Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Mysterious Reality of the Trinity

Philip Ryken and Michael LeFebvre. Our Triune God: Living in the Love of the Three-in-one. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011. 121 pp., $12.99.
Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw
The doctrine of the Trinity has often been discarded in the history of the Church when it has been divested of all practical consequences. There has been a resurgence of Trinitarian theology in recent years, but much of the work that has been done is written at a level that fails to penetrate the average person in the pew. This book is an attempt to bridge this gap by demonstrating that the Triune nature of God is woven into the very fabric of biblical Christianity. It has great potential both to preserve and to enrich the Trinitarian theology of the Church by making the doctrine part and parcel of the experience of the average Christian (16). Even in its deficiencies, this work is thought provoking and instructive.

The authors begin with general observations concerning the importance of Trinitarian theology. Knowing God as Triune is the foundation of all Christian worship and service (13). The book treats private communion with the Trinity, but not communion with the Trinity in public worship (17). Resting primarily upon Ephesians 1:3-14, Chapter 1 illustrates the work of all three divine persons in our salvation. After reading this chapter, most readers will likely begin to see the doctrine of the Trinity jump off of the pages of the New Testament at every turn. This is needed greatly in order to make people think about all of their dealings with God in terms of communion with all three Persons. The book includes helpful and practical illustrations. However, these illustrations can sometimes backfire. For instance, the authors borrow an analogy from James Montgomery Boice to the effect that the Trinity in salvation is like three movements in a symphony (22). This analogy is inappropriate because it gives the impression of denying the old adage that the external works of the Trinity are undivided (opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt). The three Persons do not and cannot act in succession without denying their mutual indwelling (perichoresis). They always act simultaneously and distinctly due to the fact that they are one essence yet distinguished by their personal properties. Instead of working like three movements in a symphony, the Persons of the Godhead are active simultaneously in the same action, but in three different respects. For instance, in the incarnation, the Father sends His Son, the Son becomes incarnate, and the Spirit unites the divine and human natures together. This deficiency highlights (as the authors themselves point out in the next chapter) the general problem that arises when we use analogies for the works of the Godhead. This observation should not detract from the general usefulness of this chapter or of this book.
Chapter 2 addresses two fundamental objections against the doctrine of the Trinity: that it is illogical and that it is inconsistent with Old Testament monotheism. The authors answer the first question briefly by stating that the doctrine of the Trinity does not teach that God is one God and three Gods, but rather that God is one God in three Persons. They correctly maintain that there are no analogies for the Trinity in nature (41-43) and that all attempts at analogies for the Trinity have resulted implicitly in heresy (67). As with aspects of the relationship between speed and time as well as quantum mechanics, it is natural that something is mysterious when we cannot find any analogy for it in our experience (44-47). As for the second question, the Trinity is hinted at in the Old Testament, but not with the same clarity with which it is taught in the New. The figure of the Angel of the Lord repeatedly emphasizes that the Old Testament recognized a “differentiated oneness” without a full blown revelation of the Trinity (56). As with the plan of salvation, the being of God is revealed gradually and progressively through the course of redemptive history (67). Jews and Muslims make the mistake of reading “psychoanalysis” of God’s being back into statements that attest that He is the one true God (64). The authors close the chapter by helpfully reminding the reader that ultimately all of God’s attributes and works are incomprehensible, therefore, we should not be surprised if His being is incomprehensible. The Triune nature of God should provoke doxology (68).
As helpful as this chapter is, there is a major flaw in their treatment of the “logical” problem. The authors argue that the doctrine is not illogical because the Church does not say that three Gods equal one God, but that three Persons equal one God (40-41). They note correctly that the primary problem is not logical, but analogical, since there is no analogy for this doctrine in our experience. However, there is a significant problem in their formulation in that it gives the impression that God is a composite sum of three Persons, rather than that God exists in three persons (P+P+P=G is their formula, pg. 41). In addition, they speak of God as “comprised of three persons.” This gives the impression that the one God is composed of one-third Father, one-third Son, and one-third Spirit. While their answer is on the right track, it unintentionally replaces a logical difficulty a significant theological falsehood. Interestingly, this composite view of the doctrine of the Trinity is what they later quote the Jewish scholar Maimonides as rejecting in his interpretation of the Shema (65-66). Yet Maimonides’ conception of a Trinity composed of three parts is not the historic Christian view of God.
In Chapter 3, the authors treat Jesus’s teaching on communion with all three Persons of the Godhead from John 13-17. They deal with each person distinctly, addressing the work of each divine Person towards us, followed by the responses that they demand from us. This helpful set of observations directs readers to think about their relationship with God as a distinctly Trinitarian Christian experience. However, the omission of certain historical concepts, such as the fact that the three Persons indwell or interpenetrate one another, and that the external works of the Godhead are undivided, weakens their treatment of practical Trinitarianism. For instance, should readers think of the Father as the source of divine love independently from the Son and the Spirit? If not, then in what sense can all three Persons share in the purposes of the Godhead, act in unison, and yet be distinguished personally in every divine act? The only way to prevent such questions from ending in confusion is by answering them in terms of the mutual indwelling of the Persons, their unified work, and the manner in which they are distinguished by their personal properties, both in time and in eternity. Some may object that this book is a popular work aimed at laypeople and that such concepts are beyond its scope and purpose. This highlights the challenge of retaining an orthodox, biblical Trinitarianism while seeking to drive it into the hearts of those in the pew. No one ever said that this task is easy, but there is a reason why John Owen began his practical work on the Trinity with the concepts listed here.
The last chapter sets forth the joyful fellowship within the Godhead as well as the grateful joy that believers must have in the Triune God. Most of the material comes from the Gospel of Luke, and the authors end with Luke’s version of the Great Commission (Lk. 24:44-49). In the last verse listed in this text, Jesus promises to send the Spirit, who is the promise of the Father, and who will give the Church power from on high to fulfill her commission (110-114).
This small book is well worth reading, and it has potential to reach a wider audience than most modern works on the Trinity. The reason that this reviewer has given so much attention to the few areas in which the book falls short is to illustrate that greater precision is required when treating the Triune nature of God than with respect to most other doctrines. Yet if this book highlights anything, it is the fact that even the most complex doctrines, if they are biblical, hold the utmost importance to the life of the ordinary Christian. The Trinity is arguably the most important, complex, and practical doctrine of all. Ryken and LeFebvre have gone a long way towards demonstrating this.

This review first appeared in the Westminster Theological Journal, vol. 74, no. 2, Fall 2012.