The Deep Things Of God: Understanding the Trinity
- Monday, September 20, 2010
To "exhaust the whole compass of Christian doctrine" by analyzing redemption may seem to run the risk of reducing theology to a study of salvation, but Schleiermacher's method is expansive enough to include much besides salvation. The Christian consciousness of redemption presupposes concepts such as God's holiness, righteousness, love, and wisdom; the opposing negative states of evil and sin; and the transition between them by way of Christ and the church through rebirth and sanctification. These concepts, further, presuppose others: creation and preservation, an original state of human perfection, and the divine attributes of eternity, omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience. Even angels and devils can be given a place within the redemption-centered project of The Christian Faith, although only a bit tentatively, since their alleged operations are so far at the periphery of the Christian consciousness of redemption that angelology "never enters into the sphere of Christian doctrine proper."23
The Trinity, however, could not be admitted to the doctrinal system proper, because it could not be related to the gospel, or, in Schleiermacher's terms, it is not directly implicated in redemption: "It is not an immediate utterance concerning the Christian self-consciousness but only a combination of several such utterances." Piecing together doctrines to construct more elaborate doctrines was something Schleiermacher regarded with horror, because it led out from the living center of the faith to the arid regions of theologoumena (words about words!), where dogmaticians do their deadening work. Schleiermacher had long since rejected that approach in his early speeches On Religion: "Among those systematizers there is less than anywhere, a devout watching and listening to discover in their own hearts what they are to describe. They would rather reckon with symbols."24
The young Romantic may have grown up to write a big book of doctrine, but he continued his "devout watching and listening" and never betrayed his basic insight or became one of "those systematizers" content to "reckon with symbols." Because the Trinity could not be directly connected to redemption, Schleiermacher placed it well outside the life-giving core of The Christian Faith. In the heading of the section where he finally treated it, Schleiermacher pointed out that the doctrine of the Trinity could not be considered an issue that was "finally settled," because after all it "did not receive any fresh treatment when the [Protestant] Church was set up; and so there must still be in store for it a transformation which will go back to its very beginnings."25 Schleiermacher considered it obvious that if the Trinity were implicated in the evangel, the evangelisch (that is, Protestant) awakening of the sixteenth century would have transformed and deepened it as it had everything central to Christian redemption.
The whole point of our book is to insist that gospel and Trinity are internally linked, so we obviously dissent from Schleiermacher's judgments about Trinitarianism. However, we are tracing the story of what goes wrong that makes this doctrine stop mattering to evangelicals. And Schleiermacher's assessment that there is nothing Trinitarian to be discerned in the Christian consciousness of redemption has had its forecasts and echoes throughout the evangelical tradition. The characteristic evangelical response, however, has not been to deny the doctrine, or even to move it to an appendix of the systematic theology texts, as Schleiermacher did. The evangelical tradition at large has not usually been as phobic about propositional revelation as Schleiermacher was nor as allergic to the clear doctrinal statements that propositional revelation makes possible. Indeed, connecting discrete propositions found in Scripture, and believing them on the basis of the authority of Scripture as the word of God, has been a crucial method in evangelical theology all along. Our path has been different from Schleiermacher's, though we started from the same blind spot. When a theologian has to function under the salutary pressure of authoritatively revealed sentences, but in the debilitating absence of a lively sense of the connection between gospel and Trinity, Trinitarian commitments take on a particular pathos. This tension is pervasive in evangelical history, but its workings can be seen instructively in three examples from three centuries: John Bunyan, Isaac Watts, and Amanda Smith.
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