Essay / Theology

Bunyan’s Weighty Thoughts

John Bunyan (1628-1688) believed in the Trinity, and referred to the doctrine throughout his writings. But he devoted only one extended meditation to it, a piece entitled “Of the TRINITY and a CHRISTIAN,” whose title suggests an interest in something practical and perhaps edifying. The descriptive sub-title specifies that it is about “How a young or shaken Christian should demean himself under the weighty thoughts of the Doctrin of the Trinity.” The problem Bunyan wants to solve for the “young or shaken Christian” is that the Trinity is a difficult doctrine, seeming to contradict reason by proposing that one is three or vice versa. This intellectual conflict could lead the believer to question what is clearly revealed in scripture, which is tantamount to questioning God himself. But Bunyan warns: “It is great lewdness, and also insufferable arrogancy to come to the Word of God, as conceiting already that whatever thou readest must either by thee be understood, or of it self fall to the ground as a sensless error.” The proper response to this hard doctrine is to submit your human judgment to God’s greater wisdom. “But God is wiser than Man, wherefore fear thou him and tremble at his Word, saying still, with godly suspicion of thine own infirmity, what I see not teach thou me, and thou art God only wise; but as for me, I was as a beast before thee.”

Surely Bunyan strikes the appropriate human posture in the face of God’s wisdom, but we might ask why it is the doctrine of the Trinity in particular which spurs his reflection on humility of mind. Why is it precisely here that we are invited to yield our understanding before the incomprehensibility of God and his secret counsels? The answer must be that for Bunyan the doctrine has turned from a mystery of salvation to a problem of intellectual coherence. It has become an inherited doctrinal problem, to be solved by an attitude of piety, humility, and submission.

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