Culture and the Trinity

I just finished reading an excellent book, a published dissertation, by Eric Flett. Flett is Associate Professor of Theology and Culture at Eastern University, St. Davids, Pennsylvania. The book is entitled “Persons, Powers, and Pluralities: Toward a Trinitarian Theology of Culture”I wrote a review of this book that hopefully will be published in an upcoming edition of Missiology: An International ReviewWithout repeating what will be published there, I want to share some of the ideas offered in the book.

The argument of the book, in my terms, is that the best way to understand reality, or to understand culture, is through the doctrine of the Trinity. The Trinity, that is one God (one ousia or essence) in three persons (three hypostases), is eternally and internally coequally ordered and correlated (perichoresis). When God creates, as Father, Son, and Spirit, He confers both this order and relationship 0nto the universe, particularly seen in human culture. While this order and relationship is distorted by the fall, that is,  sin affects both the cosmos and the human condition–in the Father sending the Son, the world, in its God-given beauty and grand diversity, is redeemed, and in the sending of the Spirit, the world is reoriented towards its designed end (telos), the worship and glory of God, and also sanctified. Because the son became a particular, culturally embedded man, and because the Spirit indwells such culturally embedded persons, humanity in its grand ethnic and cultural diversity is shown to have ultimate value.

The problem is that disorder caused by the fall has not yet been fully restored. Because of disorder, cultures have developed cultural, religious, moral, scientific systems that separate people from objective reality. Ways of thinking and living are not oriented towards the triune God. Because people are created in God’s image, they have rational, ordered faculties and the mechanisms for relating with others and with God, but because they are other than God, unless God reveals Himself to them, they would not be able to reason and find God. Thus, God revealed Himself triune-ly to His creation and chose humanity as His “priests of creation”, His priests of order. The triune God has chosen to restore this broken order through the sending of the church. The church participates in this ministry by calling fallen humanity to faith in the Triune God. This is a cultural exercise since the Church is an “embodiment and expression of truth” and a “transforming matrix” for “engag[ing] and transform[ing] every culture and cultural sphere it comes into contact with” (217). As Paul says, “in Him we live and move and have our being”–God is the very foundation of reality.

As God’s freely chosen instrument of restoring creational order through the power and agency of the Holy Spirit, it is important that the church sees human culture, in its grand diversity, as a good thing to both restore and develop. Having redeemed minds, albeit within a critical realist epistemology, the church breaks down faulty human cultural systems by restoring an objective point of reference, the triune God as revealed in the Scriptures, and the church builds up cultural systems that bring glory and honor to the truine God by reflecting His relational creational order.

What are your thoughts on this argument and calling?

Personally, I think this approach towards culture holds a lot of promise. I would challenge you to pursue an in-depth study of Trinitarian thought if you haven’t already. Also, I would challenge you to begin to form a theology of culture.

So, should you read this book? Perhaps. If you are an academic, or have in interest in either Trinitarian thought or culture, this is a book for you; in fact, for you it is a must-read. Be forewarned, this book traces a highly technical theological argument through the works of T.F. Torrance, so this book is not written for the person without some background study under their belt. If you are a practitioner or a layman, start by reading “Creation Regained” by Al Wolters, then a decent introduction on the trinity and perhaps a theology of mission with Trinitarian overtones such as “The Open Secret” by Lesslie Newbigin. Another helpful work would be Paul Hiebert’s “Missiological Implications of Epistemological Shifts” . Ask me for more books if you are interested.

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  1. Thanks for this Wes. Really appreciate your blog. I’ve recently been glimpsing something of the wonder and importance of the Trinity. For an introduction to some great UK thinking on the Trinity building on Torrance and the Fathers I’ve found Glen Scrivener’s blog really helpful: http://christthetruth.wordpress.com/category/trinity/. Vaguely relatedly – perhaps you can help me on something – I’ve come across the argument here (in Kenya) about ‘Christian’ versus ‘secular’ music, especially the idea that certain beats are secular (even demonic) and putting Christian words to ‘secular’ tunes can lead to the singers being drawn back into the World. Have you come across this before? What would be a Trinitarian gospel-hearted response to this?

    • Andy,

      Thank you for your comments. I’ll definitely check out the blog. So, from a trinitarian gospel-centered perspective, responding to the issue of secular vs sacred music is an interesting prospect.

      So, first we recognize that all of reality is sustained by God who created all things. Jesus assumed humanity (100%) to redeem and restore God’s good creational order. The Holy Spirit acts to reveal the Father and the Son and to sanctify. Culture exists in relationship to the triune God. If there was no sin in the world, all human culture would be good, beautiful, and revealing of God’s grand and diverse majesty. However, because of sin and the fall, all of culture is tainted. However, no human system is completely evil, nor, until Christ returns are they completely restored. Music is no different.

      Music reflects God’s creational order and goodness in several ways. Beautiful things always reflect something of God’s ultimate beauty. Music also is structured, ordered mathematically (in various degrees) reflecting God’s order placed in the universe. Truly, in whatever context, cultural products, such as music, deserve to be studied deeply to provide what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called a “thick description”. Music, especially, reveals deep things about a people’s worldview and at the same time has the power to change it. Music is not so much listened to as performed. Musicians perform the actual production of the sounds in rhythms and harmonies, but listeners participate in the music as well. Music is always active in the heart and mind of the individual. In a perfect world, these are very good things.

      But we also live in a fallen world. Albert Wolters refers to a culture’s direction. Something can either be directed towards God, or away from God in satanic rebellion. A good thing, like music, can be misdirected in idolatrous self-worship (like most Western music) or in idolatrous pagan worship. Again, even this requires deep study. Music, as a cultural performance, has worldview implications. This means that the words combined with the meaning ascribed to the melodies themselves can work to shape how a person views reality, what is ultimate. For instance, if I was listening to instrumental version of “imagine” by John Lennon, that could have as detrimental an effect on me as if I were listening to the words (well because I know the words to the song). Lennon preaches and calls us to participate in a faulty godless worldview. Music has a special power to affect us. Would putting Christian words to the song be enough to counteract the meaning? Over time, yes. For me, I would be conflicted. My children, it wouldn’t bother them since they don’t know the original. I don’t know the African context. If certain tunes and beats are closely associated with pagan rituals that perform a demonic worldview, then it is possible that those beats would continue to preach that worldview even when applied different meanings (and by beats, I don’t just mean the use of drums, but the combination of sounds that are associated with a particular ritual). Honestly, this is not an easy question to address.

      Every culture is valuable because Jesus particularized a single human culture. From this particular culture, he performed a universal redemption. Every diverse human culture in its grand diversity, then, is infinitely valuable. From Genesis to Revelation this is clear. Every culture, in so much as it is directed towards God, can be redeemed and restored, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. By redirecting the worldview of the beats and music, it may be possible to both redeem and sanctify a particular beat. Overall, it is important that African music be valued. If it is possible to worship African-ly, then that reflects God’s creational order and his redemptive and sanctifying work. This may mean, though, creating new songs and new beats, by Africans in an African way. Scripture over and over affirms the singing of new songs to the Lord. Twice in the NT are believers directed to sing songs and hymns and spiritual songs to one another and to make melodies in their hearts to God.

      The danger is tackling this question from a legalistic standpoint. Is it sinful to redeem secular songs or particular beats? No. Wisdom is needed though to discern what worldview is being presented. When hymns in the Western context were put to bar tunes, they were able to transcend the worldview issues (who today even thinks of a bar when singing hymns–personally, I’m just trying to stay awake!). Others, like Bach, wrote fresh music weekly in service of the church. May God raise up a thousand African Bach’s! And may the African church find the freedom to redeem and transcend misdirected beats.

      So, did I answer the question? Sorry for the lengthy response!

      your brother,

      Wes

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