“If we cannot learn about relationships from the Trinity then where can we?”

This is a quote from my article on Ware and Grudem the other day. It was picked up by Liam Goligher who argued that the statement was flawed because first of all there is a creator/creature division and secondly because the members of the Trinity are persons not people, there is no partition on God because God is Simple.

If I can take both of those in turn. My answer to the second question I’m afraid is a very simple “so what?”  At no point in my article did I suggest that God was not simple, that parts were possible in God or that we should refer to the Father, Son and Spirit as people rather than persons.

Persons is a more formal term, often beloved of those speaking or writing legally. We are clearly not meant to think of the persons as equivalent to human beings.  However, that they are persons and that we talk about the relationships between the persons is uncontroversial. Furthermore, whilst I understand that getting your head round this one is likely to leave it spinning a little but the consensus view I believe is that Simplicity is not in contradiction with the plurality of persons.  Indeed, we would affirm the three persons as essential to who God is. 

So, what about the creature/creator distinction?  Well Goligher is absolutely correct to identify this as a point of caution.  That God is holy, means that he is different and distinct from his creation. He is infinite where we are finite. He is eternal where we are subject to time. He is independent so that he has life in himself where we are dependent on him. We are fallen, he is not. However, does that prevent us from learning from his character?

Well, this question links to one about how we think about, talk about and know God.  There are three basic approaches to this.

  1. We could talk “univocally” this means that we treat the words and language that we use to describe God as applying directly. It would mean that we could say that “God is love” and mean that his love is exactly like our concept of love.  However, when we talk about God, we know that his attributes are not direct equivalent to ours. Can we really compare this eternal perfect love to the emotions we feel towards each other? 
  2. So, we may be tempted to go to the other extreme and talk “equivocally.” This would mean that we couldn’t use the finite human language we have to describe God.  In this case, God becomes not just indefinable but indescribable and therefore unknowable.  Some theologians proactively opt for this preferring to treat the whole knowledge of God as mystery. However, this does not seem to fit with the God who chooses to reveal himself to us. Indeed, throughout history there has been the strong view that God in effect condescends to our level (Calvin described it as God talking with a lisp like a parent to a child).  He chooses to use human language to communicate with something of himself to us. Does that mean we can grasp everything about him completely? Of course not. Our finiteness kicks in. So we say that we can know God truly but not exhaustively.
  3. Therefore we tend to talk about God analogically. This means really that all our language about God is analogical. It is not an exact and exhaustive representation but it enables our tiny finite minds to grasp something of him. God’s love for example is not exactly equivalent to our love but there is enough there for us to grasp something of what it means to say that He is love.   

And so to application.  I think that there has been a little nervousness about doing this from many and perhaps that is because the CBMW has used the Doctrine of the Trinity to make applications towards human relationships that at times strays towards univocal language. They apply the relation of Father and Son directly to human relationships and not even to human father-son relationships but to husbands and wives.  This ends up clumsy.  Furthermore, we risk missing a step here. We forget the uniqueness of the divine Father – Son relationship and that there are things we just don’t apply across. Something similar went on a few years back with the WWJD movement.  There is a huge problem with trying to guess what Jesus would do in any situation. Of course we can learn from his example but if we genuinely ask what he would do in many circumstances we have to answer that he would do what we cannot. He would heal, he would restore, he would take the sin and guilt of the person onto himself through his death and he would give them his righteousness. If What would Jesus do means that then we realise it is hopeless even though many do end up taking the sins and griefs of others onto themselves and try to become their saviour. However, we can still say that there is an example in the compassion, patience and servant heartedness Jesus shows which is combined with truthfulness, clarity and anger at evil.

I also think the nervousness arises out of a good desire to honour God and avoid lose and careless talk about him that dishonours him.  That’s a right concern which we should have. However, can I also gently suggest that we risk becoming a little bit Roman Catholic about our God talk. What I mean by this is that we become so fearful of some accidental spillage of truth and accuracy that we behave like those who believing the communion elements actually were the body and blood of Christ insisted on refusing the wine to the laity in case it got spilt along the way.  We can end up reserving the wine of doctrine for a priestly caste of academics and restricting the congregation to the bread of tightly framed exposition with minimal application.*

Yet, I strongly hold to the statement made at the top of this website that what we believe affects how we live.  We are made in God’s image and that should include some reflection of his glory in our lives. We have been adopted into his family and therefore people will see some of the family likeness shining through.  We need to make the application carefully but knowing that the Father loves the Son and so on should encourage us to think about what it means to love each other.

* At this point I should state that whilst I don’t know Liam personally I have heard him preach – once at an Oak Hill quiet day and then at the Keswick Convention. I also have met plenty of people who have been blessed by his pastoring and preaching. So I suspect that he would in fact agree with much on this point. Certainly the practical evidence suggests so. Indeed my aim here is not to be polemical with Liam but to highlight one of the challenges we have in terms of how we marry up our doctrinal pondering with our preaching and pastoring.

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