Tim Chester – Delighting in the Trinity: Just why are Father, Son and Spirit such good news? (Monarch Books, 2005)
Michael Reeves – The Good God: Enjoying Father, Son and Spirit (Paternoster, 2012)
It was by pure coincidence that I happened to read, in the space of a fortnight, two books on the doctrine of the Trinity. I had collected a stack of Tim Chester’s books and Delighting in the Trinity had made its way to the top. And I grabbed a copy of The Good God around the same time not because of its theme, but because a speaker I heard at a conference said it was the best book – by some margin – that he had read in the past few years. The speaker, as it happens, was Tim Chester.
The similarities between the books two extends far beyond their subject. They’re both pitched at the common layman, but both make a point of quoting and explaining the ideas of prominent theologians, such as Augustine, Calvin, Schleiermacher and Barth. Both begin by acknowledging that the doctrine of trinity is typically a point of confusion or discomfiture, but both – as their subtitles indicate – aim to demonstrate that it should be regarded as uplifting and central to the Christian faith. There are no perceivable differences in their theology, which probably accounts for Chester’s high praise. Even the format is similar, with both featuring excurses on points of history which can be skipped by those wanting a lighter read (I imagine Reeves was influence by Chester in this).
Chester takes the more systematic approach to the doctrine. Part One of Delighting in the Trinity looks at the biblical foundations for the trinity, Part Two provides a simplified but valuable overview of its historical developments, and Part Three examines the practical implications of the trinity.
Once again, I found Chester’s writing to be incredibly clear and helpful. He doesn’t shy away from any issues but gives a solid basis for why the Trinity is core to the Christian faith and practical and inspiring insight into why it is something worth delighting in. He clearly shows the Trinity – God as ‘an eternal community of loving relationships’ (p. 155) – to be the basis for our understanding of God’s love and the significance of the cross. He also shows how the simultaneous unity and plurality of God forms the basis for a Christian theology of community. ‘Because we are made in the image of the Trinity,’ Chester writes, ‘we become truly human the more we image the Trinity’ (p. 164). When applied to human community, the Trinity undermines both the unmitigated uniformity of totalitarianism and imperialism and the unmitigated plurality of individualism.
The praise Tim Chester gave to The Good God led me to expect that here I would find something at least as good. There certainly was much about it that I appreciated: the weaving in of history, theology and pastoral sensitivity; the infectious love for God’s character; the brevity; and the ability to read the Bible as literature rather than a collection of statement and draw on its symbols and narrative. But, as I finished the book and now looking back on it, I am left with fairly strong hesitations about it.
First among these is Reeves’ passionate negativity towards the concept of a single-person God. After extolling the goodness of the triune God he regularly turns towards what the alternative might look like. This God, he claims, would be the author of evil, selfish, belligerent, even petulant (e.g. pp. 39, 45, 52, 82). He also chooses to slate the view that God’s primary identity is as Creator or Ruler, rather than Father. He writes, ‘if that is how God is, my relationship with him can be little better than my relationship with any traffic cop…I can never really love the God who is essentially just the Ruler’ (p. 2).
The problem with these sentiments is that they can come uncomfortably close to applying to the God portrayed in the Bible and particularly the Old Testament. For Reeves, ‘The most foundational thing in God is…that he is Father. Again and again the Scripture equate the terms ‘God’ and ‘Father’’ (p. 5). But how can this account for the fact that common designation for God in the Bible is not ‘father’, but ‘Lord’? Can it, then, really be so awful to stress God’s identity as Ruler above that of Father?
Reeves also says that in order to understand who God is you must start with Jesus the Son and ‘when you don’t start with Jesus the Son, you end up with a different God who is not the Father’ (p. 19). Again this becomes problematic when we go to the Bible and see that God did not start by revealing himself in Jesus, but left that for millennia. Rather he revealed himself as Creator, Ruler and Father to mankind and, in particular, Israel.
It is unsurprising then to see eisegesis in Reeves’ interpretation of the Old Testament. For instance, he says, ‘in Genesis 1 the Word goes out in the power of the hovering Spirit so that on God’s Breath the Word is heard: ‘Let there be Light!’’ (p. 32). In How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Fee and Stuart lay down as a basic rule of exegesis that ‘a text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his or her readers’ (2003, p. 74). While it is entirely orthodox to say that God created the universe through Jesus (John 1:3), it is quite another thing to say that the writer of Genesis 1 referred to each of the three persons of the Trinity. While the text may give indications of the plurality of God –Chester’s description of it – its author and his or her readers could not have meant it to refer to the Trinity as this was quite clearly outside of their beliefs about God.
Chester likewise goes further than I would in seeing the distinct persons of the Trinity in the Old Testament, but he does at least provide a hermeneutical basis for it. He writes,
‘We must read the Old Testament on its own terms. We cannot disregard the intention of the biblical authors, still less can we read into it what we like. But Jesus Christ, the Word of God, provides the definitive hermeneutic of the Old Testament. He describes himself as the one to whom the Old Testament points (Luke 24:25-27, 44-47; John 5:39-40). The Old Testament explains who Jesus is and his coming explains the meaning of the Old Testament. This is not an alien hermeneutic imposed on the text.’ (pp. 42-43)
The doctrine of the Trinity is an area where I do gravitate towards mild heterodoxy, so it’s been helpful for me to learn from these two teachers who have so much joy in it. While I do feel that The Good God has significant limitations I could still recommend it. Although I don’t see why I would when Delighting in the Trinity is available.