The Deep Things Of God: Understanding the Trinity
- Monday, September 20, 2010
The doctrine of the Trinity flourishes, not when it is merely stated accurately, but when it is affirmed in the context of a pre-discursive, nonthematic background awareness of the reality of the Trinity. This noncognitive background (or tacit dimension) is necessary to fund productive, thematic, theological reflection on the doctrine. There are in fact gospel resources for robust Trinitarianism that have yet to be articulated in a recognizably evangelical idiom. We need to beware the danger of evangelical self-misunderstanding and highlight instead the properly evangelical resources which are in danger of being overlooked. The evangelical saints are already living out the primary Trinitarianism, this communion with the Holy Trinity. But evangelicalism's theorists have often failed to give voice to the things their people are experiencing. There is already something deeply Trinitarian going on in evangelical churches, and when that something begins to fund theological reflection, we can expect a significant contribution from these churches. "If evangelicals are the people of the gospel we claim to be," to extend the implications of Noll's conditional, then all that is required is for evangelical theologians to grasp the way gospel and Trinity mutually presuppose each other, in order for them to become manifestly what they are tacitly: people of the Trinity.
How A Doctrine Stopped Working
It is now a commonplace to note how poorly the doctrine of the Trinity fared when the world turned modern. The regime of rationalism and this-worldliness that took hold of intellectual culture sometime around the late seventeenth century was not kind to this central Christian doctrine. That story, along with the tale of the doctrine's supposed rescue by theologians like Karl Barth and Karl Rahner, is frequently told in histories of the doctrine.19 But there is a distinctively evangelical version of the quiescence and ineffectiveness that took hold of Trinitarianism for so long. In this community, the doctrine has been hung on the horns of a dilemma: one horn is subjective religious experience and the other is reduction to mere propositional formula. The tiresome oscillation between pietism and rationalism, not especially healthy for any aspect of Christian life, has been especially hard on the doctrine of the Trinity. From neither place, head nor heart, can the doctrine be articulated as it must be, with an inherent connection to the gospel. A quick survey of how the evangelical tradition has handled the doctrine of the Trinity will show that evangelical Trinitarian theology has an unfinished task: to describe how the Trinity is connected to the gospel and avoid the extremes of subjective religious experience and mere propositionalism.
Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) grappled seriously with the problem of how to show a connection between gospel and Trinity. Perverse though it may be to start an enquiry into evangelical theology with a glance at the father of Protestant liberalism, it is necessary. His way of handling the doctrine of the Trinity is the right point of departure for the evangelical story, and his major decisions about this doctrine were driven by the evangelical instincts he inherited from his family. He came from an evangelical background in the pietist theology of
In standard accounts of how the Trinity came to be neglected in modern thought, Schleiermacher typically receives much of the blame. He famously placed the doctrine in the last few pages of his influential work The Christian Faith, making it something of an appendix to the main work.20 One could make too much of a doctrine's location in a book, but in the case of a thinker so consummately systematic as Schleiermacher, location does signify a great deal. Since Christianity is "essentially distinguished from other faiths by the fact that in it everything is related to the redemption accomplished by Jesus of Nazareth,"21 Schleiermacher's theology is entirely centered on that redemption, or rather on the knowledge of that redemption, the contents of the self-consciousness of the redeemed. "We shall exhaust the whole compass of Christian doctrine if we consider the facts of the religious self-consciousness, first, as they are presupposed by the antithesis expressed in the concept of redemption, and secondly, as they are determined by that antithesis."22
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