The Trinity and Christian Community

The Trinitarian Basis of Christian Community

A trinitarian understanding of God has important implications for the entire range of beliefs, but its connection to the doctrine of the church is particularly significant.

Richard Rice, PhD, is professor of religion at Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California, United States.

In contrast to some other Seventh-day Adventist doctrines that have undergone change, the Trinity has not been a source of notable controversy over the years. The church’s affirmation of righteousness by faith emerged during the 1888 General Conference, remembered for sharp interactions and subsequent turmoil. The discussions of Christ’s nature that followed the publication of Questions on Doctrine in the 1950s, were particularly strident. But the church’s progress toward full-fledged trinitarianism never generated, or degenerated, into similar disputes. Though it has been relatively quiet, no development in Adventist history has greater theological significance, for nothing is more fundamental to any version of Christian faith than its understanding of God.1

A trinitarian understanding of God has important implications for the entire range of beliefs, but its connection to the doctrine of the church is particularly significant. In fact, the Trinity and the church are intimately connected. It was the experience of God within the community of faith that gave rise to the trinitarian understanding of God. And a trinitarian understanding of God illuminates the origin and the nature of the church, as well as having important implications for the practical life of the Christian community.

The Trinity and the origin of the church

According to an ancient formula, all of God is involved in the activity of each Member of the Trinity. God works through both the Son and the Spirit to bring the church into existence. As Martin Luther asserted, “It is the proper work of the Holy Spirit, to make the church.”2 This joint activity is sometimes described as “two divine missions”—the sending of the Son and the sending of the Spirit—and these two missions are closely related.3

The Spirit’s role in the events of the early church is well known. The book of Acts begins with the promise of the Spirit’s coming (1:5, 8). Soon after, Pentecost empowered the early believers, enabling them to speak in other tongues and “[proclaim] the word of God with boldness” (4:31).4 Time and again, Acts describes Christians as being “filled with the Holy Spirit” (2:4; 4:31; 7:55). The Holy Spirit directed Christians to travel and preach, fell on Gentile believers, and convinced church leaders what sort of obligations Gentiles should assume when they joined the Christian community (15:28, 29). The sheer number of references suggests that the central character in the book is actually the Holy Spirit, rather than the apostles and the others who followed Jesus.

Although we think of the Holy Spirit as descending on Jesus’ followers after His earthly ministry was over, the Spirit’s activity in the early church was really a continuation of the Spirit’s activity in Jesus’ life. Indeed, the overall purpose of Luke and Acts may well be to show that the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of early Christians really became an extension of the Holy Spirit’s work within the life of Jesus Himself.

The Holy Spirit was a factor in Jesus’ life from beginning to end. The activity of the Spirit surrounded Jesus’ birth. In the early chapters of Luke, we read that John the Baptist (1:15), Elizabeth (v. 41), and Zechariah (v. 67) were all filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit gave Simeon special insight and prompted him to go into the temple at the right moment (2:25, 26).5 And of course, in the middle of all this was the greatest manifestation of all—the miraculous birth of Jesus. “The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God’ ” (1:35).6 Jesus would be full of the Holy Spirit from His birth, just as John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit while in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15; cf. Judg. 13:3–5; 16:17; Isa. 44:2).

According to Acts 10:38, God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. The Spirit descended on Jesus at His baptism and remained for His entire earthly life. Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit,” and the Spirit led him into the wilderness, to be tempted (Luke 4:1, 2; Matt. 4:1). In His synagogue sermon at Nazareth (Luke 4), Jesus announced, “ ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. . . .’ ” (v. 18).7 Later on, Jesus “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit,” following the mission of the seventy-two (10:21).8 The Holy Spirit was also active in Jesus’ death and resurrection. According to Hebrews 9:14, Christ offered Himself to God “through the eternal Spirit.”9 And in Romans 1:4, Jesus “was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead.”

On the day of His resurrection, Jesus “breathed” on His followers and said, “ ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ ” (John 20:22). The same power at work during His earthly life continues in the life of the community He founded, and through the Spirit, Christ maintains His presence in the world. Accordingly, Christ’s followers live by the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul puts it this way: “The Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit, that dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11). Through the Holy Spirit, therefore, believers live the resurrection life now, not just in the future. The Holy Spirit gives them a new dynamic for living, a new inner power, a new life, the life of the resurrection (see 2 Cor. 5:17).

Moreover, the Holy Spirit binds Christ’s followers to Him with ties that can never be broken. He lives in them (“Christ in you”); they live in Him (“the life I now live I live by Christ”), and because of its connection to Christ’s ministry in the world, the Holy Spirit receives a new identity—the “spirit of Christ.” We can see these interconnecting ideas at work in passages such as Romans 8:9, 10. As one biblical scholar puts it, “Abiding in Christ . . . is also abiding in the Spirit, or the abiding of Christ in us is also the abiding of the Spirit.”10

Other passages, too, show evidence of the close connections among God the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. According to both Paul and John (see Gal. 4:4–7; John 14:26; 15:26), the sending of the Spirit parallels the sending of the Son. And John attributes the sending the Spirit to both the Father and the Son.

The designations of those who send, “God the Father” and “Christ,” and of the ones who are sent, the “Son” and “the Spirit,” indicate that all of God—Father, Son, and Spirit—is involved in salvation history. The community created by the Holy Spirit as the continuation of Christ’s mission to the world thus owes its existence to the salvific activity of the triune God.

Salvation and the life of God

The close association of Father, Son, and Spirit in the plan of salvation tells us something important about God’s own life. Early Christians arrived at this insight as they worked out their understanding of Christ’s divinity. Behind the question, Is Jesus Christ divine? lay a more basic question: Is salvation God’s own work, or did God send a subordinate to carry it out? In upholding Christ’s full divinity, the early church affirmed that salvation is God’s very own work, not that of a secondary or subordinate being.11 In other words, God loves us so much that God Himself entered human history in the person of the Son in order to effect our reconciliation.

If true, then there must be an intimate connection between God’s saving activity and God’s inner life. As Jesus declared to the disciples, “ ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’ ” (John 14:9). In other words, God revealed Himself in Jesus as He really is. The plan of salvation manifests something that has always been true of God—love is the central characteristic of God’s own being. God has always existed as Father, Son, and Spirit, as an everlasting community of love.

The conviction that God’s revelation in Jesus Christ was a genuine selfrevelation pervades recent discussions of the Trinity. Karl Rahner puts it this way: “the ‘economic’ trinity is the ‘immanent trinity,’ and the ‘immanent’ trinity is the ‘economic’ trinity.”12 According to Karl Barth, “God is amongst us in humility, our God, God for us, as that which He is in Himself, in the most inward depth of His Godhead. . . . In the condescension in which He gives Himself to us in Jesus Christ He exists and speaks and acts as the One He was from all eternity and will be to all eternity.”13 For Eberhard Jüngel, the Incarnation is “not a second thing next to the eternal God but rather the event of the deity of God.”14 For Wolfhart Pannenberg, God’s actions in salvation history reveal that God’s inner reality consists of “concrete life relations.”15 And for Jürgen Moltmann, “As God appears in history as the sending Father and the sent Son, so he must earlier have been in himself. . . . The relations between the discernible and visible history of Jesus and the God whom he called ‘my Father’ correspond to the relation of the Son to the Father in eternity.”16

If the events of salvation’s history have their counterpart in God’s own life, then the Christian community owes its identity, as well as its origin, to its unique relation to the triune God. God’s activity as Father, Son, and Spirit not only brings the church into existence, the love that characterizes God’s eternal existence imparts to the church its essential character.

The Trinity and the nature of the church

The conviction that the founding events of the church, the missions of the Son and the Spirit, are manifestations of God’s own life leads to dramatic insights into the nature of the church. The close connection between the Christian community and the life of God becomes apparent in the “farewell discourses” of the fourth Gospel and in 1 John.

The various statements about love in these documents seem to follow a “fugal” pattern. They keep moving among the following themes, connecting them in more and more complex relations: the love that church members have for each other; their love for God and God’s love for them; and the love that unites God Himself, namely, the love between the Father and the Son.

First of all, the distinctive quality of life within the Christian community is that of love. “ ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ “ (John 13:35). Love becomes the essential feature that sets Jesus’ followers apart from other human groups. Consequently, those who think they are part of the community and don’t love each other are deceiving themselves. “All who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:10). On the positive side, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another” (v. 14).

Second, it is not love per se, or just any sort of affection that identifies Jesus’ followers but the specific love that Jesus has for them sets the standard for their love to one another. “ ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another’ ” (John 13:34).17 “ ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ ” (15:12, 13). Jesus’ followers should be prepared to love one another to the end, just as He “loved them to the end” (cf. 13:1).

Third, Jesus’ love for the disciples expresses the Father’s own love for them. “ ‘For the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God’ ” (16:27). The Father’s love flows through the Son into the Christian community.

Indeed, Jesus’ statements about His relation to the Father and His relation to His followers indicate that Jesus wants His followers to enjoy the same relation to God that He enjoys. Just as the Father comes to the disciples in the person of Jesus, therefore, Jesus brings the disciples to the Father. “ ‘Those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them’ “ (14:21). “ ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them’ ” (v. 23).

Fourth, the love that Jesus has for His followers reflects the love that He and the Father have for each other. For His followers present and future, Jesus prayed, “ ‘As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us. . . . The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me’ ” (17:21–23). First John 1:3 speaks of fellowship with one another and fellowship with God this way: “that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” Thus the divine love that creates Christian community manifests and extends the love that constitutes God’s own life.

This line of thought leads to a dramatic conclusion. The central dynamic of the Christian community not only resembles the essential dynamic of God’s own life, but its members actually share in that life. The love that flows between Father and Son flows through the church. The idea that the church participates in God’s life flows naturally from Jesus’ parting words to His disciples. In the life and ministry of Jesus, and its continuation in the community He founded, we truly encounter “God with us.”

For many who share this conviction, the essential link between Christian community and the life of God lies in the work of the Holy Spirit. For one thing, the Holy Spirit makes the church a true community. As Robert Jenson says, “the church exists as a community and not as a mere collective of pious individuals,” because the Spirit unites the Head with the body of Christ.18 Also, the Spirit gives the church its distinctive identity. Every community that is not just an aggregate has a “spirit” of some sort—we speak of “team spirit” and “school spirit,” for example. But in the case of the church, this corporate spirit comes, not from the people who belong to it, but from the Spirit that creates it. To quote Jenson again, it is the church’s “founding miracle” that her communal spirit is “identically the Spirit that the personal God is and has.”19 As many interpreters see it, the Spirit’s role in the church bears a close resemblance to the Spirit’s role within the Trinity. The Spirit creates community within God’s own life. As Jüngel describes it, “the Father loves the Son, the Son returns this love, and the Holy Spirit is the love itself between them. So, the Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son constitutes the unity of the divine being as that event which is love itself.”20

Such descriptions of the relations within God suggest ways for us to envision the church’s role in the divine life. Through the Spirit, as Stanley Grenz describes it, those who are “in Christ” come to share the eternal relationship that the Son enjoys with the Father. Because participants in this new community are co-heirs with Christ, the Father bestows on them what He eternally lavishes on the Son. And because they are “in Christ” by the Spirit, they participate in the Son’s act of eternal response to the Father.21

To summarize, the church owes its existence to God’s salvific activity and derives its essential character from God’s own identity. Through the sending of the Son and the Spirit, God enters the world in order to create a community that reflects and extends the love that constitutes God’s own reality. The central dynamic of Christian community thus corresponds to the essential dynamic of God’s own life. And participating in the Christian community results in nothing less than a participation in God’s own life. The Holy Spirit makes us one, the Holy Spirit makes God one, and the Holy Spirit makes us one with God.22

Practical implications of a trinitarian ecclesiology

“So what?” questions are always important for theology, and in the case of the Trinity, they are more important than usual. To dismiss reflections on the Trinity as speculative intrusions into the nature of God is tempting, even though the church’s earliest trinitarian thinkers anchored their understanding of God firmly in the history of salvation. What practical difference does a trinitarian ecclesiology make? Why is it so important to ground the church in God’s own life?

First of all, trinitarian ecclesiology emphasizes the importance of the church to God. If God’s acts in salvation history express God’s true nature, then God has always been relational, from all eternity an everlasting community of love. This means that God creates out of love, He embraces the created world within the divine life, and from the moment of its existence, God made His relation to the world the center of His concern, not unlike the way parents place a beloved child at the center of their home. God values the world He loves so much that He even takes His identity from His relation to it. (God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.) Moreover, God’s commitment to creation is permanent. He risks His own contentment—if not His own life—for its welfare. All this means that God places immense value on the church, and that aspect of creation attracts His particular attention. As Ellen White says, the church is the object of God’s “supreme regard.”23

If so, then salvation involves participating in the fellowship that defines God’s own life, and one does this by participating in the community that God’s love established. The experience of salvation is therefore social as well as individual, with a public as well as a private dimension. It changes our relations to others as well as to God. This exposes the fundamental inadequacy of all individualistic interpretations of Christian faith. Salvation is not merely, or even primarily, a matter between an individual and God. Salvation involves relationships with other people and seeks social, not merely personal transformation.

This also means that the purpose of the church should reflect and project the care and concern for others that God shows, that God is. To the extent that the church, the Christian community, embodies the love that radiates within the life of God, it provides the world the clearest manifestation of God’s nature and character, and the clearest evidence of God’s reality, evidence stronger than philosophical arguments could ever be.

If this is true, then the cultivation of true community, the development of caring relationships among people in the church, is the most important work of the church’s ministry. Church growth is not merely, or even primarily, a matter of increasing size, but a matter of developing among the church’s members relationships of mutual care and concern, encouraging the manifestation of qualities embodied in Jesus’ life. As the members of the church exhibit these qualities, their display of Christ’s character will naturally attract new participants.

These reflections also suggest that corporate worship is the central act of the church’s life. The gathering of the community to remember God’s acts of self-giving love, to recommit its members to embody that love in all their relationships, continues as emblematic of the church’s entire existence. It celebrates , crys tal l izes , real izes everything the church involves.

An appreciation for the trinitarian basis of Christian community thus helps us avoid inadequate and misleading concepts of the church. The church is not an organization preoccupied with expanding its membership and its budget. The church is not a collection of individuals who assent to the same set of beliefs. The church is not a group of people who gather to meet their emotional needs. The church is not a meeting of intellectuals who enjoy tossing around ideas. The church is not a multilevel marketing program, social club, recovery group, or academic seminar. The church is a fellowship created by the Holy Spirit, a community that extends the mission of Christ in this world, drawing its members into a circle of love both characteristic of and constitutive of God’s own life.


1 To a certain extent, the growing interest in the
Trinity among Adventists parallels a renewal of
interest in the Trinity within Christian thought
generally. In fact, the doctrine has attracted
so much attention in recent decades that it
looks to some less like a renaissance than a
bandwagon. “ ‘Once threatened by its relative
scarcity in modern theology, the doctrine of the
Trinity now seems more likely to be obscured
by an overabundance of theologians clustered
around it’.” David S. Cunningham, These Three
Are One
(Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 19, quoted
in The Social God and the Relational Self: A
Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei
KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 24.
This is a striking contrast to the role that the
Trinity played in liberal theology, which is to say,
hardly any. Friedrich Schleiermacher postpones
a discussion of the Trinity until the very last
section of The Christian Faith. Although Paul
Tillich employs a trinitarian motif in the central
sections of his Systematic Theology—“Being and
God,” “Existence and the Christ,” “Life and the
Spirit”—and makes some interesting comments
about its historical significance, volume 2
contains a short chapter on “The Trinitarian
Symbols,” the doctrine does not make a notable
contribution to his theology.

2 In Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, 2 vols.
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1997–1999),

3 “The two missions may be understood as
interconnected moments of the one selfcommunication
of God to the world.” Karl Rahner,
 Encyclopedia of Theology: The Concise
Sacramentum Mundi
, ed. Karl Rahner (New York:
Seabury Press, 1975), 1760.

4 All Scripture verses are from New Revised
Standard Version.

5 Gerald F. Hawthorne, The Presence and the Power:
The Significance of the Holy Spirit in the Life and
Ministry of Jesus
(Dallas, TX: Thomas Nelson,
1991), 54.

6 Hawthorne, 65.

7 Hawthorne, 133.

8 Hawthorne, 148.

9 Hawthorne, 183, 184.

10 Eduard Schweizer, “Pneuma, pneumatikos,”
in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament,
10 vols., ed. Gerhard Friedrich, trans. Goeffrey
W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,
1964–1976), 6:433.

11 See Richard Rice, “Trinity, Temporality, and Open
Theism,” Philosophia: Philosophical Quarterly of
, special issue on “Models of God,” 35:3, 4.

12 Karl Rahner, The Trinity, trans. Joseph Donceel
(New York: Herder & Herder, 1970), 22.

13 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, trans. Geoffrey
Bromily and Thomas Torrance (T & T Clark,
1956), IV/1:193.

14 Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World:
On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified
One in the Dispute Between Theism and Atheism
trans. Darrell L.Guder (Grand Rapids, MI:
Eerdmans, 1983), 372.

15 Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, 3 vols.
trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI:
Eerdmans, 1991–1998), 1:335, 323.

16 Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of
the Spirit
, trans. Margaret Kohl (San Francisco:
HarperCollins, 1977), 54.

17 Compare Paul’s exhortation: “Therefore be
imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in
love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for
us” (Eph. 5:1, 2).

18 Jenson, 2:182.

19 Jenson, 2:181.

20 Jüngel, 374.

21 Grenz, 326.

22 Theologians sometimes debate the organization
of the Apostle’s Creed. Does it comprise three
articles or four? Does belief in the “holy catholic
church” elaborate or add to belief in the Holy
Spirit? Our reflections suggest the former. The
church is the creation of the Holy Spirit, and
the creation of the church is the Spirit’s most
important work. To appreciate the importance
of Christian community, we must recognize its
basis within and its intimate connection to the
dynamic reality of God’s own life.

23 Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain
View, CA: Pacific Press, 1911), 12.

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Richard Rice, PhD, is professor of religion at Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California, United States.

February 2009

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