Vacation is a time to be refreshed. One way I get refreshed is by reading some of those books I’ve been wanting to read but haven’t had the time to read. One of those books is Tim Chester’s Delighting in the Trinity. As I have mentioned in other places, there are far too few books on the subjects of the Trinity and Union with Christ. Those books have taken up a fair amount of my free time in the last few years.
“The root of sin is always idolatry. We turn from the true God to find satisfaction in other things and other ways of life.”
Chester’s book is one of the shorter books on the Trinity. He, I think, is shooting for a different audience than either Saunders or Letham. This is intended to be a more accessible book, and it draws on his experiences and concerns as a faithful Christian living in an increasingly secularized England. He sets up the book, in chapter 1, by mentioning conversations he’s been having with Muslim friends. The Trinity is a huge stumbling block for them. We come to a cross roads. Should we not really focus on this, perhaps even ignoring it (like the Insider Movements) or do we recognize this as an essential part of our theology, the very foundation of the gospel? He chooses wisely and picks the latter.
“It is rooted in the electing love of the Father, the finished work of the Son and the present witness of the Spirit.”
So, he argues that the doctrine of the Trinity is not only foundational, but also practical. That does not mean it is easy to understand. I would remind you of Augustine’s statement, picked up by Anselm, that “we believe to gain understanding.” It is not the other way around.
“But God always speaks with one voice. Father, Son and Spirit speak with one voice because they are one.”
So he starts with Biblical Foundations. The first foundation is the unity of God in the Bible. He starts with the Shema, the confession that “the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” He then brings us to 1 Corinthians 8:6, and sees this as an expression of the Shema in light of the progress of revelation. To claim that Jesus is Lord (kuyrios is used in the LXX to translate YHWH) is to claim that Jesus is the LORD our God. Jesus’ statement that the “Father and I are one” helps us to see both the differentiation and unity within God. The unity of God keeps us from tritheism.
He then shifts to the plurality of God in the Bible. He brings us to creation and back to the Shema before going to the gospels to see the Incarnation of Jesus. One cannot escape the divinity of Jesus in the Gospel of John (which I happening to be preparing for a sermon series). In the opening verses of John we see both the differentiation (with God), and identification (was God). God lives forever in fellowship with Himself, realizing the priestly blessing so to speak, as the Father and Son are “face to face” until that moment on the Cross when Jesus experiences the curse as the Father looks away.
Chester makes an important distinction in the chapter. Jesus is YHWH, but YHWH is not Jesus. In other words, while Jesus is fully God, God is not just Jesus but also the Father and the Spirit. This brings him to discuss the Spirit as God, and His fellowship and relationship to the Father and the Son.
“God has sacrifices His Son for our sin so that we need never sacrifice our children.”
Chester then brings us to the Cross to see both the unity and plurality of God. We see unity of purpose expressed in the Godhead. All three willed the cross for the salvation of sinners. But we see God forsaking God, differentiation, as the Father forsakes the Son. Yet … the Son could not offer Himself as a propitiation for our sins without the Spirit (Hebrews 9:14). He addresses a number of misconceptions that people have about the cross. For instance, the Son placates an unwilling Father. Such a view neglects the drumbeat found in John’s Gospel that the Father sent the Son for this very purpose. Another error is to think the Father victimizes the Son (the cosmic child abuse accusation) which neglects the truth that the Son lays down His life willingly (John 10).
His conclusion is that we need the cross to make sense of the Trinity. We also need the Trinity to make sense of the cross. This is similar to Calvin’s statement about the knowledge of God and self. You can’t understand the one without understanding the other. He does cram a lot into a small number of pages. He is not intending to be exhausting, but sufficient for his argument. He says enough to make his point.
He then moves into historical developments. At times his brevity risks a certain amount of reductionism. But he does give a good, short history of the development of the doctrine as the church sought to understand what we find in the Scriptures. That was no easy process, as the chapters in this section indicate.
In the first few centuries he traces the movement from God’s actions to His being as the church moves from apologetics to theological formulation. A number of false understandings arose that we still find today (modalism and Arianism in particular). What is particularly interesting is not how much Athanasius suffered for homoousios (same substance) over and against homoiousios (like substances), but why he suffered for that one letter. He tied it back to salvation. He saw the accomplishment of our salvation to be grounded upon the eternal divinity of the Son.
In the second chapter of the section, he tackles the difference in perspective between the Eastern and Western churches when thinking about the Trinity. The East focused on the 3, and the West on the 1. For the East, generally speaking, the Father was the “fountain” from which the Son and Spirit have eternally come. The Cappadocians helped guard against tritheism, developing the idea of perichoresis or “co-inherence”. They rejected the idea that the Spirit proceeds from the Son since this would indicate He has 2 sources. This, of course, is not a presupposition that the West shared when they thought of the Spirit also proceeding from the Son. The West saw a danger in their theology toward subordination- making them inferior to the Father.
At times, Western theology can obscure the plurality of God with its focus on the oneness of God. Augustine saw their differentiation in terms of their relationship to one another. The Father is the Father because He has a Son, for instance. The Spirit would be the bond of their love. He eternally exists because “God is love.” Richard of St. Victor developed this further, seeing them as a community of love.
Calvin used both traditions, taking the best from each.
“Calvin argued instead that all three persons were involved in creation, redemption and sanctification. Calvin used the eastern idea of perichoresis (the mutual inter-penetration and indwelling of the threefold nature of the Trinity within each person of the Godhead), but focused it less on the inner life of God and more on His trinitarian activity in creating and redeeming the world.”
The 17th -20th centuries, Chester argues, placed the Trinity on the margins. Therefore they did great damage to the church. This saw the rise of deism, unitarianism and existential liberalism. These all gut the faith of a personal God who can save by His actions.
“But the real problem with attempts to know God through human reason or human experience is that our minds are darkened by sin. The problem is not only our creatureliness.”
He ends the book with Practical Implications. This is a very helpful section of the book. He first addresses how the Trinity relates to revelation. We can only know God because He chose to reveal Himself to us. This commitment is spelled out most clearly in the very trinitarian Gospel of John. The Son reveals the Father. If we know the Son, we know the Father. Revelation is personal because God is personal, existing in a community in all eternity. The Son speaks thru the Spirit, and the Spirit helps us to understand the revelation.
He then moves into salvation. He moves into different aspects of the atonement with penal substitutionary atonement at the center. The problems occur when we isolate the other aspects and present them as the sum total of the atonement. This, again, is very helpful even if it is quite short. Many theologians of the past show up.
“The church should be a community of unity without uniformity and diversity without division.”
In his chapter on the Trinity and Humanity he addresses the impulses we experience toward uniformity and individualism. The Trinity should help us to experience unity thru diversity. Our identity is rooted in community, but not in such a way that stifles the individual. By grace, we resist those impulses toward either uniformity or individualism. Since the church I pastor is considering receiving another congregation, this chapter was quite helpful for me as I think about how to integrate the 2 congregations.
The final chapter, which is too short, is on the Trinity and mission. Since I am currently reading John’s Gospel, I have been struck by how often Jesus says He has been sent (He’s on a mission) by the Father (under His authority) and has a sense of urgency shaped by the mission. As He has been sent, He sent us. This was one of the weakest chapters as I wish he would have played this out more than he did.
Overall this was a very readable and helpful book. I have already mentioned what I think are the weaknesses of the book. Those weakness are not many, nor foundational. This book would be a good read for lay leaders, as well as pastors. He wants us to delight in the Trinity precisely because God wants us to delight in Him. So, read this book with that in mind and I am sure you will delight in the amazing, eternal community of love which brings sinners into its midst through all that was accomplished in the earthly ministry of Jesus that culminated in His bearing of our sin on the cross. It also reminded me I want to read both Athanasius and Augustine on this subject.