What is Trinitarian Affective Theology?
Trinitarian Affective Theology’s central axiom and hermeneutic is that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are a communion and union characterized by harmonious selfless-love. All other aspects of theology, such as God’s purpose and motive for creation, Christology, spiritual anthropology, sin, grace, justification, etc., are then understood through this foundational lens.
Like Augustine, affective theology begins to form this conclusion about the Trinity from 1 John 4, "God is love." But what is love? It’s time for a bit of grammar: the Bible uses love as a transitive verb—a verb that requires an object. Love in the Bible is not the end or the goal but defined rather by the object that captures our affections. Therefore, for love to happen there must be a lover, love, and a beloved someone or thing. Trinitarian affective theology understands “God is love” to mean that eternally the Father (the lover) has initiated love to his Son, the Son (the beloved) in response has eternally reciprocated his love for the Father, and the Holy Spirit (love) is the bonding agent that communicates the love between the Father and the Son. The Father is not concerned for himself but only his Son, and the Son is not concerned for himself but only his Father, and the Holy Spirit is the person who communicates this self-less love between the two (John 8:50-55). In Jesus’s prayer to the Father he describes this dynamic of their relationship as "the glory that I had with you before the world existed" (John 17:5). The essence, the weightiness, the heart of God is an eternal loving family—Father and Son united in Spirit. God is love.
A slightly less profound goodness for spreading
If all of this is true, Trinitarian Affective Theology understands the motives for God to create to reside in his social ethos of three-in-oneness—that is, the eternal love that God has in himself overflows into creation (Colossians 1:15-16). Or in the words of the heavenly Dr. Richard Sibbes (1577-1636):
If God had not a communicative, spreading goodness, he would never have created the world. The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were happy in themselves, and enjoyed one another before the world was. But that God delights to communicate and spread his goodness, there had never been a creation nor redemption. God uses his creatures, not for defect of power, that he can do nothing without them, but for the spreading of his goodness; and thereupon comes all the subordination of one creature to another, and all to him. Oh that we had hearts to make way for such a goodness as God would cast into us, if we were as we should be. God’s goodness is a spreading, imparting goodness. (Sibbes, Successful Seeker, v. 6, 113.)
We see this to be true at the peak of God’s creative act when he says “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” God creates humanity as the visual illustration of his likeness that he had before the creation of the world. The likeness and the image of God in humanity therefore reflect the reality that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have in themselves, i.e. male and female are united in spirit and flesh in harmonious self-giving love (Gen. 2:24; Ephes. 5:31-32). Humanity was therefore created to know God, and to know God is to love God as God loves, and to reflect this love with each other.
If we jump ahead in God’s story we discover something even more amazing, we are saved from our hatred of God to a greater reality than Adam and Eve had prior to their fall. That is, the glory that Jesus has with Father before the foundation of the world, Jesus desires to give to us, that we may be one with each other as God as the Father and Son are one (John 17:22-24). We get to participate in the divine communion and union of God through the person of the Holy Spirit—talk about the goodness of God spreading! That is Trinitarian Affective theology in a nutshell.
So much more could be said, needs to be said here about Trinitarian Affective Theology; thankfully it has been said. Hopefully just a small taste here of God’s goodness and Trinitarian Affective Theology might entice you to check out other material like the Table Talk with Ron Frost on God’s Heart and Ours.
HT: David Searight, member of the Cor Deo mentoring team and former Theology Network ASW in Edinburgh.