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The Triune God and the Threefold Nature of the Church

 

 

 

 The Triune God and the Threefold Nature of the Church

      On Halloween many people wear false faces.  No one is upset because everyone knows the false face is only a game.  If, however, someone walked into a bank wearing a false face, it would be another matter.  Everyone would know the false face is an occasion of evil.

   Many of us ‘put on’ a false face, as it were, in different social situations in order to misrepresent ourselves and deceive others.  I can hate you in my heart and yet ‘put on’ a face that suggests friendship.  I can despise you in my heart and yet ‘put on’ a face that suggests admiration.  In these situations (situations of sin, we should note) the face we wear contradicts the heart we possess.  Plainly the person putting on the false face can never be known, and because she can’t be known she can never be trusted.  If anyone is to be known and trusted, face and heart have to be one.

   What about God’s face and God’s heart? If we think of Jesus Christ as the manifest ‘face’ of God, then the doctrine of the Trinity attests the face of Jesus and the heart of the Father to be identical.  The face the Father displays in the Son is not and never can be a false face.  Face and heart are one.  God as he is towards us (the Son) is identical with God as he is in himself (the Father).  This point is crucial, for otherwise God’s activity upon us and within us might be merely something God does, unrelated to who God is.  If this were the case, God’s activity upon us and within us would be a manipulation that never acquainted us with the heart of God, with the result that we could never know God himself, and therefore we could never trust him.

    The doctrine of the Trinity is crucial.  At the very least it attests the truth that who God is in his dealings with us is who God is in himself; and no less importantly, who God is in himself is who God is in his dealings with us.

    In other words, the doctrine of the Trinity witnesses to God’s identity: what we see in Jesus Christ is what we get; namely, God himself and nothing other than God himself.  In addition the doctrine of the Trinity witnesses to God’s unity.  What is done for us in Jesus Christ and what is effected in us through the Holy Spirit is an act of the one God: these two acts aren’t the activities of two different deities or two lesser deities or two non-deities.

   What God does for us in the Son is called ‘Christology’; what God effects in us through the Spirit is called ‘Pneumatology.’  The arithmetic is simple: Christology plus Pneumatology equals Theology.

   “Who is God?”  Scripture never answers this question directly.  Scripture answers this question indirectly by posing two other questions.  “What does God do on our behalf?  What does God effect within us?”  The answers to these two questions add up to the question “Who is God?”  God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  This God is one.  The doctrine of the Trinity attests the unity of God, and, as we have already noted, the identity of God.

   While Scripture nowhere articulates a doctrine of the Trinity, the ‘raw materials’, as it were, of the doctrine are not hard to find.  Everyone is familiar with Paul’s blessing: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2nd Cor. 13:14)  The same triune formula is found in narrative form in Luke’s gospel concerning the Christmas annunciation made to Mary: “The Lord (“Lord” is the name of God in the older testament) is with you….you will bear a son who will be called the Son of the Most High….the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (Luke 1:28-35)  In John’s gospel Jesus announces that the Father will send the Holy Spirit in the name of the Son. (Jn. 14:26)

   It is no surprise that when heresy threatened the church repeatedly, the Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.) framed a doctrine of the Trinity that has worn well ever since, departure from which is deemed no less than denial of the gospel.

I: —  Despite the fitting emphasis on the Triune being of God, different theological families within the church tend to emphasize one person of the Trinity.  Their emphasis gives rise to a particular theology and particular church practice.  Later we shall see how a one-sided emphasis fosters serious distortion. But for now let’s note how highlighting one person of the Trinity characterizes one theological family in the church as a whole.

(i)    Let’s think first of the understanding of the church in classical Protestantism, the churches that come out of the Reformation, more-or-less what we call ‘mainline’ Protestant denominations today.  Here the church is understood as those who gather to hear the Word of God preached.  And there’s nothing wrong with this as far as it goes, since we should gather to hear the Word of God preached.

   This understanding is reflected in interior church architecture.  The pulpit is front and centre.  The pulpit is elevated, always elevated above the communion table.  The bible is placed on the pulpit and is read from the pulpit.  Plainly the theological order is Scripture, sermon and sacrament.  Scripture is the source and norm of the sermon, and scripture and sermon together are the content of the sacrament.  Good!  Our Reformation foreparents were correct (I am convinced)  when they insisted that without Scripture the sermon is no more than gospel-less subjectivism, and without Scripture and sermon the sacrament is no more than superstition.

   The order of service reflects the priority of preaching.  The sermon is the single, largest item of worship.  It occupies not less than one-third of the service, frequently more than one-half.  When, in this understanding of the church, a pastoral relations committee is assessing candidates for the pulpit, the paramount question on everyone’s lips is “Can she preach?”

   The presuppositions of this understanding of the church are noteworthy.  One such presupposition is that the gospel has a precise content, and people have to be informed of this content just because the gospel isn’t an instance of humanistic self-help or religion-in-general or vague sentimentality.  The content is precise; it’s God-given.  It isn’t negotiable or substitutable or alterable.

   The gospel’s precise content matters, and matters supremely since the gospel is ultimately the power of God for salvation. (Rom. 1:16)  The hearer’s eternal destiny and temporal wellbeing hang on the preached Word and the hearer’s response.

   The precedent for this understanding of the church is impressive.  Moses spoke – to the people who assembled to hear him.  His speaking imparted something the world will never be without.  The socio-political shape of the Western world (at least) is unimaginable without the Decalogue.  When Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister of Great Britain, was taunted repeatedly in the House of Commons on account of his Jewishness, one day he had had enough.  Disraeli turned on his ridiculers, “Yes, I am a Jew.  And when your foreparents were eating acorns in the Forest of Arden, my foreparents were giving laws to the world.”

   Not only Moses preached; the Hebrew prophets preached.  Amos cried, “God has spoken; who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8)  In the same manner God exclaimed to Jeremiah, “I am making my words in your mouth a fire.” (Jer. 5:14)  Either Jeremiah opened his mouth to let out the fiery word or he was consumed by it.

   Jesus, we are told, “came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God.” (Mk. 1:14)

   Not least, when Jesus sends out the seventy missioners he insists, “Whoever hears you, hears me.” (Lk. 10:16)  There is no ‘as if’; “whoever hears you, it’s as if she heard me.”  To hear the missioner preach Christ is to be confronted with Christ-in-person.  To say the same thing, whenever the Word of God is preached, Jesus Christ acts – invariably.

   The Protestant Reformers knew this.  In his commentary on Galatians 3:1 John Calvin maintains that when the gospel is preached the “blood of Christ flows.”  And in his commentary on Hebrews 9:20 Calvin writes, “When the gospel is preached, [Christ’s] sacred blood falls on us along with the words.”  Imagine it: whenever the gospel is preached the saving blood soaks the congregation.  In his commentary on Isaiah 6:1-5 Calvin reminds us that when Scripture is read today God-in-person speaks; then Calvin adds soberly, “When he speaks, we tremble.”

   The living Word, Jesus Christ, surges over us as the inscripturated Word is expounded in the preached Word.  This living Word we cannot acquire elsewhere or elsehow.  We can’t acquire it through watching movies, playing golf or waterskiing.

   Neither can we acquire it (him) through nature.  Don’t tell me you can.  Don’t tell me that God speaks most clearly to you through nature.  Don’t tell me you feel closer to God in nature than you do anywhere else.  When you have observed a tsunami or a fox eat a rabbit or a snake eat a frog, don’t tell me you have just had privileged access to God.

   Don’t tell me that when you are standing on the dock on Lake Muskoka and the loon warbles just as the sun sets and you feel awed, you are closer to God than you are in church.  At that moment you are moved (profoundly, we must admit) by God’s creation, the beauty of that creation and the genuine mystery of that creation.  But the beauty of God’s creation is not the glory of God, and the mystery of the creation is not the mystery of the God who is forever other than his creation and ought never to be confused with it.  No one looking at the creation, however long and however intently, ever came to an understanding of redemption and righteousness and sin.  No gazing upon the immensity of the universe informs us of the God who, for the sake of us who despise him, humbled himself in a manger and humiliated himself at a cross where he was publicly identified with the scum of the earth.

   To say that the church consists of those who gather to hear preached the gospel with its precise content is to say that there’s no such thing as blind faith.  To be sure, we have to trust God on days so dark as to be utterly opaque; but the God whom we trust on opaque days himself can’t be opaque or we wouldn’t know whom to trust or why we should trust.  Unless we are schooled week-by-week in the precise content of the gospel, faith will erode and discipleship will disappear.

   Any understanding of the church that highlights the gospel in its uniqueness will also emphasize correct doctrine.  Doctrines are truths about Christ that point to him and describe him.  He is Truth (in the sense of reality).  Truth, reality, shouldn’t be confused with or reduced to provisional statements about him, truths.  At the same time, as Truth he can’t be described or commended or communicated apart from the truths that speak of him.  To belittle doctrine is to belittle him of whom it speaks.

   The church as those who gather to hear the Word preached; this understanding is important and should be cherished.

(ii) — Yet there’s another understanding of the people of God in Scripture.  It’s one that’s dear to the Catholic tradition: Eastern Orthodox, and the twenty-two churches that make up the Catholic family, chief among which is the Roman Catholic.  This understanding highlights the church as the body of Christ.

   There are 188 images of the church in the New Testament.  Immediately all of us could name some: the bride of Christ, for instance.  Others are less-known: the church as perfume, or a farmer’s field, or a letter delivered by Canada Post.  By far the dominant image among the 188 is the body of Christ.  Jesus Christ is head of his own body, the church.  Any assault on the body is at the same time an assault on our Lord.  For this reason not to discern the corporate nature of the church, the body of Christ, is horrific.

   In the Hebrew bible, as soon as you ask someone his name he tells you the name of his tribe, because he has no identity apart from his tribe.  In the Hebrew mind the corporate identity of the people of God looms large.

   We modern individuals have difficulty understanding the solidarity of Israel.  The prophet Isaiah, commissioned by God to address a sharp word to the people; Isaiah doesn’t say, “I may be stuck living with degenerate people whom God is going to punish, but I know better than they and I’m not one of them.”  Instead Isaiah, fully aware that he has a commission others lack, cries, “I am a man of unclean lips; and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.”

   According to biblical understanding the church as body of Christ has everything to do with the church’s identity.  You and I exist as Christian individuals only as we are related to Christ’s body, the corporate people.  We like to think we can be related to Jesus without being related to the church, and we could be related to him without being related to them – if Christ were a severed head.  But he isn’t a severed head.  He is always and everywhere the head of his body.  Therefore to be related to him at all is to be related to all of him, head and body.

   Paul asks us to imagine a human body dismembered, the sort of spectacle we might find at an airplane crash or wartime bomb blast.  There are detached arms and legs and torsos scattered everywhere, along with blood and guts and faeces and interstitial fluid and who knows what else.  Repulsive?  He wants it to be.  He wants it to be so very repulsive that you and I will think twice about dismembering the Christian fellowship.

   The second point the apostle has in mind is reflected in his question, “Of what use is a leg?”  A leg is used to support and propel a torso.  A severed leg can’t support or propel anything.  Strictly speaking, therefore, is it a leg at all?  Strictly speaking a severed ‘leg’ doesn’t exist; what exists is a chunk of putrefying flesh, nauseating and malodorous, that should be buried immediately.

   It is only as you and I are members of the body that we share in the body’s ministry and mission.  There is in truth only one ministry, the ministry of Christ in his body.  To remove ourselves from his body is not to share in his ministry; which is to say, to have no ministry at all.

   While we are speaking of ministry we should soberly take note of the fact that the churches that understand themselves chiefly as body of Christ (Anglo Catholic, Roman Catholic, and so on) have been the most faithful in ministering to the marginalized in the inner cities.  It is they who minister to the mentally ill, the ex-convict, the recipient of social assistance; in short, they have been the most faithful in ministering to the least, the last, the lonely, the loser.

   Christians who understand the church as the body of Christ have a wonderful sense of historical continuity.  They know that humans are humans in any era, and therefore Christians today are not the first generation of Christians to face major issues.  They smile when they are told that pluralism, for instance, is a new challenge to the church.  New?  Biblical faith took root in the midst of religious and cultural pluralism.  Our Hebrew ancestors knew that God had spoken to Abraham and Moses and Malachi in an environment that included Canaanite religion and child sacrifice and sacral prostitution – all of which they had to resist.  Christians in the apostolic era upheld Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God, the world’s sole saviour and Lord, the Messiah of Israel and the coming Judge – and all of this amidst a sea of Gnosticism, mystery religions, and idolatrous worship of the Roman emperor.  We aren’t the first generation of Christians to face pluralism.  Neither are we the first generation of Christians to face multisexuality, the presence of which, we are told, ought to find us adjusting our convictions.  The ancient world, and every era ever since, has been acquainted with multisexuality.

   Aware of the 3500-year history of the church, our Catholic friends appreciate the cruciality of Christian memory.  To be without memory, anywhere in life; to be amnesiac is no small matter.  The tragedy of amnesia isn’t that someone can’t remember where she left her umbrella.  The tragedy, rather, is that the person with no memory doesn’t know who she is.  Lacking an identity, she doesn’t know what to do, how to act.  Lacking an identity, therefore, she can’t be trusted – not because she’s uncommonly wicked – but rather because, not knowing who she is, she doesn’t know how to act in conformity with who she is.  Anything she does can only be arbitrary, capricious, spastic, inconsistent.

   The year 2013 is only six months behind us. 2013 was the 450th anniversary of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), a document some folk regard as the crown jewel of the shorter Reformation writings.  The Heidelberg Catechism has sustained generations of Christians when shaken by assaults from without and upheavals from within.  It begins magnificently.  Its first question (of 129) is, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”  Answer: “My only comfort in life and in death is that I am not my own, but I belong, body and soul, to my faithful saviour, Jesus Christ.”  Since 2013 was the 450th anniversary I looked in the Reformation churches everywhere in Canada for a celebration, or at least an acknowledgement, of this wonderful document.  I looked in vain.  Make no mistake: had the Heidelberg Catechism been written by Catholics it would have been visible last year in every church.  Do we Protestants know who we are?  Can our grandchildren trust us?

   “The church as the perduring body of Christ; it all sounds good,” the sceptic remarks, “but it must refer to some mythological church that exists nowhere.  It doesn’t refer to my church, St Matthew’s by the Esso station, with its bickering, pettiness, and power-plays.”
  But it does refer to St Matthew’s by the Esso station.  Yes, the church is like Noah’s Ark, Reinhold Niebuhr reminded us: if it weren’t for the storm outside no one could withstand the stink inside.  Or as Karl Barth liked to say, “If Christ hadn’t been in the boat it would have sunk.”  The point is, Christ was in the boat – and still is.

   For this reason those who understand the church as the body of Christ, with its identity and visibility and perdurability, are characteristically patient Christians.  Is the church weak?  God will strengthen it.  Compromised?  God will restore it.  Confused?  God will enlighten it.  While we should always be concerned, we should never panic.

   For as long as time remains Jesus Christ will be head of his body.  Decapitation isn’t going to occur.  Christ will always use his body to do his work in the world; and he, the head of his body, will always guarantee the efficacy of that work.

(iii) There is yet another understanding of the church highlighted by many Christians, the church as the community of the Spirit.  While we might think first, in this regard, of our Pentecostal friends, the church as community of the Spirit is found in many of the smaller, more charismatic denominations and independent congregations.

   While the Pentecostal denomination appeared early in the 20th century, its antecedents were found in the holiness movement of the 19th century, and in every century before that, all the way back to the 1st century church in Corinth.

  Those who uphold this understanding of the church insist that we must choose to enter the kingdom; no one oozes into it.  They are quick to remind us that while God loves the world and suffers on its behalf, the world remains the world; namely, the sum total of God-defiant, disobedient men and women tacitly organized in their hostility to the gospel.  Repentance is not the same as remorse.  Faith is not the same as ‘beliefism’.  Cruciform discipleship is not the same as middle-class ‘yuppyism’.  These people remind us that the gate which admits us to eternal life is narrow, and the way is anything but easy.  There is a great gulf fixed between righteousness and condemnation, life and death, truth and delusion; in short, between God and evil.

   They are quick to remind us that doctrine, however necessary, is an abstraction, while life in the Spirit is concrete; they tell us graphically that a body which lacks the Spirit is no better than a corpse.

   When Paul, heartbroken and angry in equal measure, confronts the church in Galatia concerning its anti-gospel slide into legalism, he gets to the point in a hurry.  “Tell me,” he writes: “Did you receive the Spirit through hearing with faith or by works of the law?” (Gal. 3:2)  His reference to their receiving the Spirit is a reference to an occurrence in their Christian experience, an occurrence as vivid, memorable and undeniable as any occurrence in experience of any sort.  It’s as if he said, “That raging headache you have right now; did you get it through concussion or through over-exposure to the sun?”  What can’t be denied is that someone with a headache knows she has a headache.  “Did you receive the Spirit through embracing the gospel with faith or through self-righteous legalism?”  The apostle is trying to correct their theology by appealing to their experience of the Spirit.

   The Christians in Rome are reminded that they have received the Spirit of sonship, adoption, with the result that the cry, “Abba, Father”, is drawn out of them.  They utter it spontaneously.  They can’t help crying, “Abba, Father,” as surely as someone in pain can’t help groaning, or someone tickled by a good joke can’t help laughing, or someone rejoicing can’t help beaming.  The apostle isn’t asking them to expound the doctrine of the Fatherhood of God; he’s asking them to recall how they came to be ‘lit.’

   The Christians in Thessalonica had undergone terrible persecution when Paul wrote them.  Aware of their faith and their resilience he wrote, “You received the word in much affliction with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.” (1st Thess. 1:6)  The Lord whom they cherished had poured his Spirit into them with the result that they remained unbroken and undeflectable, and all of this without grimness but rather with joy, when they had no earthly reason to rejoice.

   The apostle John, in his brief, five-chapter 1st epistle, uses the expression “we know” or “you know” or “I know” 34 times in one of the smallest books in Scripture.  “We know that we have passed from death to life.”  It’s all gathered up in “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit.”  To be visited with God’s Spirit isn’t to wish or long for or hanker after or speculate; it’s to know.

   In one of my seminary courses on homiletics we students had to preach to each other under the supervision of the professor.  One of my classmates delivered a sermon in which he used the expression “I suppose” half-a-dozen times.  When he finished, the class, and especially the student who had preached, waited on the professor for his evaluation.  There was silence, painful silence.  Then the professor looked at the student for the longest time and finally remarked, “You suppose?  You suppose?  Mister, when you ascend the pulpit steps on Sunday morning either you know or you don’t say anything.”

   To speak of the Spirit is to speak of the immediacy and intensity and intimacy of God.  The Spirit is God-in-our-midst acting, and acting upon and within his people so as to move them beyond doubting who he is, what he has done, and what he asks of them.

II: — Let’s return now to a discussion of the Trinity.  Plainly any departure from Trinitarian understanding lands us in confusion, error, falsehood, even in personal distress.  Yet despite Scripture’s insistence on a Trinitarian understanding of God and the church’s wisdom in framing the doctrine, a non-Trinitarian unitarianism always laps at the church.  Such pseudo-Christian unitarianism can be a unitarianism of the Father, or of the Son, or of the Spirit.

(i) – A unitarianism of the Father depicts God as austere, even severe, even tyrannical.  It renders God frigid and fearsome.  It likes to speak of God as “in control.”  It reiterates that God is sovereign, even as it confuses sovereignty with coercion.  It speaks of God’s providence, even as it confuses providence with omnicausality.  God is said to be “high and lifted up,” as Scripture maintains, even as unitarianism’s one-sidedness renders the exalted God inaccessible and unknowable.

(ii) There is also a unitarianism of the Son.  Jesus is our pal.  For this reason he and we can be palsy-walsy.  He sympathizes with us in our pain and we sympathize with him in his.  He’s our friend – and why not, since in John 15 he names us his friends.  Forgotten, alas, in the unitarianism of the Son, is the complementary truth that while he is our friend, he ever remains Lord and Judge of the relationship.  To be sure, Jesus is our friend, but he is a friend to be feared.

  We are quick to co-opt Jesus for our self-serving agenda, when all the while he claims us for his Kingdom-agenda.  He may be our friend, but he will never be our ‘flunkie.’

(iii) Lastly, there is a unitarianism of the Spirit.  Religious experience is now featured.  Before long any experience is featured, as long as it’s vivid and intense.  Forgotten, of course, is that only one Spirit is holy; all other spirits are unholy.  Holy Spirit gives rise to holy living; unholy spirits give rise to something else, regardless of intensity or vividness.  A unitarianism of the Spirit one-sidedly magnifies religion of the heart, conveniently overlooking two crucial Scriptural truths: one, the heart of humankind is “deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt, utterly beyond understanding,” says the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 17:9); two, ‘heart’ (‘lev’ in Hebrew) always includes the mind.

III: —  To no one’s surprise, any distortion concerning the Trinity; that is, any decline from a Triune understanding of God to a unitarian misunderstanding of God results in a deformed understanding of the church cherished by that particular church family which one-sidedly highlights Father or Son or Spirit.

(i)  Let’s begin with classical Protestantism, with the notion that the church consists of those who gather to hear the Word preached.  Before long the emphasis on preaching turns into an adulation of the preacher.  Now the congregation is built around a personality cult, or hero-worship, or verbal glitz.  “Our minister is a dynamic speaker” some people have boasted to me.  I don’t doubt that he is.  And I have heard many dynamic speakers whose rhetorical gifts were deployed in the service of a high-flown enunciation of nothing.  Such speakers forged a lucrative career by craftily saying nothing, and skilfully saying it well.

    Again, a one-sided emphasis on speech-communication readily leaves hearers happy in the illusion that their only responsibility is to follow the argument of the sermon.  They think that attentive listening to the dynamic speaker exhausts their obedience to God.

  Again, where preaching is emphasized one-sidedly, the congregation becomes a club of amateur, armchair philosophers who relish intellectual titillation.  Since Sunday morning worship is now one-sidedly intellectualist, a mood of intellectual snobbery arises in the congregation.  After all, not every Christian is as intellectually sophisticated as are they and their pastor.

   Again, a one-sided emphasis on preaching will always highlight doctrinal precision, and the history of the church tells us that unnecessary intricacy promotes a wrangling that finds yet another Protestant splinter added to the thousands that exist already.

(ii) What about our apprehension of the church as the body of Christ?  Here too a glorious truth will be distorted and deformed if it is emphasized one-sidedly, in isolation from the other two understandings.  While it is correct to maintain that the body of Christ will perdure inasmuch as Christ the head will never be severed from it, too often it is forgotten that Christ ever remains the Lord and Judge of the body.  As soon as the church forgets this truth it assumes that everything it does has Christ’s blessing when in fact much that the church has done calls down Christ’s curse.  “‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’  Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evil-doers’” – says Jesus himself.  (Mat. 7:23)

    Again, denominations that recall the promises Christ makes concerning the church – e.g., “The powers of death will never prevail against it” – assume that the survival of their denomination or congregation is guaranteed.  The promise means nothing of the sort.  When Christ pronounces the church irrefrangible he is promising that he will preserve the community of his faithful people; faithful people, faith-filled people – not membership rolls or baptism registers or Christmas and Easter drop-ins.  History is littered with the dust of long-dead denominations and congregations.  Christ’s faithful people can count on his promise; no one else should ever presume upon it.

   Again, a one-sided emphasis on the church as the body of Christ finds people assuming, perhaps unconsciously, that Christ has collapsed himself into the church; he now inheres the church and is a function of the church: whatever the church does, he does.  Wrong!  Jesus Christ is never the church’s possession to be manipulated or deployed or even relegated to the basement should he prove awkward and embarrassing.  Alas, such a church has forgotten Peter’s startling pronouncement: “…it is time for judgement to begin at the household of God.” (1st Peter 4:17)

   

(iii)  Lastly, a one-sided understanding of the church as the community of the Spirit will find the church’s one-sidedness distorting and disfiguring what it rightly tries to uphold.  While a recognition of the place of Christian experience is legitimate, even necessary, a one-sided, unbalanced elevation of experience leaves people unable to distinguish between experience of God and experience of the world; unable to distinguish between experience of God and experience of anything at all; unable to distinguish between Christian righteousness and cultural refinement.  Now the measure of spiritual authenticity is intra-psychic intensity, inner intensity of any sort arising from any stimulus.  As a pastor of 40 years’ experience I have heard the silly, sad tale of those who insisted their extra-marital affair was God-willed and God-blessed; after all, the intensity of their affair was so much more thrilling than humdrum domesticity.  Intensity, vividness, immediacy, we should note, can as readily describe a life of sin.

   Ultimately, a one-sided emphasis on the church as community of the Spirit lends religious legitimacy to any community born of any spirit.  At best there is the inability to distinguish the church from a neighbourhood club or social-service organization or humanistic association.  At worst there is the inability to distinguish between the Holy Spirit and the satanic.  Do I exaggerate?  Recall the history of Germany in the 20th century.  The German people claimed a spiritual sanction (specifically a Christian sanction) for a demonized state that German people today want only to forget.

   Not least, a one-sided understanding of the church as the community of those whom the Spirit has ‘torched’ in the present moment overlooks the history of the church and the wisdom entrenched in its tradition.  To be sure, no one wants traditionalism, the suffocating grip of the long-dead.   Nevertheless, our Christian sisters and brothers who have moved from the church militant to the church triumphant have something tell us, and they should be allowed to speak.  Remember: we are not the first generation of Christians, and it is the height of arrogance to think that we can see farther by not standing on the shoulders of our foreparents in faith.

   Lastly, a one-sided emphasis on the Spirit and Spirit’s immediacy undervalues the mind.  We are to love God with our minds, and it is impossible to love God unless we understand something of his nature and his purpose and his way with us.  Unless we understand something of God’s nature and purpose and way with us, our worship is sheer idolatry.

IV: — Distortions of the church abound.  Invariably they arise from a distorted grasp of God as Triune.  Plainly a more profound apprehension of God is needed if the church is to be healed.  Therefore we must turn once again to the God who is Father, Son and Spirit.

   While we rightly speak of the being of the triune God as Father, Son and Spirit, when it comes to our knowing the Triune God the order is always Spirit, Son and Father.  As the Spirit surges over us and frees us, we abandon our unbelief and embrace in faith the Son who has already embraced us; and having embraced the Son who has already embraced us we are rendered one with the Father.  At this point God’s Triune incursion and the church’s threefold witness have borne fruit concerning us.

  Then tonight may the Spirit ever join you and me to the Son in the Son’s obedience to and adoration of the Father.  For then we shall know ourselves sealed upon the heart of God, and this for ever and ever.

Victor Shepherd     June 2014