By Will Graham
Whatever your opinion may be regarding the Internet, no one can doubt that its impact on contemporary society has been nothing short of colossal. Within the last fifteen years alone, the ongoing expansion of online communication has single handedly reshaped and revolutionized just about every sphere of human existence. The Net- so to speak- has worked wonders, so much so that recent surveys show that up to a third of the earth’s seven billion-strong population has been Net active at some moment or another in their lives. Who wouldn’t like to be that popular?
Interestingly enough, the Internet derives its name from ‘interrelated computer networks’. And it is in this context of ‘interrelatedness’ from which we also derive the spiderish (don’t worry, I know that word isn’t in the dictionary) metaphor of ‘the Web’ i.e. the idea that everything online is knitted together in a global mesh of interrelatedness and mutually dependent communication.
Before we go any further, what on earth am I giving a lesson about the Internet for if we’re meant to be doing Bible study and talking Trinity? Well, there’s a method to my madness. It just so happens that the Net constitutes one of the best modern illustrations of how our Triune God is revealed in Scripture. I’m pretty sure we’re well aware of the classic analogies used in an attempt to transmit what the Trinity was all about (although each of them falls somewhat short of full theological accuracy). Augustine proposed the famous examples of ‘Lover, Loved and Love’ and ‘Memory, Intellect and Will’; others preferred the mathematical formulation 1x1x1=1; the Belfast-born C.S. Lewis spoke of the three dimensions of ‘Length, Breadth and Width’; and last, but not least, who can forget Patrick’s much quoted exposition on the Shamrock? If those guys were alive today, it’s fairly probable that they would point to the Web as a great example of what God is all about. How come? Allow me to explain.
The Christian God exists in eternal community. Strictly speaking, God is a community. He exists in an ongoing blissful relationship that is as eternal as eternity itself. Christianity does not believe in some ‘isolated’ and ‘individualistic’ celestial figure somewhere up there in the great beyond who spends all day long muttering away to himself in private. That is not the God of the Bible. The Scriptural God is the Trinitarian God, the One who exists in perfect harmony and love from before the foundation of the world. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit find supreme delight and joy in one another. And in their continual harmony, they co-exist in a dynamic state of interrelatedness and a mutually dependent relationship. No member of that blessed society is ever alone. And hence our Internet analogy!
Now, all that Internet business may be fine and dandy, but if we want to work out the implications of the Trinitarian God for our day and age, we first must deal with some of the severest objections to belief in a Triune God. The most common one is that the word Trinity isn’t actually found in the Scriptural dictionary (just like spiderish) therefore we cannot use it. Well, the word ‘Incarnation’ isn’t in the Bible. So what? Does that mean we can’t use it to speak of Jesus? Of course we can! It’s just a means of expressing a complex idea of Scripture in a simple term that all can understand. The word ‘Bible’ isn’t in the Bible. Does that mean we shouldn’t use it? I sure hope not. The word ‘Internet’ isn’t in the Bible. Does that mean we mustn’t use it? You should sure hope not because you’re online now reading this article. There’s not a speck of sense to such nonsensical logic. Balderdash! In fact, now that I think about it, not a single word of the English language is in the Bible. So, following such flawed reasoning, we’d all better stop talking a.s.a.p.
A second objection is that the Trinity has nothing whatsoever to do with human experience. “If I cannot feel it, it cannot exist.” To cut a long answer short, such a mentality is purely egoistic, individualistic and narcissistic. It finds its philosophical roots in the secular European Enlightenment that put man slap-bang at the centre of the universe once and for all. Again I say balderdash! As if the world revolves around what you and I puny mortals experience! The world revolves around God and His experiences. If revelation teaches us that the Father sent the Son in the Spirit to earth; then regardless of our self-centred mindset, that is what happens. I’m sorry to have to break this to you- but we are not the centre of the universe. God is.
The last objection is another fruit of Enlightenment thought, namely, pragmatism. “The Trinity has no practical use therefore we can dispense with it.” Such an attitude is found in the indifference of Immanuel Kant, “From the doctrine of the Trinity, taken literally, nothing whatsoever can be gained for practical purposes, even if one believes that one comprehended it- and less still if one is conscious that it surpasses all our concepts.” Wait for it… balderdash! Needless to say, I don’t agree with the analysis of our dear Prussian friend, and it is to this issue of the practical aspects of Trinitarian doctrine to which we now turn.
If God is an eternal exchange of love and communion then that will have radical implications for every aspect of our lives (if we take the necessary time and study to work them out). First and foremost, it is going to change the mode in which we conceive the church. Let’s find out why. I want to look at two factors: firstly, the leadership of the church; and secondly, the renewed significance of the church.
Firstly, leadership. The church is God’s reflection on earth. And if the church is to be that reflection, she obviously must know what God is like. We’ve already established that the biblical God is the Triune God. He abides in the bliss of communal love between the three divine persons. In the Trinity, therefore, we discover no justification for a dictatorial leadership that smashes others into subjection by the power of his fists. God doesn’t abide in a hierarchical structure that only serves to crush the lowly and exalt the mighty. Rather, God is an eternal community which operates on the basis of love to grant liberty and freedom to others. Here in the West, and especially in ex-strongholds of Roman Catholicism (like in Spain where I minister or in Italy, Poland, the Republic of Ireland, parts of Germany, etc.), the church is synonymous with abuse, heavy-handedness and a lust for socio-political power. Such a church came into existence because she was not defined in a truly Trinitarian manner. Ever since Constantine’s conversion back in the fourth century, the Gentile way of imperialism, hierarchies and institutionalism seeped into the church’s thinking about herself and history testifies that the results were disastrous. In contrast to this, the church must reflect God’s community.
Much closer to the biblical ideal of the Trinity is the idea of thinking of the church in terms of the “people of God” or the “fellowship of the Spirit.” This is an important step because it helps us to sidestep the temptation of defining the church in terms of roles of authority. Having said that, this model by no means diminishes leadership, but it puts church leaders into their correct biblical standing. Pastors, evangelists, teachers, etc. have their own God-given function to fulfil in the body of Christ just as other saints in the church are called to dedicate themselves equally whole heartedly to business or other work in the secular realm. The whole life of a believer is holy; not just his (or her) Sunday life. We are all equally important in God’s house; we just have different gifts and talents to put into practice according to the sovereign grace of the Lord that has been bestowed upon us (1 Corinthians 12:7). This means that we no longer have to bow down before powerful men within the church, kissing their hands and calling them ‘Father’. But rather, we become a dynamic, mutually established people wherein every believer has a say and can fulfil the Reformation’s principle of the priesthood of all believers.
Secondly, the renewed significance of church. The Trinity speaks to us of a communal God. That means that if we are to be God’s image on the earth, we must abide in communion with other believers. God is a social God. This insight spells the death of any freelance believer out there who bunny hops from church to church, criticising all of them and settling down in none. That is not the Trinitarian way. If God were some kind of super-individual who just kept Himself to Himself in narcissistic solitude, then we could justify such activity in a believer’s life; but our God is triune. He is not a lone ranger. A believer who does not belong to and pour his life into the local church is not reflecting God’s image on the earth. That may come as a hard pill to swallow; but it’s the Bible. Of course we don’t deny times when the believer is called to be apart with the Lord (like the examples of Abraham, Jeremiah and Jesus in the Bible), but after a needful time of isolation with God, they were cast back into the realm of public life. Remember: there is no autonomous sector within God. He is always in relationship. Our ecclesiology must measure up to that divine standard.
Fellowship with the church, after all, is one of the Holy Spirit’s means of transforming us into the image of Christ. We are all inter-dependent. I need you and you need me. And we all must esteem one another as more important than ourselves. There is no autonomous person. Even before you were born, you depended upon the seed of your father and the womb of your mother. Once brought into this world, you were shaped by an endless list of family, friends, loved ones and other social influences (both positive and negative) that have made you into the person you are today. And, above all, you are dependent upon God. God's means for influencing you for good is the communion of the saints is the communion of the saints. Together as the baptized community we hear the Word preached and forgive each other’s faults, celebrating the feast of the Lord’s Supper. Such an institution is healthy, good for the soul and body and derives from the mandate of the Triune God.
All in all, we can see that the Trinity is not as remote from life as it once was. Kant got it wrong. Only a coherent doctrine of the Trinity applied to the church will be able to revolutionize our church life in the light of the coming kingdom of God. The primitive church had a triune church mentality and that afforded them the dynamism and impulse they so needed to cross all social, racial, economic and national borders to preach of the saving grace of Christ. As a shadow of the Triune God, they opened themselves to others; and rather than settling down as a hierarchical man-made system that diminished the fiery motor of the Holy Spirit, they gave full liberty to God and saw the unity of the church established throughout a great diversity of cultures and tongues. Unity in diversity- just like the spiderish Web. Unity in diversity- just like the Trinity.