While my ongoing theological reading and research focuses to some extent on what it means to be made in the Image of God, I also intend to keep reading and thinking around the particular God that I believe we are made in the Image of. Thus, I’m intending to read a range of books on the Trinity and Christology in the New Year, as part of my 2018 Reading Challenge. This is a book I was excited to read, as it contains some historical reflection, practical outworking, and one perspective on the way the Trinity engages with our social programmes. Bruce Ware is a well known Southern Baptist theologian, author of a number of books, and someone whose work I’ve read before in different contexts.
In terms of pitch and layout/structure, this is a great book. Readable by most people – but worth the work – this is a book that simply (or, at least, as simply as possible) explains and expands what it means that God has revealed God’s self as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The opening two chapters are immensely helpful – regardless of what you might make of the later parts of this work. Firstly, Ware explains to us why it is so important, if we call ourselves Christians, to recognise and relate to God as Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In an age when thinking, especially about faith, is often ignored, this is an important point. Secondly, Ware gives a helpful and readable overview of the formation of the Doctrine of the Trinity. Peppered with evidence of deep learning, this is an introduction that both shows what happened but also explains why it is important. These two opening chapters are well worth a read in a standalone sense.
The book continues with a chapter per person of the Godhead; ‘Beholding the Wonder of the Father’, ‘Beholding the Wonder of the Son’, ‘Beholding the Wonder of the Holy Spirit’. Whilst there is much in these chapters that is immensely rich and useful, this was the section of the book that I began to struggle with slightly, though at the same time it has also made me think. Fundamentally, Ware is a conservative complementation theologian – and this shows in his Trinitarian theology. It is not my place, certainly not in this review, to say that he is wrong, but it is clear that some of his thinking comes into his Trinitarian explanation, and sometimes gets in the way of his explanations. The second concern, and this is not necessarily an issue of first order but is of immense importance, is the way that Ware deals with the work of the Holy Spirit. I appreciate that this book is about the Trinity – but there is (in my reading) a strong implication that the Spirit’s miraculous work is perhaps no longer happening. Whilst the chapters on the Father and the Son both strongly imply practical application and life-changing truth, the Spirit seems to be focused solely on sanctification and glorification. There is a hint in the language of the Spirit empowering people for evangelism – but my inner Reformed Charismatic was chafing at the bit to draw a clearer line between what Jesus does, and what we are called to do in extending the Kingdom by proclaiming and demonstrating the Kingdom of God.
The middle three chapters find their narrative fruition in the final chapter of the book, ‘Beholding the wonder of the Triune persons in relational community’. This is where Ware’s theological project becomes most obvious – particularly in the surprising jump he takes when discussing the Image of God. Having spent a broadly equal amount of time discussing the substance/identity of the persons of the Trinity and their roles in relationship, in this chapter Ware somewhat jarringly jumps to talking about the Image of God predominantly in terms of role and action. Whilst this is of course not wrong, it is also not perhaps big enough a view of what it means to be human – not least as it fails to take into account the fully glory of being made in the Image of God. There is good here – not least the fundamental recognition of the importance of community – but I was concerned to read that ‘The most marked characteristic of the trinitarian relationships is the presence of an eternal and inherent expression of authority and submission‘. Having been very encouraged and fed by Ware’s usage of scripture throughout the book, this point is a text-less observation. I would argue that the most marked characteristic of the Trinity is the overflowing dynamic love of the persons, for one another and the world God made, and the relentless overflow of that love in the incoming Kingdom of God. That is not to deny the importance of authority and submission – but rather to re-orient a description of the Trinity in the language of the Bible (not least in the beautiful, Trinitarian, rich language of 1 John 4:7-21! I would also warmly recommend The Essential Trinity: New Testament foundations and practical relevance edited by Brandon Crowe and Carl Trueman as a great longer biblical introduction). This is expanded into a discussion of the application of this in marriage – arguably ignoring the vital and beautiful male/female distinction in favour of a shoe-horned-in submission (my friend Ian Paul has written a helpful blog post on the language of authority/leadership and the word ‘head’).
Ware’s conclusions, then, do echo some of this particular concern around headship, submission and authority that I feel somewhat plagues what is otherwise and excellent book. However, Ware is also humble, throughout this book, and I believe should not be ignored in a consideration of Trinitarian Doctrine. I think, with the caveats above, that this is a helpful primer on what it means to say that God is Trinity. I would certainly recommend it warmly to my more conservative Christian friends (as it is usually, in my experience, the case that people know a lot less about who God has revealed God to be than they do about what they think God thinks about gender roles in the church and home), as well as to my more egalitarian Christian friends as an example of why thinking about the Trinity is so important (to them, and to those who are new to Christianity, and indeed anyone, I would heartily recommend Michael Reeves’ ‘The Good God‘ too). The opening chapters, as I said, are genuinely excellent and would make great study aids for anyone thinking about the Trinity in Christianity. I’ll give the final words of this lengthy review to Ware, my brother in Christ, who ends his book so well:
“With deep gratitude and humility before God, we acknowledge how far we have to go, both in understanding God as he is, and in living life as God meant this to be. By his grace, may both our vision for God and our longing for living life aright be enhanced, as we see more clearly the beauty and glory of the one God who is three. And so, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, we give praise, honour, and glory, both now and forevermore. Amen.”