Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Does the Trinity Really Matter?

Does believing in the Trinity have any import in life, in the church, in our leadership? Of course it has direction implications on our statements of faith and in some of our sermons, but is that it? Let me pose it this way: If we did not espouse the Trinity, what would change about the day-to-day life of the church?

Theological reflection about the Triune God opens up a new imagination about who God is. It moves us beyond our man-made images of gods to see what has been revealed in the Incarnation and through the sending of the Spirit. John Franke puts it this way:

"The statement 'God is love' refers primarily to the eternal, relational, intratrinitarian fellowship among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who together are the one God. In this way, God is love within the divine reality, and in this sense, through all eternity, God is the social Trinity, the community of love. (Franke, The Character of Theology, 67).

But what does this have to do with anything?  Beyond our statements of orthodoxy, of what value is knowing this about God? In our personal walk with God? In the way we are the church? In the way that we lead the church? Have we connected the dots between who God is and the way God acts in the world?

Emil Brunner, the great Swiss theologian of the previous century, observes that the doctrine of the Trinity is not only not mentioned in the New Testament but that it has not been a part of faith and church life. Instead it is a topic of the discipline of theology. He writes: "The ecclesiastical doctrine of the Trinity, established by the dogma of the ancient Church, is not a Biblical kerygma, therefore it is not the kerygma of the Church, but it is a theological doctrine which defends the central faith of the Bible and of the Church" (The Christian Doctrine of God, 206).

If this is the case, then it seems that there is a great divide between theological talk about God and the practical stuff of discipleship, church life and leadership.
This might seem like an extremely impractical and esoteric issue. If the Bible did not talk about the Trinity overtly and the Reformers did not spend much energy on it, then why raise the question? I'd like to suggest that there we must be a different way of looking at this topic. We cannot live in this dualism where something so central to our theological reflection does not have any practical bearing on what we do in practice. When we live in this dualism, we end up trying to follow God according to two distinct ways of thinking. In one set, we have what we confess, which impacts how we preach, what we write, and what we recite as our creeds. In the other set, we have our pattens of operation, which are in large part shaped by a very different way of thinking.

With the imminent New Testament scholar Gordon Fee (and others), I believe that when we read the scriptures holistically and contextually that the Trinity is a presuppositional reality in the Gospels and Epistles. No it's not overt in the dogmatic sense that was developed subsequent to the closing of the canon, but the doctrine of the Trinity permeates the New Testament writers imagination. And it directly influences their experience, the everyday life of the church. It's not just metaphysical speculation about the nature of God. Trinity is about who God is for us. It's about how God is revealed and experienced, not just lofty ideas about things we cannot touch or see.

We must move beyond the great divide that keeps our theology all bottled up in our libraries and allow our theology to be tested in real life. Trinitarian reflection has everything to do with discipleship, church life, and leadership. How? Well that's still to come.

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