Essay / Theology

What’s New in Trinitarian Theology

God never changes, but theology can. The triune God never changes, but there’s always plenty to talk about and lots to learn in the field of trinitarian theology. Good books keep rolling off the presses on this central Christian doctrine (see my recs for intro books here), and there are also interesting things developing outside the books. Here is a top ten list of trends that are worth watching in contemporary trinitarian theology. Some are cause for worry, some are cause for celebration, and some are just interesting opportunities for theologians devoted to the Trinity. (For details on numbers one through five, check out my article “The State of the Doctrine of the Trinity in Evangelical Theology” in the Southwestern Journal of Theology 47/2 (Fall 2005), 153-176.)

1. Big Bang Christology Exploding On the Scene.
For decades, critical scholars have believed that they could discern chronological layers within the New Testament, and that the earlier layers showed a Jesus who was just a very special man, while the later layers promoted him to increasingly high rank: from prophet to miracle-worker to messiah to pre-existent force to eternal Son. In recent years, numerous scholars have undercut this developmental hypothesis. They still perceive chronological layers, such as Mark being earlier than John and even Mark itself showing traces of having been assembled from oral traditions of varying ages. But many scholars are now arguing that once you identify the earliest layers, you find that the earliest Christologies were already the highest Christologies. In fact, not only his first disciples, but Jesus himself spoke in a way that identified this man with the God of Israel. It was all there from the beginning, in a kind of Christological big bang. If you’re theologically conservative and don’t read a lot of academic theology, you may be saying “how could they ever have believed otherwise?” What’s new and worth watching in this “Early High Christology” movement is the way numerous scholars are independently finding fascinating new ways of arguing for a trinitarian intentionality within the minds of the New Testament authors themselves. It’s more of a trend than a school of thought; perhaps it’s even a backlash against decades of minimalism in New Testament studies. Keep an eye on scholars as diverse as Richard Bauckham, N. T. Wright, Larry Hurtado, and Simon Gathercole.

2. Biblicists Failing to Perceive Eternal Generation
The conceptual breakthrough that led the early church to confess the doctrine of the Trinity is the doctrine of eternal generation: that not only has the eternal Son of God always existed as a person distinct from the eternal Father, but that the Son has always stood in a relation of “fromness” to the Father. There was never when the Son was not, theologians like Athanasius argued, but the Son owes his personal origin to the Father. Arians denied eternal generation because they didn’t believe the Son was truly coeternal with the Father. But in recent years, some very conservative theologians who believe in the deity of Christ and the triunity of God are beginning to deny the Son’s eternal generation. Robert L. Reymond is the most influential and articulate such theologian. John MacArthur once taught that whatever Jesus was in eternity past, it was not “son,” but he has publicly taken a better position.

This new class of deniers of eternal generation is extremely committed to believing whatever the Bible teaches, and not a word more. In itself, that’s a commendable approach to the doctrine of God. But to affirm the Trinity while denying eternal generation is a bit like climbing into the barn loft and then kicking away the ladder that got you there. Eternal generation is one of the constituent parts of the doctrine of the Trinity as the church has always believed it. The fact that the eternal Son walked among us as the incarnate Son is the insight that taught Christians how to see that the one God is Father and Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Without that line that connects the Son of God’s temporal sending to his eternal coming-forth from the Father, the doctrine of the Trinity has much less connection to the central events of salvation history.

3. Gender Troubling the Trinity
In the category of “far more heat than light,” there is the way the Trinity is being used in gender discussions. Observers of the debate know that evangelical complementarians and evangelical egalitarians have been vying with each other about the nature of the relationships between men and women in family, church, and society. For some time now, both sides have been appealing to the doctrine of the Trinity in various ways. One side argues that a certain relationship of either subordination or equality of woman to man should be maintained because of the eternal relationship of the Son to the Father. The other side replies by accusing its opponent of intentionally constructing a doctrine of God in service of a social agenda, projecting a particular view of inner-trinitarian relations simply in order to underwrite a particular view of male-female relations. The rhetoric in this discussion has tended to heat up pretty quickly. Australian Kevin Giles has made a second career of accusing his opponents of being Arian heretics despite their best intentions and their protestations to the contrary. There may indeed be progress we can make if we ponder the uncreated mystery of the Trinity at the same time as we ponder the created mystery of maleness and femaleness. There are a few passages of Scripture which point to connections. What’s at stake here on the Trinity side of things is our ability to recognize the Son’s distinctive way of being God, and since that is a relation so absolutely singular, it seems best to take one mystery at a time.

4. Philosophical Theology Coming on Strong
Pound for pound, it seems like about half of the trinitarian theology being published these days is coming from Christian philosophers of religion and philosophical theologians, rather than by doctrinal or systematic theologians. What is the difference between these two creatures? Well, they have different training, read different journals, appeal to different criteria, and sometimes seem to be speaking different scholarly languages even when much of the vocabulary is the same. To systematic theologians, the rigor and speed of analytic philosophical discourse is astonishing. Articles, rejoinders, and surrejoinders are published in rapid succession (see a few here). Ambiguity is not tolerated! When this scholarly community turns its attention to the doctrine of the Trinity, the topic of their first and greatest interest is the reconciliation of the three and the one. Among theologians, this “threeness/oneness problem” is considered to be one minor issue among many more important issues on the doctrinal, hermeneutical, historical, and spiritual fronts. The philosophers can’t imagine why we haven’t tidied this up long ago, and frankly they wonder what it is we have been working on all this time. SWOT analysis: Strengths: these philosopher types are sharp, and they might think of new tricks. Weaknesses: these philosopher types tend to be poorly trained in biblical and historical argumentation, which makes them more likely to blunder in evidence-handling. Opportunity: If theologians and philosophers learn to speak each other’s languages, both communities will benefit and trinitarian theology can only prosper. Threat: If somebody doesn’t become bilingual, we’ll soon see two distinct communities of discourse misunderstanding each other as they natter incessantly about the Trinity.

5. Anti-trinitarian Groups Getting Their Acts Together
Sometimes it seems like the trinitarians lack all conviction, while the anti-trinitarians are full of passionate intensity, to paraphrase William Butler Yeats. So things fall apart. If somebody’s knocking on your door to talk about the Trinity, chances are they’re against it. It’s not the poor old-fashioned Unitarians in decline that are the cause of worry (though I bet they’re about to get an influx of liberal Episcopalians by September 30, 2007). The worrisome groups are the scrappy little anti-trinitarian groups who at least try to take the Bible seriously, like the Oneness Pentecostals and the Church of God General Conference/Abrahamic Faith.

The largest Oneness Pentecostal denomination, the UPCI, has pulled together a graduate school of theology with considerable resources. Since they’re thinking harder about being anti-trinitarian than most Christians are about being trinitarian, it’s just a matter of time until confusion spreads.

6. Talking with Muslims about Jesus
Increased apologetic dialogue and evangelistic encounter with Muslims is causing Christians to think through some of their basic convictions in new ways. If you have a tendency to hold your trinitarian theology in a nearly tritheistic way, a good conversation with a theologically alert Muslim can jolt you back into recognizing that Christian thought must be monotheistic. But the most interesting opportunities for theological exchange are in the area of Christology: All Muslims respect Jesus greatly as a prophet, and some Muslim traditions (Sufism especially) take him to be a word from God and a spirit from God. Talking with them is at least as good as talking with Arians. Further, some accounts of the Qur’an depict it as an eternal, even pre-existent word of God —which sounds more like what we would say in our doctrine of Christ than in our doctrine of Scripture. Sometimes by our agreements, and more often by our instructive disagreements, dialogue with Muslims is a spur to better trinitarianism.

7. Finding Its Place in Systematics
The way the doctrine of the Trinity is handled in the architectonic structure of full-scale systematic theologies by influential evangelical theologians is worth watching. Theologians have begun to recognize what a compelling center of thought this doctrine is, and are letting it inform their treatment of every doctrine. Don’t just read books on the doctrine of the Trinity; keep your eyes open for trinitarian books on every doctrine. Sometimes, the word “trinitarian” is the new “cool,” and will be tossed into book titles just to mean “seriously Christian” or something. But more and more theologians are really picking up on the fact that the particularity of the Christian doctrine of God should affect the way every Christian doctrine is described. It would be odd if our tripersonal God communicated, created, reconciled, or redeemed in exactly the same way as a merely unipersonal God.

8. Worshiping Trinity, Liturgically and Otherwise.
In some sectors of evangelical Christianity, there is an ongoing attempt to learn from ancient liturgical traditions (for instance in the western encounter with Eastern Orthodoxy that was such a big story for the later twentieth century), or even for pretty-old liturgical traditions (like for instance learning from the Reformers) or even not-too-recent liturgical traditions (more theologically meaty hymns blending w/praise songs). There’s even a movement toward giving more attention to the Trinity in contemporary praise songs, as Robin Parry argues. The fact is, we’ve been worshipping the Trinity all this time anyway in our churches, and more and more congregations are realizing that it might be worth our time to give some attention to that fact. Watch for some tidying-up of prayer-bloopers like “Thank you Father for dying on the cross for us,” or “Thank you Jesus for sending your Son.” We never meant to be modalist or patripassian or anything else; we just need to develop our theological literacy and devotional fluency with trinitarian language.

9. Learning with Pentecostals and Charismatics
Pentecostal / Charismatic / Third Wave experience of the Spirit continues to provoke theological reflection among evangelicals, and some of that Spirit-thinking is bound to bear fruit in Trinity-thinking. You don’t have to start speaking in tongues to benefit from this movement, and no particular segment of Christendom has cornered the market on the Holy Spirit. Even cessationists are breaking through to a greater awareness of the pneumatic dimension of Christian life. The Holy Spirit is often called “the Trinity’s shyest person” or “the Cinderella of the Trinity,” because he is easy to ignore. Certainly a forgetfulness of the Spirit is something to be deplored. But there’s also a perfectly good explanation for why the Spirit is frequently overlooked: his job is to focus our attention on Jesus. (“he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine.” John 16:13-15)

The better we know the Spirit, the better we will know the Father and the Son in their essential unity with the Spirit. If our knowledge and experience of the Spirit are currently sub-standard in any way, then revival in this one area will inevitably benefit in all. Call it supply-side trinitarianism: A rising tide lifts all hands.

10. Understanding our Deepest Trinitarian Presuppositions
Christian existence is a life with the Trinity. That’s what it is whether you reflect on it or not. Nothing that is Christian makes complete sense without recourse to the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. Nevertheless, many Christians manage to live a considerable time without ever breaking through to understanding the trinitarian presuppositions of everything they do. Take any evangelical practice as an example: how can you make sense of conversion, assurance of salvation, conversational prayer, devotional Bible study, personal evangelism, or world missions without naming the roles of the Father, Son, and Spirit in them? Never mind that some believers manage to do so —the time is drawing short for that kind of Trinity-forgetfulness, and soon everything that is tacitly presupposed will be shouted from the housetops, sung by the choirs, and cherished in hearts formed by sound doctrine.

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