Essay / Theology

Trinitarian Theophany Desiderata

On page 224 of The Triune God (Zondervan, 2016), I said “No to Christophanies.” That is, as part of my chapter discussing the Old Testament’s adumbrations of trinitarian revelation, I cautioned against identifying even the anthropomorphic theophanies in the Old Testament as distinct manifestations of the second person of the Trinity.

This is, of course, controversial, and inevitably a bit unsatisfying because I dealt with it in only a couple of pages. I needed to bring it up at that point in my overall argument in order to get all the relevant data on the table to work on the Trinity in the Old Testament. But bringing it up and handling it very quickly makes one thing very clear: I need to write more on this subject, and I need to write very carefully in order to be maximally helpful in theological interpretation of the Bible.

I’m not going to do that here. But what I am going to do is jot down some rules and guidelines for myself, and I suppose for anybody who wants to write on this subject.

Here are some of the factors that need to be taken into account simultaneously in a full discussion.

1. There are theophanies from Genesis on: visible manifestations of the glory of God that make his presence conspicuous.

2. God’s triunity is not made known under the Old Covenant with anything like the clarity and definiteness of its revelation in the coming of Christ and the Spirit, as attested in the New Testament.

3. God doesn’t change, but the content of his self-revelation has. That is,  God was Trinity during the Old Covenant, but was not in the business of making that distinctly known.

4. In the Old Testament, people say things like “I saw the LORD” (Isaiah) and they say them in earnest. But the New Testament confidently affirms that “No one has seen God” (John, etc.). Somehow both are true, and this almost certainly means that we need to understand Old Testament visionary experiences in a qualified sense: Isaiah saw the LORD in a visionary mode, and John is talking about seeing as more than having a vision.

5. The full deity of the Son must be kept steadily before us, to avoid the idea that the LORD or the Father are too high to be manifested, but the Son is somehow low enough to be manifested. The christophany tradition, even in a theologian as fundamentally correct as Irenaeus, has trouble shaking a naively subordinationist idiom.

6. The incarnation is not some kind of mere fact about God that could be treated as a true state of affairs before it happened. An actually incarnate Son before the annunciation to Mary would be a real theological problem. Therefore appeals to the incarnate Son being active and incarnate before the incarnation are dicey.

7. The outward acts of the Trinity are indivisible, yet these external actions reflect the order of the persons.

8. Difficult as it is to keep these things in balance, one of the goals of theologizing about them is to be able to communicate simply, clearly, helpfully, interestingly, invitingly, and without giving anybody the impression that you are taking Jesus away from them.

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