Robin Parry, A Trinitarian Perspective in Worship
Robin Parry is an editor for Wipf and Stock Publishers. He received a PhD in 2001 from the Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education in England.
In this interview, he discusses the importance of having a Trinitarian perspective in our worship.
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JMF: What was it that led you into your study of Trinitarian theology?
RP: It was an experience in my church one Sunday. I must have read something about the Trinity before coming out because it was vaguely at the back of my mind when I went into the meeting. When the meeting began, the leader at the front said, “Well, everyone, we’ve come here to meet with Jesus.” I thought, “Okay, I’ve actually come to meet with some other people as well, but that’s nice.” They went on and they prayed, “Dear Lord Jesus, thanks for being with us, come and be with us as we sing to you.” Then we sang a whole lot of songs.
Something near the beginning made me think, “This is interesting because there’s Jesus talk, but what about the Father or the Holy Spirit?” There was no mention of them. So I listened as the meeting went through. Song after song, they were either what I call “Jesus songs” or they were what I call “You, Lord” songs, which are the kind of songs about the Lord or God and it doesn’t say either Father, or Son, or Spirit. In the context of the meeting, it was clear that the “You, Lord” songs meant Jesus. All the prayers were about Jesus, and then we had a sermon about Jesus, but there was no mention of the Father or the Holy Spirit. We had a sinner’s prayer at the end, but it was a sinner’s prayer re-cast in a Jesus version, “Dear Lord Jesus, I’ve sinned against you. I know you love me, you died for me, you rose from the dead, come and live in my heart.” Then we went away.
By this point I was thinking, there’s something weird about this. The other thing that was weird was that nobody else seemed to think there was anything wrong. It just didn’t click, it didn’t register. I thought, now that’s worrying, that you can have a whole meeting devoid of any sense of engaging with the Father or the Holy Spirit in a Christian meeting and they won’t notice it.
I thought, “Maybe I should go.” I went home and got a worship album, probably the best-selling worship album in the world at the time, and thought I’d have a look through the lyrics and see what they’re saying. I read through the lyrics, and all the songs were good. On their own, there was not a problem with any of them. But as I read each song, what struck me… (it was a recording of a worship event)… looking at the whole thing, there was not a single reference to the Father or the Holy Spirit anywhere.
Intriguingly, the story of Jesus was completely collapsed, so there were references about God’s transcendence, there were references about the imminence and presence of God, but there was no reference to the Incarnation, the story of Israel, creation, no reference to the ministry of Jesus. One song referred to his death and resurrection. There were no references to the Ascension, the giving of the Spirit or the return of Christ. The whole thing was collapsed into “my experience of God now.” I thought, “That’s really worrying. As a worship event (which this was a recording of), it’s completely un-Trinitarian.”
It’s terrible once you’re led to this, you start listening for it… In subsequent weeks I listened to the songs and the prayers and so on, and I found regularly the Father and the Spirit either hardly mentioned or not mentioned at all. It was terrible.
I then started looking at a Vineyard worship album. I went through every Vineyard album published over an eight-year period, something like eight years, maybe five to eight. I went through the lyrics to see how many of them mentioned the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, how many mentioned two, and if so which two, how many mentioned all three. It was shocking. When you looked at the whole corpus of songs, all the songs were fine. I have no problem with any of them in particular, but when you look at them as a whole, there was no sense of Trinitarian balance. This is what alerted me to the issue of, when we worship, is our worship fully Christian, or is it slipping into something that’s almost Unitarian in practice, or what Karl Rahner calls “mere monotheism.” If somehow we discovered that the Trinity wasn’t true, would it make any difference to the way we did anything? Would anyone even notice?
That was the thing that set off my flags and got me thinking that I needed to look into this and see if I can do something constructive about it, which is what I tried to do by writing the book [Worshiping Trinity] and talking to worship leaders and song writers and so on after.
JMF: After your teaching (and you’ve done a lot of work in it), what is it about Trinitarian theology that you find the most compelling and exciting?
RP: It’s hard to put your finger on one thing and say that’s the thing. In the same way, when I was a kid, I used to have a favorite color: green. Whereas now, I can’t abstract a single color. Green’s beautiful when it’s alongside of these other colors, but it’s the interplay.
If there was one thing that I keep coming back to about Trinitarian theology, as I conceive it, is this sense that in the person of Christ… It came to me through one of the concerns raised when I started saying we need to be more Trinitarian, intentionally Trinitarian, in the way we worship. Somebody said, “Yeah, but shouldn’t our worship be Jesus-focused, because we’re Christians and the Gospels are Jesus-focused, shouldn’t we be Jesus-focused? I thought, “That’s true. We are Christians and we should be Jesus-focused.” Then it dawned on me, to be Jesus-focused is to be Trinitarian because it’s precisely in the incarnation of Christ that the Trinity is revealed. By definition, if you are focused on the Jesus who is revealed in the Gospels, the Jesus that the church believes in, if you’re that kind of Jesus-focused, you will be Trinitarian. You can be Christocentric Trinitarian – it sort of follows.
I keep coming back to this sense that in the person of Christ, God has completed this work of salvation in the Savior, inscribed in his flesh, our humanity is redeemed. In the risen body of Christ, God has done all that needs to be done to save us. Now, through the work of the Spirit, God is working to join people to Christ to participate in that salvation.
I keep coming back to this thought, and it keeps inspiring me, because it takes the pressure off. I think, I can have hope because it’s God doing this. It’s not about me doing this or anyone doing this. I look at the statistics of how churches are doing, and I think, this isn’t good. Then I think, God’s doing this. God has completed this work in Christ. There’s no way he’s not going to finish it. There’s no way that the Spirit’s been caught by surprise.
All analogies of the Trinity have their pros and cons. I like Irenaeus’ image: two hands of the Father. It has its downsides, but one of the upsides is it gives a lovely way of thinking about salvation. You have the Father, whose intention is to draw humanity and people to himself, so he does this by stretching out the hand of his Son. Then he reaches out the hand of his Spirit, and through the Spirit he draws us to Christ. Then through Christ, he draws us to himself. We’re held in this Trinitarian embrace where the Father, through the Spirit, draws us through the Son to himself.
I love that image and this sense that it’s God that does this. It doesn’t depend on us in the end. God, the Spirit, enables us to participate, and we engage, and it’s a subjective engaging with God in our relationship with God. But it’s not something we do. It’s not earning anything with God or achieving anything with God. It’s being enabled by God to participate. Even our response to God is, as Matt Redmond says, a gifted response, a response that God enables us to make.
JMF: If Christians don’t have some kind of understanding of the Trinity and the relationships within the Trinity and how we’re drawn to that and so on… (and many don’t – it’s common to go into a church that doesn’t have a Trinitarian point of worship or preaching. Even though they believe in the Trinity as a fundamental doctrine, most members don’t think about it and they wouldn’t be able to explain it if they were asked.) What do they lose? They’re Christian, they have faith, they’re saved by grace and they walk in Christ and so on to the degree that they can. But what are they missing? What could they have, if they better understood?
RP: Their experience of God is Trinitarian even if they don’t realize it, because there’s no other way of encountering God, because there is no other God to encounter. When anyone has an encounter with God, it is the Triune God they encounter. But it can enrich their encounter of God, their subjective understanding and experience of that relationship with God, and it can free them up to walk with God in more liberated ways, to understand better the God who they encounter, the God who is at work in their life working out their salvation. It’s still the Holy Spirit working in them even if they’ve never heard of the Spirit or can’t conceptualize these things rightly.
It would enrich their relationship with God in many ways. For instance, it would enrich their engagement with God as a Father to realize that it’s not through their effort to try and please the Father or earn status for the Father or somehow, if they misconstrue their Trinitarian theology, somehow placate the Father who’s not very kindly disposed toward them. To realize that you don’t have to placate God, God doesn’t need placating. God loves us. This is why he sends his Son and this is why he sends his Spirit and draws us.
It enables us to appreciate more the love and grace of God and to take some of the pressure off that we have to earn stuff with God. But it doesn’t change the objective fact that it is still the Father through the Son and the Spirit. That’s the only way that they are able to engage with God in any sense at all, even if they can’t think of it straight.
JMF: Isn’t it true that there is no such thing as good in the world or love, mercy, all things good that don’t come from Christ, that don’t come from the Triune God into the world? It’s not like people who are not Christian if and when they do good things…it’s not like that comes out of some other universe not made by…
RP: Right. They’re living in the same created order which is the good creation that the true God made. They’re living as God’s creatures in the image of God even if they don’t realize they are. People shouldn’t understand a doctrine of total depravity, say, to mean that everybody is as depraved as they possibly could be. I’ve always reacted against the misuse of the scripture that says, even the good things you do are as filthy rags… What the prophet means, what God means when he says that, is “You guys are so bad, you guys in particular, that even the good stuff you do is bad.” He’s not saying everybody’s such that even their love and kindness, even that’s filthy and disgusting in my sight. God isn’t saying anything like that.
We can see genuine aspects of the image of God and the work of God and even the Spirit working in and through people who don’t yet know Christ, because they’re God’s creatures in God’s world. Although the image of God might be broken in us, it’s not completely destroyed. We would cease to be human if that was the case.
JMF: The only way to be human is to be human in Christ. That’s all there is.
RP: Right. In one way of thinking about salvation, salvation is about the restoration of our humanity. It’s about being human the way God made us to be human. Sometimes I think of it like this: Imagine our humanity is like a rubber glove. You might wash the dishes with rubber gloves… Christ, or the Logos, is like that on which we are modeled as humans. It’s like a rubber glove molded on this hand, but the rubber glove has become torn and ripped and damaged.
So what God does in Christ is the very template, the very one in whose image we are made, he takes on – I don’t mean disguises himself as a human – but he becomes flesh, and on the cross melts down this humanity, our humanity, and re-molds it around himself, remakes it, re-forges humanity in the resurrection. So in the resurrection of Christ, we see it’s all about the glory of God in human flesh, in human beings. Salvation is about all of that, being human as God made us to be, because we need a bigger view of what it is to be human.
In Genesis, when God makes us, God makes us in his image. The word in Hebrew is tselem, the word used to describe the image of a deity. In the Ancient Near East you would have a temple and a statue of the deity in the temple. The statue of the deity was understood to be… They would go through a ritual, and when they went through the ritual, they believed that the spirit of the god would inhabit the statue.
Now, the amazing thing is, Yahweh forbids the use of any statues, any images like that. Because of the kind of God that God is, nothing like that, no statue that can’t speak and can’t act and do things, can image this God. But God authorizes in the earth his own tselem, his own icon, as it were, which is a human being, to be indwelt by the presence of God in the earth, mediating God’s rule and dominion over creation. It’s an astonishingly high view of what it is to be human. Amazing. And people say Christians have such a dour view that humans are just scum and worm and all that.
The Bible has a very high view of humans as God’s icons through which God commissions humans that his glory, the presence of God himself, would be in humans. This is what’s being restored. This is a glory lost in sin, and humans fall short of this glory. But in Christ it’s a glory that’s restored. So being a Christian is all about being changed by the Spirit to share in Christ’s humanity. It’s about in Christ, through the Spirit, becoming more human.
JMF: Going back to the topic of worship… You’ve done a lot of work on Christian worship, and I don’t know if I can put it in these terms, but could you talk for a few minutes about what we might call the good, the bad, and the ugly of Christian worship?
RP: Sure. There’s a lot of good, there’s a lot of bad, and there’s a lot of ugly. I guess it’s easier to talk about the bad and the ugly. One thing that concerns me as a person who thinks theologically and thinks Trinitarianly is all the stuff that isn’t in worship, particularly in my own tradition.
I’m charismatic, evangelical, free-church ecclesiology, and the way we do things has plus points and downsides. One of the changes that’s taken place recently is there’s been a move where you used to have the minister who would lead the whole service, and often it would have a clear theological shape, a certain kind of terrain that you would cover. You’d always have confession of sins, thanksgiving, you’d have intercessions and so on. For various reasons, this has changed to a form of worship where you have a worship leader who is basically a singer and guitar player, and worship becomes more about singing one song after another, just linking songs, and that would be a worship time.
One of the problems with that it is in great danger of cutting out crucial parts of Christian worship, like confession, like intercession. And because the songs tend to come out of the same songwriting stables, you don’t tend to get songs that deal with issues like lament, or confession, or the Eucharist, or baptism, or listening to the word of God and so on. Things that are central in Christian spirituality are gone, and very quickly you lose a sense of balance or shape.
In some of the more liturgical worshiping traditions, to me it’s like Lord of the Rings – you have this vast landscape of terrain that you’re covering as you move through it. There’s a sense of movement as you go through a meeting or a series of meetings. Over the whole Christian year you have this shape of movement and engaging with different aspects of God and the story of God in Christ.
Sometimes it feels to me like we charismatics are in danger of being like locked in a broom cupboard under the stairs walking in circles, and we’re covering such a small terrain there’s not much sense of… What holds to link the songs together is often in the key, and that means I can go from one to the other… Are they songs that have blessed me recently? But there isn’t much thought often given to the theological shape and the sense of what are the kind of things that we ought to be engaging with here.
This is through no bad intent on the part of worship leaders. In my experience, worship leaders and song writers desperately want to help the people of God to engage with God. This is where their heart is at, but they have no role models in how that can be done. There’s little help given to them through leaders or training courses. When I see the programs of these training courses for worship leaders, it’s often all technical stuff about PAs, or it’s technical stuff about the music, or it might be encountering the presence.
One of the dangers of contemporary worship, particularly charismatic, is it all becomes about my engagement with God now. Everything becomes collapsed into now. There’s no sense of where we come from or where we’re going, and this is bad for our spirituality, because most of our Christian spirituality and the way we were led to God is something we pick up through engaging in the practices of worship. The ways we think about God, the language we use to describe God, the kinds of things we think to talk to God about, and the kinds of things that would never cross our minds to talk to God about, we learn through engaging in prayer. We learn those habits and things through doing it communally. If our spirituality is being shaped in a deformed (not unchristian, but sub-Christian) way when we meet together to worship, then we are selling short our congregations.
Our people are being shaped in ways so that, just to take lament as an instance, if there is never any place for lament in our worship (unlike in Scripture where there is), then when people are confronted with situations where the appropriate and honest response, the faithful covenant response to God, is like Christ himself on the cross, to lament… If we’re not giving people a vocabulary to know how to respond to God in those situations, they end up feeling bad or feeling like they’re somehow unbelieving… “How could I have those thoughts?” It’s pastorally terrible.
One of my goals is to help charismatics to rediscover a charismatic way of lamenting in the Spirit. Christ on the cross stands in our place and laments in our place. He prays, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Psalm 22. It’s not in a sense of abandoning God – it’s, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He’s lamenting as a way of holding onto God in this situation. Christ does this, Old Testament saints do this.
I argue this in a paper and a book I’ve done on Lamentations…. One of the ways that the Holy Spirit helps us, is that the Holy Spirit, as creation groans [Romans 8] and as the church groans, lamenting the current state, groaning in frustration, groaning looking to the future, and groaning at intercession – the Holy Spirit groans with us, groans with creation. As we groan, I argue, the Holy Spirit is doing the same thing. The Holy Spirit is groaning in frustration at the brokenness of creation, and so lamenting.
The Holy Spirit is looking to the future to bring to birth, like through the travail and pain of childbirth, a new future. The Holy Spirit, through the groaning, is praying by the will of the Father for creation to be liberated. The Holy Spirit can groan through our groaning. In the Holy Spirit, we can lament in the Spirit, so our laments and prayers are taken up by the Holy Spirit and infused with his and become, rather than cries of despair, transformed into groans that take hold of God and look to the future with hope.
There is a Trinitarian way of understanding what is going on and how lament is something that God himself through Christ and through the Spirit is engaged with, and through which we ought to, as faithful Christian disciples, be lamenting, groaning with creation and praying it forward into its glorious destiny.