The Relational Nature of the Trinity

Over the last couple of weeks I have been reading Eugene Peterson’s Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. The beautiful theme of the book is how Christ is to be seen through creation, history and community. And, of course, Peterson pens such words with great pastoral insights, as you would expect from reading The Message.

Below is a short excerpt on the Trinity that I wanted to pull from the book and, then, share how these words impacted me:

‘Trinity is a conceptual attempt to provide coherence to God as God is revealed variously as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in our Scriptures: God is emphatically personal; God is only and exclusively God in relationship. Trinity is not an attempt to explain or define God by means of abstractions (although there is some of that, too), but a witness that God reveals himself as personal and in personal relations. The down-to-earth consequence of this is that God is rescued from the speculations of the meta-physicians and brought boldly into a community of men, women, and children who are called to enter into this communal life of love, an emphatically personal life where they experience themselves in personal terms of love and forgiveness, of hope and desire. Under the image of the Trinity we discover that we do not know God by defining him but by being loved by him and loving in return.’

Words of beauty these are. No doubt one is drawn in by Him who is an eternally relational One. If there might be one statement that jumps out more than any other in the above quote, it is this: ‘God is emphatically personal; God is only and exclusively God in relationship.’

God is personal, period. God is relational, period. There is no doubt that these two statements are true both amongst Himself and with those He created, or at least that is His desire with the creative art He formed out of the dust. Yet, most have relegated God as impersonal. I mean, let’s be honest, most Christians typically live as deists, meaning we believe He is an impersonal and uninvolved God. Or, even worse, we lean towards agnosticism, not even sure if God is really around.

I don’t negate the reality of God being transcendent, ‘other’ than us. But even in His transcendence, there is an inviting relational beauty. For the eyes that do get a glimpse of God in all His ‘otherness’, as Trinity mind you, it does wonders within, deep within the recesses of our heart.

If we could just get a glimpse of the Trinity, of Father, Son and Holy Spirit laughing, cheering, dancing, even crying, our lives would be changed. I am glad God is not a bearded Gandalf with a snow-white, wiry beard and walking stick. I believe it was G.K. Chesterton who said, ‘We have sinned and grown older than our Father.’ Oh, what a tragedy.

A little later in the book, Peterson goes on to say:

‘Trinity understands God as three-personed: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God in community, each “person” in active communion with the others.’

Yeah, that’s it. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit in active communion, continual relationship with one another. They know how to have conversation and they are quite good at relating with the others. As you read the Gospels and New Testament letters (for they are the main instrument in helping us gain a small taste into this Tri-personal God), you see the beauty of the relationship between all three. We see the Father interested in displaying His Son as the pre-eminent one, the Son solely wanting to glorify the Father, the Spirit happily empowering the Son in His human incarnation, the Son excitedly giving the Spirit to His followers, and on and on their loving and selfless bond pervade the pages of the New Testament. And this stuff is glorious! No, it is not easily penned and categorized into systematic theology, but its truth rings nonetheless.

But, remember, that is not the final say on the relational nature of the Trinity. Don’t forget about us, the crown of His creation, the pique of the story found in Genesis 1 and 2. We are the ones who were created in the image of this Tri-unified, personal God. And, though being in the image of God is an adjective describing humanity, I suppose it is also a verb. What I mean is that we are expected to experience what it means to actually be created in His image, not just talk about it on paper. There is a desire from the Trinity that we share in that image far more than we do. And if there is one thing that I believe Father, Son and Holy Spirit would have us further participate in due to being image-bearers it is relationship.

I’m sorry to say, but I don’t think dogmatic doctrine and systematic soteriology are on top of the list. As I will remind people for the rest of my life, I have no problem with doctrine and studying theology. I quite enjoy such, and I think the Bible lays groundwork for such. But, in the end, God is not one to be so minutely defined with ink and parchment, or laptop and keyboard. He is not one to be prodded and dissected. Can you imagine a husband describing his wife in only meta-physical terms? Can you imagine a friend describing another close friend through ontological reasoning? I can’t. It would be an insult.

I know doctrine is formed to guard against heresy and to help us understand the Scriptures, and so again, I don’t have an inherent problem with such. But just remember that, as Peterson has tried to encourage us afresh, we must always bear in mind, in our hearts, that God is relational at nature. He’s not someone to be first and foremost defined and admired through an 800-page theological treatise. He is One that we, first of all, revel at as we consider how the three relate together. And, not only that, but God is also one we listen to, converse with, walk with, smile at, dance with, and much more. And let us not forget to enjoy the company of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Nor let us forget to enjoy one another’s company who have been designed to be in relationship with one another.

Trinity – an interesting word our fathers coined to help understand the relational nature of the Triune God. Made in His image – a particular phrase only given to humanity, but one calling us to relate with Him as He relates with Himself, and relate to one another. Mysterious? Yes. Beautiful? Yes. True? Yes. So, let’s have a conversation…with Him and with one another.

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The Relational Kingdom

I have decided to develop this short blog post after a conversation with my wife tonight, a cool Saturday evening as we relax in the living room of our apartment situated in the small town of Hoeilaart, just outside of Brussels.

Many times, western Christianity does not line up with the Biblical model in regards to many of its teachings on particular topics. I do not say this arrogantly, nor as a cynic given up on the church, the body of Christ. There are many areas in my own life that I continue to long and pray for the Spirit of God to help me line up with Biblical teaching.

One area we seem to easily fall short of is the relational nature of God’s kingdom. It is a peculiar thing, at least to the world and even many Christians, that God has decided to relate to His people as family.

Please believe me when I say I do not negate the glory and majesty of God as sovereign Creator and Ruler over all of creation. When you read passages in Isaiah, how could you not ponder the greatness of God, especially when He gave these words to the prophet:

Lift up your eyes on high and see:
who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
calling them all by name,
by the greatness of his might,
and because he is strong in power
not one is missing.
(40:26)

And I cannot forget these words of the Almighty to Job:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
(38:4-7)

But, though God is such a glorious Creator, so ‘other than us’ (as Louie Giglio states it), He has decided to relate to His people as family.

It is God who takes the initiative to reveal Himself as Father, even in the Old Testament (Psalm 89:24-27). And those who are indwelt by the Spirit are the ones who cry out, ‘Abba, Father’ (Romans 8:15). Oh, if we only knew the full ramifications of such words.

It is Jesus, the Christ, who comes as the Son of God. Oh yeah, He is Savior and King, and He carries all other attributes that call us to worship Him. But He is the Beloved Son of the Father, and you maybe even sense God’s excitement as He verbally express this for others to hear (see Matthew 3:17). And Jesus even calls us His brothers (Hebrews 2:11; and I might add that I believe this encompasses the idea of sisters as well).

But as a friend of mine aptly stated:

‘In Biblical times, the greatest institution upheld was that of the family, and therefore God’s people were referred to and functioned as such. In 21st century America, the Church mainly functions like a business because that has become the greater institution of our culture.’

In the 2,000 years since the new covenant (covenant simply meaning a joining of two in binding relationship) was set in motion, we have moved quite a bit aways from such understanding. We would rather build up organizations and structures rather than life relationships. Don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate leadership and right church government. It is Biblical and very helpful. But in the end, we are called to be in relationship with people. We can become so task-oriented in our ‘ministry’ that we forget that we are actually trying to reach and relate with human beings. These are people we are calling back to our Father, into the love relationship that we ourselves have hopefully entered into. But maybe we have lost sight of it as John said in Revelation 2:4:

But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.

I like to read books and write. But when it is all said and done, I am not going to look back on my life and wish I had read a few more theological treatises or even written a book or two that fit nicely on your shelf. I am going to wish I had spent more time with people, more time pouring my life into them, and hopefully seeing such relational life reciprocated.

Yes, we have a task to get on with. I do know the ‘Great Commission’. But if our eyes are so fixed on the task, we will miss the opportunity to speak to people’s hearts. And, as Eldredge would always try and remind us, it is Christ who came first and foremost to reawaken the heart. For as the wise man of Proverbs put it, ‘Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life’ (4:23). That is the central place, and it is our Father who calls out to that central place.

I must admit, I am glad that the kingdom of God is to be primarily focused around family and relationship. The Father, Son and Spirit know there is a task to be completed. They’ve been working on it for quite a while (a lot longer than you and I combined). But they would rather win people’s hearts than walk all over them or heavily burden them with a task list. That was what the Pharisees were good at – the burdening part, that is (Matthew 23:4).

Thus, let us remember the Trinity and how they outwork relationship first – with each other and with us. And my hope is that we will draw upon this truth for the rest of our lives whatever our gifting, calling and vocation. Let us bring our focus back to relationship, back to the importance of family, back to the heart of the matter. For when we do, we will then know true life eternal.