Chapter OneThe Opening of
John D. Witvliet
When I was a little boy, I naively thought that God lived behind - or at
least beyond - the stained-glass window at the front of my church. This
was a beautiful, neo-Gothic church, with lovely stained-glass windows,
including a round one located up front near the ceiling. I thought that
God lived there because that's where our attention was implicitly directed.
We sang our hymns of praise and thanks while facing the front of
church, to God "on high." Our offerings were carried forward. Everything
we did implicitly reinforced the notion that as we worshiped, God
was "before us" or "above us."
I know that the experience of some of my students is quite different.
Their journal entries suggest that they tend to imagine that in worship
God dwells "in their hearts." In worship, they expectantly wait for a
warm emotional experience that confirms it. They know, of course, that
God is not contained inside them. Still, they implicitly sense that God is
present most fully in worship as the One who lives within them.
C. S. Lewis addressed this question of how Christians conceive of
God in a brief commentary on the doctrine of the Trinity. Eager to explain
how Trinitarian theology is not merely abstract or mathematical
but can be experiential, Lewis wrote,
You may ask, "If we cannot imagine a three-personal Being, what is
the good of talking about Him?" Well, there isn't any good talking
about Him. The thing that matters is being actually drawn into that
three-personal life, and that may begin any time - tonight, if you
like. What I mean is this. An ordinary simple Christian kneels down
to say his prayers. He is trying to get into touch with God. But if a
Christian, he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God:
God, so to speak, inside him. But he also knows that all his real knowledge
of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God - that
Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him.
You see what is happening. God is the thing to which he is praying - the
goal he is trying to reach. God is also the thing inside him which is
pushing him on - the motive power. God is also the road or bridge
along which he is being pushed to that goal. So that the whole threefold
life of the three-personal being is actually going on in that ordinary
little bedroom where an ordinary Christian is saying his
This is a different and altogether remarkable way of imagining God. In
this way of thinking, God is not only the One before us, "up there" to receive
our praise. God is also "alongside us" in the person of Jesus, perfecting
our otherwise imperfect songs and prayers. God is also at work
"within us," prodding us, prompting us, encouraging us, and even - when
we are unable to pray-praying through us (Rom. 8:26). "It is one
experience of God," as Sarah Coakley describes it, "but God as simultaneously
(i) doing the praying in me, (ii) receiving that prayer, and (iii) in
that exchange, consented to in me, inviting me into the Christic life of redeemed
This is a vision of God that is, we might say, geographically complex.
God inhabits three places in our imagination at the same time (which is,
of course, harder for us to imagine than for God to accomplish!).
Though it would be wrongly self-centered to say that we are at "the center"
of this activity, it may be helpful to picture ourselves right there "in
the middle" of it. Or to ponder Robert Jenson's evocative image: "The
particular God of Scripture does not just stand over against us; he envelops
us." In this vision, we still pray and sing "to" each divine person
"Holy, holy, holy . blessed Trinity!", but we are also aware that we pray
and sing "through Christ," "in the power of the Spirit."
This is also a remarkably active vision of God. The picture here is
not of God as a passive being up in heaven, waiting for us to sing a little
louder and pray a little harder before conferring a blessing. That description
better fits Baal! (1 Kings 18). No, God is active in prompting our worship,
in receiving it, and in perfecting it.
The Trinitarian Grammar or Logic of Worship
The doctrine of the Trinity serves as a "grammar" to organize how we
describe both divine life and the relationship with God we are privileged
to share. This "Trinitarian grammar" draws together and depends on
several scriptural themes.
First, there are the biblical texts that explain the theological dynamics
of our speech to God - that is, all of our prayers, praise, and
thanksgiving. God is the One who receives our worship, as Jesus' familiar
words in John 4:24 simply assume: "Those who worship the Father
. worship in spirit and in truth." Jesus Christ, the second person of the
Trinity, is the One who perfects our worship. Just as Hebrew priests
represented the people of Israel before God, so Jesus represents us before
God "because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood.
Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through
him, because he always lives to intercede for them" (Heb. 7:23-25). The
Holy Spirit is the One who prompts our prayer in the first place: "[by
him] we cry 'Abba, Father'"; and when we are too weak to pray, "the
Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express"
(Rom. 8:15, 26).
These themes come together in
the straightforward Pauline assertion
that "through Christ we both
[Jew and Gentile] have access to the
Father by one Spirit" (Eph. 2:18). We
might call this pattern the Trinitarian
grammar or logic of our address
to God, the "human-Godward" aspect
Second, there are the biblical
texts that reveal the theological dynamics
of God's speech to us. A
Trinitarian pattern can be perceived
here as well. God is the One who
sends the Spirit to prompt us. "God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our
hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'" (Gal. 4:6). Jesus Christ is the "content" of
God's speaking to us. He is the "Word" who comes to us "full of grace
and truth" (John 1:1, 14), "the radiance of God's glory and the exact
representation of his being" (Heb. 1:3). God the Holy Spirit is the One who
prompts us to hear God speaking to us. "We have received . the Spirit
who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us"
(1 Cor. 2:12). Thus, the "God-humanward" speech also has a Trinitarian
So both human-divine and divine-human communication work out
of Trinitarian logic. No wonder so many Christian theologians have developed
tight, symmetrical Trinitarian definitions of worship. Thomas F.
Torrance, for example, describes worship this way: "In our worship the
Holy Spirit comes forth from God, uniting us to the response and obedience
and faith and prayer of Jesus, and returns to God, raising us up in
Jesus to participate in the worship of heaven and in the eternal communion
of the Holy Trinity."
The Doctrine of the Trinity as Fundamental and Distinctive
This Trinitarian way of thinking has very deep roots in the Christian tradition.
For many Christians who stand in the long tradition of classical
or orthodox Christianity, the doctrine of the Trinity is a fundamental
way of thinking about God. It is at once one of the most complex, luminous,
and perhaps misunderstood of all Christian doctrines. Yet Trinity
doctrine is based on scriptural assertions about divine identity that
ground the kind of Trinitarian grammar already described:
1. The Bible teaches that there is One God, the God of Abraham and
Sarah and their offspring, the One who created the world and redeemed
the people of Israel: "The Lord our God is one" (Deut. 6:4).
This means that we don't have to worry that there are divided loyalties
or competing interests in divine life.
2. The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ is a divine person, the One who
was with God in the beginning, and, in fact, was God (John 1:1). This
Jesus Christ is the "exact representation of God's being" (Heb. 1:1),
and the perfect image or "icon" of God (Col. 1:15).
3. The Bible strongly suggests, and traditional Christian theology insists,
that the Holy Spirit is also a divine person (Acts 5:3-4; 2 Cor.
When the early church put these biblical assertions together, the result
was the doctrine of the Trinity, a doctrine that slowly emerged through
centuries of theological reflection, often colored by competing philosophical
and political interests. Key steps in this reflection were the
church councils that produced carefully formulated creedal summaries
of the Christian faith, including the Nicene Creed in A.D. 381, and the
Athanasian Creed, which developed in the Latin West after the time of
Augustine. The theme that echoes through these documents, and early
theologians like Athanasius and Augustine, can be summed up in this
concise way: "The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God;
yet, there are not three gods, but one God."
Interestingly, conversations about worship and prayer were among
the most important parts of these early church discussions of the Trinity.
One of the pastoral questions that prompted the church's reflection
on the identity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit was directly related to prayer
and worship. Was it legitimate to worship Christ as fully divine - and
to pray to Christ? If so, then what about the Holy Spirit? The early
church answered "yes" to both questions. As a result, many liturgical
prayers and hymns addressed Christ and the Holy Spirit directly, such as
"Maranatha" ("Come, Lord Jesus") and "Veni Creator Spiritus" ("Come,
Creator Spirit"). Even today, most hymns about the Holy Spirit are
prayers to the Spirit (check the Pentecost section of nearly any Christian
hymnal or songbook).
The Doctrine of the Trinity as Pastorally Significant
The early church debates were much more complex than this brief treatment
can suggest. They featured intricate arguments regarding what
precisely was "three" about God (what is a divine person?), what precisely
was "one" about God (what is the divine essence?), and what this
meant for how the nature and identity of Jesus should be understood.
Those discussions about the internal coherence of the doctrine continue
to this day. But sometimes those discussions, important as they are, miss
the vital pastoral implications of the doctrine and the significant ways
that Trinity doctrine can ground and nurture the practice of worship.
A memorable sentence in Anne Lamott's memoir Traveling Mercies
invites us to probe those pastoral dimensions. She says, "I had never
stopped believing in God . [but] mine was a patchwork God, sewn together
from bits of rag and ribbon, Eastern and Western, pagan and Hebrew,
everything but the kitchen sink and Jesus." All of us live with a
"patchwork God," with our own limited understanding of God's being.
Ours might be sewn together from children's Bible-story books or from
old epic movies, from favorite hymns or Christmas cards, from Gallup
polls or political debates. The inevitable result is some confusion about
how to worship. Is our worship an act of obeisance, of currying divine
favor, of nurturing warm sentimentality, or of expressing prophetic
zeal? Should our worship arise out of gratitude and wonder, or out of
guilt, fear, or shame?
In the context of these competing impulses, the doctrine of the Trinity
is a clarifying, reassuring, and imagination-expanding resource. Consider
three crucial pastoral corollaries.
First, the doctrine of the Trinity means that God is not different
from what we see in Jesus. In Deist or Unitarian theology, Jesus Christ,
while still viewed as a key teacher, a good person, and a remarkable
prophet, is not viewed on a par with God. In contrast, the doctrine of the
Trinity maintains the scandalous claim that Jesus Christ is perfectly divine.
As such, Jesus is a faithful witness, a transparent window into divine
life. "If you want to know who God is," says theologian William
Placher, "attend to these stories about Jesus Christ," for Jesus is the "best
clue to who God is." On this view, we need not fear that God is other
than what we see in Christ. As Daniel Migliore concludes, "Classical
Trinitarian doctrine . wants to say that there is no sinister or even demonic
side of God altogether different from what we know in the story
of Jesus who befriended the poor and forgave sinners. God is self-expanding,
other-affirming, community-building love."
Second, a Trinitarian doctrine of God sturdily reinforces our understanding
of God's lavish grace or unmerited favor toward us. The New
Testament teaches that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are agents of divine
redemption. Their work accomplishes salvation for us and for the whole
cosmos. They are the savior and advocate on whom we rely. From a Deist
or Unitarian view, the exemplary human Jesus shows us the way but
ultimately leaves us with a lot of work to do to save ourselves and the
world around us. But from a Trinitarian view, in which Jesus Christ and
the Holy Spirit are seen as not less than God, their actions can be trusted
to be fully effective. The triune God not only models salvation but accomplishes
it. This frees us to live in grateful obedience, free from the
worry that somehow we need to add more to the work accomplished by
Christ and the Spirit.
Third, the doctrine of the Trinity offers us the magnificent, counter-cultural
claim that divine life consists most fundamentally in interpersonal
communion. This One God in three Persons exists in relation to
and for the other. At the heart of the universe is not the "will to power"
(Nietzsche) but rather "Being-in-Communion" (Zizioulas). In contrast
to a Deist or Unitarian theology that tends to view divine life as one of
pristine isolation, Trinitarian theology stresses that God's life is one of
abundant communion, a kind of fellowship (or koinonia) that overflows
to include us.
In sum, God is reliably known in Christ. Grace is sufficient. Communion
abounds at the heart of the universe. These claims are so lovely,
so musical, and so luminous that not even a lifetime of theological reflection
can begin to exhaust them. No wonder Jonathan Edwards simply
concluded, "God has appeared glorious to me on account of the
Making the Trinitarian Shape of Christian Worship Clear
Yet, this music often falls on deaf ears. Often the doctrine of the Trinity
is dismissed as either obtuse or irrelevant. It is viewed as a mathematical
puzzle to be solved rather than a pastoral resource for clearing our
clouded imaginations. Millions of Christians, even those otherwise
committed to orthodox, classical Christian teaching, have never been invited
into the riches of Trinitarian worship, Trinitarian thinking, and