I met Cherith Nordling last year when she came to speak at our church, Missio Dei Chicago. I subsequently heard a talk she gave at a Missio Alliance event, “Young, Restless, and Always Reforming,” where she emphasized our subtle misplacement, or even re-placement, of the Spirit with Scripture, leaving us with an “unholy” Trinity. In both instances, her passion was clear as she talked about our life as Christians in relation to the Triune God.
The Reformed tradition is marked by its confessions, which echo the earliest creeds of the church. These affirmations are wholly Trinitarian. However, in practice, the person and work of God the Holy Spirit are often conflated with concepts like “providence” or circumscribed by Scripture. This results in the Spirit being reduced to an impersonal, vague “force” that acts on our conscience or illuminates Scripture. Nothing could be further from the divine reality of God the Holy Spirit with, for, and in us, from first creation through final new creation. The only way to be truly reformed and renewed in conformity to Jesus is to walk empowered by the Spirit, as Jesus did.
When I discovered Cherith was pouring her passion for the Church reclaiming the Holy Trinity into an upcoming book in which she shares her personal journey to understanding right relationship with the Triune God, I had to take the opportunity to learn more from her.
The result was an engaging invitation to consider where, 500 years after the Reformation, we have allowed our theology to slip away from the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thereby falling shockingly short of the abundant life that God designed us for.
The (Un)holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Book
Melissa: Cherith, when you used the term “unholy” Trinity—that’s such a jarring phrase to hear, and it ends up being such a bold warning to Christians today! Can you explain where you see us slipping in our understanding of our Triune God?
Cherith: I think the initial “slip” in our understanding starts with limited or downright wrong understanding of the Holy Spirit of God. So let’s start with what is true.
The Spirit in the Old Testament is most often referred to as YHWH’s active Presence in the world, while the New Testament mostly refers to him as (God) the Holy Spirit, or the Spirit of God. The Nicene Creed sums up our understanding with this statement of faith: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life… who with the Father and the Son is equally worshipped and magnified.” I love that—“equally worshipped and magnified”—yet if we’re honest, we often don’t do that in our church liturgies and worship and teaching, so the Spirit often becomes a “force” rather that God himself!
In our functional theology, meaning in our actual practice of faith versus what we say we believe, we have limited the active role and work of the Spirit. In essence, the Spirit gets trapped in the Bible as “the illuminator of Scripture,” or the Spirit functions as the “force” to prick our conscience and convict us of sin.
Melissa: So if we’ve basically confined the Spirit to his role as “Scripture-interpreter” and “sin-convictor,” how would you explain Scripture and the Holy Spirit in a way that no longer meshes the two together?
Cherith: I want to be very clear—Scripture is vital as God’s historical, ongoing, faithful witness, revelation, and instruction in our lives. It grounds our stories in God’s grand story throughout creation history, including the ending (or new beginning) which we still anticipate.
Moreover, in a similar way, Scripture was vital to Jesus in understanding and living out his calling through the presence and power of the Spirit. He knew the Scriptures by heart, and one can assume that in Jesus’ times of prayer and worship of the Father, Scripture informed his discernment of the will of the Father in both his daily context and the larger context of Israel’s history. After all, when Jesus was raised by the Father in the power of the Spirit and later appeared to his disciples, he could unpack his whole story through the whole of the Old Testament Scripture.
So Jesus’ life demonstrates how knowing and hearing God speak through Scripture, and hearing from the Spirit directly—to use Paul’s words, being “led by” and “walking in” the Spirit, including words of knowledge, wisdom, prophecy, discernment, etc.)—go hand-in-hand in discerning the will of the Father. As in the life of Jesus, the Spirit speaks to us through the Scripture and in many other ways. The Holy Spirit cannot be conflated with or confined to the Scripture. So when we limit the role of the Spirit to be only within the realm of interpretation of Scripture, we find ourselves with an unholy Trinity. Our functional theology of 'Father, Son, and Holy Book' leaves us with an unholy Trinity. Click To Tweet
Melissa: Can you speak more about how the life of Jesus helps reveal a better understanding of our life in the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and of life in the Spirit in particular?
Cherith: To put it simply, Jesus is God’s personal Self-Revelation as Triune. When we meet Jesus, we actually meet the Incarnate Son of God, and his Father, and the Holy Spirit. The Triune God has been made known to us in and through Jesus, who also makes known what truly human life in the Holy Spirit looks like.
The supreme moment in which we see this occur is at the baptism of Jesus. In that moment, Jesus audibly hears God name him as His Son, in line with God’s relationship to Israel as Father. And we see Jesus anointed by the Spirit (in the form of a dove). It is the moment in Scripture when the fullness of the Triune God is first manifested: Father, the Incarnate Son, and the empowering, anointing Holy Spirit. In short, it is by the relationship of Jesus to the Father through the Spirit that we first see this Trinity revealed. So we could not know the fullness of the Triune God prior to the revelation of God’s Incarnate Son, Jesus.
What’s astonishing is that Jesus not only reveals the Triune God to us; he also reveals what a truly human life, empowered by the Spirit, looks like. If we don’t see Jesus as truly human—if we don’t see him having a truly human life—then we can’t possibly understand the Spirit, and we miss that the Gospels and the entire New Testament both state this outright and everywhere take it for granted. Jesus reveals what a truly human life empowered by the Spirit looks like. Click To Tweet
To use the language of Paul in his letter to the Philippians: in the Incarnation, the Son did not cease to be God when he united himself to our humanity. This one, single person (divine and human) made himself like us, to share fully our human experience, so he “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage” (Philippians 2:6). Because we do not have access to divine power apart from the Spirit, Jesus did not use his divine power as the Son, but instead functioned in the power of the Spirit as humans were made to do. This means every single “yes” by Jesus to the will of the Father, he did through the person and power of the Spirit.
When we don’t see him as human, we mistakenly see him as “mostly divine,” but with a human body. We think he took that body on in order to tell us things, to do cool stuff to show us he was the Son of God, and to die on the cross.
But unless he was and (in his resurrection) remains truly human, then we cannot connect Jesus’ life as our life—the life offered to us through Jesus by way of the Spirit. Jesus’ life joins our human lives to the relational life of the Triune God. And our life in the Spirit, as life in the Kingdom of God, is a matter of participating in that relationship and the will of the Father on earth as in heaven.
In Luke’s Gospel, well before Pentecost, we see the disciples “commissioned” by Jesus to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to do the same things he was doing by the Spirit that manifested the Kingdom in their midst. In Luke 10, when they return excited at what had happened, Jesus reminds them that the exciting thing is not necessarily that they cast out demons, but that this manifestation means that they have been marked as God’s children; their names are “written in the Book of Life.” They are getting their lives back forever as children of the resurrection, and that life is starting now! Already they’re living in the power of the Spirit, in obedience and alignment to the Father, exercising the authority that belongs to them as image-bearers of the Triune God.
Melissa: What’s at stake here? What do we miss when we continue adhering to our belief in “Father, Son, and Holy Book”?
Cherith: We completely miss out on some really good news! We’ve been made for and called into relationship with the Trinity as God’s human, image-bearing children. Through Jesus, we are not merely saved from sin, from all that keeps us broken and bent out of relational alignment with God and everything else; we are saved for life with the Triune God and all that is God’s as image bearing people who live the life of Jesus, as beloved children of the Father, in and by the person and power of the Holy Spirit.
The Father, Jesus, and the Spirit are conforming us “into the image of the Son,” making us glorious human children on our way to immortal life as human image-bearers in a new creation with Jesus as our forever incarnate Lord and brother, and in fellowship with the Father and with the Spirit, and the whole historical and eternal communion of the saints.
Melissa: In light of that truth, what is your parting word of encouragement to us?
Cherith: Go for it! Participate in that image-bearing life with the Triune God even now!
To be like Jesus, as resurrected and renewed human persons, is not just our future hope. It is our present calling. John’s first letter twice exhorts the church that the sign of being in God’s love, individually and communally, is that “in this world” we are to look “like Jesus”! Listening to Jesus and the Father by the Spirit, we are to participate with the Triune God in the life of the Kingdom already in our midst, empowered to participate in both glory and suffering. To be like Jesus is not just our future hope, it is our present calling. Click To Tweet
Just like Jesus, we need to know our story well—revealed in the whole of Scripture—to live in communion with the Triune God even now. Scripture places us in this beautiful narrative and lets us discern our participation in the communal life of God. Let’s read Scripture well and faithfully to know, love, and live the life of those beloved of the Holy Trinity.
Melissa: One last question: when do we get to read more in your upcoming book?
Cherith: [laughs] As soon as I stop chatting with you, I promise to get back to the computer so that you have something to read in 2018! I look forward to it being finished more than anyone!
Purchase and download Cherith Fee Nordling’s original talk from the Missio Alliance’s Young, Restless, and Always Reforming here.