Nurturing/ Teaching Courses
Trinitarian Basis for Spiritual Formation
Dr Alex Tang
Spiritual formation is about relationships. The question to ask is a relationship with whom? The answer is spiritual formation is an ongoing relationship with the Triune God. The doctrine of the Trinity is that God reveals himself in the Scripture as God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There is only one God and in the essence of this one Godhead, there are three persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. These three persons are neither parts of one another, facets, or modes of existence but are co-equal and co-eternal. Karl Rahner’s describes the Trinity in a short sentence, “The ‘economic’ Trinity is the ‘immanent’ Trinity and the ‘immanent’ Trinity is the ‘economic’ Trinity” (Rahner 1967, 22) He is uniquely one: “The Lord, our God is one Lord” (Deu.6:4).
The three persons of the Trinity relates to one another. The Father sends the Son and yet remains with him (Jn 8:29). The Son represents the Father and obey him willingly (Jn 8:28). Jesus proclaims that he is God (Jn 8:58) and accept faith and worship from his disciples (Matt16:16; Jn 20:28). The Holy Spirit is also part of this relationship (Jn 14-16).
The Father created the present creation in six days and on the seventh day he rested. He made man and woman in his own image, the imago Dei. Man and woman were created for a relationship with God. Unfortunately the man and woman disobeyed him, and fell, distorting his perfect creation. Therefore on the “eighth day”, God sent his Son to redeem fallen human beings by his death on the cross and his resurrection. Those who receive his Son are restored. He also sends the Holy Spirit to empower them as God the Father wants to work in partnership with his restored human beings in his plan to redeem his whole creation.
Spiritual Formation is a Trinitarian enterprise. First, spiritual formation is the process of restoring the fallen imago Dei in each human being. The restored imago Dei will be the image of God and of Jesus Christ (as both are the one and the same). Hence spiritual formation is to restore our fallen nature to become like that of Christ’s or Christlikeness (Gal. 4:19; Rom.8:29; 2 Cor 3:18). It is after being restored that we can be who God has created us to be. At this moment, we are a shadow of our real self. This process is by the work of the Holy Spirit and the means of grace which slowly transforms us into his likeness. It involves us making tough choices and sometimes we are pushed into painful circumstances. Another name for this process is sanctification.
Second, spiritual formation is the process of communion with God the Father. We must be holy before we can have communion with him. It is only when we are holy that we restore our relationships with God. God is holy and cannot have a relationship with unholy creatures. When God created us, it is to enjoy a relationship with us (Gen.3:8, 9). This relationship was broken when Adam and Eve disobeyed God. We cannot be holy by our own efforts. Jesus Christ the Son sent by the Father makes us holy by dying for us on the cross. It is the intention of God the Father that we restore our relationship with him.
Third, spiritual formation is the process of forming a people of God (Rom.8:29, 30). The Biblical record is a meta-narrative of how God is calling a people to himself, those whom he has prepared before creation began. Gabriel Franke illustrates, “In the most elementary of terms, these refrains are the chapter heading of The Christian Story: Creation, Fall, Covenant, Jesus Christ, Church, Salvation, Consummation, with their Prologue and Epilogue, God.” (Fackre 1996, 5). God, the Father intervenes in history to create this group of people. To prove his commitment, God has sealed this group of people with the Holy Spirit. This special group of people is the ecclesia, the called out ones, who will praise and worship him for all eternity.
Fourth, spiritual formation is the process of knowing God. God is spirit. He is invisible. How do we learn more about someone who is immaterial and invisible? One suggestion is by his handiwork. We learn a lot about God from his created world around us and by his intervention in human history. Spiritual formation helps us to know God by moving from a cognitive state to an experiential state. This is sometimes called faith. We also learn about love. In order to save us and to reveal himself to us, God became incarnate. Jesus Christ is God incarnate; fully human and fully God (1 Jn 1:1-3). God the Father shows us love in action as Jesus the Son suffers and dies on the cross. The persons of the Trinity are so close that when Jesus suffers, the Father and the Holy Spirit also experience suffering. Erickson comments, “This says that God is not merely aloft and indifferent to suffering in the world. The second person of the trinity has acted to take some of that evil’s effects on himself ” (Erickson 2000,74).
Fifth, spiritual formation is the process of forming a community that loves one another. Moltmann suggests that it is the interpersonal relationship within the Godhead that gives us the model to love our neighbours (Moltmann 1981, 199) Within the Godhead, there is mutual respect, submission, harmony and equality. This should then be the model for us to respect, submit and live with one another in harmony and equality (Erickson 2000, 84-98). Walters suggested that hospitality and friendship are important elements in learning from the interpersonal relationship within the Trinity. (Walters 2002, 265- 278)
Finally, spiritual formation is the process of being the body of Christ on earth after Jesus has ascended to heaven. This body of Christ (also call the church) will carry on Jesus’ mission here on earth. To enable them to complete this mammoth task, God the Father sent the Holy Spirit to indwell them and empower and guide them with spiritual gifts and other divine powers. Jesus’ mission is to carry out to completion the Father’s plan of redemption for all fallen men and women, and the fallen creation itself. The idea of mission Dei (mission of God) was first mooted following the lead of theologian Karl Barth at the International Missionary Council held in Willingen, Germany (Seamands 2005, 160). Paul Stevens explains, “Mission is God’s own going forth – truly an ekstasis of God. He is Sender, Sent and Sending,” (Stevens 1999, 194)
The Trinitarian God has always been involved in our spiritual formation. The author of Hebrews states, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb.12:2)
 Theologians like Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, Emil Brunner, Paul Tillich, John Zizioulas, and Jorgen Moltman have been influential in developing our theological understanding of the Trinity. Olson and Hall have written a comprehensive historical and theological survey of the doctrine of the Trinity with a very useful bibliography on books published in English on the Trinity. Olson, R. and C. Hall (2002). The Trinity. Grand Rapids, MI, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Recently Walters from Malaysia suggested a contextualized model of the Trinity which he named “Trinity from Below.” He constructs this model from interviews from Malaysian Christians and Muslims and then reflected on his findings theologically. The banana tree is a symbol of “fullness of life”. He writes, “Thus, this image of the banana tree is closely linked to the Trinity which portrays the essence of Being as a coming-from and a going-to, a giving and receiving” Walters, A. S. (2002). We Believe in One God? Reflections on the Trinity in the Malaysian Context. New Delhi, ISPCK. p.276. Lee uses the Chinese symbol of Yin-Yang to express his understanding of the Trinity. He starts with Jesus whose dual nature as man and God is reflected in the two portions of the Yin-Yang symbol. The feminine Yin represents the Holy Spirit which is female and Mother. The Yang represent the masculine and hence God the Father. Lee, J. Y. (1996). The Trinity in Asian Perspective. Nashville, Abingdon Press. These are just two examples of how Asian theologians are engaged in understanding the Trinity.
 Olson and Hall broke that rather cryptic statement into “immanent Trinity”(beyond the world) and “economic Trinity”(within history). What Rahner was saying was that God created the world and relates to the world, but the world is not part of God. Otherwise, saving the world “becomes God’s self-salvation as well.” Olson, R. and C. Hall (2002). The Trinity. Grand Rapids, MI, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p.3
 Means of grace was coined by John Wesley. Unfortunately Wesley varies his definitions in his various sermons and writing. Basically, he divided means of grace into two groups: acts of piety and acts of mercy. Later, as the Methodist movement matures, he divided the means of grace into instituted and prudential means. Dean Blevins elaborates, “The instituted means are very similar to Wesley’s understanding of ordinances or acts of piety, and include prayer (private, family, and public), searching the Scriptures (by reading, meditating, and hearing), the Lord’s Supper, fasting, and Christian Conference…The prudential means include particular rules, arts of holy living, acts of ministry, and larger attitudes toward daily living listed under the headings of watching, denying ourselves, taking up the cross, and exercising the presence of God.” Blevins, D. G. (2005). "Renovating Christian Education in the 21st Century: A Wesleyan Contribution." Christian Education Journal: Series 3 2(1): 6-29.p.14
 Dykstra makes this point, “…that faith is still primarily a matter of knowing some thing, however, we have missed what is fundamental about it. For faith is not only knowing the message, it is knowing the Messenger. (italics author’s) Dykstra, C. (2005). Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices. Louisville, KN, Westminster John Knox Press. p.21. Hence faith is not blind.
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