Consider Wesley

The Trinity as Practical Divinity: Christian Perfecting

Henry H. Knight III

I continue this year’s survey of books that make explicit the trinitarian structure of Wesley’s theology with Holy Trinity: Holy People, The Theology of Christian Perfecting, by T. A. Noble (Wipf and Stock, 2013). Noble’s work is not only an explication of Wesley’s theology but a revision for the present day.

He devotes his early chapters to an examination of Christian perfection, the most distinctive element of Wesley’s theology. Given the dynamic nature of its meaning in Greek, Noble opts to call it “Christian perfecting,” and emphasizes its historic Christian description as being “outwardly turned love” (24).

His linkage of Christian perfecting to trinitarianism begins with a consideration of the economic Trinity (through whom we are sanctified), then moves to the immanent Trinity (whose image we reflect) There is so much he covers that I will have to be selective, but I hope to present a fair account (and invite you to read the entire book for yourself).

Regarding the person and work of Christ, Noble makes three key points. First, “Christ sanctified our humanity by assuming it” (the incarnation) (163). Christ “took our sin in the sense that he took our sinful, fallen human existence … [and] in the very taking of it into union with his eternal person as the Son, he sanctified it by his Holy Spirit” (168).

Second, “Christ sanctifies our humanity by living it” (172). He lived “a human life with all the practical choices and decisions of every day, and with all the outer demands and all the inner pressures and weakness of mortal humanity living in a fallen world in this present evil age.” But in so doing “he so sanctified human personal life that it became possible for us too to live as he did as genuinely compassionate and holy persons” (176).

Third, “Christ sanctified our humanity by crucifying it” (177). Christ’s entire life was a death to a sinful self-interest, and the cross was the culmination of that life of self-giving. Thus “there at the cross, the temptation to live according to the old Adamic self-interest, which he had denied and mortified within himself consistently and perfectly in his obedience to the Father at every moment of his life, finally and definitively died” (178). In its place “the new humanity was raised in the power of the Spirit in the resurrection body of the risen Lord” (180).

Thus, Christ himself is the foundation for holiness. Our sanctification is a participation in what Christ has done for us in his death and resurrection. The atonement is complete, but we must enter in. This we do through the power of the Spirit (181).

The Holy Spirit, says Noble, is the dawn of the age to come, the “already” in the “already/not yet.” This can be seen in Jesus himself: his obedient life was enabled by the power of the Spirit. The inner secret of his life was “his relationship with the Father, and that relationship is a relationship in the Spirit (186). Jesus’s own entire sanctification was therefore at its heart relational (187).

With his resurrection and ascension Jesus, who was baptized in the Spirit, now is the giver of that same Spirit to us (180). Newborn Christians, who know all too well that was there remains “a contrary power within us pulling us” away from God, can be filled with the Spirit, such that we can have an “all-consuming love for God and neighbor with an undivided heart” (194–95)

Moving to the immanent Trinity, Noble notes that many contemporary theologians now understand the triune God as a communion characterized by mutuality, and it is this mutual indwelling and relationship that constitutes personhood within the Trinity (213). But what is missing from these discussions is love, which was the great emphasis of theologians like Augustine and the Wesleys (215). “The doctrine of the Trinity,” Noble says, “suggest that the eternal holiness of God consists in the fact that he is a communion of interpersonal love” (218).

That the triune God is love has significant implications. First, a God of love is thereby gracious or self-giving; thus “we cannot speak of God as a self-contained fellowship of love.” God’s love reaches out to the creation and to all humanity (219).

Second, therefore, the church itself is to be an image of the Holy Trinity. If the Trinity is a “community of interpersonal love” then “we are going to have to think of the church as corporate, modeled on the family,” a communion that is “in fact the communion or fellowship of the Holy Trinity” (220). It is within such a loving fellowship that persons are nurtured in faith and love that perfect love—loving God with all one’s heart—is possible (221).

Third, if the church reflects triune love, it cannot “be wrapped up in itself.” Just as God’s love is missional, the church reaches out in love to others (221–22).

But mission is the penultimate purpose, not the ultimate purpose of the church. The ultimate purpose is “the worship of the Triune God.” That,” says Noble, “will be the life of the church in the age to come, and that is the heart” of its life today (222).

Posted Nov 11, 2020