One realization that is perhaps surprising at first thought, is that the existence of God – the supreme being – is not taught anywhere in the Scriptures. Rather, the existence of God – Elohim in Genesis 1 – is simply assumed from the way that the text reads. Indeed, Genesis literally opens with “Beginning Elohim [God]”.
The Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is not an explicit doctrine in Scripture either, and it seems that it is more assumed than taught within its pages. It is, therefore, possible for ministers and Christian leaders to assume that their congregation know about the Trinity, and so not teach on the subject. It is equally possible for the subject of the Trinity never to be taught.
In the light of these, it is important to consider what the Trinity is, it is important to examine its relevance to our understanding of the nature, worship, and ministry, of the church, and then to draw conclusions from what we have discovered.
A question asked by Moltmann in his work on the Trinity was this: ‘Why are most Christians in the West really only ‘monotheists’ where the experience and practice of their faith is concerned?’ The word ‘experience’ is very important in Moltmann’s question, for his is not merely an academic question. Christians tend to speak of ‘God’ and not be explicit about the persons and work of each member of the Trinity.
We must examine ourselves here, for those who hold to a mere doctrine of the Trinity but know nothing of the reality of the Trinity in their life experience are poor indeed, and, for them, Tozer says that ‘God is no more real than He is to the non-Christian’. Strong words indeed.
As we consider our subject, we will begin with the Scriptural truth that God is love. We will see that love is only meaningful when it is outworked and finds its expression in relationships, and that means that love can only begin to be truly understood in terms of relationships. This also means that relationships are where love is experienced, and the experience of love is the beginning of true understanding. If love is to mean anything, it is in the experience of being loved and loving another.
Relationships are recognised as fundamental to people’s very existence by psychologists; one of whom, Lefrancois, has declared that ‘it appears axiomatic that much of our behaviour is governed by an apparent need or desire to establish and maintain certain relationships with others’. Therefore, we must recognise that this heart of community which is at the core of human existence is but a pale reflection of the community that is found at the heart of the Godhead.
God is love and so God the Father, Son, and Spirit, are, always have been, and always will be, in a love relationship. As Fiddes has declared, God’s internal relationships are ‘not mere links between individuals, but are a love movement, an interweaving dance of participation in which we are invited to be participators’. This means that the Godhead is not a mere collection of individuals, but rather that it is a union that finds expression through different persons who are part of that union. The word in Scripture is ‘one’ – it is NOT unity.
TRINITY IS OPEN
Pinnock spoke of the ‘open and dynamic structure, a loving community, the ultimate in community, mutuality and sharing’, and it must be an open structure if human beings are being invited to be like God and join their structure, and to be part of their very community. Moltmann, too, referred to the ‘open Trinity’, proclaiming the idea that the Trinity is open to accepting God’s own people into it, although they will be like God but they will not be God. Indeed, Moltmann further declared that ‘in the incarnation of the Son the Trinity throws itself open’.
Macleod wrote of this ‘face-to-face relationship, rich in self-expression, rich in glorious out-goingness, rich in what we might almost call its external extrovertness, the outward-lookingness of the divine agape’. If God’s relational family is open to increase, then it is open because ‘from all eternity God purposed to have a family circle of his very own, not only created but also generated by his own life, incorporating his own seed’ said Billheimer, and Packer groaned for the day when there would be a ‘grand family reunion in heaven’.
Fiddes developed the thought that the God who becomes communion for his people in the world is already communion in and of himself; the God who makes community in the world is already community in himself. Thus, our communion and our community should be of the same nature as those of God. So, Fiddes went on to say that, ‘our experience of God is not one of three personal realities in isolation from each other, but of persons in relationship that are always interweaving and interpenetrating each other’.
TRINITY IS OUTWORKED
Bonnke explored the thought that the Trinity is not about us living for God, but rather it is about God living in us and through us; it is about the fullness of deity indwelling humanity! That is the outworking of Christianity, and Tozer says that ‘no man has experienced rightly the power of Christian belief until he has known this for himself as a living reality’.
Grudem said that our experience of the different functions that we see the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, performing are ‘simply the outworkings of an eternal relationship between the three persons, one that has always existed and will exist for eternity’. According to Gunton, the word ‘experience’ is central to both statements, because the Trinity has all too often been presented as ‘a dogma to be believed rather than as the living focus of life and thought’.
If, as it has been suggested, the Trinity is a vital foundation of YHWH himself, the doctrine of the Trinity has far-reaching implications for our understanding of the nature, worship, and ministry, of the Church. Therefore, like Goodridge, I am concerned with the ‘practical significance which Father, Son and Holy Spirit have for the history and redemption of the world, and our personal moral living in it’.
TRINITY AND COMMUNITY
Since God is community, then community should the foundation of human life. But is it? The modern destruction of community life in our land is no accident, but is rather the direct consequence of the rampant spread of individualism. The land we live in has all but dispensed with the communion of community, and life today is all about the rights of the individual, while the rights of peoples and people groups have been drowned in the sea of individualism
We must observe that in this respect our land is ungodly, because there is no individualism at the heart of God. In Trinitarian terms, freedom is not about the individual – what Gunton called ‘freedom from others’ – it is about relationship – freedom with others.
Therefore, we should not focus on solitary human persons, but on what Grenz called ‘persons-in-community’, for, as we have seen, ‘community is not merely an aspect of human life, for it lies within the divine essence’. What Goodridge called ‘being-in-communion’ is the very nature of the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity; there is mutual in-dwelling (perichoresis) of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The kind of communion that exists in the Godhead is surely the kind of communion that God wants to be manifest here on earth. The kind of community that exists in the Godhead is the kind of community that God birthed here on earth. Just as God is God-love-community, Jesus made clear that the church is also God-love-community – it is Trinity on earth.
This truth is invisible to the practising monotheist who knows of the doctrine of the Trinity but does not yet know the reality of life in the Trinity. Those who reject or ignore the Trinity-God inherit an eternal loneliness which is the inevitable result of separation from the God of community and the community of YHWH. YHWH is community, not a collection of individuals.
Yet, Christians all too easily catch the disease of individualism, and the individual churchgoer is easily caught up into consumer Christianity, which is all about pleasing the individual. Therefore, we must ask if this fullness of relationship really extends into and throughout the church, or has individualism infected it instead?
What of people of different race, different creed, different colour or different culture? What of people who are just different? What of women? For all these people and more, does church really show forth a loving and integrated community, or does individualism rule there, too?
We may well have turned Christianity into a faith of the individual, but YHWH is the God of community relationships. Here is the crunch – relationships are not an optional extra, they are the very heart of YHWH. The God of community created a humanity of community, and to de-community humanity is to destroy a major part of the image of YHWH in humanity.
Therefore, in reading the Scriptures we cannot help but be struck by the fact that, when an individual becomes a Christian, that individual immediately becomes a member of the community. The old (individual) has gone, the new (community) has come. That is the focus of the new covenant in Christ. It is nonsense to reduce church to the individual, because the individual who believed became a member of an organic body. As Grenz says, ‘The church is a people in covenant.’
TRINITY AND STATUS
I would contend that one of the most significant truths about the Trinity is that there is fullness of relationship yet without status. Jesus himself never sought status or human applause, and yet church is filled with status. People who seek to elevate themselves above other people, and why and how they do that is largely irrelevant. This merely indicates how far-removed church is from being Trinitarian.
In God-community terms, status kills relationships. The pushing down of others in order to raise ourselves up is not an attitude nor a practice that is found in YHWH. Foster said that ‘the authority of which Jesus spoke is not the authority of a pecking order, for Jesus was not just reversing the pecking order, he was abolishing it’.
I would therefore suggest that status is, in itself, ungodly and un-Trinitarian by nature, and yet it is an often-unseen cancer that is eating away at the Church’s very life. We acknowledge the Trinity with our intellect, but deny the Trinity by the status that infects our churches.
TRINITY AND WORSHIP
Since ‘showing up at church is such a burden that soon people will be faxing in their worship’, said Cymbala, we must ask how the reality of the Trinity affects worship. Since Cymabala wrote that, fax has been superseded by email, of course – making it ever easier to worship without presence. If there is no presence, is there such a thing as worship?
[In any broader discussion, we must not lose sight of online church and the accessibility that it brings to so many people.]
If, as Morris said, worship is ‘not an entertainment, something performed by minister and choir while others watch’, and if ‘true worship is and always must be God-centred’; then a truly Trinitarian approach to worship has massive implications for our understanding of how our communion with YHWH, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is outworked alongside others.
Church often places a heavy importance upon its members being involved in service of one kind or another in church life, since we are often told that serving the church is part of our worship; but if, as Tozer declared, ‘the only acceptable workers are those who have learned the lost art of worship’, how does the reality of the Trinity relate to those who have lost the learned art?
The deadly disease that has infected today’s church is that worship is something that we do. We attend church in much the same way as spectators attend a football match: We applaud, we sing, we sit, we stand, we clap, and we complain; then we go home to analyse our last visit through grumbling and criticising and so prepare for our next visit when we will tell it like it is.
The answer is surely not in any human activity at all, for ‘the answer is in the power of the Holy Spirit’ as Cymbala wrote because, as Morris declared, ‘true worship and life are linked in the closest possible fashion’. That life is community life.
While any member of God’s love-community can (and should) individually praise and worship, it is nevertheless the community as a whole that expresses the fullness of praise and worship for God. ‘I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”’
TRINITY AND IDENTITY
If, as Todd said, ‘the vital doctrines of the atonement and the new birth rest upon the foundation of the Holy Trinity’, how does the reality of the doctrine of the Trinity impact the church’s ministry? If it is true that, ‘the Trinity, as a self-giving community, is an essential model for mission’, then the reality of the doctrine needs to firmly rooted in church life and theology. Indeed, Gunton argued that the ‘manifest inadequacy of the theology of the church derives from the fact that it has never seriously and consistently been rooted in a conception of the being of God as triune.’
If he is correct in this, then the discovery (or rediscovery) of the true conception of a Trinity-God would have radical and far-reaching implications for the institution that we call church. The Church must surely cease to be seen only as an institution and be realised as a way of being, for Zizoulas said that ‘the Church is primarily communion, i.e. a set of relationships making up a mode of being, exactly as is the case in the Trinitarian God.’
The entire Christian life has to be understood in terms of Sonship according to Packer, and ‘Sonship must be the controlling thought at every point’. Sonship is the gender-free sharing of relationship that Jesus has with his Father through the Spirit. Since the church is the bride of the Lamb, we are to become in some wonderful way related to the Trinity itself. As Moltmann expressed it: ‘Through the brotherhood of the Son God’s children enter into the trinitarian relations of the Son, the Father and the Spirit’, irrespective of gender.
The realities of Sonship and Trinity must deeply affect the church’s ministry, and make it a drawing together of people from all nations, and not an alienating or a rejecting of those who do not fit in to the institution of church. Therefore, as Goodridge declared, ‘all notions of ethnic and racial superiority and all practices of ethnic cleansing and racial discrimination are diametrically opposed to our understanding and practice of the Trinitarian life.’
If ‘God does not deal directly with the nations today, but through the Church which is his body’ as Nee said, then Bosch was correct when he stated that ‘the church is called to be a community of those who glorify God by showing forth his nature and works and by making manifest the reconciliation and redemption God has wrought through the death, resurrection, and reign of Christ’.
Billheimer put it like this: ‘In spite of all of her lamentable weaknesses, appalling failures, and indefensible shortcomings, the church is the mightiest force for civilization and enlightened social consciousness in the world today.’ No wonder Lloyd-Jones decalred that ‘We must re-grasp the idea of church membership as being the membership of the body of Christ, and we must re-emphasise the truth that God gives the Holy Spirit only to those who obey him.’
But, asked Warner, ‘will the 21st-century church dare to recover the Christ-centred radicalism of the first Christian generation?’ Will the 21st-century church dare to discover the reality of Trinity? As Wallis has declared, ‘Jesus calls those who would follow him to a life that completely undermines the values and structures of this world’.
I hope that I have shown that the Trinity is no mere doctrine about which we may or may not agree, but rather that the reality of the Trinity has profound implications for our understanding of the nature, worship, and ministry, of the church. According to the Baptist Union of Scotland, the doctrine of the Trinity ‘has amazingly re-emerged as a central, if not the central doctrine, of Christianity.’
The church needs to face the challenge of being a God-love-community [agape] in which all of its members participate in perichoresis and certainly value the individual within the community, but not at the expense of the community. The church needs to be in perichoresis, where there is no status to be found, and where love finds its fullest expression in the total integration of the people of YHWH.
Christians need to be a people whose whole life is worship to the Trinity; the Trinity whose ‘worthship’ is made manifest in the church’s ministry. Then will YHWH deal with the nations through his body; then will the world know that there is a God in heaven who is alive and well and living on planet Earth.
Editor: Alasdair I C Heron, The Forgotten Trinity, (London, BCC/CCBI, 1991)
Paul E Billheimer, Destined For The Throne, (London, Christian Literature Crusade, 1975)
Reinhard Bonnke, Evangelism By Fire, (Eastbourne, Kingsway Publications, 1989)
David J Bosch, Transforming Mission, (New York, Orbis Books, 1996)
Jim Cymbala, Fresh Power, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan Publishing House, 2001)
Jim Cymbala, Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, Grand Rapids, Zondervan Publishing House, 1997
Paul S Fiddes, Participating In God, (London, Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 2000)
Richard Foster, A Celebration of Discipline, (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1980)
Sehon Goodridge, ‘A Trinitarian Approach to Worship’, Simon of Cyrene Theological Institute Journal, No 1, Spring 1994, pages 10-15
Stanley J Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, (Carlisle, Paternoster Press, 1994)
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994)
Colin E Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, (Edinburgh, T & T Clark, 1991)
Guy R Lefrancois, Psychology, (California, Wadsworth Publishing, 1980)
Donald MacLeod, ‘The Doctrine of the Trinity’, Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology, Vol 3 No 1, Spring 1985, pages 11-21
Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, (London SCM Press, 1981)
Leon Morris, ‘Christian Worship’, The Churchman, Vol 76 No 2, June 1962, pages 74-82
Iain H Murray, D Martyn Lloyd-Jones – The Fight Of Faith, (Edinburgh, Banner Of Truth Trust, 1990)
Watchman Nee, Changed Into His Likeness, (Eastbourne, Kingsway Publications, 1967)
J I Packer, Knowing God, (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1973)
Clark Pinnock and others, The Openness Of God, (Carlisle, InterVarsity Press, 1994)
J E Todd, ‘The Holy Trinity’, The Harvester, Vol LVIII No 12, December 1979, pages 358-360
A W Tozer, A Treasury Of Tozer Favourites, (Bromley, STL Books, 1981)
Jim Wallis, The New Radical, (Herts, Lion Publishing, 1983)
Rob Warner, 21st-Century Church, (Eastbourne, Kingsway Publications, 1999)
Baptist Union of Scotland, Heart, Mind and Mission, (The Baptist Union of Scotland, 2001)