Book Excerpt: “Things Unseen” (May-Aug 2004)

By Matt Dabbs

by C. Leonard Allen
May – August, 2004

For more than two centuries Christian faith has been on the defensive against the steady encroachment of the secular and scientific worldview. Christian intellectuals and apologists have, to varying degrees, sought to accommodate that worldview. But now, with the decline of the modern worldview, believers can embrace more easily the full wealth of historic Christian convictions, some of which were readily sacrificed or compromised to accommodate modernity.

By far the most important recovery of neglected Christian practice and truth that this change of eras is making possible is a practical or functional doctrine of the Trinity. This claim may sound odd to many Christians, and perhaps even unintelligible at first—which may in itself be a sign of the problem we face.

The doctrine of the Trinity has been in steady recession in the modern period, and this eclipse stands behind the rise of modern unitarian, rationalistic, Christological, and other heresies. The reasons for the decline are at least two. First, the traditional Western Trinitarian doctrine was increasingly judged to be an inherited dogma that was dense, arcane, and of little relevance to Christians and to the modern world. It was viewed as remote from the actual needs and concerns of believers. Some Christian leaders thus became hostile to the doctrine and many became indifferent.

Second, the traditional doctrine did not fare well against the criterion of “reasonableness” that became ever more dominant in the Enlightenment. The Deists and other proponents of “natural religion” found the doctrine an offense to reason and simply lopped it off. Most others did not reject the doctrine outright, but it became functionally peripheral to a Christian faith increasingly measured and limited by the canons of human reason. This more subtle form of eclipse can be seen in the line of “supernatural rationalism” that runs from the Christian philosopher John Locke down through Alexander Campbell and other progressive Christian thinkers of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.i In Robert W. Jenson’s judgment, “the inherited doctrine of the Trinity was by the opening of the nineteenth century nearly defunct in all those parts of the church open to modernity.”ii To put the matter over simply, God’s relationality was overshadowed by mechanism. Mystery was eclipsed by method.

Other forms of eclipse have been added to these older ones in more recent years. Some biblical scholars, for example, have in effect become binitarian by insisting that the New Testament does not compel us to make a person out of the Spirit as in traditional Trinitarian doctrine.iii

All this is not to say that the traditional Trinitarian doctrine in the West was free of problems. These older Enlightenment, as well as the more recent, rejections of Trinitarian doctrine are based, in part, on the assumption that the classic Western doctrine is the doctrine of the Trinity. But the received Western doctrine (strongly indebted to Augustine for its formulation) was marked by abstract, heavily philosophical analysis and alien, Hellenistic assumptions about deity. God was assumed, for example, to be “impassable” (or passionless), an attribute that directly counters the biblical story of God’s anguished interaction with Israel. As a result, the classic form of the doctrine, with its distortions, helped precipitate its modern eclipse.

The new environment that many like to call “postmodern” is aiding the recovery of a robust and sounder Trinitarian faith and practice. The recovery of the doctrine was launched in the early twentieth century by Karl Barth, though his own doctrine was not sufficiently freed from the Western distortions. Over the last twenty-five years other theologians from a variety of traditions have advanced this recovery in fresh and faithful ways.iv

What has emerged from these efforts is a recovery of God’s relationality—or what is sometimes called the social Trinity (see John 17:20-26). In this view God is understood as a community of persons rather than as three modes of being. God is not a solitary, domineering individual who rules through arbitrary exercise of power but rather the perfect model of loving community—becoming vulnerable, entering into partnership, sharing the divine life, loving like a parent. As a contemporary spiritual writer has put it:

God is not a solitary.
That is why He is not alone.
He is a Trinity.
If He were only unity, He would be a solitary. But, being love, He is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit.
The Father is life, and He is the source of all things; the Son is the image of the Father, and He is light; the Holy Spirit is the love which unites them, and He is a divine person.
God, being love, is communication. . . .
The love of the Trinity is the new kind of love proposed to man.
But it is impossible to live it without the Trinity within us.
That is why the Christian is ‘inhabited.’
He is ‘inhabited’ by the Trinity.
“Anyone who loves me will be true to my word, and my Father will love him; we will come to him and make our dwelling place with him” (John 14:23).v

In this view God is essentially dynamic, relational, and ecstatic (going outside oneself). God is the very paragon of love in relationship, of living in intimate community and submissive freedom—the God who loved Israel like Hosea loved Gomer and who so loved the world that he sent his only Son. And God invites human beings, his creatures, to share the rich life and fellowship of the divine community, and through partaking of that life to become like his Son.vi

Though the majority have affirmed the Father, Son, and Spirit, modern churches have had a functionally weak doctrine of the Trinity. This may at first appear to be an odd, even outlandish, claim. “Of course we believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Three in one, one in three. What’s the problem?” The problem is not believing in the Father, Son, and Spirit, of course; any serious biblicist does that. The problem is a Trinitarian theology and practice, a functional doctrine of the Trinity that centers and deeply shapes not only one’s theology but especially one’s worship. There is a large difference between affirming a doctrine of the Trinity and being Trinitarian.

As I have stressed over and over to theology students over the years, the doctrine of the Trinity is not about some strange heavenly arithmetic that theologians like to play with. It is rather a kind of shorthand for referring to what we know of God now that Jesus has come and the Spirit has been poured out. Though a deep mystery, the Trinity is a crucially practical doctrine—practical in the sense that it fundamentally shapes our practices. For the way we understand God’s way of loving and relating to people sets the pattern for how his followers conduct their life together and carry out their ministry to the world.

The Trinity provides our pattern or exemplar for unity and fellowship. God leads a relational life as Father, Son, and Spirit. That life is characterized by submissive love, as each member of the Trinity pours his life into the other. In God’s own self there is an abundant outpouring of life, so abundant that it overflows and creates community with God’s creatures—those outside the relationship within God. Through the sending of the Son and the outpouring of the Spirit, God pours this rich life into his creatures. As Diogenes Allen puts it: “The life of the Trinity is a perfect community and it is the kind of community for which we long; it satisfies our craving to be loved perfectly and to be attached to others properly.”vii

We partake of the Trinitarian life in several ways: sacramentally through observing Christ’s ordinances, doxologically as we draw near to God and God to us, charismatically (another very awkward word) through divine gifts of grace, and pneumatologically through the mystery of the indwelling Spirit. The Trinity is the doctrinal center and fulcrum of the Christian faith. To change the metaphor, it is the prism through which all other doctrinal features of the faith are lighted and put in perspective. Indeed, the Trinitarian doctrine encapsulates and preserves the uniquely Christian view of God’s relational character.

When this doctrine functionally recedes, as it has done in the modern period, there are many, often subtle, consequences. One easily falls prey to sectarianism or overly narrow views of God’s Kingdom; to various forms of legalism, all of which misconstrue the nature of God’s relationality; to authoritarianism, which misconstrues the character of Christ’s exercise of authority; to spiritual triumphalism, which downplays the cruciform nature of discipleship; to spiritual elitism, which distorts the purpose of the Spirit’s power and gifts; to constricted or mechanical understandings of the ordinances or sacraments in Christian life; and other assorted ills, heresies, and disruptions in the life of the church.

One challenge in today’s emergent churches is for Christians to recover a discipleship rooted in a Trinitarian pneumatology. Christian discipleship involves following the risen Lord, in the power of the Spirit, to the glory of God the Father. In the Trinitarian economy the present work of the Spirit is primarily eschatological. That is, the Spirit, using means that are finite and contingent, anticipates and makes real the life to come in the present life of the Christian community. Full and faithful discipleship, then, is supernatural or Spirit empowered; the believer walks in a way and engages in practices that are humanly impossible but that in the power of the Spirit become possible. When discipleship is not rooted in the Spirit’s power it gets tamed or toned down to what seems humanly possible, simply reasonable, and culturally appropriate.

Gordon Fee, gathering up the fruit of his extensive exegesis of all the Spirit texts in Paul, has put this recovery in terms that can resonate with contemporary churches in emergent culture: “a genuine recapturing of the Pauline perspective will cause the church to be more vitally Trinitarian, not only in its theology, but in its life and Spirituality as well. This will mean not the exaltation of the Spirit, but the exaltation of God; and it will mean not focus on the Spirit as such, but on the Son, crucified and risen, Savior and Lord of all.”viii After modernity, such recovery has become more possible.

This excerpt of Leonard Allen’s new book, Things Unseen: Churches of Christ in (and after) the Modern Age, used by permission. To order, go to Leafwood Publishers.

NOTES

i John Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity as Delivered in the Scriptures (1695), towers over this lineage.

iiRobert W. Jenson, Christian Dogmatics (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 1:150.

iiiSee for example C. F. D. Moule, The Holy Spirit (Oxford: Mowbray, 1978), 43-51. This form of eclipse has a few proponents among Church of Christ scholars.

ivParticularly noteworthy are Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981); Karl Rahner, The Trinity, trans. Joseph Donceel (London: Burns and Oats, 1970); Eberhard Jungel, The Doctrine of the Trinity, trans. Horton Harris (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1976); John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (London: Dartman, Longman, and Todd, 1985); and Robert W. Jenson, The Triune Identity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982). Noteworthy works focusing particularly on the practicality of the Trinitarian doctrine include Catherine M. LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and the Christian Life (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1991), and L. Gregory Jones, Transformed Judgment: Toward a Trinitarian Account of the Moral Life (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1993).

vCarlo Carretto, The God Who Comes (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1974), 79, 83.

viRecent advocates of the social Trinity include Colin Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1991); Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 1:259-336; LaCugna, God for Us; Ted Peters, God as Trinity: Relationality and Temporality in Divine Life (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1993; Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, esp. 171-76; and Pinnock, Flame of Love, 21-48.

viiDiogenes Allen, The Path of Perfect Love (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1992), 52. This is one of the best discussions of God’s relational life and how that life creates community with human beings. See pp. 39-59.

viiiFee, God’s Empowering Presence, 902. See also his more popular treatment of Trinitarian pneumatology in Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 36-48.New Wineskins

C. Leonard Allen directs Leafwood Publishers. Previously he was visiting professor at Biola University, La Mirada, CA, adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, and professor at Abilene Christian University. He holds the Ph.D. in Christian Thought from the School of Religion at the University of Iowa, and is the author or co-author of several books, including The Contemporaries Meet the Classics on Prayer, The Cruciform Church: Becoming a Cross-Shaped People in a Secular World, Participating in God’s Life: Two Crossroads for Churches of Christ, Illusions of Innocence: Protestant Primitivism in America, 1630-1875, and other books. He and his wife, Holly, live in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, where she is professor of children’s and family ministry at John Brown University. They are the parents of three grown children.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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