Essay / Theology

"First the Reality, then the Understanding." STR Radio on the Deep Things of God

On Sunday Sept. 5, I got to talk with Greg Koukl on the Stand to Reason radio show about my new book The Deep Things of God. Greg’s a great interviewer: he’s knowledgeable, has read at least part of the brand new book in advance, understood the key ideas, and started the conversation by asking me to clarify some of the distinctive ideas, the ones that listeners probably haven’t heard before. He’s also unflappable, coming straight off two hours of speaking calmly with atheists and professional skeptics, and jumping into a conversation with me even though I showed up 5 minutes late for the interview.

The link to the archived show is here, my segment starts at about 2:03, and here’s a transcript of part of the discussion.

Greg:I remember talking to somebody yesterday, saying… I was so frustrated with Christianity because it seems so wide and so thin. You know, ten miles wide and one inch deep. And in your book, I see the same statement, and you see that as related to this broader issue of the Trinity as well.

Fred: That’s right…. The Christian life –Christian experience, to be saved, and in fellowship with God– is to be in an encounter with the Trinity. Our growth, then, is when we begin to recognize that, realize it, and live into the fact that life in Christ is life in fellowship with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So it’s a matter of starting with the reality: “I am involved in a relationship with the Trinity,” and moving into a deeper understanding of it.

Greg: And that’s the bulk of what the book is about. I want to read a little bit of a longish quote, because I think it really powerfully captures the point that you just made in a sentence. So I want people to get a little of the substance of it, and then we’ll talk about it.

You write:

What is needed is an approach to the doctrine of the Trinity that takes its stand on the experienced reality of the Trinity, and only then moves forward to the task of verbal and conceptual clarification.

Greg: –we’ll need to talk about that a little bit– you continue:

The principle is, first the reality, then the explanation. What goes wrong in so much popular discussion of the Trinity is that Christians approach the doctrine as if it were their job to construct it from bits and pieces of verses, arguments, and analogies.

Greg: Boy, don’t I know that! My own talk is like that.

Fred: Exactly. (laughter)

Greg: It’s a kind of necessary but not sufficient task, I suppose.

Fred: No, I’ve given that talk. I don’t mean your talk is like that, I mean, THE talk that needs to be given on the Bible, and logic, puts together bits and pieces of information.

Greg: And by the way… the only time I’ve heard even that talk on the Trinity is when I’ve given it, because even that conversation is not had in churches very often.

Fred: That’s right.

Greg: Your comment continues:

The doctrine itself seems to lie on the far side of a mental project. If the project is successful, they will achieve the doctrine of the Trinity and be able to answer questions like “why have three persons?” and “what is the Trinity like?”

Greg: And you’re saying, that’s the tail wagging the dog. First you begin experiencing God on the different ways that God is, and then we ought to start thinking about what that looks like in terms of doctrinal and intellectual formulation. Am I onto it here?

Fred: Right. What you want is a doctrine of the Trinity that really goes deep and matters, and that’s when you follow the principle, “First the reality, then the understanding.” Because otherwise what you have is a very brittle thing which is only an element of the understanding, so you have a very rich Christian life in some other areas, say your experience of redemption, or your understanding of the forgiveness of sins. But when you turn to the doctrine of the Trinity, all you have is a set of five or six propositions properly balanced against each other to produce mental assent.

Greg: I think there are people who are listening who are thinking, “What the heck is he talking about?” In other words, what else is there? One God, three persons, where are you going to go with that? What do you do with that?

The rest is here. Thanks to Melinda Penner and Greg Koukl at Stand to Reason for a good conversation.

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