Fairbairn: The Trinity Models Relationship in Community, Part 1

Fairbairn_02112015Donald Fairbairn.  2009.  Life in the Trinity:  An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers.  Downers Grove:  IVP Academic. (Go to part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

We live in an age of disconnect. American society empowers the individual in the mistaken notion that individuals are autonomous beings. As Janis Jopelin sang, “Freedom means nothing left to loose”[1], we are disconnected from ourselves, from others, and from God himself.  It is indeed ironic that in this period of great  theological reflection—ancient manuscripts are more readily available today than at any point since the first century because of the internet—the church itself is increasingly cut off from its own traditions. Fortunately, the basis for those traditions is also increasingly being rediscovered by a new generation of church historians able and willing to take these ancient manuscripts seriously.

Contributing to this renaissance of interest in the early church in his book, Life in the Trinity, Donald Fairbairn takes as his theme (ix) “the forgotten heart of the Christian faith” or “scarlet thread” (10-11) running through much of the writing of the early church.  The early church fathers, writing during the period from 100 to 800 AD (ix), used the Greek word, theōsis, to refer to the process by which human beings become divine or are deified (76). The fathers most frequently cited Psalm 82:6-7[2] and 2 Peter 1:3-4[3] (8) which imply not that we become gods so much as take on a divine nature or attributes as Peter later writes:

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. (2 Peter 1:5-7 ESV).

In this way, sharing in divine qualities and overcoming our mortality and corruption (8) by participating in the life of the Trinity (12). Weighty material.

Fairbairn explains this scarlet thread in the context of a theological overview seen through eyes of the early church fathers, especially Irenaeus (second century), Athanasius (fourth century), Augustine (fifth century), and Cyril of Alexandria (fifth century) (33) from whom he quotes extensively.  A key focus point of the early church and Fairbairn exposition are Jesus’ words on the night of his arrest recorded in John 13-17 which Fairbairn describes as the “heart of the faith” (13-14).  This is where Jesus describes his relationship to God the Father.  Fairbairn writes:  “our sharing in the Father-Son relationships is at the center of what it means for us to participate in God.” (37)  In other words, life in the Trinity is the model for our life in the church and life as Christians, as understood in the early church.

Fairbairn writes in 10 chapters, including:

  1. Introduction: Getting Started in Christian Theology,
  2. The Heart of Christianity: The Son’s Relationship to the Father,
  3. From the Father-Son Relationship to the Trinity and Back,
  4. Life as It Was Meant to Be: A Reflection on the Father-Son Relationship,
  5. What Went Wrong? Our Loss of the Son’s Relationship to the Father,
  6. The Promise: God’s Preparation of the World for His Son,
  7. The Incarnation: The Only Son Becomes the Firstborn Son,
  8. Redemption: God’s Gift of His Son’s Relationship to the Father,
  9. Becoming Christian: Entering the Son’s Relationship to the Father, and
  10. Being Christian: Another Look at Reflecting the Father-Son Relationship (vii-viii).

The front-matter includes a preface, acknowledgments and an explanation of Patristic citations.  The after-matter includes an appendix, index of names and subjects, and a scriptural index which highlight this book’s usefulness as a seminary text.

In this postmodern age, we are accustomed to the doctrine of the Trinity being ignored and even denigrated as abstract and politically incorrect.  In this context, it is rather shocking to hear that the Trinity is not only important, it is important to our understanding of daily Christian life.  This makes Fairbairn’s very accessible presentation important in framing a new understanding of all things biblical.  In part 2 of this review to post next week on Monday, I will look in more detail at Fairbairn’s key arguments.

 

[1]These words are taken from a song  written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster and recorded by Janis Joplin  (January 19, 1943 – October 4, 1970) who died of a drug overdose before the song hit the top of the charts in 1971 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janis_Joplin; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Me_and_Bobby_McGee).

[2]“I said,You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.” (Psalm 82:6-7 ESV)

[3]“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” (2 Peter 1:3-4 ESV)

 

 

 

 

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