---by Andrew Thompson
The doctrine of the Trinity is often misunderstood. Explaining it in simple terms is difficult, if not impossible, and even when explained, the doctrine defies our full understanding. It reaches beyond our mental limits. At the same time, it is completely essential and central to our Christian understanding of God. Whether we consciously consider it or not, our understanding of the Trinity deeply affects how we live as Christians. This is especially evident in the context of the Christian community gathered in worship. This paper will focus on the question, "How trinitarian is our worship?" and look at some ways that trinitarianism might be expressed in worship. To explore this question, I will consider and then contrast the views of two different authors, James Torrance, who is professor emeritus of systematic theology at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland and James Wm. McClendon Jr. who is the (now late) Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. However, before we compare these authors' viewpoints on worship, it would be good to provide some basic framework for conversation by briefly discussing the doctrine of the Trinity.
Trinity is the idea that God is triune, meaning that the one divine nature is a unity of three persons -- and that God is revealed as three distinct persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is one divine essence which cannot be separated, yet each person is distinct. When each person acts, all are involved in each action. For example, when Jesus healed people, the Father and the Spirit were both fully involved, even though those actions may have been attributed to Jesus. In the same way, when the Father raised Christ from the dead, both the Son and Spirit were participants in that act. We must not divide the members against one another. It would be incorrect to speak as though the members were at cross purposes to each other. No; there are three persons who share one will. Furthermore, each person in the Trinity is constituted in relation to the other. The God-essence is one of relationship. The very being of each member is based on relationship with the other members. For example, the Father is the Father because he is the Father to the Son. There is complete interdependence and interpenetration. God is relationship. This is quite different from our usual Western way of thinking. Since this definition pushes beyond conventional parameters of thought and reason, we must be careful not to distort things by trying to make our definition fit into easier or more familiar categories. For example, we must not think of God tri-theisticly, that is to say, we cannot define God as three gods under one title. God is one. Neither may we think of God as one god in three modes. God is not schizophrenic; God is not the Father one day, the Son another day and the Holy Spirit the day after that. No, each member exists and functions simultaneously, in perfect union one with another. God is completely one; yet each member is distinct.
While the word "trinity" appears nowhere in the Bible, a basic trinitarian formula of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is found in several places, including Matt. 28:18, 2 Cor. 13:14, Eph. 4:4-7, 1 Pet. 1:2 and Jude 20-21. Furthermore, the idea is consistent with both Jesus' words and Jesus' actions, and with New Testament discussion of the Holy Spirit. While a full examination of the biblical basis for the Trinity would be outside the scope and space of this paper, perhaps it will suffice to say that every author this paper will discuss shares a similar, orthodox view of the Trinity. They differ only in their definitions of worship and in the degree to which their definitions have integrated the doctrine of the Trinity.
What Is Worship?
According to James McClendon, "Worship is the practice of interactive creaturely response to what God does and requires and promises: it is neither human manipulation nor God-magic, but it is two-sided conversation, dialogue, with the God of Grace."(1) Closely linked with this definition is his idea of reciprocal knowing.(2) This definition of worship is a two-way, interaction with God. Worship is not simply something we do for God out of obedience, or to God to cause God to act; rather, worship is something we do with God. Our knowing God in worship is not simply a knowing of, but a very personal knowing. It is not "knowing" like we might say, "I know the President of the United States." -- meaning we know who the president of the United States is; we know his name and his face. It is more like the knowing you might claim if you were a longtime friend and confidant of George W. Bush. If you grew up in the same neighborhood, shared many of the same friends; if he invited you over for dinner at his house and asked your advice and you both shared your hurts and hopes with each other, perhaps then you could say you know him in a way similar to the knowing we share with God in worship. That is the knowing that we share with God. We know God and God knows us in worship.
It is also important to remember that McClendon includes a strong emphasis on the communal aspect of worship. This communal aspect of worship takes its fullest form in McClendon's discussion of the Lord's Supper. On the meal he writes:
The meal is about forgiveness ("blood shed for forgiveness of sins"); it is a meal about solidarity with Christ and one another ("my body"); it is a thanksgiving meal ("giving thanks, he broke it"); it is a future-regarding or eschatological meal ("until he comes").(3)
Then expanding on the theme of solidarity he writes:
Such union with Jesus is re-membering, it is reconstitution, being made part of the whole. In it we are re-united, we are re-membered one to another as his members.(4)
McClendon categorizes the Lord's Supper as re-membering act. However, is important for us to note that in his choice of wording that McClendon is not adopting simply a Zwinglian understanding of the Lord's supper (that the Lord's Supper is primarily memorial). McClendon's definition does not limit the presence of Christ in communion. Rather, the concept of reciprocal knowing would have us understand that the risen Christ is truly present with us at the table. As we commune with Christ, it is Christ who re-members us by his presence. In communion, we are united both with Christ (to himself) and by Christ (to each other). In worship, the risen Christ meets with us and in him we are transformed. We know God and God knows us.
James Torrance defines worship this way, "Worship is the gift of participating through the Spirit in the incarnate Son's communion with the Father."(5) According to this definition, worship finds its focus in the priesthood of Christ. Christ, by the Spirit, enables our participation in the triune life of God. He takes our faults and failures, sanctifies them by his own atoning work on the cross and offers them perfectly to the Father. He gives the perfect worship to God that we have failed to give. I suppose we could say that Christ carries us in worship. In this way, worship is not our activity, but Christ's. Rather, as we worship in our own imperfect and inadequate way, through the Spirit we participate in Christ's perfect worship eternally given to the Father.
However, in worship we not only give, we also receive. Torrance uses the Latin phrase (from Calvin's writing) mirifica commutatio, "wonderful exchange" to talk about this. In worship our sin is exchanged for Christ's holiness. Worship is saturated with grace. We do not deserve to approach God in worship, but by the saving work of Christ, through the Spirit, we not only draw near to God, we enter into the very center of the divine interrelationship. Through Christ, we receive back from God made-whole versions of the broken lives we offer.
In worship we stand before God, but we do not stand alone. Christ stands before us and around us. Nor do we as individuals stand before God alone. We stand alongside all whom Christ has called as his body -- a holy nation of believers that stretches beyond all boundaries of geography and time. Worship comes out of community; we must not think of it individualistically.
From these understandings Torrance writes about the Lord's Supper as:
. . .the supreme expression of all worship. It is the act in which the risen and ascended Lord meets us at his table, in the power of the Spirit, to bring his passion to our remembrance and to draw us to himself that we may share his communion with the Father and his intercession for the world.(6)
According to Torrance, the Lord's Supper is the central act of worship. In and through the bread and wine we meet with Christ, we are reminded of his saving work and we are carried into Christ's own relationship with the Father and Christ's ongoing work in the world. In those moments, the boundaries of space and time grow thin and we see, taste and touch -- even partake in -- the eternal relational essence of the Triune God.
Comparing the Two Views
McClendon and Torrance agree on many things. Both see worship as an interaction between God and humanity. Both hold the cooperate aspect of worship in high regard. However, I believe that there is an important distinction to be made between the two definitions of worship:
McClendon's definition revolves around the idea of dialogue; Torrance's definition revolves the idea of participation. McClendon sees worship as close personal interaction (reciprocal knowing) shared between God and the worshiping community. Torrance sees worship as participation, through the Spirit, in Christ's communion with the Father. McClendon's definition sees worship as happening between the worshiping community and God, but there is no particular focus on the interrelationship between the members of the Trinity. Torrance's definition sees worship as something that happens within the Trinity which the Christian community gathered for worship joins in. While this admittedly is an over generalization, because it does not fully engage the idea of knowing that McClendon uses, it could be said that worship as dialogue happens outside the Trinity, between the Godhead and the Christian community, while worship as participation happens first inside the Trinity, with the worshiping community being involved in the divine interrelationship.
Torrance categorizes views on worship under two headings: unitarian and trinitarian.(7)These categories, I think, are very helpful in this discussion. He defines unitarian worship as this: "what we do before God."(8) He contrasts that with his definition of trinitarian worship as:
. . .participating in union with Christ, in what he has done for us once and for all, in his self-offering to the Father, in his life and death on the cross. It also means participating in what he is continuing to do for us in the presence of the Father and in his mission from the Father to the world.(9)
The emphasis in trinitarian worship is not on ourselves and our own action; it is on Christ and Christ's action on our behalf. Trinitarian worship is not about our response to God. Worship happens just fine without our involvement, because worship is at the center of the Triune interrelationship. Christ is the great and perfect worshiper. To use an illustration, the perfect party is already going on, and we, though unworthy of inclusion, have been declared worthy and have been invited to join in the celebration. We attend wearing someone else's name tag. It is not about us. By extension then, it is most certainly, not about me.
Using these categories, James McClendon's definition of worship sounds to me more unitarian than trinitarian. It fails to fully integrate the doctrine of the Trinity. McClendon's emphasis on " interactive creaturely response" and "dialogue" places too much focus on our own action and not enough focus on the work of Christ.
(to be continued)