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Archive for August, 2008

Him we proclaim

I’ve promised Missy a post on engaging with non-Christian beliefs and I’ll definitely get to that.  But Dan’s recent post made me think again of this quote from Steve Holmes:

‘Our task is not to tell people that they must believe in Jesus, but so to tell them of Jesus that they must believe in Him.’

I’ve blogged it before and I’ll blog it again.  I think those are words to live by for preachers.

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Faith

Making faith about anything other than [the Word of God] is to turn faith into a work, and making it perilous ground for Christian assurance

Really very good post by Dan.

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An interviewer once suggested to Barth that he followed a christo-centric principle in his theology.  Barth was not impressed.  He insisted that he had no interest in a christo-centric principle.  He was interested in Christ Himself. 

Whether Barth always achieved that is another matter (who does?).  But at least he identified the danger with which all theologians (i.e. all Christians) must reckon.  Is Jesus Himself our Lord, or have we tamed the Lion of Judah making Him serve our real theological agenda?

Let me play devil’s advocate and describe four popular ways you can turn Jesus into a mechanism to serve some abstract theological concern.  (Please do add others in the comments).

1) A general ethic of inclusion

2) A general doctrine of universalism

3) A general object of devotion

4) A general concept of grace

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1) A general ethic of inclusion

You know the kind of thing – “Jesus identified with the outsider, the persecuted, the marginalised.  He opposed the religious and those who would condemn or exclude.”  Take the aforementioned generality, apply it to your cause celebre and, presto, one all-purpose inclusion ethic.  NB: Best not to pry too closely into Jesus’ particular ethical pronouncements nor the Scriptures He claimed could not be broken.

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2) A general doctrine of universalism

Here, as with the other examples, it is vitally important to think of Jesus in abstraction.  Again, do not pry into the actual teaching of Christ, especially His words concerning judgement, but think only of Christ as Cosmic Reconciler.  Now that you’ve turned Him into a principle, theologize away on the inevitability of universal salvation.  After all the universal Creator has taken universal flesh and wrought a universal victory.  Keep it in universal terms, in the abstract.  Don’t get too close to the Person of Jesus – it’s the principle of reconciliation you want. 

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3) A general object of devotion

Take a prolix puritan, set them to work on some devotional writing, give them Song of Songs as their text and wait for the treacle to flow.  Delight in the mystical union.  Let the particularity of the One to Whom we are united be swallowed up in the general enjoyment of that union. 

Or take a modern worship leader strumming tenderly, synth strings in the background, congregation swaying.  Wait for the effusions of ardour – mountains climbed, oceans swum to be near to… Who?  Jesus of Nazareth?  Or some ideal Love?  Is this praise to Jesus?  Or praise to praise?  What’s missing?  Very often the actual Jesus is missing.  This is key.  Make sure that you abstract Jesus from His words and works.  Do not think in concrete terms.  In fact it’s best not to think.  Simply imagine Him as ‘The Highest Object of Our Hearts’ and just enjoy the gush. 

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4) A general concept of grace

This one’s very seductive, I’m always falling for it so I know whereof I speak.  Define yourself as ‘a believer in grace’.  Define the gospel in terms of this abstract principle – grace.  Speak of the love of God.  Even speak of the sin of man.  But only speak of the Jesus who reconciles the two as a handy instrument – an instrument of Grace.  That’s the main thing – Jesus fits into this grace paradigm.  That’s why we love Him. 

When anyone asks what Christianity is – tell them: ‘It’s not works!  People think it’s works, but it’s not!’  And when they say ‘Ok, alright, calm down.  Tell me what it is,‘ don’t tell them it’s Jesus.  And definitely don’t introduce them to the walking, talking actual Jesus.  That’ll only distract them from your excellent grace-not-works diagrams.  Major on the whole grace-not-works principle.  And if they ever want to receive this principle into their own lives (after all your diagrams make a lot of sense) tell them to accept ‘grace’ as a free gift and they’re in.  They may well struggle to understand what receiving a concept actually looks like or whether they’ve done it properly (or at all).  They may well question whether their intellectual assent to your diagram really has decisive eternal significance.  But whatever you do, don’t point them to the Person of Jesus.  Grace is the thing.   

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In all of these examples Jesus is called on to serve a pre-existing theological programme.  He may be treated with the utmost respect.  He may be considered the very chief Witness or the Exemplar par excellence.  But He is at your service, not you at His.

Beware fitting Jesus into your pet theological programme.  We do it all the time but He resists all efforts to turn Him into a principle.  The Truth is a Person and will not be abstracted.

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Allegory is Awesome

As Tim’s allegory amply (and alliteratively) affirms

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Seething civility

Back from holidays now.  While away I was very tickled by this from Saturday’s Guardian. 

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One Million Tiny Plays About Britain by Craig Taylor

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Two old women finish their tea at a cafe in Lichfield. One holds the bill…

Anna Oh, you. Now don’t be so utterly ridiculous.

Eva I insist. I insist, my dear.

Anna Absolutely not and I won’t hear another word from silly old you.

Eva Well, I won’t hand it over.

Anna You give it to me right now.

Eva I won’t. I won’t, and that’s the end of it.

Anna I can’t have you paying for this, can I?

Eva You paid for the last tea.

Anna And that was nearly a year ago, silly.

Eva Exactly. Just put that wallet away now, you troublemaker.

Anna That’s enough. Give it to me.

Eva I’m going to pay and that’s that.

Anna Then I’m putting some money in your purse.

Eva You’re going nowhere near my purse.

Anna I need to say thank you.

Eva Then a simple thank you’s enough.

Anna You know how I feel about this, dear.

Eva Well, fair is fair.

Anna I don’t believe it is fair, if you don’t mind.

Eva Then you can take me out for a nice meal next time, can’t you?

Anna This is my treat.

Eva It is completely my treat and I want to pay. The end.

Anna No. [Pause]

Eva Now sit down. I’m just going to put it on my credit card and we’ll go on with our lovely afternoon.

Anna Tell me how much it is.

Eva And we’ll see the dahlias out in Biddulph.

Anna I’ll sit right here then. I’ll just sit.

Eva Well, you’re being silly.

Anna You’re being silly.

Eva I don’t want your money. A simple thank you is fine.

Anna I’d like to give you some money.

Eva Just say thank you now. Just say it.

 

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The anger is palpable.

And notice that their civility isn’t actually a cover for their rage – it is precisely the vehicle for it.  Far from hiding their hostility, their manners are the menacing thing.  They will kill each other with ‘kindness.’

But what is this ‘kindness’ that they hurl at each other? 

‘Fair is fair.’ ‘I want to pay.’ ‘I don’t want your money.’

They may as well say ‘I don’t want your friendship.’  For what friendship is founded on ‘fairness’ and ‘payment’?  No these are not the words of friends.  And this is not a demonstration of good manners.  Here their manners are their weapons.  And they destroy themselves and each other by them. 

What is the essence of this ‘friendship’?  What throbs away at the heart of this ‘civility’?   It is their refusal to receive in gratitude.  The turning of gift into duty.  A determination to achieve what can only be given.

And by this mentality, however cultured, they despise the gratuity of God’s little pleasures and they despise each other.  Here is the clenched fist in the presence of grace.  It is the deepest perversion of all our natures. 

And it’s all amply illustrated by two old ladies in a tea shop.

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Holiday Frivolity 9

Some people get their friends to guest post while they’re on holiday.  My blog is my friend.  So it will automatically post silliness at regular intervals.  If you are at work or doing something important, resist the urge to click.  You may be mired in mirth for quite some time.  Enjoy.

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And here’s my favourite Flight of the Conchords tune.

Think I’ll use this in marriage prep for couples from now on.  Good for setting ‘Business Time’ expectations!

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Holiday Frivolity 8

Some people get their friends to guest post while they’re on holiday.  My blog is my friend.  So it will automatically post silliness at regular intervals.  If you are at work or doing something important, resist the urge to click.  You may be mired in mirth for quite some time.  Enjoy.

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Flight of the Conchords rock.  Here’s my second favourite song from them

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Holiday Frivolity 7

Some people get their friends to guest post while they’re on holiday.  My blog is my friend.  So it will automatically post silliness at regular intervals.  If you are at work or doing something important, resist the urge to click.  You may be mired in mirth for quite some time.  Enjoy.

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Mitchell and Webb are good.  Better on Peep Show, but this sketch tickled me.  I promise you’ll get a warmer welcome from All Souls.  Even with your internet-assembled philosophy…

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Holiday Frivolity 6

Some people get their friends to guest post while they’re on holiday.  My blog is my friend.  So it will automatically post silliness at regular intervals.  If you are at work or doing something important, resist the urge to click.  You may be mired in mirth for quite some time.  Enjoy.

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Bill Bailey’s Love Song.

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Also…

Couldn’t embed this one – but it’s my favourite Bailey: A tribute to Chris De Burgh

 

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Some links

I feel terrible that I haven’t linked before to Jacky Lam’s tour de force in the making.  Check out this christological commentary on the whole bible (3 books down 63 to go!).  He’s taking a break from blogging while in mainland China, so now’s your chance to catch up on Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus.  Hugely stimulating stuff.

Dan Hames has revamped his website which looks to be an excellent resource.

Brilliant short piece on God’s Sovereignty by Paul Blackham here.

The most excellent Tim Vasby-Burnie seems to be blogging more regularly here.

Check out posts on confession, healing and small groups and the latest on Todd Bentley.

Also Pete Myers has posted a couple of things concerning our Christ in the OT discussions here and here.

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A true baptism?

Just watched The Tudors (episode 4, series 2).  Baby Elizabeth was baptized.

Now here’s my question.  The triune name was pronounced over the child and it got wet.  Was that baby (the ‘actor’ not the historical figure) baptized?  I’m not hugely up on sacramental theology.  What would the Roman Catholic Church say?  Luther?  Calvin?  What about a covenant objectivist FV type position?

Just wondering.

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Holiday Frivolity 5

Some people get their friends to guest post while they’re on holiday.  My blog is my friend.  So it will automatically post silliness at regular intervals.  If you are at work or doing something important, resist the urge to click.  You may be mired in mirth for quite some time.  Enjoy.

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Dylan Moran is my very favourite stand-up.  Go see Monster now if you haven’t.  In the meantime enjoy these clips.

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Dylan Moran in Australia (crowd sceptical!)

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Stay Away From Your Potential

 

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Holiday Frivolity 4

Some people get their friends to guest post while they’re on holiday.  My blog is my friend.  So it will automatically post silliness at regular intervals.  If you are at work or doing something important, resist the urge to click.  You may be mired in mirth for quite some time.  Enjoy.

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Steve Martin was once very funny.  Tis true dear reader!  Here’s a great song from his wild and crazy years.

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And here is one of his finest cinema moments

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Holiday Frivolity 3

Some people get their friends to guest post while they’re on holiday.  My blog is my friend.  So it will automatically post silliness at regular intervals.  If you are at work or doing something important, resist the urge to click.  You may be mired in mirth for quite some time.  Enjoy.

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Demetri Martin is extremely funny.  Here’s a few examples (Warning: there is the odd swear word).

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Holiday Frivolity 2

Surely you know Jack Handey’s Deep Thoughts???

I’d say he’s a very strong (if quiet) influence on lots of contemporary American humour.

Here’s some of my favourite aphorisms.

  • It’s funny how a loving, close-knit family can be torn apart by something as simple as a pack of wild dogs.
  • Most people don’t realize that large pieces of coral, which have been painted brown and attached to the skull by common wood screws, can make a child look like a deer.
  • If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.
  • If you ever drop your keys into a river of molten lava, let’em go, because, man, they’re gone.
  • Contrary to what most people say, the most dangerous animal in the world is not the lion or the tiger or even the elephant. It’s a shark riding on an elephant’s back, just trampling and eating everything they see.
  • Sometimes you have to be careful when selecting a new name for yourself. For instance, let’s say you have chosen the nickname “Fly Head.” Normally you would think that “fly Head” would mean a person who has beautiful swept-back features, as if flying through the air. But think again. Couldn’t it also mean “having a head like a fly”? I’m afraid some people might actually think that.
  • If you saw two guys named Hambone and Flippy, which one would you think liked dolphins the most? I’d say Flippy, wouldn’t you? You’d be wrong, though. It’s Hambone.
  • Laurie got offended that I used the word “puke.” But to me, that’s what her dinner tasted like.
  • We used to laugh at Grandpa when he’d head off and go fishing. But we wouldn’t be laughing that evening when he’d come back with some hooker he picked up in town.
  • If I ever get real rich, I hope I’m not real mean to poor people, like I am now.
  • I can picture in my mind a world without war, a world without hate. And I can picture us attacking that world, because they’d never expect it.
  • Whenever I see an old lady slip and fall on a wet sidewalk, my first instinct is to laugh. But then I think, what is I was an ant, and she fell on me. Then it wouldn’t seem quite so funny.
  • Laugh, clown, laugh. This is what I tell myself whenever I dress up like Bozo.
  • A good way to threaten somebody is to light a stick of dynamite. Then you call the guy and hold the burning fuse up to the phone. “Hear that?” you say. “That’s dynamite, baby.”
  • If you go parachuting, and your parachute doesn’t open, and you friends are all watching you fall, I think a funny gag would be to pretend you were swimming.
  • Children need encouragement. If a kid gets an answer right, tell him it was a lucky guess. That way he develops a good, lucky feeling.
  • If you’re in a war, instead of throwing a hand grenade at the enemy, throw one of those small pumpkins. Maybe it’ll make everyone think how stupid war is, and while they are thinking, you can throw a real grenade at them.

Some other crackers:

  • If they ever come up with a swashbuckling School, I think one of the courses should be Laughing, Then Jumping Off Something.
  • Sometimes when I feel like killing someone, I do a little trick to calm myself down. I’ll go over to the persons house and ring the doorbell. When the person comes to the door, I’m gone, but you know what I’ve left on the porch? A jack-o-lantern with a knife stuck in the side of it’s head with a note that says “You.” After that I usually feel a lot better, and no harm done.
  • Sometimes I think you have to march right in and demand your rights, even if you don’t know what your rights are, or who the person is you’re talking to. Then on the way out, slam the door.
  • If your friend is already dead, and being eaten by vultures, I think it’s okay to feed some bits of your friend to one of the vultures, to teach him to do some tricks. But only if you’re serious about adopting the vulture.
  • Most of the time it was probably real bad being stuck down in a dungeon. But some days, when there was a bad storm outside, you’d look out your little window and think, “Boy, I’m glad I’m not out in that.”
  • I hope that after I die, people will say of me: “That guy sure owed me a lot of money.”
  • If you want to be the most popular person in your class, whenever the professor pauses in his lecture, just let out a big snort and say “How do you figger that!” real loud. Then lean back and sort of smirk.
  • I wish I would have a real tragic love affair and get so bummed out that I’d just quit my job and become a bum for a few years, because I was thinking about doing that anyway.
  • I think my new thing will be to try to be a real happy guy. I’ll just walk around being real happy until some jerk says something stupid to me.
  • Here’s a good trick: Get a job as a judge at the Olympics. Then, if some guy sets a world record, pretend that you didn’t see it and go, “Okay, is everybody ready to start now?”.

Check them all out here.

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Holiday Frivolity 1

Some people get their friends to guest post while they’re on holiday.  My blog is my friend.  So it will automatically post silliness at regular intervals.  If you are at work or doing something important, resist the urge to click.  You may be mired in mirth for quite some time.  Enjoy.

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The screen writers strike had one good consequence.  These guys turned their hand to a video blog. 

Doogie Howser turns bad.  Glorious! 

 

Danger – 45 minutes of completely unproductive mirth.

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Trinity Re-Post 4

 

Here’s a Trinity Sermon of mine on Galatians 4.

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Off on holiday now for 9 days.  Some frivolity is about to be posted automatically by the blog.  If you want something more theological to chew on, here’s a few older posts on the trinity issues that have been coming up recently.

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Avoiding a Fourth

No (good) trinitarian theologian wants to have a fourth thing – a divine substance considered apart from the Three Persons.  But it’s important to be aware that this error (effectively having a quaternity) has two versions.  There is a vulgar quaternity and a more insidious one.

The vulgar one looks like this:

Oneness and Threeness 1 

Here is the “shamrock” trinity – three bits growing out of an underlying stuff.  In practice this is, roughly, how many unthinkingly view the trinity.  Such a vulgar quaternity is rightly rejected by theologians.  It can be seen immediately that the ‘Godness of God’ is considered at a completely different level to the three Persons in their roles and relations.  What makes God God is fundamentally impersonal attributes that may be expressed in the Persons but not constituted by their mutual inter-play.  So we can safely reject this version of things.

But I find that many theologians, having rejected the vulgar quaternity, congratulate themselves prematurely.  There is also the insidious quaternity to be dealt with.  There is another way of having a fourth…

Oneness and Threeness 2

Fundamentally this error consists in conceiving of the one God separately to a consideration of the three Persons in communion.  Recently I read a theologian say “God is both one and three – both a person and a community.”  This is an example of the insidious quaternity.  One-ness and Three-ness are laid side by side to uphold a belief in the equal ultimacy of one and three.  Yet the one-ness of God is conceived of as a uni-personal one-ness – that is, it is separately considered to the multi-personal three-ness.  One and Three were not mutually interpreting truths but instead the ‘one God’ is thought of in non-communal (that is, non trinitarian) terms.

This is the approach taken by by so many doctrine of God text books where De Deo Uno (on the One God) is addressed prior to De Deo Trino (on the Trinity).   Yet, unless the two section are integrated at the deepest levels then there is grave danger of a fourth thing – i.e. “God plus Trinity” or “God apart from Trinity.

When this theological method is followed, often (not always but most times) section one unfolds such that the Three Person’d interplay takes no meaningful part in the discussions of the attributes.  Yet, typically, these attributes are asserted to be the virtue by which God is God.  On this view it is still possible to discuss the ‘Godness of God’ without reference to the perichoretic life of the Three.  Here One-ness and Three-ness are considered to be non-competing perspectives on the same God.  This effectively means that it is possible to speak in non-triune terms about the living God.  ‘God’, then, is not the same thing as ‘the Three Persons united in love’.   

This is also a quaternity.  Just a more insidious one.

And the only way I can see to avoid this fourth thing is to side with the Cappodocians: God’s being consists without remainder in the Three Person’d perichoresis .

 Oneness Threeness 3b

The one-ness of God is not a simple divine essence but the very unity of the Three.  The being of God is not an underlying substance (contra the vulgar quaternity).  But nor is it a separately conceived essence (contra the insidious quaternity).  Rather God’s being is the very communion by which the Three are One.   

Trinity is not a perspective on the one God.  Rather the only God there is is trinity.  And the only way to conceive of Him is in triune terms.  ‘God’ is ‘Trinity’.  Unless this strict identity is maintained a fourth enters in.

Thus we must never conceive of the one God in any other terms than trinitarian ones.  (Re-write the text-books!).  God’s being is in His communion (to use Zizioulas’s phrase).  His One-ness is in His communion.  And (let’s not forget) His Three-ness is in His communion – the Three are only who they are in this eternal perichoresis.   To put it another way: God is love.

Therefore let’s guard against a ‘fourth’ whenever it threatens.  Let’s reject the vulgar quaternity, but let’s also reject the insidious quaternity.  And if people call us ‘extreme social trinitarians’ or ‘tritheists’ or whatever, let them.  The dangers on the other side are far greater.

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Now… Two great questions we asked of this post when it was originally put up.

First, How do we avoid seeing ‘love’ as a fourth?

My answer:

I guess there’s inevitably a third kind of ‘fourth’ (if that’s not too confusing). But I hope it’s a benign fourth. By that I mean, there will always be some virtue by which you conceive of the Three as belonging together. What I’m suggesting is that the one-ness is an already inherent unity *of* the Three rather than a one-ness brought in to unify the Three.

When we study the Persons, this involves us unavoidably in the communion by which the Persons are who they are. (The Son is Son because begotten by the Father etc etc). So on my view, the Three are Three by the exact same virtue that the Three are One – their mutually constituting eternal relations. In this way love is really not outside the Persons any more than the Persons are outside the Persons. They themselves have their ‘hypostasis in ekstasis’. They are who they are in going outside themselves and into the Others. There is not a glue in between the Persons called ‘love’ (that would start to look like a fourth) but rather (mysteriously) they are IN one another! And to this mutual indwelling we give the name perichoresis and say that this is the virtue by which they are One. But really we haven’t introduced an added element to the Three. This perichoresis is intrinsically part of who the Three are already. One-ness (on this view) is simply a description of how we find the Three (that is, that they are united).

On the other hand, the kind of (cancerous) fourths I’m opposing are ones where the virtue by which the Three are One is gained by looking apart from the Three. On these views it is possible to speak of the One God without speaking of the Persons in their mutual relations. One-ness is not at all the unity of the Three but something else (subsistence in the simple divine essence or whatever). This is most certainly a cancerous fourth.

I guess it boils down to this: I’m proposing a one-ness *of* the Three. I’m opposing a one-ness underneath or apart from the Three. One-ness for me is a description of who the Three are. One-ness for many western trinitarians seeks a unifying concept beyond the Three.

The great virtue of the eastern methodology is that the answers to the three key trinitarian questions are all the same:

By what are the Three divine? The relations in which they stand to one another.
By what are the Three distinct Persons? The relations in which they stand to one another.
By what are the Three One? The relations in which they stand to one another.

The eastern trinitarian never looks away from the Three to discuss either deity, difference or one-ness. All trinitarian theology is then descriptive of how we find these Three in the Gospel. Therefore there is no foreign concept of one-ness to be brought in apart from what we find studying the Three in the Gospel.

Wish I could articulate better “what is this earth thing called love?” (as the Star Trek alien would say), but I think ‘hypostasis in ekstasis’ is about as good as it gets in theology! It’s not an extra thing added to the being of the Persons but the very essence of their out-going, inter-penetrating, self-emptying existence. And it’s this “Person-in-outgoingness” that defines who the Persons are *and* what the Oneness is.

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The second question was two-fold.  It asked whether we shouldn’t just see inseparable operations as that by which the Three are One.  It also questioned the eastern emphasis on incomprehensibility.

My answer:

Inseparable operations *is* communion/perichoresis/mutual-relations as seen in God’s economic activity (that is His outward works in creation-redemption). You’re right to mention ‘asymmetry’ in this as the cause of the ‘outflow’ of these relations into creation. So the Father always works through the Son and by the Spirit. The initiation is with the Father, the execution is with the Son, the empowering and perfection of it is with the Spirit. Again, everything God does is from the Father, through the Son and by the Spirit. This is the inseparable operation of the trinity and it is simply the outflow of the mutual life of the Persons.

Thus to say ‘inseparable operations’ is *not* to say ‘we encounter only a singularity in creation and redemption’. It is, rather, to say ‘we encounter the Three working in perfect unity.’ The doctrine of inseparable operations is often cast as “we only see one, but behind that one there are Three.” That is the very opposite of the case. A true doctrine of inseparable operations says “we see Three in the economy, but they are utterly united in these acts.”

Therefore I’ll have to disagree with your statement:

“from the outside we receive grace from the one God, without the trinity being clear until we can actually be drawn into that divine community when Christ came in the flesh”

So I don’t think it’s a case of ‘from the outside’ seeing only One and then getting drawn into Three. Instead on the outside we see Three and then by the ‘two hands of the Father’ (Irenaeus’ phrase) we get drawn into the triune life (which is a life of one-ness – not singularity but communion).

You have, though, identified my chief beef with the eastern side:

“They seem to especially concerned about the incomprehensible nature of God, which seems to make it quite difficult to talk about trinity in the way you do.”

Yes indeed. This is the problem with the east (which I’ve hinted at elsewhere). They are not really sold on the whole “The economic trinity reveals the immanent trinity” – which, for me, ought to be a basic tenet of revealed theology. For me, and more usually for the west, what you see in God is what you get. If He’s revealed as Father sending Son and Father *and* Son sending Spirit, then that’s a revelation of the deepest depths of the triune life. For the east, they have the immanent trinity lying mysteriously behind the economic trinity. What you see aint necessarily what you get.

So it’s not a case of east = good guys, west = bad guys. It’s a case of being mature enough to take the best of both. From east I take the methodology of Three first. From the west I take the maxim “the economic trinity is the immanent trinity.”

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