Essay / On This Day

R.W. Dale on the Trinity

Today (December 1) is the birthday of R. W. Dale (1829 – 1895), a British Congregationalist pastor and writer. Dale is best remembered for his conservatizing essay on the atonement, and for his commitment to social work in applying what he called “the civic gospel” to Birmingham, England, which needed it.

Dale also wrote a brief systematic theology, entitled Christian Doctrine: A Series of Discourses (1894), and it includes a very helpful account of the doctrine of the Trinity. Dale approached the doctrine almost apologetically, for though he was committed to it, he hoped to win over some of the nonconformist clergy who had become all too comfortable with unitarian views. So he presented the doctrine of the Trinity with great candor, and commended it warmly, even taking the high-risk strategy of building bridges to non-trinitarians, emphasizing the biblical and experiential truths that trinitarians and unitarians have in common.

“These great truths do not rest merely on authority, but have been confirmed in the experience of Christian men in all countries and all ages,” he argued. The doctrine of the Trinity is about facts:

In its substance it is not a merely speculative doctrine; it is a brief summary of those great facts which through eighteen hundred years have revealed their power and glory in the moral and spiritual life of the Christian Church. It is a declaration that in the Lord Jesus Christ, heaven and earth have been brought together; that, in Him a divine Person became man; that having found Christ, we have found God; that ‘He is the same yesterday, and to-day, yea, and for ever,’ Son of God, Son of man, the Lord, the Saviour, the Brother of our race. It is a declaration that the great ‘Advocate,’ who now sustains the life of the Church, leads it into all the truth, directs its activity, and consoles its sorrows, is a divine Person whose ‘coming’ has brought with it such transcendent grace as more than to compensate for the withdrawal from the world of our Lord’s visible presence and His return to the Father.

Dale immediately goes on to admit that although the true interpretation of what happened in Christ is that an eternally triune God revealed himself, nevertheless other interpretations of the events are possible:

It may, indeed, be contended that one and the same Person has manifested Himself as Father, Son, and Spirit; and that, therefore, it is possible to believe in the divine glory of our Lord and in the personal solicitude of the divine Spirit for the life and perfection of the Church without believing in the Trinity. I rejoice to acknowledge that the substance of some great truths is received by many who find insuperable difficulties in the traditional definitions of them. If you love and obey and trust and worship the Lord Jesus Christ as a divine Person; if you shrink from sin lest you should ‘grieve’ the Holy Spirit, if His care for you and His patience with you fill your heart with courage and gratitude; and if you believe, at the same time, that the Son and the Spirit are one with the Eternal Father, your life is rooted in the facts which the doctrine of the Trinity is intended to express, although you may be unable to accept the Trinitarian creed.

“Your life is rooted in the facts,” he says to those who believe less than he does, “although you may be unable to accept the Trinitarian creed.”

Dale then presses some biblical evidence: Jesus prayed to the Father, and this makes it very difficult to interpret his life as the revelation of a unipersonal God. If God is one person, who was the incarnate Son talking to? “It is clear that He Himself was not the Father but Another… The relations between Father, Son, and Spirit are analogous to those which exist between different persons; they are not analogous to the relations which exist between different forms of the activity of the same person.”

“The immediate question with which we have to deal,” he says, is “whether in the Incarnation of our Lord and in the ‘coming’ of the Spirit and His permanent activity in the Church and in the world there is a revelation of the inner and eternal life of God.”

Have we the right to assume that the historic manifestation of God to our race discloses anything of God’s own eternal being? But this is really to ask whether the revelation of God really reveals God –shows us what God is– manifests His ‘eternal life.’ It is to ask whether when we have seen Christ, and seen Him in His relations to the Father, we have seen the ‘Truth.’ To those who have been filled with wonder by the glory of Christ, and have known the power of His redemption, the answer to this question cannot be uncertain. Wherever else we may be surrounded by illusions, we are in contact with eternal realities when we are in the presence of Christ. We are sure that in Him God is really revealed, and that the relations between Him and the Father have their ground in the life of the Eternal. The mystery of that life remains impenetrable; but the Incarnation reveals the truth that the eternal life of God has not been an awful loneliness; that in some wonderful sense the Father has always been the Father, and the Son the Son. And the revealed relations of the Spirit to both Father and Son have also their eternal ground in the Godhead; they did not originate in order that God’s mercy might achieve our redemption; they are revealed in the great acts by which redemption is achieved; that they are revealed implies that they already existed.

Dale had a firm grasp of the way redemption and revelation belong together in the doctrine of the Trinity. God saved us in a way that revealed who he is: Eternal Father, Eternal Son, and Eternal Spirit.

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