The Deep Things Of God: Understanding the Trinity
- Monday, September 20, 2010
What is needed is an approach to the doctrine of the Trinity that takes its stand on the experienced reality of the Trinity, and only then moves forward to the task of verbal and conceptual clarification. The principle is, first the reality, then the explanation. What goes wrong in so much popular discussion of the Trinity is that Christians approach the doctrine as if it were their job to construct it from bits and pieces of verses, arguments, and analogies. The doctrine itself seems to lie on the far side of a mental project. If the project is successful, they will achieve the doctrine of the Trinity and be able to answer questions like Why have three persons? and What is the Trinity like? But the right method would begin with an immersion in the reality of the triune God and only then turn to the task of explaining. The words and concepts would then find their proper places in the context of a life that is marked by the recognized presence of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This kind of teaching about the Trinity would not be a project of constructing a complex idea but of unpacking a comprehensive reality that we would already find ourselves in the midst of as Christians.
What can be done to make the doctrine of the Trinity flourish in evangelical theology as if this were its own native soil? What would it take to inculturate Trinitarianism in the culture of evangelicalism? I am arguing that we need to start with the resources at hand, right where we are. We know more than we can say about the Trinity, and we should not let ourselves be trapped into thinking that everything depends on our ability to articulate the mystery of the triune God. But we do need to be reminded that we are immersed in a Trinitarian reality. It is possible to be radically Trinitarian without knowing it or to have amnesia about one's real status. We may be formed and schooled by a movement that came into being as the most consistently Trinitarian force in the history of Christianity, but we can live in a way that is alienated from those Trinitarian riches.
However impoverished its articulation may be, the Trinitarian reality itself is there in the lives of evangelical churches. Evangelicalism as a movement is unthinkable without a certain underlying Trinitarian logic of experience. Robust Trinitarian theology never occurs in a vacuum; it always flourishes in the context of a rich experiential and cultural setting that provides the background against which the doctrinal formulations register as meaningful. Robert Louis Wilken has celebrated the way the doctrinal theology of Christianity's formative period reasoned "from history, from ritual, and from text," so that "concepts and abstractions were always put at the service of a deeper immersion in the rest, the thing itself, the mystery of Christ and the practice of the Christian life."17 It is common (as we will see below) to argue that a self-consciously high-church setting, well stocked with tradition, liturgy, and sacramental realism, is the proper soil in which Trinitarianism can be best cultivated.
Without denigrating those resources or denying that they can fund a vigorous Trinitarian theology (also among some high-church evangelicals), I want to argue that there is other soil in which the doctrine of the Trinity can thrive. The kind of low-church evangelicalism that is spreading so rapidly around the world in our era contains deep resources for effective Trinitarian theology. Evangelicalism may be the sleeping giant of renewed Trinitarian theology in the life of the church, if it comes to understand itself aright. The "if" is important, and it also figures prominently in the recent assessment by Mark Noll, speaking not of Trinitarian theology but of the life of the mind in general: "For evangelicals (as for other Christians) the greatest hope for learning in any age . . . lies in the Christian faith itself, which in the end means in Jesus Christ. Thus, if evangelicals are the people of the gospel we claim to be, our intellectual rescue is close at hand."18
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