The Deep Things Of God: Understanding the Trinity
- Fred Sanders Fred Sanders is a theologian who teaches in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University.
- 2010 20 Sep
[Editor's note: the following is an excerpt of The Deep Things of God, 2010, by Fred Sanders, published by Crossway Books. Used by permission.]
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
2 CORINTHIANS 13: 14
"You know me better then you think you know, and you shall come to know me better yet."
ASLAN TO FRANK THE CABBIE, THE MAGICIAN'S NEPHEW
Reality comes first, and understanding follows it. If you want to cultivate the ability to think well about the Trinity, the first step is to realize that there is more to Trinitarianism than just thinking well. Specifically, the starting point for a durable Trinitarian theology is not primarily a matter of carrying out a successful thought project. Christians are never in the beggarly position of gathering up a few concepts about God and then constructing a grand Trinitarian synthesis out of them. Christians are also not in the position of pulling together a few passages of Scripture, here a verse and there a verse, and cobbling them together into a brilliant doctrine that improves on Scripture's messiness. Instead, Christians should recognize that when we start thinking about the Trinity, we do so because we find ourselves already deeply involved in the reality of God's triune life as he has opened it up to us for our salvation and revealed it in the Bible. In order to start doing good Trinitarian theology, we need only to reflect on that present reality and unpack it. The more we realize that we are already compassed about by the reality of the gospel Trinity, the more our Trinitarianism will matter to us. Evangelicals in particular should recognize that we have everything we need to think about the Trinity in a way that changes everything.
The Trinitarian Theology Of Nick Cruz
Nicky Cruz is not famous for his Trinitarian theology. He is famous for having been the "warlord" of a violent street gang called the Mau-Maus in New York City in the 1950s and for the dramatic story of his 1958 conversion to Christianity. At the center of his conversion story was a confrontation between this hard-hearted, knife-wielding teenage gang leader and a young preacher who brought the simple message that Jesus loved him. It was a confrontation, that is, between The Cross and the Switchblade, as that young preacher David Wilkerson would put it in a book about his Times Square ministry.1 Nicky Cruz would retell the story from his own point of view in his 1968 biography, Run Baby Run.2 Against the dark background of his young life as a victim and a victimizer, Cruz tells about forgiveness, the power of Jesus Christ, and how he was set free from soul-crushing loneliness. That dramatic turnaround is the story Nicky Cruz is famous for. There is not a word about the Trinity in it. Looking back, Cruz would say, "I came to Jesus because I knew He loved me, and still didn't know anything about God."
But in 1976 Cruz wrote another book to describe what he called "the single most important fact of my Christian growth." The book was The Magnificent Three, and the fact that had become central to Cruz's Christian life by that time was the fact of the Trinity:
Something has emerged in my walk with God that has become the most important element of my discipleship. It has become the thing that sustains me, that feeds me, that keeps me steady when I am shaky. I have come to see God, to know Him, to relate to Him as Three-in-One, God as Father, Saviour, and Holy Spirit. God has given to me over the years a vision of Himself as Three-in-One, and the ability to relate to God in that way is the single most important fact of my Christian growth.
The Magnificent Three is Nicky Cruz's personal testimony to the power of the Trinity in his life. It never sold like Run Baby Run, but it is vintage Nicky Cruz, from the chapter about the salvation of a drug addict named Chico, to the healing of a nameless prostitute, to the chapter about Cruz being ambushed by rival gang members a few weeks after his conversion. As a theologian whose specialty is Trinitarian theology, I have several hundred books about the Trinity on my shelves, but only one of them includes a knife fight: the one by Nicky Cruz. "Dynamite! A real turn-on!" say the publishers in a prefatory note. "Nicky lays it on you with his hard-hitting straight talk. You are there with him—in the tenement, in the jail."4
Cruz's testimony to his experience with the Trinity is indeed powerful. He praises the three persons in turn, beginning with several chapters about Jesus as his "magnificent savior." He especially emphasizes Christ's presence, reality, and power to save. Cruz has already told us, "When I first became a Christian, I knew nothing about anything. So far as the things of God were concerned, I was a totally ignorant man. I knew nothing. But Jesus reached me despite my ignorance of Him."5 In these chapters he tries to look back and describe that strange knowledge he gained in his first encounter with Jesus, before he had learned any details. In prose that turns to prayer, Cruz says:
I remember when I saw the real Jesus for the first time. Suddenly I saw You as You really were. I saw that you were human, just like me....I saw that You had courage, You had guts. You had something I couldn't describe, something I had never seen before, something incredibly strong and tender all at the same time. I saw that You had power to squash me like a bug, and instead You poured out Your blood to save me, to love me, to heal my aching heart.
This is the heart of Cruz's message, and he moves effortlessly from the language of prayer to the language of invitation, directing his readers to the presence of Christ: "He wants to forgive you of your sin. He wants to heal you of your sickness. He wants to keep you from anxiety and fear and guilt. He wants to free you from every kind of bondage. And He is there with you now to do it. He is a wonderful, magnificent Saviour!"7
But this intense focus on Jesus does not keep Cruz from celebrating "the Magnificent Father," whose fatherhood "is not simply a figure of speech." God is not our father merely in a "universal and impersonal" sense of having created us but "also in a new, personal, special kind of fatherhood that is reserved for born-again Christians only. He is my Father not just because He created me but now also because He adopted me as His child! I am His creature, but more than that I am His adopted son!"8 Cruz is no less eloquent and impassioned about God the Father—his fatherly intimacy, his protection, his generosity, and his discipline—than he is about Jesus.
Nicky Cruz does not say very much about how his experience of Jesus and his experience of the Father are related to each other. But when he turns to the third person, "the Magnificent Holy Spirit," he begins tying the three together in one unified view of salvation. He accomplishes this by pointing out the absolute necessity of the Spirit's work in bringing us into contact with the Father and the Son:
God is a magnificent Father. God is a magnificent Savior, Jesus Christ. But if it were not for the magnificent Holy Spirit, I would still be a wretched, hateful sinner! It is not enough to have a Father-God who loves and provides for me. It is not enough even to have a Savior who died for my sins. For any of those blessings to make a difference in our lives, there must also be present in this world that Third Person of God, the Holy Spirit.
In what sense is the ministry of the third person necessary? The Spirit's work is necessary because he is the one who actually brings us into contact with the Son and the Father. It does not take away from the Father and the Son to say that their work depends on the work of the Spirit. As Cruz argues, though Jesus died for us and the Father forgives us, we need to ask ourselves, "But why did you come to Jesus in the first place?" and answer, "Because you were drawn by God the Holy Spirit."
Jesus saved me; the Father forgave me. But the Holy Spirit convicted me, brought me to my knees, showed me God.... He showed me Jesus Christ, and I was gripped by His strong, sweet love. And then He shoved Me toward God, and I gladly fell into the arms of my loving Father.
In the work of the Spirit, the purposes of God are fulfilled, and all the salvation, forgiveness, and fellowship are realized. Nicky Cruz is famous for preaching a simple gospel message in a way that is relevant to street-hardened young people. He is not famous for his Trinitarian theology, and it might even seem incongruous to highlight him early in a book about the doctrine of the Trinity. He goes out of his way to make sure nobody confuses him for a theology professor: "I don't know everything there is to know about theology. I am not a Greek scholar. I am just a Puerto Rican street kid whom God picked up from the slums in New York and made into a disciple and a minister. But there is one thing I know . . . I know that God is my Father."11 He also makes sure nobody can mistake his book for systematic theology: "This is not a doctrinal treatise on the Trinity. It is not a theological statement. I am not capable of that. It is a personal statement, a testimony, a simple sharing of how God the Magnificent Three lives in my life every day."12 And even though Cruz brings his own voice and his own life experience to his Trinitarian testimony, he is not trying to teach anything novel. His Trinitarian theology is not "his" in the sense of originating with him; it is his personal discovery of something that has been the common faith and experience of Christians since the time of the apostles.
There is nothing in Nicky Cruz's book on the Trinity that was not already implicit in his previous books. His understanding of salvation and the Christian life did not change between Run Baby Run and The Magnificent Three. From the moment of his dramatic conversion, he had known that Jesus saves and the Father forgives. In his earliest days of Bible study he came to understand how it had been the sovereign "shove" of the Holy Spirit that had been at work behind the scenes. None of this was new information when he began to describe the Trinity as "the most important element" of his discipleship. In fact, Cruz had even affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity from the beginning. It seems as if nothing had changed, yet he began writing about his relationship with the Father, Son, and Spirit with the excitement of having made a life-changing discovery. He called it "the thing that sustains me, that feeds me, that keeps me steady when I am shaky." Though Cruz had gained no new information, he wrote as if his new grasp of the Trinity had changed everything about his Christian life.
The difference is that he had gotten on the inside of the doctrine. He had moved from accepting it on the authority of Scripture and his trusted elders to understanding it from within. "I didn't understand it. I believed it was true, though at first only because I had such great confidence in those who taught it to me. Then later I believed it was true because I saw it to be true in the Bible." This was an important transition in itself, maturing from a necessarily immature trust in human authority, to direct reliance on divine authority. But it was still only authority, and only worked on Cruz from outside. "So I believed it, but I still didn't understand it." What Cruz experienced in his Trinitarian awakening was a kind of shift in how he perceived the same idea: first, he saw the Trinity as a difficult doctrine that had to be accepted but could hardly be explained, then he went on to see it as an illuminating doctrine that explained what he read in the Bible and what he experienced in his actual Christian life. Whereas he first encountered the doctrine as a problem, he came to understand it as a solution.
Cruz recalls his early exasperation with the doctrine in a way that probably rings true for many Christians who wouldn't express it so bluntly: "Why have three persons, I thought, when it confuses me so much? It seemed to me such a totally unnecessary complication. Why couldn't God just be God? Then I could understand Him. This ‘Trinity' business I accepted by faith, but I could not relate to it at all."13 The transformation in his life took place when he realized that the things described in the doctrine were things he was already in contact with. He knew Jesus, the Father, and the Spirit through their work in his life. The doctrine of the Trinity was the key to understanding that those three experiences belonged together because the God behind them was the one God, making himself known as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit precisely because he eternally exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. "I understand that God is so much more to me as Three-in-One than He could ever be in any other way," Cruz wrote. "I know now how much easier it is for me to relate to Him in that day-to-day way because He is three."14 He goes on:
I'm not talking about theology. What I am describing is something different from merely believing in the doctrine of the Trinity. I have always believed in the doctrine of the Trinity but I had never experienced God personally as Three-in-One. It was at first merely a doctrine in which I believed, but now it has become a truth of everyday life. God has developed in me a sense of the separate relationships which I can have with Father, Savior, and Holy Spirit. He has shown me the strength that comes from those separate relationships, the power for living that comes from the three faces of God. He has taught me to feed off the Trinity for my daily sustenance, rather than just having some vague feeling that the Trinity is somehow true.
People can become Christians after learning a very small amount of doctrine and information. As they grow in discipleship, they read more of the Bible and come to understand more than they had understood before. But what Nicky Cruz's Trinitarian testimony highlights is that the decisive factor is not a transfer of information. There was no brand-new data put into his thought process, and he did not have to change his mind about any of his beliefs. He had already been believing in the Trinity for some time when he woke up to the difference the Trinity makes for every aspect of his Christian life. His radical Trinitarianism did not come from an advanced theology lesson; it came from the gospel and then led him to an advanced theology lesson. He was like a man who found a treasure hid in a field that he didn't have to buy, because he already owned it. He heard God calling him to dig into the depths, and what he found there changed everything for him.
Something More Then Words
The kind of Trinitarianism that we need is not simply the acceptance of a doctrine. The doctrine of the Trinity is not, in the first instance, something to be constructed by argument from texts. At best, that method will lead to mental acknowledgment that "the Trinitarian theory" best accounts for the evidence marshaled. The first step on the way to the heart of the Trinitarian mystery is to recognize that as Christians we find ourselves already deeply involved in the triune life and need only to reflect rightly on that present reality. Most evangelical Christians don't need to be talked into the Trinitarian theory; they need to be shown that they are immersed in the Trinitarian reality. We need to see and feel that we are surrounded by the Trinity, compassed about on all sides by the presence and the work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. From that starting point, truly productive teaching can begin.
There is certainly a time and place for introducing the words, concepts, propositions, and truth claims of Trinitarian theology. But too often in contemporary teaching about the Trinity, those words not only come first; they come first, last, and exclusively. The Trinity seems to most evangelicals like a doctrinal formula to be received and believed by a mental act of understanding. In short, it is at best a true fact about God that we hold in our minds in the form of words. Teaching about it is then a matter of using words to lead learners to more words. "Words, words, words," was Prince Hamlet's reply when he was asked what he was reading, but that was hardly a sign of a balanced mind or a generous spirit. A Christian who is reading about the Trinity ought to be able to say he is reading more than "words, words, words." Evangelical commitment to the Trinity should not stay confined to the realm of verbal exercises; it ought to dive deeper and rise higher than the power of words. It ought to begin from the experienced reality of the Trinitarian grace of God and lead us to a deeper encounter with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
A merely verbal approach to the Trinity is doomed to be shallow, weak, and brittle, because it will be no stronger than our own ability to understand and articulate what we are thinking about. This is in fact the plight that much evangelical Trinitarianism finds itself in at the popular level. As I have taught in various churches about the doctrine of the Trinity in the past twelve years, I have tried to answer the top three questions that evangelicals bring with them: Is it biblical? Does it make sense? And does it matter? These are all good questions and deserve the most helpful answers a theologian can bring to a congregation.16 But I have learned that if the first two questions are answered only at the level of verbal maneuvers, the third question has a tendency to loom impossibly large.
The question, Is it biblical? can be answered by a congeries of Bible verses proving various elements of the doctrine. First we provide biblical proofs of the deity of the Son, then the deity of the Spirit, then the personhood of the Spirit, then the distinction between the Father and the Son, then the distinction between the Son and the Spirit, and so on, either beginning or ending with biblical proof of the unity of God. It is possible to catch a glimpse of the deeper Trinitarian logic of the Bible's total message through this approach, but when time is short, the biblical proof of the Trinity is reduced to a verse-by-verse affair.
That leads to the second question, does it make sense? There are a few satisfying, logical distinctions to make here, especially in pointing out that God is not one something and also somehow three of the same something's (which would be a strict, logical contradiction), but one being in three persons (which still requires further explanation, but is not simply a contradiction). But the apparently inevitable next step in pursuing the question, Does it makes sense? is the sub-question, What is the best analogy for the Trinity? This sub-question is usually the death-knell for Trinitarianism's relevance. Analogies can play a useful role in thinking about God, but when the hankering for an analogy arises right here, on the border between "Does it make sense" and "Does it matter," it is usually a sign that Trinitarian thinking has devolved into a verbal project for its own sake. It has become a matter of getting the right words, so they can lead us to more of the right words. Serial proof-texting gives way to broken analogies, confronting us with an unanswerable "so what" question. How do we fall so quickly from three perfectly good questions (Is it biblical? Does it make sense? And does it matter?) to a form of discourse as hollow as an echo chamber? What is the difference between a belief in the Trinity that simply doesn't matter and one that changes everything?
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
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 Herrnhut, Moravia. But he resolutely developed that pietistic evangelicalism into a thoroughly modern system of thought.
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
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.
John Bunyan (1628-1688) devoted only one extended meditation to this doctrine, a piece entitled "Of the Trinity and a Christian," whose title suggests an interest in something practical and perhaps edifying. The descriptive subtitle specifies that it is about "How a young or shaken Christian should demean himself under the weighty thoughts of the Doctrin of the Trinity." The problem Bunyan wants to solve for the "young or shaken Christian" is that the Trinity is a difficult doctrine, seeming to contradict reason by proposing that one is three or vice versa. This intellectual conflict could lead the believer to question what is clearly revealed in Scripture, which is tantamount to questioning God himself. But Bunyan warns: "It is great lewdness, and also insufferable arrogancy to come to the Word of God, as conceiting already that whatever thou readest must either by thee be understood, or of it self fall to the ground as a senseless error." The proper response to this hard doctrine is to submit one's human judgment to God's greater wisdom: "But God is wiser than Man, wherefore fear thou him and tremble at his Word, saying still, with godly suspicion of thine own infirmity, what I see not teach thou me, and thou art God only wise; but as for me, I was as a beast before thee."26
Surely Bunyan strikes the appropriate human posture in the face of God's wisdom, but we might ask why it is the doctrine of the Trinity in particular that spurs his reflection on humility of mind. Why is it precisely here that we are invited to yield our understanding before the incomprehensibility of God and his secret counsels? The answer, sadly, seems to be that when Bunyan thought about the doctrine of the Trinity, he thought of something remote from the business of salvation, but authoritatively revealed and necessary to be believed. The doctrine seems to have turned from a mystery of salvation to a problem of intellectual coherence.27
Isaac Watts (1674-1748) felt the same tension, but by his era there had been considerable debate about whether this hard doctrine was in fact scriptural.28 The debates took their toll on Watts, and although most of his hymns and sermons are a glorious legacy of Trinitarian worship, he became much less confident about the traditional form of the doctrine later in his life. Watts was as submissive to scriptural revelation as Bunyan but was deeply troubled about what doctrine he was being asked to submit his understanding to: "Dear and blessed God, hadst thou been pleased, in any one plain scripture, to have informed me which of the different opinions about holy Trinity, among the contending parties of christians, had been true, thou knowest with how much real satisfaction and joy, my unbiased heart would have opened itself to receive and embrace the divine discovery."
If only God had shown "plainly, in any single text, that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are three real distinct Persons" in one divine nature, Watts says, "I had never suffered myself to be bewildered in so many doubts, nor embarrassed with so many strong fears of assenting to the mere inventions of men, instead of divine doctrine; but I should have humbly and immediately accepted thy words, so far as it was possible for me to understand them, as the only rule of my faith." Nowhere in his impassioned prayer does Watts give the impression that he is grappling with a mystery of salvation; his angst all stems from the situation of being faced with a doctrine lacking the kind of direct biblical support that would bind it on his conscience as an article of faith, and its sheer intellectual difficulty. "How can such weak creatures ever take in so strange, so difficult, and so abstruse a doctrine as this?"29
The way this tension has come to expression in the devotional life of evangelicals is startlingly expressed by the Holiness evangelist Amanda Smith (1837-1915) in her autobiography The Story of the Lord's Dealings with Mrs. Amanda Smith, the Colored Evangelist.30 Without explaining what provoked her, Smith records that she "became greatly exercised about the Trinity. . . . I could not seem to understand just how there could exist three distinct persons, and yet one. I thought every day and prayed for light, but didn't seem to get help. I read the Bible, but no help came." Smith records the two weeks during which her anxiety mounted and she felt guided toward a definite experience of personal revelation, a kind of intellectual counterpart to the experience of entire sanctification expected by Holiness people in America. Encouraged that "every blessing you get from God is by faith," Smith asked herself, "If by faith, why not now?"
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.
It is worth asking why we should bother going on to clearer understanding of what is Trinitarian about the gospel. If it's possible to be subliminally Trinitarian as a Christian, what benefit is there to taking the next step of being explicit about it? The advantages are too numerous and comprehensive to list, but all of them flow directly from making that cognitive jump from unawareness to awareness. When we bring an idea this important out from the backs of our minds into the spotlight of our conscious attention, we change everything in our theological understanding. Furthermore, we move out of the preposterous situation of being Trinitarian without knowing we're Trinitarian.
Anybody who has encountered God in Christ through the Holy Spirit has come to know the Trinity. But not everybody in this position knows that they know the Trinity. When they move to that next level of knowing that they know the Trinity, a bright light shines on everything they knew before. The situation is like a vivid learning experience I had as a child. I was standing on the front lawn of my great-grandmother's farm watching clouds pass in front of the moon. It was early evening, the sun had just gone down, the moon was already very bright, and the clouds were blowing quickly across the face of the moon. It was very beautiful, and I was standing on the front lawn, just looking at it. My Uncle Dan came out and asked, "What are you looking at?"
I said, "I'm watching the clouds go by the moon."
He asked, "What does that make you think about?"
I replied, "Well, really I'm waiting to see if any of the clouds will go
behind the moon. So far they've all gone in front of it."
Uncle Dan stood there with me watching clouds, and after a while
he asked, "Where is the moon?"
"It's in outer space."
Some more time went by. "And where are clouds?"
"They're in our upper atmosphere," I said.
"Oh . . . right," it dawned on me. "I'm going to stand here a long
time before I see a cloud going behind the moon. In fact, it's not going
What I always come back to when I think about that story is the question, Did I know that clouds are closer than the moon, or did I not know that? I had in my mind all the information I needed to draw the right conclusion, but I had never put it together. It was a situation in which I knew something but didn't know that I knew it. And that put me in an awkward position, made it very likely that I would say foolish things and even waste my time waiting for something that was never going to happen. If you trust Jesus to be your salvation, you already know the Trinity. But it's a great benefit to know that you know the Trinity. It's a great benefit to know that you're a Christian because you've received a Spirit of adoption from the Father, a Spirit that lets you call God "Abba, Father." The Trinity is lurking in the gospel, just as it is lurking in the life of every believer. This Trinitarian reality is going on in our Christian lives whether we know that we know it or not.
Vital Trinitarianism, the kind that matters and changes everything, does not occur in a vacuum. The doctrine of the Trinity, although it can be stated as a series of propositions embodying truth claims about God ("God is one being in three persons"), involves much more than that. Trinitarianism is the encompassing framework within which all Christian thought takes place and within which Christian confession finds its grounding presuppositions. It is the deep grammar of all the central Christian affirmations. Therefore, when the theologians of the patristic age finally stated it explicitly as an article of faith (beginning with the Council of Nicaea in 325, though with obvious precursors), they were not simply adding an item to a list of beliefs but performing an act of intellectual foregrounding, bringing a background element from the periphery to the center of Christian attention. By doing so, they were equipping later theologians to think coherently about the entire structure of our saving knowledge of God in a single act of focused inquiry. In the passage from implicit awareness of God's triunity and an inarticulate experience of salvation, to explicit confession of faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Christian theology came of age epistemologically. Having always known the Trinity, Christian thinkers now knew that they knew the Trinity.
Because Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) wrote extensively about epistemological moves of this type, his analysis has been recognized as a help in coming to terms with the doctrine of the Trinity. Polanyi began his scholarly career as a research chemist, but over the course of his long career he turned his interests gradually to the philosophy of science and from there to epistemology. His work is part of a larger mid-century trend toward the demotion of science from its role as absolute arbiter of all truth claims. Polanyi's work fits, for instance, somewhere between Thomas Kuhn's "historicist turn" in the philosophy of science,33 and Stephen Toulmin's critique of the abstraction introduced into theories of knowledge by the Enlightenment.34
Polanyi's most famous work is 1958's magisterial Personal Knowledge: Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy, which was primarily devoted to exposing the fiduciary and participatory character of all knowledge, not least scientific knowledge. "I start by rejecting the ideal of scientific detachment," he begins, but moves on to confess frankly: "I want to establish an alternative ideal of knowledge, quite generally."35
This research project set him on a trail which resulted in him turning his attention to epistemology proper, and to describe knowing as a skill comparable to focusing one's eyes on a particular object in a complex field of visual stimuli:
I regard knowing as an active comprehension of things known, an action that requires skill. Skillful knowing and doing is performed by subordinating a set of particulars, as clues or tools, to the shaping of a skilful achievement, whether practical of theoretical. We may then be said to become "subsidiary aware" of these particulars within our "focal awareness" of the coherent entity that we achieve.
This skill cannot be gained by lone practitioners determining for themselves what they should focus their attention on. Knowing what data to ignore and what data should be sought out as meaningful evidence presupposes an established framework within which knowledge is assembled: "We must now recognize belief once more as the source of all knowledge. Tacit assent and intellectual passions, the sharing of an idiom and of a cultural heritage, affiliation to a like minded community: such are the impulses which shape our vision of the nature of things on which we rely for our mastery of things. No intelligence, however critical or original, can operate outside such a fiduciary framework."Polanyi developed these ideas about knowledge most elaborately in his book The Tacit Dimension (1966).
In reflecting on the process of scientific discovery, Polanyi became aware of the crucial importance of elements normally disregarded as imponderable factors and left unexamined in the background of standard accounts of how scientific knowledge comes about. There is real creativity involved when research scientists engage in their characteristic tasks of following hunches, discerning meaningful patterns, and framing the right experimental situations. Beginning from this insight into the process of theory formation, Polanyi explored gestalt psychology, the mechanics of visual perception, and the experiential training process by which young doctors learn to recognize meaningful patterns of symptoms and pronounce with some confidence a diagnosis on the basis of evidence which to the uninitiated is a mere haze of insignificant, incoherent observations. These skills and insights cannot be accounted for by merely heaping up greater quantities of clear and distinct ideas or by honing propositions to greater precision. They require the knowing agent to acquire a framework of understanding and a practiced skill of forming judgments. These skills are generally inculcated by a community committed to maintaining a convivial relationship centered on values agreed upon and presupposed by all who participate. This enveloping culture forms a precognitive, nonthematic awareness of where to direct one's attention and what bits of information are worth considering explicitly. Lest this seem like a preparation for sheer subjectivity, it should be noted that Polanyi was a firm believer in the value of objective knowledge, and he repeatedly took pains to show how personal beliefs are to be held honestly, with "universal intent" as beliefs about how things really are.
Polanyi thus drew attention to the all-important, not-yet-cognitive awareness that makes thematic knowledge possible. This tacit dimension is the nonarticulated element in perception and knowledge, an unreflective awareness of things that is quite different from the clear-cut awareness we have when we perform the mental act of focusing our attention directly and thematically on an object. Polanyi's most famous catchphrase was the expression, "We always know more than we can tell."
These Polanyian insights into the nature of knowledge have some helpful implications for theology in general but for Trinitarian theology in particular. Scottish theologian Thomas F. Torrance offers the following compressed account of tacit knowledge:
It is on this deep subsidiary awareness that all skills, explicit thought, formal reasoning, and articulate knowing and communication rely. Even the most completely formalized knowledge (e.g. through logic or mathematics) must include informal or tacit coefficients, for it is only by relying on them that formal systems can operate meaningfully. This is evident in the bearing of thought and speech upon some reality of the bearing of some skill upon an intended end; and also in the way our minds spontaneously integrate particulars into significant wholes, as in the recognition of a physiognomy, or integrates clues into a focal target, as in scientific intuition and discovery. Tacit knowing, Polanyi claims, is the fundamental power of the mind which creates explicit knowing and lends meaning to and controls its use. Tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge are opposed to one another but they are not sharply divided. While tacit knowledge can be possessed by itself, explicit knowledge must rely on being tacitly understood and applied. Hence all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge. A wholly explicit knowledge is unthinkable. This tacit dimension provides the unifying ground of all knowledge, rooting it in the concrete situations of life and society in the world; and as such provides the continuous epistemological field which integrates the sciences and the arts and does away with age-old dualisms which have led to the fragmentation of human culture.
Explicit knowledge, then, depends on a prior unity richer and fuller than the propositions gathered around it. This tacit coefficient of all explicit knowledge is especially important for coming to conscious and disciplined understanding of very large, subtle, or complex subjects that bear within themselves implications for a broad range of subsidiary fields. This brings us back, at last, to Trinitarianism.
The tacit dimension of knowledge is especially relevant in Trinitarian theology. It is what enables the theology teacher to utter that all-important phrase "You know" and expect realistically to make connections with the audience. The Christian teacher taking up the subject of the Trinity should be able to invoke some range of experience or of implicit understanding and familiarity that can then be explicated in propositional teaching on the subject:
"You know, the Trinity, like we sing about in the church";
"You know, the Trinity, like is all over the Bible";
or "You know, the Trinity, like every Christian believes in."
Without this tacit awareness of the Trinity, explicit teaching on the subject will always seem like a foreign body rudely interjected into an otherwise reasonable nexus of beliefs. This is because the doctrine of the Trinity is so large, fundamental, and all-encompassing. Scottish theologian Thomas F. Torrance, whose summary of Polanyi's categories we just quoted at length, has done more than any other theologian to use Polanyian insights for theology in general and for the Trinity in particular. Here is his masterly account of how vigorous Trinitarianism relies on the tacit dimension:
A child by the age of five has learned, we are told, an astonishing amount of physical world to which he or she has become spontaneously and intuitively adapted- far more than the child could ever understand if he or she turned out to be the most of physicists. Likewise, I believe, we learn far more about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, into whose Name we have been baptised, within the family and fellowship and living tradition of the Church than we can ever say: it becomes built into the structures of our souls and minds, and we know much more than we can ever tell. This is what happens evangelically and personally to us within the membership of the Church, the Body of Christ in the world, when through the transforming power of his Word and Spirit our minds became inwardly and intuitively adapted to know the living God. We became spiritually and intellectually implicated in patterns of divine order that are beyond our powers fully to articulate in explicit terms, but we are aware of being apprehended by divine Truth as it is in Jesus which steadily presses for increasing realization in our understanding, articulation and confession of faith. That is how Christian history gains its initial impetus, and is then reinforced through constant reading and study of the Bible within the community of the faithful.
According to Polanyi according to Torrance, we know more about the Trinity than we can say. Indeed, if we did not have tacit knowledge of the triune God by virtue of our existence as Christians, the theological tradition would never have developed the conceptual tools necessary for explicit understanding of this doctrine, which is at once a particular confession (one doctrine among many) and the pervasive context of all confession (the doctrinal matrix that makes sense of all the rest).
Liturgy. Tradition. And Sacraments. OH MY!
There is widespread agreement among many theologians that Trinitarian theology is so expansive that only a sophisticated approach via tacit awareness is likely to produce effective and productive understanding of it. We have seen the logic of this position and have seen some of its promise for reinvigorating Trinitarian theology. However, at this point we can begin to reapproach the question of inculturating the doctrine of the Trinity into evangelical culture. In doing so, we will part ways with the answers normally given to the question, Where do we locate the tacit awareness of Trinitarianism that can fund explicit understanding of the doctrine? The question is a good one, but the standard answers are less helpful for our purposes. The standard answer is as follows: the tacit dimension of Trinitarian thought, the nonthematic awareness of Trinitarian reality that makes productive understanding possible, is located in the richness of the Christian liturgy, in the profound experience of continuity with tradition, and in the real presence of Christ himself in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. The sources, then, are liturgy, tradition, and sacrament. Let us examine each briefly.
Liturgy in the sense intended here is an order of service and a set of practices attached to regular Christian worship. The best liturgies in use in Christian churches are ancient, well-worn compositions permeated with scriptural language skillfully deployed across a series of pastoral pronouncements, prayers, congregational responses, and songs. These are correlated with a series of symbolic actions arranged with equal artfulness to embody the theological commitments of the church. At crucial junctures, select passages of Scripture are read aloud as the word of the Lord for that day in the church calendar. The synergy of the words and actions constitute a worship experience intended to convey the entirety of the Christian message in symbolic form, and all of this takes place in its own liturgical language, regardless of the content of the actual sermon preached that day. Of course a good liturgical homilist will do his best to preach a message that harmonizes with the particular liturgical setting at hand and thus work with the grain of the overall service rather than against it. However, as Gerald Bray points out, the power of a set liturgy is partly in its independence from any particular sermon:
If the sermon is good and the spirit of the congregation is right, a fixed liturgy may appear to be an irrelevance, even a constraint on the freedom of the Spirit....But when the times of dryness come, when we reach a plateau in our spiritual growth, then the structure of a liturgy that keeps both biblical depth and the biblical balance can provide us with fresh inspiration and keeps us from falling into the many diffrent errors caused by our natural proclivity toward omission and distortion. A person who is well trained in biblical liturgy will have a feel for what is orthodox because it will be embedded in his consciousness. Furthermore, he will have a sense of the right kind of Trinitarian balance, because whatever the sermon may be like, there will be a doctrinal framework to restore his spiritual equalibrium and keep him from going off the deep end.
Bray goes on to make the connection between this benefit of liturgy and the doctrine of the Trinity:
Good theological liturgy...is not (or should not be) a substitute for preaching, or a way of stifling spiritual fervor, but a framework in which to place biblical teaching and an encouragement to explore areas of it that we might otherwise neglect. Once again, words like structure and framework provide the key. Start discipling your faith into a structure, and you will inevitably come to the doctrine of the Trinity, which is the most basic and universal structure of all.
Thus liturgy functions as the tacit dimension that provides the basis for explicit Trinitarian doctrine. Indeed, as Bray suggests, on more than one occasion a healthy liturgy has kept a church from sliding into errors it would otherwise have embraced. A Unitarian theologian once lamented the fact that it was nearly impossible to turn Anglican churches against the doctrine of the Trinity as long as they kept using the Prayer Book. "The Prayer Book used by the Unitarian clergymen . . .familiarized the minds of worshippers with addresses and petitions to the three persons of the Trinity. Whatever the parson said or left unsaid from the pulpit could not sink into the mind as did the prayers from the reading desk and the responses from the pews repeated Sunday by Sunday."42
Another location of this tacit dimension, according to conventional wisdom, is tradition itself, especially the deep sense of tradition espoused by churches in which the ecclesiology is centered on claims of apostolic succession and institutional continuity. For these churches, tradition is a kind of deposit that we can adhere to and exercise implicit faith in without necessarily specifying the propositional content of that faith, or at least not needing to specify all of it at any given time. "I believe what the church believes" is the guiding principle here. However, there is an even deeper sense of tradition sometimes invoked by high-church theologians. Andrew Louth, in his evocative study Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology,43 advocates an approach to Christianity that lays greater stress on liturgical action than on proclaimed words. Claiming to follow Richard Hooker in laying "emphasis on the deeper power and significance of deeds," Louth links "the importance of the Incarnation, and, in dependence on that, the importance of the sacraments, and indeed of liturgical worship—which is a matter not just of words but of actions—in general" and argues that this constellation of concerns points to a very special significance for tradition:
For the central truth, or mystery, of the Christian faith is primarily not a matter of words, and therefore ultimately of ideas or concepts, but a matter of fact, or reality. The heart of the Christian mystery is the fact of God made man, God with us, in Christ; words, even his words, are secondary to the reality of what he accomplished. To be a Christian is not simply to believe something, to learn something, but to be something, to experience something. The role of the Church, then, is not simply as the contingent vehicle-in history-of the Christian message, but as the community, through belonging to which we come into touch with the Christian mystery.
In Louth's view, the prioritizing of life over doctrine finds its clearest expression in the epistemological priority of the church as a history-spanning community that provides the tacit dimension on which explicit theological awareness can develop. In this connection he invokes "Polanyi's idea of the importance of a community and of a tradition, within which one learns to perceive and know"45 and praises
it as the inescapable background and framework within which faith is possible. "We come back to the fact that Christianity is not a body of doctrine that can be specified in advance, but a way of life and all that this implies. Tradition is, as it were, the tacit dimension of the life of the Christian: what is proclaimed . . . is only a part of it, and not really the most important part."46
Tradition provides, for theologians like Louth, a sense of fullness and presence, and thus it constitutes, in one of his favorite metaphors,
the fecund silence in which the Word can be spoken and heard:
To hear Jesus, and not just his words, we have to stand within the tradition of the Church; we have to put our trust in those to whom our Lord entrusted his mission, his sending. Part of the stillness that is needed for us to hear the words of Jesus is a sense of presence, and it is this tradition conveys. We become Christians by becomeing members of the Chruch, by trusting our forefathers in the faith. If we cannot trust the Church to have understood Jesus, then we have lost Jesus: and the resources of modern scholarship will not help us to find him.
From this thick account of tradition it is a short step to the third standard answer for where to locate a tacit dimension capable of funding Trinitarian thought. A high view of the sacraments is often invoked in this context. Baptism in the name of the Trinity is not merely a ritual performed as the right formula is spoken (though that is important), but is actually viewed as a mysterious, physical immersion in the life of the triune Godhead via the death and resurrection of Christ, sacramentally mediated to the individual baptized. This experienced reality of the life of the Trinity thus contains in itself the actual content that can later be unpacked or expounded in definite Trinitarian teaching. The sacraments are concrete, while the doctrine is necessarily abstract. This view of the relation between sacrament and doctrine has naturally generated the catechetical practice known as mystagogy, which means teaching that is provided for those who have already been introduced to the mysteries. In a fully sacramental mystagogy, the Christian would receive the thing itself in the sacraments and then learn about it in doctrinal form. Converts make a profession of faith and are admitted to baptism and the Eucharist, which is followed then by teaching and preaching that further explicates in conceptual form the mysteries they have just encountered in experiential form.
Evangelical Resources Already At Hand
What are we to say to these proposals for cultivating the tacit dimension of Trinitarian theology? For some varieties of evangelicals, these relatively high-church resources have been, and continue to be, nourishing sources of Christian life that underwrite the church's ability to think well about the Trinity. Furthermore, we do not need to enter the interminable debate about the essence of evangelicalism, or its true center, by asserting that evangelicalism by definition must be nonliturgical, nontraditional, and nonsacramental. Millions of evangelicals are, of course, and this includes a wide swath from Southern Baptists to Pentecostals in the global south. Nevertheless, the movement as a whole, or certain ecclesial strands within the movement, could certainly grow in the three areas discussed above without losing compromising evangelical identity. A more formal and elaborate use of liturgy, a firmer grasp of the great tradition, and a higher view of the sacraments are all possibilities within some of the churches that make up the evangelical movement. Insofar as they actually help provide a tacit awareness of the reality of the Trinity, they can even be recommended as strategically valuable directions in which the movement could develop. Gerald Bray's remarks about liturgy cited above, for example, are clearly that: a recommendation that evangelicalism could become more Trinitarian by becoming more liturgical.
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.
Evangelicalism is characterized by an awareness of the personal character of knowing God and an experience of the actual presence of another Someone in intimate contact over the course of a shared history. The evangelistic shorthand for this has to do with inviting Jesus to take up residence in your heart as your personal Savior or with the theme of friendship with God. "Person" is a key term in Trinitarian theology, and it is no accident that the personal emphasis of evangelicalism coheres well with this element of Trinitarianism. This pervasive personalism also gives a particular tone to evangelical prayer, one which emphasizes a freedom of speech and a direct, even informal manner of talking to God.
From Wesley's hymns to contemporary choruses, affective worship experience is a recurring mark of evangelical church life. This emotional depth, while not adequate to support theological reflection on its own, provides a rich and engaging context for Trinitarian theology. Above all, it provides the kind of incentive and communal sanction necessary to encourage anybody to undertake the kind of challenging thinking required to bring Trinitarian theology into sharper focus. This stirring up of the depths of the heart and mind is crucial to the Polanyian strategy: "Since tacit knowing depends on where your attention is focussed, it won't work without caring. . . . There is no discovery without a desire to know and a belief that there is something to know."48 Emotionally engaging worship is a communal effusion of that caring without which the attention will not be focused and without which there will be no confidence that there is something worth expending cognitive energy toward investigating. Communal praise of God is itself already a focusing of the mental apparatus of attentiveness in the right direction.
One of the most important resources evangelicalism has for developing the tacit dimension of Trinitarianism is its distinctive posture toward Scripture. Evangelicals are a variety of biblicists (if the term has not grown too pejorative), and they believe that the Scriptures are the medium of God's personal address to them; the Bible is God's word. Accordingly, evangelicals have developed a host of spiritual disciplines focused on the Word of God that provide perfect examples of the Polanyian motif of indwelling a subject in order to understand it better.49
I believe that the above resources show enough promise for developing a rich fund of tacit Trinitarianism that it is fair to assert that evangelicalism has within its own particular genius all that it takes to be more robustly Trinitarian. If I am right about resources like these as sources for Trinitarian understanding, then the evangelical malady is
Chart 1.1: Tacit Trinitarianism of Evangelical Practices
The Evangelical Practice ------Its Tacitly Trinitarian Dimension
Getting saved-----Being adopted as sons by encountering the gospel Trinity
Knowing Jesus personally----- The Spirit joining believers to the life of Jesus
Devotional Bible reading- ----Hearing the Father's word in the Spirit
Conversational prayer-----The logic of mediation; prayer in the name of Jesus
actually more mysterious than ever because we have everything necessary for health and yet we remain ill. It would be good if evangelical theology would lay hold of its tacit resources for Trinitarian theology and fulfill its potential. At this point, even a bit of amicable competitive spirit would be beneficial on all sides: if a nonliturgical, nontraditional, and nonsacramental family of Christians would undertake to prove itself more solidly and productively Trinitarian than its liturgical, traditional, and sacramental cousins, both parties would benefit from the competition, to the benefit of the ecumenical church. Everybody could be a winner in the "more Trinitarian than thou" fight that might break out if evangelicals rise to their potential and develop the genius of their own movement in the direction of reinvigorating Trinitarianism as a force in Christian life and thought.
This chapter has necessarily been more abstract and methodological than the others in this book. I hope it has also been more suggestive of future possibilities in the broad field of evangelical Trinitarianism. In the following chapters we will not be following up every one of those possibilities. Instead, we will focus on the main things: the gospel and its application to individuals, Bible study, prayer, and the church as a community on a mission.
[This excerpt was taken from The Deep Things of God, 2010, by Fred Sanders, published by Crossway Books. Used by permission.]