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grunewald_crucifixion

Adapted from an earlier post

I’m all for trinity.  Trinity this and trinity that.  Clicking on my trinity tag is like typing Google into Google – you may just BREAK THE INTERNET.

But here’s the thing – “The Trinity” does not reveal God.  Jesus reveals God (might I add, by the Spirit).  That’s the trinity.  But “The Trinity” is not the image of the invisible God.  “The Trinity” is not the Mediator between a Distant-Power-God and today’s agnostic enquirer.  Rublev’s is not the Icon of the unseen LORD – Jesus is.

Today Christians are awaking more and more to the wonder of trinity and that’s very exciting.  Without trinity there is no gospel.  There is no other God but Jesus with His Father and Spirit.  And, in Jesus, we participate in that divine nature.  These truths need shouting from the rooftops.

But… in our excitement to lift up the wonder of the intra-trinitarian life, there is a danger.  The danger is that Jesus might not be the Way in to “God is love.”  Instead natural theology provides the in. The argument runs something like this: “We all know that love is lovely, well wouldn’t it be nice if God was love in just the way we all understand love….”  See the danger?

A million Facebook profiles speak of “Love” as ultimate.  But 1 John 4 has in mind a very particular kind of love when it describes the love that God is (1 John 4:8-10).  The love which God is shows up in propitiatory sacrifice.  Christ crucified is the Image of God.  He shows us the poured-out-life of eternity.  Trinitarian love is cruciform love.

This means we don’t have to be amazing orators, waxing lyrical about perichoresis and such.  In order to be trinitarian, here’s all we need to do:  We need to point to the Jesus of Scripture.  We don’t need to paint verbal Rublevs so much as paint Jesus in biblical colours.  We just need to hold Him up in His true identity: He is the Christ, the Son of God.

If you want to be trinitarian, obsess yourself with Jesus.

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Evangelicals believe in conversion.  It’s absolutely foundational.  The human race is either in or out.  We’re born out.  We need to come in through Christ.

But then, what are we coming in to?  Because if you only think in terms of “in or out” then it might start to sound like the Christian community is the safe-house and the world is going to hell.  And the church says: “Bring em in, batten down the hatches and ride out the storm.”  It’s us against the world and the godly traffic is all heading towards the safe-house.

This sounds like the conservative Christian picture.  But it’s missing a key element.  God.

You see God is out-going.  The Father is a Sender – of His Son and Spirit.  We need to be in.  But we need to be in on the One who is ever going out.  Therefore, with Christ, the church says: “Get on out there, reach into the world in order to bless.”  It’s us for the world and the godly traffic is all heading towards the outsider.

We must, by all means, believe in conversion.  But let’s understand what we are converted to.  We want people in, but we want them in on radical out-going-ness.

So it’s not so much in or out, it’s in on out.

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In Australia I heard a worship song that was new for me:  “There is no-one like you.”

Not the Dave Crowder one.  This one is, almost note-for-note, sung to the tune of “What if God was one of us.”  To the point where the urge to sing “…just a slob like one of us” became almost unbearable.

Do you struggle with other songs like this?  I find it difficult not to break out with “Go West” on the rare occasions we sing “Give thanks“.  Other examples?

But actually “There is no-one like you” and “What if God was one of us” is an interesting juxtaposition.  And quite a biblical one.

Since ancient times no-one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. (Isaiah 64:4)

What is it that sets the living God apart from every other deity conceived by the imagination of man?  This God works while we wait.  That’s the difference.

Every other god waits while we work.  But this God works while we wait.  “His own Arm works salvation for Him” (Isaiah 59:16).  The Arm of the LORD (Isaiah 52:10) who is the Servant of the LORD (v13; 53:1) – He achieves our redemption for us.

When we think of the utter uniqueness of God, where do our thoughts take us?  When we conceive of the transcendent glory of God, what do we imagine? And how biblical are those conceptions?

From “There is no one like you” so often we take a left and descend a flight of stairs to “God is just really, really, completely and utterly different.”  Ok, but then we cross a barbed wire fence and enter a haunted wood… “He’s so totally other, we can’t even begin to relate.”  And we continue wandering down such darkened paths with the especially religious among us revelling in the murk.

People take a similar journey when discussing concepts of “glory” or “holiness” or “transcendence.”

Ah yes, now we’re talking about the real Godness of God.

Indeed.  But if God really is so different then it won’t be obvious what that Godness consists in will it?  Or don’t you believe in His difference after all?!

You can’t just take some bog-standard definition of deity, pump it full of steroids, and then call that “glory” or “holiness” or “transcendence”.  You’ll have to study how this utterly different God shows Himself to be utterly different.

And – surprise, surprise – even His difference turns out to be different to how we’d imagined it.  His difference is not in some alien detachment but in intimate engagement. His glory is not His self-obsession but self-giving.  His holiness is not His shut-off-ness but His committed devotion.  His transcendence does not keep Him from us, it’s a transcendent love that moves heaven to earth to save.

There is no-one like this God.  The God who comes as one of us.  Just a Slob like one of us.  Just a Stranger on the bus, come to bring us all Home.

That’s what makes Him really different.

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fountainLet me think out loud for a minute.

Jesus is the Radiance of God’s Glory (Hebrews 1:3). He is not a second Light shining as brightly as the Father. And He is not simply the object of the Father’s shining. He is the Father’s Shining.

Similarly, Jesus is the eternal Word of the Father (John 1:1). He is not a second Word, as vocal as the Father. He is not simply the hearer of God’s Word. He is the Father’s communicative expression – a Voice crying out.

In other words, God is outgoing. And eternally so. The triune God flows outwards even before creation. Creation becomes the in-time expression of the Trinity’s eternal life.

But, you might ask the question, Doesn’t this make God dependent on creation? Since He shines out, perhaps creation is necessary as the thing (even the darkness) to be illuminated. Since He speaks out, perhaps creation is necessary as an audience for the Word.  Have we made creation necessary to the expression of God’s eternal nature?

Well before I attempt a half-answer to that, let’s realise that there are problems on the other side of this question. You see if the triune God is not eternally radiant then what He reveals in, through and to His creation is something different to His eternal being. If God is self-contained pre-creation then He could A) remain self-contained (and true to His eternal triune life) or B) be over-flowing (and different to His eternal triune life). But if we want a God who is truly revealed then we need a God who is always expressing Himself – an eternal Word. Once we grant this, there is good news.  For if the Father has always shone outwards in Christ then when I receive that shining I’m receiving the eternal God in His eternal nature. Jesus then truly reveals, not obscures, God.

Ok, so it’s important to hold onto the outgoing-ness of God. But how do we speak of it without making creation necessary to God?

Well Jonathan Edwards in his unpublished essay on the trinity speaks of this eternal outgoing-ness like this:

[God’s pleasure]… is a pleasure in diffusing and communicating to, rather than in receiving from, the creature.

Here Edwards is affirming the primordially gracious character of the Trinity. God is Giver. And forever has been. To the person who objects that this makes God dependent upon a recipient, Edwards makes this wonderful point:

Surely, it is no argument of [neediness] in God that he is inclined to communicate of his infinite fullness. It is no argument of the emptiness or deficiency of a fountain, that it is inclined to overflow

The Fountain of Life does not become something He’s not in creation. Rather He is truly Himself in it. Creation does not fulfil a need in God, not at all. But it does express a super-abundance. It shows us a life-giving grace to the Father which goes all the way down and all the way back.

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321321 begins by associating God with three-ness.  “God is three Persons united in love” says the presentation.  And occasionally people have asked, “What about God’s one-ness?”

Well the short answer is – it’s right there in the explanation: “three Persons united in love.” That phrase is just trying to unpack the word Trinity which is itself only the squashing together of “tri” and “unity”.  Just from the word ‘Trinity’ it should be clear how the church has considered God’s one-ness historically. God’s one-ness is a unity of the Three.  It’s not a unity apart from the Three or underneath the Three. But often we think like that.

It’s always revealing when people say things like: “Trinity is great but we also need to focus on God’s unity.” This is literally the same as saying “The unity of the Three is great, but we also need to talk about the unity of God.”  At that point we really need to ask, “What is this second kind of unity you want to talk about? And what is this God you want to talk about apart from discussion of the Three?”  Those are worrying questions to raise!

To answer them, people sometimes try to wheel in Gregory of Nazianzen for support. In doing so they make him say the precise opposite of what he meant.  Here’s his famous quote:

No sooner do I conceive of the one than I am illumined by the splendour of the three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the one.

Wonderful theology. Yet in a heartbeat the thought can get turned into…

Once I’ve spent a decent amount of time thinking about the one God of monotheism, I then force myself to spend the same amount of time considering Father, Son and Spirit.  And once I’ve given equal airtime to the Three, I return to my philosophically defined monad.

But that couldn’t be further from Gregory’s meaning. The One simply is the profound interpenetration of the Three and the Three just are ‘in’ each other in unloseable, mutually-constituting, ontological oneness. Gregory is not saying that we ought not to think of one-ness and three-ness separately. He’s saying we cannot do it.  The one and the three are strictly mutually-defining concepts.

Yet every time someone says “Let’s not prioritise trinity, let’s give equal time to the unity” they attempt this feat.  Whatever three-ness they’re considering apart from the one-ness – it’s not the true three-ness of God. Whatever one-ness they’re considering apart from the three-ness – it’s not the true one-ness of God.

So here’s my offer. I will happily major on the one-ness of God for the rest of my life. I will rename the website one-two-one.org – cool, still has a nice ring to it.  But I’ll do it on one condition: can we please all agree that this oneness is the one-ness of Jesus with His Father?

You see, if we’re talking about Christ, if we’re talking about the gospel, if we’re talking about salvation, then whatever one-ness we uphold must not destroy the concrete Person of Jesus. It must not mess with the gospel economy in which the Son lives and dies before the Father, is exalted and ministers before Him.  It must not dissolve our salvation in which the Son bears us before the Father. If Jesus, if the gospel, if salvation determines our God-talk then the one-ness we maintain must be a one-ness of distinct Persons mustn’t it?  It must be a one-ness that includes difference and interplay and relationship mustn’t it?

So if the one-ness we’re talking about is the “one-ness” of Jesus with His Father then sign me up. I couldn’t be more for “one-ness”.  I’ll talk about this one-ness until Jesus returns.  But some want to talk about another one-ness – a one-ness that would dissolve the Person of Jesus, His gospel, His salvation. A one-ness that would involve not merely looking away from ‘the Three’ in some abstract sense, but looking away from Jesus and His gospel in order to know God. To look to this other one-ness is to look away from the God of Jesus and we must never do that.

There can be only one kind of one-ness. And it’s the one-ness of the Three.

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Jesus baptism 10
Which Gospel has the most trinitarian opening?  John right?

Nah! Binitarian maybe ;-)

I’m going to plump for Mark. That’s right, Mark: the Gospel we take refuge in because it doesn’t rub that Trinity stuff in our faces. Yep, Mark has the most Trinitarian opening of them all:

“The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

A whole theology is contained in the name “Jesus Christ, the Son of God”.  The true Joshua – the LORD who is salvation – comes among us. He is eternally anointed with the Holy Spirit (the Christ). He is eternally Son of the Father. And His coming is good news.

Why? Because, v2-3, He is the LORD of Isaiah 40, bringing “comfort” to the exiled people of God.

And He does it, v4-8, by joining us in our uncleanness and exile – entering into our baptismal waters, so that we might enter into His baptising Spirit. The Anointed One comes to draw us into His anointing.

As He joins us in our predicament, v9-11, the Father and Spirit do not abandon Him to our fate. The Spirit publicly refills Him, the Father publicly acknowledges Him. This is not only the triune identity declared in its clearest terms – it is the triune identity declared in salvation. The Son, as He enters into our exile, does so explicitly as the Father’s Son, filled with the Spirit.  The happy Trinity is passionately committed to our salvation: the Father sending His Son in the power of the Spirit.

And that Spirit, v12-13, drives Jesus into battle for us. Christ enters our wilderness and takes on our enemy as Champion – a true David to slay Goliath.

So here is the gospel, v14-15: the Kingdom has come because here is the King!  Good news people, rethink everything, trust that God really has shown up to save, because here is His Spirit-filled Son!

From this point onwards Jesus engages every power that enslaves us: sin, sickness, Satan, a chaotic world, death. In every encounter with these forces, Jesus does not simply prove Himself superior. He proves Himself Saviour.  All these powers dominate and destroy our lives. Jesus, the Spirit-filled Son, faces off against them in our name and on our behalf. If we belong to Him, His victory becomes our victory.

No wonder Mark opens by saying “Good News!”  These are glad tidings of great joy.  But only with trinity.

Without trinity, we simply have a Lord. And if we won’t explicitly understand Him as Son of the Father, filled with the Spirit, we will seek to establish His identity in other terms.  Without trinity, ‘divine identity’ become purely a matter of might.  And, without trinity, the whole baptism thing will be a bit of a mystery. In fact we’ll be hazy on most of the first 13 verses.  We’ll gain interest again right around verse 15: A call to repent!  But since Jesus is introduced in vague terms as ‘a Lord’ we will construe that to mean “bow the knee”… or something.

And as Jesus takes on the forces of darkness in Mark’s opening chapters we might consider these to be simply displays of power. We might just think that they establish “who’s boss”.  And, again, the point will not be to reassure us that the Christ has entered the fray as our Champion, it will be to drive home the point that Jesus really is big. And we ought to… um… “bow the knee.”

But with trinity we really will repent and believe. With trinity, we really will be overawed by our Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God. With trinity, the Gospel really is good news.

 

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burning-bush

All the Johns agree:

JOHN CALVIN:
But let us inquire who this Angel was? since soon afterwards he not only calls himself Jehovah, but claims the glory of the eternal and only God. Now, although this is an allowable manner of speaking, because the angels transfer to themselves the person and titles of God, when they are performing the commissions entrusted to them by him; and although it is plain from many passages, and especially from the first chapter of Zechariah, that there is one head and chief of the angels who commands the others, the ancient teachers of the Church have rightly understood that the Eternal Son of God is so called in respect to his office as Mediator, which he figuratively bore from the beginning, although he really took it upon him only at his Incarnation. And Paul sufficiently expounds this mystery to us, when he plainly asserts that Christ was the leader of his people in the Desert. (1 Corinthians 10:4.) Therefore, although at that time, properly speaking, he was not yet the messenger of his Father, still his predestinated appointment to the office even then had this effect, that he manifested himself to the patriarchs, and was known in this character. Nor, indeed, had the saints ever any communication with God except through the promised Mediator. It is not then to be wondered at, if the Eternal Word of God, of one Godhead and essence with the Father, assumed the name of “the Angel” on the ground of his future mission.

JOHN OWEN
He is expressly called an “Angel” Exod. 3:2 – namely, the Angel of the covenant, the great Angel of the presence of God, in whom was the name and nature of God. And He thus appeared that the Church might know and consider who it was that was to work out their spiritual and eternal salvation, whereof that deliverance which then He would effect was a type and pledge.  Aben Ezra would have the Angel mentioned verse 2, to be another from him who is called “God,” v 6: but the text will not give countenance to any such distinction, but speaks of one and the same person throughout without any alteration; and this was no other but the Son of God.

JONATHAN EDWARDS:
This redemption was by Jesus Christ, as is evident from this, that it was wrought by him that appeared to Moses in the bush; for that was the person that sent Moses to redeem the people.  But that was Christ, as is evident, because he is called ‘the angel of the LORD’ (Exodus 3:2).

Given such unanimity among our reformed forebears (who themselves appealed to ‘the ancient teachers of the Church’) our modern reluctance to identify Him who dwells in the bush is deeply concerning.

From the 18th century onwards we’ve gotten ourselves into a position where even Christians find themselves thinking about “God” in the abstract.  In our thinking, ‘Trinity’ has become a gloss on a supposedly more ‘basic’ understanding of ‘God.’  The Son has been relegated to a theological luxury – a very good window onto the divine life.  He is no longer the one theological necessity – the Word, the Image, the Representation of God.  We find ourselves able to speak christlessly and, essentially, unitarianly about three quarters of God’s revelation.

And somehow we get ourselves to the position where the question “Who is in the burning bush?” seems odd or irrelevant or uncomfortable or a trap.  And many people hurry past the issue.  In so doing they hurry past the great I AM who defines Himself throughout the OT as the One who brought His people up out of Egypt.  ‘Who is in the bush?’ is a key question not merely for the passage, but for all the Scriptures and a litmus test of our theological convictions.  So what do you say?  Do you agree with the Johns?

My sermon on Exodus 1-3 is here.

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