Thursday, March 12, 2009

Donald Macleod on practical trinitarianism

I returned to the Land of my Fathers yesterday for the inaugural meeting of the Pastors' Forum. Our speaker was Professor Donald Macleod of the Free Church College Edinburgh. It was interesting that in his opening remarks Macleod felt the need to doff his cap to "the Doctor". As a younger man he had been quite critical of Lloyd-Jones' teaching on the baptism with the Holy Spirit in his book, The Spirit of Promise. The theologian assured us of his respect and admiration for Lloyd-Jones. He still disagreed with him on the work of the Spirit, but Macleod seemed to admit to a certain youthful impertinence in his earlier critique of the preacher's doctrine. Having got that out of the way, we were off.
Macleod gave an introductory address on the purpose of theology and then gave two lectures on the doctrine of the Trinity. In the first he set forth the doctrine on the basis of Scripture, taking into account the historic creeds and confessions of the church. Interestingly he disagreed with Luther's famous statement that justification by faith alone is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls. Macleod insisted that the deity of Christ, as defined by the Nicene formula that the Son is homoousios with the Father is more fundamental. Unless the Son is of the same substance as the Father, the incarnation is not a true revelation of God. The atoning work of Christ is sufficient to save sinners only because he who died was both fully God and fully man. Justification, indeed the whole of the Christian faith rests on homoousion.

Macleod warned of the danger of adopting a solo scriptura approach to doctrine that dismissed the value of confessions of faith. While the full deity of Christ is clearly taught in Scripture, the Nicene Creed, accepted by the whole church, helps to safeguard the confession that Jesus Christ is God the Son. When Dissenters like Philip Doddridge began to sideline confessions of faith, Arianism soon followed.

In his second address on the Trinity, the Professor set out some of the Practical Implications of the doctrine. Here are some notes of what he had to say together with one or two critical reflections,

1. The Trinity and our understanding of God

The Trinity reminds us of the mysteriousness of God. How he can be three and one is beyond our human experience and understanding. God can only be known because he has chosen to reveal himself to us. Our knowledge of him is a partial, ectypal knowledge of his archetypal knowledge of himself. Theological reflection brings us face to face with the mystery of God, whose ways are past finding out, Romans 11:33-36.

2. How God is love

God is love not first and foremost because he loves human beings. If that were the case, then he did not love before we were made. The Unitarian conception of God makes his existence loveless before he brought us into being. His love is the divine response to creaturely existence. But it is not something that is intrinsic to his own inner life. It cannot therefore be properly said of a solitary monad that "God is love", 1 John 4:8. However, the doctrine of the Trinity explicates how God is love. God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have eternally existed in a relationship of love, with each person loving the other and being loved by the other. On that basis alone we can say that God is love. Love is intrinsic to his very existence and divine identity. Yes, the intertrinirarian love flows out to the creature (John 17:26). But God's love did not find its origin in his relationship to human beings made in his image. He is love first and foremost within the relationship between the co-equal and co-eternal Persons of the godhead, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The depth of God's love for us is seen in that he gave his one and only Son, whom he had loved from eternity, to the suffering of the cross for our salvation, Romans 8:32. John 3:16 only makes sense in the context of trinitarian theology. God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son... The glory of penal substitutionary atonement is that it was none other than the Son of God who paid the price of sin for us.
3. The Trinity and our understanding of human beings
It is significant that God said "Let us make man in our image", Genesis 1:26. According to Macleod this means that were made in the image of the Triune God. Maybe it would be better to say that we were made in the image of God, the image of God being his Son (Hebrews 1:3). Certainly, the goal of redemption is that sin is removed so that we are conformed to the image of God's Son (Colossians 1:15, 3:9 & 10, Romans 8:29). But if we were made in the image of God in this second sense, then we still have to say that the Son as the image of God has always existed in union with the Father and the Spirit. A solitary existence is not a option for God's image-bearers. Being in an I-Thou relationship with others is part and parcel of what it means to be human. That is why it was not good for Adam to be alone. He needed Eve, his equal in bearing God's image, yet his other as woman to complete him. This does not mean that getting married and having children are essential to a full human life. But a reclusiveness that avoids human relationships is not an option. The Word was "with God" (John 1:1). We need to be with others. Jesus was single, yet he chose the twelve to be with him and was surrounded by a circle of friends. A similar point could be made regarding Paul, who was single, but rarely without human fellowship and company.
Mrs. Thatcher was so wrong in saying that "there is no such thing as society". Human society is vastly important. Drawing on the doctrine of the Trinity we can say that in society all human beings are equal. Each is worthy of our love and respect. Yet we are all different. A good society will recognise the true dignity and value of each human life and give space for people to be themselves. We have to beware of social trinitarianism which collapses God's unique triune life into human society. And we have to stress that it is the church as God's chosen people that gives the fullest expression of human life modelled on the unity and diversity of the Trinity. But Macleod makes some good points here. In our increasingly impersonal, fragmented and lonely world we need to be reminded that human beings were made for society and community. It is not good for man to be alone.
4. The Trinity and soteriology
In traditional systematics, distinct aspects of the work of salvation are often attributed to each person of the Trinity. The Father chooses, the Son redeems by his blood and the Spirit applies the work of salvation. But this neat pattern does not reflect the witness of Scripture. Each aspect of salvation is thoroughly trinitarian. The Father chose us in Christ through sanctification of the Spirit. In the incarnation the Father sent the Son into the world as man by the power of the Holy Spirit. At the cross, the Son offered himself to God through the eternal Spirit. In terms of the application of redemption, God made us alive together with Christ when we were born again by the Holy Spirit. Eschatologically, we shall be raised to life and glory by the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead. Systematics should reflect the trinitarian concerns of Scripture when seeking to construct a truly biblical account of soteriology.
5. The Trinity and the church
Church life is modelled on the unity and diversity of the Trinity (John 17, Ephesians 4, 1 Corinthians 12). The sharing and co-operation of God's trinitarian life and acts should be exemplified in the church. Jesus makes the perichoretic relations of the Trinity the pattern and dynamic for Christian unity in John 17:20, 21, 26. Are believers lovingly involved in one anothers' lives, without that concern becoming meddlesome and intrusive?
Under this heading. Macleod suggested that being born again is the basis of church unity. I suppose that is right in one very important respect. All truly born again people have certainly been united to the body of Christ by the Spirit of God. But Macleod's proposal calls for careful qualification. All the major Christian traditions claim that the visible church is composed of born again people, at least ideally. However, understanding of what is entailed by the new birth differs widely. The Roman Catholic conception of baptismal regeneration is quite different from the Evangelical Protestant (and I would argue biblical) position. An untested claim that a Church is comprised of "born again" believers is not a sufficient ground for ecumenical unity. How this can be squared with the theologian's earlier insistence on the importance of creeds and confessions, I'm not exactly sure. Besides, Scripture insists that other important truths like justification by faith alone cannot be sidelined for the sake of visible unity - Galatians 1.
Macleod wrapped things up with some helpful reflections on how we may ensure that the prayers, singing and teaching of the church are thoroughly Trinitarian.
In all this was an auspicious start to the Pastors' Forum. It also was good meet up with some old friends and nice to bump into fellow blogger Stephen Dancer, whom I had interviewed, but never met outside the confines of cyberspace.


Jonathan Hunt said...

I might make it along some time. Honest to goodness, look you, etc. DG is a good man and has been an encouragement to me. I love the chapel on the side of the hill. I love Wales actually but don't tell anyone. Sadly there is not a welsh bone in my body - the ancestry is, if anything, Scottish.

Anonymous said...

Can't all be perfect

Ben Stevenson said...

I am not sure that Margaret Thatcher was wrong in saying what she said - a different thing to what it sounds like she might have meant. The very next sentence after saying "there's no such thing as society" she talks about the importance of helping other people.

Guy Davies said...

No pro-Thatcher comments here please Ben.

Anonymous said...

Does God reveal His nature in creation? For a novel (I think) approach to the Trinity and a way in which God may have placed an image of it in creation I invite you to take a look at my Dante’s Heavenly Vision and the Physics of the Proton.