Essay / Theology

Who Says We've Got Trinity Problems?

Over at Justin Taylor’s blog, Robert Sagers points out that all the back issues of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology are now online. That journal has had some good editorial vision in the last 13 years, so having every article just a .pdf away is a great resource.

One of my favorite moments in a theological interview was printed in the Spring 2006 issue’s SBJT Forum, on the doctrine of the Trinity. The interviewer sent D.A. Carson the following question:

What elements of the doctrine of the Trinity are largely overlooked in substantial swaths of today’s evangelicalism? And what are the practical implications of such neglect?

and D.A. Carson responded:

The question is a bit cheeky…

–which is just a great answer. Of course Carson went on to explain very helpfully what was “a bit cheeky” about the question. But it’s fun just to see the man at his characteristically abrupt best. Notice that he’s not playing the pedantic professor routine: “Your question, young man, is so ill conceived and so badly formulated…” [pause while prof removes glasses, rubs eyes wearily]”that no possible answer to it could approximate verity. Class dismissed.” Instead, he’s speaking as a pastor/prophet who has just been invited to criticize the church. Carson’s not above criticizing the church or pointing out what is lacking in “substantial swaths of today’s evangelicalism.” But I love the way he registers an objection to the presupposition that the main thing called for on a topic like the Trinity is critique.

He’s not even rebuking the interviewer, just pointing out the hidden presupposition in the question, as is clear from his extended response:

The question is a bit cheeky, of course, since it assumes that much is wrong. All of us know fine evangelical churches that are carefully trying to teach the whole counsel of God. While majoring on biblical exposition, they are also enthusiastic about teaching sufficient historical and systematic theology to give their members a sense of the historical continuity and of the doctrinal heritage of the people of God.

Nevertheless, it is doubtless fair to assert that in many churches the doctrine of the Trinity is merely asserted, or in some cases merely assumed, but never or at best rarely taught. When was the last time you heard a good sermon on the subject, complete with careful demonstration of its pastoral and spiritual relevance?

Who says we’ve got Trinity problems? A good evangelical church of the kind Carson describes is getting the trinitarian job done. The people in these churches are gathering to worship the Father, Son and Spirit. They are hearing the word of God about Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit. They are praying to the Father by the mediation of the Son and the intercession of the Spirit.

Could Christians of this sort go on to a better understanding of what they are doing, and of what it has to do with God being the Trinity? Of course they could. And they should be invited to that better understanding by a kind of preaching and teaching that has the character of filling in the gaps, strengthening what’s already right, drawing out latent resources that are already familiar, and connecting the dots that are already in place. The tone should be edifying (“excel still more“) and not scolding or self-flagellating (“We, by which I mean you, are so lame!”).

As I’ll announce here at Scriptorium in due course, I’ve got a book coming out this month from Crossway, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything, in which I try to strike the right balance between what we’ve got right and where we need to move forward.

Carson goes on to say that “a responsible answer to the question could easily be expanded into a book,” and while he’s not writing a book on it (Hey, did I mention that I’ve got a book on this subject coming out? I did?), he makes five good points briefly:

1. We should show “how the texts of the Bible came to generate what came to be called, in the patristic period, the doctrine of the Trinity.” That is, teach the doctrine of the Trinity in such a way that it is obviously biblical.

2. We should teach the doctrine as a way of knowing God, so that believers will long to be edified by thinking with proper precision about who God is. (“The alternative is to be so sloppy about how we think of God that the sloppiness spills over into our everyday speech, and even into our praying: e.g., “Heavenly Father, we just want to thank you for dying on the cross for us.”)

3. We should teach the doctrine of the Trinity in close contact with christology, to help us comprehend all that the Bible teaches about Jesus who is the son of God, fully divine and fully human.

4. We should teach the doctrine of the Trinity in conjunction with the doctrine of God’s love, because the Trinity is a doctrine that results from thinking through the distinctively Christian idea of God’s love to the very foundations. (“In the Old Testament, where the picture of God being a complex unity is still blurred, God’s love is displayed in his care for his world, in the way he entreats sinners, in his love for his chosen covenant people…. Sooner or later, however, one cannot help but wonder in what precise sense it is proper to talk about God’s love in eternity past.”)

5. We should teach the Trinity in close connection with the whole idea of God’s revelation: “All of the persons of the Godhead are united in a complex, integrated, role-specific commitment to the self-disclosure of God in what we call “revelation” designed to bring himself glory and to benefit his people.”

These are some guidelines for how to teach the doctrine. But as Carson’s reorientation of the original question indicated, we don’t have to start from scratch to do this: A good church is already full of good trinitarian believers, already immersed in the reality of the work of the Father, Son, and Spirit, and just waiting to be led into greater understanding.

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