Book Review: John Thompson, Modern Trinitarian Perspectives

John Thompson penned the text, Modern Trinitarian Perspectives, which will now be reviewed. The author has produced here a generous, subtle critique of diverse opinions on various matters, a kind of dialogue all centred around what it means to reflect the Trinity and participate in the missio dei. Throughout the text Thompson traces out, bends, and attempts to correct opinions pertaining to the Trinity, primarily Trinitarian effects upon various aspects of church and society.

Therefore, under the umbrella of Thompson’s comments, this paper will analyze two of the seven chapters, titled, ‘The Triune God and Mission’, and, ‘The Trinity, Society, and Politics’ — respectively, the fourth and the sixth chapters.

If distilled to a simple essence, a basic (but bipartite) question, both chapters seem to first pertain as to how we ought to examine our Trinitarian God and also how we ought to consider the Trinitarian reflection of ourselves (the human race — shaped and imprinted with the famous ‘image of God’, a phrase left for the moment in its fullness and plethora of meaning and mystery).

Ultimately, the tertiary consequence of these two remains the pragmatics of reflecting Trinitarian theology throughout the life and mission of the church in practical ways.

Further dividing the trifold discussion from ‘who God is’ to the pragmatics, each of the surveyed chapters relate to two different aspects of this Trinitarian reflection (how we reflect him, and what action we should take to reflect his mission to the world better).

These two aspects could be spoken of geographically as spaces, though they overlap and are not entirely physical: the mission of the church itself, and the mission to society (the world). Both can be summarized using the phrase ‘the mission of God’, called the ‘missio dei’.

This is, of course, firstly God’s mission, passed on to the church secondhand; for God is the sender and the sent (70); and, our participation in the mission acts as a reflection of God’s incarnational mission into the world.

In light of God’s prior and persistent, (perpetual), mission to humanity, all of Thompson’s insights about the church and the world also are built upon the belief that the Trinity, God’s divine essence is paradigmatic and archetypal (120), for the Trinity is not a barrier to Christian mission (68), but the central foundation of it; and, Thompson asserts injustices are done when the church neglects Trinitarian basis (81).

So, in the fourth chapter, Thompson introduces us to the topic by stating that theology of mission has always been a predominant part of modern theological writing, but not often (or always) rooted properly in the Trinity (68).

Yet, Thompson states, recent conversations demonstrate some promise, for the author claims that the church at large has indeed embraced a more Trinitarian conversation on account of a a mere phrase, the phrase ‘missio dei’.

Amazingly, such simple terms have recently reinvigorated the theological discussion about how the Trinity relates to missions, which should if it takes its natural and proper effect, root Christian mission more properly in the substance of attempting to reflect the Trinitarian nature of our Lord.

In this way, Thompson’s attempt is noble, and founds mission upon a proper foundation, not of stone, nor gold, nor any object made with human hands, but the foundation of God’s own essence, the nature of Himself.

Some, such as Clement of Rome and Tertullian, have historically made parallels between the threeness of God and the threeness of the church, (80). If the church is truly a reflection of Trinity, it reflects God, for example, by perichoresis, one of many aspects we could speak of in relation to the Trinity.

God creates a community of people that reflects himself (109), and though there are many churches throughout the world, and adding all the churches together, melting all their various traditions into one culture and custom, would not necessarily reflect God better as an exampled unity more than the perichoretic effect of the one and the many (87).

You see, diversity in unity helps the mission to the oikoumene, ‘the known world’, and our unity in diversity stands as an important part of the church’s missional witness.

Now, of course, since there is a creator-creature distinction, and because we speak of God always apophatically, by analogy, we cannot speak of these things as one-to-one correspondence to either the economic or immanent Trinity, but what we are searching for is how to properly pattern the life and mission of the church after God’s divine order, which is ultimately patterned upon his own perfect, Triune, essence and economics.

In this quest Thompson must be correct, or  else the church risks returning to a vision of God that is not only untrue, but a missional model that is filled with hurt and ineffectiveness.

Speaking of this Triune pattern, Thompson therefore tries to balance how the church reflects concepts such as perichoresis, appropriation, and the unity of God now reflect in the church’s participation in the missio dei through dialogue with several prominent theologians and various strands of churches (par exemple, Moltman, Barth, the Roman Catholic view, Orthodox views, etc. — a mix of persons and summarized ideas of larger groups).

The conversation in place can be summarized in that basically, if humanity is created in the imageo dei and reflects God, his own Trinitarian nature, how does this work out in the assembly of the church and the world of broader society? Does every aspect of God’s economic and immanent Trinity glimmer and reflect throughout the mission of the church and the world?

Thompson, of course, seems to say ‘Yes’, for the ‘inner logic of God’s heart’ is to make a world reflected after himself (109). Yet, many of the details of how God did so are yet to be hammered out — glowing on the forge of our conversations in theology. The strength of this text lies in its spark of the conversation, rather than in exhaustive, ineffable insights upon each particular topic.

While Thompson’s insights on these matters are intriguing, and demonstrate a vivacious dialogue, this review turns towards something closer to the core of the conversation. At essence, what Thompson wants to ignite in this book is a dialogue as to ‘how we reflect the image of God as the church?’ ‘How do we imitate the same concepts that constitutes God’s Trinitarian economy and essence?’ ‘What are the goals and method of our mission?’

And, are these goals helpful or hurtful, good or bad? Essentially, whatever our mission is, it has to reach the total person, the whole of humanity. And, with this vision we can heartily concur. Adapting, the outline of a document produced by a Lutheran conference convened in 1988, Thompson defines ‘mission of God’ as a mission to both the church and the world (68), based upon the revelation and work of Christ, doubly for the church and the world, and as the ‘twin-thrusted’ action with the purpose of bring ‘salvation to humanity and establish righteousness’ (70).

So, following Barth, Thompson helpfully traces out six aspects of Christian mission.

(1) Missionary activity assumes accomplishment of Christ’s work (presumably, God’s work is at least inevitability fulfilled and certain if not temporally completed).

(2) Mission is not optional, but obligatory.

(3) It is for Christ, not nations, or colonies, or culture.

(4) Moreover, mission is to be done with the greatest value and respect for others.

(5) It involves care for all humanity in its totality, and the whole body.

(6) And, the goal of missions is to make a missionary church, that continues to witness to the nations about the Lord.

Since these principles are so general, there are clearly a variety of ways mission is to now be carried out into perpetuity, following the bifold, two-twinned, partition of the mission of God, and there are a variety of ways to partake, carry out, this mission. All the aforementioned essentially constitutes chapter four, but conceptually many of the same concepts bleed over into chapter six.

The sixth chapter starts by trying to balance Moltman’s view of the social Trinity, and its introductory part can be summarized by Thompson’s good advice, saying, ‘Moltman is wise…not to choose a particular view [of the Trinity] as the only correct one. Nonetheless, the nearest to the trinitarian model must always be the society that further social solidarity, freedom, and community.” (107).

While some insights from the sixth chapter have so far been previously interweaved helically, the main difference between the missio dei to the world and the missio dei in the church is mostly a matter of scale and trajectory.

Proper understanding of the Trinitarian mission frees people [corresponding to some aspects of Liberation theology] (118-121); it affects politics (118), anthropology (111), and even affects the way we speak about God [quite literally in how we should refer to his name, ‘Father, Son, Holy Spirit’ or ‘Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer’] (115-117).

All in all, the two chapters can be summarized in a scheme that triunely asks, “Who is our Trinitarian God?” (“What is He like?”); “How do we as humanity reflect Him?” “How, practically should we participate in his mission and order society as a reflection of this Triune nature?”

Then, while we consider and apply this triad of questions to ordinary matters, we must ask how it effects two separate realms — the realm of the church, and the realm of the rest of the world. At the end of the day, how do we extended the mission of God effectively, purposefully, beautifully, in both spaces? Thompson’s book addresses these kinds of matters.

Overall, this text as smattering of various conversations, effectively gives the reader opportunity to think critically about multiple areas of the world in light of God’s mission. No reader should walk away from this text thinking that anything other than a Trinitarian model is the best option, but be left searching for ways to employ our Trinitarian reflections, rather than begin a quest for a different model.

News Reporter
From Madison, Wisconsin. B.A. Biblical Studies: Moody Bible Institute, Chicago. M.Div. Student at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, Ontario.

1 thought on “Book Review: John Thompson, Modern Trinitarian Perspectives

  1. Interesting article Ryan. ‘Perichoresis’, I will have to look up; the text did not give me enough hints. I did not know that advancing the trinitarian aspect of Christianity was considered a deterrent to the spread of the gospel. So interesting as always dear friend.

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