Father, Son and Spirit: The Trinity and John’s Gospel

Review: Father, Son and Spirit: The Trinity and John’s Gospel
by Andreas J. Kostenberger and Scott R. Swain
Series Editor: D.A. Carson

I just finished reading Father, Son and Spirit: The Trinity and John’s Gospel by Andreas J. Kostenberger and Scott R. Swain–the authors will be referred to as K&S from this point on–(in the NSBT series, edited by D.A. Carson) yesterday. I must say that the book was much different than I anticipated. This is not to say that I was disappointed in the least. The authors in the first half of the book (and I am over-generalizing here) seek to lay forth John’s teaching about each of the three persons in the trinity individually first and then in regard to how they relate to each other. In the second half of the book they focus their attention more on building a coherent theology of the trinity within the framework of John’s unique theological purpose and emphasis. The first half of the book really stood as the foundation for the second half.
Those who have spent any serious time studying John’s Gospel will find the first half of the book to be delightfully straightforward. I will say, however, that the second half of this book is what really makes this work worthy of honorable mention. I will warn the reader to not skip the general teachings of the Godhead in the first part of the book to delve into the rich theological insight of the second half of the book. The first half really does set a necessary stage for what follows.
The two most helpful chapters (for me, at least) were Chapters 7 (“Christology in John’s trinitarian perspective: Jesus’ Filial Identity”) and 9 (“‘As the Father Has Sent Me, So I am Sending You’: Toward a Trinitarian Mission Theology”). I think I underlined about half of the content in each of these two chapters. K&S’s discussion on both the sonship of Christ and the fatherhood of God and their focus on John’s unique trinitarian emphasis in regard to mission is simply stunning. These two chapters provided more than just a little insight–they completely clarified and (maybe I could go so far to say) revolutionized my understanding of (specifically) John’s trinitarian emphasis. I will provide one quote from each of the two respective chapters.
First, consider what K&S said in regard to Jesus’ filial identity* (the ‘*’ indicates a footnote–look below the text for the * for further explanation):

When sender and sent one are father and son, we are no longer dealing with a relationship between superior and an inferior, where, among other things, the will of the former is imposed upon the latter. When sender and sent one are father and son (at least in the case of the triune life) we are dealing with a relationship between equals, between those sharing the same ontological status.** Thus, when sender and sent one are father and son we are dealing with a relationship where the action to be undertaken involves not the imposition of the will of the one upon the other, but where the action to be undertaken must be understood as common cause, and a common cause because it is family business.
Nevertheless, inasmuch as the analogy holds, equality and engagement in a common cause in no way rule out the relationship of command and obedience that holds between a father and a son, biblically conceived. This explains, for example, why Jesus can say in John 10:18 that, on the one hand, he has received a ‘charge’ from his Father that, on the one hand, consists in having the ‘authority’ to lay down his life on his own accord (freely, as Lord) and to take it up again. The Sons’ obedience to the Father’s charge does not comprise the Son’s authority to act but rather establishes it. He is the free Lord of all–including his own death–as the Son who obeys the Father.” (pg. 122)

Second, consider the following quote regarding John’s unique trinitarian theology of misison.

“The first aspect of Jesus’ mission, that he is sent from the Father to the world, teaches us that there is a centrifugal*** dimension to mission. The church’s mission proceeds from the sending Son to the world in the power of the Spirit. The second aspect of Jesus’ mission, Jesus’ role as the eschatological shepherd-teacher, teaches us that there is a centripetal**** dimension to mission. Jesus gathers his sheep from the world into his fold through the witness of his Spirit-empowered church (cf. John 6:35-65). The third aspect of Jesus’ mission, that he comes into the world and returns to the Father (descent-ascent), emphasizes the transcedent origin and power of the church’s mission…

They explain further;

Keeping all three aspects of Jesus’ mission in mind will protect the church from various forms of reductionism with respect to its missionary endeavor. First, the community that focuses too exclusively on the centrifugal dimension of mission and ignores the centripetal dimension, which includes building a community characterized by worship, sound doctrine and loving fellowship, will not ultimately have an alternative way of life to offer the world (cf. 13:35). Second, the community that focuses too exclusively on the centripetal dimension, which includes John’s expansive trinitarian vision for the transformation of the entire cosmos, will eventually domesticate the gospel to the service of its own private or local ends.***** Third, the community that ceases, in both its centrifugal and centripetal dimensions, to depend wholly upon the spiritual power of the incarnate and ascending Son will quickly become a community that, when it comes to matters of eternal consequence, ‘can do nothing’ (15:5)…” (pg 160-161).

There are many more points worthy of mention, but you will have to get the book if you desire to dig deeper. I do highly recommend Father, Son and Spirit to anyone desiring to know more about John’s unique trinitarian emphasis. I will say that the purpose of this book is not to deal with the doctrine of the trinity as a topic of systematic theology; their purpose, rather, is to emphasize John’s unique trinitarian flavor. Nonetheless, it must be remembered that John’s Gospel is considered by many to be the most overtly trinitarian book in the Bible (see pg. 19).
I do not want to be critical of the authors, but I do want to make two general statements about the book as a whole. First, the last chapter of the book seemed out of place. The book flowed quite nicely up until the last chapter. For the most part, the entire book was rather simple to read, flowed smoothly, and put the spotlight on the actual text of John’s Gospel. The last chapter, on the other hand, focused more on historical theology and complex theological debates than it did on the text of Scripture itself. Surely, the authors did use John 17 as the outline of the chapter, but the content of the chapter focused much more heavily on the historical debates centering on the trinity in general than on John’s unique trinitarian theology. I am not complaining here (in fact, there were many quotable quotes from the last chapter); I’m just making an observation.
Second, I found it to be quite strange that almost no attention was given to the great debates about the trinity which so often center on many passages from the Fourth Gospel. For example, next to nothing was said about the waywardness of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ use of John 1:1; 8:58; 10:34-39; 15:28; 20:28. I find this to be a glaring omission. I know that the purpose of this work was not to be an apologetic for the trinity in the face of the modern day expansion of the Jehovah’s Witness cult. However, one would think that there would be great reason to include something of an apologetic with reference to a correct understanding of John’s unique trinitarian theology in the face of such opposition. The fact is that trinitarian debates of this sort more often than not focus on passages from John’s Gospel. I am sure that lack of space had something to do with this omission. And the authors do provide further reasoning for their approach in the beginning of the book (see pages 19-24). I can live with such an answer, but still feel that the tenacity of the opposition warrants special attention on the subject.
These two critical comments should not deter anyone from valuing the well-communicated truth contained in this volume. I highly recommend The Father, Son and Spirit: The Trinity and John’s Gospel. I was surprised by the readability of the book (although the last chapter was quite dense) and would not be afraid to recommend it to my own congregation for prayerful/thoughtful/discerning consumption. The focus of the book is not simply trinitarian theology, but rather trinitarian theology as communicated specifically in John’s Gospel. Because this is the emphasis, the book is biblically based to the core. If you are more interested in biblical theology than you are in logical theology (not that the two should be completely separated, but arguments from actual texts of Scripture read in context should inform our logical categories of theology, and especially when it comes to such an other-worldly doctrine as the trinity–a doctrine which transcends finite logical categories) you will find this book to be extremely informative and stimulating (both intellectually and spiritually).
If you want to buy this book, click here.
*Filial identity simply refers to Jesus identity as the Son of God the Father. The word filial is defined as ‘having the relation of a child to a parent.’ (see www.dictionary.com)
**Ontology is study of being. To say, therefore, that the Father and Son share the same ‘ontological status’ is to say that neither the Father nor the Son is greater than the other. They are equal at the very core of their being/nature.
***Centrifugal is movement ‘outward from the center’ (www.dictionary.com). Thus, the ‘centrifugal dimension to mission’ is a mission which seeks to go out into the world.
****Centripetal is movement ‘toward the center’ (www.dictionary.com). Thus a ‘centripetal dimension to mission’ is a mission which seeks to bring (or suck) others into God’s intra-trinitarian relationship (which is what the church is to be all about).
*****This is why K&S helpfully state, “The love and power of the triune God at once send us out and draw us in” (pg. 164)
~ Jimmy Snowden
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Jimmy Snowden
Jimmy is the “Pastor of Preaching and Vision” at Sovereign Grace Fellowship in Boscawen, New Hampshire. Visit his blog, ChosenInChrist.com.