Yesterday we had Bob Letham address our Minister's Fraternal on The Trinity and the Work of the Ministry. Bob now teaches systematic theology at WEST. He has many years of experience in the Ministry and has written an excellent book on the Trinity (see my review here). He was able to bring a healthy combination of theological acumen and practical insight to his subject. Here's an outline of what he had to say:
1. What is the doctrine of the Trinity?
The doctrine of the Trinity is latent in the Old Testament, implicit in the New Testament (attention was drawn to triadic patterns in Romans 8 and Ephesians) and was formulated by the early church. In response to questions raised by Arius, the early church set forth its understanding of the Trinity and Nicaea (325 AD) and Constantinople (381 AD).
God is one indivisible being with three eternal, distinct persons. Both the one and the three are equally ultimate. Each person occupies the same infinite divine space. The Son is begotten of the Father, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son. The external acts of the Trinity are undivided, but in any divine act one person may be the primary actor. For example the Father sent the Son into the world, who became incarnate by the Holy Spirit. Only the Son is incarnate, but the Father and Spirit were active in his enfleshment. In the Son, God now has a body. The Son's humanity is forever united to his divine person.
2. How significant is the doctrine of the Trinity?
The doctrine Trinity is essential to the identity of the Christian God. Our God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Trinity therefore is a central doctrine, although its importance has not always been recognised in Western Christianity.
We considered the impact of Trinity upon three crucial areas of the church's life and mission:
The Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world. We are brought into saving union with Christ by the Spirit.
We join the church on being baptised into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19).
3) The Christian life
The Trinity is the circumambient atmosphere of the Christian life. We have access to the Father by the Son through the Spirit, (Eph 2:18). We are called to worship God in Spirit and in Truth (John 4:24). The church worships the trinitarian God and no other. God's new covenant name is Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19)
3. How can we make the Trinity a meaningful reality in our congregations?
Gregory of Nazianzen spoke of "my Trinity", the Trinity was an experiential reality to him. Is this the case in most evangelical churches?
We can help promote trinitarian awareness among our people in several ways:
1) The Ministry of the Word
We must teach the Trinity by calling attention to the doctrine as it arises in biblical texts like Rom 8:10 & 11 and Eph 2:18-22. We do not need to mention the word "Trinity" in every sermon. But the doctrine should inform and enrich our preaching.
We baptise into the triune name. In baptismal services, we can explain what this means.
b. The Lord's Supper
This is not a "trip down memory lane". As we eat the bread and drink the wine, we "spiritually" feed upon Christ. By "spiritually" we mean that we feed on Christ by the Holy Spirit. The Lord's Supper is an enactment of our union with Christ. United to him we are brought into communion with the Father.
Special attention was drawn to the Minister leading in public prayer. By our prayers in worship services, we can give our people an example of trinitarian praying. Letham suggested using some written prayers alongside extemporary praying and argued that we should think about and plan our expemporary public prayers.
We should choose at least some hymns that are explicitly trinitarian. We must be careful to ensure that hymns express the doctrine accurately.
5) The Structure of Worship
Reformed worship is dialogical or conversational - a living interaction between God and his people. The God who is already present in the congregation calls us to worship him. He speaks to us by the reading and preaching of the Word. We respond with prayer, praise and the singing of hymns. The benediction at the conclusion of the service is not a "pious wish", but an announcement that "the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit" will be with the people of God as they depart.
Letham suggested that much of our worship is "Pelagian" - too focused upon the human side of worship. He expressed reservations about praying for God to be present in a meeting. God is always present with his people.
The address was followed by times of discussion before, during and after lunch. We pressed Letham on praying for a felt sense of the presence of God. While he is always present in the congregation, he communicates himself to us more fully at some times than at others. We agreed that we should not let our feelings alone be the guide on this matter. Sometimes we may feel that we have preached poorly with little of God's "felt" presence on our ministries. But the people of God are helped. We discussed the eternal generation of the Son. Letham defended the translation "only begotten" over "one and only". Calvin's teaching in the autotheos of the Son was considered. He distanced himself from a speculative, scholastic account of the Son's eternal generation. We cannot fully understand what the Son's begotenness means, apart from the fact that concerning his person he is of the Father and is to be distinguished from the Spirit who proceeds from the Father through the Son. Letham commented on Robert Reymond's construal of Calvin's teaching in the first edition of his New Systematic Theology. In Letham's view, Reymond overemphasised the extent to which Calvin's revised the Nicene formula.
In all this was a very helpful Fraternal meeting. At their best, Fraternals stimulate theological reflection in relation to the work of the Ministry. They should include times of discussion and give an opportunity for pastors to meet, eat and chat in a friendly context. A Fraternal should be just that, a band of brothers, a gathering of men who are passionate about the triune God of the Gospel and who want to serve him yet more faithfully and effectively. Yeterday's meeting amply fulfilled those criteria.