To Dance, or not to Dance with the Trinity?

kermit-to-self

Me: Read for your paper. Other Me: Write about that Dancing with the Trinity thing for an hour. Nothing bad can happen.

Fred Sanders critiqued a new book by Richard Rohr on the Trinity, The Divine Dance, yesterday at TGC. As with most of Sanders’ writing, it was playful, with puckish humor. It was also atypically forceful for the ever-genial Sanders, condemning the work as crossing the bounds of Nicene and general Orthodoxy at various points. (FWIW, the location surprised some, as well, because Sanders is a quite openly Wesleyan theologian, quite uninterested in defending Calvinism. Apparently, they asked him because he is a well-respected, expert on trinitarian theology in general.)

In any case, it provoked dismay and chagrin among Rohr’s fans and even some more neutral onlookers. I’ll touch on that below, but one interesting question it raised for me was the issue of whether or not we should use the very popular image of the Trinity as a “Divine Dance” in our preaching and teaching.

Dancing with Lewis and Keller

If you’ve heard a sermon on the Trinity in an Evangelical church in the last 50 years, I would not be surprised if you’ve seen the pastor appeal to a very famous passage in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity where he appeals to the image to explain the dynamic, inner life of the Triune God. I mean, I know I’ve used it. In any case, here it is:

And that, by the way, is perhaps the most important difference between Christianity and all other religions: that in Christianity God is not a static thing—not even a person—but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance. The union between the Father and the Son is such a live concrete thing that this union itself is also a Person. I know this is almost inconceivable, but look at it thus. You know that among human beings, when they get together in a family, or a club, or a trade union, people talk about the ‘spirit’ of that family, or club, or trade union. They talk about its ‘spirit’ because the individual members, when they are together, do really develop particular ways of talking and behaving which they would not have if they were apart. It is as if a sort of communal personality came into existence. Of course, it is not a real person: it is only rather like a person. But that is just one of the differences between God and us. What grows out of the joint life of the Father and Son is a real Person, is in fact the Third of the three Persons who are God.

So we see that Lewis is in the middle of a discussion of what it means for God to be love. In the middle of it, he appeals to the image of a dance to begin to speak of the procession of the Holy Spirit from Father and Son as the loving union of Father and Son (per Augustine, ‘the bond of love’).

Beyond the fact that people suck down anything Lewis writes (yours truly included), I don’t know how many books on the Trinity in the last 50 years have simultaneously appealed to the Greek word perichoresis used by some of the Fathers (Gregory, Maximus, later John of Damascus). Originally, the term was used to describe the interpenetration of Christ’s two natures in the incarnation. Later, the term was expanded to speak of the mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity a la the Johannine discourses (“I am in the Father and the Father is in me”).

Now, the word’s etymology can be linked to the idea of movement and aroundness, and so somewhere along the line, the link between perichoresis and dance was born.  In the 20th Century, it’s been used by a number of Trinitarian theologians like Jurgen Moltmann, Miroslav Volf, and others as a key way of speaking about the unity of the persons of the Trinity, the God/world relationship, and sundry other uses that extend beyond the original purposes of the term. We’ve experienced something of a perichoretic overload. The dance has gotten out of hand.  (BTW, we had a Mere Fidelity episode on it here.)

In any case, Sanders’ critique may have left the impression that to use the image at all was heretical in itself. Mike Morell, Rohr’s co-author/transcriber, responded to Sanders’ criticism by pointing out that if the image is off-limits, that’s quite awkward since one of TGC’s co-founders, Tim Keller, has appealed to the image himself in places like The Reason for God. Here is the quote:

The life of the Trinity is characterized not by self-centeredness but by mutually self-giving love. When we delight and serve someone else, we enter into a dynamic orbit around him or her, we center on the interests and desires of the other. That creates a dance, particularly if there are three persons, each of whom moves around the other two. So it is, the Bible tells us. Each of the divine persons centers upon the others. None demands that the others revolve around him. Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them. Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others. That creates a dynamic pulsating dance of joy and love. The early leaders of the Greek church had a word for this—perichoresis. Notice the root of our word ‘choreography’ is within it. It means literally to “dance or flow around.”

Awkward, right? So do Keller and Lewis fall afoul of Sanders’ critique? How about the likely dozens and hundreds of other authors who have used it? Are they immediately to be considered heretics? Should we ditch the dance? What’s going on here?!

To Dance or Not To Dance

Well, given that I’ve gone back and forth about the image myself, I’ve got a few thoughts on the subject.

First, I think it’s important to distinguish between perichoresis and the dance image. The two are different things and you can appeal to perichoresis without invoking the dance. Perichoresis has gotten a bit buzzwordy and goofy, but that’s no reason to ditch the classic terminology. Just use it properly.

Second, there are at least two different uses of the dance image. It can be deployed in an illustrative and modest way, or an intensive and extensive way. In other words, it’s the difference between an image and a model.

I think Lewis is a good example of the illustrative image use. He spends a good deal of time in the book trying to explain things like the eternal generation of the Son, differences in between divine and human personality, and establishing a fairly standard, Nicene view of the eternal relations of Father, Son, and Spirit. And then he casually deploys the dance as an image of the livingness and movement of the divine life without trying to figure out if the dance is a mambo, or a waltz, or something else. It’s quick, it’s illustrative, and it’s done. (Given that he basically uses it briefly in a couple books, I tend to think that this is where Keller fits, too, even if he may fall afoul of the common etymological fallacy Sanders’ mentions in his footnote of the review.)

Others seem to take it as something more of a full-blown model, especially when linking it to a view called social trinitarianism, which takes the persons of the Trinity to be more like modern individuals, with three distinct, centers of consciousness, will, and so forth, who are united in being, but tend to look something more like a family. When the dance image gets invoked, at that point it starts to take on a whole different level of meaning, and we have all sorts of psychological and relational dynamics worked out and so forth. It can become far more intensive and extensive.

Finally, as an extreme version of this, you might do what Sanders says Rohr does: make the image central, set it within a relational metaphysic that has shades of pantheism and panentheism, gesture at a fuzziness in the Creator/creature distinction, downplay Scriptural language for the Trinity, openly disdain hundreds of years of reflection on the issue, talk about femininity within the interstitial spaces between the persons of the Trinity, start suggesting humans belong within it, and, on top of that, suggest we should “ignore the dancers” we were talking about in the first place. (Now, I admit I haven’t read the book, but Sanders has provided direct quotes, and since he has sneezed more Trinitarian theology than I have read, I tend to take his word for it.) If that’s what’s going on, then at that point the problem isn’t the dance image, but this whole, relational, “flow” metaphysic that has started to do all sorts of heterodox things with the rest of our theology.

With these differences in view, I think it’s possible to say that the dance image itself, if used modestly, quickly, and as just that—an image, not a model—is still kosher. I do think it’s good to be careful with these things, though. If you’re preaching, we need to connect to our people, and speak to them about the dynamic, living God. But we also need to remember that the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit has given us the best image of himself in his works in history as the Son comes from the Father in the power of the Spirit to live, die, rise again, and bring us new life in the gospel.

What God has shown and said about himself needs to be our touchstone for everything we eventually say about him. Use the image as and only if you can reinforce something revealed, but be careful you don’t build an entire world around it.

Theology and Idolatry

And this brings me to a final point I want to make. It came up over the summer when this whole Trinity debate happened as well. Some people were shocked yesterday that someone would come out so forcefully to debate about the Trinity (also, there was probably a difference in interpretation of Sanders’ tone).

Still, I think there’s this thought in broader Evangelicalism, both conservative and progressive, that beyond the mere affirmation of it, it’s super esoteric, difficult, and not the sort of thing to get crazy about, because if you do, you’re probably just an academic protecting your turf, or someone who just likes being right for the sake of being right.The order and nature of the persons, the single being of God, and so forth–that’s no reason to write off a person’s work is it?

I have to admit that, in the abstract, there’s part of me that sympathizes.

But this has not been the attitude of the church for most of its history. What’s more, the Bible contains very strong language about idolatry. In Exodus 20, the first commandment is to not worship other gods, while the second is to avoid making up images of God out of your own head. Don’t picture God as he hasn’t pictured himself. Because when we do, we inevitably get it wrong, and start to shrink God down to our size, distort him, and remold him in our image. All throughout the Scriptures the warnings against falsely worshipping him resound, especially in the prophets. It’s not a minor theme.

That matters because, (a) God is holy and majestic and glorious and we shouldn’t distort that, but also because (b) God wants us to know him, relate to him, love him, and receive love from him in truth. And wrong, distorted, heretical thoughts about him hurts that. Eugene Peterson says “a lie about God is a lie about life.” This is not about logic-chopping but about worshiping God in Spirit and in truth (John 4). God gives himself to be known and loved by us, but not in whichever way we want or find congenial, or fires our creativity. He wants to be loved as he is. If anybody is going to accommodate God to our knowledge, it is God himself.

Listen, I get that the Trinity is hard to think and write about. I have struggled to get my own trinitarian theology straight for so long. And if you’re struggling with it, that’s fine. Especially if you’re someone in the pew who is not ordained, or going around teaching people about it.  Or maybe writing entire books on it.

But if people do go writing entire books on it, teaching on it with authority, and then if they get it severely wrong in a way that threatens to mislead many, many people, this seems like the kind of thing it seems worth having a go around about.

Soli Deo Gloria

What I Can’t Know If I Don’t Know the Trinity

the trinityI’ve already written of the recent controversy over the Trinity and my hope that solid, theological and spiritual reinvigoration would come from it. All the same, I ran across a fantastic passage in the great divine Herman Witsius’ treatment of the Trinity in his Sacred Dissertations on the Apostle’s Creed (a remarkably careful and pastoral work).

In his comment on the Trinitarian shape of the Apostle’s Creed, he has a short segment arguing for the importance of our knowledge of this chief point of Christian doctrine. It’s not only that a proper understanding of the Trinity is some sort of arid proposition we need to check off a list of “need to know” facts to be “good Christians.” Rather, it’s that without a knowledge of the Trinity, we are simply robbed of all of the chief comforts of Christian faith:

When the Trinity is not known, the necessary consequence is, that the principal foundation of our faith and comfort, are unknown. All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hid in the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ.

In order to explain this, he goes on to expound the importance of recognizing the work of each person individually, beginning with the Father:

I cannot know how God can show mercy to a sinner in a manner worthy of himself, unless I know he has a Son whom he could send to make satisfaction for sin, and a Spirit who can apply to me the merits of the Son.

Right off the bat, you see the Trinitarian shape of the heart of God’s atoning, justifying, and sanctifying work with the Father sending the Son in the economy of redemption and the Spirit’s application. Continuing on:

If I know not that the Father is God, I shall be ignorant that I am a Son of God,–which is the sum of our felicity.

Without a knowledge that God is eternally Father to the Son, we will not understand the marvel of that highest privilege of the gospel: the adoption unto Sonship into which are admitted in union with Christ by which we can cry “Abba, Father!”

But according to Witsius, that Fatherhood is only good news to us if we recognize God the Son:

If I know not that the Son is God, I shall not form a right estimate of the love of God the Father who has given him to me, nor of the grace of the Son, who, though possessing inconceivable majesty, humbled himself so wonderfully for my sake;

It’s fascinating to see how Witsius is at once trying to point out the importance of each of the persons in the work of salvation, but can only do so with reference to the other persons. (Indeed, earlier on, he spends a good deal of space explaining the unified activity of the whole Trinity in every act ad extra, the one will, mind, and operation of the Godhead and so forth.) But here we see that we can only understand the love of God the Father being magnified in the gift of the eternal Son, whom we can only recognize as majestic in his self-humbling in the working of salvation.

But he pushes on to point out further how the Son’s divinity is crucial to our soul’s peace:

 –nor shall I be able to place a firm dependence upon his satisfaction, which could not be sufficient unless it were of infinite value, or to rely securely on his power, which cannot save me unless it be evidently omnipotent;–it will be impossible for me, in short, to regard him as my Saviour and my Chief Good, because none excepting the true God of Israel is Israel’s God and Redeemer.

The Son’s divinity matters because otherwise, any satisfaction he makes would be merely finite, insufficient for the weighty work of a cosmic atonement. Second, we have strong enemies—sin, death, and the devil—how can I have assurance of the Son’s victory if he is not almighty God himself? Only the “the true God of Israel is Israel’s God and redeemer.”

Finally, he turns to the person of the Holy Spirit:

If…I am not sure that the Holy Spirit, to whose direction and government I ought to commit myself, is God, I shall not be able to esteem my subjection to him as true liberty, to maintain a holy acquiescence in his protecting care, or to rely on his testimony respecting my salvation as a most ample security.

If the Spirit is not God, then submitting to him isn’t the true freedom and dignity of serving the highest Lord. Nor is receiving the Holy Spirit as another counselor the great gift that Jesus says it is (John 16). And listening to his internal witness or testimony via Scripture isn’t hearing the voice of God himself assuring me of my salvation.

For Witsius, then, the Trinity isn’t the doctrine that you get to once you’ve built up all the rest of your faith and you sort of add it as the cherry on top. No, it’s foundation upon which everything is built, and if the foundation is weak, everything comes crumbling down:

Christian faith is of so delicate a character, that it can firmly acquiesce in none but the Most High God. It must, then, be of the first importance and necessity for us to know a doctrine, one which the knowledge of so many necessary points depends.

He concludes this point with a historical example:

This argument is confirmed by experience; for, as we see in the Socinians, the same men who deny the Trinity, deny, also, the satisfaction of Christ, the invincible power of the Spirit in our regeneration and conservation, the certainty of salvation, and the full assurance of faith. The mystery of our salvation through Christ is so intimately connected with the mystery of the Trinity, that when the latter is unknown or denied, the former cannot be known or acknowledged.

The Socinian heretics were remarkable in their day for having denied just about every chief point of doctrine from the deity of Christ, to the atonement, assurance of salvation, an everything else. Witsius says that their chief mistake was the loss of the Trinity. To miscontrue the nature of God is to inevitably misconstrue the nature of God’s salvation. When you lose the Trinity, you pull on the thread that unravels the seamless garment of Christian salvation and comfort.

The point is, when you don’t know God as Trinity, there’s not much you can know about the Gospel.

Soli Deo Gloria

On Trinitarian Controversy: Why It’s Not Always Terrible and How to Go About It

Nicea

I think I see Carl Trueman over there in the yellow.

If you’ve been following the theology blogosphere in Reformed circles over the last week or so, you’ll know there’s been a bit of a dust-up over the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Multiple posts from a number of parties, both insiders as well as interested outsiders, have weighed in and things don’t seem to be slowing down.

Things are getting downright 4th Century out there.

Briefly, the controversy is over a piece of teaching that’s been labeled “Eternal Functional Subordinationism.” Essentially, its advocates hold that much as we see the Son submitting to the Father in his historical, incarnate work as the Godman, it is appropriate to speak of the Son submitting, subordinating himself to, or obeying his Father in the eternal being of God. For this, they usually appeal to any number of texts in the Gospels and especially 1 Cor 11:3.

Now, some who advocate this position have done so while simultaneously rejecting the historic doctrine of the Eternal Generation of the Son. Others (more modestly) see it as a constructive, admissible development of that same doctrine. (As a side-note, I think that distinction is important).

Its critics have charged multiple things: first, it’s not Biblical; second, it’s not consistent with historic, Nicene Orthodoxy; third, it threatens the honor the Son, introducing hierarchy in the Trinity; fourth, it does goofy things to the doctrine of God’s will, the persons, and must slide into a form of social trinitarianism. Obviously, these charges apply more or less to more or less radical versions of the doctrine.

My point here is not to weigh in substantially on the various, complex issues involved. Actual theologians on both sides are doing that forcefully and clearly enough. (Though, for the record, I’m not an EFS guy and I’m very adamant about Eternal Generation. While some advocates are better than others, about the furthest I think I’m comfortable going down these lines currently is to speak of the filiality [sonliness] of the eternally-generated Son involving a proper secondariness, which works itself out in history in his faithful obedience.)

No, what I really want to do is put in a quick, good word for this sort of argument happening publicly around this issue.

On the Good of Trinitiarian Controversy

As this thing has started to kick off, there has been an understandable amount of hand-wringing. For one thing, some of the initial volleys seem to have been made with less than moderate care for language. Second, the doctrine has been taught by well-respected Evangelical theologians for some time, and academic arguments around it have been around for a while, so the outburst online seems to have taken some off-guard.

More generally, though, I’ve seen some confusion as to why all this sort of thing even matters. Isn’t the Trinity an incomprehensible mystery anyways? And isn’t all this so much logic-chopping, trying to fit God in a tight little box, instead of simply worshiping him? What does this sort of thing do for our communion with God, anyways? All it seems to do is stir up and bolster fleshly passion under the guise of questing for spiritual truth.

It’s true that sometimes these theological arguments can turn into so much fleshly posturing. There is such a thing known as “theological odium” that can be stirred up. But I don’t think that needs to be the whole of it.

Instead, I would suggest that these kinds of questions often assume an anti-intellectualist pragmatism that is all-too-common in popular, American Evangelicalism. Second, they also assume a kind of skepticism about God’s self-revelation that initially sounds like a healthy humility before the mysteries of God, but which I would suggest can be hiding a theological laziness that wants to excuse itself from listening carefully and attentively to the divine address of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in Scripture. Such intellectual lethargy is directly contrary to the Father’s desire for worshipers who will worship him in Spirit and in Truth (John 4:24).

Roman Catholic theologian Matthew Levering nicely suggests for us why this requires that we delve into the technicalities of Trinitarian theology:

Most Christians contemplate God liturgically and through personal prayer and study, rather than also by developing the intellectual habits proper to speculative theology. Nonetheless, attempts to speak about God (not merely to fellow theologians, but also and perhaps especially to persons in the pews) require some understanding of “technical” issues. Anyone who has ever heard a sermon on the Trinity – Catholics will attest to the painfully awkward experience that is “Trinity Sunday” – will admit that talk about the three Persons quickly becomes horribly thin unless the preacher has some metaphysical understanding (without denying the unfathomable mystery) of how the Persons are perfectly one and yet distinct. Simply put, no one in the pews wishes to hear about three gods. There is an expectation, rooted in Christian faith and the practices of faith, that the mystery must possess some intelligibility, that scriptural and metaphysical modes of reflection cannot ultimately be opposed. There must be some way of distinguishing the three Persons from the multiple gods of polytheism, beyond simply asserting that this is “not polytheism” and that the three are “one God,” whatever that might mean.

Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology, pg. 6

In this light, I want to suggest three hoped-for outcomes for this theological dust-up about the Trinity.

1. Theological Study. First, my hope (and one that I think I have already begun to witness), is that—however it began—this sort of controversy would provoke a greater interest in studying reality of our Triune God among the teachers and preachers of the Evangelical Church. I think that’s already been increasing—there are any number of top-flight Trinitarian theologians in the Evangelical academy. Heck, the Trinity is the thematic topic for ETS 2016.

All the same, what is still needed is a sense among the pastorate that Trinitarian theology is not just something you learn in seminary in your Systematics 101 course and then dust off from time to time. It’s the bread and butter of what you do. Pastors, you are not primarily organizers, CEOs, psychologists, or event-coordinators—you are the public theologians of the respective congregations you’ve been called to.

2. Theological Preaching. Second, it’s fine to have pastors who can parse the processions of Son and Spirit with the pros, but it doesn’t do much good if none of this is making it past the pulpit into the pews. What I mean is that theological study becomes intellectual esoterica if doesn’t bleed into our regular proclamation of the Gospel as the good news of the Father sending the Son in the power of the Spirit to reclaim his creation, or, of the sanctifying Spirit who we receive by faith in Christ, who then conforms us to the image of the Son to the glory of God the Father. And so on and so forth.

Basically, when you scan over Romans 8, or Ephesians 1, or the Gospel of John, or pretty much any text in the New Testament (and the Old…), you should regularly be tripping over implications and applications. And our sermons should be reflecting that. In that sense, every Sunday is Trinity Sunday.

3. Focus on the Great Things of the Gospel. Third—and this is something of a corollary of the other two—I hope it turns our attention, at least for a short time, from the regular sorts of trivialities, gimmicks, and ten-second controversies about this or that tweet, towards our God and the great things of the Gospel.

In other words, I hope all this online warfare points us toward deeper reflection that leads to offline worship and wonder at the God who exists marvelously, ineffably, transcendently, and resplendently as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is something centering, something reorienting and sanctifying about having our meditations, our energies and passions, direction towards the ultimate reality at the center of all things.

On the Good Conduct of Trinitarian Controversy

I had intended to wrap things up here, but instead, I thought I’d also offer a few words, not only the good of Trinitarian controversy, but also on the “good conduct” of such controversies. Since I am not always great this myself, I picked up John Webster’s little essay, “Theology and the Peace of the Church” in The Domain of the Word.

Towards the end of the essay, Webster asks:

What, finally, of the conduct of theological controversy in the peaceful kingdom of Christ? Just as the church does not know after the fashion of the world, so the church does not dispute after the fashion of the world from whose eyes are hidden the things that make for peace (Lk. 19.42). Why the difference? Because the church does know what makes for peace.

And so he offers five principles for theological controversy within the church:

1. “First, and most generally, theological controversy must be an exercise within the communio sanctorum .” Essentially, in Christ, we are sanctified and so our speech and motives reflect that reality, especially as we recall that “the end of controversy is the furtherance of communion, not its erosion.” It is not simply to win, to prove wrong, or score points—the goal is the health of Christ’s church.

2. “Second, theological controversy must be undertaken in a way which displays and magnifies the truth of the gospel whose author and content is peace.” More simply, remember that you’re arguing about and towards a reality outside yourselves—the Triune God of peace. This should not become a mere contest of personalities, but should be aimed at right worship.

3. “Third, theological controversy must not allow divergence of opinion to become divergence of will otherwise it will fail as an exercise of charity.” Of course, there are differences so large that sometimes the controversy is no longer within but about the church, but nonetheless, we must keep in mind that we are likely striving over a common object of love and that this love does unite us.

4. “Fourth, theological controversy must have an eye to the catholicity of the object of Christian faith and confession, an object which exceeds any specification of it which we may make.” Essentially, God is infinite. And so while this doesn’t mean that we can’t get specific, and that he doesn’t have a determinate nature, we should still be careful to resist the notion that we can’t continue to learn and grow in our knowledge of him even from our opponents.

5. “Fifth, most of all, theological controversy must be undertaken with tranquil confidence that, with the illuminating power of the Spirit, Jesus Christ will instruct and unify the church through Holy Scripture.” Webster’s not advocating a bare Biblicism here, but warning against the kind of skeptical, naturalistic, pragmatism that leads us to throw our hands up in controversies of this sort. Jesus has taught his church through Scripture by the Spirit and he will continue to do so.

With principles like these in mind, then, I don’t think we should be dismayed if such controversies continue. Instead, let us pray that we grow deeper in our knowledge and love of our God who is blessedly Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria

John Webster on Mercy: Divine and Creaturely

God without measureJohn Webster is in the business of doing “theological theology”—theology that takes its beginning and end to be God and the works of God—and so, in one sense, there’s nothing surprising about finding rich, dogmatic reflection in the second volume of his stunning set of essays, God Without Measure. In another sense, it’s remarkable given that it’s a set of essays in moral theology—indeed, the subtitle is “Virtue and Intellect”, specifically those of human creatures.

For Webster, however, dogmatics considers the creature and the principles according to which it acts only in light God—his being and the order of reality brought into being and rescued from corruption in the economy of creation and redemption. In other words, to speak of creatures and our activities, we must always consider God and his works in and through the Son and the Spirit. As he expresses it in the first chapter, activity follows being. We act out of what we are and the very first thing we must recognize about ourselves is that we are God’s creatures (3).

Moral theology, then, is a grand exercise in the famous dictum of Pauline theology that imperatives follow indicatives. Taking his cue from a theological reading of the letter to the Colossians, Webster suggests that Christian ethics is a matter of “seeking” and discerning “where Christ is”, for ingrafted into his history and life, that is where our life is and the reality out of which we must act (Col. 3:1-4). Theology cannot separate Christology from ethics, then, nor displace the primacy of the “metaphysical…over the paraenetic”, nor must it conceive of the human vocation as one separated from Christ (26).

This structure comes out in the variety of essays ranging from human dignity, courage, to the nature of theology in the university. For myself, I was struck by it in particular by two insights in his essay on the work and virtue of mercy. One on the nature of divine mercy and the other on the limits of human mercy.

Saying Jesus is Saying Mercy

But to begin, Webster makes it clear that “Christian theology speaks about mercy by speaking about Jesus Christ” (49). Jesus Christ is the reality that gives our reflection weight—not because he’s some symbol or exemplar, nor because he’s prophet or legislator of a moral truth beyond him. No, he himself is the concrete, historical, embodiment of the Word of God who “makes manifest the metaphysical and moral order of the entire creation” (51). So to speak of the history of Jesus Christ is to speak of the ultimate good and final end of creation, who clarifies, corrects, displays, and gives shape to the world as it is and as its meant to be.

Two more points before moving on. Webster makes it clear that to speak of Christ means to look back into the depths of God’s Triune life as he is the eternal Word of God, come at the command of the Father, in the power of the Spirit—to speak of Christ’s mercy is to speak of God’s mercy (52). What’s more, speaking of Christ means also looking forward into the lives of the people of God, since Christ coming as the mercy of God is aimed at reconciling and transforming the life of creatures, rendering them able to render mercy towards others (53). And this brings me to the two points that struck me.

Divine Mercy

First, Webster notes that God is intrinsically and unfadingly good—he is perfect in and of himself. This perfect goodness in himself is the ground for his goodness towards others—the relative (relating) goodness and love of God are his will to communicate goodness towards his creatures. Now, “mercy is the directing of God’s majestic goodness to the relief of the creatures in misery and wretchedness” (54). God’s mercy is God’s goodness at work to give us respite and liberation in our miserable rebellion and evil. Aquinas says that mercy is proper to God because it “involves the giving from one’s abundance to others” and “relieving their needs, a function especially belonging to a superior.”

Following this insight, Webster stops to draw out what it means for mercy to be proper to God. He urges us not to think that creaturely need is the cause of God’s mercy. No, rather, it is the occasion that brings to light God’s goodness in this particular situation of our misery. In other words, mercy is free act of God, but it is not an arbitrary one. Here he appeals to the distinction between an affection and a passion. A passion is an “emotion” that is forced, or drawn out of one under compulsion and by distress. An affection is a rational, free response consistent with who God is in himself. The upshot of this is that “God is not reduced to misery by creaturely wretchedness, so that his mercy is a relief of God’s ow trouble as much as that of the creature” (55). Quoting Barth, “God is moved and stirred, yet not like ourselves in powerlessness, but in his own free power, in his inmost being…his compassionate words are not grounded in a subsequent change…but are rooted in his heart…” (56).

God does not have to be convinced to be merciful. God, in his goodness, simply is merciful. This is the free, stable, unshaking ground of the gospel of God’s mercy to us in Jesus Christ.

Human Mercy

Of course, this divine mercy is the source of God’s victorious conquest over our sin and rebellion, bringing us back into proper relations, or fellowship with him. This fellowship in the Son and Spirit transforms and renews us, bringing us into a new order—an order of mercy, in which we begin to understand ourselves as objects of God’s mercy. “God’s active merciful presence and rule establishes a creaturely kingdom of mercy” (59). Webster goes into detail about the relationship between God’s mercy and our mercy at this point because he says “we should remind ourselves that a great deal hangs on achieving a sufficiently fine-grained description of a theological account of human mercy, but also”—and this is the point that caught my eye—“the burden of expectation which we place on human mercy” (59).

Among other points that he makes, Webster struggles to capture the tension of our works of human mercy in the command, “Be merciful, even as your heavenly Father is merciful” (Lk. 6:36). In the first place, they are the work of “God’s new creatures”, plucked up from misery, restored, renewed, and given a moral energy by the Spirit. They do not have to “strive to introduce grace into a world from which it is otherwise absent.”

That said, “because mercy is creaturely, it is limited.” Despite our new creation, we are still finite and we can only do what we can do, “no more.” This is important since it’s easy to become exasperated or hopeless at the limits to our efforts. Indeed, we can become merciless towards ourselves and others in our urgent drive to transcend the creaturely limits of our mercy. For this reason, it is so important that “creaturely mercy accept the restriction of its capacities without resentment or despair”, but instead, “venture its imperfect work cheerfully and hopefully, looking to God’s own encompassing mercy as its vindication” (61).

The work of mercy proceeds, then, because God is merciful and he is so towards his creatures in Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

Of the Father’s Love Begotten: The Virgin Birth as Image of the Trinity

holy spiritThere’s no way around it–the miracle of Christmas is a trinitarian event through and through. Contemplating the baby born of the virgin Mary, sleeping in the manger in 1st Century Bethlehem, eventually will draw you into eternity to worship the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As I was reading Christopher Holmes’ excellent new work on the Holy Spirit this week, I ran across a fantastic passage where he is draws out some of the implications of Augustine’s theology of the Trinity by illustrating them by way of the virgin birth:

Jesus is conceived in the power of the Holy Spirit. His earthly birth points to his heavenly birth; his mission reiterates his procession. He is born in the Spirit in time, conceived in the Spirit, who is the Father’s love for him, and throughout his life is filled with the Spirit, who enables him to be who he is even in death, the Son of God. Thus the Son’s mission of obedience reflects the Son’s generation from the Father, who in generating him gives him his Spirit, the same Spirit whom the Son pours out on all flesh and who is “proper” to the Son as one eternally born of the Father. This is the Father who eternally generates the Son in the Spirit. Accordingly, the Spirit is the love of the begetter for the begotten; and the begotten for the begetter.

– Christopher Holmes, The Holy Spirit (New Studies in Dogmatics), 77-78.*

Now, there are a number of fascinating threads to tease out in this dense passage.

First, we must remember that all of God’s acts are Triune acts, even the ones we typically associate with one of the persons. As the old principle has it, all of the Trinity’s works outside the Trinity (Creation, Redemption, and Consummation), are indivisibly those of the whole Trinity. How could it be otherwise if the three persons truly are the One God?  But it’s also important to note that there is a trinitarian unity displayed in the indivisible works in history such that we begin to see the outlines of God’s inward, eternal life as Father, Son, and Spirit. In fact, it’s God’s work in history as we have it in the New Testament that originally forced the Church to recognize that God is eternally triune.

Second comes the issue of the “processions.” Augustine (and I’d argue, the New Testament) teaches us that the persons of the Trinity, while being one God, are distinguished from one another by “relations of eternal origin.” In other words, in all eternity, God has been self-related as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit such that there are patterns of relations between the persons. The eternal “processions” of the Son and the Spirit (God does not become a Trinity) are the key realities distinguishing God’s internal life. Classically, it’s been said that the Son proceeds from or is “begotten” or “generated” by the Father (fathers beget sons), the Spirit is “breathed out” or proceeds from the Father and/through the Son, and the Father is the eternal source who proceeds from no one. This is who the persons are–their relations are their identities and so forth.

Third, as already noted, there is a close relationship between who God is in eternity and who he shows us he is in history. When God works in history, while we don’t see all that God is in his eternity, we do see truly who and what God is. To put it another way, when the Son and the Spirit are revealed to us in their “missions” in history (becoming incarnate, being sent by the Father and Son to the church, etc), these missions map onto or are indicative of the eternal processions. There is fit between them. There is something about who the Son is in relation to the Father in eternity that makes it suitable that he specifically is the person who becomes incarnate for our salvation.  The one who is eternally begotten by the Father above is now begotten below without a human father. So while God is not reducible to what he does in history, what he does in history reflects the glory of God’s eternally resplendent being.

Fourth, in the Western tradition, especially after Augustine, the Church has recognized that the Holy Spirit’s proceeding from the Father is not apart from the Son. In fact, the Nicene Creed teaches that he proceeds “from the Father and from the Son.” This is because in Scripture he is shown to be sent by both Father and Son (cf. John 14:16, 15:26; 16:7), and is often referred to as both the Spirit of the Father and the Spirit of the Son (Acts 16:7; Phil. 1:19). So if the Son also sends the Spirit in history and the Spirit is that of the Son, that points to the Spirit’s procession coming from the Son as well as from the Father, though in a unique, differentiated way.

Now, Augustine adds another dimension to this. He says that the Spirit is not only the Spirit of Son and Father, coequal with both, eternally one with them, God proceeding from God, but on the basis of some key texts, that the Spirit’s unique processions ought to be thought of as the love of Father and Son. All of this transcends human speech, of course, but the Spirit is the Love of God for God–he is the Love that God is, precisely as the love of the Father and the Son. 

In which case, there are multiple dimensions of depth to that classic hymn, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” The Son is eternally begotten in the love of the Father “ere the worlds began to be.” The Son is begotten in time, born of a virgin (“that birth forever blessed”) by the Father’s love for his wayward creation. But this happened, “by the Holy Ghost conceiving”, God’s own Love is the agent of Christ’s mysterious, miraculous appearing. Of the Father’s Love begotten, indeed.

In the virgin birth, we don’t simply have a neat trick, then, a cool miracle proving that Jesus is God, but rather a sign, a mirror refulgent with glory of the Holy Trinity.

Soli Deo Gloria

*For those curious about Holmes’ work, I commend this post to you whereby he introduces his project.

The Adamantine, Invincible, Invulnerable Love of God

sondereggerLove is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

At the current moment, the dominant attribute in our common talk of God is typically love. Love is also at the center of a number of recent academic treatments of the doctrine of God and especially a number of the revisions of that doctrine in the 20th Century. What’s more, that God is centrally and fundamentally love is taken by many to mean that God is relational.

And for Trinitarians, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem. God is relational all the way down. But one of the great burdens of Kevin Vanhoozer’s work Remythologizing Theology is to show that the current model of a relational God meant to replace “classical theism” does what all onto-theologies do–take a metaphysical concept from without Scripture and read Scripture’s witness to God in that light. In this case, we take modern definitions of relationality as necessarily including mutuality, vulnerability, and so forth, and in that light, deliver us into the hands of a suffering and empathetic God. Here is much of the thrust behind various process, panentheist, and Open theist models on offer. 

The question we’re to ask, though, is whether or not this is the understanding of relationality and love we are given to understand as we read the broad sweep of the Scriptures as well as its individual pages. Here, of course, is not the place to understand such an examination. Still, I was reminded of this issue when I ran across this stunning exposition by Katherine Sonderegger of Paul’s “Love” hymn in 1 Corinthians 13. I’ll quote it at length:

This is Love. Now it seems to me that this passage lies so close to hand, remains so familiar from every wedding and so many burials, that we overlook one of its most striking features. The love praised here, the more excellent way, does not envision an object at all–how odd that we read it at weddings!–nor does it speak of mutuality, indeed of passibility, in any fashion. St. Paul’s love is supremely invulnerable, impervious to another we might dare say. Perfect love is invincibly objectless, immutual, perdurant. It never ends–it alone is eternal against all the gifts of the Spirit, prophecy, and tongues and knowledge. It is adamantine.

Paul picks out with two quick strokes the positive traits of love, patience and kindness. Surely a quiet evocation of hesed. God’s loving-kindness! Then the apostle turns to what we might think of as love’s negative predicates: it is not envious or proud or coarse; not ill-tempered, variable, stubborn; not immoral, sadistic, cruel, and petty; not weak. Love is recognized in its ready delight for the truth, the good; they are twins. In all its ways, love remains unflinching, undeterred. It is supremely confident, twinned with hope and trust. Love has been prised loose from all self-seeking, from the burdens, sometimes frightful, so often small and miserable, that infect our loving, from the anger and resentment that course through our most ardent loves, from the submission to what we call facts in this proudly “realistic” life of ours–ingratitude, unsuitability, meanness. Love, Paul tells us, simply withstands, endures, triumphs. It abides as the greatest, the uncontested, the supreme. Love is self-same, thoroughly itself, constant, unswerving, true.

Who cannot see, in all these things, that love, this perfect Love of the apostle Paul, is simply another Name for God? God alone is this Love, this more excellent way–we could hardly expect anything else. God’s passionate Love, Paul tells us, is invulnerable in just this particular way to us and to our loveless ways; supremely independent of us and our indifference; utterly triumphant over our blindness, instability, and infidelity; zealous for the right; eternal. This is Divine Nature, personal Passion, victorious Love. Wrath for the good. It is the One Love triumphant over every defilement, injustice, and cunning: it defends the orphan and the little one with fiery Mercy, raging Justice. This Divine Love waits on no one, needs nothing, bends to no condition or limit. Love that is God scorches through the infinite spheres, boundless, eternal Holiness. Love crowns the Divine Perfections; it abounds.

Systematic Theology, Volume 1, The Doctrine of Godpp. 495-497

Before commenting, for those interested, yes, this sort of tremendous, cavernous, doxological prose is lavishly scattered throughout the whole of her work. It’s a beautifully executed work, in that sense. Rigorous though it is, nothing could be further from the stereotype of a “dry” academic work than Sonderegger’s elegant volume.

Now, the context of this passage is Sonderegger’s challenge to the common claim that love requires an object. In the hands of most theologians looking to avoid a needy, co-dependent God, or the idea that God only becomes loving upon creating something other than himself, this leads us to the conclusion that in order to properly expound the love of God we must turn to the doctrine of the Trinity. Only the God who is perfectly, Father, Son, and Spirit can be Love in the fullest sense, with a life that is perfect, complete in itself and for itself before all of creation.

Sonderegger wants to claim that we can think of love monotheistically according to God’s oneness (though not contrary to His threeness). To this–as Sonderegger herself might put it–we must gently but firmly say, “No.” Ultimately, I do think the Love that God is, can only be properly thought through on trinitarian grounds. While Sonderegger speaks of the lack “mutuality” in the passage, that may be, but there is a certainly a directional “communicativity” that seems to imply an object. 

What’s more, Sonderegger also wants to affirm emotions or affections as something we can speak of God. Still, that shouldn’t be taken in the modern, passibilist sense. I think she’d want to sign off on something along these lines, in order to affirm much of what the tradition has held, while not running roughshod over the language of Scripture.  

All the same, Sonderegger has put her finger on something in this passage. Paul gives us this striking picture of love that is good news precisely because of its imperviousness. Love, here, is not trumpeted as the exposed, hyper-sensitive, vulnerability that our culture puts a premium on. It is fullness; an overflowing invulnerability that is unflappable in its will to communicate the good to those who have spurned it. In this passage we are presented with an analogue to the Love found in God’s sovereign determination to give his life, life, and very Self to his creatures, despite any obstacles to contrary. It is precisely this kind of adamantine love that can sustain the movement of the God in the flesh, in order to assume all that is changeable, passible, and vulnerable, in order to redeem it on our behalf. 

Soli Deo Gloria

The Peace of the Triune God

peaceI’ve written about this before, or rather I’ve quoted others writing about it, but time and again we must be reminded that all of God’s good gifts, especially those we receive in redemption, have a trinitarian shape to them. They come to us from the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. Whether it be justification, adoption, or sanctification, the whole Trinity is displayed to be at work in the New Testament witness. Thomas Watson makes this point again with respect to the believer’s gift of peace, by asking,”Whence comes this Peace?”

His answer?:

It has the whole Trinity for its author. God the Father is ‘the God of peace.’ (I Thess 5:53.) God the Son is the ‘Prince of peace.’ (Isa 9:9.) Peace is said to be the ‘fruit of the Spirit.’ (Gal 5:52.)

(1.) God the Father is the God of peace. As he is the God of order, so he is the God of peace. (I Cor 14:43), and (Phil 4:4.) This was the form of the priest’s blessing upon the people. ‘The Lord give thee peace.’ (Numb 6:66.)

(2.) God the Son is the purchaser of peace. He made peace by his blood. ‘Having made peace by the blood of his cross.’ (Col 1:10.) The atonement Aaron made for the people, when he entered into the holy of holies, with blood, was a type of Christ our high priest, who by his sacrifice pacified his angry Father, and made atonement for us. Christ purchased our peace upon hard terms; for his soul was in an agony, while he was travailing to bring forth peace to the world.

(3.) Peace is a fruit of the Spirit. He seals up peace to the conscience. The Spirit clears up the work of grace in the heart, from whence arises peace. There was a well of water near Hagar, but she did not see it, therefore she wept. A Christian has grace, but does not see it, therefore he weeps. Now the Spirit discovers this well of water, it enables conscience to witness to a man that has the real work of grace, and so peace flows into the soul. Thus you see whence this peace comes – the Father decrees it, the Son purchases it, the Holy Ghost applies it.

I don’t care how many times I see that same basic structure, it still thrills me to see the workings of our Triune God traced out in the revelation of Scripture. It is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who is the source, sum, and goal of our peace.

To understand how God can be ou peace, though, we must push further and recognize that God himself is peace. I’ve shared this Webster quote before, but I can’t pass up sharing it again:

The peace of God — the peace which God himself is— passes all understanding; ‘neither we nor the angels can understand as God, the peace which God himself enjoys’ (Augustine, City of God, XXII.29). This peace of God’s own self may be considered under the aspects of harmony and repose. First, with respect to harmony; the outer acts of the Holy Trinity are indivisible, the work of the undivided divine essence in its threefold personal modification. By appropriation, specific works may be particularly or eminently assigned to one divine person (as redemption to the Son or sanctification to the Spirit). But each person participates in all, for each shares in the undivided dvine essence, and each work is to be attributed absolutely to that one divine essence. The outer works of the Trinity are, then, harmonious — not mere conjoint or cooperative or composite action, but action which is inseparable and coinherent, and so, in a deep sense, peaceful. This harmony in the missions of the three-in-one is grounded in and gives expression to to the infinite peace which God is. There is no disorder, disruption or contradiction in the works of the Father, Son, and Spirit in the making and perfecting of the world. And so, there is in God’s inner life nothing of divergence or discord, but infinite unity and therefore peace beyond measure.

Second, to this harmony is to be added the element of repose. The outer works of God are effortlessly accomplished, without strain or agitation, without interval between willing and effecting. God rests in his work. This rest corresponds to the inner repose of God in filiation and spiriation, there is no malign diversity, no coming together out of a condition of separation, no overcoming of division or conflict, but always an already-achieved perfection of peaceful life. God’s inner peace is the peace of his triune simplicity.

This inner divine peace is the principle of creaturely peace, that upon which all other peace is founded and by which it is preserved. This is so, however, only because divine peace is in itself complete and fully satisfied. In the repleteness of his life as Father, Son, and Spirit, God is beyond need or desire. His peace is neither enhanced by created peace nor diminished by its absence…it is the harmony and repose which, because it needs nothing, is capable of pure charity, giving life and righteous order in the works of creation and providence.

The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason, pp. 133-135

Well, that’s enough to praise him for today. May God’s peace be with you.

Soli Deo Gloria