This week, I’ve been slowly but surely working my way through Wesley Hill’s wonderful book entitled, “Paul and the Trinity,” in which Hill reimagines the way in which we read the doctrine of the Trinity out of the New Testament. Since the Enlightenment, most scholars look at the New Testament, and they see God as the subject of complete and total worship within the context of Jewish monotheism at the top of a sort of vertical line (or, more precisely, line segment), with man at the bottom, and Jesus floating somewhere on that line as man only, God only, 100% man and 100% God, or some Herculean mix of divinity and humanity, depending on your view of the Trinity, biblical revelation, and the straightforwardness of the New Testament’s statements about Jesus among other things. This “spectrum” paradigm for interpreting who Jesus is in the New Testament has been helpful to a certain extent; it’s certainly forced us to look more closely at passages like Philippians 2 and 1 Corinthians 8. However, in the final analysis it’s dreadfully incomplete.
For Hill, less important than fitting Jesus into a spectrum of Paul’s monotheism is the fact that Jesus cannot be understood outside of His relationship to the Father and the Spirit, likewise the Father cannot be understood outside of His relationship to the Son and the Spirit, and finally, the Spirit cannot be understood outside of His relationship to the Father and the Son. This is a total paradigm shift in terms of how we think about the Trinity in the New Testament and especially in Paul’s writings. I’m normally not one for grandiose statements, but if Hill and his predecessors are right, then it overturns decades if not centuries of accepted methodology in New Testament scholarship.
Based on just a cursory reading of the New Testament in general and Paul’s writings in particular, it seems legitimate to think of the Trinity in this way. There doesn’t seem to be a more faithful way to account for things like Holy Spirit’s being called “the Spirit of Christ” in 1 Cor. 15, or for the Father and Son to generally be called by those inherently relational names on offer. In this way, Hill’s proposal seems to have at least a sort of prima facie appeal to it.
More than that, though, there’s an underlying beauty to Hill’s approach. Interpreting Jesus’s person through a relational lens makes sense because it is analogous to how we humans interpret ourselves. As creatures made in the image of God, we ourselves are inherently relational. We often interpret ourselves and others through relational lenses. C.S. Lewis’s statement rings true:
"Christ, who said to the disciples, "Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you," can truly say to every group of Christian friends, "Ye have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another." The friendship is not a reward for our discriminating and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each of us the beauties of others.”
Analogous to the way the Son is defined in relation to the Father and the Spirit, the Father to the Son and Spirit, and the Spirit to the Father and the Son, we are in a sense defined in relation to others. The relations of the members of the Trinity show us that our relationships aren’t flippant or meaningless or byproducts of a survival gene, but rather they show us that our relationships matter. Our creation in the image of God grounds and gives legitimacy to our own relationships. Even after the Fall, we find ourselves investing in relationships and longing for them. Rightly ordered, then, exercising relationships is in a sense exercising image-ship.
The Trinity is personal, and we are personal. Rather than a merely ethereal comment on God’s own nature, rather than telling us merely what God is, the biblical doctrine of the Trinity tells us who God is, and God the Trinity tells us who we are.