Miroslav Volf’s book, After Our Likeness, was not a quick read. However, Volf carefully deals with various aspects of Trinitarian theology and their logical implications for ecclesiology. Ratzinger (Catholic) and Zizioulas (Orthodox) are the two primary theologians that Volf interacts with in his text. Volf, being from the Reformed Tradition, is quick to point out problems with both Ratzinger’s and Zizioulas’ views on Trinity. However, the author is not overly zealous, which allows him to also affirm where other traditions’ views are true. This book covers a range of issues within ecclesiology, including Protestant predicaments that arise. Overall, this book was philosophically and theologically well constructed. There is a link to a short paper I have written dealing with Trinity and the Church as community. It is hardly comprehensive; however, it does give an indication as to what I believe.
Shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the early Church began to wrestle with Jesus’ divinity and humanity, as well as, what it meant to live Christ-like lives. How could Jesus be both fully man and fully God? Moreover, what was Jesus’ connection with God? What was God’s essence and what did that mean for the Christian community? A number of beliefs and viewpoints were proffered trying to explain the substance or essence of God: Gnosticism, Docetism, Modalism, Pelagianism, and Binitarianism, to name a few. It finally came to a head in the early part of the fourth century.
The word “Trinity” used to describe God is an extra-biblical marker. The doctrine of the Trinity was not formalized until the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. in response to Arianism (Barron 42). The Nicene Creed helped concretize the doctrine of the Triune God for the early Church. At that point, it became a formalized, solidified statement of faith for Christians. Although the recitation of the creedal statement has been uttered by churches for millennia, the implications of various Trinitarian conceptions of God have not always been clearly drawn out. The creedal statement did not settle the issue. It merely affirmed God’s Trinitarian nature.
The concept of the Triune God is more than a faith statement made by the Church universal. As theologians, like Saint Augustine, have understood, this doctrine gives us insight into the nature and character of God. To understand the Church’s nature and character, we must comprehend God’s character. In this paper, I hope to make it evident that a proper understanding of the Trinity inescapably shapes the nature of the Church as God’s sacrament to the world.
I will commit to this task in several ways. First, we will explore the implications of the imago Dei. This exposition will allow us to glimpse God’s design for true humanity, which is fully embodied in Jesus Christ. Secondly, we will put forth a working definition of Trinity, as well as, what it means to be human in light of Scripture and our experience. Next, we will define sin and its effects, which twists God’s initial purpose for humanity. Finally, we will comment on how the Church should reflect the Trinity in its calling. This will basically confirm the priesthood of all believers, as well as, the necessity of the Church for our faith. Let us start at the “Beginning.”
CREATION: IMAGO DEI
The stories of Genesis 1 and 2 relate the creation accounts. God brings forth all of creation by simply speaking a word, creating everything, ex nihilo, from nothing (Gen. 1; John 1). The apex of creation is humanity, both male and female, made in imago Dei, the image of God (Gen. 1:26). To understand true humanity, we must comprehend the implications of being created in this image.
Dr. Timothy Crutcher has suggested six ways to understand the full implications of the imago Dei. Essentially, being created in this divine image means that humanity is characterized as: laborers, stewards, composite creatures, moral creatures, communal creatures, and with gender equality (my personal notes). This was God’s intended design for humanity because it is the very nature and character of God. In essence, God is the light which we reflect. As such, when humanity lives out imago Dei, they are fully re-presenting God back to the world.
To help narrow the scope of our discussion, I only want to concentrate on three of these aspects: laborers, communal creatures, stewards, and gender equality (which I employ for equality between all humanity). Furthermore, I want to discuss these aspects in the context of Love, which I believe is an appropriate term to describe God’s communion within the Trinity and God’s engagement with Creation.
God labors in the Garden of Eden for six days, resting on the seventh, which is the Sabbath (Gen. 1). God starts creating ex nihilo but then uses the raw material of creation to make the rest of creation. For instance, he forms man from the dust and woman from the rib of the man (Gen. 2:21). God labors over creation thus adding further value to what is already there. However, God does not keep this task to Himself. Rather, God invites and empowers humanity to labor in the Garden so that it might produce vegetation (Gen. 2:15). In fact, the passage suggests that plants have not grown because humanity is not around to till the soil. Although God is the Creator, humanity participates as laborers with Him to add value to creation.
In the first creation narrative, humanity is given the task of governing over creation (Gen. 1:28-30). Labor was a gift of God to humanity. Labor pains increased after the introduction of sin to the Garden. However, that does not imply labor was not difficult before sin. Despite the difficulty that sin imposed upon our labor, we are still called to be productive, adding value back into God’s world (Gen. 3:16-17). When we are committed to God’s creation as He is committed, it becomes an intense labor of love, whereby loving God’s world results in loving God too.
That is to say, we are merely stewards, not owners, of God’s gifts (i.e., Creation). In his book, I and Thou, Martin Buber suggests that how we treat someone’s personal belongings reflects our relationship with that person. In the same way, how we use, or misuse, God’s creation speaks a great deal of our relationship with our Creator. Let it suffice to say here that improper “governing” of God’s gifts often means that we lose those gifts. For Adam and Eve, it was the loss of the Garden. Later in history, Israel loses the gift of land due to disobedience. God’s gifts must be used on God’s terms.
The second creation drama, however, presents a glitch: man has no suitable helpmate (Gen. 2:20). It hardly seems appropriate to say that God’s creation is “not good”, as if He poorly constructed creation. Rather, man is incomplete because there is no suitable helpmate. Why is this “not good?” Simply put, humanity without community is contrary to the nature of God, as fully represented in the Trinity.
In light of this fact, Genesis views the relationship between man and woman as one of total equality. Woman is taken from man’s side, as opposed to his foot or head, which indicates equal status between these two humans. Man and woman are like one another, albeit not totally the same. However, it is that very difference that allows a man and a woman to become one flesh, diversity in unity. This is the very thing we see in God, diversity in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, yet there is a unity of Love that inextricably binds them.
If it is true that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16) and if God’s character does not change (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8; James 1:17), then it can be said that God’s very essence is communal. After all, love must have an object of affection. Furthermore, true love (agape) is not a power-structure relationship, but is one of equality. It is the seeking of good for others first. This love is a constant interpenetration of the Father, Spirit, and Son; so that when one acts they all act as One. Love is not a static reality. It is constantly moving, both toward and from each of the Persons in the Trinity. To describe God as Love is to place God in relational categories.
God, it seems, has always been concerned about creating a community. He promised to make Abraham into a great nation (Gen. 12:2). He called Israel out of Egypt, calling them “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). That same imagery is used in 1 Peter 2:9 and Revelation 5:10 to describe the Church. Leviticus 26:12 states, “I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (NIV). 1 Corinthians 12 uses the image of the body and John 15 the image of the vine to express the dynamic of God’s people being united to the Father through Christ Jesus.
“Just as a person cannot arise, develop, and live apart from her relationships with others, neither can a Christian exist as a Christian before entering into relation with other Christians; she is first constituted as a Christian through these relations” (Volf 178). We are adopted and infused into the Body of Christ when we receive God’s gift of salvation. And, as1 Corinthians 12 notes, it would be ridiculous for one part of the Body to say that it does not need the other parts of the Body or that the whole Body does not need it!
Miroslav Volf’s scholarship on the Trinity, After Our Likeness, argues:
(1) that the church is not a single subject, but rather a communion of interdependent subjects, (2) that the mediation of salvation occurs not only through officeholders, but also through all other members of the church, and (3) that the church is constituted by the Holy Spirit not so much by way of the institution of office as through the communal confession in which Christians speak the word of God to one another (224).
The Church as an institution is a necessity, despite its obvious failures at times. Within our own Protestant circles, some have come to believe that the church as an institution is contradictory to the Spirit of God. Miroslav Volf asserts, “If this view were correct, then resolute ‘pneumatic anarchy’ would be the only appropriate ‘structure’ for a charismatic church. This view, however, is prejudiced, and anyone sharing it fails to recognize both the character of ecclesial institutions and the way the Spirit of God acts” (234). God’s Spirit is not a Spirit of chaos, but one that brings structure and unity, as evidenced by the creation accounts. To put it another way, God’s Spirit is not divided among believers, but remains One Spirit thereby bringing all people in Himself together as One Body.
In such an individualistic society, such as the United States, the mentality of Christianity has become “it’s just me and Jesus.” As such, many “Christians” have divorced themselves from the Church failing to recognize the importance or the necessity for Christian community in their daily walk. As a result, the typical layperson does not take responsibility for their role in the Church.
Much of this problem can be contributed to a consumer mentality: “the Church is here to serve my needs.” This mindset tends to negate one’s call to serve others as service to God. Hebrews 10:25 reminds us, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (NIV). James berates his audience for similar thinking: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” (NIV 2:14). Our relationship with this Trinitarian God does not allow for us to neglect engaging our world!
The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians outlines the purpose of the Church. In chapter 12, we are told that the multiplicity (parts) is brought into unity (Body) through the Spirit under Christ. Each body part has a particular function, so that every part is equally important in the ministry to each other and to the world. In fact, when one part of the Body suffers, the entire Body suffers. Furthermore, God has created the Church so that “there should be no division in the body” (1 Cor. 12:25). If God designed the Church to be united, then how do we justify separating ourselves from the assembly of God’s redeemed people?
Typically, the ministerial task has been relegated to a relative minority. Clergy have not always helped this trend, seeking to maintain power and control over congregations. There is a tendency for such power to elevate people over and against one another, which is not conducive to community (at least not healthy community). In addition, laity have often been under the assumption that ministry is a task for clergy, thus perpetuating the problem.
Although power is not a bad thing, we tend to handle it poorly. This may, in part, be related to a hierarchical viewpoint of God. For instance, Ratzinger’s concept of Christus totus inevitably leads to a power-structured church. Even though the laity may be considered important, they are secondary to the role of officeholders (Volf 53-61). Such a view elevates clergy to a “higher” service than the laity. From a lay perspective, this sends a clear message that ministry is the clergy’s task. As a result, laypeople may feel inclined to leave “ministry” in the hands of clergy.
However, the task of the clergy is service to the Body of Christ. Jesus re-constitutes leadership for his disciples in Matthew 20:25-28: “’You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’” (NIV). Leadership within the Church is outward focused, not for personal gain. Jesus’ view of leadership was servant-hood, not power games.
“Indeed, participation in the Trinitarian life (i.e., to love and to know God – and his creation in him – the way he knows and loves himself, i.e., with a common love, both ‘actively’ and with ‘fruition’) implies a selfless way of acting in and towards the world” (Nieuwenhove 97). This type of lifestyle is called of every believer, not as an option, as a natural overflow of our relationship with God. A deeply intimate relationship with God does not allow us to sit idly by, relegating our service to Him in only words or with academic assent. “But the loving spirit cannot rest in this, for charity and the inward stirring of the grace of God do not lie still” (Nieuwenhove 100). God’s Spirit of Love moves us toward one another and sends us out into a broken world to re-present that Love.
SIN IS ANTI-RELATION
Sin may seem like a very irrational category to discuss. However, sin’s definition can ultimately inform us about God’s, and thus the Church’s, redemptive engagement in the world. Our primary source for discussion will be Genesis 3, which narrates a creation both before and after sin enters the world. This passage shows us what we are aiming for and combating against as the Body of Christ.
Walter Brueggemann comments, “In God’s garden, as God wills it, there is mutuality and equity. In God’s garden now, permeated by distrust, there is control and distortion. But that distortion is not for one moment accepted as the will of the Gardener” (51). Prior to the entrance of sin in the garden, Adam, Eve, and the created order are in proper relationship with one another. In fact, the man calls the woman “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23), indicating equality and likeness.
However, sin dramatically altered humanity’s relationship with one another, God, and the created order. In fact, when confronted with their disobedience, humanity points the finger of blame: (1) at God, (2) at each other, and (3) at the created order (serpent). In addition, Adam only names Eve, an act of governing over, after sin is introduced into the Garden (Gen. 3:20). Sin, as evidenced by this narrative, is primarily a relational disruption of community. Now, humanity is solely concerned about self-preservation rather than promoting the welfare of others, which seems to be utterly contrary to God’s original intention for Creation.
Self-preservation is fear and distrust, not Love. As 1 John 4:18 states, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (NIV). According to the same epistle, “God is love.” If love is not found in an action, God cannot be said to be in that action because “in him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5). Thus, sin is anything that disrupts communion with Love.
Sin, in essence, is not a tangible thing. If it were a tangible thing, it would follow that God created evil, however, Scripture simply does not support this view. In fact, Augustine believed that “evil exists only in the weak sense that evil is the absence of good, just as darkness is the absence of light” (Serafini 40). We might formulate this similarly by saying sin is the absence of Love. This, I believe, is why Jesus affirms that the central commands are to love God and to love others, “for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12). God’s concern has always been right-relatedness, which is seen only when true agape is demonstrated in our lives. It is obedience to God and the desire to promote the welfare of others.
Therefore, we cannot formulate that “to err is human.” God created humanity without sin and this is the end to which He is now working. In other words, God is redeeming the broken relationships, establishing righteousness, between God and His creation. Where sin seeks to tear community asunder, God seeks to bring humanity under one Head, Christ. To that end, the Church, as a “holy nation and royal priesthood”, is God’s sacrament to the world, a means of grace. The Church is the eschatological people of God (Volf 128).
THE CHURCH’S SALVIFIC ROLE
Jan Van Ruusbroec writes, “Our created being does not become a creature, for we are created to the Image, that is, created so as to receive the Image of God, and that Image is the uncreated and eternal Son of God” (Nieuwenhove 89-90). If sin
twists this Image within man, then salvation and sanctification restore and re-create the divine image within us. Christ lives within us (Gal. 2:20)! Christ is the fullness of the imago Dei. He brings the Church into Himself, thereby bringing us into communion with the Trinity (Col. 1:15-23).
We are empowered to live by God’s Spirit in community, where before we could only live in fear and isolation. The Church is an extension of the fellowship within the Trinity – by the Spirit, through the Son, to the Father. 1 John 4:13-17 reads:
We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him (NIV).
The Church as a reflection of the Trinitarian communion must re-present such Love back into the world. “Love demands love from Love and from the lover in a constant seesaw between love directed towards the world by God, towards God by the world, in between elements of God/Love, and towards the world by human lovers” (Boon 498).
Love cannot be held, as if we might own it. Rather, Love is only ours insofar as we allow it to flow through us. Mark 11:24 reads, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (NIV). If that is true, then we are called to be conduits of God’s love. It means that the love of God must always be given away. To not give Love away is to cut yourself off from receiving Love. It is the stewardship of God’s gifts. We can only hold God’s gifts insofar as we live on His terms. In other words, we do not own God’s grace, we merely become caretakers of that gift.
Furthermore, since we have all been created as equals in the divine Image, the task of participating with God in the world is not relegated to a minority. Quite contrary to that thought, we must live in Christ as He lives in us. There is only one Body, one Spirit, and one Lord (Eph. 4:4, Phil. 1:27). In other words, the Great Commission (Mark 16:15) is given to the entire Body of Christ, of which we are all a part.
As such, we all have equal responsibility to that mission. Luke 10:2 states, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (NIV). As an equal community of laborers, we are called to add value back into God’s world by working with Him in re-creation.
As has been noted, humanity has been created in the imago Dei. This divine image imprinted upon us cannot help but shape what it means to be truly human. We have been created to add value back into the world as laborers. Secondly, God created humanity as equal partners, essential parts of the Body of Christ. As such, the Christian community is equally responsible as God’s royal priesthood to engage in the Great Commission as the Church. Finally, we have been created as a reflection of the Trinitarian community, from and toward one another. As a result, the Church is not simply an option for our faith, but is an integral part of the work of God in the world.
As we are brought into the Church through Jesus, we become the very Body of Christ extending God’s love to the world. We add value into the lives of others. The Church can only function properly as the whole Body of Christ working together. The fellowship of believers re-presents God to the world through the relationships we cultivate with one another. And, we find that in participating with God’s redemptive work in the world, we ourselves are being saved, redeemed, and renewed to the glory of God.
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