In Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith, author Michael Reeves attempts to present the doctrine of the triune God as a “solution and a delight,” not an “oddity and a problem” (2012, p. 10). Through a combination of sometimes cringeworthy “hip” slang and chapter subtitles on one hand, and copious helpful and succinct summaries from historical theologians on the other, Reeves presents the doctrine of the trinity as both appealing and theologically foundational.
Peppered throughout are helpful historical illustrations and sidebars, with page-level footnotes that make it easy to follow up on references while reading. Most engaging and compelling are his explanations of the theological consequences of having (or not having) an internally relational God, and the functioning of each person of the trinity within that relational web. He concludes with a discussion of how the trinity impacts our theology of justice and the holiness of God.
In the first chapters, Reeves introduces the Trinity as a unique Christian approach that significantly differentiates it from all other religions. In comparison to Islam, he explains that the Biblical call to the oneness of God (“Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Deuteronomy 6:4) is not a call to “mathematical singularity.” He helpfully points out the Hebrew word for “one” in this passage is the same used in Genesis 2:24 to describe the oneness of Adam and Eve, another relational singularity.
Later in discussion of the Fatherhood of God, the author develops his critique of the Islamic view of God and the negative implications of such an approach. Other heterodox approaches to the Trinity are discussed, including modalism (God is one person with three expressions of Himself, like three roles) and polytheism (“a gaggle of Gods”), and why these are less logically compelling than the standard three-person trinitarian view. Regarding modalism, Reeves writes
Somehow the Son must be his own Father, send himself, love himself, pray to himself, [and] seat himself at his own right hand (2012, p. 33).
After establishing the eternal pre-existence of Jesus (Hebrews 1:10, John 17:24, Colossians 1:16-17), Reeves explains the significant import of this – that God has been in loving relationship for eternity past, and so when it comes to His creation, he is already by his very nature a God of relational love.
This nature is illustrated in a beautiful explanation of Biblical headship, a sometimes-contentious issue with regard to the place of women in Christian theology. Grounding his explanation in 1 Corinthians 11:3, he describes the father-son-man-woman chain of relationship as a gracious cascade of love (as opposed to authority):
The shape of the Father-Son relationship (the headship) begins a gracious cascade, like a waterfall of love: as the Father is the head and the lover of the Son, so the Son goes out to be the lover and head of the Church….That means the Christ loves the church first and foremost: his love is not a response, given when the church loves him: his love comes first, and we only love him because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).
That dynamic is also replicated in marriages, husbands being the head of their wives, loving them as Christ the head loves his bride, the church. He is the lover, she is the beloved. Like the church then, wives are not left to earn the love of their husbands; they can enjoy it as something lavished on them freely, unconditionally, and maximally. For eternity, the Father so loves the Son the he excites the Son’s eternal love in response; Christ so loves the church that he excites our love in response; the husband so loves his wife that he excites her to love him back. Such is the spreading goodness that rolls out of the very being of this God. (2012, pp. 28–29)
He concludes that not only is this a beautiful and real picture of how God’s trinitarian-rooted love operates, as a source (head) of love that flows downward, with love, honor and respect flowing back upwards in response, such a view also precludes a husband treating a wife as less than an equal in their oneness. Jesus is treated as an equal in the trinity, even though there is a type of submission of the Son to the Father, and so the husband’s headship over the wife should function similarly.
Perhaps our difficulty in sorting out the complementary yet equal role of man and wife in marriage is because it is as much a mystery as the equality and submission of Christ to the father, and that’s why we never quite come to a resolution on the issue (my suggestion).
The Father in Creation
In stark relief to the trinitarian God, the Islamic view of the unity of God is presented. In both theological conclusions and practical application, a singular God turns out to be necessarily selfish and unloving. First, from eternity past until Creation, a singular God has not been in loving relationship, so “how can a solitary god be eternally and essentially loving when love involves loving another?” (2012, p. 40)
In addition, since such a god has had no one to love but themself for eternity (“whose greatest pleasure is looking in the mirror”), creation would not be a natural thing to do, except perhaps as a means to further gratify himself – that is, he would be merely using the creation. The author goes on to cite the example of the ancient myth of the god Marduk, as well as an Islamic theologian, who demonstrate that a singular God really is not interested in self-giving relational love, but cannot love, and instead is merely using the creation and humans as self-gratifying slaves:
One of earliest attempts at an answer [to why God creates] can be seen in ancient Babylon’s creation myth, the Enuma Elish. There the god Marduk puts it bluntly: he will create humankind so that the gods can have slaves.….Enormously influential Muslim theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1056-1111) once wrote “God does indeed love [people], but in reality He loves nothing other than Himself, in the sense that He is the totality [of being], and there is nothing in being apart from Him.”
Again connecting the doctrine of a singular God beyond general principle to how women are viewed and treated, the author argues that such gods do not love, and sometimes despise their creation as part of dualism, where the spiritual is good and the physical is bad. This often leads to mistreatment of the creation and women because the feminine is seen as the “bad” half of the male-female dualism. As an example, the author uses the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, which concludes with
Simon Peter said to them, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life. Jesus said ‘I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.’”
It is gratifying to realize that not only does the trinity lead to the equal and kind treatment of women, but seeing the logical and historical progression from the solitary god to the mere self-gratifying use and deprecating of women makes the trinity all the more critical. It makes one wonder if liberal theologians who have wanted to dilute the gospels through the inclusion of these Gnostic works have thought the issue through.
The Son in Salvation
In this chapter, the author attempts to describe the unique contribution of the Son to our theology and experience of God, but honestly mostly continues discussing the impact of the singular God on our theology and practice. He argues that the non-relational nature of a singular God leads to specific doctrinal emphases, specifically a transcendent, almighty, authoritarian and “right-action” oriented God, as opposed to an immanent, fatherly, and “right-relationship” oriented God.
Since the singular God is not relational, the primary approach to pleasing this god is not a restoration of intimate relationship, but of right acting. Of course, such right acting is the essence of outward, fear-based religion. The inner devotion of those under such regimes may be deep and sincere, but the emphasis on the might and unapproachability of God leads to a very different experience and practice of faith. Reeves argues:
And so it is with the divine policeman: if salvation simply means him letting me off and counting me as a law-abiding citizen, then gratitude (not love) is all I have. In other words, I can never really love the God who is essentially just The Ruler. And that, ironically, means I can never keep the greatest command: to love the Lord my God. (2012, p. 20)
Thankfully, the author does draw some specific doctrines from the Sonship of God in this chapter. While the Father is seen as the love that founds the creation and fills it with love, it is the Son that actually creates (John 1) and gives physical expression to the love of God by entering creation and bringing salvation. This action, he argues, is God sharing himself with us in relationship, and in the sacrifice of his only and most precious possession, his Son. And he is not just restoring us to a sinless state, but perhaps giving us something we did not have before – his own glory, which previously he said he would share with no one (Isiah 42:8). This is certainly an act of complete giving of one’s self.
The Spirit Beautifies
In discussing the Holy Spirit, the author describes the functioning of the Spirit, and also attempts to establish a practical view and experience of the Spirit as a person of the Godhead, not just a force to be called upon or wielded. Not only does the Holy Spirit function to draw us to the Father and regenerate us, he sticks around to help us grow, to be teacher, counsellor, guide, and comforter.
Even greater and more intimate, he comes to live inside of us, or “in our spirit.” This comingling of spirit, however, is barely mentioned and not discussed, but perhaps is overlooked due to an evangelical commitment to bipartite view of man (spirit/soul and body), rather than a tripartite view (body/soul/spirit), but that is not clear. As with the previous doctrines, the author attempts to discuss the practical import of the personhood and functions of the Spirit, but ends up merely returning to the impact of a relational God in general.
The author compares Islam’s logical, practical push to uniformity in action and dress, a natural result of a singular God, to the unity (with diversity) of a community that is based on a relational triune God. This is tangentially related to the Holy Spirit in that one of His purposes is the unity of believers, and this unity is not a uniformity, but rather, a variety of functions and gifts comparable to the different parts of the human body (1 Corinthians 12).
The author completes his examination of the trinity with a discussion of holiness, and the justice of God. Under a singular God, holiness is about righteousness, but not about the beauty of pure love.
The beautiful, loving holiness of this God makes true godliness a warm, attractive, delightful thing. It is not about becoming more mean and pinched….it means “do not hate your brother in your heart…but love your neighbor as yourself.” Love for the Lord, love for you neighbor – that is the heart of holiness and how the triune God’s people get to be like Him.” (2012, p. 117)
The argument seems to be that a righteousness-based holiness birthed out of a solitary God viewpoint leads to a rules-based, performance-based holiness (“pinched” and “mean” seem perfect descriptors), while a relational one leads to the kindness of being brought into loving relationship, and that pure love creates a different kind of holiness – an attractive and kind one. Extending this idea to the even more mean and pinched perception of God’s judgment, the author argues that a singular God might only be motivated by anger at transgressions, while a loving God who is otherwise patient and forgiving might finally be provoked and motivated by love, not mere anger at transgression. That is, at seeing real evil perpetrated against the innocent, would not love act with justice?
Were not God triune, and so not eternally love, his wrath would make him look like an overgrown foot-stomping toddler, a fight-picking bully or a merciless sultan….But with the God who is eternally love, His anger must rise from that love. Thus, his anger is holy, set apart from our temper-tantrums. (2012, p. 119)
He quotes a Croatian author who suffered under the genocidal wars that terrorized that region, who admits that he was initially cold to the idea of a loving God acting in wrath. However, seeing atrocities forced him to rethink that proposition – he did not hate, but was incensed at such great evil going unpunished. Could not a loving God act out of such holy anger? He concludes:
Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.
Reeve’s book is a valiant attempt at making the doctrine of the trinity accessible, important if not foundational to our theology, and attractive rather than obscure. While he succeeds in many of the concepts he brings forth, such as the cascade of love from the headship of the Father, the theological impact of a relational God on the nature of God, and the practical impact upon our treatment of creation and women, the book’s content is not well organized. That is, the chapters are nicely ordered, but the chapters on the distinctive functions of the three persons of the Godhead are made confusing by the introduction of further (helpful) concepts of a relational God in general, which should have been relegated to the initial chapters and not placed within the chapters on Father, Son, or Spirit.
I found the use of cute slang off-putting. Rather than making the material more accessible, it seemed gimmicky and out of place within an otherwise serious theological discussion. This book has good concepts, but they are poorly organized and so the execution makes for jarring, disconnected reading that is hard to persist in. If not for having to review this book, I would have stopped reading because it required too much mental re-organizing to follow the author.
Reeves, M. (2012). Delighting in the Trinity: An introduction to the Christian faith. IVP Academic.