“The most stunning news in the universe is that God has included us into His life of love, fellowship, joy, acceptance, and light. We have been included in the Trinitarian relationship.”
(Stephen Morrison, We Belong, Kindle location 728)
My friend Stephen Morrison has recently come out with a new book, We Belong: Trinitarian Good News. Stephen is a fellow Moltmanniac (though I sense in my reading of this book that he’s even a little more partial to Karl Barth and T.F. Torrance – but let’s not hold that against him!). Anyway, he was kind enough to send me a digital review copy and I am pleased to recommend this book. I found the book to be incredibly relatable; Morrison shares out of his own journey of thoughtful theological exploration and discovery. The is an insightful book written by someone has been asking great questions and reading several great theologians.
As Morrison articulates in We Belong, the Gospel is about radical inclusion: Through Jesus Christ, we (all humanity) are included in the Trinitarian life of God. The book is broken up into four sections: 1) God and Man (chapters 1-4); 2) The Incarnation of Jesus Christ (chapters 5-7); 3) The Atonement (chapters 8-10); and 4) The Perichoresis (or dance) of God (chapters 9-14).
To understand God’s relationship to man we need to start not with the problem of sin but with the Election of Jesus Christ. Here Morrison basically follows Barth’s reformulation of election in CD II/2 (read a sample here, or listen to Moltmann’s recent lecture on the topic here). The decision to elect Jesus Christ and include humanity in him precedes creation and sin.
When we say that “God is love” (1 John 1:8) we mean that God is triune. In Morrison’s view, much of what is called Christian theology is not sufficiently trinitarian: “It is not a matter of believing in a theoretical Trinity, but of working out our theology in a Trinitarian way.” (Kindle location 403) When we talk about sin and salvation we often do so without thinking through them in a trinitarian way (i.e. in such a way that the message would be basically unchanged with a Unitarian picture of God). Here I think he is quite right!
What then of sin? Morrison calls it a “non-problem problem.” Sin is darkness, rebellion, paradoxical separation, non-existence, opposition to love. It is destructive to our humanity and keeps us from hearing the invitation to God’s love – but ultimately it is only an apparent problem from our human perspective, not from the perspective of some angry reaction on the part of God.
Jesus Christ is the Gospel. God comes to us in and as the person of Jesus, who is fully God and fully man. The good news is not what we need to do in order to be made right with God (which often takes the form of the command, “repent or perish”); it is what God in Jesus has done for us (he has already repented and perished in our place). Morrison uses a 3-fold model of Atonement (which, judging from his footnote, seems to rely heavily on Thomas F. Torrance’s book, Atonement, The Person and Work of Christ). To be honest, I had a hard time keeping straight the Hebrew terms he used here (Kipper, Goel and Padah – but I’d have to look up my notes to recall what term corresponded to each aspect of the atonement), but I really appreciated the way he drew the best out of 1) Christus Victor; 2) Substitution (which differs, in my view, from what is often meant by those who so dogmatically defend Penal Substitution); and 3) the incarnational aspect which brings it all together (to me this seemed very similar to the “christology of solidarity we find in Moltmann).
It is worth noting that I sensed at least an implied tension between Morrison and Moltmann in the chapter titled “Trinitarian Impossibility.” Morrison claims that Jesus did not actually experience abandonment on the cross, because there must always be unity within the Trinity. On this point, Moltmann (not without controversy!) is emphatic in The Crucified God: on the cross Jesus was indeed Godforsaken, and we might even call this “enmity between God and God.” Morrison makes this move in order to reject a vengeful picture of God that often goes along with the view that Jesus was abandoned by God on the cross (i.e. that “God must look away from Jesus on the cross because God can’t stand to look at the sin that Jesus is paying the price for”). So this chapter is not in direct conversation with Moltmann – though I would be curious to see whether it would take a different turn if it were!
In the final part of the book, Morrison tackles how this understanding the Trinity might impact our lives, shaping the way that we live in light of the resurrection (“New Now”), and what we hope for in the future (“New to Come”). I think here is where his resonance with Moltmann shines the most (also where quotations are most abundant!). Following Jesus then, means being embraced by this all encompassing trinitarian love of God and inviting others to receive this embrace.
While there’s a lot going on in this book, its message is fundamentally simple: We are included in the trinitarian life of God, and this is good news. This comes out very well also in Appendix A (On Preaching the Gospel), where Morrison unpacks what preaching this message might look like. I especially liked his statement here that “The Gospel is not a threat; it is an announcement!” There’s also an additional Appendix on Universalism with some good thoughts (basically: even if all this seems to imply possible universalism, Morrison is not a universalist in the same sense that Karl Barth was not a universalist).
As Morrison shares in his introduction, his intention wasn’t to write a perfect book, but an honest one. This is an apt description of this work. It felt like it was the work of a still-evolving theologian (who may offer slightly different answers to some of these questions a few years down the road). That doesn’t make this book less valuable! Moltmann himself describes his own theological development as an “adventure of ideas,” and I suspect that this is a sentiment that the author of this book can relate to.
This is a very accessible book, and readers of any level of theological sophistication (if they are open to it) may find something to appreciate about it. The basic message here is something that all followers of Jesus should internalize. If you’ve ever sat in church listening to a typical presentation of the gospel and thought, “the good news has to be better than that!”, I think you too will relate to Stephen and benefit from his articulation of the good news.