The Triadologically Challenged Liturgy

Reformed writer Robert Letham speaks of the functional Unitarianism of Reformed worship. Of course he doesn’t call it that, but that is what it is. What is the old saying? Lex ordandi…? In considering and trying to remedy the lack of invocation and plain old mention of the Trinity in Reformed worship (deformed worship?) he doesn’t seem to stop and ask why it is that way in the first place. It might have something to do with how Protestant debates over the Trinity shaped their understanding.

In one of the chapters of my book, The Holy Trinity, I describe at some length how the worship of the Western Church has been truncated by the comparative neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity. For most Christians-and I include members of Reformed churches-the Trinity is merely an abstruse mathematical puzzle, remote from experience. Despite our reservations about many aspects of the Eastern Church, Orthodoxy in contrast has maintained a pronounced Trinitarian focus to its worship through its liturgy, which has roots in the fourth century. This is no incidental matter; worship is right at the heart of what it means to be Christian and what the church should be doing. The sole object of worship is God. The God whom we worship has revealed himself to be the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, three distinct persons in indivisible union. I have argued elsewhere that this is his New Covenant name (Matt. 28:19-20). It follows that our worship in the Christian church is to be distinctively Trinitarian. Yet if we were to thumb through any hymnbook, we would be hard pressed to find many hymns that contain clearly Trinitarian expressions, while many of our favorites could equally be sung by Unitarians-think of “Immortal, invisible” or “My God, how wonderful thou art.” As for the average person in the pew, why not try a random survey next Sunday-ask a haphazard selection of half a dozen people what the Trinity means to them on a daily basis, and see what results you get? Then compare your findings with the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, who wrote of “my Trinity” and “when I say God, I mean the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

If this problem is as real as is generally recognized but yet as important as I have presented it, how do we go about seeking to redress it? There are no easy, slick solutions. This is not a matter to be resolved by a quick twelve-step program or in an adult Sunday school class. It will take much thought, careful teaching, and a concerted plan to put right what has for so long been askew-since I argue this has been a problem for centuries, with notable exceptions, at least since Aquinas. What is needed is to instill in our congregations a mindset directed, as of second nature, to think of God as triune. From there will come ripple effects on the way we think of the world around us, and of the people with whom we mix. What we need is to develop a thoroughly Christian view of God, the world, the church, ourselves, and others.

24 Responses to The Triadologically Challenged Liturgy

  1. Fr. John says:

    Hey, not all Giant, Blond men are highly tolerant. Some are actually Orthodox!

    Ora pro nobis, sancte Olaf.

  2. Anj,

    The Gnostics took him captive and are going to use him for all kinds of alchemical and esoteric practices. Don’t be surprised the next time you see him that he is now a giant, blond, and highly tolerant.


  3. Anja Pogarcic says:

    Professor Robinson,

    I have to say I was deeply disappointed when I walked into my Philosophy of God class this afternoon only to find that there wasn’t a short, dark haired, highly opinionated and offensive man standing in front of me. You are the only reason I signed up for a 2pm class. What happened?!


  4. trvalentine says:

    Yeah, well my close quotation mark followed by a close parenthesis also produced a stupid smiley. But I don’t know how to fix it.

    Is there some way to turn off smileys?


  5. photios says:

    😉 semi-colon and closing parenthesis…I guess you can try putting a space between them. I’ll fix it.

  6. Cyril says:

    I apologize for that stupid smiley face. I have no idea how I did that, it was supposed to be a closed parenthesis at the end of an elepsis.


  7. Cyril says:


    Van Til’s doctrine of simplicity directly affects his Trinitarianism.

    First, Van Til maintains (and you can find this in his Intro to Systematic Theology) that we cannot take the nature of God as undifferentiated brute fact, which is what he maintains classical orthodoxy has done.

    Thus, and secondly, for Van Til, the primacy of nature as not-undifferentiated-brute fact leads him to then posit that the nature of God is personal, but personal beyond the Triad. The nature itself has to be personal beyond the Trinity, for the nature is not the Trinity, and must be maintained in singular and simple distinction from the Triad. He has thus found, as it were, Eckhart’s God-beyond-God, and now introduced a fourth person into the Trinity (though what this person’s name is, he never says). This same stuff can be seen in St. Anselm’s De processione Spiritus Sancti in which the Father is now Deus de Deo.

    For the Orthodox, God is differentiated first within the Persons of the Trinity as both the ontic and noetic beginning of all knowledge, not from some given we can call deity. (It would be better to say that we see the Divine Triad first, and then… ) Next, the Divine life is also differentiated in the energies of the Persons, which only then lead us to realize that they share the same nature, and from which we can see that the nature is beyond “whatness”. Thus we cannot speak of undifferentiated brute facts with regard to God, for such is beyond us: we must begin with the content of revelation, the Triad.

    This mad doctrine was one of the things that drove me out of the PCA. When you have people from John Frame (now at Reformed Sem in Orlando) to Jim Jordan (I have no idea where that poseur is) spouting this heresy, you can see how pervasive it has become. This is only the beginning of problems in Van Til with simplicity: among others are his idealism on the one hand that is often vitiated by his attachments to voluntarism on the other, and his notions about the cotermination of the divine will with the divine nature (a problem he shares with other Reformed).

    As it is after 1 AM at my computer, I am going to bed.


  8. Patrissimo,

    You mean other than being wrong and non-scriptural?

  9. T says:

    Oddly enough, John Calvin was referred to by some to be the “Theologian of the (Holy) Spirit.”

  10. trvalentine says:

    I would insist that not only do the Orthodox emphasise the Trinity more than do the Reformed, they do so more than all of Western Christianity. And the difference is not ‘a difference in degree’, but a difference in kind.

    Western Christianity consistently sees tri-unity as a matter of elements (or functions) of a whole (e.g. mind, knowledge, love; memory, understanding, love; remembering, understanding, love; mind, body, spirit; three leaves of a shamrock; ice, water, steam; egg yolk, egg white, egg shell; husband, brother, cousin) whereas Eastern Christianity understanding three distinct persons (such as ‘Tom, Dick, and Harry’) who exist in unity.

    Western Christianity begins with a philosophical belief in monotheism and shoehorns the witness of Revelation into the philosophy (as an act of academic theology). Eastern Christianity begins with the Apostolic witness (including Scripture) and the Church’s experience of the Three Divine Persons and explores, as an act of worship, the inexpressible unity of the Three.

    It really couldn’t be more different.


  11. Patrissimo says:

    What is your problem with Cornelius Van Til’s view of Simplicity?

  12. TU says:

    Yeah Perry take some time and do your home work why dont you?!!


  13. Iohannes says:


    It is true that Letham isn’t making recommendations to Mennonites, Catholics, and Lutherans. But consider his audience. He is writing as a reformed pastor in Ordained Servant, a publication intended primarily for other reformed pastors in the OPC. This is not Christianity Today, it’s not even the OPC’s denominational magazine New Horizons. To make suggestions to other churches would be beside the point. As for the unfavorable comparison of Reformed to other Western worship, it is hard to respond to so general an assertion.

  14. Berny says:

    My parenthetical remark was in reference to Barth, not Bavinck. And if you think that’s just anecdotal, I’d encourage you pick up any Reformed confessional standard and go down the list to see how well Barth lines up.

    Like I said, I’ll wait for your post. Hopefully it makes the connections thus far lacking in your assessment.

  15. Barth maybe, but not Bavink. And”Most” I suspect is anecdotal on your part. And itdoes imply it when that is the problem that they see. I didn’t admit to any logically fallacious leap.

    And it isn’t wide of the mark if you take the rule of lex orandi into account. And do you really want to get me started on Presuppositionalism and its defective view of God? Just start reading Van Til on simplicity.

    I didn’t talk about what people had “in mind” I spoke of behavior. UNitarianism didn’t just pop out of the Calvinist schools for no reason. It isn’t a historical accident.

    Even if the Lewis note doesn’t work, I am free to modify it in terms of worship. People profess, think and so forth one thing, but in their worship there is another.

    Shall we discuss the reasons why Letham sees this as a problem? Shall we discuss Christ as autotheos and the disposal of Nicene theology?

  16. Berny says:


    That Bavinck and Barth (the kind of “Reformed” that most Reformed steer clear of, btw) saw a problem isn’t the same as saying that the lack of Trinitarian emphasis entails functional Unitarianism. That’s a leap that you’ve made and that you’ve admitted above. Now, I could concede it as a hyperbolic description done for effect. As you noted, the Reformed bloggers regularly employ rhetorical effect. But as an actual descriptor it’s wide of the mark.

    I have already explained why. Do you find my explanation unsatisfactory?

    Have you already forgotten about presuppositionalism? Whatever I approach as a Reformed Christian I also approach as a Trinitarian. How can you even begin to critique any facet of Reformed theology without taking this strain into account?

    When a Unitarian approaches worship he has something in mind. When I or any other Reformed Christian approach worship we have something else in mind. So when a Unitarian sings about God he is thinking one thing while when I sing about God I’m thinking of another thing. Therefore, to see a connection here is an equivocation.

    You can say that Orthodox emphasize Trinitarianism more than Reformed do. But on this matter it’s a difference in degree not kind.

    And your Lewis citation works against you. The three elements in play are profession, belief, and life. Lewis referred to those who professed but didn’t believe or live like they believed. You, on the other hand, are referring to a group of people who profess, believe, and live like God is Trinitarian — though maybe not as explicitly as they should.

    I’ll wait to see your post before commenting further.


  17. Berny,

    I called it what it was. Second, even if it were incindiary, it is no more so than your reformed compatriots regularly use in the blogsphere. And I think I am on good ground given the history of the Trinitarian debates in the 17th-18th centuries, which is why I linked to the literature. This is a problem seen by Reformed scholars themselves in the theology-que Bavink and Barth. My judgment is therefore hardly hasty since this has been a line of criticism for at least a century.

    Further, Lewis for example talks of those who are “functionally” atheists even though they profess belief in God. I am just making the same move. I don’t assert that the Reformed profess Unitarianism. Far from it, but functionally, their worship tends to work that way. And as I shall point out in an upcoming post, it isn’t a mere historical accident.

  18. Carl says:

    On the one hand, name calling probably isn’t especially effective. On the other hand, having grown up in a Reformed church, I can say that I had no real understanding of the Trinity as a kid.

  19. Iohannes,

    I focused on it because presumably Letham isn’t making recommendations to Mennonites, Catholics, and Lutherans. Secondly, to be fair the Lutheran, Anglican, and Roman liturgies have historically been more Trinitarian than the Reformed.

  20. Iohannes says:

    Whence the focus on “Reformed worship”? Letham speaks about a weakness of Western Church in general, and then adds that, notwithstanding the tendency to self-congratulation about being Christ’s Church purely reformed, the Reformed are not immune. It remains that the ‘functional Unitarianism’ he sees in Reformed Churches he claims to see in other churches as well. Compare the next paragraph: “It will take much thought, careful teaching, and a concerted plan to put right what has for so long been askew—since I argue this has been a problem for centuries, with notable exceptions, at least since Aquinas.”

  21. Berny says:

    Incendiary labels like “functional Unitarianism” do nothing except instantaneously discredit you.

    Unitarianism is a theological position. Even if you can successfully show that Reformed worship focuses too much on one person — heck, even if you can show that it exclusively focuses on one person — that doesn’t entail Unitarianism. This is because when a Trinitarian thinks of one person it is altogether different than when a Unitarian thinks of one person. For the former there is a Trinitarian doctrinal construct that feeds into his contemplation on each person, i.e. the economic Trinity, for starters. I know when I think of each person of the Trinity it always leads me to think of the others since their works (not to mention they themselves) are so interrelated.

    Yes, it is wrong to focus on one person to the neglect of the others. And yes, this must be corrected. But your judgment is hasty and erroneous.


  22. Justin,

    I can concede that point, but I am only trying to bring to light and to Letham’s mind that he too easily skips over this significant problem. Calvinists routinely poke at the worship of others as being defective, deformed, and unbiblical. Letham just sweeps it aside, much as he does in his books on the Trinity and Orthodoxy. It’s a patch. .I want to say, hey wait a minute here. If we were just being biblical, why is Reformed worship so defective in this way in the first place? What does this tell us about the theological psychology of Calvinism? In an up coming post, I think you’ll see why I referred to this as a kind of functional Unitarianism

  23. Chris Jones says:


    The tone may sound “badgering” but Perry is right that Reformed worship is deformed; and not only that, but its deformity is directly relevant to the theological problem that the Reformed author is talking about. If a Church’s worship does not expressly and concretely adore, proclaim, and confess the Trinity, then that worship falls short of the true worship of the Apostolic Church in its structure, function, and purpose. For that reason, it is as Perry says, deformed. And a Church which offers such worship cannot be anything but heterodox.

    The solution to the problem is not, as the writer says, to “instill in our congregations a mindset directed, as of second nature, to think of God as triune.” That is to see the problem as primarily intellectual, to be solved by teaching. No, the solution is to begin worshiping according to the lex orandi of the Apostolic Church, and to learn the orthodox faith through the liturgy. Then the “mindset … to think of God as triune” will surely follow.

  24. Justin says:

    As a longtime reader, I appreciate the argumentative style here and don’t typically react much. But I guess I don’t understand the badgering here (“Deformed worship”) when a Reformed author is openly admitting that their church falls far short of the Orthodox in their appreciation and understanding of the Trinity. Do you also expect him to question the history of the Protestant movement as well? If he were to read this he would probably be less likely to concede further points to the Orthodox, if only for the attacks upon what was otherwise a pro-Orthodox article…

%d bloggers like this: