Owen’s Polemical, Trinitarian Spirituality

communion with GodHistorian Richard Muller points out that if Reformed Orthodox theology had a “central-dogma”, contrary to most popular perceptions it wasn’t the doctrine of election, but that of the Trinity. That made intuitive sense to me when I read it. Even though I haven’t always been Reformed, the charge that it’s a sub-trinitarian tradition has never made sense to me.

Maybe that’s because one of the first books I read when I started getting into Reformed theology was John Owen’s Communion with the Triune God. In it, the Puritan giant’s main aim is to present his readers with an understanding of how we are called to communion and union with the Triune God. And not just the Trinity as “God in general.” Owen shows that we are also called to appreciate and commune with and worship each person distinctly in a manner appropriate them as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It’s really a phenomenally warm piece of Trinitarian devotional spirituality derived from sermons he preached to his congregation. I can tell you that it had a great impact on my spiritual life when I read it and I would recommend it highly.

What I didn’t know early on was that this wasn’t Owen’s only piece of Trinitarian theology. In fact, he’d written numerous volumes on it one way or another, including a number of heavily apologetic defenses like his lengthy Vindiciae Evangelicae, or the Mystery of the Gospel Vindicated and Socinianism Examined  in which he refutes the Unitarians and Socinians as well as his later A Brief Declaration and Vindication of the Trinity. These are far more technical and polemical (at least the former is) pieces aimed at dispelling error and refuting heretics carried out with great passion and meticulous care.

The thing that’s key for us to see, though, is that these two kinds of works are just two sides of the same coin.

Nowadays, it’s very common to distinguish between writers of “spirituality” and “pastoral theology” and those who care about defending doctrine and carrying out polemics. But this was far from the case for the Puritan writers like Owen and his contemporaries.

For them, the polemics protected the spirituality and the spirituality drove the polemics.

In fact, some historians like Paul Lim suggest it’s at least partially because of his polemical context that Owen was driven to pursue and lay out such a rich Trinitarian spirituality. At the time there was a tendency on the part of the Socinians (and even some Arminians) to downplay or denigrate the Trinity as useless, false, or not of fundamental importance, since it was spiritually impractical. And so authors like Owen pressed to give a counter-response and left us with rich treasures of devotional trinitarianism. You can see the same thing in Herman Witsius, for instance.

Of course, when you stop to take in the broad sweep of Church history, that can’t be too surprising. Doctrine is often clarified, developed, and re-appropriated best at precisely those times when it comes under pressure from skeptics. Without them we wouldn’t have the polemics or devotional spirituality of Athanasius on the deity of the Son, Basil on the Holy Spirit, Augustine on Grace, and on down the line we could go.

In the history of the Church and even in the Scriptures (Paul, John, Jesus, the OT prophets…), those who care most passionately for the true worship of God often end up being those who argue for it most forcefully, looking to cut off idolatry and protect true worship. Those theologians of the Church deeply invested in the spirituality of the Church have been the most passionate in her defense. In the long run, then, spirituality and polemics are not at odds.

Indeed, they actually fuel one another. Knowing the good defenses of the faith and key doctrines can often serve to make them more secure in our minds and hearts moving us to worship. At other times, worshiping in Spirit leads us to pursue a deeper knowledge of the truth, which includes its defense.

And this is why I think we should not always be dismayed or discouraged beyond comfort when doctrinal fights break out. Nor should we always avoid it for the sake of a false peace. Yes, there is something distressing about it. But we should take comfort in knowing that God can (and often will) bring great fruit from these episodes.

That said, I think there is an order which should be maintained in the long run. Polemics are conducted for the sake of worship, not the other way around. That should be obvious, and I doubt any would deny that explicitly. All the same, I think the distaste some people have for reading clear, polemical theology comes from encountering those who have made the argument the point.

Thankfully, John Owen doesn’t seem to have been one of them.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

Hays on Mark’s Jesus: The God Who “Walks By” On the Water

echoes of Scripture.jpgThe Gospel of John is typically acknowledged as having a high, divine Christology. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are far more disputed. In his recent, magisterial work, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospel Richard Hays makes a forceful case, though, that among other roles (Davidic Messiah, Son of Man, etc.), Mark intentionally (though subtly) identifies Jesus as the coming God of Israel in the flesh.

Given that the book is all about the way the Gospel writers use and appeal to the Old Testament, his mode of argument is unsurprising. Hays examine a number of key texts in Mark where Jesus is doing curious things (forgiving sin, calming the seas, leading sheep without a shepherd, etc.) and connects them to Israel’s Scriptures which show these are things only God has the right or the power to accomplish. In that light, divine activity reveals divine identity.

While each of the texts he examines are worth engaging, one text I’d never seen discussed in this respect is Mark 6:45-52, where Jesus walks on the Sea of Galilee (pp. 70-73).

Now, taken simply it seems like an obvious act of divine power, either by way of divine empowerment of a chosen agent (prophet), or direct divine presence. Though for the first, there don’t seem to be parallels.  And for those tempted to suggest it, the Exodus doesn’t fit much since there God splits the seas and lets everybody cross on dry ground. And since Elisha’s splitting the Jordan is a mini-Exodus, nix that as well.

For the second suggestion, you could argue that it connects to the theme of subduing the powers of watery chaos, which in the Old Testament was a divine act, and is emphasized in Mark 4:35-41. Still, Hays points out that there isn’t an explicit Old Testament citation, and the image of God walking on the water isn’t a common one.

So how is Hays going to connect it to the Old Testament and the identity of Israel’s God? Well, he cleverly points us to this magnificent speech from Job extolling the power of God:

His wisdom is profound, his power is vast.
    Who has resisted him and come out unscathed?
He moves mountains without their knowing it
    and overturns them in his anger.
He shakes the earth from its place
    and makes its pillars tremble.
He speaks to the sun and it does not shine;
    he seals off the light of the stars.
He alone stretches out the heavens
    and treads on the waves of the sea.
He is the Maker of the Bear and Orion,
    the Pleiades and the constellations of the south.
He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed,
    miracles that cannot be counted.
When he passes me, I cannot see him;
    when he goes by, I cannot perceive him.
If he snatches away, who can stop him?
    Who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?’
God does not restrain his anger;
    even the cohorts of Rahab cowered at his feet. (Job 9:4-13)

At first that might seem a slender thread to hang a reference on. But Hays calls our attention to a couple of confirming lines of evidence.

First, there is the basic linguistic link if you look at the Greek of Mark and the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) translation of Job 9.

Second, connecting the two texts would clear up an oddity in Mark’s narrative. In the story, Mark tells us that originally Jesus “intended to pass them by” (Mk. 6:48). Matthew doesn’t include that tidbit, and commentators have puzzled over it for centuries. But then we turn to Job’s speech. In it, we see him marveling over the mighty works and power of God and he says, “When he passes me, I cannot see him; when he goes by, I cannot perceive him” (Job 9:11).

Hays comments:

Thus, in Job 9 the image of God’s walking on the sea is linked with a confession of God’s mysterious transcendence of human comprehension: God’s “passing by” is a metaphor for our inability to grasp his power. This metaphor, as we surely realize by this time, accords deeply with Mark’s emphasis on the elusiveness of the divine presence in Jesus. Thus, the story of Jesus’ epiphanic walking on the sea, read against the background of Job 9, can be perceived as the signature image of Markan Christology. (72)

Third, Hays adds that the verb parelthein (passes by) “almost surely alludes” to the story of God passing Moses by in Exodus 33:17-23 and 34:6. In that story, God passes by to show him his glory from behind, as it were, because for Moses to see him directly would kill him. The Septuagint uses the same work over and over, making it almost a technical term for a divine appearance. All of that together would fit with the theme of the incomprehension of the disciples (Mk. 6:51-52).

Finally, Jesus’ words of assurance to the disciples in the boat (“It is I [ego eimi]; do not be afraid”) should probably be heard, then, as an echo of Exodus 3:14. There God reveals himself as “I am who I am” (LXX: ego eimi ho on). That phrase becomes a stock self-identifying phrase of Israel’s God throughout Scripture (Deut. 32:39; Isa. 41:4; 51:12; 43:11). So Hays:

“Thus, when Jesus speaks this same phrase, ‘I am,’ in his sea-crossing epiphany, it serves to underscore the claim of divine identity  that implicitly present in the story as a whole.”(73)

Of course, this is just one teaser of a reading of one, subtle passage. But set in alongside of the rest of Hays’ dazzling exegesis of other key texts, the argument that Mark’s Jesus is only a divinely-empowered man becomes labored and torturous.

In this text, Jesus is the God of Israel who treads on the waters, who passes by, present to save, though mysterious beyond comprehension.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

Do Not Be Anxious to Be Modern In Theology

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.

(Ecclesiastes 1:9-12)

If we had to classify the Teacher of Israel, it’s fairly clear he was not a modern.

Commenting on some of the defining marks of the theory of progress and the heart of the modern, Peter Leithart notes:

“The theory of progress rests on the notion that there is a cut in time between all that went before and what comes after the beginning of modernity. Modernity establishes itself by digging a monumental ditch, a ‘great divide,’ between the past and the present, between those still living in the past and those who are fully in touch with the possibilities of the present. The modern distinction of us and them and the boundaries that accompany it map out the world as modernity sees it. Modernity is an act of cartography, a zoning operation, an exercise in ‘chrono-politics.'”

Solomon Among the Postmoderns, pg. 32

Leithart sees this as part of modernity’s appropriation and secularization of Christian theology, particularly its eschatology: “Moderns treat modernity as if it were a new stage of redemptive history” (31). Instead of carving the world up into “in Adam” and “in Christ”, though, it’s “in Copernicus” or “in Aristotle” (or something less flattering like, “in Cave Dweller”). On this view, moderns understand the birth of Modernity as a radical break such that things are forever altered, they are better, we can’t go back, and we shouldn’t want to.

Chronological Snobbery

Now, when thinking about philosophy or theology, it’s typical to note that Modernity’s ditch-digging eschatology funds what C.S. Lewis has called its “Chronological snobbery”: “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”

Rudolph Bultmann has a famous quote typically used to illustrate the need for his program for demythologizing the message of the New Testament, so that its existential challenge can be felt by modern men and women. In more conservative circles, fairly or not, it’s also a common example of the phenomenon Lewis is describing:

“We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.”

Now that we have science and medicine, cars and so forth, who’s going to believe in superstitions like miracles, angels, demons, and the like?

Of course, taken baldly, and after reviewing the actual philosophical arguments for and against miracles and so forth, it’s a rather silly and somewhat arrogant claim. A good dose of Lewis, Aquinas, Plantinga, or other common works of apologetics others can disabuse you of that fairly quickly. All the same, it’s fairly intuitive and recognizable impulse.

Chronological Anxiety

As I’ve read more in theology over the years, I’ve realized that this sort of thing isn’t limited to “traditional” apologetics issues. And even more, it doesn’t always express itself as an arrogant snobbery. Rather it’s a sort of modern anxiety theologians have about the answers we have for the deep moral and existential questions our world is asking.

You can spot it whenever you see someone wringing their hands as they say something like, “the old answers just won’t work for us.”

Usually this can be connected to the Enlightenment and Romantic narratives of heroic doubt and world come of age (see Charles Taylor, A Secular Age). “In our intellectual infancy and innocence—before Copernicus reoriented the heavens, or the Lisbon earthquake, or the shattering of Europe in WW 1, or the Holocaust, etc. (pick your favorite intellectual or moral cataclysm)—we could accept such answers, but now, we simply can’t. And so we must bravely seek out new answers for a new age.”

perfectly simpleStephen Long points out that one of the easiest places to spot this anxiety is in modern revisions of the doctrine of God. He connects the revisionist project to G.W.F. Hegel in a few ways. (And I’ll be condensing and likely bastardizing here.)

First, there’s the bigger Hegelian (and Feuerbachian) impulse of identifying the theology of an era as a manifestation of the Spirit of that era (or projection of the human culture). In which case, the assumption is that the answers accepted in previous eras are particularly (and peculiarly) suited to those eras, and therefore not suited to ours.

Second, there’s the material appeal of his theology as a response the problem of evil that’s loomed large in the modern period ever since the Earthquake of Lisbon down through the Holocaust. Process metaphysics, a number of the 20th Century German theologies, and so forth, have all been influenced to some greater or lesser degree by Hegel’s revised metaphysics of the doctrine of the Trinity. In this revised economy of salvation, God becomes historical, not as the absolute author freely becoming incarnate in history while maintaining his perfection, but rather is dragged into it in such a way that he himself becomes and achieves his own self-realization (and self-salvation?) in the redemption of the horror and pain of history, and so forth.

Long thinks this is mistaken for a number of reasons, but one of them is connected to that anxiety to be modern:

This revised economy has had too much of a hold on modern theology. The need to be “modern” is part of the problem, when the “modern” is understood as a never-ending apocalyptic moment in which everything we have done up until this moment does not prepare us from the “now” that is about to arrive but never does. Everything must be revised; everything must be new. There has been a modern, apocalyptic anxiety about theology that seeks calls for revision and is fated to continue to do so, each call for revision trying to be more apocalyptic and historical than the previous one. The historical situatedness of this assumption need not hold us captive. To challenge this modern anxiety is not to wax nostalgic for premodernity. —The Perfectly Simple, Triune God: Aquinas and His Legacy, pg. 385

There’s much to comment on in this.

For one thing, Long pushes the notion of being modern past Leithart’s single “cut in time” and notes the way the modern ethos (which continues into postmodernity) is to continue anxiously cutting time between this age and that, these people and those.

And so, if we’re to be modern, giving answers to modern people, we need to constantly revise our answers for post-Holocaust, post-industrial, post-colonial, etc. age. Revisions must come by age-bracket now (insert joke about “millennial” eschatology).

Long’s comment also begins to push us towards the problem with such an impulse. For one thing, the thesis of the radically-situated and projected character of all theology is a radically-situated thesis itself. It is not necessary to view the nature of truth, theology, or the world that way.

Another way of putting this is that often enough the refrain, “The old metaphysics won’t work for us,” could be translated as, “The old metaphysics won’t work for some, dissatisfied white kids talking philosophy in a coffee-shop in the late-modern West.” Because something like the traditional metaphysics and economy of redemption seems to be doing fine in a global context, even if there are regional variations.

And even that’s not the whole picture, since there are plenty of late-modern kids in the West who find beauty, power, and strength in the older metaphysics. I know. I’ve talked to them, pastored them, and—surprise!—been one of them.

It seems plausible, then, the modern anxiety and assumption that just because they’re the “old answers” they can’t possibly work in a new context is more prejudice than established fact. Indeed, it borders on fideistic superstition since it exists in the face so many counter-examples sitting in pews across the world.

Nothing Is New Under the Sun

Which brings me back to Ecclesiastes. The Teacher’s early refrain is, “there is nothing new under the Sun.” I don’t want to deny the modern point that history is real, time passes, and cultural and material changes happen. But what we see this modern anxiety can take an extreme form such that it constitutes a denial of the continuity of human nature. “We are Moderns (or Postmoderns), it simply impossible for us to believe such things, since we are a different kind of human.” In that sense, it’s not just an eschatological heresy, it’s an anthropological one.

Coming back around to the problem of evil and the doctrine of God, it’s true that for some reason the problem took on a particular potency in philosophical reflection. But what surprises me in these discussions, though, is how often modern, theological revisionists tend forget that pre-moderns were well-acquainted with death and destruction, as if their answers constructed in a theological vacuum.

People act like Augustine didn’t live through the Fall of Rome or pastor in North Africa before the advent of Penicillin. As if Aquinas didn’t grow up in a world of warfare, or where mothers regularly lost their lives (or their children) in childbirth. Or as if Calvin and the other Reformers didn’t witness Religious wars, or have to pray for plague victims at their deathbeds. In other words, the people who came up with the “old answers” on the basis of Scripture were as well-acquainted with evil and pain as any modern or postmodern. Possibly more so.

In that case, if the “old answers won’t do” it’s possible to question the assumptions shared by moderns which keep them from accepting those answers, instead of the answers themselves?

Wolfhart Pannenberg, something of a reviser himself, has commented:

The fact that a later age may find it harder to understand traditional ideas is not a sufficient reason for replacing them. It simply shows how necessary it is to open up these ideas to later generations by interpretation and thus to keep their meaning alive.
Systematic Theology Vol. 2 , 422

The connects well with Long’s comments. To question this modern anxiety is not simply nostalgia for a straight-line return to premodern theology simpliciter, using all the same texts, formulas, with no alterations or considerations of our changed time and place. None of this relieves us from the task of application.

In order to preach the Word of God in our time, we have to know our time. We must know the moderns and the postmoderns. We should understand their objections, their fears, their particular anxieties and worries, which do exhibit cultural differences. It may take more arduous work “to open up these ideas” about God to the women and men of our times.

And because of the human finitude of our forebears, that may even include subjecting our theology to the Word of God afresh. God may move and show us that prior generations were insufficiently attentive to some aspect of revealed truth. One of my theological heroes, Herman Bavinck, is a fantastic model in this regard, in his ability to retrieve and creatively re-articulate the “old answers” of the Reformed tradition in such a way that attends to modern concerns.

But I suppose my point at the end of this long meditation is to say, when it comes to the practice of doing theology—having a Word from God to our neighbors—in the modern (or postmodern era), “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil. 4:6). Do not think that in this we must constantly start anew with the release of every Mac operating system.

It is not unlikely God has provided you the answers you need through the work of the Church reading Scripture in history. A good many of them might even be premodern.

Soli Deo Gloria

Basil’s Doxological Spirit

holy spiritI’ve already written a little bit on Basil the Great’s idea of the work of the Spirit in the ministry of the Son. In that light, it’s very clear that Basil thinks of the Spirit economically, or historically. Much of On the Holy Spirit is caught up showing that the Spirit is active, along with the Son and the Father, sharing their one creative and salvific work, the same level of (undivided, divine) being, and names.

The pay-out for Basil, though, is that the Spirit is ranked with Father and Son,  In which case, he deserves to be glorified along with Father and Son.

Basil’s pneumatology is therefore doxological—and this is many ways.

First, in the straightforward sense that purpose of the treatise is to defend the worship of the Spirit in the doxology under attack by the Pneumatomachians (Spirit-fighters). Recall, the Pneumatomachians objected to Basil’s use of the two doxological forms, “to the Father, with the Son, in the Holy Spirit” as well as “to the Father, with the Son together with the Holy Spirit” (1.3).

At one point, after recounting many of the Spirit’s divine works and titles, he asks, “In this matter, which should we fear, that we will overstep his dignity with excessive honor?” (19.49). Theologically and Scripturally, he has shown that it is entirely appropriate to give glory to the Spirit alongside the Son and Father. But more than that, at the rhetorical level, it is as if Basil is banking the fact that contemplating the work of the Spirit cannot but induce his readers to worship.

Another couple of doxological dimensions are suggested by a passage late in the text, where Basil’s explaining the propriety of using both formulas mentioned above. He says,

“Therefore, when we consider the Spirit’s rank, we think of Him as present with the Father and the Son, but when we consider the working of His grace on its recipients, we say that the Spirit is in us.”

Basil moves on to explain the two senses in which it is appropriate to think about the term “in the Holy Spirit.” First, when we say “in” the Spirit, we’re actually referring to our own weakness. Or rather, we’re speaking to the Spirit’s role as the sanctifier and illuminer—it is only because of the aid of the Spirit who indwells believers that they are able to offer sacrifices of praise to God, being insufficient to the task in themselves  (26.55).

Basil comes to a second sense in which we might take the phrase “in the Holy Spirit.” I’ll quote it at length:

We learn that just as the Father is made visible in the Son, so also the Son is recognized in the Spirit. To worship in the Spirit implies that our intelligence has been enlightened. Consider the words spoken to the Samaritan woman. She was deceived by local custom into believing that worship could only be offered in a specific place, but the Lord, attempting to correct her, said that worship ought to be offered in Spirit and in truth. By truth He clearly meant Himself. If we say that worship offered in the Son (the Truth) is worship offered in the Father’s Image, we can say the same about worship offered in the Spirit since the Spirit in Himself reveals the divinity of the Lord.

The Holy Spirit cannot be divided from the Father and the Son in worship. If you remain outside the Spirit, you cannot worship at all, and if you are in Him you cannot separate Him from God. Light cannot he separated from what it makes visible, and it is impossible for you to recognize Christ, the Image of the invisible God, unless the Spirit enlightens you. Once you see the Image, you cannot ignore the light; you see the Light and the Image simultaneously. It is fitting that when we see Christ, the Brightness of God’s glory, it is always through the illumination of the Spirit  (26.64).

When we speak of the Spirit as the illuminer, Basil wants us to think of him less as the One who turns on the light by which we see, and more as the Light himself in whom we see the Son who is the invisible image of the Father and are able to worship. This is why “the Holy Spirit cannot be divided from the Father and the Son in worship.” For Basil, as for Paul, it’s only by the Holy Spirit that we confess ‘Christ is Lord’ (1 Cor. 12:3).

And so we can see that whatever else we might say about Basil’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit, it’s doxological through and through.

Soli Deo Gloria

“It All Comes to Pass in the Spirit”: Basil on the Holy Spirit At Work in the Works of the Son

spiritu-sanctuOne of the main principles the Church Fathers used to establish the doctrine of the Trinity was to recognize that a unity of activities or “operations” between the persons meant a unity of being and identity. Early in the 4th Century theologians like Athanasius argued from this principle to establish the divinity and consubstantiality of the Son with the Father. If the Son is the agent of creation and salvation, then he shares this work with the Father. In which case, he must also share the same simple, indivisible nature with him. (And just as a side-note, this isn’t abstract logic-chopping, but the sort of reasoning Scripture points us to all over the place, but see especially 1 Corinthians 12:1-12, or Ephesians 1).

Of course, one of the nice things about having to hammer out those principles for thinking about the Son was that they were then close at hand when conflict about the Holy Spirit arose later in the 4th Century. It’s just that sort of argument that Basil of Caesarea appeals to in his masterful treatise On the Holy Spirit.  In it he’s arguing against the Macedonians (also known as Pneumatomachians, or “Spirit-fighters”) who, for all sorts of reasons, held that the Holy Spirit shouldn’t be ranked with the Father and the Son.

Against them, Basil levels a broad array of penetrating exegetical and theological arguments . But towards the center of the work, in chapter 16, he sets out to establish that “the Holy Spirit is indivisible and inseparable from the Father and the Son” by appealing to their inseparable operations. He traces the unity of their work in the work of prophecy and inspiration, creation, and even the final judgment of the Son. Probably my favorite section in the chapter (and maybe the whole book) comes in his description of the Spirit’s work in the Son’s ministry:

But when we speak of the plan of salvation for men, accomplished in God’s goodness by our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who would deny that it was all made possible through the grace of the Spirit?

Whether you wish to examine the Old Testament – the blessings of the patriarchs, the help given through the law, the types, the prophecies, the victories in battle, the miracles performed through righteous men – or everything that happened since the Lord’s coming in the flesh, it all comes to pass through the Spirit.

In the first place, the Lord was anointed with the Holy Spirit, who would henceforth be inseparably united to His very flesh, as it is written, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is He who … is my beloved Son,” and “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit.”

After His baptism, the Holy Spirit was present in every action He performed. He was there when the Lord was tempted by the devil: “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted.”  The Spirit was united with Jesus when He performed miracles: “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons … ”

Nor did the Spirit leave Him after His resurrection from the dead. When the Lord renewed mankind by breathing into His Apostles’ faces, (thus restoring the grace which Adam had lost, which God breathed into him in the beginning) what did He say? “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Is it not indisputably clear that the Church is set in order by the Holy Spirit? “God has appointed in the Church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues.” This order is established according to the different gifts distributed by the Spirit. (On the Holy Spirit, 16.39)

There’s much to comment on here, but I’ll keep my remarks brief.

First, see how he begins his discussion of the Spirit’s work in plan of salvation accomplished by God in Jesus Christ: the Old Testament. For Basil, the economy of salvation begins in the book of Genesis, not the Gospel of Matthew. He sees all of it–the Law, the prophets, and even Israel’s victories in battle–under the aegis of the Spirit.

Second, there’s a bit of what we might call a “Spirit-Christology” (but not an overwhelming one), that sees the Son’s work in the Incarnation as irrefragably bound up with the agency of the Spirit. You simply cannot explain Jesus’ ministry without the work of the Spirit–as the Spirit’s anointing was “in his flesh”, “the Holy Spirit was present in every action He performed.” He actually does a lot with this throughout the treatise as a whole, but the point here is, with their agency so tightly bound up, how can you even think of dividing the being of the Spirit from the Son (and therefore the Father)? (Incidentally, he shares this emphasis with Irenaeus of Lyon, if you want to do more digging in the Fathers).

Third, even though he’s going to turn to the final things in the next section, Basil chooses to end this segment on the economy of salvation with the establishment of the Church. Pouring out the gifts that create the Church is obviously a divine act of the Son and the Father. And so if the Spirit is seen as the one who distributes those gifts, this is only because he shares the divine glory and being of Father and Son.

It is for these reasons Basil is quite right to insist that offer glory “to the Father, with the Son together with the Holy Spirit.”

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Perichoresis in Aquinas: Fruit, not Foundation

Emery pic.jpg“Perichoresis” or, in Latin, circumincessio, has been a fairly traditional term in trinitarian theology since at least the time of John of Damascus. Before he applied it to the trinitarian issue, it was used to speak of the mutual interpenetration of the human and divine natures of Christ in the incarnation. But in trinitarian theology, it speaks of the mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity. Scripturally, the taproot of the doctrine comes in Jesus’ discourses in John where he says things like, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” and so forth (John 14:10-11). The point is that there is a “reciprocal interiority” of Father, Son, and Spirit in that they exist within the other persons in an unconfused, but ineffable unity.

In recent theology the concept has become sexy and made to do a lot of work in broader theological systems. For instance, in the work of types like Jurgen Moltmann, the perichoresis of the persons has been used to secure the unity of the Trinity in a social doctrine of the Trinity, while at the same time speaking to the God-world relationship. Colin Gunton has expanded it out as a “transcendental” that allows us to understand the deep, interpenetrating structures of reality. People have developed spiritualities, political and economic programs, and even marital models out of it, leaving theologians like Karen Kilby to wonder if the process of projection hasn’t been at work here.

In any case, as I was reading Gilles Emery’s exposition The Trinitarian Theology of Thomas Aquinas, he draws attention to the Thomas’ doctrine of perichoresis as something of a synthesis of his trinitarian doctrine as a whole. Given its contemporary importance, it seemed worth reviewing what this giant of Western trinitarianism had to say on the subject.

To be begin, it might seem like he has little to say, simply because neither the Greek term “perichoresis” nor the Latin term “circumincessio” appear in Thomas. But Emery notes that while the specific terms may not appear, a battery of other phrases demonstrate that the concept is deeply rooted in Thomas’ thought:

In presenting the ‘in being’ of the persons, he uses, rather, the expressions ‘union or intrinsic conjunction’, ‘interiority’, ‘intimacy’, ‘existing in’, ‘being in that which is the most intimate and most secret’ (this is how the Son is in the Father), ‘reciprocal communality of “in being,”’ ‘communal union’, etc. In every case, the communal presence of the persons excludes their confusion, because it is based in their real distinction. It rules out the ‘isolation’ of one person, since it implies a communal relationship of persons. The divine persons are not ‘solitaries’: they are ‘inseparables’. (302)

With that linguistic point out of the way, Emery shows that for Thomas, the communal immanence of the persons rests three main bases: their consubstantiality, their relations, and the processions. I’ll try to briefly review them following Emery’s discussion (pp. 302-308).

To begin, following the Fathers, especially Hilary, Thomas places the unity of God’s nature, or the consubstantiality of the persons, front and center:

As to essence, the Father is in the Son because the Father is his essence and he shares it with the Son without any change taking place in himself; therefore because the Father’s essence is in the Son, it follows that the Father is in the Son. Equally, the Son being his own essence, it follows that he is in the Father, in whom the same essence is present. (ST I, q. 42, a. 5)

It’s not just that the persons share the same kind of nature. In fact, they share the same concrete nature. According to his doctrine of simplicity, we have to say that each of the persons are the divine nature. And so, “the nature of the Father is in the Son, and conversely, the Father is in the Son and reciprocally” (Commentary on John, 10.38). The mutual immanence of the persons, therefore, rests on their unity of nature.

Second, the relations also play a role. Emery suggests that Thomas follows John of Damascus by way of his teacher Albert the Great here. The point is that the in itself, the idea or notion of relations include an inherent mutuality. “Likewise as to the relations, it is clear that each of the relative opposites is in the notion of the other” (ST, I q. 42, a. 5). Less abstractly, as realities naturally relating to each other, the notions of “Father” and “Son” are mutually-implicated and included within the other:

In God, the Son is also properly in the Father from the perspective of relation—and that in a more fitting way than amongst human fathers and sons—because it is by his relation that the Son is a subsisting person: his relation is his personality. (I Sent. d. 19, q. 3, a. 2, ad 1)

As Emery highlights, “It is not just that a relative reality cannot be thought without its correlative. It cannot exist as such without it…” (304). For Thomas, persons are “subsistent relations”—the relations constitute the persons. And this is one of the features that distinguishes divine personality from other forms, and makes true reciprocal interiority an exclusively divine property.

Emery also highlights that their reciprocal interiority is not a flat one. At the level of the unity of nature, their interiority is the same. But when you look at it from the angle of the relations, their presence within each other implies a particular mode of relations, a mode of being which is distinct.

Which brings us to the third angle from which to consider perichoresis, which is that of the processions, or origin of the relations. In other words, the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit. Now, one might think that the notion of procession might disrupt perichoresis, since linguistically and even conceptually it implies a “going out.” But Thomas clarifies by distinguishing divine procession from material procession:

In material things, what comes forth from another is no longer in it, since it comes from it by a separation from it in essence or in space. But in God, coming forth does not arise in this way. The Son came forth eternally from the Father in such a way that the Son is still in the Father from all eternity. And so, when he is in the Father, he comes forth. And when he comes forth, he is in him, in such a way that he is always coming forth, and always in him. (Commentary on John, 16:28)

It’s important to remember that Thomas follows after Augustine in thinking through the processions on analogy of mental self-presence. The Son is the mental Word which is conceived and dwells in the mind of the Father. Also, as the Love or bond between the Father and Son, the Spirit dwells within both from whom he proceeds. And so the eternal processions, along with the relations, and the consubstantiality of the persons ground their unity, their distinctness, and their mutual indwelling precisely as eternal Father, Son, and Spirit.

Now, in context, Emery is keen to show in his analysis the way Thomas developed the mutual indwelling of the persons in Thomas in order to combat the dual errors of Sabellianism and subordination, as well as develop the notion of trinitarian action. The analysis is helpful and worth consulting, since I’ve only given a thumbnail sketch here.

What struck me, though, is the way that perichoresis is treated as a summary doctrine built upon and tying together the other threads of consubstantiality, relation, and procession. In Thomas, (and arguably the Fathers whom he follows) perichoresis is the fruit of the three other notions, not their foundation.

This appears to be a valuable approach towards thinking about and deploying the concept of perichoresis. In the first place, it helps pump the brakes against certain expositions treating perichoresis as a stand-alone formula or mechanism, which is supposed to do all the work in trinitarian theology. Trinitarian dogmatics cannot live by perichoresis alone. On the other hand, some of us may therefore be tempted to downplay, or ignore the concept by way of reaction against those formulations. To those, Thomas can help us see its place as a crowning summary concept, allowing us to appreciate the beautifully unifying the whole, and worship more fully the One who is Three and the Three who are One.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Triune God by Fred Sanders

Triune God.jpgFred Sanders has written a book about the Trinity called The Triune God. Yes, he has already written one previously, The Deep Things of God (which you should have already read by now), and dissertation on it (which is too expensive for anyone to read), but this one is different. Coming as the second volume in Zondervan’s promising New Studies in Dogmatics series, Sanders isn’t interested in giving a serviceable, “here’s the Trinity in OT, the NT, then the Fathers, now the Medievals, and here’s how to not be a heretic today” structure. Instead, Sanders says,

The goal of this book is to secure our knowledge of the triune God by rightly ordering the theological language with which we praise the triune God. Its central contention is that the manner of the Trinity’s revelation dictates the shape of the doctrine: it draws its dogmatic conclusions about how the doctrine should be handled on the basis of the way the Trinity was revealed (19).

Yes, it’s a work of trinitarian doctrine, but it’s also a master class in how to construct trinitarian doctrine. Sanders doesn’t just set about telling you how to think about the Trinity, but also how to think about thinking about the Trinity. In that sense, Sanders is concerned with trinitarian doctrine as a species of Theological Interpretation of Scripture; he wants to show us how to read the Bible to arrive at the doctrine of the Trinity without misconstruing either the Bible, or even worse, the Trinity. And all of this for the sake of rightly praising our glorious God.

I will just come out and say that if you are anything approaching a theology nerd, serious student, or professor, I would highly recommend this work. Treat yourself for Christmas or something. Sanders is already known for his acumen in all matters trinitarian, but this book ought to solidify that reputation. And rightly so. This is a serious, top-shelf entry within the academic and churchly conversation around the doctrine of the Trinity. Sanders’ writing is clear, lucid, with an astonishing command of the height, depth, and breadth of the Christian tradition (Patristic, Medieval, Roman, Orthodox, and Protestant) of reflection on the Triune God.

That said, if you’re looking for an intro book on the Trinity, I’ll go ahead and recommend you pick up The Deep Things of God instead (which is coming out in a second edition, I hear).

So what is his argument in this book? Well, it’s a rather complex one that I can’t fully cover here. But essentially its concerned that we go about doing trinitarian theology in a way that fits trinitarian revelation. How God has revealed himself as the One who is Three, ought to definitively govern the way we confess (in praise and print, and printed praise) God as the Three who are One. Theologians aren’t in the business of clarifying God’s muddle, but communicating God’s self-manifestation.

To do that, Sanders delves into issues like the nature of revelation. What does it mean for us to talk about the revelation of the Trinity, for instance? Well, it doesn’t just mean that God is incomprehensible and that he is beyond our understanding. That’s what the doctrine of incomprehensibility means. Instead, in keeping with the NT sense of “mystery”, the reality of the Trinity is of a truth temporarily “hidden, but now revealed” in history for us and our salvation.

But how is it revealed? Well, in the act of God sending God, in missions of the Son and Spirit, or the Incarnation and Pentecost. In these historical acts, God reveals himself as Triune. This means that strictly speaking, the New Testament isn’t the revelation of the Trinity. The New Testament is the inspired (and authoritative!) attestation of that revelation. The words of the apostles inspired by the Spirit are necessary to disambiguate the nature of the Word who comes in the power of the Spirit. There is a unity of word and act at that point.

Sanders touches on and attempts to untangle sundry other issues. For instance, the question of how to think about the relationship between God’s reality in himself and his revelation to us in history. In the 20th century it’s been popular to think of this in terms of the unity or identity of the economic Trinity (God seen in history-of-redemption) and immanent Trinity (God in himself apart from history). Sanders’ moves away from this formulation and, along with John Webster, champions the older formulation which speaks instead of God’s internal processions (the Father generating the Son, the Spirit being spirated by Father and Son), as the foundation of his historical missions (Incarnation and Pentecost). The latter reveals the former and the former is founded on the latter. (Incidentally, much of the hermeneutical muddle surrounding the Trinity debate this summer could be cleared up by working through this book).

When we think of the relationship between the Bible and the Trinity, Sanders helpfully covers a broad terrain. He forthrightly faces the problem of the fact that a good many classic proof-texts of the Trinity have been taken away by modern critical, or careful historical-grammatical exegesis. All the same, new reading strategies—which at times are the recovery of older reading strategies—has opened up new vistas for trinitarian exegesis.

For instance, looking at the Fathers and the New Testament authors, there has been a turn to recovering “retrospective prosoponic identification” or “prosopological exegesis”—the practice of rereading OT texts like the Psalms and identifying persons (prosopa) within them—as fruitful field within which we can toil. Think of Jesus appealing to Ps. 110 and asking the Pharisees who God is speaking to when David sings, “The LORD said to my Lord…” Texts like that are regularly appealed to in New Testament, and the Fathers deployed this mode of reading extensively. On that front the harvest is plentiful! But what about the workers?

Sanders covers all sorts of other ground, like what to make of so-called “Christophanies” (hint: something else), or how to go about spotting the trinitarian presupposition of Paul’s theology, and so forth. That said, you should know that Sanders doesn’t write a “definitive” work in this regard. He does plenty of Trinitarian theology and plenty of exegesis at key points, but often it is illustrative of a general point and not an exhaustive treatment of it.

This might seem like a drag at first. Part of you wants Sanders to work it all out across the Gospels, Paul, even Revelation. Or even though he touches on how to think of the Christophanies, it would be fun to see him work with a story like Abraham and the angel of YHWH at Mamre. But he doesn’t. Besides probably being limited by word-count, I suspect there’s something generous about Sanders’ reticence to give an exhaustive, run-down: it forms something of an invitation to others to discern the glory of the Triune God in Scripture alongside him.

So what are you waiting for?

Soli Deo Gloria

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