Trinitarian theology and mission

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Another Xchange session at the Christian Associates Summer Connect (see also The kingdom of God as a means to an end) attempted to address the relevance (or otherwise) of Trinitarian theology for mission. This was a tough one. The different forms of Trinitarian theology that are available to us – from abstruse classical definitions through to more relational paradigms and the homely distortions of The Shack – are mostly the end-products of a long process of clarification, refinement, consolidation and conceptual translation. They are the outcome of a long-running attempt to resolve what the rational Western mind perceives as an enigma, if not as outright nonsense – that God can be both three and one. They have not been designed for the purpose of informing missional practice.

Missio Dei

We were able to make some use of the missio dei concept, which in Johannine terms becomes: the Father sent the Son, the Son sends the church, and the Father and the Son send the Spirit to empower the church. The argument is that this model locates the missional dynamic not in the nature of the church alone but in the Triune God who is the very ground of the church’s existence and purpose.

That constitutes a tidy little narrative that in principle mediates rather well between the much more complex New Testament narrative and the requirements of modern missiology – it is certainly a massive improvement on the banal and meaningless analogies (the three physical states of water; a man as father, son and husband; and so on) which are usually offered to assuage our perplexity.

The programme of reorganizing ecclesiology around missiology in this way is not without its problems: the existence of the people of God as ‘new creation’, as authentic community, is put under considerable strain if everything is reduced to the missional impulse. If the church is sent into the world, it is in order to be in the world. But I would suggest, nevertheless, that the Johannine formula may prove to be of considerable value if we allow it to direct us back to the concrete narrative categories that gave initial impetus to the later development of a Trinitarian understanding of God.

It seems to me that if we are going to understand the relevance of our modern Trinitarian constructs for mission, we need first to run the theological process in reverse, to deconstruct the modern paradigms by exposing the intellectual conditions of their development, and to disaggregate Father, Son and Holy Spirit in order to recover the narrative-historical circumstances that compelled the early church to interpret their experience of the reality of God in proto-Trinitarian terms.

My sense is that if we learn critically and imaginatively to re-narrate or re-invoke or re-live the story of how a community came to define itself in relation to Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we may find better ways of narrating our own existence after Christendom, after modernity, both in conversation and in conflict with the austere monotheism of Islam, on the one hand, and with secular pluralism, on the other.

A disaggregated Trinitarianism and the missional narrative

That suggests a complex analysis. For now, I want to try to explain what I mean by the narrative-historical shape of the original proto-Trinitarian impulse. We can take as a starting point the baptismal formula of Matthew 28:18-20:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The first thing to note is that this statement presupposes an eschatological framework. Jesus presents himself as the Son of Man, who has suffered and who has been vindicated, who has been given authority over all the powers of the ancient world. He sends out his disciples to proclaim the good news of God’s new reign to the nations and to make disciples who will also live out the implications of this good news. The horizon he sets for this ‘mission’ is the ‘end of the age’, which if Matthew 24 is anything to go by is not the end of the world but the end of the age of Second Temple Judaism – in effect, the coming war against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. In practical terms, Jesus’ concern is that there should be in existence through the Greek-Roman world – presumably amongst the Jews of the diaspora – viable communities representing an alternative existence for the people of God before the old order is completely destroyed.

The reference to baptism ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ can then be understood to evoke the terms and conditions of this particular, historically determined, eschatological narrative.

1. The Spirit is the power of God which ‘anoints’ a prophetic community to proclaim ‘good news’ to Israel, which is not the modern gospel of personal salvation but the expectation that YHWH is about to act to transform the status of his people amongst the nations of the ancient world. Behind the idea of baptism in the name of the Holy Spirit is a theme which begins with Isaiah 61:1-4, appears in the baptism of Jesus, when he identifies with repentant Israel, and culminates in the creation of a prophetic community of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, which would corporately bear witness, in the language of Joel, to the coming ‘day of the Lord’, when Israel would come under judgment and only those who call on the name of the Lord would be saved (Acts 2:19-21). There is also, no doubt, the thought that these disciples would be baptized in the name of that Spirit which enabled Jesus faithfully to walk the path of suffering (cf. Rom. 8:9-30).

2. To be baptized in the name of the Son was to be baptized specifically into the story of the Son of Man who as the representative of faithful Israel would suffer at the hands both of a corrupt Jewish leadership and of the pagan overlord; it was to be baptized into the name of the Son of God, who had been given victory over his enemies, and who would eventually be confessed as Lord throughout the empire.

3. To be baptized in the name of the ‘Father’ was to be identified with an understanding of YHWH as the God who called into existence a faithful community – a community that would survive only by means of a radical, self-giving, Christlike faith or trust in the one whom they had come to know not as a judge but as a father. The quintessential ‘Trinitarian’ experience for the early church may well have been the painful, fearful re-enactment of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane. Having received the ‘Spirit of adoption as sons’ like Jesus, the early Christians would cry, ‘Abba! Father!’, very conscious of the fact that if they were bound to suffer as Christ had suffered, they would also be glorified with him (Rom. 8:15-17).

The renewal of the missional narrative

The phrase ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ was no glib ceremonial formula for the early church. It evoked very deliberately the story that they found themselves in – the narrative trajectory which gave meaning and purpose to their existence. We are not in the same situation today, but our own context is such that we cannot rely on the assured dogmatic products of the Christendom mindset to make sense of our place in the grand scheme of things. We need to recover the narrative dynamics that inescapably and very concretely determine an existence and purpose that is ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’.

Broadly speaking, I think that after Christendom we are properly shifting from an eschatology oriented towards the restoration of a people under judgment and the victory over the pagan enemy to an eschatology of re-creation. So what does it mean to invoke the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit under the present conditions? We cannot forget to tell the whole biblical story, but perhaps now to be baptized in the name of the Spirit is to identify ourselves as a prophetic community empowered by the creative Spirit to challenge by its very existence the idolatry of an unsustainable, all-consuming global culture; to be baptized in the name of the Son is to associate ourselves with the one who as Wisdom and Logos is firstborn of all creation, the one through whom all things are made and remade; and to be baptized in the name of the Father, finally, is to restate our trust in the Creator who is present for his people as we endeavour to redefine and reembody good news in a radically different cultural landscape.

Dear Andrew,

thank you for your brilliant thoughts - I think they are valid and hold a lot of water. The retelling of the whole narrative and widening the Johannine Scope on the Trinity is exactly the goal we need to aim at, the foundation for our current situation, always having in mind that we conceptualize our understanding of the Missio Dei along our Questions and Problems. There is still so much to do...thanks for starting and sparking this here and elsewhere...