Monday, November 26, 2012

The Trinity, Part 2: Authority, The Shack, and Resources

We just finished a 3-week series on The Trinity at Life Bible Fellowship Church. The goal of the series was not to solve a puzzle (good luck with that), but to draw near to the relational, 3-in-1 God who has drawn near to us. Here is a link the second week of the series. The third week should be posted soon on vimeo and on our webpage.
As a follow up, I wanted to address a few follow-up matters that can be helpful in digging deeper into this foundational truth about God.

Is there a Hierarchy in the Trinity?
After church yesterday, I had a good conversation with a couple of people who asked about this. It is a great question, and is one of consistent debate in the Christian community right now. In the debate, here are the two views:
Position 1: Within the Trinity, there is authority and submission. The Father initiates, the Son and Spirit respond. The authority does not mean inequality, but this dynamic has eternally been true.
Position 2: The Son took a submissive role during his time on earth, but this is not a dynamic in the eternal relationship of the Triune God.
The debate here is not a debate over Christian orthodoxy, but I don't think it is a throw-away debate either.
Everyone seems to agree that the Son submitted to the Father during his time on earth. So, was his submission temporary or eternal? Well, we consistently see passages that say that the Father sent the Son. That was before the incarnation, and it certainly seems to imply some kind of authority.
For some, the term hierarchy means that one is better than the other. In the Trinity, the Father is not better or more divine than the Son. But there is distinction. The Father is distinctly the Father, and the Son is distinctly the Son, and the Spirit is distinctly the Spirit. There is equality and yet distinction.
Is it possible that this is not an eternal distinction, but only a temporary one? It is possible, but it seems like a really hard sell to me. All indications point to the idea that this authority-submission dynamic predates the incarnation. And if God is going to present himself to us in a certain way, it seems like that is how he intends for us to understand him.
Also, if we decide that there can't possibly be authority in the Trinity, then do we believe that we can have authority and equality in relationships here on earth? Further than this, the New Testament talks about certain people having positions of authority on the New Earth.
Authority is not evil. Abuse of authority certainly is. But we should have no reason to reject the biblical presentation of authority and submission in the Triune God.

Is "The Shack" a Good Presentation of the Trinity?
I have had several people talk to me about William P. Young's book The Shack, which was published in 2007. Many of you have read it, and many probably have not. Here are some comments.
On the positive side, I think the book really dives into the love relationship of the Triune God. There are some beautiful statements about God's relationality, and some beautiful images of grief and loss and forgiveness and healing.
On the negative side, there is a lot in the book that misses the mark. Most significantly, Young's view of God's love does not seem to have room for judgment. He says that God never punishes sin, but sin is its own punishment. While sin tends to carry with it its own consequences, it is flatly wrong to say that God never judges sin. You have to ignore significant stretches of the Bible to draw this conclusion.
Young also makes statements that tend to lean toward universalism (the teaching that all people will ultimately be saved). The book does not teach universalism overtly. At the same time, I lived in the same town as William P. Young when the book hit the bestseller lists. From a number of personal conversations with those who know him and run in his circles, there are major universalist tendencies. This is a concern.
On top of this, Young also allows no room for the above point about equality and authority. He flatly rejects the idea of a "chain of command" in the Trinity. Now, the bond of the Triune God is not a flow chart; it is the bond of love. But Young seems to think that love necessitates the elimination of authority. This is not biblical.
There are many beautiful things in this book. If my review seems mostly negative, this is for 3 reasons:
1. The positive things in the book are things that you can get without reading it.
2. The false teachings in the book can be really harmful, and they feed right into the cultural mainstream. We need to be warned.
3. When the book first came out, I really underplayed the negative elements and I personally witnessed friends buy into the book at its core. After this, I saw their understanding of God, Scripture, and heaven and hell go in directions that I believer are unbiblical.
So, there you go. All books should be read with discernment. I biblically discerning person could probably read the book, sift through the wrong things in it, and enjoy it a lot. That said, I personally choose not to recommend the book to people because of the potentially harmful elements.

What are some good resources for diving deeper into the Trinity?
Here are 3 recommendations:
1. Experiencing the Trinity by Darrell Johnson. This is a short book. If you are a reader, you could consume it in one or two sittings. It is a great book if you are looking to get your feet wet. It will also help to expose you to other helpful resources.
2. The Holy Trinity in Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship by Robert Letham. This has been the single most helpful resource to me. It is a thick book, but it walks through all the major theologians who have contributed to our understanding on the Trinity. It is a faith-building, worship-inspiring, wonderful book.
3. Wayne Grudem's podcasts on the Trinity. Wayne Grudem wrote a huge Systematic Theology book, and he has taught through it at the church he attends. He did four messages on the Trinity, and they are available for free. Just go to the iTunes store and search "Wayne Grudem." You will find his podcast for Systematic Theology. The Trinity messages are 18-21 on the list. Four great downloads!

If you have follow-up thoughts of questions, feel free to comment or hit me up on facebook.


  1. Guess who wrote this: " Today we contemplate the Most Holy Trinity as Jesus introduced us to it. He revealed to us that God is love "not in the oneness of a single Person, but in the Trinity of one substance" (Preface). He is the Creator and merciful Father; he is the Only-Begotten Son, eternal Wisdom incarnate, who died and rose for us; he is the Holy Spirit who moves all things, cosmos and history, toward their final, full recapitulation. Three Persons who are one God because the Father is love, the Son is love, the Spirit is love. God is wholly and only love, the purest, infinite and eternal love. He does not live in splendid solitude but rather is an inexhaustible source of life that is ceaselessly given and communicated. To a certain extent we can perceive this by observing both the macro-universe: our earth, the planets, the stars, the galaxies; and the micro-universe: cells, atoms, elementary particles. The "name" of the Blessed Trinity is, in a certain sense, imprinted upon all things because all that exists, down to the last particle, is in relation; in this way we catch a glimpse of God as relationship and ultimately, Creator Love. All things derive from love, aspire to love and move impelled by love, though naturally with varying degrees of awareness and freedom. "O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!" (Ps 8: 1) the Psalmist exclaims. In speaking of the "name", the Bible refers to God himself, his truest identity. It is an identity that shines upon the whole of Creation, in which all beings for the very fact that they exist and because of the "fabric" of which they are made point to a transcendent Principle, to eternal and infinite Life which is given, in a word, to Love. "In him we live and move and have our being", St Paul said at the Areopagus of Athens (Acts 17: 28). The strongest proof that we are made in the image of the Trinity is this: love alone makes us happy because we live in a relationship, and we live to love and to be loved. Borrowing an analogy from biology, we could say that imprinted upon his "genome", the human being bears a profound mark of the Trinity, of God as Love."

  2. Hey Dan,

    Good post, thanks for addressing the all-important doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

    I would say that the issue of whether there is eternal distinction and hierarchy in the relations of the persons of the Trinity is a question of orthodoxy, though. The Creed says that Christ is the Only-Begotten Son and "begotten of the Father before all worlds" i.e. that the Son is *eternally* begotten of the Father. So there is not a time when the Word of God was not begotten of the Father. And what we see in the Word enfleshed is this principle of Begotten-ness in Christ's ministry, especially how He always humbly points away from himself, to the Glory of the Father. His submission is a function of being the eternal Only Begotten, rather than the un-Begotten. It can't be as if the Father and the Son flipped a coin to see who would become Incarnate -- it has to be grounded to the Son's unique, eternal relation to the Father.

    Also, if there were no hierarchy in the Godhead -- if the equality of persons extends even to their relations -- then the manner that they relate should be entirely reciprocal. That is, it should be possible to rightly say, for instance, that "The Father is Only-Begotten of the Son", or that "The Father proceeds from the Spirit", but both are heretical and nonsensical. This demonstrates that while there is unity of essence of the persons, there is also hierarchy and distinction.

    Not that you were saying anything contrary to any of this necessarily, I only wanted to quibble with the idea that the Position 2 is really "on the table" for Christians, due to the Creed.