A Trinitarian & Christologically Determined Ecclesiology: an Introduction to a Series

churchIn a prior post, I presented a dogmatic sketch of Christ’s ascension, drawing from this reality some further implications. In the next series of blog posts, I will attempt to both offer, as I put it earlier, a “thoroughgoing Trinitarian understanding of Christ’s work as well as a pneumatologically rich one”; more particularly, I will be focusing on Christ’s work as it pertains to Christ’s body: the bride of Christ. Earlier I wrote:

Christ then is speaking to his church through the Holy Spirit; and, the Holy Spirit is empowering Christ’s body. The prophetic and kingly function of the Spirit is clear. Moreover, the Spirit comforts us as well as interceded for us as “another advocate” (Rom 8; John 16), pointing to the Spirit’s priestly work, if you will.

To state it differently, the Holy Spirit reflects the munus triplex of Christ; that is to say, the threefold office of prophet, priest, and king is reflected in the Spirit’s activity. While perhaps a novel way of putting things, this shouldn’t be a surprise. The Spirit glorifies Christ (John 16:14), and, therefore, his activity reflects that of Christ. Moreover, the munus triplex, as Robert Sherman persuasively argues, reflects the Triune Lord. Rather than reproduce his argument, I will offer some thoughts of my own at this point.

If the each person of the Trinity shares one singular, undivided will, it follows that, if Christ is prophet, priest and king in his divinity, then the Father and the Spirit reflect this in their ad extra activity. Now, one may wonder how this could be; where is it biblically stated that the Father is a priest? Teasing this out somewhat, we can see how the munus triplex is reflected in the person of the Father. The kingly office is self-evident: the Father reigns and acts as king. The Father speaks thus the prophetic office. He speaks through his Son (Heb 1), clearly, but he speaks nonetheless. The priest office is less clear, but, at base, what does the priestly office denote. God’s reconciling love toward sinners. Why does Christ intercede for sinners (Hebrews) or why does the Spirit (Rom 8)? They do so because of God’s reconciling love toward these same sinners. Does this reconciling love exclude the Father’s activity? May it never be. Rather, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son” (John 3:16).

The Father, Son and Spirit are not at odds; therefore, while each person of the Trinity expresses the munus triplex in their own peculiar ways, this peculiarity (or, perhaps better, specificity) does not undermine their unity—the one indivisible will which they share (see Sherman’s monograph for further argumentation along these lines).[1]

One may ask: how is this important? It is our contention that in order to understanding the person and work of Christ, and, in turn, the ad extra work of the Trinity, one must attend to the relationship between the Triune Lord and the church. Putting it more programmatically, to truly apprehend the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one must apprehend the activity of the same especially in relation to the church. Ecclesiology is not divorced or abstracted from theology, Christology or pneumatology; rather, ecclesiology is unintelligible apart from them; and, it warrants rephrasing, theology, Christology, and pneumatology is inapprehensible without ecclesiology. It is the revealing of the Triune Lord in the lives of once-fallen-now-redeemed human beings that we come to truly see God. This has profound implications for how we understand God, ourselves and even the world, and, as such, it will be our concern in the coming weeks (or months) to make an attempt at drawing out the implications of our above noted programmatic statement.

As we begin to move in this direction and set the stage (or the table) for things to come, we will elucidate some fascinating statements made by two theologians—John Owen and Kathryn Tanner.

Commenting on Isa 6:6-7, Owen writes of the Holy Spirit that the “burning coal … from the altar” (ESV) represents the Holy Spirit, “or his work and grace.” He then goes on to say:

… having touched the lips of his prophet, his sin was taken away, both as to the guilt and filth of it. And this is the work of the Holy Ghost, who not only sanctified us, but, by ingenerating faith in us, and the application of the promise unto us, is the cause and means of our justification also …[2]

 The Holy Spirit, for Owen, is the sanctified and justifier of the believer. The burning coal is placed upon the lips of Isaiah, who represents faithful, believing Israel, and the angel says of him: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (v. 7). Or, to repeat Owen’s summary, “the guilt and filth” of sin is taken away by the Holy Spirit, with the forming denoting justification and the latter sanctification.

Here, we see an expression of the duplex gratia (famously taught by John Calvin) which teaches that we receive the double grace of justification and sanctification in our union with Christ. These two benefits, while distinguishable, are inseparable, finding their ground in the believers union with Christ. Yet, Owen connects this same duplex gratia to the work of the Holy Spirit, drawing on Isaiah 6, and, we believe he is correct in seeing this connection. Often though, it must be admitted, we do not conceive of the Holy Spirit in connection with justification. Beyond this is a deeper implication, this two-fold grace in virtue of our union with Christ can, at the same time, be described as a direct activity of the Holy Spirit.

In sum, Christ, and our union to him, is intimately bound up with and expressed by the Holy Spirit’s activity in the life of the believer, who brings forth both justification and sanctification. It is for this reason that we can affirm with many theologians that the Holy Spirit does not merely apply salvation to us, but, in fact, gives himself to us and it is by this gift of himself that we are saved. This enforces the deep and abiding connection between the work of Christ and the Spirit, which has further consequences for how we are to think of the divine work of redemption.

Moving on to Kathryn Tanner’s statement, we catch a glimpse of the powerfully Trinitarian shape that our redemption takes. She writes:

The Spirit radiates the humanity of Jesus with the Father’s own gifts of light, life and love; and shines through him, not simply back to the Father, but through his humanity to us, thereby communicating to us the gifts received by Jesus from the Father. In this way, the gifts of the Father indwell us in and through the gift of the Spirit itself shining through the glorified humanity of the Son. Thereby the Spirit in us effects created gifts in and for our humanity.[3]

Breaking this down, we see that the Spirit “radiates” Jesus’ humanity “with the Father’s … light, life and love,” i.e., the Spirit manifests the Father through the humanity of the Son, which, in turn, has a two-fold direction: upward to the Father and outward to us. Jesus has received gifts from his Father, as the true and natural Son of God, and the Spirit communicates these gifts “to us.” Thus, the reciprocity between the persons of the Trinity informs, shapes and determines what we receive in our fellowship with the Triune God. God gives to the Son, and the Spirit, through the Son, applies these same gifts (light, life and love) to us in a magnificent way: by “shining through the glorified humanity of the Son.” The Son who assumed human flesh, also resurrected that same flesh from the grave, ascended to the Father, and dwells in glory (“taken up in glory,” 1 Tim 3:16).

This requires that an adequate account of redemption must be led by the two central truths of (1) Christ’s hypostatic (fully God and fully man) union and the salvation wrought by this union, moving from his birth to glorification, with every step in-between being completely essential, and, (2) the Trinitarian reality of this same redemption, which necessitates explicit connection of salvation to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To put it negatively, without these two fundamental truths, we cannot speak rightly of the church, of the people of God called out by God to live a life of eternal fellowship with him.

The church is, at base, constituted by the Triune Lord; and, she cannot understand herself apart from this. Moreover, this must train her how to think of herself in theory, in practice and toward the world. By looking on how she is beheld (Eph 5:26-27), we will behold something of God. And it is at this point that we conclude our discussion, awaiting opportunity for attempts at further elaboration.

[1] Robert Sherman, King, Priest, and Prophet: A Trinitarian Theology of Atonement (T&T Clark, 2004).

[2] John Owen, Pneumatologia, in the Works of John Owen (Banner of Truth, 2009), III: 77.

[3] Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology (Fortress Press, 2001), 53

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2 thoughts on “A Trinitarian & Christologically Determined Ecclesiology: an Introduction to a Series”

  1. Some thoughts on A Humble Inquiries work on, A Trinitarian & Christologically Determined Ecclesiology: the Essential Role role of the Holy Spirit:

    Im excited to stumble on more work from young theologians that dive into the the role of the spirit within the Trinity with boldness and clarity. With so many buzz topics in the scholarly world of theology today, it seems that the functioning work of the Spirit within the triune-nature of God and His relationship to the believer, booth corporate and personal, gets lost in the shuffle. They often get replaced by short-hand doctrines that end up watering down what the scriptures have to say about the work of the Spirit. We need more biblical theologians to do the work of a good exegete and uncover in the Spirit of Truth, the person and work of the Holy Spirit and His functioning role within the Trinity in relation to the church. And I would argue A humble inquiries dose just that. 

    They begin their survey with an aggregate of scriptures from the gospel of John. Highlighting, John 14:16, on “The Helper” that will come after Christ ascension. This is a good place to start for any treatment on the Holy Spirit. This, as the title announces is a Trinitarian and Christologically, Determined Ecclesiology, with that said, it is important as they did, to embolden Jesus as the pronouncer of the disciples promised “helper”. But what is the role of this helper? Why will the disciples be so better off when Jesus leaves? They go on to point out later in the article that the Spirits vocation toward the believer is to reveal Christ. They explain this in a sound and elegant description here:

    The Spirit teaches, guides, instructs God’s people; He convicts regarding unbelief, vindicates christ, the ascended one, and impresses on our hearts the coming judgment, already begun. The Spirit, moreover, witnesses to Christ, is sent by and is in union with the Father and Son in his ad Extra Work, and, He glorifies the Son.

    This coming of the helper is like a proper endowment from the father of the bridegroom to the bride. The bridegroom must go away but dose not leave the bride alone. The father leaves his ‘helper’ as a promise of his return. The helper works as a friend to the bridegroom. Preparing the Sons soon to be wife for their future marriage. The friend of the bridegroom always points the bride to the bridegroom, encouraging and making way for his return. This relationship between the Father, Son, Spirt and church is stated in AHI work so graciously here:

    …The Spirit, as god himself in and with us, glorifies and witnesses to the son with the latter bring us to a vision of the Father.

    Not enough work in the biblical world illustrates the relationship of the church and God. What AHI attempts to do is carefully illuminate through the gospel of John and some of Paul’s writings that the Trinity works together in the church. There is no Hierarchy when it comes to the Trinity in gods Economy. Each Person of the God Head has a specific role. That of the Spirit is to as stated above is to empower the believer and both justifies and sanctifies. He notes in his article:

    The Spirit is the very grace given by Christ to equip the saints.

    I would note, that the same is true of Christ and the Father. In this article AHI dose an outstanding job in a compact exegesis to reveal this very relationship between the Trinity and the church. The Church is an extension of this relationship in the sphere of the created world. As Christ reveals the Father and the Spirit reveals the Son, the Son reveals through the Spirit the mysteries of God the Father, through the church to His created world. In this article AHI booth instructs and convicts, uncovers and illuminates that any credible exegesis on ecclesiology must take seriously the relationship of the Trinity and the church. To do that, we must make known through the scriptures the role and function of the Holy Spirit within the revelation of the mysteries of God and his Purposes for His church.

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