I had a great time last week at the 2014 Los Angeles Theology Conference. I am already looking forward to next year’s conference on the atonement. The theme this year was the Trinity. Each of the papers I heard was very interesting, and the conference as a whole provided a kind of “state of the union” update on all things Trinitarian for me. Since I’ve not been keeping up with conversations about the Trinity in contemporary theology very much, it was a good orientation to the general state of things. I was especially interested to discern that there seems to be a bit of a backlash developing against social Trinitarianism, as well as the over-use of the Trinity to solve all the economic, social, and political problems in the world. I think these are welcome pushbacks, especially because those who offered them at the conference displayed sensitivity to what we can learn from the social Trinitarian movement, even though many now see it as having been discredited.
My favorite presentation might have been Fred Sanders’ opening paper on the use of the Trinity for theology and life. It was a helpful introductory orientation, and sparked a few particular thoughts for me. At some point early in his address Fred said something about how the Trinity is uniquely designed to do salvation, and ever since I’ve been reflecting on this: could a Unitarian God become incarnate? Could a Unitarian God effect atonement? How would the gospel be altered if God were uni-personal rather than tri-personal?
The more I consider this, the more I’m convinced that the Trinity really is indispensable for Christian theology and living. I cannot fathom, for instance, how atonement in any real sense would be possible if God were not Triune. It seems to me that what Jesus experienced on the cross would have been fundamentally different if He and the Father were not personally distinct. In addition, it seems to me that the Trinity provides the ultimate basis for Christian unity: “…that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us” (John 17:21). And also Christian mission: “as the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). But most amazingly of all, in my mind, is the way the Trinity shapes the character and context of salvation (Fred discussed this a little bit at the end of his paper). The ultimate goal of redemption, in a Trinitarian light, is that creatures would be invited into the intra-Trinitarian love and glory of God. “The glory that you have given me I have given to them” (John 17:22); “I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24).
This is a beautiful vision of the world. One might summarize it thus: in the beginning is love and glory reverberating within the being of God. This is the core of reality: this is what simply is: this is what is first and basic and nothing stands “behind” it. Impersonal things like space and time are really quite eccentric, from this view: they come into the picture only when God creates other persons to share in and enjoy His love and glory (because that is what love does; its happiness overflows to others). Some of these creatures deviate from their purpose of loving and glorifying God, and thus degenerate into the opposite of these things (death and misery). God takes their death and misery into Himself and destroys it (again, this is the nature of love; it absorbs the misery of another). Now these creatures can, if they choose, re-enter the love and glory that has been exploding forever and ever.
If we keep this Trinitarian narrative in the background of our gospel presentations, I think they make a whole lot more sense of to post-modern people, who often don’t know what to think about words like “sin” and “atonement,” but do feel deeply lonely and context-less in the world. In other words, the Trinity reminds us to begin and end the gospel with God, because without Him the rest doesn’t make much sense.