Monday, February 18, 2013

6 Problems with Michael Reeves' Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith

My church’s Bible study group recently read and discussed Michael Reeves’ Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith.  We met biweekly in different homes over a three month period. Attendees read one assigned chapter before each meeting and then gathered for discussion. This review incorporates some of their opinions.  I will begin with an overview, provide a chapter survey, list six reservations my parishioners talked through, and then provide my recommendation. 


Overview

Delighting in the Trinity argues that the Trinity has much more relevance to theology and Christian living than the Church has given it credit for in recent decades.  Instead of being an odd curiosity, the fact of the Trinity is precisely what makes our God beautiful and unique. If God were not a Trinity, this world and our God would be very different in horrible and ugly ways.  God’s Trinitarian nature is why he was willing to create, to love his creation, and to save his creation from sin.  It is at the root of the love, holiness, justice and glory that lead us to worship our God.

Chapter Survey

The first chapter addresses God’s identity.  How are we to think of God fundamentally? Should we think of him as Creator?  Ruler?   Reeves says that God’s fundamental identity is that he is a “Father loving his Son.”  Because of this, “all his ways are beautifully fatherly.”  The Father constantly gives of himself to the Son, and the Son constantly gives of himself to the Father, each eternally pouring out love to the other.  This self-revelation preserves our understanding of God’s aseity.    It means that God can be both complete in himself and inherently outgoing, loving, and giving.

In chapter two this fundamental identity provides an explanation for why God created the world even though he was complete in himself.   Since the Father has always loved the Son, Jesus is “the logic, the blueprint for creation.”    God created the world as an overflow of the Father’s love for the Son—so that the creation could share in the love and joy that the Father and the Son have shared eternally.  God is “by his very nature, life-giving.  He is a father.”  

According to chapter three God’s motivation for salvation is also intra-Trinitarian.  There is no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friends.  God demonstrated his love for his creation by sending Christ to die for sinners.   This salvation is both a pouring out of and pulling into Trinitarian love.   By being pulled into this love, sinners love the Father as the Son does and the Son as the Father does. By sharing his love with others and allowing others to share in his love, our salvation is ultimately for his own glory.

Chapter four focuses on the Holy Spirit’s role in our salvation and sanctification:  “Through the giving of the Spirit, God shares with us—and catches us up into—the life that is his. . . . Through the Spirit the Father allows us to share in the enjoyment of what most delights him—his Son.”  He identifies the Spirit, along with Edwards, as the divine love that the Father and the Son share.   “And so, by sharing their Spirit with us, the Father and the Son share with us their own life, love and fellowship.” 

Chapter five shows how God’s holiness, wrath, and glory fit together with God’s fundamental identity as a Father loving his Son.    Christians are frequently guilty of separating God’s attributes into discrete categories:  Sometimes God puts forward his loving side, but sometimes he presents his holiness, as if the two were distinct, separate aspects of God’s nature.  Instead, Reeves argues that God is holy because he is love.  The two cannot be separated.  Likewise, he pours out his wrath and glorifies himself because he is love. And he is love because he is a Trinity.

Issues, Reservations, or Concerns

Some issues, concerns, or reservations came up during the course of our group study.  Some of these I share because they came up very naturally, as the perspective of laypersons, in the course of our group study. 

  1.  First, the book is more difficult to digest than it purports to be.   The group thought the book was poorly subtitled as An Introduction to the Christian Faith.   They were adamant that the subject was too difficult to be an appropriate introduction for new Christians.   One parishioner reflected the attitude of the group by stating, “I am glad I did not invite anyone to this Bible study, because the book is difficult to read.”  My own first impression was that it was written at a lay level. But on further thought I must admit I have had to read it several times in order to digest it. I had thought this was because of the richness of the content or because it was new to me, but it might also be because it is not always easy to understand.  I suspect the choice of subtitle reflects the publisher’s desire for the subject to be "introductory" in the foundational sense rather than the new information sense. But the fact and shame of the matter is that the book’s topic is new to many experienced Christians.    It was relatively new to me. 
  2. That leads to a second concern.  The material felt so new that I sometimes wondered if Reeves was being novel in a “hasn’t-quite- stood-the-test-of-time” sort of way.  I constantly wanted to know 1) if Reeve’s teaching was rooted in history, and 2) if other authors with similar emphases are echoing him.  Although Reeves provides quotes, anecdotes, and illustrations from church history, his language and explanations appear to be very modern. Karl Barth appears to have heavily influenced his perspective, and that might not help his argument in evangelical circles.  But then again, so has Jonathon Edwards, which leads me to think that his teaching is actually more ancient and familiar than it seems.  Unfortunately, using fresh or new language to explain old stuff risks people thinking you are making stuff up.  There is ancient stuff here, I am sure.  I just did not always know how to prove that to my group (or to myself), in spite of Reeves’ historical references.  A more academic treatment might fix this but would run afoul of the book’s “introductory” purpose.  In any case, I wish he had demonstrated that his writing was a distributary of a larger, longer river of thought.
  3. A third problem is that Reeve’s model is not as obviously explanatory as I would like it to be.  He presents it as, or perhaps I wanted it to be, a sort of unified theological theory, tantamount to a unified field theory in quantum physics.  And I think it probably does explain more than what Reeves took time and space to explain. For instance, I wanted to know how it relates to God’s decree of election and to the origin of sin (Edwards includes the latter in his Unpublished Essay on the Trinity).  I wanted to see him be more explicitly Calvinistic in some of his explanations, and at least one place made me question whether he was Calvinistic at all.  But it was his book and purpose, so I suppose I do not have a right to get everything I want out of it. 
  4. But that leads to fourth problem which, given the scope of the book, I think could have been stronger.  I do not think he explained the Holy Spirit’s integral relationship and necessary existence within the Trinity as well as he did the Father’s and the Son’s.  God’s fundamental identity is a Father loving his Son.  Yes, you cannot have a father without a son, and you cannot have a son without a father, but how does the Holy Spirit fit into that?  Reeves briefly mentions, a la Edwards, that the Holy Spirit exists as the love or activity that the Father and the Son share.  But even in Edwards' writing, this still demands an answer to the question, “How does that imply that the Holy Spirit must necessarily be a person?”   I did not find Edwards’ explanation sufficient in his essay, and Reeves adds nothing to it.    In spite of my opinion, one of my parishioners excitedly told me that he thought the chapter on the Holy Spirit was the best one. 
  5. A fifth problem was repeatedly brought up by one congregant who thought Reeves was not doing justice to the many other ways that God has revealed himself besides his fatherliness.   According to this complaint, fatherhood is one of many revelatory analogies:  God is also a King, a potter, a light, a cloud, a fire, etc.  All the analogies provide a complete picture.  To leave any out is to focus on one analogy at the expense of others and to present an unbalanced view of God.  I gave my own responses to this (hint--the problem is with analogy vs. ontology), but the fact that this objection arose so naturally makes me wonder if Reeves might want to head this off at the pass in later editions.   
  6. A last complaint by the group related to Reeves’ methodology. Throughout the book he repeatedly uses what I can only call a sort of reductio ad absurdum. To paraphrase: “What would God be like if he were not a Trinity? He would probably be selfish, or unable to love, or a tyrant, and he would have no interest in anything but himself, etc. We would have no explanation for why he created the world or provided salvation.  But the world exists, therefore God is a Trinity.”  Reeves relies on this line of reasoning heavily throughout the book.  The group's complaint was that it is a speculative argument from silence.  One of my parishioners insisted that without positive Biblical evidence, Reeves had no business saying what God would or would not be like if he were not a Trinity.   He felt like Reeves was leaving the solid ground of Scripture when he played the “What if?” game.    We might be able to say what God is and what God is not, but can we really say what God would be like if he were not what he is?  I do not know enough about logic to know if this method is sound, but  it does not appear to be strong. 

Recommendation and Conclusion


In spite of these issues, I highly recommend this book for both ministers and laypersons.  Reeve’s purpose for this book had me pegged even as a seminary educated minister.  I had been taught the fact of the Trinity, and how to demonstrate that fact from Scripture, but I had never been taught how significant the doctrine was for my theology and my Christian life.   Reeves presentation made me feel like I was learning something new about God.  This newness breathed welcome, fresh air into my understanding of the Triune God.  

While I think some in the study group really enjoyed the book, I don’t know how many of them shared my sense of wonder—the freshness of seeing something new about God.   Some of this may be attributable to the difficulty of or the newness of the ideas, so I think the book would benefit from a group study guide.  That being said, I enjoyed the book and highly recommend it.  It will either teach something new or recall something ancient, but in either case, it will shine a magnificent light on the glorious nature of our Trinitarian God. 

Perhaps the greatest value for me personally, and I hope for my congregation, is that now I see more clearly that God is worthy not simply because he is Creator and Ruler, but because he is an eternal, loving Trinity.   We do not love, worship, and serve him simply because we are in no position to refuse him.  We do so because we have been created and saved to participate in the glory and joy the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit shared before the world began. 



3 comments:

  1. Thanks for your review of this book! I am in the middle of reading it and found your thoughts, and those of the group, to be helpful in reading the book critically...but still openly.

    I appreciate how you gave your opinion alongside with the opinions of your congregants.

    Thank you!

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  2. Good review, thanks! I agree with your concern over whether Reeves is attempting to be too novel, but I think that's mostly because, to my detriment, I haven't read any classically accepted works on the Trinity. As far as your concern with the difficulty, while I agree that it is difficult I think I would say that the Trinity is a difficult doctrine and we probably should hold ourselves (myself included, see above) to a higher standard of rigor in our study of the truths of our faith, rather than holding teachers to a lower one. I am evaluating books on the Trinity for a discipleship curriculum, and your review was very helpful, thank you for putting in the time!

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  3. Isn't the whole point of the illustrations and examples from church history to make the argument of the book along lines already established? The direction appears to be set by St. Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, the Reformation, and from Jonathan Edwards. They aren't ornaments on the book's thesis.

    Can't help thinking it was hasty of you to commit your suspicion to writing without considering this. Not least that your accusation of 'reductio ad absurdum' is dissolved when you see the 'What if?' questions are really Athanasius' arguments against the Arians and so on. They're not speculative theology from a modern author but biblical rebukes against false doctrine from a doctor of the Church.

    Alan Carroben

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