Essay / Theology

The Trinitarian Theology of Bill Bright

I have argued that “evangelical Christians have been in reality the most thoroughly Trinitarian Christians in the history of the church.” It’s a cheeky thing to say (the review in Christianity Today called the claim “a strong one, but… not capricious”), I suppose, since it doesn’t map onto current evangelical self-understanding. But I tried to marshal the evidence for a radically Trinitarian evangelicalism in my book The Deep Things of God, calling on evangelical witnesses whose source of power was their deep, experiential Trinitarianism. What’s in the book is just the tip of the iceberg. Everywhere I go, I find more confirmation that the Trinity has been the secret center of evangelical existence.

For example, Bill Bright, more famous as an activist than as a theological thinker, was grounded in a distinctively evangelical Trinitarianism. I had a few rough notes on the subject, but recently I got an e-mail from Keith Johnson, Director of Theological Education for Campus Crusade for Christ (U.S.). Whereas I had a hunch that if you dug into Bill Bright’s thoughts, you would hit Trinitarian gold, Keith has actually done the digging. And guess what? There’s gold. Keith and I had an e-mail exchange that got so good I decided to capture it as an interview and share it.

Keith Johnson has a Ph.D. in Christian Theology and Ethics from Duke University. In addition to his job as Director of Theological Education for Campus Crusade for Christ, he serves as a Guest Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. He is author of Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism: An Augustinian Assessment (forthcoming Intervarsity). Keith and I have been sharing notes on Trinitarian theology regularly over the past several years, so this interview is the latest installment in an ongoing conversation about this stuff.

Keith, in my book The Deep Things of God I argued that a lot of evangelicals are radically Trinitarian in their theology and spirituality, even though the Trinity is not the first thing we think of when we think of activist evangelicals. You told me that Bill Bright is a good example of this. The first thing I want to ask you is, what are the main things people think of when they think of Bill Bright?

Bill Bright was one of the most influential evangelical leaders of the twentieth century. He founded Campus Crusade for Christ (which presently has over 16,000 fulltime staff serving in 200 countries). When people think about Bright, they think about businessman who loved Christ and had a vision for helping fulfill the Great Commission. He used to sign his correspondence, “Yours for fulfilling the Great Commission in this generation.” Bright had a passion for helping lost people discover the joy of knowing Christ. He developed the “Four Spiritual Laws” and was the driving force behind numerous other evangelistic tools including the “Jesus Film” which has been translated into a thousand languages and had several billion viewings worldwide since 1979.

But you want to argue that Bill Bright actually had a profoundly Trinitarian theology that was tacitly at work in what he said and wrote.

Yes I do. Bill Bright offers a great example of the “tacit trinitarianism” you speak about in your book. Before I talk about Bright’s trinitarianism, I want to describe how I came to appreciate his trinitarianism because it underscores a point you make about the importance of understanding the “trinitarian” underpinnings of the Christian life. I oversee the theological training of all the Campus Crusade for Christ staff in the U.S. A couple years ago a ministry leader expressed concern that the “Christ-centered” approach to the Scriptures we teach in our theological courses was out of sync with CCC’s historic emphasis on the “Filling with the Holy Spirit.”

I was rather surprised by this criticism. It prompted me to go back and re-read Bright’s early writings on the Christian life (especially the “Transferable Concepts” and “Ten Basic Steps”). As I re-read Bright’s basic writings on the Christian life, I was struck by the clear trinitarian grammar that shapes them. This grammar can be seen most clearly in the way he relates the work of the Son and Holy Spirit in the Christian life. Interestingly, in his early writings Bright uses the labels “Spirit-filled life” and “Christ-directed life” interchangeably in discussing the Christian life. Somewhere in our organizational history the “Spirit-filled life” label became dominant (which may have contributed to the confusion of this leader).

Can you say more about the way Bright related the Son and the Spirit in his theology?

It’s probably easiest to illustrate this relationship with a few examples from his writings:

Today when a person places his faith in Christ, Christ comes to dwell within him by means of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9). His purpose for dwelling in us is that He might live His life through us. Many Christians are trying to operate on their own finite ability instead of Christ’s infinite power.

That is what the Christian life is all about — just keeping Christ on the throne. You do this when you understand how to walk in the control and power of the Holy Spirit, for the Holy Spirit came for the express purpose of glorifying Christ by enabling the believer to live a holy life and to be a fruitful witness for our dear Savior.

If you have been living in spiritual defeat – powerless and fruitless, wondering if there is any validity to the Christian life – there is hope for you! What greater promise could Christ offer to the Christian than the assurance that he can walk daily in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus Christ, and experience an abundant and fruitful life of purpose and adventure?

To be filled with the Holy Spirit is to be filled with Christ. The Holy Spirit came to glorify Christ. Therefore, if I am filled with the Spirit, I am abiding in Christ. I am walking in the light as He is the light, and the blood of Jesus Christ will cleanse and keep on cleansing me from all unrighteousness.

It’s quite striking the way the work of the Son and the Holy Spirit are carefully related in his basic writings. Christ is the object and focus of Christian faith (hence the references not only to “placing one’s faith in Christ” but also “keeping Christ on the throne”). The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, is the means by which believers are able to live the Christian life.

Notice the careful clarification that the Christ dwells in believers by means of the Holy Spirit. One of Bright’s favorite verses on the Son/Spirit relationship was John 16:14a (“And he shall glorify me”). He explicitly cites this text in the second and fourth quotes. (Interestingly, the language of John 16:14 can also be found in the statements on the Holy Spirit in the CCC Statement of Faith.) Notice as well that Christ is the one who sends the Spirit (seen in the “promise” Christ offers, and the reference to the Holy Spirit as the “Spirit of Christ”).

Is Bright mainly thinking about initial conversion, or the ongoing life of Christian discipleship? Or is that a false dichotomy for a tacitly Trinitarian evangelical like Bill Bright?

Bright is talking about both. Speaking about Trinity and sanctification, here’s a great example of how he relates the work of the Son and Spirit to the Scriptures in the context of Christian growth:

When the emphasis on the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God is in proper balance in your life, the result is a life of power and great fruitfulness in which our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, is wonderfully honored and glorified. As you continue then to allow the Holy Spirit to control and empower you, and as you meditate upon the Word of God, hiding it in your heart, your life expresses more and more the beauty of Christ and the fruit of the Spirit which Paul lists in Galatians 5:22,23.

For Bright one of the key DNA markers reflecting the empowering presence of Holy Spirit in a believer’s life is Christ-exalting and Christ-treasuring affections. If I had to summarize Bright’s understanding of the Christian life it would be “Christ-centered and Spirit-empowered.” (Although I have focused on the Son and Holy Spirit, I should add that Bright did not neglect the Father.)

I don’t know much about Bill Bright’s education or early years. I have the vague recollection that he flunked out of Fuller Seminary. Where did he get this deep Trinitarianism?

Bright came to faith in Christ in 1945 through the influence of First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood where he was exposed to the preaching of Louis Evans, Sr. (senior pastor) and Bible teaching of Henrietta Mears (Christian Ed director). Mears (who was sympathetic to Keswick theology) had a deep impact on Bright and his theology. She founded Gospel Light publishing as well as conference center named Forest Home. Mears influenced not only Bright but several other prominent evangelical leaders like Billy Graham. Mears, therefore, would be one important source of influence on Bright’s trinitarian theology.

In 1947 Bright enrolled in the inaugural class at Fuller Seminary. Certainly his classes at Fuller would have reinforced the trinitarian theology he learned at First Presbyterian Hollywood. He didn’t flunk out of Fuller but he did choose to discontinue his studies after several years. Interestingly, it was while studying for a Greek exam that God gave him the vision for starting the ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. Although other factors were involved, this new mission played a key role in his decision to withdraw from Fuller. He wanted to give his full attention to reaching college students with the gospel.

One of my colleagues, Dr. Alan Scholes, suggests that Bright’s overall theology (including his view of the Trinity) was significantly influenced by Andrew Murray (1828–1917). R.A. Torrey (1856-1928) also influenced Bright’s views on the Holy Spirit.

Obviously Bill Bright’s own theology has stamped Campus Crusade in many ways. Has his Trinitarianism been one of the things that has shaped the work of the movement?

When you think of the legacy of Bill Bright’s influence, his trinitarian theology probably wouldn’t make the list; however, his trinitarian theology has influenced the movement. Bright placed a very high value on transferability. That’s why he developed simple tools like the Four Spiritual Laws, the Holy Spirit Booklet, the Ten Basic Steps, etc. His trinitarianism was mediated through these tools.

To a lesser degree, it was also mediated through what I would describe as his “Christ-centered leadership.” Anytime Bright spoke, he always loved to talk about the person of Christ –and I’m not merely speaking here about his zeal for evangelism. Rather, I am talking about the Christ-centered focus that shaped his leadership, especially in the later years of his life. When I was a college student 25 years ago, Bright used to come and speak each year at an annual conference for college students. Every year it seemed like he gave the same message—probably titled something like “The Incomparable Christ.” I used to think he was theologically shallow because he only came and talked about “Jesus” every year. I served with Campus Crusade for Christ for quite a while before I realized that I was the shallow one. Bright was so enamored by Christ that he could talk for 45 minutes about how beautiful Christ is and invite people to follow Him. This pattern can be seen in his broader leadership of the movement. Anyone who had spent time around him can testify to this dynamic. His “Christ-centered” leadership was a practical expression of his trinitarian theology.

Keith, you teach theology to Crusade staff members involved in evangelism. How would you say the doctrine of the Trinity is relevant to evangelism? Do we need to know it, or can we just presuppose it?

In his book, In This Name: The Doctrine of the Trinity in Contemporary Theology, Claude Welch explains, “The gospel can neither be truly stated, nor the Word truly proclaimed, nor God truly worshipped, without our affirming what is made explicit in the doctrine of the Trinity” (p. 290). Welch is right on target. The doctrine of the Trinity is relevant to evangelism because the Trinity is relevant (better: essential) to the gospel.

It’s instructive to remember that early debates over the Trinity were driven, at least in part, by soteriology: who must Christ be to do what Christ did? Distorted understandings of Trinity necessarily lead to distorted understandings of the gospel. The current backlash against penal substitution represents an instructive case in point. One of the recurring criticisms of this doctrine is that it is sub-trinitarian in that it involves a “wrathful” father condemning his “loving” son to death. Certainly some popular gospel presentations may veer dangerously close to this misunderstanding (which suggests a division of purpose in the triune life). However, a proper understanding of the Trinity reminds us that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share one will and act with one purpose. In this context, we must affirm (with Scripture) that the Son willed his death along with the Father and was not merely a victim of the Father’s choice. As Calvin explains, “[Jesus] was subject to death because He wished to be so . . . he was crucified, because he offered himself.” Moreover, we must not think that a “loving” Son somehow had to win over an “angry” Father over. The love that prompted the cross was the undivided love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

John Owen makes this point forcefully in his Brief Declaration and Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity:

That this love was the same in Father and Son, acted distinctly in the manner that shall be afterward declared; so, vain are the pretences of men, who, from the love of the Father in this matter, would argue against the love of the Son, or on the contrary.

It is also important to remember that the Trinity is not merely the author of salvation but also the goal of salvation. John Piper wrote a great little book titled God is the Gospel: Meditations on the Love of God as the Gift of Himself. Piper reminds us that what ultimately makes the gospel good news is not forgiveness of sins or even justification (certainly an important doctrine for Piper) but the gift of God himself—to be enjoyed through all eternity!

All this is to say a basic understanding of the Trinity is crucial both for understanding and proclaiming the gospel. When someone learns how to share the gospel through the ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ, they are taught that “successful witnessing” involves “taking the initiative to share Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit and leaving the results to God.” That’s a pretty good “trinitarian” definition of evangelism. Christ is the object of gospel proclamation while the Holy Spirit empowers those witnessing to communicate effectively and causes those who hear the message about Christ to respond with faith.

I like to think about the relationship between Trinity and gospel proclamation in terms of “participation.” By this I mean that gospel proclamation is a participation in the ongoing mission of the Son and Holy Spirit. As Jesus explained in John 20:21, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (ESV). We don’t have to be experts on the Trinity to share our faith. To the contrary, as the Holy Spirit empowers us to proclaim the beauty of Christ to lost people (2 Cor. 4:4-6), the practice of evangelism can actually be a means of grace by which God draws us into a deeper understanding and experience of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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