More highlights from last week’s Wheaton College conference on “Rediscovering the Trinity”:
Jonathan R. Wilson (Carey Theological College) and Steven M. Studebaker (McMaster Divinity College) gave presentations on the Trinity and the created world.
Wilson summarized the thought of several theologians concerning the role played by each Person of the Trinity in creating and sustaining the cosmos. The late Colin Gunton, for example, elaborated on Irenaeus’ metaphor that the Son and the Spirit are the two hands of God in the world. Gunton suggested that the Son is the unifying power of creation, reconciling all things and holding them together by his atonement, while the Spirit is the particularizing power of creation, guiding each part to reach that perfection appropriate to its nature. Through them, the Father both prevents creation from slipping back into chaos and restores its teleology.
Meanwhile, according to Wilson, theologian Robert Jenson observed that the Trinitarian doctrine of creation answers “both/and” to the question of whether God created the world for His glory or to have someone to love. In the Trinity, God’s love and God’s glory are one. The Father initiates creation, the Son makes it good, and the Spirit sets it free to be distinct from God.
So how does this apply to our life? If all we have is God the initial creator, we are bound to inflexible structures of the created order, and fall into legalism and fatalism. We try to live according to the pattern He has laid down, but there is no redemptive activity of God in the world to help us. On the other hand, if all we have is the Spirit immanent in creation, we end up deifying nature and losing our identity as humans. There is no God apart from nature to give it meaning beyond itself–no teleology.
One frequent error in Christian spirituality is a proto-Gnostic view of creation as simply a fallen realm from which we must be rescued. The good news of redemption is separated from the goodness of creation, severing Son from Father and Spirit. Because of the Spirit, when I receive a new life in Christ, it doesn’t mean that my identity is wiped out. My particular self is part of God’s originally good creation, though flawed by sin.
Studebaker spoke of “creation care” (good ecological practices) as a spiritual discipline. Why do Christians worry about the music we listen to and the clothes we wear, while being indifferent to our consumption habits and their impact on the planet? This has to change. We’re not used to caring for the environment as part of our Christian responsibility, because we think too much about the afterlife and the end times, sometimes even rejoicing over natural disasters as signs that the Second Coming is near.
But Christ doesn’t just save our “souls” for “heaven”. Romans 8 speaks of “the whole creation” groaning for redemption. If our groans arise from the Spirit, so does the cry of the nonhuman creation, seeking liberation from bondage to decay. The Spirit is the breath of life in all creation and is devoted to bringing it into loving fellowship with God. We can participate here and now in God’s life-giving love by caring for His world.
Studebaker urged us to recover a sacramental understanding of all life. Our incorrect mind-body dualism makes us abandon the realm of practical decision-making to secular influences.
An audience member asked, if the pine tree gets to take part in the new creation, why not unbelievers? One of the panelists replied that unlike humans, the tree’s bondage to sin is not of its own volition, so “creation care” spirituality doesn’t necessarily lead to inclusivism on the question of salvation for non-Christians–though in my view, it’s yet another good argument for that position. After all, if you believe in total depravity, humans after Adam and Eve don’t really have the free will not to sin, either; our sins are just as derivative as those of the pine tree.
John Franke (Biblical Theological Seminary) and Mark Husbands (Hope College) genially duked it out over “social Trinitarianism”. Traditional theology, using categories borrowed from Greek philosophy, emphasized that the three Persons were united in one “substance”. The majority of contemporary writers about the Trinity are more concerned with relationality–the mutual love among the Persons as a model for the Christian community. I’m not entirely sure why this difference has risen to the status of a debate (“less filling? tastes great!”). My guess is that the “anti-social” folks are worried that our theology is being revised to fit current political sentiments, importing too much democracy into our relationship with God. Some social Trinitarians are also feminist theologians, still a suspect category at a conference where rose-tinted books on Biblical womanhood uneasily shared shelf space with books on postmodernism and liberation theology.
Franke, a social Trinitarian, began with a caveat about the inadequacy of all descriptions of God. What we call “the Trinity” is not a precise literal picture but still a true guide to certain revealed features of the divine life. So we need an inclusive, pluralistic treatment of theological models, because this diversity best captures the multifaceted nature of God and the Bible. Thus, he was not arguing that his preferred model was the best one for all times and places.
Some modern theologians feel that the traditional focus on ontology makes God seem too static and isolated. When we say “God is Love,” we must be affirming that relationship is God’s essence, not a mere attribute He shows us. It fits with our current understanding of human selves as constituted by interpersonal relationships, not atomized individuals. Similarly each Person within God is unintelligible save in relation to the others. The social model of the Trinity counteracts modernity’s objectifying, isolating tendencies.
Husbands objected that this model misses the transcendence of God, the fact that there is more to God than His interaction with us. Moreover, human beings are really not capable of emulating the complete mutuality of the three Persons, even leaving sin out of the picture. Ontologically, we are separate individuals with our own agendas and perspectives, whereas the Father, Son and Spirit are a unified subject. We should emulate Jesus, not the inner life of the Trinity, which is beyond our comprehension.
Husbands’ critique is logical but I wonder whether he’s looking at the relational model too literally. We can base our communities on the essential values of the Trinitarian God (love, mutual submission) without having to replicate God’s structure.
Robert Lang’at, the provost of Kabarak University in Kenya, proposed that Christianity is intrinsically missionary because the dynamism within the Trinity extends to the pouring out of God’s truth and love upon the world. Words such as sending, service, sacrifice, love, self-giving, and community were Trinitarian words before they were missionary ones. Just as the Father sends Christ and the Spirit, they send us to continue God’s mission in the world.
Lang’at said it was a mistake for modern “seeker-sensitive” evangelists to play down distinctively Christian concepts like the Trinity, because this just ensures that they will be exporting their culture instead of the gospel, opening the door for Western consumerism (the prosperity gospel) or imperialism to infect developing nations. Having
lost our theological moorings, we now teach missions as a form of marketing, with our message being dictated by social-science strategies rather than Christian truth.
Individualism and totalitarianism are two sides of the same coin, he argued, like relativism and imperialism–an extreme solution to the problem of the one versus the many, which results when we lose the Trinitarian ideal of dynamic mutual coexistence. Neither Western individualism nor Asian and African polytheism are properly balanced, by contrast. The absolutizing of the individual–the dogma that I can be myself without my neighbor–is a disease of the West. The counter-reaction, which Lang’at sees often in politically unsettled African societies, is a sort of demagoguery leading to repressive mass social movements.
He warned evangelists against conceding too much to African polytheism in order to make their message accessible. Africans aren’t fazed by the idea of God having a son, because their creation myths almost always start with the gods’ giving birth to their tribe, but these myths are always tribal (our god created our people), not universal, as Jesus is supposed to be. We lose the radical message of the brotherhood/sisterhood of all people in Christ.
Keith Johnson, who trains ministers for Campus Crusade for Christ, explored whether Trinitarian thinking can help us understand Christianity’s relationship to other religions. I have to admit I had trouble following this one because Johnson was mainly critiquing several other theologians I’d never heard of. His main point, similar to Husbands, was that the Bible does not exhort us to emulate the Trinity per se but Christ. When we bypass Scripture and merely use the concept of the Trinity as fodder for elaborate metaphorical schemes about how plurality relates to unity, we have no reason to believe any of these schemes are reliable.