Essay / Theology

Griffith-Thomas: Principles of Trinitarian Theology

William Henry Griffith Thomas (1861-1924) wrote an excellent one-volume systematic theology called The Principles of Theology. Published in 1930, it takes the form of an evangelical commentary on the 39 Articles of the Church of England. According to J.I. Packer, the book “may be said to have rounded off a four-hundred year era of Protestant Anglicanism.” Packer also praises the book’s “deep simplicities and simple profundities which will strike his readers as new revelations.”

Griffith-Thomas’ mastery of Christian doctrine is evident in his brief (10 or 12 pages) treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity. Here is how he sets forth the doctrine.

1. The Doctrine Stated. A brief, dictionary-like statement of the doctrine, just to get the claim straight. “The specific Christian thought of God is that of a Spirit in the unity of whose Being is revealed a distinction of Persons whom we call Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” He goes on to describe the relation of the triune God to all things: “the God from whom, through Whom, and by Whom all things come –the Father as the primal Source, the Son as the Redemptive Mediator, and the Holy Spirit as the personal Applier of life and grace.” He concludes with a long quotation from the Athanasian Creed.

2. The Doctrine Approached. In this paragraph, Griffith-Thomas considers a preliminary issue: Why is the doctrine not clearly and directly stated in Scripture? He answers that a direct propositional statement of that kind would have been appropriate if the transmission of a set of concepts were God’s goal in the New Testament. Instead, God apparently prioritized the actual event of a personal savior coming to be present, and left the inevitable conceptual and intellectual implications to the course of history.

3. The Doctrine Derived. The one source from which the doctrine can be derived is the deity of Christ. It is “an expansion of the doctrine of the Incarnation, and emerges out of the personal claim of our Lord.” Here Griffith-Thomas takes up the great, central lines of the New Testament evidence; this is the core of his presentation. Christ and the Spirit, actually present in the history of salvation, bring us into experiential contact with the true God.

4. The Doctrine Confirmed. After the actual salvation-historical derivation of the doctrine is established, Griffith-Thomas turns to the confirming evidence: the passages of scripture which bear witness to (a) divine unity and (b) distinctions in the Godhead. After rehearsing these, he concludes, “The doctrine of the Trinity is the correlation, embodiment, and synthesis of the teaching of these passages.” In other words, the task of combining the “one” passages and the “three” passages is a necessary one, but we should not approach it as the primary way of deriving the doctrine. This insight preserves Griffith-Thomas’ approach from a too-narrow biblicism, which would risk losing the trinitarian forest for the here-a-verse, there-a-verse trees. Always, this narrower, text-driven, exegetical task presupposes the salvation-historical derivation of the doctrine. “The elements of the plan of redemption thus find their root, foundation, and spring in the nature of the Godhead; and the obvious reason why these distinctions were not revealed earlier than New Testament times is that not until then was redemption accomplished.” (p. 24)

5. The Doctrine Supported. “When all this is granted and settled,” …take a deep breath, full stop… “we may find a second line of teaching to support the foregoing in the revelation of God as Love.” Here Griffith-Thomas argues that Love must be interpersonal, must imply relationships, and therefore demands a being who is not unipersonal. This is vigorously and deftly argued, but in a short paragraph in a strategically subordinate position.

6. The Doctrine Anticipated. “At this stage, and only here, we may seek another support for the doctrine,” admonishes Griffith-Thomas, and then takes up the Old Testament passages in which the Christian reader can discern shadows, forecasts, and hints of the Trinity. Here (“and only here”) he rehearses five lines of Old Testament “adumbrations:” the plural Elohim; the peculiarly divine “Angel of the Lord;” the peculiarly personal “Spirit of the Lord,” the personification of Divine Wisdom; and the triply-repeated Divine Name in numerous passages. If I could have one wish for books about the Trinity, it would be that all authors would handle the Old Testament investigations in this subsequent, subordinate place, as Griffith-Thomas does. It is disastrous, both apologetically and dogmatically, to give the impression that God was actively trying to reveal his triunity in the Old Testament in a way that anybody could grasp without the events of the New Testament. “Hints are all that were to be expected until the fulness of time should come.”

7. The Doctrine Justified. Finally, Griffith-Thomas entertains some corroborating evidence. These include facts of Scripture, facts of Christian experience, facts of history, and facts of reason, including certain analogies useful for illustrating the co-existence of unity and plurality. These get a few sentences each.

In a brief final section on the history of the doctrine, Griffith-Thomas primarily handles the technical terminology that has developed around it: the word “Trinity” itself, the ideas of essence and person, etc.

Griffith-Thomas only has a dozen pages to cover this doctrine, and his main accomplishment is to establish order and priority in the way the doctrine is to be thought of. Like all good theologians, he knows what to be afraid of: The doctrine of the Trinity, so vital, so proximate, so transparent, so central, is in constant danger of being misunderstood when its secondary elements are promoted to first place. The doctrine is so easily obscured, and has historically so often been obscured, behind a screen of speculative demonstrations, technical terminology, unhelpful analogies, and spuriously independent Old Testament proofs, that the main thing for a master practitioner like Griffith-Thomas is simply to keep the main thing the main thing.

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