The Deep Things Of God: Understanding the Trinity
- Monday, September 20, 2010
However, if such advice were to be taken programmatically and urged as necessary, it seems to lead to the conclusion that some evangelicals will become more Trinitarian only if they become less evangelical. Minimally, such a program for Trinitarian renewal would require that those segments of the evangelical world which are nonliturgical, nontraditional, and nonsacramental would be involved in Trinitarian renewal only to the extent that they change their practices enough to accommodate the tacit resources of their high-church brethren. But this would be an unhelpful recommendation for many reasons. The primary reason is that these churches have theological convictions in place about this whole range of issues. There may be churches that are nonliturgical, nonsacramental, and nontraditional by accident, ignorance, or default, but most of them adopt these stances because they have biblical reasons for doing so. It's no good telling members of a credobaptist church that if they became paedobaptist they would feel the Trinity working in their lives more deeply. They have made decisions about infant baptism on other grounds and will hold to those decisions. To approach them as if they simply hadn't thought about the sacraments yet is by turns naïve and insulting.
The other reason to dissent from the conventional wisdom about the tacit dimension of Trinitarianism is that our task is to present the Trinity so that it will take deeper root in the soil of evangelicalism. That may require tilling the soil quite a bit, but it should not mean selling the farm. Suggesting that a nonliturgical, nonsacramental, nontraditional church should change all these practices is tantamount to declaring that their evangelical culture (and the constellation of doctrinal and practical characteristics connected to that culture) should be altered. What we are undertaking, however, is to inculturate the doctrine of the Trinity into evangelicalism, and we are therefore more interested in finding elements in that culture which are consonant with the tacit framework required for robust Trinitarianism. Evangelicalism certainly would profit from becoming more thoroughly Trinitarian by whatever means necessary. However, rather than pushing evangelicalism to shift its resource base, I am recommending that evangelicals should work harder with the resources already available in plenty.
What are the resources at hand? When teaching evangelical Christians about the doctrine of the Trinity, what are the powerful but unstated realities that the theologian can invoke in order to make connections with experience? What tacit awareness is lying latently
ready in the minds of these believers from which to generate conceptual tools for this theological feat of conscious reflection? Evangelicals who demur from deep tradition, elaborate liturgy, and realist sacramentalism still have plentiful resources for deep Trinitarianism. Everything they do is grounded in Trinitarian commitments, and every evangelical practice repays further reflection: proclamation of the gospel, personal appropriation of salvation, assurance of salvation, submission to biblical authority, knowledge of the Bible, authoritative preaching, affective worship, conversational prayer, world missions, and many of the other standard features of evangelical church life are rich resources for Trinitarian exploration. Dig anywhere and you will hit Trinitarian gold.
The evangelical emphasis on the conscious experience of salvation is an obvious characteristic of the movement. It has come to be associated with the phrase "born again" and is described in more sociological language as "convertive piety." This experience of conversion is the concrete, experiential reality that the abstract, conceptual terminology of Trinitarian doctrine can appeal to in order to find a connection with existing knowledge. Because God saves us by opening himself to us and making the divine life available for our restoration and rescue, salvation occurs according to a Trinitarian order. The sentence of salvation is coherent and correct because it operates according to an underlying Trinitarian grammar, whether the speaker can codify those grammatical rules or not. All who are born again are born again by the power of the Trinity, as the Father sends the Spirit of his Son into their hearts. When the rules of this grammar of salvation are made explicit, what emerges into understanding is the doctrine of the Trinity. The thing itself is there, making possible rational reflection on it which explicates the rules of its own being.
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