Essay / Theology

The Trinity: Yes, A Doctrine About God


Today was Trinity Sunday, as observed by churches who follow the western liturgical calendar. There wasn’t always a Trinity Sunday, and even when (well into the middle ages) it was proposed, some popes argued against it on the grounds that (a) feast days are supposed to commemorate events, not doctrines, and (b) every Sunday is Trinity Sunday. Those are pretty good arguments. But eventually both objections were overturned by the recognition that it’s a good idea to have a final summarizing day on the liturgical year: after Christmas and Easter (the sending of the Son of God, and his work of salvation) and Pentecost (the coming of the Spirit on the basis of the work of the Son), it makes sense to look back on the whole series of divine revelations and say: Hey, that was the Trinity! The Father sent the Son and the Spirit. Let’s have a party! (The eastern liturgical calendar follows a similar logic, celebrating not so much the eternal fact of the Trinity but the salvation-historical revelation of it.  But the eastern churches settled on the baptism of Christ as the most appropriate day to ponder the revelation of the Trinity: when the Spirit descended on the Son and the Father said “This is my beloved Son,” it was the great trinitarian Theophany).

So Trinity Sunday ought to be a great day for a sermon in a lectionary-based church. What an invitation to roll up the whole history of salvation and declare openly the great, central meaning that has been building up for so long: That God has made himself known to us as he really is, as eternal Father, Son, and Spirit, through the economy of salvation.

But alas, the conventional wisdom has long been that it is not a great day to find yourself on the preaching rotation. Preachers apparently dread Trinity Sunday, and (that being the case) who knows what congregations think?

A recent issue of Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology was full of resources and suggestions for how to preach for Pentecost Sunday and Trinity Sunday.  Some of them are quite good (if you’ve got access to the journal, don’t miss Jeremy Begbie’s piece on George Herbert). But the key article (pp. 5-15) went to Beverly Roberts Gaventa, NT prof at Princeton Seminary. This seasoned exegete was the one who took the lectionary readings and wove them together.

I’m about to complain about the result, so let me start by saying how much there really is to appreciate in Gaventa’s work here. In the Pentecost section, she lands a solid hit on the way “Spirit” and “spirituality” have come unhooked in recent decades. Best quote:

Those who claim that they are ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious’ will find no comfort in Acts 2 or any other biblical witnesses about the Spirit. In Acts particularly, the dramatic events of Pentecost conclude with a community that gathers for instruction, fellowship, and worship, a community that witnesses ‘wonders and signs,’ a community that is also characterized by the sharing of possessions. (p. 9)

And then in the Trinity section, she not only takes up the texts assigned by the lectionary, but she puts them in context, draws out connections, and relates them to the broader lines of Biblical thought.  She starts with Matthew 28:20 and spends a little time relating it to the rest of the book of Matthew. From there she works out to triadic patterns in Galatians 4, Romans 5, and several other Pauline texts (Gaventa is always at her best w/Paul, to whom she has proven doggedly loyal over the years). She does one-paragraph surveys of the gospel of John and the book of Acts, and reaches back to Isaiah 6 and Proverbs 8.  And she concludes with a reassuring review of the NT commitment to monotheism. A whirlwind tour of all the right texts, handled with a lively sense of the whole book. Gaventa writes with an admirable respect for her readers, an urbanity that makes me wish she were my neighbor.

But this article gets preachers off on the wrong foot, because as soon as the word “Trinity” shows up, Gaventa starts pulling her punches and lowering expectations. Her heart is really in the exposition of the biblical lines of argument, and she just doesn’t want to follow the church calendar’s lead in saying that this Sunday’s topic is the nature of God.

If you (or your liturgy) say you’re going to talk about the Trinity, you’d better deliver. Gaventa gets close –and I’m approaching her with high expectations because this is not some yokel, this is a respected NT prof at Princeton Seminary– but she keeps qualifying, backpedaling, and lowering the reader’s expectations that anything really, you know, trinitarian is going to happen here.

After a summary of the publishing bonanza that is modern trinitarian theology, Gaventa says

Whether we are among those who find the flourishing reflection on the Trinity invigorating or those for whom it remains both impractical and incomprehensible, Trinity Sunday returns us to the richness of Scripture’s reflections on God, where we find the constant feature to be the claim that, in all God’s doings, God acts for us and for our salvation. That claim may not produce a new articulation of the mystery of the Trinity, but it is certainly both comprehensible and profoundly practical.

The “impractical and incomprehensible” line is in reference to a good Dorothy Sayers spoof she had just quoted. But I was left wondering which group Gaventa would recommend: those for whom the doctrine of the Trinity is invigorating, or incomprehensible? She pushes forward into “the richness of Scripture’s reflections on God” and gets the message that “in all God’s doings, God acts for us and for our salvation.” Yes. But this “may not produce a new articulation of the mystery of the Trinity…”  Okay. May it produce the old articulation?

As a general introduction to the task, Gaventa says “Trinity Sunday calls us to acknowledge both the breadth of our experience of God and the limitations of our knowledge.” She goes on,

Our language about God is always stretched, our words in no way capable of gasping, much less conveying, the reality of thel iving God. At best, we are merely whistling a song for which the lyrics are not so much forgotten as unknown. (p. 5)

I’m all for confessing the mystery of God, but I also know that that’s a card often played in favor of mere, unitarian monotheism, in rejection of trinitarianism. In fact, throughout this article, whenever Gaventa strays from direct exposition of Scripture and into doctrinal conclusions, she seems to be carefully couching everything in terms that won’t offend modalists or other unitarians.  I don’t know how mixed up things are in the church or the guild the journal Interpretation is aimed at, but Gaventa admits that there’s a social-cognitive pressure to shy away from anything like a formal doctrine of the triunity of God:

Contemplating all of these claims together is indeed perplexing: that God is one and that there is fellowship within God, a fellowship the NT names as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Especially when articulation of the Trinity emerges in abstruse theological terminology, we may well be tempted to throw up our hands and join with Dorothy Sayers’ imagined interlocutor in declaring the whole project incomprehensible and impractical. That temptation may be especially strong at present, when many scholarly reconstructions of early Christianity labor to show the discontinuities between Jesus of Nazareth and the doctrines that emerge in the church’s life. This use of historical work contributes to the erosion of confidence in the life of the church and the legitimation of a ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude toward religious life.

But she seems to be arguing in the overall article  that the biblical material itself puts its own pressure on the interpreter, and that we’re all but forced to move forward to a doctrine of the Trinity. “A great deal is at stake here, however,” she says: “more even than any particular current interpretation of the church’s history or its future.”  She is just about to stick the trinitarian landing, when she backs off one more time and leaves us with this too-weak summary of what the Bible is leading us toward with its monotheistic talk of the three persons:

As these texts stretch out to speak about God’s oneness, the community within God’s life, the actions of Father, Son, and Spirit, they do not seek to articulate the character of God in and for Godself. Instead, they do so always to give voice to the experience of God’s action for human welfare. These texts uniformly have to do with God’s activity on behalf of humankind, however that activity is named…. The one God brings human life into being and wills it to flourish… (p. 14)

Note again the backpedaling: “they do not seek to articulate the character of God in and for Godself;” they “give voice to the experience of God’s action for human welfare;” and they are about that action “however that activity is named.” It’s all about the actions of the one God.

These statements are true. They are also utterly acceptable to non-trinitarians. Because they don’t add up to statements about God.  On Trinity Sunday, a Bible interpreter, in or out of the pulpit, really needs to rise to the occasion and say what the Bible teaches about the nature and character of God, and how that goes with the Jesus and the Spirit thing. Just in terms of advertising and dealing with the congregation’s expectations, you need to say something about the Trinity. Instead, this article is a careful, delicate, nuanced effort to deflate that expectation. It’s Trinity Sunday, but don’t worry, we won’t affirm the doctrine of the Trinity. We”re going to look quite comptetently at all  the Trinity texts, and conclude that God is saying something about what the one God does. Unitarians will not be offended by the Trinity sermons that arise from this commentary.

Every article needs a high note to end on. A Trinity article could end with something about the triunity of God. But this one ends with people gathering, to go somewhere, with God.

Christian biblical reflection on these texts and themes supports the conviction that loving friends and family members (and many also who are neither loving nor loveable) will continue to gather in season and out and that God will be with them. Perhaps such reflection even encourages us to fret less over the supposed demise of the church and more about  where the Triune God may be taking us even now.  (p. 15)


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