Gerald Bray once noted the sad situation that although evangelicals are doctrinally correct on the Trinity, the doctrine “has not played a very central part in their thinking.” Going way back to the period following the Reformation, Bray points out that although refuting Unitarianism was easy enough, evangelical arguments always “smacked more of defensiveness than they did of creativity.” Reliable battle-axes like Charles Hodge kept up doctrinal standards by fending off novelty, but “did little or nothing to inspire evangelical Christians with a deep sense of the importance of trinitarian thinking.” (For these and the quotes that follow, see Bray’s 1998 essay, “Evangelicals Losing Their Way: The Doctrine of the Trinity” published in The Compromised Church: The Present Evangelical Crisis, ed. John H. Armstrong (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1998), 53 65)
Why is this? Bray hazards a diagnosis with many elements, but the first thing he puts his finger on is a blind spot for systematics. Droves of first-rate evangelical scholars have taken their places in academia, but they are mostly deployed in the area of biblical studies, including exegetical studies and Biblical theology. Bray does not speculate on why the division of labor has skewed in this direction. I think the main reason is that evangelicals just love the Bible so much that lots of them end up with PhDs in it. It’s also not hard to find war stories from graduate school, where evangelical students as the embattled minority in academia drifted toward disciplines with neutral, descriptive methodologies (exegesis, biblical theology) rather than disciplines which require a constant encounter with big truth claims and their defense (systematic theology).
Biblical theology sticks close to the concerns of the biblical authors, doing descriptive explorations of what is explicitly thematized by those authors. “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible: a quick check of the concordance shows that the word itself is not there, and a quick mental reconnaissance of biblical topics reveals that nowhere in scripture is the triunity of God the direct focus of an extended argument. So evangelical scholars have, by the nature of their assignments, concentrated on themes like covenant, justification, union with Christ, etc., and few have taken up the properly systematic theological task of teaching on the Trinity.
So far Bray. It occurs to me that the evangelical emphasis on biblical theology to the relative neglect of systematic theology could have two possible effects on the status of trinitarianism in the movement.
Negatively: It could lead us to disengage from the doctrine altogether, leaving it always just over the horizon from our happy home in Bible country, as sublime but featureless as a distant mountain.
Positively: It could lead us to push for more resolutely biblical ways of articulating the doctrine, tethering it to the text of scripture with a thousand new lines of biblical reasoning that bypass the (often needlessly complex) history of interpretation to equip the entire ecumenical church with a clearer vision of the how the doctrine of the Trinity is massively, inherently, consummately a biblical doctrine.
As it turns out, there are many gloomy indicators that we are taking the first way, and only a few glimpses that the second way might yet be a live option for us. One of those hopeful signs is the fact that Derek Tidball, who edits the “Bible Themes” volumes in InterVarsity Press’s The Bible Speaks Today series, has put into that series a volume on The Message of the Trinity. The mere existence of the book means that alongside tidy uniform commentary volumes on Genesis through Revelation, and mixed in with equally uniform studies on creation, prayer, and the cross, there is a treatment of the Trinity as a Bible theme. That matters. It would be a hopeful sign even if the actual book weren’t very good.
But the book itself is in fact good, very good. Author Brian Edgar has put together more than 300 pages of biblical exposition, devoting each of the sixteen chapters to an important passage in Scripture. There is a brief introduction that defends the doctrine as “comprehensible, logical, practical, foundational, essential, structural, and biblical,” and then the remainder of the book is expository work on the selected passages.
Edgar’s treatment of each passage is leisurely, opting to include every hook that might hold a sermon, and permitting sub-points to blossom into edifying digressions. Thus he ekes a long and fruitful chapter out of I Corinthians 13:14 (“the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all”) by developing expansive word studies on grace, love, and fellowship, not to mention Lord, Christ, and Spirit. I think what he’s trying to do is show preachers that there’s sermonic gold in them trinitarian hills. If I were reviewing the book, I’d find plenty of things to quibble over and worry about. But I’m not reviewing it, I’m just recommending it.
Go get it, and find the Trinity in the Bible, where it is.