Essay / Theology

Scripture as the Voice of the Triune God

dove in bible
Evangelical Christians are the most thoroughly trinitarian Christians in the history of the church. The characteristic beliefs, commitments, practices, and presuppositions of evangelicalism were all generated by an applied trinitarian theology which took more seriously than ever before the involvement of Father, Son, and Spirit in the Christian life. Nothing we as evangelicals do makes sense if it is divorced from a tightly-integrated Christology and pneumatology, worked out against the horizon of the Father’s love. Personal evangelism, conversational prayer, devotional Bible study, authoritative preaching, world missions, and assurance of salvation all presuppose that life in the gospel is life in communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Forget the Trinity and you forget why we do what we do, you forget who we are as gospel Christians, you forget how we got to be like we are.

Forgetfulness on that scale is, however, both possible and widespread. Forgetting where our evangelical practices originated, our churches are in constant danger of forgetting why we do any of the things we do. Our beliefs and practices all presuppose the Trinity, but that presupposition has for too long been left unexpressed, tacit rather than explicit, and taken for granted rather than celebrated and taught. In every area of evangelical existence, our tacit trinitarianism must be coaxed out, articulated, and confessed. We may be the most consistently trinitarian Christians in the world, but it does us little good if we continue to be radically trinitarian without knowing it. We run the risk of lapsing into sub-trinitarian practices and beliefs, of behaving as if we serve a merely unipersonal deity rather than the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of the Bible.

I could demonstrate evangelicalism’s implicit trinitarian presuppositions by looking at any of evangelicalism’s strengths, but the doctrine and practice I want to draw attention to is the way evangelicals read the Bible. That kind of Bible reading is tacitly trinitarian, and I want to warn against a Trinity-forgetfulness that would let our use of the Bible lapse into a merely Unitarian way of approaching Scripture.

Evangelicals know to expect the voice of God to reach them in the words of Scripture, and have long approached the Bible as a real means of grace, as a channel through which God himself will meet us here and now. The expectation of a personal encounter with God through devotional reading of the Bible is sometimes considered to be at odds with the high view of Scripture –its authority, verbal inspiration, and inerrancy– which is also characteristic of evangelical doctrines of Scripture. The pious personal encounter can be viewed as being in tension with the propositionally-centered and authority-focused accounts of Scripture. I am thinking here of the “hot vs. cold” contrast according to which evangelicalism is depicted as divided between warm, pietistic biblicism on one side, and icy, rationalistic, propositionalist orthodoxy on the other.

In my view, the two approaches to Scripture belong together, and what binds them together is a tacit trinitarianism that has exerted formative influence on evangelical doctrines of Scripture. Evangelicals developed their high view of Scripture out of the conviction that in these writings the voice of God is heard, and that contemporary readers can hear that voice precisely because the mode of original inspiration was likewise a divine speech act with a trinitarian cadence.

In chronological order, then, trinitarian inspiration of the text underwrites trinitarian encounter through the text, which is finally recognized in a confession of verbal inspiration. Rendering explicit the tacit trinitarianism of evangelical approaches to the Bible provides an alternative account of why evangelical bibliology came to be committed to verbal inspiration: not for sub-trinitarian reasons of bare formless authority, but for reasons of corresponding to the form of Scripture as the words of the Father articulated in the Son and carried by the Holy Spirit. Evangelical doctrines of Scripture have attempted to confess that where the voice of God is heard, particular words are not a matter of indifference.

As the nineteenth-century Presbyterian theologian Benjamin Morgan Palmer argued, in this book “the words of the Father are delivered by the Son, through the power of the Spirit; if this be not enough to clothe the written Word with all the dogmatic authority we ascribe to it, it is hard to see how the claim to any prerogative can ever be established.” Evangelicals do in fact ascribe complete dogmatic authority to the written word, and it is because this book is the one in which “the words of the Father are delivered by the Son, through the power of the Spirit.” They read the Bible as if it is the word of God, because it is. It is not merely a written authority in the bare, authoritarian way that a sub-trinitarian doctrine of revelation and scripture could underwrite (the kind of thing we could have in common with Islam). Scripture is a field of divine action, and the agents are the Father, Son, and Spirit.

More on this subject tomorrow.

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