The Impossible Doctrine
Can a book explain the most impossible doctrine that has confounded all Christians everywhere, the Trinity. Can a book prove that the Trinity is in the Bible? Can a book written by a Pentecostal be affirmed by a Reformed? Find out in today’s book review.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers podcast where I review Christian books for you. Every month I review a book from Faithlife’s Free Book of the Month. The free book for May is “The Trinity, Practically Speaking” by Frank D. Macchia. Macchia is the Associate Director of the Center for Pentecostal and charismatic studies at Bangor University UK. He is also the Professor of Christian Theology at Vanguard University, U. S. A.
Macchia was the President of the Society for Pentecostal Studies and editor, for more than a decade, of the Society’s journal Pneuma. Now if Pentecostals or Charismatics scare you, don’t be scared. He has written a book to be read and enjoyed for all Christians and he does not push Pentecostalism in this book.
Defending the Trinity
Now for a book on the Trinity, there is surprisingly little mention of Arius or any mention of the Council of Nicaea. Arius denied Jesus was God, which led to the Council of Nicaea to condemn him and thus formulating our understanding of the Trinity. And there is no mention of either Arius or the Council of Nicaea because Macchia is only interested in showing you that the Trinity is in the Bible.
Okay, Christian, here’s a challenge. How would you defend the Trinity? Someone asks you, “What is this three in one? Can’t you Christians decide whether your God is three or one? Did you fail Math? And isn’t it true that the Trinity is a man made concept, since the Bible never uses the term?”
How would you answer?
Well, I would answer it this way. God is one, Deuteronomy 6:4 “Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God, The Lord is One.” God is three. The three appear in the baptism of Jesus Christ. God the Father spoke, Jesus was baptized and the Holy Spirit descended. Another place where the three appear is in the Great Commission, where Jesus said to baptize the disciples “in the name of God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit. And another way I would put my argument is that all three are divine. God the Father is obviously divine. Jesus is God and divine from Scripture. We can show that. And the Holy Spirit is also divine, so God is one. So we conclude that God is a Trinity.
The Inevitable Train Ride
Now in this book, Macchia does make the same points that I made but he structures and presents his argument differently. Let me outline the book, which at the same time would show the outline of his argument.
In the prologue, he explains why understanding the Trinity is a practical necessity. We should not think of it as a puzzle to solve. It is necessary to Christian life. The prologue presents the drive, the motivation, to read the rest of the book.
In chapter one, he outlines his approach. First, only God can save. God the Father saves. Jesus the son saves. The Holy Spirit saves. Because only God can save, therefore God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit is God. That is the approach outlined in chapter one, which is then fully developed in the whole book.
Throughout the book, Macchia effectively uses a train metaphor. By boarding a train in the first station, “Only God can save”. We continue down the track and inevitably reach the end station, “God is a Trinity”. You will be satisfied in the neatness of his logic and the steady progression through each chapter’s overwhelming Biblical evidence.
In chapter two, he convinces the reader that the Bible is the ground to knowing God. So we will only know who God is through the Bible. And this leads nicely to the beginning of the argument in the next chapter.
Chapter three, God the Father saves. The Old Testament makes this very clear.
Chapter four, Jesus the Son saves. The New Testament describes only Jesus fulfills the salvation prophecies and only Jesus saves us from our sins.
Chapter five the Holy Spirit saves. the Bible clearly shows that only the Holy Spirit works justification, sanctification and glorification in us. And those are the three aspects of salvation.
And chapter six, because only God can save and God the Father saves, Jesus saves and the Holy Spirit saves, therefore God is three persons in one. God is a Trinity, And chapter six deals with the ways on thinking about this conclusion. Is it tritheism? Three gods. Is it subordinationism? Is Jesus a lesser god? Or is it modalism? Does God wear three hats. Macchia, wisely doesn’t attempt to explain how the Trinity works. Instead, he asked us to reassess our ability to understand. Just as how a dog doesn’t understand how a human thinks so why should we think we can understand an infinite and eternal God?
The last two chapters, chapter seven and eight, presents the practical necessity of the Trinity. Chapter seven describes the communal God and trinitarian salvation, Macchia writes:
The doctrine of the Trinity enriches our understanding of salvation. It shows us that salvation is not primarily about escaping hell or having our guilt relieved. Salvation is being rescued and healed by the loving embrace of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Salvation is about deliverance from the alienation of sin and death for communion with God and all of the blessings that go with this.
In short, salvation is not just about saving us from something, it’s also saving us for something. In chapter eight, the last chapter, he links this communal God, this trinitarian salvation to our worship, witness, ethics and hope. The chapter ends with hope, and thus the whole book ends with hope.
End of Part One
This is a book that all Christians can read. To follow the logic is like taking a train from A to B. The train just follows the track. There are no distractions, no detours. You begin with “Only God can save” and you end up with “God is a Trinity”.
And that ends part one of today’s review. Today’s review is different. I have divided it into two parts. The first part is for the general reader. If you want to know what is the Trinity, what the Bible says of the Trinity and why and how it’s important in your Christian life, Macchia’s book does a great job in 180 pages.
The next part, Part two is a bit different. It’s for Reformed or Pentecostals or those interested in those two theologies and/or ecumenism. Now, why did I mention Reformed or Pentecostals specifically? Because I smell them in some parts of the book.
Now I want to make this very clear before I go into part two. Macchia has clearly put a lot of effort to make this book for all Christians. But if you are from either Pentecostal or Reformed, I would like to show you what to look out for when you read this book. And I will do this through my criticisms and commendations. So listen carefully, because then you can tell me whether my points are on target or off.
Bible as Privileged Voice?
The first criticism is more like a question, what is Macchia’s take on the sole, only, authority of the Bible. In chapter two, which if you remember, he makes the case that the Bible is the source of God’s revelation, but he has this section and I quote:
Moreover, I don’t deny that other texts besides the Bible have some truth in them and can be used of the Spirit to create a thirst for God and (implicitly) for Christ.
Other texts besides the Bible has some truth in them. I think that we can agree, kind of, here because we can interpret it to say that common grace, general revelation. Yes, so we say that people and unbelievers can write things, create things that reflect the glory of God without necessarily knowing what is the truth behind them. Behind the words and behind the creation, so we can still follow and agree.
Then he continues, he says that:
That some valid experience of God is possible outside of the Bible cannot be denied, even if it is not entirely accurately explained by those who have had it. My point is not that the Bible is the only avenue of the Spirit’s voice; I mean that, validated by the risen Christ, the Bible is the privileged voice of the Spirit that functions as the standard for judging all other experiences.
Now, for me, that sentence is problematic. I would have written that the Bible is the only avenue, it is the only voice of the Spirit because I would just put it as separate from all other texts and all other works. But Macchia explicitly, so it’s not even implicit, he puts very clearly up front that the Bible is not the only avenue for the Spirit to speak and that the Bible is the privileged voice.
Now, I hope you can see why that sentence can make it very problematic. Alright, but he doesn’t develop it in the way that will make you worried. I’m still giving Macchia the benefit of the doubt because he overwhelmingly refers to scripture. For that chapter and for the whole book, he never never refers to any extra-biblical revelation. He never says, “Jesus told me in a dream, the Spirit impressed upon my heart, an apostle prophesied this message to me, I saw an angel who told me”. He never alarms me with such pronouncements.
So I’m thinking that the sentences that I read just now, I’m thinking he means general revelation or if you want to accommodate what he said, it’s kind of like how Nabeel Qureshi, a former Muslim had visions and dreams that led him to the Christian God. Now, careful Christians will be wary, careful, of denying a miracle or any vision or dreams because it may be from God. But at the same time the careful Christian would also not make much of it, meaning we do not build our faith on anyone’s experience miracle, including our own. We build our faith on the word.
Can We Pray to the Holy Spirit?
Now, the second criticism is the way he answers the question, “Can we pray to the Holy Spirit?” He rightly explains:
The reason that the Holy Spirit is not addressed in prayer in the Scripture is that the Spirit functions as the person of the Godhead who empowers prayer from within us.
That’s right. It’s the Spirit that allows us to pray. We cannot pray if we do not have the Holy Spirit. Macchia describes the Holy Spirit as the shyest person of the Trinity. But then in that same page or same section, he also writes:
Yet, though it is not generally natural to pray to the Holy Spirit, given the Spirit’s role as the divine power from which we pray, there is nothing in Scripture against this practice or that would in principle discourage us from doing this.
Again, he writes:
It may not be the natural thing to do, given the tendency to simply pray by the power or agency of the Holy Spirit. But doing something that might seem a bit awkward does not make it wrong.
The Pentecostals’ theological strength has always been the Holy Spirit. But this strength has sometimes been distorted by individuals such that the Holy Spirit outstages God the Father and Jesus the Son. So when Macchia says things like I quote:
In glorifying Christ or the heavenly Father through Christ, we implicitly glorify the Holy Spirit anyway. We might as well make that explicit on occasion and mention this in prayer and in worship.
Now for me, there is nothing objectionable per se. My issue is he doesn’t say enough to regulate the Holy Spirit-focus excesses that is sometimes seen in charismatic circles where there’s too much attention on the Holy Spirit. So he doesn’t give enough guard rails to make sure that it doesn’t become too much.
Idols are Nothing
Since we are talking about the Holy Spirit and Pentecostalism or Charismatic, let’s do this exercise. What is the first thing that comes to your mind when I say charismatic? All right now, give me another thing that comes to mind. Now, give me a third. Now what came to your mind? I would guess that when you heard charismatic or Pentecostal, you would have thought of speaking in tongues, baptism in the Holy Spirit, faith healing and maybe spiritual warfare.
Macchia doesn’t bring up speaking in tongues, but he did make passing remarks on spiritual warfare and faith healing, which I’ll go into now. In a section on idols, instead of describing demons, evil spirits or territorial spirits, which sometimes I read in charismatic literature, Macchia writes:
These idols are in themselves nothing more than empty material.
Again, he writes:
The gods that legitimated these idols were nonexistent and powerless, to be sure. But the human lust for power that fueled the making of religious systems of idols and rituals was real.
Okay, that’s interesting. This remark over here shows a very different view of what I would think most people think all charismatics believe, which is the very supernatural spiritual warfare type of thing.
No Guarantee of Wealth or Health
In the chapter of the Holy Spirit, Macchia lightly touches on faith healing. He says this, he writes:
Faith effects wholeness of life-producing shalom, or well-being in God, in all. I don’t refer here to a guarantee of wealth or perfect health, but I do believe that the life of the Spirit leads to a deep sense of wholeness and strengthening of body and soul to fulfill the will of the Lord.
So there is no you know that preaching that goes like this, “God wants you to be wealthy, God wants you to be healthy. All you need is to have faith. If you have faith and then…” they carry on. The reason why you are not rich or healthy is because you have no faith. And what did Macchia write? “I don’t refer here to a guarantee of wealth.” So that goes counter against what some faith healers preach and proclaim.
Baptism of the Holy Spirit, Never Mentioned
Now, if Macchia, can put aside charismatic theologies which he does not affirm. Can he put aside charismatic theologies which he does affirm. Can he put aside a precious doctrine, like the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Macchia did write the book, “Baptized in the Holy Spirit: A Global Pentecostal Theology”.
In the Holy Spirit chapter, after explaining how the Holy Spirit is the down payment today of a future fullness (Ephesians 1:13-14). He writes this:
This is what water baptism signifies, namely a dying to self (as we are buried with Christ in the water) and a rising again to a new life centered on Christ (coming up out of the water; see Romans 6:3–5). This new birth is what happens when the Spirit comes into us at the moment of our faith in Christ; we are born anew from above (John 1:12–13). The Holy Spirit binds us to Christ and indwells us at the moment of our initial faith in Christ and brings us into right relation with Christ (which is our justification).
I like this one because sometimes talking to charismatics they make me feel like I don’t have the Holy Spirit. They say things, they may not say directly, but imply that the spirit is not in me or is indwelling in me. He says very clearly that in our justification, the Holy Spirit comes in and in dwells now.
The point here is that you would expect him as a Pentecostal, having mentioned water baptism, that he would follow up very, very naturally with Baptism in the Holy Spirit, but he doesn’t. Honestly at this point, I’m more impressed by what he does not say than what he does.
The rest of the chapter is describing the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification with fully agreeable statements like this:
The Holy Spirit turns our deepest affections and yearnings into Christ-like desires.
Who would deny that? Who would have a problem that? “The Holy Spirit turns our deepest affections and yearnings into Christ-like desires.”
So Macchia does this thing where given opportunities to write more on spiritual warfare, faith healing. Baptism in the Holy Spirit or spiritual gifts, he doesn’t. Macchia has much to say, but he doesn’t say it. As a card-carrying Pentecostal, this book does nothing to defend or promote Pentecostalism. And I think that is interesting and I salute him for his discipline in writing this book.
Do I Smell Reformed?
Now, my next commendation is that he says more than he needs to say on Reformed. For my Reformed listeners, I want you to be the judge because I think this sounds like Reformed theology, but maybe my senses may be a bit off. Listen to this, Macchia writes:
Though we must be obedient to the Holy Spirit to grow, even this obedience is empowered by God. Nothing is earned by us or due fundamentally to our doing. It is all by God’s grace, his undeserved favor.
I can hear a Reformed preacher preach this. Does that sound Reformed to you? Maybe it’s for all Christians. But when I read it, I looked at it again because it sounds like Reformed. Now let me give you some more. Listen to this:
True, we must freely cooperate with God’s grace to be saved, but the freedom to cooperate is by the very Spirit of God.
The word cooperate makes it sound like synergism. Two agents are involved in our conversion. But the condition for cooperation, the necessary precursor to cooperation is the Holy Spirit. The freedom to cooperate, or can I say the freedom to choose, comes after the Holy Spirit comes in, or can I say regenerate? That’s monergism, right? You tell me. Now, maybe you need a bit more evidence because I’m giving you a or two sentences here and there. Well, he has more, he has more, but I’ll give you a final one, a long one.
Now pay attention because when I say works, I find that works is a favorite word among Reformed. In this paragraph, Macchia explains how faith and repentance leads to conversion. Macchia writes:
It is important to see faith and repentance as inseparable and integral aspects of one larger act of turning to God. If we do not do this, it will be possible to see repentance as the separate and necessary requirement before we can have faith. Repentance then becomes a requirement that we have to adequately fulfill before we are worthy of faith, making works the requirement for faith.
Did you catch what he said? He’s talking about the sequencing. Yes, another favorite thing that Reformed people like to talk about the sequence our conversion. And he says that if we are not careful, can I say that if you’re not careful, repentance becomes works which disqualifies faith. Now let me read again:
The convicting power of the Holy Spirit allows the word of God to come alive in us as a source of grace in converting to God, for the Scriptures are “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:15–16).
Now, in that one, what I just quoted, if I want to summarize that, it says that the Holy Spirit convicts us to repentance. It smells very Reformed to me now. Perhaps I’m seeing things that are not there. Spooky. Everywhere I go I see dead people, I mean, sorry, Reformed Theology.
Anyways after I completed the book, I looked up on this Pentecostal author. And I managed to find one piece of the puzzle that solves the mystery.
You see, Professor Frank D. Macchia is an ecumenical theologian. He was the chair for six year dialogue between Trinitarian and Oneness Pentecostal. Okay, so that explains maybe why this book is out here.
He was also in an international dialogue between Pentecostals and – guess who? – Reformed. Mystery solved. That’s why this book written by a Pentecostal, to me, sometimes smells Reformed.
Now let’s go to some book recommendations. Maybe I have stirred up some interest in Pentecostal or Charismatic. Now there is this book and I recommend it. It’s J. I. Packer’s book, “Keep in step with the Spirit”. And I’ll quote for you, one of the passage, it is Packer giving a positive aspect. He writes positive and negative aspect of Pentecostals. Let me quote to you the positive aspect. Packer writes:
Charismatic books and songs show that whatever may be true of this or that individual, the mainstream of the renewal is robustly Trinitarian, and the stress on the Holy Spirit’s ministry does not displace the Lord Jesus from his rightful place as Head of the body, Lord and Savior of each human limb in it, and the constant focus of affection and adoration in the worship of his and our Father.
So Packer could have written those words – robust trinitarian – in a review of Macchia’s book.
If you want to know about other books on the Trinity from perhaps a Reformed perspective, there is this book “Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith” by Michael Reeves. Reeves has written a biography on Spurgeon and contributed to the book, “Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary”.
I have not read this book, but the guys at another Christian book review podcast has. If you search for “A Good Book Review” you can find a review of Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves.
Readers Pentecostal, Reformed and All
Now to my concluding thoughts. Despite my criticisms of the book, I think the general Christian reader will not pick up on those Pentecostal, Reformed issues. Most may not see it or smell it. The Scripture is given so much emphasis here that nobody will ever think Macchia gives any credence to extra-biblical sources.
I want to commend Macchia because he has managed to keep his Pentecostalism in check, even though he is a card-carrying Pentecostal. I really respect him for that because there were so many opportunities where someone less discipline would have just gone into it and just explain about spiritual gifts and so on and why those other charismatics are wrong and so on. He doesn’t. So I want to give him a full credit for restraint.
As for the Reformed smell I get, maybe if I reread the book, I would pick up on more such hints. And it would be like rewatching Shutter Island or Sixth Sense. But if you’re not sensitive to such things, the general reader won’t notice them.
I repeat my conclusion from part one. This is a book that all Christians can read to follow. The logic of the Trinity is like taking a train from A to B. The train just follows the tracks, there is no distraction, no detours. You begin with, “Only God can save”. You end up with, “God is a Trinity”. It’s a very satisfying train ride.
If you are Pentecostal or Charismatic, I really hope you will read this book because I have read some charismatic literature and it’s page after page of personal visions and dreams, apostolic and prophetic announcements and really questionable, I dare say distorted, biblical interpretations.
I would say to you, my Pentecostal and Charismatic brothers and sisters,consider reading Macchia or Gordon Fee or Ben Witherington or Craig Keener, just to name a few. Just read these Pentecostals, Charismatics than the earlier guys.
Because, allow me a minute of personal observation, I’ve noticed this and I describe it in this way. Imagine two conferences. Held side by side. In one conference, the speaker is able to explain everything the Bible says on the prophet Jeremiah. He is an expert on the prophet Jeremiah. God has given him this gift. Now in the other conference, the speaker is Prophet Bill who claims he can prophesy directly to you what God wants for you in your life today. Which one would you go to? Would you go to the conference where you will learn what Prophet Jeremiah has to say? Or would you go to the conference where Prophet Bill will claim that this is what God is speaking to you right now.
I suggest that in today’s times, Prophet Bill would have far more attendees and that is not a good thing, which is why to my Reformed listeners, I think you should read the book. See whether you get any alarm bells ringing. I don’t think there is. I think, and I have to be very careful here, this might be a Pentecostal book that John MacArthur could endorse – with some minor edits. Overall, it is a Biblical exposition on the Trinity.
And it’s this biblical foundation that could help some Reformed readers to appreciate that the charismatic movement is not completely overrun by scandals, super-supernaturalism, and “I don’t need a Bible because I have the Holy Spirit in me”. This book will help you see Charismatics in a different light. And hopefully help some Charismatics see themselves in a different light.
God is a Trinity
In conclusion, unlike Macchia, I have gone off the tracks in this book review. His book is just about the Trinity, nothing about Pentecostalism or Reformed. And I’ve been highlighting that for the past 10, 15 minutes and my aim, dear listener, is to show why this book is unique compared to other books on the Trinity and it is worth reading if you know what to look for.
For all readers, if you read this book, you will follow the logic of scripture. Only God can save, Jesus saves, the Holy Spirit saves. Because only God can save, therefore God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit is God in three persons. God is a Trinity. And our Trinitarian salvation is a practical necessity. It changes how we look at God and how we live for God.
This is a Reading and Readers review of “The Trinity, Practically Explained” by Frank D. Macchia. Free in Faithlife for May and $16.49 in Amazon Kindle as of today. So get it if you can.
Speaking of Practical Necessity
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