Monthly Archives: November 2012

Trinitarian Reading: Fred Sanders’ “The Trinity” from Mapping Modern Theology edited by Kelly M. Kapic & Bruce L. McCormack

Fred Sanders contributes the chapter on “The Trinity” in Kapic and McCormack’s Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction. Starting with Hegel and ending with the contemporary “surge of interest in all things trinitarian” (22), Sanders outlines what people have been saying about the Trinity for the past 200 years. A the story goes, many theologians chose to criticize the doctrine of the Trinity: when those criticisms are at their worst, Sanders’ history accounts for a twisting and honest denial of the deposit handed down; and when those criticisms are at their best, Sanders’ history accounts for theologians who were trying to find new modes of expression (oftentimes faulty) for presenting a doctrine considered pre-modern and antiquated. This history, however, has a plot change (according to some).

The retrieval of the doctrine of the Trinity is oftentimes oversimplified–as are all pocket summaries–and attributed to Karl Rahner and Karl Barth, the latter who was able to successfully “put the Trinity back on the agenda of self-consciously modern theology, specifically among the liberal mainstream of academic theology in Europe and America, and specifically among those for whom history and experience were decisive modern categories dictating the conditions of Christian thought” (41). For many, Barth is a theological hero. They believe he conducted theological CPR on the dying doctrine of the Trinity; it was as good as dead until Barth worked his magic fingers and rubbed Church Dogmatics Awesome Sauce on the blue corpse and said, “Rise. Be resurrected.”

Sanders is not so easily convinced. He doesn’t really see this as a plot change or a paradigm shift. He doesn’t think the historical evidence points to motif where retrieval can be interpreted as a form of resurrection. Rather, Sanders believes it was a normalistic retrieval, what some call conservation.

There is an oft-told tale of how the doctrine of the Trinity was marginalized in the modern period, until a heroic rescue performed by one of the Karls (Barth or Rahner). But for theologians like [British Methodist William Burt] Pope, [American Presbyterian Charles] Hodge, [Dutch Calvinist Herman] Bavinck, and [American Episcopalian Francis J.] Hall, as for most Christians, there was no need for an absolute retrieval of a completely lost doctrine. Retrieval is a normal part of responsible theological method, and theologians were actively engaged in a kind of low-level, ordinary retrieval throughout the modern period, a retrieval so incremental as to be indistinguishable from conservation (44). 

Sanders ends his historical analysis of what people have been saying about the Trinity during the past 200 years with a suggestion for how theologians riding the wave and wake of modernity might navigate forward:

As trinitarian theology continues to be discussed and developed, theologians will do well to carry on the modern trinitarian project by articulating this classic Christian doctrine in such a way that the doctrine is not an opaque monolith of inherited terminology, but is transparent to history, transparent to human experience, and transparent to biblical foundation.  

Trinitarian Reading: The Holy Trinity by Robert Letham

Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (P&R Publishing, 2004).

In the Preface, Robert Letham confesses that although interacting and dealing with a wide spectrum of theologians, “from East and West, from Roman Catholicism as well as Protestantism,” this book “is written from a Reformed perspective” (ix). It should come as no surprise for a book on the Holy Trinity to be written from a Reformed perspective, it is, after all, well documented that John Calvin broke from the “Western” theological mold in his writings when he emphasized the persons of the Trinity instead of the traditional/Augustinian emphasis which highlighted “divine essence.” Letham notes that it is “tragic” that Reformed folk have failed to flourish and follow Calvin’s lead. Calvin leaned into the doctrine of the Trinity, and Letham would like to see more Calvinists leaning together with and like Calvin; Letham would like to see more Calvinists share Calvin’s Trinitarian posture. (Calvin was true to his Western/Augustinian tradition, but he did so with an openness to the Eastern/Greek emphasis. Letham says Calvin preserved the theological deposit handed to him–he conserved it–yet he contributed to its flourishing through maintaining a type of kinship through grafting in Eastern/Greek sensibilities.)

In order to consciously share the same type of posture towards the doctrine of the Trinity we must understand both the doctrine of the Trinity and its historical development (flow through different contexts). “To think clearly about the Trinity, we must grapple with the history of discussion in the church” (2).

The history of discussion in the church has centered around what are considered errors of traditional emphasis in the doctrine of the Trinity: the West is criticized for overemphasizing the “divine essence” and of slipping into modalism, and the East is criticized for overemphasizing the persons and slipping into subordinationism of the Son and Holy Spirit to the Father. But these aren’t just apparent errors. There is more tooth to them than mere conjecture . . . particularly in the West, Letham says:

Today most Western Christians are practical modalists. The usual way of referring to God is “God” or, particularly at the popular level, “the Lord.” It is worth contrasting this with Gregory Nazianzen, the great Cappadocian of the fourth century, who spoke of “my Trinity,” saying, “When I say ‘God,’ I mean Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” This practical modalism goes tandem with a general lack of understanding of the historic doctrine of the Trinity (6).

Letham suggests that the remedy for these errors is an all out, full recovery of the doctrine of the Trinity which follows the trajectory set by Calvin. This recovery, however, is not a remedy administered “top-down” from the Ivory Towers. It is a grassroot solution. The remedial flow begins in the pew and the pulpit. Per Letham:

It is my belief that a recovery of the Trinity at the ground level, the level of the ordinary minister and believer, will help revitalize the life of the church and, in turn, its witness in the world (7).

Letham’s aim is pastoral: “Let us persevere, then, through the chapters that follow . . . for the great and and wonderful prize of knowing our triune God better” (12). I believe he accomplishes that aim in this book: Letham, in order to lead us further up and further in communion with and love for (and participation in the love and glory of) the Holy Trinity, competently leads believers from the Biblical foundations, along the historical developments, and into the modern discussions and critical issues of the doctrine of the Trinity. A recovery of the doctrine of the Trinity aids the church in fulfilling her mission because the “Trinity provides the sole basis for the greatest of human tasks,” which is to love one another. Letham notes that Scripture, specifically the Gospel of John, emphasizes again and again the “priority of love.” The church needs love in order to do her job. “The mission of the church to spread the gospel also requires the practice of love, of self-effacement, of looking to the interests of others” (478). The Trinity is the not only the model but the source of this love.

Trinitarian Reading: Paradox and Truth by Ralph Smith

Ralph Smith, Paradox and Truth: Rethinking Van Til on the Trinity by Comparing Van Til, Plantinga, and Kuyper. 2nd ed. (Canon Press, 2002).

In this short book, Ralph Smith argues for Christians to build their worship and worldview upon robust Trinitarian thinking. Smith’s aim is to, “help bring Van Til’s profound exposition of the Trinity back into the discussion of this doctrine, and in that connection, to help stimulate further consideration of the worldview implications of the doctrine of the Trinity” (14). In order to accomplish this, Smith compares and contrasts Van Til with Cornelius Plantinga Jr.’s writings on the doctrine of the Trinity. Smith deals in depth with Plantinga’s article, “The Threeness/Oneness Problem of the Trinity.” After this thoughtful consideration, Smith moves the conversation forward by introducing Abraham Kuyper’s views on the covenant.

Smith is dealing with things that are highly technical (e.g., Augustinian views of the doctrine of the Trinity, social theory views of the doctrine of the Trinity, Barthian/modalistic views of the doctrine of the Trinity, etc.). Smith does not, however, lose his bearings. He is pastoral and stalwart in his Orthodoxy. His overarching goals are practical, not vaporous and ideological. Smith has written a short yet very important book.

Smith concludes his book with a sobering benediction:

For too many evangelicals, the doctrine of the Trinity has been tamed, locked up in the cage of a confession of faith that is rarely reflected upon. Kant’s words are not altogether inapplicable to this trinitarianism. [Kant said, “The doctrine of the Trinity, taken literally, has no practical relevance at all, even if we think we understand it; and it is even more clearly irrelevant if we realize that it transcends all our concepts.”] Van Til’s doctrine, by contrast, is more relevant than Kant or his followers can handle. Released from the cage of mere tradition, Van Til’s approach is dangerous for the world of unbelief, which is happy when Christian worship of God is confided to pretty buildings. Covenantal trinitarianism implies the kind of “biblicism” that offends the world because it proclaim salvation in Christ alone and offends the Church because it demands reformation. The alternative to a real reformation of evangelicalism in the direction of a fully trinitarian worldview can, I fear, only be apostasy, for the Trinity is the Christian doctrine of God, without which Christianity itself cannot be. But our doctrine of God must be both expressible in a comprehensive worldview system, and also able to inspire worship and obedience in everyday life (112-113).

The Witness and Work of the Church

From While We’re At It by David Mills in the November – 2012 issue of First Things:

“Look for a building with a cross on it,” people escaping North Korea for China are told, because Christians are more likely than anyone else to help them escape the Chinese police. The police, reports Melanie Kirkpatrick, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, will send them back to the hell-on-earth that is North Korea, where they will be tortured, thrown into prison camps, or killed. You don’t leave utopia.

 Christians will help refugees either merge into Chinese society or get into South Korea. People go to jail for this, mind you. It is cheering to know that Christian sin China will risk their freedom for strangers. And cheering that the little religious freedom the government has conceded lets the believers put on their churches a symbol of freedom, a symbol not only to those oppressed by sin but those oppressed by man.

This is a wonderful reminder to pray for the persecuted church, that believers will trust God and persevere under tribulation, that believers will proclaim the Gospel and rely on the strength of God by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, that believers will be sustained by God and protected and preserved as Witnesses. There is always Witness to be done.

Also, this causes me to reflect, and ask pointed questions: In the United States when The Great Default comes (Google “The Great Default”), will American churches have the same reputation as the Christians in China? Will people point to a “Cross” and say, “Go there for help. They’ll gladly assist you.” This is one of the advantages of a church having a brick-and-mortar building.

The Lord, however, does not bless all churches with brick-and-mortar buildings, so this means churches that meet formally in a residential or rented commercial building should think creatively to overcome this roadblock–relatively easy now with the wide-scale adoption of Internet Access, since churches can put the symbol of a “Cross” on their Web-presence, and Social Media can just as readily point to the physical symbol on a building as it does to the virtual symbol on a Website, Podcast, etc., and all of these serve as aids to inform people where help can be found.

Building brick-and-mortar churches and placing Crosses on steeples takes skill, knowledge, and wisdom about the world (e.g., architects, contractors, crane operators, etc.), so too building a Web-presence and placing virtual Crosses on the Internet takes skill, knowledge, and wisdom about the world. The church, therefore, needs faithful Christians who build in both arenas: we need Christian architects, contractors, crane operators, etc., and we need Christian web developers, graphic and brand designers, and copy writers and content publishers. There is always Work to be done.

Enjoying the Sweetness of Trinitarian Life

What happens when a Church cannot produce Teachers or Doctors who toil faithfully in word and doctrine? What happens to a Church when it produces systematic theologians who cannot adequately communicate (demonstrate) and expound the doctrine of God’s triunity? What happens when a Church fails to hand down the deposit of sound doctrine originally handed down to her?

The short answer: The Church falls away. She goes into exile. She dies. Like the lyric from Unite by the O. C. Supertones,

O yeah, I got a beef with the fence-sitters
Tares among the wheat, the cop-outs, the quitters
Cut from the branch fruitless, no good,
Only one use and that’s firewood
Pay no mind to the generation line
Forsake your sect and be color blind
The problem’s not Hollywood, the problem’s not Washington
The problem’s a weak divided church of schismed Christians

Thankfully, the Church is the bride of the Resurrected Christ. In Christ, there is life on the other side of death, even doctrinal death. The Triune God is the Lord of Life and the members of the covenant participate, enjoy, and partake of the sweetness of the Trinitarian life of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Centrality of Doctrine of the Trinity

Is the doctrine of the Trinity the central part of your Christian worldview and worship?

Ralph Smith believes it should be. Commenting on the lack of emphasis of the doctrine of the Trinity in contemporary, apologetic and/or Christian worldview writings penned by Evangelicals (e.g., He is There and He is Not Silent by Francis Schaeffer, The Universe Next Door by James W. Sire, Worldviews in Conflict by Ronald H. Nash, War of the Worldviews by Gary DeMar, and Lifeviews by R. C. Sproul), Smith says,

But if the fact of God’s triunity is essential to our worldview, that fact needs to be demonstrated and then expounded so that Christians can see what the doctrine of the Trinity means for Christian thought and life (Paradox and Truth: Rethinking Van Til on the Trinity by Comparing Van Til, Plantinga, and Kuyper, Canon Press, 17).

 Smith echoes Rahner and Moltmann. Both commented on the displacement of the Doctrine of the Trinity in modern/contemporary theology. I remember my theology professor, Dr. Chris Bounds, at university also discussed this issue at length in Introduction to Theology. He frequently mentioned how the centrality of the doctrine of the Trinity had been eroded. For evidence he cited the fact that books dealing with Christian Theology were being published which lacked a section dedicated to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Thus, primers on Christian Theology that were not structured or outlined by the very structure of the Economic Trinity.

Cornelius “One Liner” Van Til, Again

In October, I posted a handful of Van Til “one liners” from his Introduction to Systematic Theology. This month I am posting another handful from his Christian Apologetics.

“[S]ystematic theology . . . takes all the truths brought to light from Scripture by the biblical studies and forms them into one organic whole” (21).

“The unity and the diversity in God are equally basic and mutually dependent upon one another” (25).

“No creature can detract from his [God] glory; all creatures, willingly or unwillingly add to his glory” (28).

“God is absolute” (29).

“He [God] is autonomous” (29).

“The diversity and the unity in the Godhead are therefore equally ultimate; they are exhaustively correlative to one another and not correlative to anything else” (29).

“The most basic distinction of Christianity is that of God’s being as self-contained, and created being as dependent upon him” (30).

“Christianity is committed for better or for worse to a two-layer theory of reality or being” (31).

“Truth out of all relationship to any mind is a pure meaningless abstraction” (34).

“The idea of disinterested or neutral knowledge is out of accord with the basic ideas of Christianity” (40).

“Christ came to bring man back to God” (46).

“In Christ man realizes that he is a creature of God and that he should not seek underived comprehensive knowledge” (48).

“Christ is our wisdom” (48).

“What Christ did while he was on earth is only a beginning of his work” (51).

“Sin being what it is we may be certain that all our preaching and all our reasoning with men will be in vain unless God brings men through it to himself” (53).

“Belief in the promises of God with respect to our eternal salvation is meaningless unless God controls the future” (53).

“Scripture gives definite information of a most fundamental character about all the facts and principles with which philosophy and science deal” (61).

“They [General and Special Revelation] are aspects of one general philosophy of history” (66).

“It was in the mother promise that God gave the answer to nature’s cry (Gen. 3:15)” (75).

“At every stage in history God’s revelation in nature is sufficient for the purpose it was meant to serve, that of being the playground for the process of differentiation between those who would and those who would not serve God” (75-76).

“Created man may see clearly what is revealed clearly even if he cannot see exhaustively” (77).

“Nature can and does reveal nothing but the one comprehensive plan of God” (78).

“No one can become a theist unless he becomes a Christian” (79).

“Any god that is not the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not God but an idol” (79).

“Hodge, following the lead of Calvin, stressed the fact that the whole set of sinful man needs to be renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit” (94).

“For Adam in paradise, God-consciousness could not come in at the end of a syllogistic process of reasoning” (115).

“Roman Catholic notion of authority seems at first sight to be very absolute–in fact even more absolute than that of Protestantism–it is in reality not absolute at all. Its idea of autonomy wins out in every case. And so it comes to pass that the Roman Catholic doctrines of faith are in every instance adjusted to the idea of human autonomy” (181).

“It follows that on the question of Scripture, as on every other question, the only possible way for the Christian to reason with the non-believer is by way of presupposition” (197).

All quotes from Christian Apologetics (P&R Publishing, 2003), edited by William Edgar.

Raising Children

I just finished reading Loving the Little Years: Motherhood in the Trenches by Rachel Jankovic. This was a fast read. However, looking forward I am confident that I will circle back and re-read.

This book is chalked full of godly wisdom and rebuke of sin, sound advice and good story telling. It is the best book on parenting that I have read since reading J. C. Ryle’s The Duties of Parents. Mothers are Mrs. Jankovic’s target audience (obviously), but this book has so much to offer fathers–it is well worth the investment. Loving the Little Years is a delightful but extremely convicting book.

Nov. 6 – Election Day: Prayer

O God our Father, we thank thee that thou hast fearfully and wondrously made each one of us, thy children. May holy purposes direct us, the love of Christ constrain us, and the strength of the Spirit support us to be worthy instruments in thy kingdom. Teach us to walk with confidence and not without humility, with eagerness and not without consideration, with courage and not without reverence. Give us purity in heart when evil surrounds us. Make us brave to prune what is fruitless. Help us to cultivate what is good in thy sight. Increase our helpfulness as we touch the hands of our brethren. So enlarge our usefulness as thy hands bless us, until we lay down the unfinished tasks on earth and by thy grace are fashioned into perfect instruments of love and praise in everlasting glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen (Prayer # 120 from Samuel John Schmiechen’s Pastoral Prayers for the Church Year).

Reformation Day: Candy Story and Good Sermon

Happy Reformation Day! To celebrate with my family I picked up Butterfinger candy bars after work. It was the first time Moses (3 years old) and Kati (1 and-a-half years old) had had a Butterfinger, so it was a real celebration. They praised God for the Reformation with their chocolatey-grins while trying to gum-and-lick-loose the candy stuck to their teeth.

Also, this past Sunday was Reformation Sunday, and one of my pastors (Tim Bushong) preached a Grand Slam of a sermon — “Was the Reformation Really Necessary?” — go to our church’s website to stream and/or download the sermon. I highly recommend it.