Book Review – Delighting in the Trinity

Author Michael Reeves tackles what is perhaps at once the most familiar, most complex, and even the most puzzling Christian doctrine: the Trinity.

He begins by acknowledging that even the words “God is a Trinity” evoke stiffness, a dogma that seems irrelevant. In contrast, he points out, “God is love” brings out warm feelings, something most can relate to, and want to.

And then he says it: “God is love because God is a Trinity.”

Reeves states his overall theme early: “Christianity is not primarily about lifestyle change; it is about knowing God.” And this current flows through the book. What is this God like who invites us to know Him? And what difference does it make that He is a triune God rather than a single-person god?

Comparing the Lord God of Israel to single-person deities is one of the most interesting aspects of Reeves’s work. It is true that because we are used to fitting “God” into our own expectations, the idea of “Trinity” or a “triune” being is awkward at best. We prefer the single-person deity as an entity much easier to understand. Yet a comparison of other gods and the Lord God of Israel reveals some widely differing beings.

For example, according to the Qur’an, Allah “begets not, nor is he begotten”—a strikingly different being than one we know as Father. And God couldn’t be a Father without having offspring.

Marduk, in Babylon’s creation story, creates human beings so he and the other gods can have servants to rule over. Reeves invites readers to take this further. If a god is a solitary being, he has no one to love (in contrast to God the Father, who was loving the Son before creation); he can love himself, but that’s a selfish love. A single-person god must, by his essence, be all about self-gratification. How could a solitary deity be loving when love involves another? Remember that the Son in the Trinity came to serve others, to give up His live for many.

Reeves turns to Aristotle’s god. If being good involves being good to another, how can a solitary god be good when there is no one to show goodness to? Aristotle determines that the universe exists right alongside God, so he gives his goodness to it. But Reeves concludes that this reasoning means that for God to be himself, he needs the world. He’s dependent on it to be who he is; this god of Aristotle’s is good, but not necessarily loving.

If at this point you’re reminded of your freshman introduction to philosophy class, I encourage you to stay with it. Reeves is making the point that before creation, our triune God was neither lonely nor in need of gratification, for He was eternally loving His Son in the Spirit.

Since in a single-person god system, the god would have created beings in order to rule over and be served by them, sin would thus be about behaving and acting wrong. A single-person god might offer forgiveness, but not make us his children (because he wouldn’t be a father). This god’s beings might live under his protection, but he wouldn’t offer closeness.

The author returns to Allah, a single-person god. His only “companion” in heaven is a book, the Qur’an. This is a book, a word that is about him, just a thing. In contrast is our triune God—and this is a lovely truth beautifully expressed by Reeves—who gave us His Word, which is His very self: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He didn’t just drop a book from heaven, He came Himself. So the Father sends the Son, the Son makes the Father known, and the Spirit makes the Son known through Spirit-breathed Scriptures.

God invites us to know and love Him, not just live under His rule; if He did, then only outward behavior would matter. And because it is not outward behavior that is the problem, but what we desire—usually ourselves—the Spirit gives us new hearts.

Reeves continues on the theme of knowing this God who is bursting with fullness and sharing and fellowship, and asks who could prefer a leaner, stripped-down version, i.e., the single-person variety who offers a dull version of religion. And later in the book he reflects on the type of God he’d want to emulate. Would it be a self-contemplative one like Aristotle’s? a cruel deity? Or a triune God to whom love and relationship are central to His being?

The author comments on Jesus’ prayer in John 17 in which He requests that His followers “may be one as we are one.” What is oneness? To a single-person god such as Allah, oneness means sameness. He says, “the once diverse cultures of Nigeria, Persia, and Indonesia are made, deliberately and increasingly, the same.” But oneness for the triune God means unity. Jesus is praying that His followers be united, but not all the same.

I’m not sure I agree with this contention, but it’s an interesting point.

Reeves’s explanation of God’s wrath is one of the best I’ve read. He says that prior to creation, when the Father was loving the Son, He was never angry—there was nothing to be angry about until Adam and Eve sinned. Anger toward evil is how a God who is love responds to evil: because evil harms us, the created beings He loves, responding with anger is the only possible way He can respond. Most explanations of the wrath of God start and end with His holiness (which isn’t wrong), but this one looks at it from the aspect of God’s love.

The author touches upon the evergreen topic of those who just don’t believe in any god, but believes that the antitheists’ problem is not with the existence of a god, but with the character of the god they presume. He said that those who don’t believe often describe the deity they don’t believe in as cold, selfish, greedy. And, Reeves allows, “if God is not a Father, if he has no Son and will have no children, then he must be lonely, distant, and unapproachable; if he is not triune and so essentially unloving, then no God at all just looks better.”

A book titled Delighting in the Trinity must by its essence be a little ethereal; after all, no one can physically see these beings. And is such a discussion useful, or is it just something Christians talk about over coffee or in conjunction with that intro to philosophy class? Does it matter? Let’s consider the book’s subtitle: An Introduction to the Christian Faith. Interesting. Different. Intriguing. Not a book about doctrine per se, but a true introduction to what makes Christianity different from any other belief system: its triune God.

For the very bones of the Christian faith are the greatest commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. These suit a triune God and His outreach to us, His sharing of Himself. It makes becoming like such a God a “warm, attractive, delightful thing.”

I recommend this book without qualification. I didn’t agree with all of the author’s conclusions, nor was I easily able to follow everything he wrote, but his contentions are well expressed, and his treatment fresh.

Reviewed by Pam Pugh, General Project Editor, Moody Publishers

* Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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Science and the Early Church

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“In Augustine’s influential view, then, knowledge of the things of this world is not a legitimate end in itself, but as a means to other ends it is indispensable.  The classical sciences must accept a subordinate position as the handmaiden of theology and religion—the temporal serving the eternal.  The knowledge contained in classical sciences is not to be loved, but it may legitimately be used.  . . .

“Does endowing scientific knowledge with handmaiden status constitute a serious blow against scientific progress?  Are the critics of the early church right in viewing it as the opponent of genuine science?  I would like to make three points in reply.

(1) It is certainly true that the fathers of the early Christian church did not view support of the classical sciences as a major obligation.  These sciences had low priority for the church fathers, for whom the major concerns were (quite properly) the establishment of Christian doctrine, defense of the faith, and the edification of believers.

But (2), low or medium priority was far from zero priority.  Throughout the Middle Ages and well into the modern period the handmaiden formula was employed countless times to justify the investigation of nature.  Indeed, some of the most celebrated achievements of the Western scientific tradition were made by religious scholars who justified their labors (at least in part) by appeal to the handmaiden formula.

(3) No institution or cultural force of the patristic period offered more encouragement for the investigation of nature than did the Christian church.  Contemporary pagan culture was no more favorable to disinterested speculation about the cosmos than was Christian culture.  It follows that the presence of the Christian church enhanced, rather than damaged, the development of the natural sciences.”

— David C. Lindberg in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, ed. Ronald L. Numbers, 16, 17.

Book Review — Christ Among the Dragons

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  • Hardcover: 160 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Books (June 4, 2010)
  • Amazon
  • Christianbook.com
  • InterVarsity Press
  • Q and A with the Author
  • Orthodoxy. Dogma. Creed. Church. Religion. These words can evoke mixed feelings from those whose eyes wander across them. Even Christians, whose religion is shared, may react differently to a word like “Dogma” or “Orthodoxy.” One of the great questions of our Christian Age (and of any Christian Age) is this: “How are we to live?”

    James Emery White addresses this very topic in Christ Among the Dragons. White properly distinguishes two approaches to this question that have caused great turbulence in our Church:

    1) A lack of concern for truth and an abandonment of the central doctrines of Christianity

    and the very opposite problem of:

    2) An overly zealous tendency to focus too much on issues of little importance and to alienate those with which one disagrees on the details of Christian faith.

    Christ Among the Dragons is a book that on some pages convicted me—for I had, myself, sinned against my Christian brothers and sisters in my denouncing them over certain details of our Faith. On other pages it caused me to nod my head with sadness—for I have been attacked for different opinions on non-central doctrines of Christianity. The book, in all honesty, led me to tears on both accounts, and led me to repentance and to forgiveness.

    White begins with a chapter discussing the concept of “truthiness”—a divergence from absolute truth that has permeated our era. He then explores the concept of and need for orthodoxy. Orthodoxy, on White’s account, should be confined largely to “Mere Christianity.” White gives the illustration of Richard Baxter, who coined the term. Baxter was called upon to write about the “fundamentals of religion” for the government by Cromwell, and came up with a summary that “could be affirmed by a Papist,” as the complaint from Cromwell went. To this, Baxter replied, “So much the better” (p. 58). Baxter wrote, “Must you know what Sect or Party I am of? I am against all Sects and dividing Parties: but if any will call Mere Christian by the name of a Party . . . I am of that Party which is so against Parties . . . I am a CHRISTIAN, a MERE CHRISTIAN, of no other religion” (58-59). It is this Mere Christianity that White stresses Christians should embrace: an acceptance of the central tenants of Christianity (namely, belief in Christ as Lord and Savior, the Trinity, and the Resurrection), but this not at the expense of jettisoning other beliefs. Instead, we should not let these other beliefs divide and separate us.

    White then goes on to describe the impact Christianity has had on the world. Then he explores the absolute necessity of Christian witness. Christians should never approach people outside the faith as needing to go to hell; instead, they are in need of witness (95). He finishes this chapter with one of my favorite quotes ever, from the atheist Penn Jillette: “If you believe that there is a heaven and hell and that people could be going to hell. . . . How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize?” (100).

    Finally, White enters the section that I find most important in his book: an exploration of Christians’ attitude toward the world and toward other Christians. We should not approach non-Christians as enemies to be attacked, but as fellow creations of God, a God who loves them and who is calling them to Him. Our fellow Christians, likewise, should not be seen as enemies. White discusses what Christians should do about disagreements on doctrines in some quotes I simply must repeat:

    “Truth be told, we should have enough theological humility to admit that we may all be wrong. The greater issue is refusing to make our theological viewpoint the test of orthodoxy, the agenda for which we exist and the basis of our community. . . . And our rhetoric isn’t helping” (126).

    White later quotes two other theologians, John Stott and the Lutheran theologian Peter Meiderlin. Stott wrote:

    “Perhaps our criterion for deciding which is which [that is, which doctrines are essential and which are matters of liberty] . . . should be as follows. Whenever equally biblical Christians, who are equally anxious to understand the teaching of Scripture and to submit to its authority, reach different conclusions, we should deduce that evidently Scripture is not crystal clear in this matter, and therefore we can afford to give one another liberty” (127-128).

    Meiderlin stated, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

    Christians of either of the two views outlined in 1) and 2) above tend to disagree with White here, but I think it is absolutely essential to take White’s words to heart:

    “When we condescendingly say that our position is simply the ‘gospel,’ as if it’s not really a debate worth having, then we are being arrogant. When we make our view the litmus test of orthodoxy, or even community, we are being neither gracious nor loving. When we say that our view alone upholds God’s sovereignty or that our perspective is the only one that cares about lost people, we are not being truthful. When we exhibit a haughty smirkiness, or we so state our position that we divide churches, student ministry groups or denominations, then we are sinning” (126-127).

    Christ Among the Dragons is one of the books I would consider essential reading for the Christian. It is a simple work that is never simplistic. White’s points are clear and relevant. Most importantly, however, I think many Christians will find, as I did, that his words will convict and comfort, his points will hit close to home, and Christ will shine through. I cannot recommend White’s work highly enough.

    — Reviewed by J. W. Wartick.  J. W. writes on philosophy and theology at Always Have a Reason.

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy of Christ Among the Dragons.

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    Philosophy Word of the Day — Aquinas’ Philosophical Theology

    The fifth of Thomas Aquinas' proofs of God's e...

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    “In addition to his moral philosophy, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is well-known for his theological writings.   He is arguably the most eminent philosophical theologian ever to have lived.  To this day, it is difficult to find someone whose work rivals Aquinas’ in breadth and influence.  Although his work is not limited to illuminating Christian doctrine, virtually all of what he wrote is shaped by his theology.  Therefore it seems appropriate to consider some of the theological themes and ideas that figure prominently in his thought.

    “The volume and depth of Aquinas’ work resists easy synopsis.  Nevertheless, an abridged description of his work may help us appreciate his  philosophical skill in exploring God’s nature and defending Christian teaching.  Although Aquinas does not think that philosophical reasoning can provide an exhaustive account of the divine nature, it is (he insists) both a source of divine truth and an aid in exonerating the intellectual credibility of those doctrines at the heart of the Christian faith.  From this perspective, philosophical reasoning can be (to use a common phrase) a tool in the service of theology.

    “An adequate understanding of Aquinas’ philosophical theology requires that we first consider the twofold manner whereby we come to know God:  reason and sacred teaching.  Our discussion of what reason reveals about God will naturally include an account of philosophy’s putative success in demonstrating both God’s existence and certain facts about God’s nature.  Yet because Aquinas also thinks that sacred teaching contains the most comprehensive account of God’s nature, we must also consider his account of faith—the virtue whereby we believe well with respect to what sacred teaching reveals about God.  Finally, we will consider how Aquinas employs philosophical reasoning when explaining and defending two central Christian doctrines:  the Incarnation and the Trinity.” (continue article)

    — Shawn Floyd at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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