Thanks to reader Peter Tyson, for sending me a copy of The Threefold Art of Experiencing God: The Liberating Power of a Trinitarian Faith. It’s a short book by church growth guru Christian Schwarz, who has made his fortune advising churches on how to become healthier and grow, offering principles like these. Here is his official site. His approach goes by the name Natural Church Development.
I’ll mostly confine myself to his theological views, leaving aside most of the church growth stuff. But first, the book is misnamed. It is not a practical book about how to experience God. It is a hastily sketched theory, largely explicated in colored diagrams(!), about how proper thinking about the Trinity is supposed to diagnose and solve (most of?) the Christian church’s problems. Thus,
…the widespread lack of understanding of the God who reveals himself in a threefold way, is the main reason for the shocking paralysis of vast sectors of Christianity. … A new understanding of the Trinity… explains the conflicts which so often paralyze Christianity, and can become a creative key in directing the energy hidden beneath such conflicts toward a constructive process of change. (p. 4)
Schwarz sort of brags about his church growth research, and takes a stance as a practical problem-solver, not some pointy-headed intellectual who is going to “pursue theology for the sake of theology.” (p. 4) Fair enough. Pretty soon, though, this “new understanding” of the Trinity starts sounding modalistic. God is a person, we’re told, which
is perceived by people in different ways. …God cannot be found “per se,” but only in a relationship “to us”. …God revealed himself in three different ways. What we now call the “doctrine of the Trinity” was originally nothing more than a category of experience. The early Christians recognized God as Creator, experienced Christ as God through prayer, and sensed the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives. In other words, they experienced God in a threefold manner – and as a result they thought about the Trinity. (pp. 6-7)
Schwarz is saying, then, that God is (numerically identical to) one divine, personal being. And this one being appears in three ways. We have direct access only to to these appearances, and not to how God is in himself. (cf. p. 10) The terms “Father”, “Son”, and “Holy Spirit” refer to the three ways God relates to us (pp. 8, 9, 12), and through these appearances, God reveals “his own nature.” (p. 8 ) In short, he holds to some form of what I call FSH-modalism. (He doesn’t say enough to get more specific than that.)
In the misnamed third chapter, “The Mystery of the Trinity” Schwarz starts to collect threesomes of things, which are supposed to somehow correspond to the members of the Trinity. To give you a flavor for this, here’s a chart that lines of up some of his threesomes, which he puts in a series of tricolor charts.
|“Persons” of the Trinity||Father||Son||Holy Spirit|
|manners of being||God above us||God among us||God in us|
|forms of address (of God to us)||You shall!||You may!||You can!|
|levels of reality||nature||history||existence|
|covenants||Noah covenant||Sinai covenant||Abraham covenant|
|sources of knowledge||science||Bible||experience|
Schwarz assures us that originally, the ancient formulation that God is one substance but three persons “was supposed to express the same concept I have tried to present”. (p. 12) But although they did the best with the terms they had back then,
… when we apply our present understanding of “person” to the formula… immense confusion arises. It is simply impossible to think of “three persons” as anything else but “tri-theistic”… (p. 13)
He suggests that “our present conception of substance” makes trouble for us as well. (p. 13) But not to worry, for
…today we can express the same truth differently. We do not have to believe in the (Nicean) doctrine of the Trinity; but rather we should strive to encounter the God who has revealed himself in a threefold manner, holistically. If our resources – whether they be theological formulas or visual aids or meditation in solitude – help us to discover the fullness of God, they have fulfilled their purpose. (p.13)
I can’t help but wonder how many of the church leaders imbibing his church growth books know about his rather quick dismissal of the language of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed. I’m not exactly a staunch defender of it, but I don’t claim that it was supposed to be an expression of modalism. Nor do I endorse his vaporous claims about how the meanings of “person” and “substance” have changed.
But Schwarz goes further: not only was their language inadequate, it turns out, it was harmful as well:
It can be shown that the formulas… contributed in their historical effect toward a segmentation of God. Of course, God has not really been segmented, but what has been segmented is the possibility of experiencing God is a holistic way. Once we have put the three divine persons next to each other almost like “three gods” at least psychologically (theologically this possibility was, of course, rejected), then we are not far from giving each Christian the option to choose his or her own “favorite God” out of this Christian pantheon. This division corresponds to a segmentation among Christians, which is in turn the reason for numerous self-made blockages which dominate the Christian church of to this day. (p. 13)
To summarize the rest of the book: liberals prefer the Father (the creation revelation), the evangelicals prefer Jesus (the salvation revelation), and charismatics prefer the Holy Spirit (the personal revelation). These factions can’t get along because they glom onto one person/mode/revelation to the exclusion of the others. (pp. 14-5) They tend, respectively, towards the “heresies” of syncretism, dogmatism, and spiritualism (ch. 6), and you can try to diagnose what sort of Christian you are. (ch. 7) We need to learn the “law of polarity” (p. 20) and become “bipolar” (his term!) thinkers, lest we drift into the opposite errors of spiritualism or institutionalism (pp. 20-3), which are the root of most of the church’s problems. (p. 25) There’s some pop psychology thrown in, about the mindsets of the various types of Christians, and how to relate to each other in a helpful way. It’s all mercifully quick – the chapters are all 2-3 pages each, and the whole book is 31 pages.
I won’t be recommending this book. The author at the same time downplays the importance of theory, but clearly loves his own pet theories, which he almost hypes. (Hear the pitch straight from the horse’s mouth here.) His claims about the Nicene creed are dubious at best, and I doubt that one can make a historical case that the various segments of the church have unduly focused on one member or other of the Trinity to the exclusion of the others. For a number of reasons, theological traditionalists will break out in hives upon reading this book. But the main reason I didn’t like it, is that I think the claim that the Son is mode of God is false, and far from trivial in its theoretical and practical consequences. (I’ll outline these in a future post.) Moreover, I think Son modalism has been adequately refuted.
Perhaps what is most remarkable about Schwarz’s book is how little public stink his modalism has generated. The only evidence I could find of public complaint was this and this. My guess is that more alarm bells haven’t been rung because many Christians are modalists about the Son as well. Another reason – and this is purely a shot in the dark – might be that his modalism plays a lesser role in Schwarz’s other, bigger and more widely read books. Perhaps some of you out there can inform us about that in your comments on this posting, and supply us with some relevant quotes.