A trinitarian theology of salvation in miniature
February 4, 2015
"The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all." 2 Corinthians 13.14
B. B. Warfield long ago observed that the apostolic writings do not develop but rather presuppose the doctrine of the Trinity. The New Testament is not evidence of a transitional stage in the evolution of a trinitarian faith that is only conceptualized and codified in later centuries. The New Testament exhibits the presence within the apostolic church of a deeply ingrained trinitarian faith that, almost effortlessly, articulates itself in trinitarian summaries of the gospel events (e.g., Gal 4.4-7), trinitarian formulations of sacramental practice (e.g., Matt 28.19), trinitarian outbursts of praise (e.g., Eph 1.3-14), and trinitarian benedictions, such as we have in 2 Corinthians 13.14.
This little verse is a trinitarian theology of salvation in miniature. As the God in whose name it blesses is one and three, so too is the salvation it commends.
Second Corinthians 13.14 coordinates each phase of God's saving work--from its conception to its accomplishment to its effect--to a different person of the Trinity. Thus "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ" coordinates the accomplishment God's saving work to the Son: our Lord and elder brother who graciously humbled himself to bear our curse and who was gloriously exalted to bestow his Father's blessing (2 Cor 8.9). "The love of God" coordinates the conception of God's saving work to the Father: whose love initiated the sacrifice of his beloved Son (John 3.16) and whose love intended our adoption as that sacrifice's gracious consequence (Eph 1.4-5). "The fellowship of the Holy Spirit" coordinates the effect of God's saving work to the Spirit: who brings us into adoptive fellowship with the Father (Gal 4.5-6), through mystical fellowship with the Son (Eph 1.3), in and by the corporate fellowship of the local church (1 Cor 12).
The text does not coordinate the three persons of the Trinity to the three phases of salvation because all three persons are not united in all three phases of God's saving work (the external works of God, after all, are undivided) but in order to highlight the distinctive glory of each particular person in each particular phase of salvation. Consequently, as the Father's distinctive personal character lies in begetting the Son and breathing the Spirit, so too does his distinctive personal character shine with particular brilliance in conceiving the plan of salvation in love. As the Son's distinctive personal character lies in being begotten of the Father and breathing the Spirit, so too does his distinctive personal character shine with particular brilliance in accomplishing the gracious plan that brings many sons to glory. As the Spirit's distinctive personal character lies in being breathed forth by the Father and the Son in their mutual fellowship and love, so too does his distinctive personal character shine with particular brilliance in welcoming us into the fruit or effect of God's gracious plan of salvation: the fellowship of the Spirit.
Two quick observations follow from the preceding discussion.
First, contrary to Warfield's reading, this verse does not contradict the principle that an ordered procession of persons exists within the Trinity; it rather confirms it. Though syntactically the Son precedes the Father and the Spirit in this verse, his position in the work of salvation corresponds to his personal order within the Trinity, as we saw above. The significance of 2 Corinthians 13.14 for trinitarian theology, we might say, lies not in syntax but in semantics. 2 Corinthians 13.14 presents to us a salvation initiated by the first person, accomplished by the second person, and perfected by the third person in correspondence with their eternal relations.
Second, as with the persons themselves, the phases of God's work of salvation may be distinguished. However, as with the persons, God's work of salvation cannot be divided. God's salvation, like God himself is one. No conception of salvation without salvation's accomplishment. No accomplishment of salvation without salvation's effect.
This observation, it seems to me, holds powerful implications for how we think about the place of the local church within God's saving purpose. If it is indeed true that the fellowship of the Spirit (with the Father, through the Son, in the local church) is inseparable from the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God the Father, then we cannot expect to enjoy the grace of the Lord Jesus or the love of the Father apart from the church, the community within which the fellowship of the Spirit flourishes. Accordingly, to the extent that we would lean into the love of the Father and into the grace of the Lord Jesus, we must lean into the fellowship of the Spirit in the place where he pours forth the realities of that fellowship, in the local church.
And this also seems to be why Paul concludes a series of exhortations toward restoration, mutual comfort, agreement, and peace (see 2 Cor 13.11) with a trinitarian benediction: because the triune God of love, grace, and fellowship is the one whose blessing and presence is absolutely essential in forming a community characterized by restoration, mutual comfort, agreement, and peace.