Rediscovering the Trinity (Part Three)

Highlights of the final day of last week’s “Rediscovering the Trinity” conference at Wheaton College (you knew there were going to be three posts in this series, didn’t you?):

Philip Butin, president of San Francisco Theological Seminary, was an engaging speaker who proposed that preaching could be a continuation of the divine speech that we find in the Bible. He cited the views of Calvin and other 16th-century Reformers that preaching didn’t just expound God’s word, it could be God’s word under certain circumstances. Since the written text of Scripture is derived from a prior oral tradition, we can’t say that God only works through written language. Proper preaching is not speech about God but speech by God, declaring what Jesus has said and done, and what He will do through the Spirit. To preach Christ means to allow the Spirit to speak through you. However, this is not automatic; the preacher has to unblock the channel for divine communication by staying true to Scripture.

Now, I find these claims for preaching to be unduly restrictive at best, dangerous at worst. Why should preaching be more likely than other verbal art forms, or non-verbal expressions of worship, to reveal the Spirit? And what does it mean when preachers disagree? The diversity of views within the Bible itself is confusing enough. Back then, we had church councils who decided which writings about Jesus counted as Scripture. Now that the church has fractured into thousands of denominations, we couldn’t even begin to agree on an authority that would determine the divine status of particular sermons. I realize that Butin wasn’t actually proposing a new canon, but in that case, what benefit is there to making these extreme claims for one human activity as opposed to all others?

Butin helpfully exegeted St. Paul’s discussion in 2 Cor 2-4 of how his own words could carry divine authority. Paul’s unique insight: because of the normative pattern of Incarnation, divine revelation is most profoundly and authentically communicated through ordinary, flawed human leaders and their words. We have this treasure in earthen vessels so that it will be clear that the power comes from God alone (2 Cor 4:6-7). God communicates through our sincere, vulnerable, broken selves. Through the transparency of not hiding our inadequacies, we remove the veil and let the gospel shine through. This is the most comforting and life-changing message I can imagine; again, though, I don’t see why preaching should be singled out.

Leanne Van Dyk of Western Theological Seminary offered a more holistic, inspiring vision of how our entire lives can be a proclamation of our incarnate faith. The church first of all proclaims the gospel by being a community that lives differently, and only secondarily by verbal evangelizing. The church is the gathering of people who worship, confess, and give witness in concrete ways to the reality of God’s kingdom that has broken into our world. The church is not mainly about generating personal spiritual experiences or dispensing true information.

The church’s mission is a subset of God’s mission, not coextensive with it. In the Bible, and the world around us, we see God using persons, cultures, institutions, and even nonhuman creatures (Balaam’s donkey) who are outside the current covenant community.

Authentic and coherent patterns of Christian life are central to the task of witnessing. Don’t discount the power of small, mundane acts of patience, deference, hospitality and unselfish love. When we make dinner, plant a garden, or spend time with friends, we are also proclaiming the gospel (or not!). Proverbs and Ecclesiastes show that God cares how we go about such daily business, because that’s how we spend most of our time. Honoring the proclamatory aspect of everyday routine can make space for sabbath rest, freeing us from the pressure to be always busy at service projects or preaching. (One of my favorite bloggers, the Internet Monk, calls this pressure “wretched urgency”.)

Van Dyk said mission is not a project or a goal so much as a way of life. No kind or honest or patient deed is wasted. It is all taken up into God’s own purposes for the restoration of shalom.

Someone asked whether we could really call these activities proclamation if Jesus is not mentioned. I didn’t get a clear sense of how Van Dyk would distinguish Christian “implicit proclamation” from other types of good works. But since she wasn’t saying that action should replace God-talk, only that it’s on a par with it, this may be yet another instance of Trinitarian “both/and” not “either/or”. 

During a wrap-up panel discussion at the close of the conference, the question was posed whether a proper Trinitarian understanding of unity would help us overcome doctrinal divisions within global Christendom? (John 17: “that they all may be one”.) John Franke and Edith Humphreys disagreed over whether unity should even be our goal. Franke, who is writing a book called Manifold Witness, said the plurality of truth is part of divine design. Part of learning to manifest unity is living peaceably with our genuine differences, trusting that God is at work in ways we can’t see. Humphreys saw differences as God’s response to original sin, His plan to teach us humility and make us aware of our incompleteness, not His ultimate design for humanity. Franke put forth an alternate view that multiple perspectives are needed to capture a multifaceted God. Butin concurred; God is unity not in spite of diversity but because of it.

Want more Wheaton? Collected papers from each year’s conference are published as anthologies by InterVarsity Press. I picked up their 2006 collection The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts at this year’s bookfair, and the one from last year’s excellent conference on the early church fathers has just been released.

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