Can you experience the Trinity?

In his “Search for certainty (p. 67), Herman Bavinck explains the connection between faith and experience:

“The real content of the Christian faith, whether it be taken in a broader or narrower sense to include only moral truths or also the person of Christ, the trinity, the incarnation and Christ’s propitiation, is entirely beyond experience. It cannot be seen or heard, measured or weighed. And it is completely impossible to establish the truth of that faith by experiment. If experience is taken in the sense of inner experience, it is true beyond doubt that the Christian faith brings with it a wealth of experiences…The Christian faith awakens a whole world of emotions in the human heart, ranging on the scale from groans of utter brokenness to the jubilant song of blessed exultation. But all these experiences presuppose, accompany and follow faith. They are not its ground and do not precede it. Anyone who does not believe the Scriptures’ teachings on sin and does not acknowledge them as a revelation from God, also will not be overcome by a sense of guilt. Anyone who does not confess Christ to be the Savior of the world will not seek propitiation for sin in His blood. Similarly, anyone who does not believe in the Holy Spirit will never taste His fellowship. And anyone who doubts the existence of God cannot rejoice in being His child and heir. Those who come to God must, in short, believe that He exists, and that He rewards those who seek Him.”

With this in mind I proceed.

Different causes often have the same effect. Consider the effect of waving your hands in the air. Some Christian congregations do the wave but so do audiences at a pop concert. One may tremble with joy or with fear. Trembling with joy may arise from either winning the lottery or experiencing God. Trembling with fear may also arise from experiencing God or from winning the lottery – all those friends and relatives I never knew I had.

Besides trembling with joy, there might be other physical manifestations, which one might normally associate with the lower appetites such as food: You are very hungry and catch the aroma of freshly baked bread; you begin to salivate, then drool. I am reminded of Art Katz, a Jewish believer in Jesus, who asked one of his audiences whether they ever drooled over Christian doctrine. Drool over dry doctrine! But surely, doctrine – “knowledge of who God is” – is not dry, the doctrine of the Trinity, for example. Among Christians, the Trinity is often the least understood and, consequently, the least loved of all Christian doctrines, for how can your heart warm to something that is so difficult to wrap your head around.

“I love the Trinity, says James White. Does that sound strange to you? For most people, it should sound strange. Think about it: when was the last time you heard anyone say such a thing? We often hear “I love jesus” or “I love God,” but how often does anyone say, “I love the Trinity”? You even hear “I love the cross” or “I love the Bible,” but you don`t hear “I love the Trinity.” Why not? Someone might say, “Well, the Trinity is a doctrine, and you don`t love doctrines.” But in fact we do. “I love justification” or “I love the second coming of Christ” would make perfect sense. What`s more, the Trinity isn’t just a doctrine any more than saying “I love the deity of Christ” makes Christ just a doctrine. So why don`t we talk about loving the Trinity? Most Christians do not understand what the term means and have only a vague idea of the reality it represents. We don`t love things that we consider very complicated, obtuse, or just downright difficult. We are more comfortable saying “I love the old rugged cross.” (James White, “The Forgotten Trinity,” Chapter 1: Why the Forgotten Trinity?).

The most famous passage in Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of things past” is “La petite Madeleine” (a small cake):

“Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?”

Compare Proust’s experience with Jonathan Edwards experience of the Trinity:

“Sometimes, only mentioning a single word caused my heart to burn within me; or only seeing the name of Christ, or the name of some attribute of God. And God has appeared glorious to me on account of the Trinity. It has made me have exalting thoughts of God, that he subsists in three persons; the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The sweetest joys and delights I have experienced, have not been those that have arisen from a hope of my own good estate, but in a direct view of the glorious things of the gospel.” (Quoted in James White’s “The Forgotten Trinity”):

The doctrine of the trinity, says Lloyd Jones, is the “essence of the Christian faith.” Without the Trinity, there would be no incarnation, no redemption, indeed no Christianity. Lloyd Jones says that the doctrine of the Trinity differentiates itself from other faiths, which, of course it does. The Trinity does not mean “three Gods,” for “behind” the Trinity, or to use another metaphor, “undergirding” the Trinity is:

“absolute, uncompromised monotheism. Monotheism – the belief in one true and eternal God, maker of all things – is the first truth that separates Christianity from the pagan religions of the world. Any discussion of the Trinity that does not begin with the clear, unequivocal proclamation that there is one, indivisible Being of God is a discussion doomed to failure. Anyone who thinks that the doctrine of the Trinity compromises absolute monotheism simply does not understand what the doctrine is teaching (James White, introduction to his “The forgotten Trinity”).

I began in fear and trembling. Few sermons have caused me to tremble (one was Paris Reidhead’s “Ten shekels and a shirt”). A few days ago, one that did it for me again was Martyn Lloyd Jones’ “Access to the Father” on the Trinity. The Trinity is the stench of death to the Jew and the Muslim, and the aroma of life to the Christian. Well it should be life to the Christian, but so often it is not, as with many other key doctrines such as “original sin” and “substitutionary (blood) atonement.”

lloyd jones

Here is the essence of Lloyd Jones sermon with a few daringjewisms thrown in.

Key verse: Ephesians 2:18 For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father.

This verse is not only outstanding but staggering. If we understood this verse the Christian church would be transformed. The greatest thing in the world is to become a Christian. How different is the modern church. Duty, exercise of gifts, clubs, institutions, human society. What a contrast in this verse. The whole purpose of everything is access. Meditate, pause, take time. This one verse contains the most stupendous things we can ever be told or realise about ourselves. We come face to face with the mystery of the blessed Holy Trinity. Through the Son, access by the Spirit unto the Father. Great trinitarian verses, ineffable mystery. The doctrine of the Trinity is the essence of Christian faith. This doctrine differentiates itself from other faiths. One God yet we say in three persons. Inscrutable, we don’t understand, we assert it. Don’t just ignore such a matter. you can’t understand the Bible or the Christian faith without it. Humble ourselves, bow down and praise the three in one. Constantly remind ourselves of the Trinity whenever we worhsip; a sense of awe, glory and true praise. The triune God; we cannot conceive of this greatness, but we must ponder on it, become conscious of its ineffable glory.

The three persons in the Trinity are interested in us (Christians) and engaged in our salvation. That is exactly what this verse says. Staggering. The three Persons are interested in you. If only every Christian realised that. How are they, the three Persons, engaged in this? In the whole chapter (Ephesians 2) , the Father thought of salvation, initiated the plan. “H worketh all things after the council of his own will. The Father conceived, planned the idea. The Son does not extort the plan out of the Father. The Son volunteered, offers to come and execute the plan – to get Himself executed. Consider what it involved for the Son. He made himself of no repute, came in a lowly manner, a poor, ordinary life. He suffered the contradiction of sinners, their spite and envy and took on himself their sins. He was made sin for us (Isaiah 53, 2 cor 5:21), put himself under the law, identified himself with sinners. The Prince of life without whom nothing was made, coming out of eternity, out of the bosom of the father, lays his glory aside, dies, is buried and rises again.

The problem of sin was as great as that. The world despises the doctrine of sin. What is astonishing is that many professing Christians hate sermons on sin.

( I once gave a sermon in a church. Previously, I had asked the pastor of the church why he never preached on sin. He told me that sermons on sin were the old days and people need to be encouraged rather than be condemned. Besides, he said, many of his congregation are either elderly, sick or hurting in one way or another. What they needed was a boost. (See And He opened to them the scriptures: A harsh sermon).

Sin was so great that it involved God’s greatest plan, and the Son’s greatest pain. The Son came into the world from all eternity. God had to come to earth in physical form. God’s love is not the only reason. Another reason is his wrath and justice. Salvation involves three Persons whose focal point is Christ – the blood of Christ. The most staggering of all is that the three persons in the Blessed Holy Trinity so loved us to do all this for us. Self-existent in unimaginable glory yet concerned with us. The Holy Spirit applies Christ’s work to us and works it out in us one by one. He subordinates himself to the Father and Son; the Son subordinates himself to the Father. The Holy Spirit fills the individual and the church with his life. “He shall glorify me,” says the Son. The Son has given himself for you, Christian. If we realised this, it would revolutionise our life, it would be the most thrilling thing in our life. “Should I glory in anything else?” (the Apostle Paul).

The end of salvation, the goal, the object is that we may know God as our Father. For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father. This is the chief end of salvation. Jews and Gentiles together as one, we go into his presence.

The Apostle Paul tells us how all the barriers between men (Jew and gentile) and between men and God are broken down. Reconciliation. There’s more, however, than reconciliation; there is access, access to the Father. Reconciliation is not enough. I can be reconciled to my enemy yet have nothing further to do with him. Access is the thing, access by one Spirit unto the Father. “Approach me, come into my presence.” The Lord Jesus does not only prepare the way, but actually brings us and presents us to the Father, the grand object of salvation.

We’ve become so subjective, salvation has made us happy and it is done this and that. No, you understand little. Don’t you understand, salvation brings us into the presence of God? Salvation is much more than a thing that makes me happy and saves me from hell. It’s about fellowship with God; to know God and whom He has sent. It’s about eternal life: “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

God has a loving interest in us. The very hairs of our head are numbered. It is to the Father we are coming. A Christian is one who has been brought into the same relationship with God as Jesus Christ has with his Father. “I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23). Underneath us is always the everlasting arms.

Are we enjoying this access, this peace? Do you know that God loves you? Do you know that all things work together for good for those who love God. Do you know that if you are called, you are called according to his purpose? (John 8:28). Do you know that “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37). Did you know “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day?(John 6:44). Let us with boldness approach the throne of grace. Come with the confidence of a child to his father. With all our cares and problems like a child and leave it with the Father. Peace that passes all understanding.

Your chief end is the glory of God and to enjoy him forever, You don’t have to wait until heaven. The love of God is so great; the three Persons have taken the interest and effort to enable you to see and enjoy the one God in three persons throughout all eternity.

In conclusion, I return to Proust’s “Madeleine.” I repeat the last sentence of the quotation above (which appears in italics below) and we continue reading:

Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?

Continue:

I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, then a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop; the potion is losing it magic. It is plain that the truth I am seeking lies not in the cup but in myself. The drink has called it into being, but does not know it, and can only repeat indefinitely, with a progressive diminution of strength, the same message which I cannot interpret, though I hope at least to be able to call it forth again and to find it there presently, intact and at my disposal, for my final enlightenment. I put down the cup and examine my own mind. It alone can discover the truth. But how: What an abyss of uncertainty, whenever the mind feels overtaken by itself; when it, the seeker, is at the same time the dark region through which it must go seeking and where all its equipment will avail it nothing. Seek? More than that: create. It is face to face with something which does not yet exist, to which it alone can give reality and substance, which it alone can bring into the light of day.

The original French title of “Remembrance of time past” is A la recherche du temps perdu (In search of lost time). The impact of the French is lost in translation. What is the point of literature, all the arts, science as well? It makes life easier to bear (Herman Bavinck, “The certainty of faith, p. 32).

In contrast: “When all things began, the Word already was” (John 1:1 New English Bible). The Word (Logos) entered time, flesh, experienced time, flesh, to redeem time, to unlose it – to unsting death (Thomas Haliburton). Through Him we have access by one Spirit unto the Father. Those in Christ shall never be lost.

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In search of French past (1)

Marcel Proust in 1900

Marcel Proust

In this part of my story, I focus on the French influences in my life.   In “Of Hebrew Remnants and Greek Republics,” I mentioned that after failing my medical supplementary exams in February 1960, I registered for a B.A. I wanted to start “pure” philosophy courses straight away, but these could only be taken in the second year of the B.A. My first year subjects were Psychology I, Sociology I, Hebrew Special, Greek, and Roman Literature-and-Philosophy.   I was having lunch with some friends in the cafeteria. The cafeteria was on the ground floor of the distant building in the picture. Its windows faced the side with the white pillars. Jameson hall is the large building on the left.

 

Jammie steps (Jameson Hall)

Jammie steps (Jameson Hall)

 

English: A la recherche du temps perdu In Sear...

English: A la recherche du temps perdu In Search of Lost Time. My thoughts went to that great work by Marcel Proust when I came across this scene. One wonders what hopes and ambitions went into this place, now gone for ever, lost on the edge of a modern housing estate. People have to live somewhere. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the students at the table was studying French Elementary. His French textbook (Brooks and Cook) was lying (French gisait) on the table in front of him like a dead thing. Something stirred within the bowels of my being. I picked it up, opened it at random and began to declame in francais (?). I was amazed when someone said, “very good.” Comment est-ce possible! (“How was that possible!” Comment if you think that is possible).I knew less French than Peter Sellars. And he only knew “minkey” and hotel phrases like “Have you got a rhume?” Flu?). Was some kind of anamnesis (remembrance of things past) going on. It was the Greek philosopher, Plato, who said you don’t learn anything new; you knew it all the time. It’s all recall.  I am reminded of living Jews who believe that in some mysterious way they were also present with Moses at Sinai. If they were not brought up in this tradition, this does not mean, according to this view, that they were not “at” Sinai but merely that they have no recollection of being there; they have merely forgotten and need to recollect. Is some kind of reincarnation involved? (Reincarnation and Anamnesis (recollection) in Judaism).

The following year (1961) – my second year BA – I registered for courses in pure philosophy: ethics I, logic and metaphysics I (which went together) and political philosophy I. The second-year courses in these subjects were regarded as Majors (where the usual Major consisted of three courses). I added Hebrew “Special” (see here) and French Elementary to the academic year.

In the 1960s, foreign language courses were grammar based as they had been in the past. In the grammar approach you learn the elements of the language to build up sentences and progressively bigger chunks of language. Nowadays, foreign language courses are much more communicative where you start with using the language and then home in on the grammatical elements. The grammar approach is a much quicker way to learn a language but it has a major drawback: you have to learn lots of rules, which – without a well-oiled noggin – can be taxing. If, however, you’ve got a high EQ (Emotional Intelligence Quotient) you can still learn a foreign language – if not as well with a high IQ; it may just take a little longer, which is fine, because if you have a high EQ, you won’t mind waiting a little longer for your sweeties. 

I threw myself into Brooks and Cook’s  two French books for beginners; the green, volume 1, and the red, volume 2. The green was for “go; you can do it,” the red for “hmmm, are you sure French is your thing? Both books had to be completed in a single year.

Because my focus is on the French influences in my life, I shall omit unrelated events.  At the end of 1961, having passed all my courses and the second year of the B.A. (I write about my first-year medicine here), I decided to go to Europe for a year. I would finish my B.A. when I returned in 1963. My parents, Issy and Fanny, were baffled about what I was doing the previous two years. But Issy kindly continued to pay my fees. They knew I was doing “Feeloshofie”. So, they possibly reasoned, maybe it’s possible to get a qualification in the philosophy of life at university, and work myself up, and maybe own the university one day. But isn’t it a bit meshugah (crazy) to have to pay for such a qualification? Issy put up with my meshugas. At least his son was at university. Issy did many kind things for me that I never appreciated enough. For one thing, he let me change my university course from Medicine to Philosophy, he not having much idea what Philosophy was except that it didn’t sound like you could make a good living from it. And now, he was paying – asking no questions – for me to go to Europe. I planned to spend six months in England and nine months in France. Issy would pay for the fare and give me a small monthly allowance of 25 British pounds, which I would need to supplement with jobs in Europe. I departed in December.

The South African Airways fare from Johannesburg to London was expensive. The Overseas Visitors Club was offering a much cheaper fare. There was also the option of returning home by ship on the Union Castle Line. There was a snag though. In the Overseas Visitors Club option, you couldn’t fly Cape Town-Johannesburg-London but had to take a much more round-about route from Lourenço Marques (now called Maputo) in Mozambique to London. Included in the fare was a two-day train trip from Cape Town via Johannesburg to Lourenço Marques (Maputo) a distance of about 1800 kms The plane to London was medium-size grey propeller plane. The cabin was much narrower than modern planes with two seats on either side of the passageway. We made a stopover in Chad.

In the Chad airport terminal, I saw a Chadian in flowing robes with two women in tow, who could have been his wives or daughters. I’d never been to a Muslim country before, or been out of South Africa. I was warned that one thing you never do is stare at the women. The two “wives” were covered from head to foot in flowing peacock blue. Only their eyes were showing. One of them had the most beautiful eyes I’d ever seen. I couldn’t stop staring at her. She was also staring at me; pleading for me to whisk her on to my white horse to escape her cruel husband – who was too busy to notice. It must have been a fleeting moment but seemed forever. Suddenly I swept her into my arms and onto my Arab stallion and made a dash for the exit, her father/husband in pursuit, slicing the air with his pearl-handle scimitar. We wrenched our eyes away from each other. 

After a few hours wandering like a Jew round the markets outside the airport feeling blue, peacock blue, I boarded the plane for the next stage from Chad to London. The flight over the Sahara took half a day. I arrived in London in the middle of a very cold winter. The first thing I did was buy a dark blue duffle coat. 

 

Related:  In search of French past (2): English Effluence