, we have access even now through Jesus and the Spirit, to the throne room of the Father. What’s more, in Scripture, we are presented with a vision of Jesus, our Redeemer, working in the power of the Spirit, in whom we see the perfect Image of the Father.

Soli Deo Gloria