Fairbairn: The Trinity Models Relationship in Community, Part 2

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 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The centrality of John 13-17 in Fairbairn’s picture of the scarlet thread running through the understanding of the early church fathers of our life in Christ is both obvious and mysterious.  It is obvious because these chapters contain some of Jesus’ last words before his crucifixion.  It is mysterious, in part, because John skips things highlighted in the other Gospels, like Jesus’ prayer in the Garden and the last supper, and includes things, like the washing of the disciple’s feet, not included elsewhere (13-16).  Jesus’ enigmatic discussion in the upper room about his relationship with the Father is probably the most mysterious narrative in the entire New Testament.

The complementary relationship between this upper room discourse and Jesus’ high priestly prayer suggests that John feels it important—a kind of Hebrew doublet. Fairbairn (28) writes:

“In the discourse, Jesus has laid out a picture of life as God intends it, and in the prayer, he asks his father to bring about the kind of life he has just described to the disciples.”

However, these are also some of Jesus’ last words making this a doublet that today would be written in red and underlined, so to speak.  For this reason, these chapters got the attention of early church fathers.  Summarizing, Fairbairn writes:  “our sharing the Father-Son relationship is at the center of what it means for us to participate in God.” (37) And: “the doctrine of the Trinity is the gateway to understanding Christian life.” (50)

If you accept Fairbairn’s conclusions, entering the deep end of the pool theologically is clearly not optional .  Fairbairn suggests that we were created to share in the life of the Trinity as evidenced by the early life of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and by our creation in the image of a Triune God.  Being created in the image of God sets humanity apart from plants, animals, and even angels (60) and sets humanity apart from them even after the fall.

But what does this life in the Trinity look like?  Fairbairn (65) sees 4 obvious benefits to having fellowship with the Trinity:

  1. Significance—our significance lies not in what we do, but to whom we belong (67);
  2. Peace—The peace of God is more than the absence of conflict, it shares a calmness even in the storms of life (69) and includes the tutorage of the Holy Spirit throughout (70);
  3. Work—our attitude towards work is transformed. The apostle Paul writes: “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” (1 Cor 15:10 ESV) To redeem work is to return to the Garden of Eden where our work began.
  4. Human relationships—If God loves humanity, then so should we and we see people differently (81).

Fairbairn (224) writes:

“We are called to reflect the Father’s love for the Son, and part of the way we do that is by serving the least of the believers—the neediest, the ones who are the loneliest, the ones who suffer the most in this fallen world.”

Perhaps the most important contribution Fairbairn makes, in my estimation, is to our understanding the depth that sin has broken our relationship with God and neighbor. Sin, he writes, “is what happens when have two children in the same room with one toy” (87).    This brokenness dominates who we are and how we relation to both God and neighbor. The curse of sin involves two parts:  physical death and spiritual death—separation from God (98).  We are twisted to the point that we do not even recognize our own depravity.  Adam and Eve had no reason to doubt God’s word in the garden and no reason to trust the serpent’s words:  “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen 3:5 ESV)  The word, know, here in Hebrew (yada) means more than simply knowledge, it implies being able to decide (93).  In order words, Adam and Eve not only wanted to understand good and evil, they wanted to determine what is good and evil for themselves—to play god.

It is only by fully understanding the depth of our own depravity, we can appreciate the need for God’s promise, the incarnation of Christ, and the gift of redemption.  The lost sense of sin is accordingly at the heart of the modern and postmodern shamelessness and inattention to faith.

As is always the case with good books, it is not just the interesting details but how they hang together to make the text sing.  This is a text that clearly sings.

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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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JOHN 13: Foot Washing

By Stephen W. HiemstraOld_shoes_10192013

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35 ESV).

What does it mean to be a disciple?

In John’s Gospel, Jesus performs a sign and then explains it.  Here the sign is dramatic—Jesus assumes the role of a slave and washes the feet of the disciples.  He then gives them a commandment:  love one another (v 34).  Both the sign and the commandment are equally dramatic.

John uses the word commandment four times in his Gospel.  In the first two uses, Jesus responds commands from and to God the Father:  but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment– what to say and what to speak.  And I know that his commandment is eternal life (John 12:49-50).  The third and fourth commandments are the same: love one another (v 34 and John 15:12).   Washing feet—an attitude of service—is the sign that goes with the love commandment.  Love is the only commandment in John’s Gospel.

The idea that Jesus commanded us to love one another is not in dispute.  In Matthew 22:36-40, Jesus commands us to love God and our neighbor.  On these two statements of love hang the law and the prophets.  In other words, the double love command summarizes the entire Old Testament.  Similar statements can be found in the writings of Paul, James, and Peter.

Still, the foot washing sign raises some interesting comparisons.  For example, Jesus is not the first foot-washer that we meet in John Gospel—that honor goes to Mary in chapter 12.  Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.  In chapter 12 Judas objects to Mary’s foot washing; in chapter 13 Peter objects.  Was Jesus so impressed with Mary’s service that he required it of his disciples?  Were the disciples so unhappy with the idea of radical servanthood that they betrayed Jesus?

The other interesting comparison is between foot washing and communion.  John’s Gospel is the only Gospel account to discuss foot washing at the last supper and he neglects to mention communion which is the focus of other accounts (Luke 22:13-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-29).  By contrast, John’s miracle of the feeding of five thousand where Jesus says–I am the bread of life (John 6:35 ESV)—has the sacramental feeling of communion.

Here John appears to have provided us a radical model of discipleship which substitutes a model of discipleship focused on service both in intimate moments (the last supper) and in public moments (the feeding of the five thousand).  This reading suggests that John’s communion is an outsider’s communion (the feeding of the five thousand) rather than an insider’s communion (disciples only) because it fits his model of discipleship better.

One further comparison is worth mentioning.  The foot washing incident in Luke 7:36-50 involves an unnamed woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with ointment.  In that incident, it is Jesus’ host, a Pharisee, who objects to the foot washing.

Jesus’ lesson on foot washing is a hard teaching–a disciple is one who serves; one who loves.  Left to myself, I object.  Do you?


  1. What does it mean to be Christ’s disciple?
  2. What do we learn about the time and place of this chapter in verse 1?
  3. What is the context within which Jesus washes the disciples’ feet? (vv 2-3)
  4. How was Jesus dressed as he washes their feet? (v 4).
  5. Why does Jesus wrap a towel around himself? (vv 4-5)
  6. What happens in the dialog between Jesus and Peter? (vv 6-10)
  7. Why did Jesus wash the disciples’ feet? (vv 12-17)
  8. Why is Jesus troubled? (vv 11,18-30)
  9. Why is the foot-washing discussion (vv 12-17) bracketed by Jesus’ hints about Judas?
  10. Why does Jesus talk about his relationship with the father after Judas left? (vv 31-32)
  11. Why does Jesus give the love commandment? (vv 34-35)
  12. Why does Jesus dwell on where he is going? (vv 33-36-37)
  13. What is your take on the discussion with Peter? (vv 36-38)  Why is it significant?  Or not?
  14. Who started the foot washing in John’s Gospel? (Hint:  see chapter 12) Why is it important?


JOHN 13: Foot Washing

Also see:

JOHN 14: Jesus’ Farewell Consolation 

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Roadmap of Simple Faith

Bothersome Gaps: Life in Tension

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at:http://bit.ly/2018_Trans

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