“In the midst of a world which does not know where it is going and which often because of discouragement and despair lapses into decay, the church issues its glad hope.”
Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck issued these words before WWI and WWII crippled our belief in the unchecked progress of humanity; before the nuclear arms race anxiously set nations on a course towards obliteration; before the sexual and cultural revolutions reoriented what it means to properly and fully express oneself; before the internet allowed us to cowardly hide behind a screen.
Before all the swirling, confusing developments of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Bavinck rightly noted two observations which have never ceased being true. On the one hand, the world is broken. Wandering without purpose, it often finds itself in the valley of the shadow of death, overwhelmed by the weight of oppression and injustice and sin. On the other hand, hope springs forth from God’s people, emboldening us to walk without fear of evil in the light of God’s beauty.
Unfortunately, in this rather twisted time, the church does not always seem to echo the goodness of God. The sound of hope is dulled by awkward political alignments, institutional bureaucracy and baggage, and, frankly, bad churches and bad Christians. But because spirituality runs deep within all humanity and because many can’t get away from the striking personality and example of Jesus, a branch of Christianity has formed that seeks to remove itself from the church. “Give me Jesus and nothing more,” they say. “The institutional church and its programs have done nothing but wash out the gospel.”
How can a Christian argue against that? I certainly wouldn’t want to be accused of adding anything to Christ and his gospel of redemption. What faithful Christian would? And yet this “organic” model of Christianity, which boasts a more genuine, authentic, and personal faith, ultimately lacks the orientation, substance, and structure necessary to redirect the world towards the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
A TRINITARIAN VISION OF THE CHURCH
In being redeemed by Jesus and sanctified by the Spirit, we put off our old, sinful self and put on a new self, “which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of [our] creator” (Col 3:10). The question then arises: What is the image of the creator to which redeemed people ought to conform?
Many will answer with a list of virtues, love being the foremost. Yes, certainly. Paul does the same thing in the following verses (vv. 12-17). But God is more than a list of attributes. Christ-followers, who are being conformed into the image of God, are being conformed into the image of a trinitarianGod, a God whose distinct persons -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- mesh in perfect, loving harmony.
Could it be the case that Christians reflect not only the attributes of God individually but the being of God corporately? Yes! Could it be the case that the church will fail in its mission to faithfully witness to the good news of Jesus and his coming kingdom unless it fully reflects our Trinitarian God? Again, I believe yes.
I find Bavinck again to be insightful on this point. He recognizes that “a theology of Trinity adintrarequires a cosmology of organicism ad extra.” Simply put, a truly “organic” church mirrors the Trinity. By this, he means primarily four things: anything that reflects the Trinity demonstrates (1) both unity and diversity, (2) unity which precedes diversity, (3) shared ideals, and (4) a common telos or goal.
A FORGOTTEN UNITY
We so often forget about one of these essential elements: unity. We might rightly recognize that our goal is to glorify God in all that we do (1 Peter 4:11; 1 Cor 10:31). We might even correctly understand that we are called to love, to seek human flourishing, to bear one another’s burdens, and so forth (e.g., Col 3; Rom 12).
But church history, too often marked by schism and dissension, reveals what we often neglect: that we are members of a singular Body (Eph 4:4, 12, 16), the Bride of Christ (Ezek 16; Eph 5:25-33). Together we make up a singular Temple, bound together, stone by stone, with Christ himself as the cornerstone (1 Peter 2:4-8; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:20-21; Heb 4:6).
It just might be the case that we cannot adequately “issue [our] glad hope” -- we cannot properly love and empathize and do justice and evangelize -- without this trinitarian-reflecting unity. Just as no person of the Trinity acts as a lone ranger without the harmonious action of the other persons, so too should our witness be in concert with the whole Body. Even more, just as the self-giving love that exists within the triune life spills out into all creation, so too should the love we have for one another pour forth and captivate the hearts and minds of onlookers, those without hope in our broken world (John 13:35; 1 John 4:20).
We see in our most loved, epic movies that there is something more compelling about a unified team than singular, virtuous hero. Consider the Avengers, Justice League, Guardians of the Galaxy: the trend of superhero movies is towards unity. Luke and Leia, Rey and Kylo Ren -- these are compelling characters but are all the more so inasmuch as they belong to something grander than themselves.
If this is the case -- that to preach the good news of Jesus’ reign we must reflect a unified-yet-diverse (that is, trinitarian) God --, how then can we reflect this unity-in-diversity? What binds us together? What shapes (and reshapes again and again) our ideals? What drives us towards our goal of glorifying God? We'll explore these questions in Part Two.
Having earned degrees from Southern Methodist University and Princeton Theological Seminary, Michael attempts to pass on what he has learned by teaching world and church history and apologetics. If he had to read theology and classic fiction for the rest of his life, though, he wouldn’t be sad about it. Michael loves his beautiful wife, Micaela.