Christianity as Community

imagesIt’s becoming increasingly clear to me that an individual’s enjoyment of Christian identity and mission (that is, of being Christ’s body missionally present in the earth) is not possible apart from communal existence. And by communal existence I mean a community whose individuals are defined by community, not a community whose ‘community’ is just the sum of its individual parts. Forgive me for being less than clear. I’m still settling in.

I also have a growing conviction that evangelical faith inherently militates against the formation of Christian identity because evangelicals define faith and identity so individualistically. The ‘Church’ for evangelicals seems to be more of a ‘group of individuals’ whose faith and salvation are self-contained from beginning to end within each of the individuals that comprise the group. ‘Faith’ and ‘salvation’ turn out to be only contingently related to being the ‘Church’ as a place where I express, not where I am impressed, and this may be why evangelicals as a rule don’t think there are any authorities outside the individual on matters of faith and interpretation, which in turn partly explains why we evangelicals reinvent the Church every generation or so. We are in some ways the ultimate identity crisis.

Can evangelicals transcend this dysfunction inherent to their ecclesiology? I believe so. But it takes time and work because the more an evangelical turns to history for an understanding of a truly communal formation of faith, identity and mission, the more at odds he’s likely to find himself with present evangelical expressions of it.

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Tying a Trinity Knot—Part 3

imagesCAOX8RNXWhy should the Trinity be essential to Christianity?

The main Patristic reason (and mine too) is that our final salvation requires a Triune God. The Unitarian God cannot ultimately save. Once this is perceived and experienced, its clarity grows. I’ll try to express my own understanding of this in three key claims:

(1) God cannot give us in salvation that which he doesn’t possess.
(2) What is not adopted is not healed.
(3) The salvation of humanity is finally achieved through participation in God’s being and life (2Pet 1.4).

Working backwards from (3), human salvation isn’t the achieving of a legal status before God. It is in the end nothing less than the perfection of our natures, our actually becoming, in relationship to God, all that he intended us to be. God saves us not by a wave of the divine wand and simply declaring it to be so. We are finally saved/perfected in union with God, in relationship to him whose own existence and life achieve and ground the abiding perfection of our natures. One friend recently insisted that God is free to forgive us apart from incarnation and the Cross. Quite true, though entirely beside the point. Final salvation is so much more than forgiveness.

On to (2). By what means is created human being to participate in the life which saves, that is, in the life of uncreated divine being, and so find its final fulfillment? The two must be united. God must adopt or take up human being into his own life. So incarnation becomes essential to the redemption and healing of humanity (contrary to those who suppose that our final and fullest perfection in God is conceivable apart from incarnation). If our salvation is participation in divine being, and if our participation in divine being requires incarnation, then incarnation is the ground and means of our salvation. Incarnation saves, and it saves because our created nature which requires relationship to and union with the uncreated God is taken up by him personally and irrevocably.

Which brings us to (1). Is God essentially, within himself, that life and love sufficient to save and fulfill us? If our final salvation requires participation in the life of God, then the question is — Is God’s life sufficient to save? Is God’s way of existing/living what we require to exist/live in the fullest sense possible? And this is where Unitarianism is exposed as non-Christian and void of saving efficacy, because a Unitarian God cannot be (in and of Godself, essentially) a loving and personal being. How can a solitary, unrelated Unitarian God whose existence and essential experience by definition are void of the personal address and response definitive of love and personal being (“I/Thou”) be that which bestows fully relational and loving existence upon us? A Unitarian God stands alongside created individuals as needing that which bestows fully personalized, loving existence. The Fathers saw this, which is why their understanding of salvation as fully realized loving/personal existence, the kind of existence and life which are essentially God’s, available to us through Christ, eventually and naturally (and rightly) led to a trinitarian understanding of God.

If God—the One true God—isn’t a God who is love, who is essentially a fully realized personal and loving being apart from all created being—then God is not in himself that which saves us and if God is not that which saves us, we are lost.

Tying a Trinity Knot—Part 2

trinityknot_V41I won’t address here the Trinitarian texts. I’ll agree that they nowhere explicitly describe a full-blown version of the doctrine. It’s also the case that these same texts nowhere describe a full-blown Unitarianism either, though the Unitarian argument proceeds, arguably, on the basis that since there’s no full-blown doctrine of the Trinity explicit in the texts, Unitarianism must be true. After all, Christianity was born out of Judaism and early believers were all Jewish monotheists, right? What other options are there? But it isn’t that simple.

The earliest believers were Jewish and monotheist, yes, but their experience and worship of the risen Christ demanded a rethink of God, and that’s where we find them in the NT texts, in the middle of that rethink. Some aspects of this rethink are clear to them. Others are not as developed. But there’s enough implicit in the texts, and enough explicit in their experience and worship of the risen Christ, to see that later generations were right to draw the conclusions they did regarding the belief that God is internally self-related or Triune. Not rethinking God and just maintaining the established monotheism wasn’t going to work because it simply couldn’t accommodate their experience of salvation through and worship of Christ. Trinitarianism is where that ‘rethink’ was headed, and it short-sheets our theology to insist that simply because there’s no explicit Trinitarian doctrine in the text, the doctrine is either false or, if not false, not essential to anything.

The early believers were simply not finished unpacking what kind of ‘One God’ God must be if (as their monotheism rightly told them) God alone is worthy of worship and if (as their experience of Christ rightly told them) Jesus was deserving of that unique worship.

But if one is a believer in the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, interpreted as meaning every confessing Christian has the responsibility to determine and interpret Scripture independent of the tradition-embodied-community (never mind where Scripture actually explicitly expounds such a doctrine), then in the end nothing about traditional beliefs and nothing said by other Christians in any format is ultimately prescriptive for Christian identity and there are no categorically defining beliefs which are irreducibly communal in nature. If “I” read the Bible this or that way, I get to call it “Christianity.” I define the Faith for me. You get to define it for yourself, and so forth. I’m told by believers in sola scriptura that this does not permit a ‘free for all’. But all we have is their word for it, though I can think of no authority upon which a ‘free for all’ would be defeated.

If this is your view, it’s going to be difficult to be open to the idea that the authoritative text of Scripture isn’t the text-as-blank-slate and then interpreted-solely-by-each-individual sort of text. My sense is that while there’s something unique and authoritative about Scripture, the authoritative text is the text-interpreted-in/through-the-community of those who offer to Christ the worship God alone deserves, the same worship that produced the very texts in question.

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Tying a Trinity Knot—Part 1

trinity-knotBeing recently asked why I would ever insist that Trinitarianism is essential to Christian faith and experience, I thought I’d like to try to describe why belief in the Trinity is not only important but is, in the end, non-negotiable.

Let me begin by saying that I don’t mean (and don’t believe any of the Fathers meant) to say that unless a person comprehends the Trinity and intentionally confesses a studied doctrine she cannot in any measure experience Christ’s salvation. One mistake some make when thinking through this is to suppose that only beliefs which are absolutely necessary to the initial experience of “getting saved” (I don’t much care for that phrase any more) should be allowed to define essential Christian belief. That is, whatever one needs to believe to enlist, to sign up, to “get in” with God in the Christian sense is all one should ever need to believe. And since—so the thinking goes—one doesn’t need to understand a doctrine of the Trinity in order to begin a life with God, belief in a Trinity isn’t necessary to Christian faith and experience.

There are a couple of problems here. The first is to think that “getting saved” (to go with that language) defines a kind of end to Christian experience, a point of “arrival” if not a “crossing” of a finish line. You’re “in”—pause—and whatever it took to get you in is all that the Church should ever consider “essential” to the articulation of its experience, identity and destiny. One reasons that since one can begin life with God through, say, trusting Christ without any conception of the Trinity, it follows that one can mature into the fullest experience and expression of human existence as God intended it without the Trinity. But does that follow? Why must successfully ending a journey, or achieving one’s telos, not require of one any more than beginning it required? Secondly, such reasoning is so individualistic (typical of Protestants and Evangelicals) that it fails to appreciate the role that shared belief and community play in defining what the Christian faith essentially is for those who wish to identify with and belong to it. The problem is that for many today, community doesn’t have a role in defining Christian faith and experience.

Sadly, these mistakes are built into Protestantism which only a sincere intention will help Evangelicals consciously avoid. Might a person begin a life with God with no comprehension of the Trinity? I certainly hope so. Might a person step into faith believing that Christian faith and experience are all about her “individual” journey? Let’s hope so, since this is pretty much where all us Protestants and Evangelicals get our start (and where a frightfully increasing number of us have parked ourselves permanently). But since one can launch out into faith in such circumstances, should the faith and beliefs that define the Church as Christ’s Body and which express its identity and destiny grounded in the identity of God not exceed those circumstances? I think not. Stay tuned.

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