Be Missional, Be Trinitarian - Laurie Rowston
Have you heard people say that we Baptist Christians are characterised by our desire to be members of "missional churches"? What are we trying to communicate? Has it got something to do with the words of Jesus in John 20:21? "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." If so, perhaps we need to go behind our desire to be missional to something more important. Have we grasped the truly Christian understanding of God? We may put it in simple terms. God is for us, he is our creator and sustainer. God is with us, he is embodied in Jesus. God is in us, he empowers us by his Spirit. God is trinitarian. Therefore, God is missional. He loves, gives, sends. He is the source, guide and goal of all that is. As Paul wrote in Romans 11:36, "For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen." Christians of all persuasions have found that their experience of God has led them to express their doctrine of God in a trinitarian format. Having done so, they have gone to the ends of the earth as witnesses and servants of the loving, giving and sending God. The following piece is my attempt to spell out the nature and purpose of God who is understood by Christians as One in Three and Three in One.
It is difficult to express the central Christian symbol of the doctrine of the Trinity and attempting to do so is a turnoff for many a preacher. Pity the poor preacher who confesses its difficulty to his congregation. Yet, we can appreciate the preacher's plight for, "A God understood, a God comprehended, is no God."
The concept is a mystery and people ask how 1 + 1 + 1 = 1 when they should be accepting that 1 x 1 x 1 = 1. Analogies are sometimes given to explain the mystery such as water since water exists as a gas, as a liquid and as a solid, three forms yet one substance. John Wesley expressed it by lighting three candles and saying there is only one light. "Explain this, and I will explain the Three-One God," he said.
The concept of the Trinity arose directly out of Christian reflection on the significance of Jesus.
In Jesus they had one who spoke in the name of God, who called God "Father", who forgave sins and who had stilled a storm. Further, the early Christians asked difficult questions such as "How did this faith in Jesus continue Judaism, what was the role of Jesus in our salvation, was Jesus was on par with God or less than God, is the Holy Spirit distinct from Jesus, is the Spirit divine?"
As Baptist preacher, Harry E Fosdick, wrote, "They began by believing that God had sent Jesus, felt increasingly that God was with him, and ended up convinced that God was in him." To them Jesus of Nazareth brought a unique experience of God, so the early Christians said that Jesus was from above, not from below.
Faith in the Trinity went right back to the early days of Jesus' public ministry, starting at His baptism by John where he had been designated by the Father as His unique and only Son. In their encounter with Jesus of Nazareth, they met the divine.
Early Christians, living in a hostile world, needed to put some definite language to what they believed Jesus had revealed to them. To be one people, they needed a common language and a common confession. The doctrine developed as the early Church answered questions and objections to the Christian faith yet never doubted the age long certainty that "The Lord is ONE".
Further, on the Day of Pentecost Jesus ceased being someone remembered and became their present Lord. The power they had seen at work in Jesus became their experience too. This experience further gave rise to the doctrine of the Trinity.
They had experienced God in a three-fold way: as beyond them, with them, and within them.
Without the Trinity we would worship a one-dimensional deity. Without the Trinity the Muslim can fall into worship of a warlike God who smashes his enemies to bits as seen in the hostile behaviour of ISIS in the Middle East where the Islamic civil war is being seen by all. In fact some who would give assent to the Trinity outwardly worship a one-dimensional deity in their emphasis of God as Creator. Well-meaning Christians often seem to have little to say on the life of Jesus and the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is the Trinity lifts up a God who is more than the Creator God who made the world out of nothing. He is more than the God of the big-bang theory who began the universe and then left it to run its course.
He is not a God who hovers in the background as a lone and isolated ruler of the universe, a God, "beyond the Universe" as one of our choruses mistakenly proclaims. Transcendence can stress virtual exclusion of immanence or indwelling. He is not a dominating power, but a power of love.
The Trinity tells us that our God is not just a God of past history, performing mighty acts in Biblical times. He is the on-the-move God of the present and of the future.
Then there are those who, although they hold to the Trinity, so emphasise Jesus that they ignore the Fatherhood of God and the gift of the Spirit, and thus fall into that early heresy of saying that Jesus walked the earth as God, Jesus multiplied five loaves to feed five thousand as God, was able to turn water into wine as God, walked on water and died on the Cross as God when correctly speaking it was the Son of God who died in that place of shame. Such people need to ask, "If God died on the Cross, who gave him life again?" When calling Jesus God, care is needed as it can be seen as just another name for the Father, but since Jesus prays to the Father, the Father must be distinct from God the Son. Then there are those mysterious events of the Resurrection and the Ascension.
We also have a faith that worships a God who is Spirit, but singular emphasis on God the Spirit is a false Pentecostalism which can inspire irrational behavior such as we saw in some of the Toronto Blessing phenomenon of some years ago and can be seen today as folk seek new proofs of the presence of the Spirit within, such as the desiring the gift of tongues.
When Christian faith is all about the Spirit, forgotten is the journey made from "when we first believed" for what is sought is first emotional Christian experience. The Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus and we know from Jesus its nature and character.
God acted in history, in the redemptive history in Israel and reached decisive expression in Jesus Christ and Christ's works are ongoing in the Spirit. Our salvation comes from God through Jesus in the Spirit.
The doctrine of the Trinity is a specifically Christian way of speaking about God. It is an attempt to express in few words the Christian experience of God. The doctrine is a signpost that points to the shared life of God in providence, call and consummation.
While the doctrine of the Trinity is not a complete explanation of God, it is a description. Although there is no doctrine of the Trinity in technical terms in the New Testament, there's the material for one, material that cries out for one. As Dr. J.N.D. Kelly (1909-1997) of Oxford University put it, "The New Testament has a Trinitarian pattern."
The church had to discover just this, a specifically Christian doctrine of God.
The doctrine was designed to safeguard the uniqueness of Jesus, a safeguard against false conceptions of God and a corrective against limited views. Our God is not like the Greek god Jupiter, neither is He the god of Muhammad.
The Trinity is a Christian concept which speaks of the one God who is utterly for us, is the same God who comes to meet us in Jesus, and saves us, is the same God who embraces us all in one fellowship through the Spirit.
Everything we know about Jesus and everything we know about the Holy Spirit is the truth about the One God for through Christ we have access in one Spirit to the Father.
There is a shorthand way of defining the Trinity, namely, we experience the saving God in a threefold way: as beyond us (God the Father), as God with us (Jesus), and God within us (the Holy Spirit).
As Tasmanian Baptists we remain missional because we worship a Trinitarian God. When we are not missional, perhaps we have lost focus and emphasis one member of the trinity over the others. Therefore believe in and proclaim the One God who we know as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.