“The doctrine of the Trinity, taken literally, has no practical relevance at all.”
How great the number of modern Christians who would agree with Kant’s assessment! The Holy Trinity—if mentioned at all—seemingly has no benefit to the modern understanding other than some sort of clever formulation for an orthodoxy of the obscurant. Kelly Kapic, professor of theological studies at Covenant College, is best known for his work with the writings of John Owen. The 1657 publication of Owen’s work, Communion with God, provided a framework whereby Christians would better understand the nature and work of the Trinitarian God and their capacity through grace to speak with and hear from their Creator. Kapic has dedicated much of his academic work to helping the church understand Owen’s work and thereby learn more about the Holy Trinity.
The 2018 re-release of his 2010 book, The God Who Gives: How the Trinity Shapes the Christian Story is best read alongside his 2017 release of Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering. These books form a theological compendium revealing the majesty and power of a God at work in the ruins of what Kapic calls “a magnificent failure.” The failure, however, is not the result of God’s mistake, but of the sin of the human race. One of Kapic’s greatest achievements in these books (and there are many!) is to carefully, but forcefully, state the obvious. For a culture allergic to the idea of sin, he propounds the idea of total depravity as a rupture in relationship with God and others not as a peccadillo, but a complete loss. He laments (a concept important to understand Kapic’s overall theological trajectory) that “we do not think as we ought, feel as we should, will as we might.” Like Owen, Kapic understands that “sin has distorted our judgments, twisted our affections, confused our volitions, and even damaged our physical bodies.”
To even think of God correctly requires assistance from God himself, and Kapic models the correct path forward to explore the simplicity of God. Contrary to so many strange ideas about God, Kapic returns to the book of Genesis for the formation of Christian doctrine that is not contingent on human analogies for its foundation. To be sure, to even think thoughts of God requires some reordering of the modern mind because human beings are taught to think of God in the image of John Locke (1632–1704). Kapic unearths the invisible forces bordering modern thought when he quotes John Locke’s famous phrase, “every man has a property in his own person; this nobody has any right to but himself.” While this might be good political theory for the establishment of a statecraft free from the tyranny and exploitation of an unjust state power, theologically, it is dangerous.
Origin of the Species
Human beings are creatures, not creators. As such, their existence is owed to the purpose of God as understood in the actions of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Kapic underscores the actions of the Holy Trinity as an established order over the created earth and places human beings as the regents of the reign of God. Rightly does he feature Genesis 1–3 as the centerpiece and “story of Israel in a nutshell.” Here in the first chapters of the Bible are the “foundational narratives of God’s spectacular gift of creation and the rebellion of his royal representatives.” Between Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 3:15, the beginning of the world is described as well as the heightened anticipation of “the end of all things.”
Even as humanity is plunged into sin and exiled from the Garden of Eden into the wilderness of a world of sin, Kapic is quick to highlight that “God has never given up his original design for creation.” The “progress of God’s kingdom” is seen through the lives of those humans born after Adam in the establishment of covenants with key figures that advance the kingdom of God on earth.
These covenants serve as anchors for a divine plotline culminating in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Throughout the biblical narrative, however, he is quick to point out “this progress was not made without pain and suffering.” So very often, “the advancement of God’s purposes takes place in the context of extreme adversity” as seen most clearly in the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt. It was in this harsh environment of injustice and pain that God worked an exodus through Moses that remains the picture of the redemption provided for God’s children through Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension.
Emotions, Suffering, and the Holy Spirit
Kapic’s theology of suffering is best seen as a pastoral companion to the doctrinal foundations of realism seen throughout the Bible. He isn’t afraid to speak of the terror of sickness, sorrow, and loneliness because he isn’t shy about speaking of the Holy Spirit. Seizing on the puzzling aspect of the departure of Jesus from the world as a something good for the apostles and the world (see John 16:7), Kapic shows how God gives himself to the world even as Jesus is absent from it through the person of the Holy Spirit.
When God gives, he gives nothing short of himself. As the one who alone is called the “gift of God” (John 4:10; Acts 2:38, 8:20; 10:45, 11:17; Ephesians 4:7; Hebrews 6:4), the Spirit is given by all three persons of the Trinity, not only proceeding to us from the Father and the Son (John 14:26, 15:26, 16:7), but also freely giving himself and distributing his gifts as he wills (Hebrews 2:4). When the Father gave the Son, this was not his final gift. In his triune generosity, God continues to give in ways that his disciples could not have asked or imagined. Encountering the resurrected Jesus confirmed the reality of God’s presence with the disciples through the Son. Receiving the “gift of God” meant the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the triune God—now abides within all who believe. By the Spirit, God gives himself in such a way that he is not only with us, but in us.
Kapic is at his best when he shows how misunderstood and misapplied “familiar” texts of Holy Scripture are misconstrued in the life of the church. From John 3:16 to Matthew 6:33 to the central message of the gospel found in the initial preaching of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:2), the message of Pentecost after the gift of the Spirit is repentance and faith. What true repentance means, however, is critically linked to the person and work of Jesus who “had come in obscure humility, had lived in faithful constancy, and was crucified in shameful poverty.” It was this Jesus who was raised in power to give the gift of repentance and faith as “a kind of disorientation and reorientation that simultaneously shakes up and revitalizes every area” of life by the power of the Spirit. The righteousness of Jesus Christ is now consistently carried forward in and by the life of a follower of Jesus who lives for the good of one’s neighbor and works for the advantage of others by disadvantaging themselves in obedience to Christ.
What the Bible calls “sanctification” (or becoming more holy or more like Christ) doesn’t happen easily, and it doesn’t happen apart from great struggle and sorrow. The world in all its harshness beats down on a Christian in ways that often increases the pain of life to such a point that “hard thoughts” of God (to employ the words of John Owen) become the norm for those who suffer. Such thoughts “reveal broader problems” in the “thinking and attitude” of Christians that must be addressed. Rather than run from them or avoid the subject all together, Kapic’s pastoral counsel is to “dig in and rebuild” areas of doctrine that seem unbelievable when facing sickness and sorrow.
More Plato Than Jesus
Many prevailing beliefs about the body and the physical world are overturned as he exposes the fault lines in modern theology that are not correct. With a deft hand, he shows “how the Enlightenment tended to elevate the mind over physicality” and viewed “the body with deep suspicion.” In essence: “the body existed solely for the mind.” More Christians are influenced by Plato than Jesus, and Kapic is quick to point out that when encountering pain, the “strangeness of God” is best understood in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
The way that God takes responsibility for our condition is by becoming one of us. The Son’s incarnation, suffering unto death, and bodily resurrection are God’s answer. In these three movements, God takes possession of our sin, misery and battle with suffering. This reality refutes any conception of a distant and unconcerned deity, for God enters our world to hand the cosmic crisis.
Kapic is a theologian of pastoral concern who desires that love be the impetus for action in the context of the church of Christ. Doctrinal foundations are essential to withstand the shock of pain, but Christians are to use doctrinal formulations to “develop both pastoral sensitivity and theological instincts.” For Kapic, “doing theology is more often like farming than it is like stacking doctrinal bricks.” Lament by the people of God—for themselves and others—is the hallmark of what it means to be a person of true faith as they experience the pain in waiting for the coming inheritance promised to them. To be able to use the Bible as that which gives voice “with which to pray to God” as well as to “hear God’s voice to his people” through Scripture’s words is made possible by the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Theology, done rightly, results in love for God and one another. This distinguishing mark of the Christian is the path of peace found when doctrine and devotion join forces to build faith in the written promises of God. For Kapic, the promises of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit are linked to the people of God because death itself cannot separate them from him who died and rose again for his people. And this is the embodied hope of the God who gives.
Dr. Kapic is the featured speaker of the Philadelphia Theology Night on Friday, January 25. Learn more and register to attend here.