In part one of this series, I lamented a disturbing divide that has opened up between preaching and worship. I described preaching that is disconnected from worship as “tuneless preaching,” because it misses out on God’s big harmonious picture. I believe that the most important characteristic of such preaching is its failure to practice an adequate theology.
I know the word “theology” can sound dull and complicated – something abstract, complex and unpractical.
Something you would expect a seminary professor to discuss, yet making little real difference to the job at hand! But when preaching misses out on theology it easily takes its direction from communication practice and sheer pragmatism, rather than from God’s revelation.
Theology is speaking meaningfully about God. Everyone who expresses ideas about God has a theology, whether they admit it or not! What matters is whether theology is scripturally sound or not – whether it is about the Christian God! Christian theology is speaking meaningfully about God in three persons.Sadly,too much current preaching and worship speaks of God in less than three persons.
When Bishop Lesslie Newbigin returned from missionary service in India, he observed that when the average Christian in Britain hears the name of God, he or she does not think of the Trinity and, in consequence, much worship in the West is in practice, if not in theory, unitarian.1 Others have commented about Christianity’s “mere monotheism”2 and the “forgotten Father.”3
Sadly, within that large part of the evangelical church that is non-liturgical, (meaning that it does not use historic patterns of worship), and non-creedal (not regularly reciting creeds), mention of the Trinity appears increasingly rare. Spared even having to mark Trinity Sunday, much worship seldom makes reference to the Father and the Holy Spirit as part of the triune God-head. Jesus is not depended upon as the Mediator and Intercessor with the Father by the Spirit, and the Holy Spirit has become the “missing Person” of the Trinity. We are witnessing the incredible shrinking God.
Recent music trends in worship illustrate this. Robin Parry claims that collections of hymns and songs put together for contemporary singing often tend to have less Trinitarian references. For example, in his survey of 28 worship albums produced by Vineyard Music (1999-2004), he categorized songs in various categories: “three person songs”(1.4%); “two person songs”(8.8%); “one person songs”(38.7% of which over 4/5 were to Jesus; and “you Lord songs” (51.1 percent). He challenges Christian groups to find balance in their singing: “Whatever God-given emphases they have, they must go hand in hand with an emphasis on the Christian God – the Trinity.”4
Too often the focus has been on Jesus alone, neglecting Jesus’ relationships with the Father and the Spirit. As noted above, most “one person songs,” as well as the more general “you Lord songs,” focus on Jesus alone. Some call this Jesuology or Jesuolatry. Of course, the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are central to the Christian faith, and to its preaching and worship. “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).
Yet Jesus’ life and ministry can properly be understood only within His relationship to the Father and to the Spirit. For Jesus was sent on the Father’s mission to reconcile the world to Himself. As Jesus was obedient to His Father’s will, so He gave glory to His Father by his ministry. Through the Spirit, believers are able to call the Father “Abba,” for “the Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Romans 8:16).
Jesus is not a stand-alone figure, relegating the Father and Holy Spirit into shadowy, dispensable background roles. No part of Jesus’ life can be understood apart from his relationships within the Trinity. “Take the H out of H20 and you no longer have water. Take the Trinity out of Christian faith and practice and you no longer have Christian faith and practice.”5 Irenaeus, (an early church leader), pictured the Trinity as the Father with two hands – the Word (Jesus) and the Spirit. Inadequate though that picture is because it de-personalizes the Trinity, it emphasizes how the three persons must be seen working together. Remove any one and God is gravely disabled.
Bruce Ware lists key reasons why the Trinity is important, including: first, it “is one of the most important distinguishing doctrines of the Christian faith,” second, it is “both central and necessary for the Christian faith…remove the Trinity and the whole Christian faith disintegrates”and third, “worship of the true and living God consciously acknowledges the relationship and roles of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”6
The doctrine of the Trinity has undergone dramatic renaissance through the 20th century. Theological giants like Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jurgen Moltmann set about reinvigorating the classic doctrine, with a ferment of writing that continues until the present with Leonardo Boff, Catherine Mowry LaCugna and John Zizioulas. To this fresh thinking many evangelicals have responded thoughtfully and enthusiastically.
Note especially the applications of trinitarian theology to worship, as in the work of Harold Best, Tod E. Bolsinger, Marva Dawn, James B. Torrance, Kevin Navarro, Robin Parry and Jonathan R. Wilson.7 Preachers need to catch up with this ferment of fresh thinking about the Trinity for, as we shall see, Trinitarian theology has huge practical repercussions for preaching.
Four challenges face preachers, which will be addressed through this series: 1. Think as Trinitarians 2. Act as Trinitarians 3. Preach as Trinitarians 4.Prepare worship services as Trinitarians
THINK AS TRINITARIANS
God’s promise of “renewed intelligence”8 that enables believers to be transformed and to test God’s will involves deeper spiritual understanding. With renewed thinking, believers “test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2). The challenge for preachers to think as Trinitarians is not an invitation to engage in stimulating, though time-wasting, intellectual theory, but rather a call to engage with God afresh.
Robin Parry believes that such thinking is vital for worship leaders too. “Good theology matters for good worship.”
I used to think that sorting our your doctrine and sorting out your worship were two quite separate things. Now I see that right belief about God is intimately connected to right worship because believing right things about God is an essential component in honoring God appropriately. That is why Christians speak of right belief about God as “orthodoxy,” which means “right glory.”9 Preachers believe orthodoxy, “right glory,” in order to express doxology, “glory words.”When preachers think as Trinitarians, everything changes.
Some treat the doctrine of the Trinity lightly because of the apparent paucity of specific Scripture references (see part three of this series) or consider it mere abstract terms and concepts derived from ancient church councils. But the Christian God of Scripture cannot be understood without the doctrine of the Trinity. True, it took the early church nearly four centuries to finally articulate this doctrine. However, early Christians expressed the doctrine from the very beginning (Matthew 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14).
The practice of speaking of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is embedded in the New Testament, though working out the profound theological implications of such practice necessarily took some time. Trying to understand God’s DNA as revealed in Scripture understandably demanded the best “renewed intelligence” available!
The complex and arduous theological process of formulating the doctrine of the Trinity out of Scripture resulted in the Nicene-Constantinople Creed (381 AD) that emphasized how the eternal relationship between Father and Son is essential to revelation and salvation. Its language has remained seminal for all subsequent reflection. It formulated that God is one in his essential being (ousia), but subsists eternally in three persons (hypostases) – Father, Son and Spirit. During these early church debates, two different models and terms emerged that continue to be vital for preaching.
On the one hand, a model of the “Immanent Trinity” (sometimes called the “ontological,” “psychological” or “individual” model) describes who God is in His oneness, as triune being. Focusing on the Godhead’s essential nature, His inner dynamics shared by three persons apart from creation underscore God’s freedom and graciousness of salvation. This model stresses the transcendent nature of God, who is independent of humankind yet created humankind in His “own image.”
On the other hand, a model of the “Economic Trinity” expresses how God in three persons has revealed Himself in the story of creation – in the act of creation itself and through the events of incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and Pentecost. By stressing the relationality and participation of God’s three persons in human history, it laid foundations for a “Social Trinity” model that was developed later. This understanding of God’s continuing involvement with human action has become highly influential today. One important word associated with this doctrine is perichoresis.
To preserve both the unity of the one God and the individuality of the three persons, perichoresis describes how the persons of the Trinity do not function distinctly from each other, but that they dwell inside each other (John 10:38; 14:8-11), mutually inhering, drawing life from one another and therefore are only to be experienced because of their relationship to each other. Because of their mutuality, no divine person acts apart from the others. For example, in Creation, the Father is Creator, but Jesus is involved (John 1:3), as is the Spirit (Ps. 104:30). Or, in Eph. 1:3-14, the Father elects (vv. 4, 5, 11), the Son redeems (vv. 3, 7, 8) and the Holy Spirit seals the outcome (vv. 13, 14).
When preachers think as Trinitarians, the key word is participation. Participation is defined as the act of taking part, of sharing in something with others. With mutually responsible sharing, different parties join to work together and so relate to the whole. Astoundingly, though the three persons of the Trinity belong together in divine community apart from creation, they have freely chosen to involve themselves in the human story, graciously enabling humans to participate, join and share in communion with them. Stunningly, all human response to God, including preaching and worship, may actually participate in fellowship, in joining in, with God in three persons.
I described in my last article how orthodox preachers may unwittingly practice forms of worship that are unitarian, because they are closed to Christ’s continuing work and to the Holy Spirit. When sole emphasis is placed upon what Christ has done on the cross for personal salvation, responsibility for consequent worship and discipleship is often thrust onto human shoulders. The divine dynamic is one-way only. God is responsible for the God-human movement, but we are responsible for the human-Godward movement. In one-way worship, everything depends on us doing our best.
But salvation is not only a matter of Christ’s work in the past, but of His person in the present, as He continues to intercede and mediate so that we belong through Him with the Father, by the Holy Spirit. “Our worship is with Christ our brother, in Christ our priest but always through Christ our sacrifice, whose death for us is the means of our cleansing, renewing and perfection”10 (See, for example, Eph. 1:4,5; 2:18; Heb. 2:10-12; 7:25).
In contrast to the “unitarian” one-way movement, James Torrance helpfully provides a Trinitarian, Incarnational Model. This diagram highlights several key aspects of participation: relationships, movement, power and worship.
Relationships – R1 and R2 describe a twofold relationship. R1 marks the relationship between God and humanity made possible in the person and work of Jesus Christ, while R2 shows the relationship between Christ and the church, “that we might participate by the Spirit in Jesus’ communion with the Father in a life of intimate communion.”11
The Trinitarian, Incarnational Model, adapted from James Torrance,12 (R1 and R2 represent Relationships within the trinity).
Movement – Notice the arrows in this diagram. Instead of reducing God’s action to one-way movement, this diagram describes a glorious double movement – expressing the gift of participating through the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father (Heb. 10:10-14). At its center is not our faith or decision-making but the spiritual dynamic double movement:
(a) a God-humanward movement, from (ek) the Father, through (dia) the Son, in (en) the Spirit and (b) a human-Godward movement to the Father through the Son in the Spirit.13
Jesus Christ mediates from “above” as well as from “below,” enabling believers to participate in the double movement of worship and communion: God-humanward from the Father, in the Spirit but also a human-Godward, moving to the Father in the Spirit.
Torrance describes how this double movement of grace which is the heart of the ‘dialogue’ between God and humanity in worship, is grounded in the very perichoretic being of God, and is fundamental for our understanding of the triune God’s relationship with the world in creation, incarnation and sanctification. What God is toward us in these relationships, He is in His innermost being.14
(Note how the term “perichoretic” requires the essential background described earlier!)
Power – In other writings, I have developed the picture of “360-degree preaching” to express how the Trinitarian dynamic of God’s word begins with Him and returns full circle (Isa. 55:10,11), involving Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Of course, God “works” through Scripture text and the preacher’s words, but the whole preaching event is empowered as the triune God speaks through His Word, and empowers the preacher and convicts the listeners and transforms the lives of the preacher and the listeners.
“Christ stands with those who gather in his name (Matt. 18:2) and prays for all believers (John 17:20-26), and the Holy Spirit helps them in their weaknesses (Rom. 8:26), actively creating spiritual apprehension (1 Thess. 1:5). “The preaching …dynamic, found in God, and driven by God, returns to God as individuals and communities are transformed – all within the grace of the Triune God.”15 Instead of preachers “doing their own thing” exhorting listeners “to do their thing,” (to re-quote Torrance), preachers participate within God’s double-movement empowering.
Worship – This model expresses well, (though it inevitably oversimplifies), the foundational trinitarian theology that underlies worship and preaching. Once preachers embrace this, they can no longer consider their task apart from worship, nor can worship leaders see their role apart from preaching. Rather than both “doing their own thing” – reinforcing the tragic separation of preaching from worship (that I described in part two) – they belong together within the dynamics of the triune God’s gracious enabling. The more we see worship as participation, the more we value preaching as worship.
Recent worship literature is full of Trinitarian implications, as its writers often seem far more insightful about the nature of God’s double-movement of grace than in much preaching literature. While space cannot be given here, many of the themes developed in worship studies should be examined by preachers, such as “worship as gift” (G. Welton Gaddy),16 community formation (Tod Bolsinger),17 shaping by Scripture (Russell Mitman),18 eschatological framework (Kevin Navarro),19 “narrative engagement” (Cornelius Plantinga)20 and worship and spirituality (Don Saliers)21. At every point the preacher is involved with preaching as worship.
A TRINITARIAN PREACHING DEFINITION
These convictions about participating with the Trinity profoundly impact how we look at preaching. We need to define it more thoughtfully.
Christian preaching is a personally involved participatory and embodied form of graced activity that is the Triune God’s gift to the church. This is not subject to human mastery and control, but as an expression of doxological speech is gratefully received and offered back to God through the praise and thanksgiving of the Christian community at worship.22
Consider these carefully crafted words by Michael Pasquarello. “Personally involved” stresses engagement of heart, soul, strength and mind (Luke 10:27), of preacher and hearers. In Romans 12:1 “offer bodies” involves giving over the whole of ourselves, while “spiritual” can be translated “reasonable” to emphasize the engagement of mind and heart. Thomas Troeger sums up worship as: “All of us for all of God.”23 “Participatory” resonates with the double-movement as God’s three persons actively interact with believers, sharing fellowship with the mutual indwelling of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is God’s DNA building the church and kingdom.
“Embodied form of graced activity”further describes the nature of worship as expressed in the lives of ordinary people, living out their responsibilities as a new community that is entirely of God’s making. “That is the Triune God’s gift to the church” highlights how grace comes as gift. Utterly undeserving, we belong together as brothers and sisters only by God’s will (John 1:12).
Rather than see itself as a special kind of public speaking “subject to human mastery and control,” preaching is “an expression of doxological speech” offered to praise God’s glory (doxa), because its ultimate purpose is to bring glory to the Father. “Gratefully received and offered back to God through the praise and thanksgiving of the Christian community at worship” echoes how God’s grace both gives and receives in our worship. It is all of Him, in three persons, from beginning to end.
Preachers need to think as Trinitarians. Instead of solely preaching about God’s power, they need to preach with God’s power; instead of solely focusing on Christ’s past action, they should join in His continuing mediation; instead of solely calling for human response to Christ, they must invite also responses with Him, by the Holy Spirit. And this is true for worship leaders too – not only should they enable worship to God, but worship with God.
Worship is “the gift of participation through the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father.”24 This makes all the difference in the world to how we preach, pray, worship, read Scripture, and journey together through the Christian life. Our preaching is not just about God, it is with God.
Michael Quicke is Charles Koller Professor of Preaching and Communication at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, IL.
1 James B. Torrance,Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), 20.
2 Karl Rahner, The Trinity (London: Burns & Oates, 1970).
3 Thomas A. Smail, The Forgotten Father (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980).
4 Robin Parry,Worshipping Trinity (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2005), 144.
5 Ibid., 5.
6 Bruce A.Ware, Father, Son and Holy Spirit –Relationships, Roles and Relevance (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005), 15.
7 Some of these titles are found elsewhere in these footnotes. Books not included: Harold Best, Unceasing Worship (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003);Marva J. Dawn, A Royal ‘Waste’ of Time (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999): Jonathan R.Wilson, Why Church Matters (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006).
8 An expression used by H.G.C. Moule, The Epistle to the Romans (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1906).
9 Parry,Worshipping Trinity, 8.
10 Christopher Cocksworth quoted in Parry, 95.
11 Torrance, 31.
12 Ibid., 30.
13 Ibid., 32.
14 Ibid., 32.
15 Michael J. Quicke, 360degree preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker), 49.
16 G.Welton Gaddy, The Gift of Worship (Nashville: Broadman, 1992).
17 Tod E. Bolsinger, It takes a Church to raise a Christian, how the community of God transforms lives (Grand Rapids: Brazos 2004).
18 F. Russell Mitman,Worship in the shape of Scripture (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2001).
19 Kevin J Navarro, The Complete Worship Service – Creating a Taste of Heaven on Earth (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005).
20 Cornelius Plantinga and Sue A Roseboom, Discerning the Spirits (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).
21 Don E. Saliers,Worship and Spirituality (Akron, Ohi OSL Publications, 1996).
22 Michael Pasquarello III, Christian Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 20060), 10.
23 Thomas Troeger, Preaching and Worship (St Louis: Chalice, 2003), 20-22.
24 Torrance, 1996, 20.www.engageconference.org