Essay / Theology

Chester, Delighting in the Trinity

Here is an old book review of an older book: Tim Chester’s Delighting in the Trinity: Why Father, Son, and Spirit are Good News came out back in 2005. When it was re-released in 2010, a popular website asked me to review it. That review was published but has since gone missing from the web for reasons mysterious, so I’m posting it here for posterity. (I confess I’m loathe to lose 1400 perfectly good words down the memory hole once I’ve written them!)

If you read the review, you’ll see I liked (and I still like) the book. I don’t follow Tim Chester’s work closely, but I’ve always appreciated what I’ve seen: He’s got a gift for communicating clearly and compellingly about deep things. So by re-posting this, I’m re-commending the book. And it’s still in print.

But there are two things in the book about which I warn readers in this review. The first one’s minor enough: Chester leans on, and popularizes, the old “East vs. West” schema for thinking about the Trinity. Not very helpful. But he seems to have been finishing PhD work around 2005, and the balloon of that particular seminary legend had not quite been deflated yet, so it’s excusable.

The second issue is more important: The part of this book about the cross has a thick Moltmannian accent and a few really unacceptable sentences about the Trinity fracturing apart, the Father and Son splitting up, and the distinction between the persons manifesting itself as division. I do hope we can look back on 2005 as the high-water mark for that kind of talk seeming plausible to evangelicals, because I hope it now sounds as weird and unnecessary to pastors as it once sounded profound and vital. If you already have, or if you go out and get, Chester’s Delighting in the Trinity, maybe highlight these sections in very dark grey. There aren’t many of them, and the book is otherwise delightful. (By the way, don’t confuse this book with Michael Reeves’ book The Good God, whose U.S. edition has the title Delighting in the Trinity).

Here’s the review:

Tim Chester starts his book Delighting in the Trinity with this vignette: “I was reading the Bible with two friends who are Muslims. Each week they faithfully came to my home and we discussed a passage of Scripture over a cup of tea. Many of their questions were about the Trinity…” What his friends had were not in fact just questions, but actual objections. For these Muslims, the Trinity was one of the major reasons that Christianity simply had to be false. Chester admits that his initial response to their objections was embarrassment. Why couldn’t he just get past this difficult Trinity doctrine and get his friends to the gospel?

But on reflection, Chester came to realize that “it is madness to be embarrassed about the Trinity because that means being embarrassed about God!” Chester presents Delighting in the Trinity as his notes on how he got over a mild case of Trinitarian embarrassment, and how you should, too. “I hope to show,” he says, “that being asked a question about the Trinity is a lovely opportunity to share the heart of our faith.” Less than two hundred breezy and readable pages later, he has in fact flipped his embarrassment on its head. If those same Muslim friends came to him again and raised the same objections, how would he answer? Chester’s answer on the last page recaps the argument of the entire book in just a few sentences, so I won’t reproduce the whole thing: it only carries its full punch when read in context. He covers the biblical case (focused on Jesus as the Son of God), the theological case (focused on atonement as God “both judges and is judged in our place”), and ends with the spiritual application:

“I would pray that the life-giving Spirit would apply the work of redemption to their lives, opening their eyes to recognize in the Son the revelation of the Father. But I would also introduce them to the Christian community… I would want them to see us participating in the trinitarian life…. Only as they experience the reality of the work of the Trinity in the lives of believers, and their vibrant relationship with the triune God, will this outwardly puzzling doctrine cease to be an academic game. And it may, as God’s Spirit opens their eyes to the Father’s love and the Son’s willing sacrifice on the cross, cease to be a knock-down argument for them, and start to become the very hope of their salvation.”

This is a very good short book on the Trinity. Chester is a master communicator, using simple language without sounding condescending. He knows when to drop a little bit of a story into the middle of his exposition (see for instance the framing story of his conversation with Muslims). His characteristic style is crisp, clear, and concise. On almost every page of Delighting in the Trinity you can find sentences that are so well said that it is hard to imagine saying them better. Chester’s prose hovers in that John Stott or Tim Keller range of thoughtful Christian writing, with a voice that inspires confidence in the author without drawing attention to the craftsmanship. And perhaps American readers need to be notified that in the UK, Chester enjoys great credibility for his work as a pastor and the head of a church planting initiative.

For all its clarity, and the deftness with which Chester covers so much ground, Delighting in the Trinity gives the impression that the author is intentionally keeping things simple and could have gone deeper at any point if he had needed to. There are footnotes, for example, to Barth, Brunner, Rahner, Gunton, Moltmann, and to other lions of modern academic systematic theology. Overall, Chester is a great guide in this area, highlighting what is most helpful from each of these thinkers and warning when they are in error. His critique of Rahner’s “anonymous Christianity” is a good example. Chester summarizes it as the idea “that non-Christians can genuinely know God apart from Jesus.” Chester points out that this divides the work of the persons of the Trinity, amounting to functional tritheism: “But the unity of the Trinity means we cannot know God without Jesus. They cannot be divided so that one person of the Trinity can be known apart from the others.”

When a book does so much so well, I hesitate to register any complaints about it. But there are two areas where Delighting in the Trinity falls short of its own high standards, and could mislead readers. First, in the historical section, Chester sketches the development of trinitarian theology after Nicaea (he does a great job with the pre-Nicene material) as a conflict between two different ways of thinking about the Trinity, one found in the East and the other in the West. This lets him play off figures like Augustine and Aquinas (West) against figures like the Cappadocian Fathers (East), and eventually to present Calvin as the one whose practical trinitarianism synthesized what was best in both approaches. This “East versus West” schema was a story theologians were telling about trinitarianism back in the 1980s, but which has been pretty thoroughly exploded by more recent work (Lewis Ayres on Augustine, Gilles Emery on Aquinas, Michel Barnes on the Nazianzus, Sarah Coakley on Nyssa, etc.). It’s just not a helpful guide to understanding any of the sources. David Bentley Hart has rightly called it “a particularly tedious, persistent and pernicious falsehood,” and it is disappointing to see it lingering on here.

Second, Chester puts too much weight on the cross of Christ. I don’t mean that he over-emphasizes the cross as the center of our salvation: that is scarcely possible to do, and with his robust affirmation of vicarious punishment and propitiation, Chester’s account of Christ’s saving work is excellent. But he over-emphasizes the cross as a kind of fulcrum where the persons of the Trinity are distinguished, as if  we would not be able to tell Father and Son apart from each other unless the crucifixion happened, or even as if the Father and Son couldn’t tell each other apart except for this event. He is especially invested in the notion that the Father’s forsaking of the Son on the cross is what shows us the reality of the trinitarian persons. “Ultimately,” he says, “it is the cross that secures the doctrine of the Trinity. ‘Forsaking’ is an inter-personal term.” But surely the incarnation or the prayer life of Jesus are equally inter-personal. These hyperextended moments in Chester’s book seem to be a holdover of Jurgen Moltmann’s ideas, which are probably more radical than Chester would endorse. In the published form of his dissertation (Mission and the Coming of God: Eschatology, the Trinity and Mission the Theology of Jurgen Moltmann and Contemporary Evangelicalism, Paternoster, 2005), Chester did a fine job of critically sifting Moltmann’s theology. But here and there throughout Delighting in the Trinity, he makes isolated claims about the great trinitarian significance of the Father forsaking the Son which are disorienting. Thomas H. McCall has recently brought greater clarity to this subject in his book Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why It Matters (IVP, 2012). Readers who are confused about whether perhaps the cry “My God, why have you forsaken me” means that Trinity was temporarily broken at the cross should dip into McCall for refutation of the “broken Trinity” view.

These two complaints are, relative to the larger purpose of Chester’s book, minor. Delighting in the Trinity is aimed at a popular audience, and most of its readers will not even register the problems named above. The people most likely to be put on a false trail by those tendencies are the readers who try to follow Chester’s lead into further reading. But even those readers, who should beware of East vs. West schemas and broken Trinities, are more likely to follow the “Suggestions for Further Reading” at the back of the book, which is solid, and includes (in one of the very few changes that have been made to Delighting in the Trinity between its 2006 release and this 2012 republication) Robert Letham’s The Holy Trinity, which is the best place to read a more detailed account of this doctrine.

The concluding practical section of the book is excellent in every way. Chester’s treatments of prayer, mission, and church life are perfectly suited to lead believers into a deeper understanding of the stark difference between believing in a merely unipersonal deity, and believing in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In these pages, Chester succeeds in speaking the gospel while telling about the Trinity. This book could change lives.

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