Trinitarian vs. unitarian worship

This post continues a review of James B. (JB) Torrance's book, Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace. For additional posts in the series, click a number: 1, 34567.

Trinitarian worship

In chapter one, JB contrasts "Trinitarian worship" with what he calls "unitarian worship." He emphasizes that Trinitarian worship is all about Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, who through his high priestly ministry, grants humanity the "gift of participating through the Spirit" in his own "communion with the Father." In and with Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, we "draw near to God our Father" in worship that is Trinitarian in both form and substance (pp. 20-21, and see the quote above). JB elaborates:
There is only one Mediator between God and humanity. There is only one offering which is truly acceptable to God, and it is not ours. It is the offering by which [Jesus] has sanctified for all time those who come to God by him (Heb 2:11; 10:10, 14). There is only one who can lead us into the presence of the Father by his sacrifice on the cross.
...[This] trinitarian and incarnational [view of worship]... takes seriously the New Testament teaching about the sole priesthood and headship of Christ, his self-offering for us to the Father and our life in union with Christ through the Spirit, with a vision of the Church as the body of Christ. It is fundamentally sacramental, but in a way which enshrines the gospel of grace---that God our Father, in the gift of his Son and the gift of the Spirit, gives us what he demands---the worship of our hearts and minds. He lifts us up out of ourselves to participate in the very life and communion of the Godhead, that life of communion for which we were created.... The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is the grammar of this participatory understanding of worship.... (pp. 21-22)
Trinitarian worship is thus Christ-centered, emphasizing the person of Jesus Christ as "the real agent of worship....the High Priest who, by his one offering of himself for us on the cross, now leads us into...the holy presence of the Father, in holy communion" (p. 23).

Unitarian worship

In contrast, "unitarian worship" is human-centered---a "do-it-yourself-with-the-help-of-the-minister" form of worship that we do before God. It wrongly assumes that the only priesthood needed is our own (p. 20). One of the sad results is a de-emphasis (even marginalization) of the sacraments, which in Trinitarian worship are "the supreme expression of all worship."

Last Supper by Liz Lemon Swindle (used with permission)

JB points out that in the sacrament of Communion (also called the Lord's Table and the Eucharist), the risen and ascended Lord "meets the power of the Spirit, to bring his passion to our remembrance and to draw us to himself that we may share his communion with the Father and his intercessions for the world" (p. 23). Sadly, this reality does not find a central place in unitarian worship.

Over the last 20 years, my own tribe (Grace Communion International) has followed the Spirit in transitioning from a legally-shaped, moralistic, unitarian worship, to a Trinitarian worship that is both grace-based and gospel-shaped. As we've traveled this path, I've seen our appreciation for and emphasis on the sacraments (communion in particular) grow. I look forward to greater growth, and commend to my brothers and sisters in GCI (and all tribes) JB's book as a guide.

What went wrong?

How is it that many Christians (GCI included---we were WCG back then), in embracing a unitarian worship, drifted from the ancient and orthodox Trinitarian, Nicene faith of the historic church? The answer is rather complex, but as JB notes, it has largely to do with allowing the doctrine of the Trinity to recede from its once central and foundational place in Christian faith and practice. By most definitions, to be Christian is to accept as primary the doctrine of the Trinity. The sad reality in many churches, though, is that if that doctrine were taken out of the statement of beliefs, essentially nothing would change in that church's teaching and practices. [1] JB elaborates:
If [in diminishing the doctrine of the Trinity] we take our eyes off Jesus Christ, the only one who can lead us by the Spirit into communion with the Father, do we not fall back on ourselves and our own religious efforts...what Paul calls a false "confidence in the flesh" (Rom 10:3 [and see Philippians 3:3]), that we can meet God's holy requirements, the dikaiomata of the law? (p. 24)

Forms of unitarian worship

Unitarian worship comes in several forms and JB examines two of them. The first is a moralistic form where Jesus is viewed primarily as a teacher of ethical principles. The second form is individualistic, emphasizing religious experience with a focus on personal encounter with God. As good as it might sound, this second form tends to reduce the gospel to "events" with an emphasis on the blessings of Christ more than on the divine-human person of Christ. As JB notes, this individualistic approach fails to recognize that "salvation is not simply through the work of Christ...but is primarily given to us in his person..." (p. 28). Though this second form of unitarian worship rightfully acknowledges the God-humanward work of Jesus, it (sadly) tends to diminish or entirely overlook the human-Godward work of Jesus---substituting our work (and worship) for the ongoing work (and worship) of Jesus on our behalf. JB comments:
[The unitarian approach] emphasizes our faith, our decision, our response in an event [oriented] theology, which short-circuits the vicarious humanity of Christ and belittles [our] union with Christ. For all that it may emphasize [about] the vicarious work of Christ on the cross to bring forgiveness and make our faith a real human possibility, it fails to see the place of the high priesthood of Jesus Christ as the leitourgos (Heb. 8:2).... To reduce worship to this two dimensional thing---God and ourselves, today---is to imply that God throws us back upon ourselves to make our response. It ignores the fact that God has already provided for us that response which alone is acceptable to him---the offering made for the whole human race in the life, obedience and passion of Jesus Christ.... Whatever else our faith is, it is a response to a response already made for us and continually being made for us in Christ, the pioneer of our faith. (pp. 29-30)

Trinitarian worship: it's about relationship!

In contrast to these two forms of unitarian worship, incarnational, Trinitarian worship has as its essential "grammar" the doctrine of the Trinity, putting at the heart and center of worship the unique relationship between the incarnate Son of God, Jesus and the Father, in the Spirit. JB comments:
[In Trinitarian worship] Christ is presented to us as the Son living a life of union and communion with the Father in the Spirit, presenting himself in our humanity through the eternal Spirit to the Father on behalf of humankind. By his Spirit he draws men and women to participate both in his life and worship and communion with the Father and in his mission from the Father to the world. (pp. 30-31)
Rublev's Trinity
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Incarnational, Trinitarian worship is about relationship---first and foremost between the Son and the Father, in the Spirit; and then between the triune God and ourselves: with the Father, in the Spirit, by and through Christ (our Mediator and High Priest). This relating between God and humanity is a "double movement of grace: God-humanward and human-Godward"---a movement that in both its aspects is grounded entirely in the relational, "perichoretic being of God." (pp. 32-33).

As JB notes, incarnational, Trinitarian worship is "a gift of grace [by which] the Father has given us the Son and the Spirit to draw us into a life of shared communion---of participating through the Spirit in the Son's communion with the Father---that we might be drawn in love into the very trinitarian life of God himself" (p. 36).

This "deep intimate communion," (p. 40), is a relationship of "mutual indwelling" and "perichoretic unity" (p. 38). JB then concludes chapter one with this exhortation:
[Let us] return to "the forgotten Trinity"---to an understanding of the Holy Spirit, who delivers us from a narcissistic preoccupation with the self to find our true being in loving communion with God and one another---to hear God's call to us, in our day, to participate through the Spirit in Christ's communion with the Father and his mission from the Father to the world---to create in our day a new humanity of persons who find true fulfillment in other-centered communion and service in the kingdom of God... (p. 41).
And to that I say, amen!

[1] Readers of this blog may be familiar with Karl Rahners statement (in his book The Trinity), that "Christians are, in their practical life, almost mere 'monotheists.' We must be willing to admit that, should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain virtually unchanged."

For audio recordings of some of JB's lectures, click here. For a related essay from JB, click here.