Essay / Theology

Teaching the Trinity in Haiti

IMG_5053In January 2017 I got to teach about the Trinity at a Bible Institute in Haiti. I did it in partnership with More Than Bread, a ministry committed to training Haitian pastors with biblical and theological knowledge. In a developing country with obvious hardships and material needs, there are a lot of Christian missions doing charitable work of all kinds. But there is a real lack of theological training for the leaders of the Haitian churches. Without that kind of training, there’s little hope for the churches of Haiti to reach their own maturity and equip believers. Check out their website and consider a financial gift to support their strategic work.

So when More than Bread’s founder, Willio Destin (who I got to know when we taught together a few  years ago at the Los Angeles Bible Training School) contacted me and invited me to come teach trinitarian theology for a couple of days, I was glad to be able to say yes.

This was my first time teaching in a developing country, and also my first time teaching through a translator. I sent a handout which faculty member Facon Maceus translated into  French for the students, and at my recommendation each student also got a copy of Michael Reeves’ book Delighting in the Trinity … or should I say The Good God… or should I say Le Dieu Inconcevable et Oh Combien Bon!  It was great to be able to refer students to this book, which I could follow fairly well in French because I already knew what it said in English.

Because I didn’t have the resources to use a lot of visuals, and the students didn’t have enough background in the history of doctrine for extra-biblical references to help very much, and because I wanted to keep my sentences fairly straightforward for the sake of translation, I found that I had to hunker down and stay extremely biblical with what I said. And this was a great blessing: teaching the doctrine of the Trinity straight from the Bible was a wonderful task to undertake. It has exerted a discipline on my way of organizing my material, and a restraint on my way of speaking; I think both the discipline and the restraint will continue to influence my teaching in any context.

Here is a brief outline of what I taught. It’s a flexible set of headings that allow me to cover the major topics in this doctrine. It has pretty much become my standard outline for a series of talks on the Trinity from the high school level up through seminary; I just vary the illustrations and the amount of detail according to the audience’s capacity.

Session 1: The Biblical Unfolding of the Trinity (Galatians 4:4-6)

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!'”

This passage glances back to the Old Testament as the time before God the Father sent his Son to redeem and his Spirit to indwell believers. If God the Father accomplished and applied this kind of salvation in the Son and the Spirit, God must always have been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Once we begin to discern that the entire Bible is organized around God’s saving and self-revealing actions centered on the incarnation and Pentecost, everything else comes together.

Session 2: Unity and Distinction From Eternity (John 1:1-3)

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.

It’s crucial to note the way John re-boots the Bible here in light of what we learn in Christ. The word “already” doesn’t occur here, but that’s the sense: Already in the beginning, the Word was there. And that Word had both with-ness and was-ness with regard to God; that is, both distinction and unity; that is, personal difference and essential identity. In John’s Gospel, the Holy Spirit puts in a few appearances before chapter 14, at which point it becomes clear who he is, and we realize we have to extend the unity-and-distinction categories to include him along with the Father and the Son.

Session 3: The Mission of the Trinity (Matt. 28:18-20)

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

The risen Lord commissions his witnesses and puts the name of God on his people by connecting the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in a verbal formula that is the baseline for clear teaching about God and the gospel. I also spend some time here pointing out the threeness of the series of persons identified here: threeness is English for Trinitas which is Latin for Trinity which just means threeness which is here in this verse without the word appearing. I always reach back to Matthew 11:27 when teaching this passage, because Jesus’ phrasing there (“no one knows the Father except the Son”) sets up what might otherwise be a surprise ending, and also emphasizes the need for revelation of this great mystery.

Session 4: Access to God (Eph 2:18)

“Through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.”

This very short formula encapsulates the mediatorial aspect of the Trinity’s work, as the Son and Spirit enable our access to the Father in prayer and worship. To get the full salvation-historical sense behind it, you have to look into the great depths of Ephesians 1:3-14, but the advantage of focusing on 2:18 is twofold: first, the language is liturgical/devotional, providing a good contact point with questions about trinitarian prayer and all sorts of spiritual and experiential application. And second, the immediate context is about the reconciliation of estranged people groups, providing the Bible’s best contact point for a theology of Christian racial reconciliation and a wide range of related social and ethical concerns.

There are a lot of other biblical passages that I end up bringing into sessions on the doctrine of the Trinity, but I’ve found that sticking to these four gives me a very useful outline that can accommodate all the rest of the teaching I want to do. I’m grateful to have had the chance to work it out a little more fully in the Haitian context.

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