Who Is My God? The Forgotten God of the Christian Name

I have a concern for the church of Jesus Christ; especially for the part of the church that I am most familiar with, the American free Protestant Evangelical Church. But I think this particular concern breaches the boundaries provided by my particular experience of the church; I think this issue that concerns me is present in even the most historically continuous and astute churches—churches that might be considered “high” because of their usage of liturgy and familiar resonance with the historical and ancient instantiations of the church (e.g. by usage of certain creeds like the ‘Apostolic’ and Nicene, etc.). The only Christian tradition that “might” get beyond my concern (and probably not) is the Eastern or Greek Orthodox church; this tradition has a “sense” of God’s depth and mystery, they move and breath in the apophatic sensations of God’s triune being in ways that indeed hearken back to the early past of the Christian church’s genesis. Alas, though I am afraid that even in this tradition, while there is more immediately available, at least in chant, I am afraid that most of the laity in these bodies, as well, share in the cause of my concern for the church of Jesus Christ. So what is my concern?, you ask. My concern is that who the Christian God is as triune is not taught with depth or nuance; he is usually and simply taught as a paradox and mystery. He is usually taught as a paradox and a mystery that makes people think they cannot think deeply about who our triune Christian God is; and yet, this is the very identification and particularlization of our God that makes him the Christian God—over against other gods, like Buddha, Allah, Thor, the LDS Jesus, etc. But more than this, my concern is that since people simply give up on thinking deeply about what it means for the Christian God to be Triune, they fail to have the capacity, by way of Spirit inspired perspective, to dwell deeply to participate in the life of God that they have been invited to in and through the mediating humanity of the Jesus Christ—the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. Lutheran theologian, par excellence, Robert Jenson shares my concern:

It need not be argued that the Western church now little uses or understands Christianity’s heritage of trinitarian reflection and language. So long as Christianity was the established religion of the West, the Western church could just barely survive this debility. The doctrine of the Trinity comprises, as we shall see, the Christian faith’s repertoire of ways of identifying its God, to say which of the many candidates for godhead we mean when we say, for example, “God is loving” or “Dear God, please….” So long as we could suppose it obvious which putative god would truly be God if there were any, Western Christians could shut their eyes to the disuse of these means. We no longer have that luxury. In the foreseeable future the life of the Western world will be very like that of the declining Mediterranean antiquity in which Christian trinitarian language was first created—presenting a different divine offering on every street corner. For Christian discourse to be intelligible, we shall have to accept our place as one item of this pluralism and make clear—first and principally to ourselves—which god we mean, before we venture his reality or characteristics. Therefore the Western church must now either renew its trinitarian consciousness or experience increasing impotence and confusion.

Here we only note that during the time of the Western church’s religious establishment and shelter, trinitarian insight and discourse in fact declined; explanation will occupy us later. The trinitarian heritage includes sophisticated metaphysical dialectics with which the greatest thinkers of Christian history explored the truth of their God, perhaps more deeply than the thinkers of any other religious tradition. Most Christians—lay, professional, or clerical—now know nothing of such matters. In the best—or worst—case they say that God is both one and three, as a sheer paradox they are supposed to believe because it is “revealed….” [Robert W. Jenson, “Triune Identity,” ix-x]

Jenson wrote this in 1982, and he is still right. While there has been a continued uptick in this area of Christian thought and development amongst the theologians, since and prior to Jenson’s lament, this same development has not come to pass amongst most and many Christian pastors and thus the laity. But as Jenson presciently warns, if the Christian church is to remain particularly Christian amidst the wash of the pluralist offerings of American (and beyond) religious experience; then the local pastor and local laity must re-kindle a depth understanding of what it means to belong to the Triune God. As Jenson continues to develop, to say that God is Triune is not some sort of Christian black box that only those trained can “try” and interpret; no, Jenson argues, to say that our God is “Triune” is to claim that we know his very name, because this is who He has revealed himself to be to those of us who know His voice. And to know His name, means that we are claiming to have a special (indeed, revealed) and participatory and growing knowledge of Him. But if this is simply glossed over, as it usually is, as some sort of opaque reference to the nebulous Divine in local Christian discourse, if this is relegated to the realm of paradox and paranormal; then what indeed is in a name?

It behooves us, it behooves the local pastor and the local laity to hearken back to the Christian God and the name of this Christian God which is Triune, which is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If we don’t—and by and large we haven’t in American Evangelicalism—then Jenson’s fear that we will become like the ‘Mediterranean’ will be all too true. Unfortunately, I think this fear of Jenson’s has, for the most part, become the reality. The American Evangelical church is pretty much drowning amongst the pluralism of our American day, because, well, she has forgotten the name of her God (if she ever knew it to begin with!).