This is the first of a series of articles that looks at the impact the Trinity has on Christian worship. The material has been adapted from my doctoral thesis.
The doctrine of the Trinity is a knot of seeming contradictions that is held together by the belief that everything revealed in Scripture is true. This bundle of contradictions sits at the center of the Christian faith much like the hub of a wheel. At its core, the Trinity is a way of understanding who God is in himself. As such, all Christian doctrine flows from the reality of the Trinity. What the individual or church believes about the Trinity will either true the wheel of belief or skew it one way or another. There are three main propositions in the doctrine of the Trinity that must all be affirmed: 1) there are three persons, 2) each person is fully God, and 3) there is only one God. These affirmations guide us in the study of Scripture allowing as much of a glimpse into the infinite that the finite can hope for.
One of the first things that come into focus as we reflect on the Trinity is the relationship that exists between the three persons. The name given in Matthew 28, Father, Son, and Spirit, describes the Divine relationships evidenced in the pages of the New Testament. These relationships define each member of the Trinity based on his relation with the other two. The Son is the Son precisely because of his relationship to the Father, who is likewise Father because of his relationship to the Son and the Spirit. Moreover, these relations are eternal. The Father is eternally Father because the Son exists eternally. These distinctions between the persons as Father, Son, and Spirit are tremendously important to the Christian faith. Were these differences merely temporary, the whole of hope of the Christian would be only empty promises because humanity’s relationship with God takes place in and through the incarnate Christ. Imagine for a moment that Christ decided that he didn’t want to be human anymore. There would no longer be a human being bound up in the eternal love of God, and by extension we would no longer have a place in the triune life. Beyond being a foundation for salvation, the distinctions between the persons of the triune God also give rise to a perceivable order in which they not only relate to each other but to creation as well.
Before investigating this order, however, we must briefly look at perichoresis. Stanley Grenz defines perichoresis as “the interrelation, partnership, and mutual dependence of the trinitarian members not only in the workings of God but even more foundationally in all their very subsistence as the one God.” To put it another way, each of the persons of the Trinity, being completely God, contains the other two within himself. This mutual indwelling means that whenever one of the persons is in view, the others must necessarily come into the picture as well, for none exists alone. Examining the three persons draws us inevitably back to the one being and the one leads back to the three. Additionally, perichoresis is not merely a state of being but also impacts the way in which God acts. Whatever God does, it is the Trinity as a whole that does it – wherever one member acts, the three act together.
As the three act together, a discernable pattern emerges in which the action begins with the Father and is accomplished through the Son in the power of the Spirit. This pattern of from the Father, through the Son, and in the Spirit is repeated over and over in Scripture. Nearly everything God does exhibits this order. Conversely, when the movement follows in the opposite direction, it is a movement of worship. The Spirit glorifies the Son, who in turn glorifies the Father. What is more, the cycle of glorification does not end there. The Son is glorified by the Father and in turn, becomes the glory of the Spirit. The Trinity functions a community in which the Divine Persons eternally give and experience perfect love in the form of worship.
The ramifications of the economic order of the Trinity on worship are enormous. Too often worship is thought of as the action of the believer toward God. But within the trinitarian paradigm, worship is first and foremost the action of the Trinity and we are allowed to participate in the giving and receiving of love by the power of the Spirit. Worship does not begin and end with a church service or anything we do; it is eternal and ongoing within the Godhead. As we enter into worship by the power of the Spirit, we enter into the Son’s continual worship of the Father. From a human perspective, Christ is the only one true worshiper and we participate through him. Christ holds a unique position as the incarnate Son, he is both completely God and completely human and the only fit mediator between God and humanity. James B. Torrance notes that this mediation is a “relationship between God and humanity realized vicariously for us in Christ, and at the same time a relationship between Christ and the Church, that we might participate by the Spirit in Jesus’ communion with the Father in a life of intimate communion.”
The writer of Hebrews calls Jesus our leitourgos, which means minister or worship leader. By following the example of Christ we learn how to worship, and it is by worshiping united with Christ in the Spirit that communion with the Father is achieved, and the life of the Trinity open to humanity. Such a scheme is certainly Christocentric but not to the exclusion of the Father or the Spirit. Each person of the triune God is active and involved in bring people to worship, and our worship should recognize each member of the Trinity. Worship that focuses on only one person of the Godhead to the detriment of the others is a misrepresentation of the reality of the Trinity. Even worse is worship that recognizes God without any remembrance of the Three.
It is all well and good to say that the Trinity exhibits order, exists as a community of love, and that Jesus is the prime worship leader, but does this stuff really have any bearing on the lives of actual Christians? There are two broad categories of practical application that we will focus on in the next parts of the series: the church as worship, and the church at worship.
Cocksworth, Christopher. Holy, Holy, Holy: Worshiping the Triune God (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd Ltd, 1997).
Letham, Robert. The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2004).
Parry, Robin A. Worshiping Trinity: Coming Back to the Heart of Worship (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012).
Thompson, John. Modern Trinitarian Perspectives (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
Torrance, James B. Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1996).
 Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 68.
 James B. Torrance, Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1996), 31.