Essay / Theology

T.R.I.U.N.E. God

The main reason the doctrine of the Trinity can be difficult for inquirers to grasp, or for believers to get comfortable with, is that it contains so many ideas within itself. It is a doctrine that summarizes vast stretches of biblical revelation, integrates them, and holds them together so they can be taken in at one mental glance. Trinity is a big, densely-packed doctrine. The three, the one; the economic, the immanent; the substance, the persons; the Old Covenant, the New Covenant: It’s all in there.

Augustus Hopkins Strong, in his sprawling, thousand-page Systematic Theology, did everything he could to teach the doctrine of the Trinity in a memorable way. On the first page of his 50,000-word discussion of the Trinity, he announces six statements that, together, express the doctrine of the Trinity.

You can skim these six points and come back to them later if interested. They’re solid. But the unusual bit is just below them:

The doctrine of the Trinity may be expressed in the six following statements: 1. In Scripture there are three who are recognized as God. 2. These three are so described in Scripture that we are compelled to conceive of them as distinct persons. 3. This tripersonality of the divine nature is not merely economic and temporal, but is immanent and eternal. 4. This tripersonality is not tritheism, for while there are three persons, there is but one essence. 5. The three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are equal. 6. Inscrutable yet not self contradictory, this doctrine furnishes the key to all other doctrines. These statements we proceed now to prove and to elucidate. (Strong, Systematic Theology p. 304)

Strong keeps his word, spending the next fifty pages unpacking those six statements.

Here’s the interesting bit. In a couple of different publications, Roger Olson has summarized A.H. Strong’s doctrine of the Trinity in this form: “an acrostic that contains the first letters of six statements elaborated by… Strong: TRIUNE.”

Three recognized as God;
Regarded as three distinct persons;
Immanent and eternal, not merely economical or temporal;
United in essence;
No inequality;
Explains all other doctrines yet itself inscrutable.

I can’t find any evidence that Strong himself designed or desired these six statements to fit into an acrostic. They flow logically and are strategically chosen to present the main lines of trinitarian doctrine, but it takes a little force to make them spell TRIUNE. In a footnote in his book The Mosaic of Christian Belief, Olson says that he “learned the acrostic from his own theology professor Dr. Ralph Powell of North American Baptist Seminary” (page 140).

So is this TRIUNE acrostic a Baptist tradition of teaching from Strong’s book? Did Powell invent it? Did Strong himself use it in classes but obscure it in print?

I don’t know. But it’s a nice piece of work.

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