James: In your assessment do Evangelicals need to re-discover Trinitarian grace and participation or do they have a robust theology of life and Christian living?
Geordie: Evangelical theology, with all of its strengths, has some significant lacks when it comes to how we think and speak about sanctification because we haven’t grounded it in a very robust theology of the Trinity. We’ve turned grace into a thing or a force or some generic divine favour, and in so doing we have depersonalized the gospel, the God of the gospel, and those caught up in the gospel (ourselves). The fact is, grace is not a thing, grace is a Person. Grace is Jesus Christ sent from the Father through the Spirit. And he comes and dwells among us to live the life we failed to live and die the death we deserve to die and to take our redeemed humanity in him to ever live before the face of the Father in our name. THAT is grace. And THAT is amazing. But it doesn’t stop there. Grace is not a gift with “no strings attached” – that kind of a gift has no interest in relationship. Rather, God gives himself to us in Jesus Christ SO THAT we might share in his life, so that we might participate by the Spirit in the Son’s life and love in the Father. We are brought in and lifted up that we might know a life of love and trust and joy and service and faithfulness and compassion like Jesus does by fixing our eyes on him who fixes his eyes on the Father.
Of course, the Evangelical depersonalized version of grace creates significant problems downstream, specifically in the area of Christian formation. Evangelicals love the Trinity (sort of), but talking about “it” a lot does not make us Trinitarians in practice. No matter how regularly we recite the Apostles Creed most Evangelicals are functional Unitarians. Cleverly putting things in threes only masks the problem. Liberals and Evangelicals alike have traded the objective reality of the gospel which resides in the person of Jesus for their own subjective creations that throw people back upon themselves in spite of how loudly they declare that they don’t throw people back upon themselves. This impacts pretty much every aspect of our faith and life. To be honest, a great deal of what I see churned out by the Evangelical world (which is my general camp), leaves a pretty uns
atisfactory aftertaste. One core reason for this, I argue, is that we have the nasty habit of making it all about us. In the book I make a distinction between what I call “Subjective Moral Formation” and “Objective Trinitarian Participation” as a way of highlighting the problem. If you’d like, I can sketch that out a bit here.
James: Please, go ahead.
Geordie: Subjective Moral Formation essentially focuses on behavioral modification, and from that standpoint, it is reasonably effective. On the surface this may not seem bad at all, but whatever “fruitful” change it produces comes at the cost of a self-focused, impersonal approach to the living God. This version of Christian formation is subjective because the primary agent is ourselves, rather than the ascended Christ. It is moral because its goal is development in virtue and other socially idealistic behaviors. It is formation because it assumes that we can train ourselves – through specific practices, habits and attitudes – toward the achievement of predetermined behaviors and qualities which imitate Jesus. Here’s the problem: anytime the Christian life gets reduced to individualistic and non-personal ideals or technique-focused programs, the living God is shrunk to the shape and size of a vending machine: programmable, predictable, and controllable. Jesus gets demoted to the status of a moral example or a moral teacher (and not just by Liberals). The end of subjective moral formation is an impersonalizing of that which makes us truly and properly human – a relation of dependence and trust with the living God.
In the book, based on my reading and unpacking of T.F. Torrance, I propose an alternative approach to Spiritual formation, which I call, ‘Objective Trinitarian Participation.’ Objective Trinitarian Participation takes place within the circle of the worshipping life of Jesus Christ, as participation in Jesus’ relation with the Father through the Spirit. It is objective because the primary agent is the living, ascended Christ. It is Trinitarian because its activity has its origin and continuation in and through the Holy Spirit sent by the Father with the Son. It is participation because we are included: through our engagement in specific practices, habits and attitudes, the Holy Spirit continually leads us, through Christ, to the Father in every area of life. From this standpoint, the main focus and concern of Christian formation is that the Father-Son relation be translated into the daily life of the children of God through the Spirit. It’s a totally different starting (and ending) point.
James: What is your favourite TF Torrance quote?
Geordie: I’ll give you two, one short and the other more extended, but both of them capture for me the beauty and freedom we are invited into in Jesus Christ. I am not alone. My life is not my own. I am included, caught up, enfolded, encircled, gathered up, secured, and the Spirit is the down-payment of the reality of this grace so that I might know it experientially even on this side of the veil.
“Christ’s faithfulness undergirds our feeble and faltering faith and enfolds it in His own.” (G&R, 154)
“The ascension means the exaltation of man into the life of God and on to the throne of God. . . . There we reach the goal of the incarnation. . . . We are with Jesus beside God, for we are gathered up in him and included in his own self-presentation to the Father. This is the ultimate end of creation and redemption revealed in the Covenant of Grace and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. . . . We ourselves are given a down-payment of that, as it were, in the gift of the Spirit bestowed on us by the ascended man from the throne of God, so that through the Spirit we may already have communion in the consummated reality which will be fully actualized in us in the resurrection and redemption of the body.” (STR, 135–36.)
James: In closing – In less than four lines what do you consider to be the “take home” message of your book Trinitarian grace & participation?
Geordie: Grace provides the heuristic key (the “logic”) for all doctrines that seek to order the relation of God and humans. Grace is God’s gift of himself (from the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit) so that we might share in his life and love. As we are taught by this grace, we become truly human, personalized persons, echoing by the Spirit the “Abba, Father” of the Son.
James: Thank you Geordie.