Saturday, February 09, 2013

Book Review: Connected

If there was one doctrine of the Christian faith that would be the hardest to understand and explain, what would you think it was? Having dealt with the resurrection in his first book, Sam Allberry is back with his second, Connected, on the Trinity. As with his first, so with his second - it's a great book, and essential reading to help get to grips with an important part of our faith - who God is in himself, and what that means for us. As he acknowledges, 'Writing on the Trinity has been both an enormous joy and an enormous struggle.' It was well worth the struggle, as you'll discover when you read and profit from the book.

One again, Allberry writes in a very accessible and easy to follow style, with lots of illustrations and humour, which help to communicate the message. While dealing with some complicated stuff, his explanations and illustrations provide insight.

In the introduction, he declares that the Trinity used to be filed in the 'Things that all good Christians believe' file, without any exploration of what it meant. However, as he read the Bible, he discovered the Trinity is there, for example in Jesus' farewell discourse in John's gospel. 'Understanding the Trinity helps us make sense of what we hold dear,' because, as he goes on to point out, 'very few passage are 'about' the Trinity... Most of the time when it comes up, the Trinity is an essential background to the main point.'

The rest of the book is divided into two main parts: The Trinity and God; and The Trinity and Us. In a number of chapters, the Bible is explored and explained.

Part one focuses in on God, who is one, a divine integrity, three in one, and the party that never ends. In contrast to the polytheism all around, the foundation of the whole Bible is that God is one. It's declared in the Old Testament and affirmed in the New, especially as Jesus is asked which the most important commandment is. Rather than launching directly into a command, he gives the full quotation: 'Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one...' As Allberry comments, 'Doctrine comes before ethics; confession before commandment.' The fact that God is one applies in may ways, of which two are: 1. God deserves our total devotion. 2. There is one God for all, idols are nothing, so mission is vital.

In the divine integrity chapter, he helpfully makes the point that there is more to God than we realise. He is undivided, so you can't have one 'person' without the others (e.g. a Jesus church or a Father movement or a Spirit obsession), nor can you play one off against the others (e.g. as you might with your mum or dad when you were looking something). This is applied to the cross - that it's neither a reluctant Father who is won round by the Son; nor an unwilling Jesus forced to go to the cross.

The One who is Three looks at the Bible in a bit more depth, tracing some of the occasions where the Trinity is in view through creation, the visitors coming to Abraham, and various other incidents. The humanity and divinity of Jesus is also examined, before a useful reminder of some of the things the Trinity is not.

The last chapter in this section explores the Party That Never Ends - the internal relationship of the Trinity, with the reminder that God is love because love has always been a part of the giving and receiving of the Trinity. Therefore, God is not dependent on us - we were not made because God was lonely, but rather, God invites us in to share with him.

Part Two shifts from God to people, and explores what the Trinity means to us and for us. In 'You: an introduction' he explores the notion of going on a gap year to 'find yourself', because 'we are easily confused about who we are.' The simple truth is that 'God made us to image him: the more we understand him, the better we will understand who he has made us to be.' This leads to a reflection on being made in God's image of relationships, serving, and in marriage, where the 'one' flesh is the same word as the Lord your God, the Lord is 'one' - unity in difference, not sameness.

It's based on the Trinity that Allberry (whose same sex attraction has been well documented on his blog) affirms that marriage is only between one man and one woman - 'Sex is for marriage. Jesus makes this clear in other places where he lists among other sins that of 'secual immorality.' It is a catch-all term for any sexual activity outside of marriage: pre-marital sex, extra-marital sex and all same-sex sexual activity. While none of these is named specifically, they are all covered by the general term Jesus uses. To suggest Jesus did not teach on these matters, as some claim today, is simply untrue. Jesus upholds the biblical ethic that the only moral context for sexual activity is marriage... We need to keep coming back to our Creator's design for us. The kind of union that finds its fullest human expression in marriage is itself a reflection of what we see in God's own eternal nature: unity in complementary difference.'

From there, the next chapter explores gender and the potentially controversial topic of male headship. With a great illustration of how McDonald's ensures that all their fries are always all the same, whereas God is 'unity not in sameness but in difference' he points to the musical theology of Islam and Christianity. Islam's monotone call to prayer is a musical pointer to their unitary God; whereas Bach's polyphony illustrates (in what I think is a brilliant phrase) 'Theological harmony.' On gender, while it may be controversial, he asks which you would rather be out of step with - culture or God? Learning from the Father and the Son being equally God but distinctive, he points the way ahead for the gender war, as we follow the persons of our God who are 'equal in divinity; submissive in role.'

God's three-in-one diversity is also reflected in the life of the church, with a variety of people and gifts and experiences, all coming together and building each other up as the body of Christ.

In what was perhaps the best chapter, Allberry explores the role of the Trinity in prayer. 'Scripture doesn't do technique, but theology.'
He goes on to say that 'Prayer takes its cue not so much from what we do, but from who God is' as he spells out the role of the Spirit as he helps us pray through the Son to the Father. 'Prayer is essentially evangelical: as we pray, we are re-enacting the gospel to ourselves.'

As I've said, the Trinity may not be an easy subject to think about, but Sam Allberry presents the doctrine from Scripture in a clear and engaging way. It could be a useful book for pastors and teachers as they seek to communicate the Trinity (with a mine of helpful illustrations which will be recycled!). But it's not just for pastors. Ordinary Christians will also find it a good introduction to the Trinity, and to thinking about the way God has revealed himself to us. It might even be good for non=Christians exploring Christianity to see who God is in himself. Connected(Amazon) can also be downloaded as an ebook from IVP.

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