The Trinity and Free-will

The Trinity

“Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One.” (Deuteronomy 6:4) Known as the Shema, this declaration of God as one is tremendously powerful. It has shaped the belief systems of three world religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This monotheistic God is complete in existence and untouchable in the great beyond. Yet within the Bible is revealed more about this One God that requires us to dig a little deeper into the reality of God for further explanation of passages that reveal a plurality to God without diminishing his unity. Psalm 2 and 110:1 are great Messianic passages that seem to imply some sort of relationality between God. And further, the implications of the Spirit as divinity show up in Genesis 1 and 6, and hints are found in Nehemiah and Isaiah. When revelation is made complete in the New Testament, we truly begin to experience a greater fullness of this apparently revealed reality of a God that is at the same time One yet expressed as Three.[1] This idea of the Trinity is foundational to the Christian experience and brings with it tremendous truth that can help us as we grow in our understanding of God.

The theological truth of the Trinity was hard fought in the early church. And it was against heresies that the acceptable form of Trinitarian construct was finally agreed upon. The battle lines were typically drawn along two opposites, dealing primarily with the problem of Jesus’ fit within the Trinity. Either Jesus was fully God, or he was not. While it is a pretty ‘simple’ distinction, it was the grounds for serious disagreement within the church in some foundational ways. It was the Arian controversy that led to the final declaration of the Nicean Council. Arius would not recognize Jesus as part of the Godhead, instead referring to him as a created being, with a beginning in time, and thus not God. The Council condemned this view, and eventually agreed upon the creed: “[T]he Son is ‘begotten of the Father as only begotten, that is, from the essence of the Father; God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father.’”[2] While controversy still remained concerning the wording through several other councils, the basic premise was established for Christ to be God. The acceptance of the Holy Spirit as equal with the Father and the Son was less controversial, but this member of the Godhead would not receive equal treatment in practice until much later in the Christian Church.

When looking at the Trinity as revealed in the Christian witness of the Word of God, perhaps the best way to start is to begin with the idea of the ‘Threeness’ of God, and work toward the ‘Oneness’ of God. In agreement with Fairbairn, the New Testament seems to begin with this premise. Throughout the New Testament, and in the Book of John in particular, the reality of relationship between the Godhead is evident in Jesus’ relationship in particular, and the activity of the Holy Spirit in general. This triune relationship gives us the understanding of a God that is in relationship with God-self, eternally complete and consistent within that relationship.[3] This relationship is Love, the triune God revealing the truth of 1 John 4:16, “And we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and the one who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him.”  Without God as social and community, how are we to understand love, and how does God not in threeness understand love if there is not subject and object and essence of Love? “[T]he statement “God is love” refers primarily to the eternal, relational, intratrinitarian fellowship among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who together are the one God. In this way, God is love within the divine reality, and in this sense, through all eternity, God is the social Trinity, the community of love.”[4]

Understanding God in this way, as Three-in-One, is a full expression of the Biblical reality of God. Moving from the Old Testament to the New Testament, God’s revelation of Godself is revealed most fully in the reality of Christ as the Incarnation, eternally begotten, Son of God. This unveiling and the subsequent indwelling of the Spirit of Christ in the believer shows the desire of God to relate to his creation, in this remarkably relational, immanent, and transformative way. The Trinity is complicated to understand since we are talking in terms that are well beyond the grasp of human understanding. But the Trinity is also the most satisfying way for fallible, broken humanity to encounter the God of all creation.

Systematic Implications

“Zeus, whoever thou art, upholding the earth, throned above the earth, whether human intelligence or natural law, mysterious and unknown, I praise thee: for thou movest on a noiseless path and guidest all human affairs to their just end!”[5] Thus begins a prayer included in Euripides’ work, The Women of Troy written in 415 BCE. Alluded to in this is the struggle that is endemic among those who believe in God – how does God guide, direct, and provide for the movement of humanity and creation, and perhaps the larger question, “Does God ‘make’ this happen?” As we move to the Trinitarian God of the Bible, how do we come to grips with these difficult realities? Within this construct, we also have to deal with the freedom of humanity, if such a thing truly exists along side a God who is truly God. The unexpectedly candid prayer to Zeus is probably uncomfortably familiar to many Christians in the question it raises! This God that we serve, the One that we worship and Praise, what is our relationship to him, His relation to the creation and us, and what is our reaction to these truths? And this has been plainly evident from the time humankind has struggled with the concept of divinity and God-ness. Throughout writings from Plato, stoic philosophers, other Greek writings and plays, the interplay between human freedom and divine decree has been variously described as fate along with it futility to refuse it.[6] But what about Christian faith and our understanding of Providence? Is it futile? Or is there a relational reality that gives true human freedom to explore, grow, mature, and decide in freedom? This will be our starting point, followed by an exploration of the interplay of freedom with the providence of God.

The ultimate struggle of Providence deals with human freedom. Are we free or are we compelled in some way, inexorably tied to a predetermined future outcome? And does this outcome also impact the natural world? Or is there a separation between the two, compartmentalized for distinct purposes? Taking cues from early understanding of providence as a characteristic of God, theologians like Calvin have opted for a strict understanding of God’s activities, determining all activity of the human endeavor and the natural world in their entirety. This deterministic view of God takes any free-will of humanity and relegates it to a foolish proposition. On an opposite extreme is a newer view of providence with a broad name of ‘open-theism.’ This view lifts human free-will and devalues or eliminates divine providence. “The divine will is accomplished, if at all, by its influence on the free actions of creatures.”[7] Each of these seems unsatisfactory as a complete rule for understanding Providence and its role in creation. The dichotomy created through lack of any free-will or lack of any divine determinacy is unacceptable in light of the reality of relational interactions between creator and created.

In embracing the Trinity, we can find a joyful drawing of creation into relationships that serve several purposes. For love to be true, there must be freedom. And, as noted above, the Triune God celebrates Love in Godself as a triune unity in eternal relation. This relation extends to creation as seen in the biblical passages that celebrate God’s providing for nature (See Genesis 8:22 as a promise of God to sustain nature after the flood; Psalm 104 as a declaration of God’s ability to determine seasons, and times). We also find the activity of the Trinity in relationship with humanity in the sending of Christ as the Incarnation at just the right moment, assuming a careful watching and waiting of an involved God (See Galatians 4:4). [8] Then we have the indwelling of the Sprit of Christ upon and within the church as a corporate reality and upon believers as individuals. This indwelling serves to guide those willing to enter the kingdom reality of God’s influence. So, for the believer, there is a willing deference to the direction and leading of God. The Trinity is in direct relationship with the follower of Christ, through the salvific action of Christ on the Cross, and through the indwelling of the Spirit. Broadly then, we can see God’s providence as potentially active through the relationship of Christ and those who have chosen to identify with him.

This view of providence also provides room for the continued action of God in the creation. The dynamic relatability of God to creation is compelling. In the words of Inbody, “In a dynamic world, God is not so much the creator from the past as the creative power from the future, the lure or persuasion of inner direction present in every situation. …Contingency, chance, randomness, temporality, potentiality, and relationality are affirmed within both the world and God, either symbolically or ontologically.”[9] God, through the richness of Trinitarian relationship, is interacting in the past, the present, and the future, through all avenues of cosmic laws and biological discoveries, wooing his creation through influence, not through dictate. Thus, the beauty of free-will and divine determinism is sustained. Although surely not exhaustive in any specific sense, the above shows the active Trinity in creation and individuals, specifically those of the Kingdom of God.

 

Personal Reflection

This has been an extremely helpful exercise for me personally. On multiple levels, this has challenged me to dig deeper than I have before, and there is still a long way to go on both of these general topics. For both, the Trinity and providence, their value is widely applicable to a significant portion of my life, both professional and personal. I wish I had a bit more space in the paper to expand both, I feel that there are many logical inconsistencies as written and half-developed thoughts that deserve further reflection. Having said that, however, the seeds that these represent have become quite useful.

Concerning the Trinity, it is difficult to try to come up with a ‘new’ thought about how to approach the subject, how to integrate it, and why this realization should be so systemic to our belief. As a pastor, the reality of the Trinity can serve deep purposes for the people of God. Being relational, God’s self-revelation is tremendously hope-filled for the Church in general and the believer in particular. Both experience the Trinity in unique ways. The church experiences the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ and that Spirit is manifest through the activity of giftings, callings, corporate messages, and much more. I have recently included in my language as I preach thoughts about the Trinity and the relational reality within the Church. I see this through passages like Ephesians 4:1-16 on the unity of the Body through the Spirit and the gifts given by Christ to the Church. This results in the growing of the body of Christ, fitting together perfectly. The language Paul uses in this passage is rife with Trinitarian thought. The Godhead is revealed in practical expressions for the church to experience!

For the individual believer, the presence of Christ through the Spirit is powerfully practical in the struggle against Sin and the sins that are so prevalent. The relationality of the triune God through Trinity is also capable of bringing hope to the broken lives of the hurt, the lost, the outcast. Without ‘personal’ relationships, we are prone to fall and be less than we are created to be. The Trinity gives direction for the believer. I really resonate with the ideas of theosis and the participation in the divine, and I think that there is a richness worth pursuing in this concept. I love the thought of the immanent Christ, the nearness of the Spirit’s indwelling, and the Father who over all, and through all, and in all!

This brings me to the second part of the paper, that of Providence. My treating of providence was pretty limited to two parts, revealing my own struggle with coming to full grips of the overarching idea that Providence is. In me, I can see a very easy Trinitarian view of providence that joins the indwelling of the Spirit in the believer and a plan being revealed by God. The joint participation of this unfolding is a beautiful thing, God guiding while the Christian responds to the wooing or luring of God. This to me is truly the life we should live – God knows best and we should seek to put ourselves in a place where Christ is welcomed and becoming more revealed in us.

As for nature, the idea of general providence (though limiting) can be integrated in my thoughts. If we look at Anthropic Priciples for the cosmos, there is a trajectory creating the necessary ingredients for the revelation of God through what we see and can ascribe purpose with the special revelation of God through the Word. God guides from the cosmic level, moving toward relationality and the Incarnation and infilling as avenues of participation of the divine with humanity.

The struggle for me comes with dealing with the harder issues of those individuals and systems that are against God. Finding a way to provide freedom within those situations is a bit more difficult for me to process. It’s almost as if there is a ‘poly-providence’ that God operates in – guiding the believers one way and guiding ‘others’ through a different reality of providence, and then nature through another type or level? This is still being worked out in me, but it seems wise to find a ground that allows for freedom for all, humanity and the divinity. I go back to the idea that eschatologically, there is a defined end. It is not open. Therefore, at some level, God’s will prevails. But within that will, there appears to be a joyful freedom of self expression, both within the created realm and in the uncreated Triune God!

Finally, as a father, I have to trust in the providence of God to secure my children’s futures. The promises given in the word have associated with them certain outcomes that seem to be realities based on God’s assurance. So, we pray for our kids, for their future spouses, for their education, for their purity. And we trust God to respond in the way that only he can – through nudgings, through blatant directions, through happenstance, whatever it takes. And yet within this, I recognize the freedom to choose. It is not ‘decided’ for us. It is a journey of joy and of toil. And the relational God is waiting for our participation in Him to further reveal himself. And it is a journey that I willingly take, being lured by the indwelling One!

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Fairbairn, Donald. Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers. Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2009.

Fergusson, David. Creation. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Franke, John R. The Character of Theology: An Introduction to its Nature, Task, and Purpose. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005.

Inbody, Tyron. The Faith of the Christian Church : An Introduction to Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich. : William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2005.

Lloyd, Genevieve. Providence Lost. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Volf, Miroslav and Michael Welker. God’s Life in Trinity. Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 2006.

 

ENDNOTES

[1] Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2009), 39-41.

[2] John R. Franke, The Character of Theology: An Introduction to its Nature, Task, and Purpose (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 52.

[3] Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers, 49.

[4] Franke, The Character of Theology: An Introduction to its Nature, Task, and Purpose, 67.

[5] Genevieve Lloyd, Providence Lost (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2008), 17-18.

[6] Ibid. Genevieve Lloyd gives a very compelling historical look at the idea of Providence in her dealings with Greek philosophers, Christian theologians such as Augustine, and draws the conclusion that Providence is key reality that has been lost through the intervening years. She concludes that Providence can be forgotten, but not escaped.

[7] Miroslav Volf and Michael Welker, God’s Life in Trinity (Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 2006), 163.

[8] David Fergusson, Creation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 51.

[9] Tyron Inbody, The Faith of the Christian Church : An Introduction to Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich. : William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2005), 127.

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