Theology matters (the Nicene faith)

This post concludes a seven-part review of James B. (JB) Torrance's book, Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace. For the other posts in the series, click a number: 12345, 6.

[Updated 12/28/2016]

JB (pictured at right) sums up his purposes for writing with this important statement:
I have been concerned to stress the need to recover the centrality of the doctrine of the Trinity in the life of our churches today for a number of reasons---for a better doctrine of God as a covenant God, not a contract-God; for a more biblical understanding of worship; and for a less individualist anthropology---an understanding of our humanity and our destiny in the purposes of the God of grace, to be a community of persons enjoying communion with God and with one another. (p. 95)
In his final chapter, which I'll touch on only briefly here, JB confronts objections to his incarnational, Trinitarian vision. I've personally encountered some of these, including this: "What's the big deal? Don't all Christians accept the doctrine of the Trinity?" As JB notes, some (many?) Christians, view the Trinity as merely one among many doctrines; and the related teaching that God is triune as merely one among several of the attributes of God. However, the historic, orthodox "rule of faith" of the church proclaims the doctrine of the Trinity (along with the companion doctrine of the Incarnation) to be the very foundation and framework of every point of doctrine and practice. As JB notes, the Trinity is "the grammar of the church's faith and worship" (and JB's brother, Thomas F. Torrance, calls it the ground and grammar). JB offers several examples of how Trinitarian theology shapes our understanding of doctrine and practice in the church. I'll mention two here. First JB addresses the topic of the naming of the first person of the Godhead as Father:
So often, tragically, the only dad some children know is an alcoholic or one who has abused his wife and family. This makes it all the more important that we allow Jesus Christ to interpret true fatherhood for us, both human and devine. We think of the Pauline injunction: "With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, my brothers, as an act of intelligent worship, to give him your bodies, as a living sacrifice, consecrated to him and acceptable by him. Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remold your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves toward the goal of true maturity" (Romans 12:1-2, J.B. Phillips). We need to let God remold our concepts of Father and Son as we contemplate the mystery of the Father-Son relationship given to us in Jesus Christ in the New Testament witness.
As we reflect on the history of Christian thought, we can see that the word "Father" has been wedded often to wrong concepts of God as the unmoved mover, the impassible God, a static substance with impersonal attributes, or as the lawgiver understood in terms of the concept of lex, the law of contract, or Western jurisprudence and politics, with its roots in Stoicism---the contract-God who will only be gracious if there is human merit. No wonder highly unsatisfactory images of God as Father can arise! What is so often wrong is not the word "Father" but the baggage that can be put into it. (p. 103)
JB then gives another illustrattion of the importance and efficacy of Trinitarian theology by addressing the topic of gender identity. I won't take time to summarize all his points, but here is one of particular note:
We are meant to interpret our humanity, our male-female relations, in the light of the Trinity. God is love. Love always implies communion between persons, and that is what we see supremely in God. The Father loves the Son in the communion of the Spirit. The Son loves the Father in the communion of the Spirit in their continuing mutual "indwelling" (perichoresis was the Greek word used by the fathers of the church). The Spirit is the bond of communion between the Fatehr and the Son and between God and ourselves. The Spirit is God giving God's self in love. The Father and the Son and the Spirit are equally God... But there is differentiation within God---personal distinctions in the Godhead. There is unity, diversity and perfect harmony. It is this triune God who has being-in-community, in love, who has created us as male and female in that image to be "co-lovers"..., to share in the triune love and to love one another in perichoretic unity. (pp. 104-105)
By God's design, rather than being uni-sex, humans are gendered---male and famale. Contrary to some opinions, the gospel does not eliminate these gender identities, though as men and women in mutual communion with Christ, there is no superiority or priority of one gender over another. As Paul states, in Christ there is "neither male or female" (Galatians 3:28). JB comments:
As we look together as men and women to Jesus Christ, the one by whom and for whom we were all created, we know we are one in him, subject to one another in him, and are equal in him. This is particularly important in any discussion of the ministry of women in the church. Our starting point should be the sole priesthood of Jesus Christ. There is only one true priest in the church, in the one body. In Christ there is neither male nor female. Christ calls men and women into his royal priesthood, the church, to participate by the Spirit in his ministry---the one prophet, priest and king---and gives spiritual gifts to every member of his body, to women as well as men, for edifying the body. The church derives her structure from Christ, not from isolated texts of Holy Scripture taken out of context, nor from a male-dominated hierarchical tradition. As I see it, a proper doctrine of the Trinity, the incarnation, the sole priesthood of Christ, our understanding of the new creation in Christ, commits us to radical feminism, carefully defined. (pp. 105-106)
Whether thinking about the nature of God or of humanity, theology matters---and the church ignores or marginalizes it to its peril. Those of us with a history in the Worldwide Church of God and its predecessor organizations (under Herbert Armstrong's leadership), know all too well the dangers of bad theology.

JB concludes his book with an impassioned plea for the church to preserve the Trinitarian faith as it is set forth in the historic Nicene Creed. As we adhere to the Creed, we avoid the various non-orthodox views that are seen in the contemporary church: legalistic, "contract-God" fundamentalism on the right; feel-good neo-gnosticism ("all is God"; "God is all"; "Love is all you need") on the left; and various non-orthodox viewpoints in between.

By adhering to the core tenets of the Nicene Creed, we are brought back to the apostolic "rule of faith," understood in the light of the essential doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. The Creed leads us to begin where good theology always begins---the Who question: "Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ?"

Icon of Nicaea (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Thus an incarnational, Trinitarian theology leads us to look all other matters/questions through the lens of the person (being) and work (act) of Jesus. As JB emphasizes, we must "interpret the Bible christologically.... [reminding] ourselves constantly that the center of the church in not ourselves, but Jesus Christ, our living Lord" (pp. 116, 117). He notes further that if we fail to do so, we "fall back on ourselves with a false self-confidence in the flesh" (p. 119).

With this admonition in mind, we end this series reviewing JB's book with the ancient Trinitarian doxology (hymm of praise) known as the Gloria Patri:
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.

Here (from Jason Garoncy's blog) are podcasts of lectures given by JB, covering much of the same material as the book we've been reviewing: