Tagged: trinity

Doctrine or Problem: Wainwright on the Trinity in the New Testament

wainwright trinity new testamentIn 1962, Arthur W. Wainwright published The Trinity in the New Testament, a helpful one-volume treatment of a vast subject. Wipf & Stock keeps it in print, and no wonder: Wainwright handled the material so well that only a few pages in it seems dated –though it’s more than fifty years old, and there has been much change in some of the sub-fields it reports on. If it doesn’t quite cover everything a reader could hope for, it nevertheless lives up to the promise of its clear title. These 270 pages deliver.

Here are some scattered notes from a reading of the first fourteen pages, where Wainwright sets up his approach. (I hope to post more notes from later sections in subsequent blog posts.)

The Problem of the Trinity

On the question whether the doctrine of the Trinity can be found in the Bible, Wainwright answers with a qualified no: what can be found in the New Testament is an awareness on the part of some of its authors that they are facing “the problem of the Trinity.” The problem, briefly and binitarianly, is that God is one yet Jesus is God and so is the Father. Add the Spirit to the mix and you have the set of data that demands explanation. “But whether the problem is binitarian or trinitarian in form, the crucial issue is the relationship of Father to Son, because the problem would not have been of practical importance if there had been no Incarnation. If the Word had not been made flesh, there would have been no stumbling-block for Jewish monotheism.” (p. 3)

Some New Testament authors show that they have seen the problem and are indicating an answer; here is where Wainwright distinguishes between problem and doctrine. “A statement of doctrine is an answer to a doctrinal problem.” (p. 4) What Wainwright will demonstrate in the book is that the New Testament surfaces the problem but doesn’t formulate the answer.

In terms of the contents of the New Testament, this strikes me as good common sense, and pretty obvious: there aren’t chapters about the Trinity in the New Testament, there aren’t extended passages where an author grapples with the issues and presents a solution. Think of how Paul hammers away at the implications of Israel’s election in Romans 9-11, or how Hebrews reasons through the logic of the New Covenant, or how Acts reports on the apostles coming to terms with the implications of Gentile inclusion, and so on. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find the elements of the doctrine of the Trinity laid out on the table and being made a matter of doctrinal reasoning and formulation. Wainwright admits that “the problem of the Trinity was in the minds of certain New Testament writers, and that they made an attempt to answer it. None of their writings, however, was written specifically to deal with it,” and, he goes on tellingly: “most of the signs that a writer had tackled the problem are incidental.” (p. 4)

So is the doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament or not? “In so far as a doctrine is an answer, however fragmentary, to a problem, there is a doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament. In so far as it is a formal statement of a position, there is no doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament.” (p. 4)

Wainwright deftly handles the preliminary question of what counts as a doctrine of the Trinity. If it means the word Trinity, then he pushes that off to the second century, in authors like Theophilus (trias) and Tertullian (trinitas). If it means the philosophical method of handling the truth claims, then he pushes that off until perhaps Clement and Origen. If it means the set of technical terms that grow up around these basic moves (person, essence, etc), then he admits this is a more extended conversation with semantic shifts occurring in all the usages.

The decision to say “the problem of the Trinity” is in the Bible is in part a rhetorical decision, a judgement about the artfully ordered presentation of the truth and the result it will have for the audience. Any presentation of the truth will raise certain questions and tend to suppress others. One of the questions Wainwright’s “problem” terminology raises is whether the New Testament knows that there is a challenge of consistency, or even a paradox, to be dealt with in monotheistic worship of Jesus. Emil Brunner notoriously drew a sharp line between the “simple testimony” of the apostles and the “mysterium logicum” of the One and the Three, posed by later trinitarian theology which “lies outside the message of the Bible.” Wainwright says many sensible things about this “kerygma vs. reflection” framing, admitting its partial validity but also (strikingly, it seems to me, for a book written midcentury) indicating that the distinction has only limited applicability. Here is how Wainwright draws the boundary:

While… the words ‘paradox’ and ‘antinomy’ do not occur in the New Testament, there is in the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel a clear awareness of the paradox of the relationship between Father and Son. The man who wrote ‘The Word was with God, and the Word was God,’ knew that his statement contained a paradox. (p. 8)


Progress and Regress on the Trinity: The Book

ScreenHunter_201 Oct. 27 10.43Zondervan has published select proceedings of the 2014 Los Angeles Theology Conference in a volume bearing the same title as the conference: Advancing Trinitarian Theology, edited by Oliver Crisp and Fred Sanders.

Slipping into advertising mode, I was going to say “Get the book, don’t wait for the movie!” But then I remembered that the movie’s actually been out for a long time: we made full video of all five plenary addresses available online not long after the January 2014 conference. So I suppose I should say “Don’t settle for the movie, get the book!”

The motif of this collection of essays is that progress in trinitarian theology is not always what it appears to be. For the better part of the past century, theologians have been declaring that a revolution has taken place, or ought to be taking place, in the doctrine of the Trinity. Western views were out, Eastern views were in –and another thing that was in was the very assumption that the East-West distinction was important. The unity of God was subordinated to a thick account of the three persons; contemplation of God’s being was subordinated to excitement about practical and political results; divine simplicity and the inseparability of trinitarian action were shouted down. In book after book, theologians assured readers that we were making progress of an especially revolutionary sort.

But in recent years, we’ve been hearing more and more objections to some of the conventional wisdom of the “Trinitarian Theology Project” (as we call it in the introduction). In various ways, a counter-revolutionary movement has begun to establish itself. Both the revolution and the counter-revolution are diffuse, so the conflict between them ( I wrote about some of the recent skirmishes here) is seldom a clean fight with clearly-aligned teams. So Advancing Trinitarian Theology is not a partisan book in that regard. But it is a sustained effort to point out the way forward for real progress in the task of articulating the classic doctrine of the Trinity, sometimes by trading recent orthodoxies for older ones, and sometimes by striking out along new lines not well developed by ancient or modern interlocutors.

Here is the table of contents:

IN CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY AND LIFE . . . . . . . . . . . 21
Fred Sanders

Thomas H. McCall

DOGMATIC REFLECTIONS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 60
Stephen R. Holmes

APPROACH . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 75
Karen Kilby

MYSTERY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 94
Lewis Ayres

R. Kendall Soulen

Darren O. Sumner

TRINITARIAN AESTHETICS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 147
Kyle C. Strobel

FOR TODAY’S MISSION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 171
Jason S. Sexton

So Advancing Trinitarian Theology is neither a thesis-driven argument nor a loose collection of essays. It captures an important moment in the contemporary conversation on this central doctrine, and would work well as an introduction to contemporary trinitarianism.

This is volume 2 in the series called “Proceedings of the Los Angeles Theology Conference,” in which the volumes all bear the sub-title “Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics.” Here’s how the system works: We plan a big conference for January of every year, with five headliner speakers and nine other contributions selected from a call for papers. Before the year is over, the book of proceedings is published. At least that’s how it has worked twice in a row now, thanks to Katya Covrett and the team at Zondervan, and support from our host institutions, Biola and Fuller.

The upcoming conference is called Locating Atonement, featuring Michael Horton, Matthew Levering, Bruce McCormack, Ben Myers, and Eleonore Stump. It will be at Biola University on January 15 and 16, and registration is open now. In 2016 we’ll do the doctrine of Scripture (details and speakers to be announced at this year’s conference), and in 2017 we’ll turn our attention to the very idea of Dogmatics.


Irrelevance & Relevance of the Trinity to the Christian Life

Eilers Strobel cover detailI was excited when Kyle Strobel and Kent Eilers invited me to write the Trinity chapter in their book Sanctified by Grace: A Theology of the Christian Life (Bloomsbury / T&T Clark, 2014), and I’m more excited now that the book is in print.  I described the whole book briefly in a recent post, and in this post I want to share a little of the chapter I wrote for the project.

The book begins with five chapters on the nature and the works of God, which is a revolutionary way to begin an account of the Christian life. The reader’s attention is immediately directed not to the ups and downs or ins and outs of spiritual experience, but to the God who is the source, means, and goal of the Christian life. These chapters amount to 60 pages out of about 250! So a chapter on the Trinity doesn’t exactly stick out, but is in good company with other chapters on God.

Still, I try to highlight how wonderfully odd it is to start a doctrine of the Christian life with sustained attention to the Trinity. Under a subhead that I hope was my own composition and not the editors’, the chapter addresses “the glorious irrelevance of the immanent Trinity.” There I argue that

A description of the triune God that intends to highlight how it is aligned with the doctrine of the Christian life must resist the distorting influence of rushing towards relevance. It must devote its attention to the revelation of God’s identity first, without asking in advance which elements of that description might later prove informative or helpful for the doctrine of the Christian life. Many recent theological projects have erred at this point, describing the immanent Trinity in a way that underwrites practical concerns and goals, attending selectively to only those elements of trinitarianism that are judged to be relevant for soteriology or spirituality…. In much modern theology, the doctrine of the Trinity has suffered from being too relevant, or too immediately relevant. (22)

But of course what I’m doing with those objections is clearing the ground for a proper approach to why the Trinity matters for the theology of the Christian life:

All the long lines of the life in Christ reach up towards the life of God in himself. All the trajectories of soteriology are launched toward something greater than soteriology. Indeed, without the doctrine of eternal generation, soteriology stops short of saying what it wants to be able to say. The task of soteriology is only half done when it describes what we are saved from, and even when it specifies the agent of salvation. Soteriology finds its real footing when it announces what end we are saved to; and that goal or direction of salvation has never been better stated than in the doctrine of trinitarian adoption. The character of the relationship that grace brings us into, at great cost to God the Father, is the filial character, the dependent relationship of a sonship which is not simply a created relationship but is our created participation in his uncreated filiality.

It’s a twelve-page chapter, so I’m sure you can imagine I have more to say about all of that. But I was delighted to see that the editors wrote a substantive summary of the chapter in their introduction. Here is how they put it:

Chapter 1, ‘The triune God’, situates the doctrine of the Christian life against the backdrop of God’s own life. More specifically, it shows how theological reflection on the eternal generation of the Son and the spiration of the Spirit illuminates the origins from which God’s saving action arises and the destination towards which redeemed human existence is set. Far from a conceptual abstraction, the doctrine of trinitarian processions gives the Christian life its ‘distinctive character’ as trinitarian adoption. Indeed, it is into this gloriously complete life between the Father, Son and Spirit that the Christian is adopted. Regarding the Son, his eternal begetting from the Father stands behind his temporal sending to save, and his eternal filial relation to the Father is the life secured by our union with Christ. Likewise, regarding the Spirit, the eternal breathing forth of the Spirit (spiration) stands behind his application of Christ’s finished work. That is, when the Spirit takes residence in the hearts of believers ‘his eternal relationship with the Father and the Son begins to take place among us’. Indeed, through the enlightening and enlivening movement o the Spirit, Christians receive the Sonship of the Son (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6).

Thus, at the very outset of the theology of the Christian life, the doctrine of the Trinity is permitted to illumine Christian existence simultaneously ‘from above’ and ‘from below’. From ‘below’, the doctrine of the Trinity sheds light ‘upward’ from the temporal missions of the Son and the Spirit to show their telos in the completeness of God’s own life. That is to say, it illumines the ultimate end of the redemption and rescue they accomplish. From ‘above’, the doctrine of the Trinity shed light ‘downward’ onto the works of the Son and Spirit illumining their origination in the eternal fellowship of the Godhead. One ready consequence is simply this: by indicating the eternal backdrop of the Christian life, its origin is thus shown to precede felt experience. Avoiding focus on felt experience goes some way towards protecting the doctrine of the Christian life from being swamped in preoccupation with the self or the benefits of liberation from sin.

I couldn’t have said it –and didn’t say it– better myself, and I’m grateful to Kent and Kyle for seeing so clearly how the pieces fit together. Really, the whole volume is a marvel of editorial acumen, bringing together a set of very different theologians and letting them be themselves, but ending up with a book that works together so forcefully toward a common end.

Adam Clarke and the Whole Bible

Today (August 26) marks the death of Adam Clarke (1762-1832), one of the greatest of evangelical Bible commentators. His masterpiece and lifework (first published from 1810 to 1826) is the voluminous commentary on the entire Bible, which is stunning for the amount of detailed investigation it brings together in one place.

The full title of the work is

The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments: The Text carefully printed form the most correct copies of the present authorized translation, including the marginal readings and parallel texts; with a Commentary, and Critical Notes, designed as a help to a better understanding of the Sacred Writings.

I don’t have the relevant statistics about it (page count, etc.), but it’s big. The online edition at studylight.org is of limited usefulness because of persistent font trouble in Greek and Hebrew. Much of it is available at Google books (volumes 1, 2, 3, etc., including the whole NT in one volume), and a reasonably-priced CD can be had from Logos Software. (If you know a better online source, e-mail me via my Scriptorium author’s page and I’ll update this post with the info).

Spurgeon had this to say about Clarke’s commentary:

Adam Clarke is the great annotator of our Wesleyan friends; and they have no reason to be ashamed of him, for he takes rank among the chief of expositors. His mind was evidently fascinated by the singularities of learning, and hence his commentary is rather too much of an old curiosity shop, but it is filled with valuable rarities, such as none but a great man could have collected. Like Gill, he is one sided, only in the opposite direction to our friend the Baptist. The use of the two authors may help to preserve the balance of your judgments.

Spurgeon even joked that he had to keep his John Gill (very very Calvinist, dare I say hyper?) and his Adam Clarke commentaries (quite Arminian, maybe more consistently so than Wesley) separated on the bookshelf so they wouldn’t wake him up at night with their arguing. He put the commentary of the more neutral Doddridge in between them as a buffer. Spurgeon goes on:

If you have a copy of Adam Clarke, and exercise discretion in reading it, you will derive immense advantage from it, for frequently by a sort of side light he brings out the meaning of the text in an astonishingly novel manner. I do not wonder that Adam Clarke still stands, notwithstanding his peculiarities, a prince among commentators. I do not find him so helpful as Gill, but still from his side of the question, with which I have personally no sympathy, he is an important writer, and deserves to be studied by every reader of the Scriptures.

Clarke knew so much that he sometimes lost sight of the forest temporarily as he pursued his interest in one of the trees. Spurgeon cites as an example of Clarke’s occasional lapses of judgment the odd digression on Genesis 3 where Clarke follows out some etymological arguments to the conclusion that Eve was tempted by an ape, not a serpent. It is a mark of Clarke’s overall sagacity that he presents this argument in a way that is ultimately helpful to his readers, and illuminating about the dynamics of Genesis 3, even for those of us (by which I mean everybody but Clarke) who think that was probably a serpent, not a monkey. Selah.

Another time besides the day of his death, I will write about Clarke’s mis-steps in the doctrine of the Trinity. All told, Clarke was solid on the doctrine of the Trinity, and held a very high view of the absolute deity of Christ in particular. However, he dropped the ball on one of the sub-doctrines that make up the doctrine of the Trinity, that is, the eternal sonship of Christ. Clarke believed that when the Scriptures talk about Jesus, they only call him “son” when they are referring to him as incarnate, and that Scripture never thinks of the pre-existent divine second person as being the “son” of the first person. “Son” only applies to the incarnation, not eternity past, according to Clarke.

But the great tradition of trinitarianism has always understood Scripture to be pointing to the fact that from all eternity, the second person is from the first, that “son” refers to the eternal second person, and that in the incarnation the eternal son became the incarnate son. In fact, without that argument, it’s hard to see how the church would have found a way to describe the incarnate son as divine. So Clarke’s position is an oddity, rejecting eternal sonship but affirming the doctrines of Christ’s deity and the Trinity. Sadly, Clarke’s view on incarnational sonship has had more influence than his idea about the monkey in the garden of Eden. But that is a topic for another day. I have nit-picked at a couple of problems in Adam Clarke’s monumental feat of scholarship in service to the church and the truth.

Take up and read Clarke on whatever passage of Scripture you are currently studying. You will find help and insight on every page of Clarke, for any page of the whole Bible!

Trinitarian Gallstones of Clare of Montefalco

What you need, as a Christian, is Jesus in your heart and the Trinity in your guts. At least that’s what Clare of Montefalco had.

Today (August 18) was the day that Clare of Montefalco (1268-1308) died. Clare entered the Augustinian convent at age nine. By the end of her life she was abbess of the monastery in Montefalco, Umbria, and was famous for her piety. She had a number of visions and several experiences of prolonged spiritual ecstasy. In one vision she saw herself standing before the judgement seat of God. In another, Mary and the Christ-child approached, and the Christ child gave her an embrace. She felt an overpowering sense of joy, but a lingering conviction of unworthiness. Her spiritual disciplines were very ascetic, and one scholar says that “the major emphasis in all the documents and biographies is Clare’s desire to share the physical suffering of Christ.”

Clare’s most famous vision involved seeing Jesus as a wanderer, carrying his cross through the world with nowhere to plant it. Clare offered to take it, and Christ spoke to her: “I have sought a place in the world where I might plant my cross, and have found no better site than your heart.” In paintings, Clare is usually shown standing over against this vision of Christ, who is planting the foot of his cross in her chest. Clare testified that the implanting of the cross caused her great excruciating pain, a pain which did not go away.

Here’s where the story gets strange. When she died, the sisters of her order performed an autopsy. They examined her heart and found the proofs they were sure would be there: inside her heart was a cross. It was a little, white, two-inch-tall crucifix with a figure of Christ on it, complete enough that the wound in his side could be seen. They kept searching in the heart, and found more: the lance that pierced his side was also there, and the long reed with a sponge on the end. And the crown of thorns, and three nails. Plus the whipping post where he had been beaten, and the flagellum. All the major implements of the passion were there as tiny physical objects in the heart of Clare of Montefalco.

As the autopsy continued, the sisters found something else: In her gall bladder, they discovered three pellets arranged triangularly. They were joined together, and each the size of a small hazelnut. They were declared to be a symbol of the Trinity. Literature available at the shrine in Montefalco (Sanctuario S. Chiara da Montefalco) says that the stones had amazing physical properties: “any one of them was as heavy as the other two, and at times any one of them equalled the weight of all three together.” I doubt you are allowed to weigh them, but these three stones are still on display in Montefalco under a circular crystal.

The results of the autopsy were reported, and Clare’s posthumous fame soared. Her disembodied heart worked miracles wherever it was taken. Her body did not decay, and reportedly remains incorrupt to this day. She seemed to be on the fast track to sainthood. Her case was officially documented by 1313, and by 1318 Pope John XXII had sent cardinals to make an official report. For some reason the canonization process was halted, and was not concluded until 1881 when Clare was declared a saint.

I’ve never been, but apparently in Montefalco you can see all of this: The undecayed body of Clare of the Cross, as she is also known; along with the tiny white crucifix from her heart, and all the accompanying implements of the passion of Christ. And those three little stones symbolizing the Trinity.

I don’t believe a bit of it. The stones in particular remind me a bit too much of the church that had the head of John the Baptist at one end, and the head of John the Bapist as a child at the other end. I also can’t get over the autopsy element of the story, the very thing that attracted the attention of the original Goth, Montague Summers, to the story of Clare.

But call me a completist in my obsession with the Trinity: If I’m ever near Montefalco, Italy, I fear I must see the trinitarian stones extracted from the gall bladder of Clare of Montefalco.