Donald 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:
- Significance—our significance lies not in what we do, but to whom we belong (67);
- 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);
- 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.
- 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.