The Trinity, the Bible, and Real Theology

saint_augustine_portraitIn my introductory theology classes, one of the first topics we tackle is the doctrine of the Trinity. As many have observed, evangelicals today are by and large lukewarm at best when it comes to the Trinity, and I see it often. “The doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery” is one of the more positive responses I get. Being translated, this means, “I’m willing to accept what you theologians with nothing better to do say about this weird doctrine, but I’m not going to waste any time thinking about it.” Often this statement is followed by one to the effect of “Of course, God is far greater than what we can comprehend,” accompanied by a somewhat disdainful look that implies that talking and thinking about the Trinity is somehow disrespectful to God, an attempt to “put him in a box.” Ironically, it is sometimes these same people who are quite interested in mapping out the events of the last days and identifying the Antichrist, or who will go into great detail about the numerological significance of the 153 fish John mentions in his story of the miraculous catch in John 21.

Actually, I heartily agree with the statement that God is far greater than our ability to understand. If it should ever happen that sometime, decades hence, my students reminisce on their experiences in theology class, one of the things they might remember is how often I quoted Augustine’s saying, “if you can comprehend it, it is not God.” (Si comprehendis, non est deus, Sermon 117.5). But does that mean we are not to think about God? That was not Augustine’s perspective. He wrote elsewhere in the same sermon, “To reach to God in any measure by the mind, is a great blessedness,” and also, speaking of John 1:1,

I am showing how incomprehensible is what has been read; yet it has been read, not that it should be comprehended by man, but that man should sorrow that he comprehends it not, and find out whereby he is hindered from comprehending, and remove those hindrances, and, himself changed from worse to better, aspire after the perception of the unchangeable Word.

For Augustine, comprehension of God is impossible for a finite creature, but nevertheless the creature was made to know God, and is transformed precisely by seeking that knowledge. His theologian’s heart is so beautifully demonstrated in the wonderful passage in the Confessions: “Hide not Thy face from me. Let me die—lest I die—only let me see Thy face.”

So why are evangelicals typically apathetic when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity? After all, a hallmark of evangelicalism is one’s “personal relationship” with God. If God’s nature is that he is one God who eternally exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, wouldn’t one who has a relationship with him want to think about this? I think there are at least two reasons for this evangelical inconsistency.

First, I think many have been told that they can’t understand the Trinity. There’s no way to quantify it, but I have heard far too often (and know others have, as well) some pastor who, upon reaching a point in his sermon where he might develop the Trinitarian implications of his passage, suddenly dismiss it with the statement, “I won’t bore you with the theological details here,” or something similar. He has just taught the dozens or hundreds or thousands of Christians he is charged to disciple that thinking about what God has revealed about himself is boring and irrelevant! And with all the authority of his role as pastor and teacher!

To be charitable, I think that many pastors were taught this (or caught it) in their seminary studies. For many, “theology” was simply presented as statements they had to affirm because “that’s what the Bible teaches,” with a long list of proof texts to follow. And even some theology professors have conveyed the idea that one should not think too long or hard about the Trinity. Even Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology still quotes the old saw:

The Trinity: Try to explain it, and you’ll lose your mind, but try to deny it and you’ll lose your soul (p. 313 in the 3rd ed.).

This leads to the second reason I think evangelicals have this blind spot. It often comes out in the statement, “but the Bible never uses the word Trinity.” The claim is that because the word is not biblical, then the doctrine is not biblical. True, the word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible. Neither do the words “incarnation,” “omniscient,” or “atheist,” but we don’t have trouble using them.

The real basis of this objection is a misguided understanding of the Bible and its place in the Christian life. The Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God which reveals God to humans infallibly. It is not, however, the center of Christian belief–Christ is, which is why it is called Christianity. Nor is the Bible to be read as a kind of handbook of doctrine (or, for that matter, a handbook of morals, or a handbook of successful living, etc.). God revealed himself in the Bible progressively, and in a variety of genres and contexts. In order to properly understand it, one must approach it theologically. Understanding the overall pattern of God’s truth and its implications for the people of God requires reflection on and synthesis of what Scripture says, sometimes finding words for concepts that we see emerging, even if the Bible doesn’t use those words specifically.

In the case of the Trinity, when we come to the New Testament, the apostles affirmed unreservedly the oneness of God on the basis of their understanding of the Old Testament. Yet without any doctrinal exposition they also repeatedly spoke of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as God (no less than 120 times, according to Fisher Humphreys). In fact, when we say that Jesus is divine, and that he prayed to the Father, and that the Spirit led him (and us), there’s no way we can avoid a doctrine that says what our doctrine of the Trinity says, even if you call it something else.

This, then, is real theology, seeking to understand the truths of Scripture in a comprehensive and coherent way so the church can worship and serve God rightly. The time-honored expression is “faith seeking understanding”–articulated by Augustine and Anselm in various formulations, but conceptually present in all the great theologians throughout the history of the church. May we be diligent to be faithful to that great tradition!

 

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