Thursday, September 27, 2007

Bob Letham on The Trinity & Ministry

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:
1) Evangelism
The Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world. We are brought into saving union with Christ by the Spirit.
2) Initiation
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.
2) Sacraments
a. Baptism
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.
3) Prayer
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.
4) Hymnody
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.


Anonymous said...

Another good post. I have recommended others to come see this blog because of its interesting posts. I have not seen a blog with this many interesting posts all together.

Okay enough brown nosing.

I liked your outline of the meeting with Letham. I think he had some very good thoughts and I wish I could have been there. He is obviously very Western in his approach to the Trinity. No mention of the Monarchy of the Father although some other topics discussed make me think he is not too keen on that idea. Maybe I am wrong.

I am definitely more Eastern in my thoughts on the Trinity because they come from the Eastern Fathers mostly but I really like his focus on the Trinity in the real life of the church.

One other thing did you notice

"The Ministry of the WordWe 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."

I am really interested in Patristic hermeneutics and I thought this quote was very evangelical and modern. The Patrisitcs show patterns of the Trinity everywhere in scripture.

Guy Davies said...

Thanks for your comments & for recommending the blog.

Actually Letham has a lot of respect for the Eastern tradition. He's just about to publish a book on the subject. My post did highlight his approval of Gregory of Nazianzen's trinitarian piety. He quoted this Eastern theologian several times & commended his Orations on the Trinity. Letham also expressed his dissatisfaction with Western neglect of the Trinity in comparison with the East. He also criticised Augustine's trinitarian construction of the Trinity as Lover (Father), Loved (Son) and Love ( Holy Spirit. The post was but a brief summary of an approximately one hour presentation!

I think that you would enjoy Letham's book The Holy Trinity, 2004, P&R. See the post for a link to my review. He touches on the Monarchy of the Father in the book. According to Letham, Nazianzen taught the Monarchy of the whole Trinity.

Anonymous said...

Cool. I did read the part on GofN and the Trinity. I will have to pick up his text on the Trinity sometime. I was just mainly going by what I saw in the post.I am glad he likes the Eastern Tradition. It makes me like him more.


Anonymous said...

One of my favorite quotes about the trinity was made by John Wesley. "Bring me a worm that can comprehend a man, and then I will show you a man that can comprehend the triune God."

I also love a response I read about the quote one time. I have posted that on my blog.

Martin Downes said...


On this bit:

"He expressed reservations about praying for God to be present in a meeting. God is always present with his people."

Someone else made this observation to me after two years of being in Welsh conservative evangelical churches. They thought that this was a defect.

Guy Davies said...

I agree with RL that God is already present in the congregation when we are called to worship him. He takes in initiative in gathering the church and summonsing us into his presence. The church by definition is "a dwelling place of God in the Spirit." Maybe we don't emphasise enough the objective reality of God's presence among his people. RL's strictures are a welcome corrective in that respect.

But I think that we should be careful to recognise that the God who is always with us communicates himself to us more fully at some times than at others. Isn't it right to pray for a fuller manifestation of God's presence? The Spirit was present in the church from Pentecost, but the people were filled afresh with the Spirit in Acts 4. The church at Ephesus was indwelt by the Spirit. But Paul prayed that they might be filled with all the fullness of God.

Wiltshire Grace Baptist piety is really quite similar to our Welsh experimental Calvinism. We did press RL with regard to the propriety of praying for a felt sense of God's presence.

Reformed Apologist said...

I was blessed to have sat in the pews for ten years under Dr. Letham's preaching. I can't imagine a finer preacher, and therefore, a finer pastor, because every Sunday he led the sheep in Trinitarian worship. What more could one want from one of Christ's under-shepherds?

I could write volumes on what he taught us just in worship-form and hymn selection alone, aside from brilliant exegesis and a steady diet of the Lord's Supper.