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Understanding the Triune God

Although the word trinity is not found in the Bible, it expresses the portrait of God that emerges from the life and ministry of Jesus in a powerful way. As God’s only Son Jesus revealed the nature of the one he called “Father” to be that of infinite love. And the closing chapters of the Gospel of John (probably the last book in the New Testament to be written) bring the essential theme of the New Testament—that God was in Christ—to a remarkable conclusion.  During these “farewell discourses” with his disciples (John 15-17), Jesus provided an account of his own relation to the Father and the relation of Father and Son to the community of Jesus’ followers. Here we find that the goal of Jesus’ mission, and the fulfillment of the plan of salvation, is intimate fellowship with the Father and Son, and with one another, through the life-giving work of the Spirit.
 The conviction that the founding events of the church, the missions of the Son and the Spirit, are manifestations of God’s own life leads to significant insights into the nature of the church.

The various statements about love in these documents seem to follow a “fugal” pattern. They keep moving among the following themes, connecting them in more and more complex relations: the love that church members have for each other; their love for God and God’s love for them; and the love that unites God himself, namely, the love between the Father and the Son.

First of all, the distinctive quality of life within the Christian community is that of love. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jn 13:35. Love is the essential feature that sets Jesus’ followers apart from other human groups. Consequently; those who think they are part of the community and don’t love each other are deceiving themselves. “[A]ll who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.” 1Jn 3:10. On the positive side, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another.” 1 Jn  3:14.

Second, it is not love per se, or just any sort of affection that identifies Jesus’ followers. It is the specific love that Jesus has for them that sets the standard for their love to one another.“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Jn 13.34.[1] “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” 15:12-13. Jesus’ followers should be prepared to love one another to the end, just as he “loved them to the end.” Cf. Jn 13.1.

Third, Jesus’ love for the disciples expresses the Father’s own love for them. “[F]or the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.” Jn 16:27. The Father’s love flows through the Son into the Christian community. 

Indeed, Jesus’ statements about his relation to the Father and his relation to his followers indicate that Jesus wants his followers to enjoy the same relation to God that he enjoys. Just as the Father comes to the disciples in the person of Jesus, therefore, Jesus brings the disciples to the Father. “Those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” (Jn 14.21). “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (Jn 14:23).

The idea that Jesus’ followers enjoy a relation to God very similar to his own appears in a number of passages.  “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” wrote Paul, “it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” Rom 8.15-17.In the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer, “our Father,” Jesus invites his followers to adopt his own form of address to God, and Jesus instructed Mary to “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”  Jn 20:17. It is thus by virtue of their relation to Jesus that his followers enjoy a close relationship to God.

Fourth, the love that Jesus has for his followers reflects the love that he and the Father have for each other. For his followers present and future, Jesus prayed, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Jn 17.20-23. The author of 1 John brings together fellowship with one another and fellowship with God this way: “that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” 1Jn 1:3. The divine love that creates Christian community thus manifests and extends the love that constitutes God’s own life.

This line of thought leads to a dramatic conclusion. The central dynamic of the Christian community not only resembles the essential dynamic of God’s own life; its members actually share in that life. The love that flows between Father and Son flows through the church. The idea that the church participates in God’s life flows naturally from Jesus’ parting words to his disciples. In the life and ministry of Jesus, and its continuation in the community he founded, we truly encounter “God with us.”

For many who share this conviction, the essential link between Christian community and the life of God lies in the work of the Holy Spirit. For one thing, it is the Holy Spirit that makes the church a true community. As Robert Jenson says, “the church exists as a community and not as a mere collective of pious individuals,” because the Spirit unites the head with the body of Christ .[2]

Itis also the Spirit that gives the church its distinctive identity. Every community that is not just an aggregate has a “spirit”of some sort—we speak of “team spirit”and “school spirit,” for example. But in the case of the church, this corporate spirit comes, not from the people who belong to it, but from the Spirit that creates it. To quote Jenson again, it is the church’s “founding miracle”that her communal spirit is “identically the Spirit that the personal God is and has.”[3]

Finally, as many interpreters see it, the Spirit’s role in the church bears a close resemblance to the Spirit’s role within the trinity. The Spirit creates community within God’s own life. As Jungel describes it, “the Father loves the Son, the Son returns this love, and the Holy Spirit is the love itself between them. So, the Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son constitutes the unity of the divine being as that event which is love itself.”[4]

Such descriptions of the relations within God suggest ways for us to envision the church’s role in the divine life. Through the Spirit, as Stanley Grenz describes it, those who are “in Christ”come to share the eternal relationship that the Son enjoys with the Father. Because participants in this new community are co-heirs with Christ, the Father bestows on them what he eternally lavishes on the Son. And because they are “in Christ”by the Spirit, they participate in the Son’s act of eternal response to the Father.[5]

To summarize, the church owes its existence to God’s salvific activity and derives its essential character from God’s own identity. Through the sending of the Son and the Spirit God enters the world in order to create a community that reflects and extends the love that constitutes God’s own reality. The central dynamic of Christian community thus corresponds to the essential dynamic of God’s own life. And participating in the Christian community is nothing less than a participation in God’s own life. The Holy Spirit makes us one, the Holy Spirit makes God one, and the Holy Spirit makes us one with God.[6]

Practical implications of a trinitarian ecclesiology

“So what?” questions are always important for theology, and in the case of the trinity they are more important than usual. It is tempting to dismiss reflections on the trinity as speculative intrusions into the nature of God, even though the church’s earliest trinitarian thinkers anchored their understanding of God firmly in the history of salvation. What practical difference does a trinitarian ecclesiology make? Why is it so important to ground the church in God’s own life?

First, of all, it emphasizes the importance of the church to God. If God’s acts in salvation history express God’s true nature, then God has always been relational, from all eternity an everlasting community of love. It means that God creates out of love, he embraces the created world within the divine life, and from the moment of its existence, God made his relation to the world the center of his concern, not unlike the way parents place a beloved child at the center of their home. God values the world he loves so much that he even takes his identity from his relation to it. (God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.) Moreover, God’s commitment to creation is permanent. He risks his own contentment—if not his own life—for its welfare. All this means that God places immense value on the church. It is that aspect of creation that attracts his particular attention. As Ellen White says, the church is the object of God’s “supreme regard.”[7]

If this is so, then salvation involves participating in the fellowship that defines God’s own life, and one does this by participating in the community that God’s love established. The experience of salvation is therefore social as well as individual. It has a public as well as a private dimension. It changes our relations to others as well as to God. This exposes the fundamental inadequacy of all individualistic interpretations of Christian faith. Salvation is not merely, or even primarily, a matter between an individual and God. It involves relationships with other people. It seeks social, not merely personal transformation.

This also means that the purpose of the church is to reflect and project the care and concern for others that God shows, that God is. To the extent that the church, the Christian community, embodies the love that radiates within the life of God, it provides the world the clearest manifestation of God’s nature and character, and the clearest evidence of God’s reality, evidence that is stronger than philosophical arguments could ever be.

If this is true, then the cultivation of true community, the development of caring relationships among people in the church, is the most important work of the church’s ministry. Church growth is not merely, or even primarily, a matter of increasing size. It is a matter of developing among the church’s members relationships of mutual care and concern, encouraging the manifestation of qualities embodied in Jesus’ life. As the members of the church exhibit these qualities, their display of Christ’s character will naturally attract new participants.

These reflections also suggest that corporate worship is the central act of the church’s life. The gathering of the community to remember God’s acts of self-giving love, to recommit its members to embody that love in all their relationships, is emblematic of the church’s entire existence. It celebrates, crystallizes, realizes everything the church involves.

An appreciation for the trinitarian basis of Christian community thus helps us avoid inadequate and misleading concepts of the church. The church is not an organization preoccupied with expanding its membership and its budget. The church is not a collection of individuals who assent to the same set of beliefs. The church is not a group of people who gather to meet their emotional needs. The church is not a meeting of intellectuals who enjoy tossing around ideas. The church is not a multilevel marketing program, social club, recovery group, or academic seminar. The church is a fellowship created by the Holy Spirit, a community which extends the mission of Christ in this world, drawing its members into a circle of love that is both characteristic of and constitutive of God’s own life.

Richard Rice is professor of religion in the Loma Linda University School of Religion. This is an abbreviation of an article that appeared in the February 2009 issue Ministry, titled “The Trinitarian Basis of Christian Community.”

[1] Compare Paul’s exhortation: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” Eph 5.1-2

[2] Jenson, 2:182.

[3] Jenson, 2:181.

[4] Jungel, 374.

[5] Grenz, 326.

[6]Theologians sometimes debate the organization of the Apostle’s Creed. Does it comprise three articles or four? Does belief in the “holy catholic church” elaborate or add to belief in the Holy Spirit? Our reflections suggest the former. The church is the creation of the Holy Spirit, and the creation of the church is the Spirit’s most important work. To appreciate the importance of Christian community, we must recognize its basis within and its intimate connection to the dynamic reality of God’s own life.

[7] The Acts of the Apostles, 12.

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