Book Review – Life in the Trinity (Donald Fairbairn)

Life in the Trinity - Donald FairbairnFrom its title, you might expect that this is simply another book aimed at helping the ordinary Christian get to grips with the sometimes perplexing doctrine of the Trinity. But its scope is much wider than this. The subtitle reveals more: “An introduction to theology with the help of the Church Fathers”. Essentially in the 237 pages of this book, Fairbairn intends to give us a basic systematic theology, but instead of the approach you might be familiar with from the likes of Wayne Grudem, the subject is tackled through the perspective of the church Fathers, and in particular, their strongly Trinitarian emphasis.

“The conviction of many of the church fathers was that all of Christian life was meant to be a reflection of and participation in that central relationship between the Father and the Son.”

Probably the most immediately obvious difference is that rather than focusing on justification as the heart of Christianity, the fathers preferred to talk about “theosis”, a word that can make many evangelicals nervous. For Fairbairn, the chief aspect of theosis is that “Christians share in the Son’s relationship to the Father”. The “deification” is not about becoming divine in the same sense that God is divine. ”God grants us to share in his qualities, … grants us to share in his immortal life, … and causes us to become sons and daughters of God”

He begins by arguing that the heart of Christianity is the Son’s relationship to the Father. He bases this on an exploration of Jesus’ words in John 13-17. Throughout the book, he regularly includes quotes from Cyril of Alexandria, Athanasius, Irenaeus and Augustine. Some of their sayings are hard to get to grips with but Fairburn is good at clarifying what they are driving at. He makes an interesting point about the unity that Jesus prays for in John 17. Believers are to share the same unity that Jesus shares with his Father. This is referring to a unity of love rather than a unity of substance. The emphasis of the church fathers was more on the three than the one, whereas for many of us it tends to be the other way round. This is of course not tritheism – “God possesses both a unity of substance and a unity of fellowship”.

“One cannot speak of love and relationship unless one is speaking of distinct persons, so the distinctions between the persons are indicative of who God as always been, from all eternity”.

 

“A God who was completely alone would have nothing relational to offer us in salvation; he could have offered only a right status before him or something of that sort. But because has eternally existed as a fellowship of three persons, there is fellowship within God in which we can also share.”

Having laid these Trinitarian foundations, Fairbairn sets out on telling the big story of salvation, starting with life how it was meant to be, followed by the fall, the promise, the incarnation, redemption, becoming Christian, and then being Christian. Each of these familiar sections of the story are seen in a fresh light through this trinitarian lens.

The first of these sections includes a fascinating discussion on the common human desire for “significance”, and how this is found in relationship with God.

“Christianity teaches us that our significance does not ultimately lie in what we accomplish or what we do; it lies in the one to whom we belong”.

The chapter on sin and the fall is also very helpful. The heart of the human problem is the loss of relationship with God – Adam and Eve wanted to be gods without God, when the irony was that they were already “gods” in the most important sense in that they were sharing in the divine relationship.

I found the chapter on “the promise” particularly interesting, as he notes the way the church fathers would make what seem far-fetched exegetical leaps in order to find Christ throughout the Old Testament. This is often dismissed as “eisegesis”, a reading into the text what you want to find, rather than reading out what is already there. But while not affirming all their conclusions, Fairbairn provocatively asks whether they have a sounder basis to their hermeneutics than we evangelicals do. The church fathers took for granted that the Scriptures were Spirit inspired, and since the New Testament makes clear that Christ is to be found in all the Old Testament Scriptures, they had good justification for expecting to find him there. By way of contrast, “we tend to stick to interpretations for a given text that the human author of the passage could have meant and the human audience could have understood at the time”.

“The Fathers believed that the entire Bible was a book about Christ, and therefore they were determined to read every passage of Scripture as being directly or indirectly about Christ, the Christian’s relationship to Christ or the church’s relationship to Christ.”

 

“Whether we like it or not, whether we admit it or not, we are influenced by a method of biblical interpretation that treats the Bible as a set of unrelated human testimonies to the divine-human encounter.”

As he looks at the topic of incarnation, he returns to a recurring theme that salvation is not something that Christ gives us; rather, salvation is Christ – he gives us himself. You cannot have salvation without having him.

In the chapter on redemption, I was particularly struck by his discussion of death. In what sense is it possible for God to die? He explains that in the Bible, death is not about ceasing to exist. There is physical death – the separation of the soul from the body as the body ceases to function. And there is spiritual death – alienation from God as a result of sin. We are all born spiritually dead and inevitably headed for physical death. By becoming human Jesus was able to experience physical death, and by taking on our sin he was able to experience spiritual death. Viewed in this way, the resurrection can be seen as a victory over physical death, as Jesus’ soul is reunited with his resurrected body. And the ascension can be seen as victory over spiritual death, as Jesus is reunited back into the presence of his Father.

This brings us to the final section of the book, exploring what it means to become and be a Christian. Becoming a Christian is more than just forgiveness – it is adoption – we get to share in the Son’s relationship with the Father. With all the emphasis on the Father-Son relationship up to this point, we may be wondering where the Spirit features in this take on theology, and in this section Fairbairn explains that the Spirit links us to the Father-Son relationship by uniting us to the Son. It is this relationship that is at the heart of salvation for Fairbairn. Yes, salvation does have a “legal” side – justification and the remission of sins. But it also has a “relational” side – redemption, reconciliation and adoption. And all of these only make sense because of our union with Christ.

The Spirit’s ongoing work in the life of a believer is to enable them to live in a way that reflects the Father/Son relationship. Here Fairbairn makes a plea to evangelicals to take more seriously the importance of the eucharist (and emphasises the need to take it in community rather than privately).

“In order to sustain life, one must eat and drink regularly, and likewise, in order to sustain spiritual life by remaining in Christ, one must spiritually eat and drink regularly.”.

 

“If Cyril and the early church are correct here, then repeated, lifelong participation in the Lord’s Supper is central to one’s growing relationship to the Trinity, just as lifelong devotion to God’s Word, to prayer and to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit are central”.

There are many other interesting points raised in the book, but I need to conclude this review. In summary this book provides a very fresh perspective on several familiar categories of Christian theology. With this approach, the Trinity is not just one of several doctrines to be believed by Christians, but the central theme that permeates through them all. In doing so he gives a great introduction to the thought of the church fathers, and why their concerns which often seem arcane to us are actually of great importance. There were a few places where I found it a little heavy-going, but overall I found it very stimulating and would recommend checking it out.

“God’s promise after the Fall, around which one may organize the entire history and teaching of the Old Testament, was ultimately a promise that the Son of God would come to bring human beings back into a share in the communion of the Trinity”

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