Sunday, 26 May 2013

Some of the best stuff you'll read on the Trinity ...

One of the books that most shaped my theology, indeed my life, was a rather cumbersomely produced reprint of a document called The Practical Approach to Muslims, which I picked up in St Andrew's Bookshop, Plaistow.

This book made such an impact on me that I bought a second copy so that, were I to lend out the first and not have it returned, I'd possess a backup!

The book consists simply of the lecture notes of Bishop Jens Christensen (1899-1966), but it is a goldmine of theological insight and challenge.

What made (and makes) Christensen's book so interesting is that his theology developed not in the usual Western environment of faith in God vs unbelief, but in one of faith in God vs another 'faith in God'. As such its perspective is therefore often quite different from that of Western theology.

Christensen considers, for example, the political role of Christianity over against the Islamic concept of the theocratic state - and has many insightful things to say to us as a result.

His material on the Trinity is also developed from a different angle. Most 'Westerners' think the problem is how to explain something incomprehensible. To Christensen, the issue is how to present a unique truth that the target audience regard as blasphemous - not what most preachers face on Trinity Sunday.

Indeed there are many things in Christensen's book which speak to questions that we ought to be asking but often aren't because we've grown up with a 'Christendom' shaped mindset, where the alternatives are 'belief in God' or 'no belief in God'. However, as events in the last week have shown, that is not the only problem our society faces. Equally, it was not the problem faced by the early Church. The result is a book full of theological gems.

The good news is that you can get Christensen's book for nothing (and I don't have to worry about a backup). Follow this link and you can download a pdf file. Get it, read it, learn from it.

Here's some of his thoughts on the Trinity:

"The common religion of the majority of people in most western countries might be called unitarian Deism."

"Let us remember, however, that clergymen are usually just ordinary people who do not rise above the level of the prevalent thinking of their own particular community."

"Another difficulty, found not only among laymen but also all too often among missionaries, is that it is utterly impossible for them to discover any vital difference between Islam and Christianity. The Supreme Being, they say, is the same, whether you call him God or Allah. As long as people worship Him and live decent, moral lives, what difference does it make if the outward formalities and rites differ? Naturally the person of our Lord has no unique meaning for people who think along these lines."

"your first question should not be how you can present the dogma of the Holy Trinity: it should be either whether you yourself are just wanting to defend an old teaching of the Church, or whether you want to know how best to witness to a faith which genuinely conditions your own life."

"for about three years something was actually happening. And that which happened affected the lives of a certain group of people so radically that it would have been ridiculous of them to stop and argue the how, why and wherefore of it all. They simply said: ‘Father, Son, Holy Spirit’, and they said it naturally. To expect then to argue the how or the possibility or the reality of the Holy Trinity would be just as ridiculous as asking any man how God is God."

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  1. Hi John,
    Thanks so much for this. I look forward to reading it with great interest. I'm also intrigued by the link to my sending organisation from Australia! The foreword mentions that one of our company partners worked alongside the author in Pakistan in the 50s-60s, and that the publisher of this title specialises in republishing out-of-print but valuable titles. A book by a Danish author who worked in Pakistan published by an Australian company - fascinating.


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  2. Mike Reeve's book, 'The Good God' has some wonderful insights into the Trinity, also contrasting simple monotheism with Trinitarianism, and it's as far from dry systematics as you could possibly get!
    A little more involved, but still a great read, is Don Fairbairn's 'Life in the Trinity'.

  3. Bikersteth (Victorian Bishop of Exeter) "The Trinity", & Bob Letham's book both very good too. The later dealing with historic and modern treatment as well as thinking Trinitarianly about worship.

    I mention them because of the contrast to Islam above. Letham's comment is that if you have an Islamic view of God, that's reflected in your view of politics/leadership - i.e. some form of dictatorship. If you have a God who is both 1 and 3 has a different approach, where you'd expect a society to not be uniform etc.

    Darren Moore