The Deep Things Of God: Understanding the Trinity
- Monday, September 20, 2010
I turned around and knelt down by an old trunk that stood in the corner of the room, and I told the Lord I wanted to understand the Trinity, and that I was afraid of fanaticism, and I wanted Him to make it clear to me for His own sake. I don't know how long I prayed, but O, how my soul was filled with the light under the great baptism that came upon me. I came near falling prostrate, but bore-up when God revealed Himself so clearly to me, and I have understood it ever since. I can't just explain it to others, but God made me understand it so I have had no question since. Praise the Lord! Then he showed me three other things.
Smith undeniably had a powerful spiritual experience centered on the doctrine of the Trinity, but it is equally undeniable that the problem her experience solved for her is the problem of how the doctrine itself can make sense. In a single ineffable moment, a "great baptism," she leapt the divide between doctrine and life. Perhaps if she had been able to "explain it to others," her explanation would have laid bare the evangelical substructure of Trinitarian commitment; perhaps this is what God made her understand to her own intellectual satisfaction. As it stands, however, the implicit advice from Smith's experience seems to be that troubled believers should likewise "pray through" to an ineffable moment of inward clarity and peace over this teaching.
For evangelicals, then, from Bunyan to Smith and down to the present, the doctrine has shrunk to a set of propositions that are to be held in the mind as verbalisms, remote from any possible direct experience or relevance. Because we believe in God's power to reveal truth, we believe that this is a revealed truth: God is triune. There seems to be no intrinsic reason God could not have revealed some other proposition to us, for instance, that God is quadrune, quintune, or blue. Karl Rahner famously lamented the parallel situation in Roman Catholic theology, in which it seemed as if "this mystery has been revealed for its own sake . . . we make statements about it, but as a reality it has nothing to do with us at all."32 Although the doctrine may still be dutifully taught and just as dutifully learned, it has long been viewed as an abstract series of propositions, an undigested lump of tradition or of revealed ideas. Like anything that should be living but is dead, it stays in its place and decays.
The Tacit Dimension Of Trinitarianism
As these case studies show, when we lose our ability to see the Trinity as directly connected to the gospel, we tend to reduce it to an issue of authority and mental obedience. No wonder, then, that the doctrine of the Trinity has been treated as something of a burden by many evangelicals. But this dysfunction of the doctrine is only one side of the story of evangelical Trinitarianism. The other side of the story is that the life of every healthy church and every true Christian is a manifestation of the work of the Trinity. Evangelicalism, even when it is handling the doctrine of the Trinity as a foreign artifact difficult to deal with, is nevertheless always already immersed in the rich, Trinitarian reality of the gospel. We are often in the strange position of being Trinitarian without knowing it, or of living in an encounter with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that we then give very weak and inadequate explanations of. We have the thing itself but act as if we do not know we have it.
The way forward for evangelical Trinitarianism is to get in touch with the deep, Trinitarian roots of our own history as evangelicals. The main way this will happen is by cultivating a deeper understanding of the gospel of salvation in all its Trinitarian contours. What we need is an advance in our theological understanding that does not take us anywhere new but directs us to the depth and richness right in the gospel resources at the heart of evangelicalism. Evangelicals especially need to learn to see the big picture of biblical Trinitarianism as one coherent whole rather than as a series of isolated parts.
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