Until I read James Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, Donald Fairbairn’s Life in the Trinity was my favorite book from my time in seminary. I wrote a 10 page review for history. Here I’ve included the introduction and conclusions. Hopefully these will be enough to whet your appetite.
In Life in the Trinity, Donald Fairbairn seeks to ground Christianity in the relationship between the Father and Son and Christian participation in that relationship by the work of the Holy Spirit. According to Fairbairn, the church fathers believed that Christian life was to be a reflection of this relationship. This theme has been almost completely overlooked by the Western church in recent times. Fairbairn seeks to correct this oversight. In this book he attempts to show that sharing in the Son’s relationship with the Father is the unifying theme that runs through NT thought on salvation.
This book was exceptionally helpful. Growing up in the Baptist Church and then in Reformed churches my thinking is grounded in post-Reformation and Enlightenment thought. Fairbairn, with his focus on the thought of the early church fathers, offers a historic and yet fresh perspective on theology. N.T. Wright has said that the Catholic Church reads John and the Protestant Church reads Paul. I didn’t realize how dramatically these preferences could alter ones theology. Grounding Christianity in our relationship with the Trinity feels like a radical departure to me. Before deciding for or against his thesis I need to reread the NT to see how present this concept actually is. His reading of John 13-17 appears sound and he has good reason for giving this theological priority.
There are several things I like about this approach. First, it makes God relevant to Christianity. What I mean by that is that a large percentage of the Church doesn’t much care who Christ is; they just need someone to die for them so they can go to heaven. For years I have wanted to teach a series on God since preachers seldom preach on God himself. Also, I have wondered why the early church had such heated debates over the nature of the Trinity. Who cares about the Trinity? After reading Life in the Trinity I understand. Grounding our faith in our relationship with God makes God relevant again.
Secondly, I like that Fairbairn’s approach connects doctrine with life. As he states in his Introduction, one of the problems of Christian doctrine is its seeming disconnect with actual life. But if Christianity is about God and our relationship with him, doctrine is relevant because it is no longer focused on the doctrine itself but on God and our relationship with him.
Lastly, this helps modern people who are seeking connection with the other because the focus is on connection with the other. I have read some of the Catholic mystics such as St. John of the Cross and Madame Guyon. I appreciated their desire to be in relationship with God, but had no theological grid for connecting what they were doing with the Bible. Fairbairn’s focus on the love relationship of the Father and Son and our sharing in that makes deep prayer and communion essential to the Christian walk. I’m not suggesting that all Christians go to the desert and become monks, but I do believe this is a helpful corrective considering many believers, and even pastors, lack of prayer.
In the last chapter, Fairbairn connects the concept of theosis with the life of the Church. He emphasizes activities such as Bible reading, prayer, and communion to help Christians grow in their relationship with God. This connection is helpful, because it moves these activities from duties and empty rituals to vital aspects of life. Coming from Baptist and Reformed Baptist circles, communion was basically irrelevant; it was simply done a few times a year because the Bible tells us to do it. With a robust theology of communion and theosis, communion takes on much more relevance to the life of the church. Likewise prayer morphs from a boring duty to a vital process through which we grow in our relationship with the Father, Son, and Spirit.
Fairbairn calls the Church to both cultivate their relationship with the Trinity and to reflect the relationship of the Father and Son to the world. This is profound. The life of the Church is now love, love for God and love for man. Embracing this concept would have profound effects on the Church. Imagine a church where the meeting was about expressing and growing in love for God, showing that love to those around us, and then being sent to show that love to the World. What a dynamic church that would be.