Interview by Matthew Claridge–
Today we are pleased to have join us Michael Reeves, theological adviser for Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF), a charity supporting evangelism in higher education throughout the United Kingdom. Michael has written a new book entitled, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (InterVarsity Press).
Tell us a little about what inspirited you to write a book on the Trinity.
Quite simply, I want readers to know God and grow in their enjoyment of him. God is triune, and so pressing into the Trinity is not an eccentric sport for Christians with too much time on their hands: it is the very epicentre of the Christian life. This is what we have been saved for! Jesus said, ‘this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent’ (Jn 17:3).
On top of that is my fear that many Christians are too often functionally Muslim in that the God they believe in looks like a single-person God. Now belief drives behaviour, and so if a Christian believes like a Muslim, their Christian experience and life must look Islamic. At root that will mean that instead of a heartfelt love for the Lord their God they can only know that external ‘submission’. Such a Christianity must be joyless – and must be unattractive for the watching world. I’d love to see some readers liberated from all that, for them to have their minds relieved and their hearts won by the truth of a God who, being Trinity, is unutterably beautiful and good.
Why is it important to find the right “starting point” in our approach to the knowledge of God?
Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Now, if we start with some other foundation for our knowledge of God, our final view of God must look very different: not like Jesus, not as God has actually revealed himself to be. We do this all the time, fashioning concepts of God that are not shown us in Jesus, the perfect Word, the exact representation of his Father.
To take an essential example: Jesus is the eternal Son; that means the God he reveals must be a Father. That must radically affect all our thoughts about God, and yet we would never have imagined that God really is a Father if, in our thinking about God, we had not started with the Son.
What is the difference between acknowledging that God is like a father and that God is a Father from all eternity?
There is more than all the difference in the universe here! God the Father is characterized by loving, giving out life to and begetting the Son. But if God is only like a father, if there was once a time when he was not actually a Father, then there was once a time when God was not yet loving since all by himself he would have had nobody to love. And one shudders to think what God must then be like, or what sort of ‘gospel’ he would have.
If God was not a Father, he could never give us the right to be his children. If he did not enjoy eternal fellowship with his Son, one has to wonder if he would have any fellowship to share with us, or if he would even know what fellowship looks like. And, since by definition he would not be eternally loving, would he deal with the price of sin himself and offer that forgiveness for free? Most unlikely. Distant hirelings we would remain, never to hear the Son’s golden words to his Father: ‘You have loved them even as you have loved me.’
Modalism, in your view, simmers down to “mood-alism.” How do you mean?
I mean that rather than seeing the Father, Son and Spirit as three distinct and eternal persons, Christians commonly see them as little more than three moods that God slips in and out of. Now not only does that change the very nature of God, making God non-relational; it rips the logic out of the gospel. For example, if the Son is just a mood God slips in and out of, then for us to be adopted as children in the Son is no great thing: when God moves on to another mood, there will be no Son for us to be in. And even when God is in his Son mood, there will be no Father for us to be children of.
What difference does the Trinity make from other world faiths and philosophies in explaining the origin of the world?
Single-person gods, having spent eternity alone, are inevitably self-centred beings, and so it becomes hard to see why they would ever cause anything else to exist. Creating just looks like a deeply unnatural thing for such a god to do. And if such gods do create, they always seem to do so out of an essential neediness or desire to use what they create merely for their own self-gratification.
But for the triune God, loving others is not a strange or novel thing at all; it is at the root of who he is. Think of God the Father: he is, by his very nature, life-giving. He is a father. One has to wonder if a barren god, who is not a father, is capable of giving life and so birthing a creation. But one can have no such doubts with the Father: for eternity he has been fruitful, potent, vitalizing. For such a God (and only for such a God) it seems very natural and entirely unsurprising that he should bring about more life and so create.
I deeply resonate with how you explain the Trinitarian motivation behind creation. Surely, however, we must be on guard against saying God’s love necessarily overflows in creation of that outside Himself?
Absolutely! That’s precisely the difference we see here between the triune God and all other gods: where they are needy, he has life in himself and is entirely self-sufficient. In fact, if God’s creation was the result of some necessity, then it was not the result of love. His love is unconstrained; it is therefore true love that underpins creation.
You write, “The nature of the triune God makes all the difference in the world to understanding what went wrong when Adam and Eve fell.” Can you elaborate?
If God is a single person, not eternally interested in relationship, then sin against him must be, simply, doing what he has forbidden. Sin against such gods is always a superficial, external thing, about nothing deeper than our behavior. But the triune God of love did not create us simply to live under his moral code: we were made to love the Lord our God. Sin against this God, then, is something much more profound: Adam and Eve’s act of sin manifested the real problem, namely, that their hearts had turned to love something else more than the Lord.
In other words, because of what this God of love is like, what we love and desire matters, not just our outward behaviour. That makes for a much more serious and deep-rooted understanding of sin, and it will therefore demand the most radical solution: merely altering our behaviour will do no good with this God; our hearts must be turned back.
Why is it so important to affirm that in salvation we receive the person of the Spirit rather than some impersonal “force” or “thing”?
Whenever the Spirit is thought of as an impersonal force, Christianity is inevitably and tragically skewed. For if God does not give us himself to enjoy, but only some ‘thing,’ then being a Christian is not about communion with God. Perhaps it is about being ‘spiritual’ or ‘getting heaven,’ but it is not about knowing, loving and delighting in God. And then holiness makes no sense at all; it is probably instead that thing I have to endure in order to buy myself heaven.
How does a pre-occupation with the aerial enigmas of the Trinity move us to a pre-occupation with the practical calling to serve and love others?
Well, we become like what we worship, whatever that is. That is why it is the Spirit’s ongoing work in us to draw our gaze to Jesus: only then, as we behold him, will we be transformed from one degree of glory to another, shining with his likeness. Thus spending time meditating on the triune God is not impractical at all: it is precisely what will make us truly servant-like, like our Lord, truly loving and compassionate, like our Lord, truly concerned for the world, like our Lord.
The Trinity is both a highly challenging and, as you demonstrate in this book, highly practical doctrine. How would you advice a Christian to make reflection on the Trinity a routine part of their spiritual life?
First, I’d recommend being self-consciously and intentionally Trinitarian when reading Scripture. Can you determine which person or persons are being referred to in the passage you’re reading? What difference does that make?
Second, be Trinitarian in your prayer. That doesn’t simply mean praying to each person, though it can; it means joining in with the fellowship of the Father, Son and Spirit as they are already enjoying it. That is, the Son – who is already interceding for us with his Father – brings us to be with him before his Father, and there the Spirit helps us. And so in prayer I enjoy the Spirit’s aid and the Son’s closeness with the Father, meaning that with this God I can, with boldness and delight, cry ‘Abba!’