Essay / Theology

"Trinitarian Theology's Exegetical Basis: A Dogmatic Survey"

I have a new article about the Trinity and the Bible in the latest issue of the Midwestern Journal of Theology. It’s called “Trinitarian Theology’s Exegetical Basis: A Dogmatic Survey.” It’s based on a paper I presented last year in New Orleans at the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society.

If you’re into “Dogmatic Surveys,” this is your kind of thing. It’s a little on the technical side, written for other scholars. Here are a few of my favorite paragraphs from the article.

On the need for the doctrine of the Trinity to be presented as a transparently biblical doctrine:

One of the chief obligations laid upon trinitarian theology in our time is that it render the doctrine of the Trinity with unprecedented clarity as a biblical doctrine, or, to speak more precisely, as a doctrine that is in the Bible. If there ever was a time when theology could afford to hurry past this task, with an impatient wave of the hand in the general direction of scripture, that time is not now. It is not enough to show that the doctrine is capable of harmonizing with biblical themes, or to settle for the double-negative claim that it is at least not unbiblical. Nor can we any longer afford to displace the weight of this burden onto a temporary resting place like tradition or the consent of all the faithful, lest that prop suffer the strains of bearing what it was never intended to support. Nor, finally, can we encumber this doctrinal field with a jumble of unworthy and unserious arguments and illustrations. For we have come to a stage of crisis with regard to this doctrine. A prominent feature of the current era is the growing unpersuasiveness and untenability of the traditional proof texts that were used to establish and demonstrate the doctrine. In this context, it is imperative that whenever we handle the doctrine of the Trinity, we handle it as a doctrine that is both known to be, and shown to be, biblical.

On the gap between the actual doctrine, and the way it is taught and believed at any given time in any given culture (especially here and now):

Considered in itself, the doctrine is already credible and biblical. Nevertheless, trinitarianism as it exists in the minds of most believers, many Biblical scholars, and some theologians in our time, is a jumble of highly suspect proof texts, unarticulated assumptions, buried premises, loud non-sequiturs, and obtuse analogies. It is a congeries of Hebrew divine plurals, shamrocks, Melchizedeks, ice cubes, and random occurrences of the number three in Bible stories. In the field of Biblical studies, the overall trend of sober historical-grammatical labors has been toward the gradual removal of the trinitarian implications of passage after passage. Some of these passages were in fact never anything but trinitarian mirages: 1 John 5’s “three that bear witness in heaven,” for example, was rightly dismantled by the first generation of textual criticism. Other texts, like those where the word monogenes is used, are still matters of contention because of the disparity between the traditional and the modern translations. But all the proofs have descended into the valley of divided details, without clear connections that would bind them into a recognizable doctrine, much less warrant the average New Testament scholar, acting in his or her professional capacity, to believe that God is the Trinity.

On one of the ways we need to read the Bible if we are to perceive its trinitarian argument rightly:

The second pattern to be observed is the way lines of thought which seem to emerge from the Old Testament witness along trajectories which diverge from each other, are in fact revealed to have been converging toward each other in God’s economy of salvation and revelation. Thus in the Father’s sending of the Son and the Spirit, all God’s ways are fulfilled, but they are more than fulfilled, or hyperfulfilled, because they all converge on the events at the trinitarian hinge of the canon. This convergent hyperfulfillment is most manifest in Jesus, who is both David’s son and David’s lord, the root and the branch of Jesse. Taught to look for a messianic son, a suffering servant, a prophet greater than Moses, and the Lord himself, the apostles met them all in one person. Some of this convergent hyperfulfillment can just be asserted on the basis of the personal advent of the Son and Spirit. But for the exegetical case, much depends on demonstrating that, according to the witness of the New Testament, the Lord and the apostles understood the Old Testament in precisely this manner. They drew these conclusions in arguments about David’s son being David’s lord (Matthew 22:41-46), in their use of layered Old Testament fulfillments, and in numerous other ways. And much depends on showing that even the highest points of the Old Testament witness manifest an awareness of the coming convergence: That Psalm 110 (the text mobilized by Jesus in Matthew 22) is already drawing together priest and king, and that the later chapters of Isaiah envision a servant whose completed work is indistinguishable from the presence of the Lord in person, matters a great deal. Convergence discernible within the Old Testament witness is the ground of convergent hyperfulfillment in the New Testament witness, which alone enables a theological interpretation broad enough to establish the doctrine of the Trinity.

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