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The Trinity Against the Spirit of Unitarianism


The Trinity Against the Spirit of Unitarianism

(from The Trinity:  An Essential for Faith in Our Time, Evangel Publishing House, 2002)


Faced with cultural and religious pluralism the post-modern church in the west appears extraordinarily anxious or extraordinarily accommodating, depending on one’s point of view. The church regards its pluralistic setting as novel and is either tempted to panic and endeavour to preserve itself through a multi-faceted isolationism, or is tempted in its bold engagement with the world to squander the “deposit” (2 Timothy 1:12) which it has been charged to guard. Those prone to worry are more likely to insist on retaining a doctrine of the Trinity, if only to preserve continuity with their forebears in faith, not realizing that “if only” reduces the doctrine to an artifact in the museum of intellectual history. On the other hand, those eager to meet challenges are more likely to jettison any doctrine of the Trinity as an encumbrance which inhibits the church in its witness to the gospel and its exemplification of it in the common life of the world.

One issue facing the church, then, is this: is the doctrine of the Trinity baggage which is not only unnecessary but is actually a threat to the seaworthiness of the ship (church) as it appears to founder in the storms of modernity? or is it ballast in the ship’s keel apart from which the ship will capsize in even moderate winds?

I submit that apart from the doctrine of the Trinity “gospel” is rendered indistinguishable from religious aspiration or projection, while “Spirit” is reduced to a magnification of anything that the Fall-darkened heart and mind of humankind may conceive, and “church” becomes nothing more than one more social group (albeit in religious guise) which seeks to promote the agenda of its constituents. In short, without the doctrine of the Trinity the arch counter-miracle will occur: wine will be turned into water as the gospel is denatured.

In maintaining the doctrine of the Trinity to belong to the being of the faith rather than merely to its wellbeing I am not holding up as etched in stone the expression of any one thinker’s understanding; neither Augustine’s nor Aquinas’s nor Calvin’s nor Barth’s. Nonetheless, I am convinced that just as these thinkers were impelled to speak on behalf of the Triune God in order to forestall the acculturation of the gospel in their day, we must do as much in ours, all the while endeavouring to obey the fifth commandment; namely, to honour our parents (including our theological foreparents) in order that the days of the church may be long in the land which God gives us.

II: — I agree with those who maintain that a fully-articulated doctrine of the Trinity is not found in scripture. Nonetheless, the building blocks of the doctrine incontrovertibly are. Consider the following:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19)

This Jesus God raised up…. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you see and hear. (Acts 2:32f)

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13:14)

For through [Jesus Christ] we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. (Ephesians 2:18)

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all…. But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.  (Ephesians 4:4-6)

…God chose you from the beginning to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 2:13)

Chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood. (1 Peter 1:2)

As scripture attests the incursion of the Word scripture impels us to an understanding that God is eternally Triune. A doctrine of the Trinity makes explicit what is everywhere implicit in the “the faith once delivered to the saints” and for which faith, the apostle tells us, we must ever “contend”. (Jude 3)

III: — Christian faith is rooted in the oneness of being between Jesus Christ and God the Father. In the gospel God has revealed himself to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (Without the divine activity of the Holy Spirit we should not know of the deity of Father and Son.) In this self-unveiling God has revealed himself in such a way as to disclose that what God is in himself God is toward us, and what God is toward us God is in himself, throughout his saving acts in history. In other words, what God is eternally in himself, that is, in his internal relations as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God is in his activity toward us through the Son and in the Spirit.

If the oneness in being between Jesus Christ and God the Father is cut, then the substance and heart of the gospel is lost. For if what Christ does is not what God does, then before God humankind’s predicament is unrelieved. Again, if God himself has not come among us in the Incarnation, then God’s love for us (despite God’s good intentions!) stops short of God’s full identification with us sinners; in truth it is not finally love (or at least is woefully deficient and defective love) and the redemptive activity of God is finally ineffectual.

Faith in this God is generated by God’s self-witness and self-interpretation (Holy Spirit) in God’s Word (Jesus Christ). In short, knowledge of God is the work of God himself. Since there is no intrinsic ontological similarity between the eternal being of God and the contingent being of us creatures, the fact of faith (that is, the presence of women and men who believe) attests the utter priority of God over all thought concerning him. We can think correctly about God at all only because God includes us in his self-knowing.

In conjoining “Spirit” and “Holy” scripture insists that God is the only fit witness to himself; only God can disclose God. And since God has given himself to us in the person of the Son or Word, then Spirit and Son (Word) are inextricably linked. Or in the idiom of the written gospels, Jesus Christ is the unique bearer and bestower of the Holy Spirit. This is but to say that one cannot pronounce “Spirit” except in reference to Jesus Christ. (In this way the apostles insist that while Christless spirits do indeed abound, they can only be less than holy!) This point is reinforced by scripture’s depiction of the Spirit as being sent from the Father in the name of the Son, never in the Spirit’s own name; the Spirit speaks only of the Father and of the Son, never of himself. Put simply, the Spirit is like floodlighting. Floodlights are positioned in such a way that one does not see the floodlight itself, only that which it lights up and to which it therefore directs attention. (Recall our Lord’s words, “He (i.e., the Spirit) shall glorify me”. John 16:14) The Spirit imports no new substance into faith’s knowing, but rather facilitates faith’s knowledge of the Son, who is the “substance” of the Father.

IV: — While the foregoing is formally espoused throughout the church catholic it is materially contradicted frequently in various “unitarianisms”, such as those outlined below.

(i) A UNITARIANISM OF THE FATHER This popular “unitarianism” certainly preserves the truth that God is exalted, “high and lifted up”; that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts nor our ways God’s ways. (Isaiah 6:1; 55:8) God is the sole, sovereign, eternal one. God is not an aspect of his creation-at-large (the cosmos) nor an aspect of his creation-at-small (humankind). God is irreducibly GOD, never one with whom we may trifle.

However, the God who is only “high and lifted up”, without differentiation, tends to be so exalted as never to humble himself, so far beyond us as not to render himself accessible, sovereign with more than a suggestion of severe, unknowable in the sense of arbitrary, a creator who is also (or may be) capricious.

Eighteenth century deism portrayed God as the creator who fashioned the universe and then effectively absented himself from it. Seventeenth century Protestant scholasticism portrayed God as capricious in its notion of double predestination. God, it said, has foreordained elect and reprobate as such even before they are born, and therefore before they have even had opportunity to sin. When confronted with the irrationality of this its proponents stated that there is a reason underlying the only-apparent irrationality of the decrees, but this “reason” is hidden inscrutably in the innermost recesses of God. Therefore it is not our place to enquire, only our place to adore. The more the hidden justice of this scheme was advanced, however, the more apparent the manifest injustice was to many. In view of the unqualified remoteness of God, or the arbitariness of God, or the injustice of God which a unitarianism of the Father seems to imply, this particular unitarianism, paradoxically, ends in the denial that God is parent in any sense.

(ii) A UNITARIANISM OF THE SON Undifferentiated transcendence is overcome as Jesus Christ is God-with-us. So far from disdaining the complexity of the human situation God has identified with it in its totality. Jesus Christ is bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, is tempted at all points as we are (Hebrews 4:15), even becoming one with sinners, as his baptism attests, by “being made sin” for us.(2 Corinthians 5:21)

At the same time, to collapse God into God the Son distorts even the truth of the Incarnation. For then God-with-us is demeaned as pal. The saccharine Jesus finds no paradigm in scripture. No one who met Jesus Christ in the flesh ever spoke of him in this manner. The written gospels, rather, customarily depict him as one whom people do not understand and cannot domesticate. Even disciples, newly made aware in his presence of their systemic sinnership, can only plead with him to leave them alone. The apostles never confuse proximity with presumption. So far from being aider and abettor of human schemes, Jesus is the one who does not supply answers to questions, for he will not confirm the standpoint or the perception or the purpose of the questioner. Instead he poses his own question, therein showing the speaker to dwell in spiritual unreality; i.e., suffer from spiritual psychosis.

(iii) A UNITARIANISM OF THE SPIRIT It is the Spirit who imparts vitality and vibrancy in believer and congregation alike. It is the Spirit who supplies zeal, warmth, boldness, effectiveness. It is the Spirit whose gifts equip the congregation for ministry and whose fruits adorn the gospel, in all of this exhibiting the truth of God as the power of God and not mere ideation.

One New Testament word for the Spirit, ARRABON — “down payment” or “pledge”, (in modern Greek it means a woman’s engagement ring) — plainly means that there is more to come. While the Spirit satisfies the restless human heart the satisfaction it yields never satiates; believers, contented as never before and nowhere else, are nonetheless “hungrier” than ever even as they know that one day they will be fed so as to leave them hungering no more. The entire experiential aspect of primitive Christianity (e.g., “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (Galatians 3:2) plainly directs the attention of readers of the epistle to identifiable experience) is much undervalued in most expressions of the church today.

Notwithstanding, when the Spirit is magnified disproportionately and experience put forward unnormed, then “Spirit” ceases to be the power in which Jesus Christ acts himself and which he pours forth on his people. “Spirit” instead lends itself to frenzy, the suspension of the intellect, and the identification of God with powers which may be nothing more than the intrapsychic proclivities and pressures of the devotees themselves.

It appears that whenever the Trinity is denied through the aforementioned unitarianisms redemption is denied as well. In the first instance God’s transcendence is upheld in such a manner as to render God remote, distant, inaccessible, with the result that the creation is left unaffected. In the second instance God is so identified with the creation as not to transcend it so as to be free for it. In the third instance God is so identified with human intra-psychic processes as to leave them deified. It is the Triune God who alone saves, for it is the Triune God who alone can.

V: — In many areas of the church catholic today the doctrine of the Trinity is denied not merely materially but formally as well. Such a denial occurs whenever, for instance, the deity of the Son is impugned. “Son of”, in scripture, has the force of “of the same nature as”; to modify “same nature” is to deny what the church has always confessed in terms of the Incarnation.

Formal denial need not be blatant; in fact it is no less a formal denial for being subtle. Whenever the question, “Is Jesus the Son of God?”, is answered, whether waggishly or sincerely, “Of course he is; all of us are sons and daughters of God”, Incarnation is denied and therefore Trinity as well. And since the being of God is intrinsically related to the knowledge of God, any departure from acknowledging the Tri-unity of God imperils the knowledge of God. The current preoccupation with “Creation Spirituality” is such a subtle yet formal denial.

The question, “Who is God?”, is a question which scripture answers only indirectly. It answers this question by first asking and answering two others: “What does God do (outside of us, yet for our sake)?”, and “What does God effect (in us)?” We can know who God is only as we first learn what God has done on our behalf, for our sake, in the Son, and only as we become beneficiaries of this work on our behalf through the power of the Spirit. In sum, we know God as we are included in God’s work for us and as we are illumined concerning this work. To become acquainted with the living God is to learn that the creation is not God. It is too frequently overlooked that the non-divine status of the creation has to be revealed — or else why should the creation not be assumed to be divine, as in fact it often is? As it is only by grace (i.e., by the action of God himself) that we learn that the Triune one is God, so it is only by grace that we learn that the creation is not God but rather is creaturely. “Creation Spirituality”, on the other hand, is predicated on the postulate that the creation either is God or mediates God, both of which prophet and apostle reject. Since God is God and we are but creatures of God, the order or logic of revelation generates the order or logic of our knowledge of God. And since the creation does not reveal the Triune God, the creation (itself fallen and in bondage to death) is not the vehicle of that life which the Spirit (who is God) alone effects.

Any diminution of the Son as one with the being of the Father is an explicit denial of the Trinity. Such diminution of the Son invariably fosters an idolization of the creation.

VI: — Any sundering of Spirit from Son is a similar denial with similar consequences. Sundering the Spirit from the Son means that the “Spirit” ceases to be holy, ceases to be intrinsically related to the Word (as the reformers, following the apostles, were careful to note), and becomes instead the religious legitimation of human fancy or fantasy. Since, as was seen above, it is only through the truth that truth is known and non-truth recognized, only by reality that illusion is discerned, then only through revelation can we gain proper perspective on and understand assorted claims to truth, reality, godliness and goodness.

(i) RELIGION Despite its apparently ascendant secularism our era is startlingly religious. It is assumed that religion is good and that Christianity is religious. Christianity may indeed be, but is faith “religious”? Prophet and apostle attest that the gospel exposes religion as non-gospel, non-faith; i.e., unbelief. Elijah on Mount Carmel does not suggest to the Baal spokespersons that they are religious, he is religious, and therefore they should all pool their religiosity, seeking out a common denominator, maximizing convergence and minimizing divergence. On the contrary Elijah maintains that shortly Yahweh will act in such a way as to expose Baalism for what it is. This is not to say that Israel’s faith remained free of religion; the prophets continually deplore the religious invasion of Israel and continually recall Israel to the God who displayed his outstretched arm in delivering them from slavery and formed them his people at Sinai, and now nurtured them like a mother with her child at her breast.

It seems that the church today thinks itself to be meeting religious pluralism for the first time, when in fact the faith of Israel and of Israel’s greater Son came to birth and had to survive in the context of competing religious claimants. To be sure, this pluralism always encroached upon the faith of God’s people and threatened to dissolve them. Significantly, while Paul begins his sermon on Mars Hill (Acts 17) by acknowledging the phenomenon of religions (the Greek word he uses — DEISDAIMON — also means “superstition”, it should be noted), he quickly moves to an unambiguous declaration of Jesus Christ, his resurrection, and the coming judgement. Nowhere do the apostles counsel seeking commonalities with contiguous religious manifestations.

Unless the church recovers its discernment of how revelation discloses itself as distinct from religion, how will the church recognize — and repudiate — the religious accretions to the gospel, and even the most subtle (yet no less deleterious) psycho-religiosities which attach themselves to our own believing? How will it distinguish between the truth that God, for the sake of his glory and our salvation, has freely justified us of his own free grace, and religion as the insidious attempt at justifying ourselves before a god whose mercy and pardon we plainly doubt?

(ii) CULTURE Again, as soon as Spirit is sundered from Word (Jesus Christ is the one Word of God we are to hear and heed in life and in death, according to the Barmen Declaration), the “Spirit” is co-opted as the legitimization and even the divinization of culture. Aesthetic enjoyment is then spoken of as “spiritual experience”. All experiences of the creaturely order in its own mysterious depths are denoted “spiritual” and are confused with the work of the Holy Spirit of God. The obvious conclusion from this confusion is that cultured people are spiritually superior and that culture saves.

The Germans, as usual, have a polysyllabic word for it: Kulturprotestantismus. The culture-religion which had permeated the German church left people unable to distinguish between God himself and the awesome depths of God’s creation, between having “God’s love poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us”(Romans 5:5) and being moved by natural beauty or artistic talent. When Kulturprotestantismus went beyond viewing aesthetics as the vestibule to the kingdom and affirmed culture and kingdom to be synonymous, the nazification of the land of Goethe, Schiller, Beethoven — not to mention the world’s leading medical research — demonstrated that culture can readily cloak the conflict between Holy One and evil one. It demonstrates too that Kulturprotestantismus supplies neither the ability nor the urge to remove the cloak.

(iii) SELF-INTEREST The spectacle of most television religious programming, replete with references to “God”, “Holy Spirit” and “faith” raises the issue of narcissism. Narcissism is preoccupation with oneself, preoccupation with one’s own comfort, advantage, recognition, advancement and reward. The televised “gospel” offers this more often than not. It is only as the Spirit is known to be always and only the Spirit of him who had nowhere to lay his head, of him who summons followers to leave all and shoulder a cross if they are to be his followers, that the spiritual counterfeit of narcissism can be identified.

(iv) PATHOLOGY In the same way once the Spirit is divorced from the one who is the guarantor of the kingdom (i.e., the creation healed), once pneumatology is separated from Christology, people are theologically/spiritually defenceless against psycho-religious pathology. Jonestown need not be recalled; suffice it to recollect those whose “faith” has rendered them ill, or rendered them more ill.

VII: — When Jesus Christ is confessed as the unique bearer and bestower of the Spirit; when the Spirit is known as the power in which Jesus Christ acts, to the glory of God the Father, then distortions which bedevil the church are avoided and Trinitarian doctrine preserves proper balances.

Reference has already been made to the question Paul put to the Christians in Galatia, “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?”. The question directs his readers to recall and reflect upon an aspect of their life in Christ which they cannot deny, an event (however protracted), moreover, which is so common as to provide an indisputable beginning-point for his subsequent reasoning with them.

As the church today recovers experience of God (for experience of God is the only experience the Spirit of Jesus Christ facilitates) the theological content of the gospel will never be arid intellectualism. It is the Spirit who prevents the gospel (so-called) from becoming the preserve of the intellectually gifted, from degenerating into a western philosophy which happens to employ a religious vocabulary. The gospel must not become one more abstraction to be assessed along with other “world-views”, when in truth the gospel, ultimately, is the presence and power of the living Lord Jesus Christ in his person.

When the Spirit is honoured as the power of God which renders Jesus Christ forever contemporaneous then living faith will always triumph over traditionalism. “I’m a Lutheran”, when uttered in the apparent absence of throbbing faith in the living Word, usually means that the Lutheran Church is the one someone stays away from! The same phenomenon is seen in those whose Protestantism consists in their anti-Catholicism.

When “Spirit” and “Word” are acknowledged to imply each other then institutionalism will not supplant adventurous discipleship. No longer subserving itself or an un-gospel agenda, the institution will subserve the community which lives for the praise of God’s glory. The institution will resist calling for that obedience which is owed God alone. In trusting the promise that the powers of death shall not prevail against Christ’s people who, like John the Baptist, point to him, it will soberly remember that institutional remains litter the landscape of history.

Where the Spirit is recalled as the Spirit of him who insists that harlots and tax-collectors enter the kingdom of God ahead of the “righteous” the placebo of moralism will be detected and dropped. The Christian life will not be impoverished until it becomes precisely what the world misunderstands it to be: conformity to a code, success at which enterprise breeds self-righteousness while failure precipitates despair. Evident instead will be glad obedience to the living person of Jesus Christ, out of gratitude for the deliverance he has effected.

Where the Spirit is trusted to lend effectiveness to proclamation in Christ’s name evangelism will not give way to assorted techniques for proselytizing or garnering adherents. To evangelize is to set forth the gospel of the Son in reliance upon the God whose Spirit is sufficient to empower the saints’ testimony. In other words, the outcome of our evangelism can be left in God’s hands.

A church which does not trust the Spirit to honour witness borne to the Son is a church which confuses evangelism with conversion; which is to say, a church which cannot distinguish between its work and God’s work. Moreover, a church which thinks that conversion (rather than witness) is its responsibility is a church which coerces; the harassment can be physical, social or psychological, but it remains coercion. Paradoxically, the church which thinks that it has to generate the fruit of its diligent “God-talk” announces to the world that it does not believe in God, since it cannot trust God to vivify God’s own Word! To trust that the Spirit is the Spirit of the Son or Word is to be freed from anxiety concerning the results of mission and therein spared the fear of failure and the concomitant temptation to coerce.

VIII: — A recovery of the doctrine of the Trinity would do eversomuch to assist The United Church of Canada concerning the catholicity of its mission. Despite our denomination’s protestations that it sides with the victimized, the marginalized, the oppressed, and those disadvantaged in any way, it remains virtually exclusively an occurrence of the ascendant middle class. That segment of the socio-economic spectrum from which the UCC draws its people is becoming smaller as it also becomes more affluent: we are attracting fewer and fewer people, virtually all of whom are more and more wealthy. We attract no poor people, even remarkably few who are not socially ascendant.

In times of economic turbulence the rich are cushioned against material misfortune and remain rich; the poor are not cushioned, but neither do they have anything to protect, with the result that they remain poor. The rising middle class, however, is unrelievedly vulnerable. In times of economic dislocation it is precipitated downwards. It collapses into that segment of the socio-economic spectrum with which our denomination has no credibility at all. In other words, simply as a result of uncontrollable economic convulsions the UCC would be deprived of its constituency. A recovery of Trinitarian faith, especially with respect to the appointment of God himself in the person of the Son, would commission us to re-examine our socio-economic exclusiveness. The Word of God is baptized in dirty water at the hands of someone who will be forever out of place among the socially slick. The pronouncement heard at this baptism — “Thou art my beloved Son; with Thee I am well pleased” — is a conflation of Psalm 2 and Isaiah 42. Psalm 2 is God’s appointment of the royal ruler, the one possessed of genuine authority. Isaiah 42 speaks of God’s approval of the “Servant of the Lord”, commonly known as “the suffering servant”, the one who “was despised and rejected by humankind…and we esteemed him not”. The mission of God himself in the Son will ever be effective (God is sovereign), but its effectiveness will materialize through a servanthood which entails hardship and sacrifice and social rejection. Then to be Christ’s follower is to be commissioned to a ministry of service, not domination; of self-forgetfulness, not personal advantage; even of social rejection rather than public congratulation. Would not a new appreciation of the Son’s mission, when the Son is one with the Father himself, be the recovery of our identification with the Son who cherished the very people to whom we cannot relate? In that Son who is of the same substance and nature as the Father God effectively loved the world — not merely one aspect of the world, i.e., social aspirants whose psycho-social needs church-affiliation appears to serve.

The recovery of the doctrine of the Trinity will foster the recovery of Trinitarian faith; this in turn will mean a return to the catholicity of the gospel. And such a return will spell recovery of mission and service on behalf of the all the “far off” who have been “brought near in the blood of Christ”.(Ephesians 2:13) For “through him we both [i.e., Jew and Gentile, which is to say all human beings equally despite apparently insurmountable barriers] have access in one Spirit to the Father.” (Ephesians 3:18)

The tetragrammaton, , contains no vowels. Lacking vowels, it is unpronounceable. Because it is unpronounceable it is untranslatable; for this reason there can be no substitute for it. There can be no substitute for the name of the God who has named himself Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To know God, honour and obey and adore God, is to find that the doctrine of the Trinity is neither the museum-like security-blanket of the nervous nor the jettisonable baggage of the naive. The doctrine of the Trinity, rather, will ever orient us to the living God whose love for a dying world commissions us to love it no less.

Victor Shepherd