This article is part of our Wycliffe Faculty series, in which the faculty of such diverse departments as biblical studies, theology, and history write about mission and evangelism. As somewhat of a shift from Good Idea’s usual focus, we hope you enjoy reading about their perspectives on the mission of the Church today.
In churches that follow the lectionary, the old joke is that Trinity Sunday is the day the new associate is asked to preach. Why not give them the thankless task of trying to find a way to “explain” the Trinity? We can already anticipate them using one of many popular analogies, “ice, water, steam” or “the three leaf clover” or “the egg—shell, white and yolk”. These well-worn analogies not only reinforce ancient heresies, they mislead listeners by suggesting that the doctrine of the Trinity is meant to explain or solve the apparent conundrum of a God who can be both one and three at the same time. The result is only to reinforce the belief that the doctrine of the Trinity is an abstract metaphysical problem that is confusing and ultimately meaningless for our day-to-day lives.
Questions for Us
However, there are far more important existential questions for us: “How do we know God?” “How is God involved in our lives?” And perhaps, “what can we expect God to do in the world?” These are the questions that matter to us, and it is difficult to see how speculation concerning the Trinity has anything to do with them. What we miss, because we understand the Trinity as a problem to be solved, is that the credal affirmation of the doctrine of the Trinity is meant to address exactly these kinds of questions. The early debates in the church were rooted in practical pastoral questions—how can we talk about God, who God is, what it means that God has “saved” us, and what God is doing in the world? Pastoral theologians like Athanasius (all the early theologians were, to one degree or another, pastoral theologians) recognized that affirming that Jesus is truly God (which is at the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity) was the only real starting point to answer these vital questions.
Lost Confidence in God’s Reconciling and Sustaining Work in Our World
We have travelled a long way since the days of the early church only to find ourselves back where we started—questioning once again the possibility that God, the creator God, is truly present and engaged in our world. The philosopher Charles Taylor has argued that one of the characteristics of our age is that we have buffered ourselves against the possibility that there is a transcendent God who is actively and immediately engaged in our lives. We might ‘believe’ in the idea of God, or that God somehow works in the “spiritual realm” (whatever that might mean), but for the most part, this God is either at a great distance from us or this God is simply a force or power for good that we might hope to direct in helpful ways. We have lost any confidence in God’s reconciling and sustaining work in our world.
If we assume that Taylor is speaking about the secular world rather than the Church, then we haven’t understood his concerns and we haven’t owned up to the way most churchgoers think about God. Drawing on data from a survey of 15,000 young people in the USA, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton noted that the God most religious young people in North America believe in is a therapeutic ‘deist’ God: a God who is basically uninvolved in our day-to-day lives but is available to offer help from the sidelines, or at least cheer us on, if we ask in the right way. Yes, we can call on God and hope that God might respond (which is how we tend to understand prayer), and we might think of Jesus as present to us in our inner self or consciousness, but for the most part we assume that God simply lets us get on with our lives. And, when we are honest, most of us prefer a hands-off approach anyway.
God in Jesus, the Trinity, Involved in Our Lives
In the second century, a theologian by the name of Irenaeus wanted to speak about the ways in which the God we see in Jesus, the Trinity, is involved in our lives. He spoke of Jesus and the Spirit as the two hands of God. He wasn’t trying to offer an analogy to solve the mystery of the Trinity. Rather, he was trying to talk in specific ways about the God who is involved in our world. For Irenaeus, when we speak about God with us we are speaking about the Son and the Spirit. The Holy Spirit and Jesus are both fully God and the Son and the Spirit always work together with the Father to accomplish the purposes of God. This is not only meant to give us confidence that God is involved in our world, but to help us know where to look or how to see God at work.
Irenaeus’ affirmation leads, in turn, to many practical implications. The first and perhaps most important is to know that God does not remain at a distance from us, but has come into our world and made himself known to us precisely so that we might come to know him. God is always the initiator and he never stops in seeking to engage with us. God, in reconciling us to himself, gives us the confidence that no barrier can separate us from him; and in Jesus, we are able to enter into the very presence of the Holy One. Second, when we want to know who God is and how God acts in the world, the place we always begin is with Jesus Christ, particularly as the Bible bears witness to him. We do not need to look for a secret or hidden God that remains at a distance from us or is only visible to the select few. Rather, we (that is, the Church) look directly to the witness of Scripture and what it tells us about Jesus. Third, it confirms that the work of the Spirit is always in line with the work of Christ. There are many spirits in this world, making many different and at times contradictory claims about truth and goodness and beauty. The way we discern which spirit is truly of God is whether or not it is resonant with Christ, for the Spirit is the one who helps us to know and enter into what has already been shown to us of Christ.
So, what does this all mean for the mission of the Church? The first thing we might note is that it is better to say that the Church doesn’t have a mission—God has a mission, and his mission is to bring the world into a reconciled relationship with himself, in spite of the world’s rebellion against him. God does not ask us to do his work for him; he invites us into the work he is already doing. So, our involvement in his mission always begins with prayer—prayer that we will see God and what God is doing in the world more clearly. Theologian Jim Houston often said that he prayed every day that God would help him to see others in the same way that God sees them. That is, perhaps, at the very heart of mission—to begin to know God’s heart, for the world will compel us into the world. One thing that we can be sure of is that there is nothing passive in the way God looks at the world he has created. Rather, he looks at our lost, rebellious, and confused world with compassion, and in his compassion, he continues to work tirelessly to draw all people to himself.
In turbulent times like these, it is easy to lose hope for this world. The doctrine of the Trinity, that God is this Father, Son, and Spirit, sustains our hope, because it not only reminds us where to fix our gaze, it helps us to know that God continues to actively reconcile the whole world to himself in Jesus Christ.