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Trinitarian Crisis in Popular Evangelicalism

brorito's picture

Several years ago I came to the suspicion that the doctrine of the trinity had fallen on hard times. The lack of empirical indicators to prove such a statement left me only with a suspicion. However, it seemed to me that the doctrine of the trinity didn’t quite get the same recognition as some of the popular teachings like prosperity, morality, self-esteem, and relationships. Yet one cannot deny the perennial nature of the trinity and its related teachings. It doesn't take long before one begins to notice that within contemporary evangelicalism discourses seem to emphasize second order discourses and primary order discourses Christology, God, or the trinity were relegated to secondary status. It seems to me that the sentiment today is that the trinity is a doctrine to be believed not understood which I would say is a CRISIS. Any thoughts?

dmlq48's picture

The Trinity from Scripture

Dan, you said, “So I will need to beg your indulgence to explain yourself a little. It appears you are comfortable with distinguishing each person of the Godhead as Divine, but not with saying each is God.” Please note that Godhead means divine nature, so your one sentence reads, “…each person of the Divine Nature as Divine…” When you talk like this it’s as if you’re speaking about parts of the divinity, as if divine nature can be divided. It can’t. There is only one divine nature.

But to answer your question more directly, I do NOT have a problem referring to each member of the Trinity as God. Here I am using the word “God” in the common sense, but still with a capital “G” instead of a lowercase “g.” My problem is referring to each member of the Trinity as the “ONE GOD.” In this way, I am using the word God in the proper sense, and it only refers to the Father.

If one starts to refer to each member of the Trinity as the ONE GOD, then one has fallen into some form of Modalism.

Jwmcmac is completely correct: it is a matter of semantics and semiotics. The way we define the words and symbols we use informs the way we think, and I believe a proper understanding of the Trinity is important.

At your request, especially Dan’s, I will try to explain in a comprehensive way. I will start at the very beginning: Scripture, which is not a biography of Jesus, but already a theological interpretation of who Jesus is.

Jesus Christ is presented as “according to Scripture,” yet Scripture is understood according to the apostolic proclamation/preaching (kerygma), which is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Scriptural Christ, the one who is “once for all” (Romans 6:10 and Hebrews 7:27) is the crucified and risen one. The Christian confession is not about who Jesus WAS, but who he IS.

To show you that Christ is always the crucified one, allow me to bring the birth narrative to your mind. Jesus is born from a virgin mother, which recalls the virgin (empty) tomb. This virgin is the wife of a Joseph, just as the virgin tomb is the tomb of a Joseph. The Eucharist recalls the crucifixion as it is through the breaking of bread that we realize who Jesus is (Luke 24:30-35), and so the infant Jesus is born in Bethlehem, which means House of Bread and then he is laid in a manger, which is a feeding trough. The swaddling clothes are the burial clothes. So you see, scripture isn’t a biography of Jesus (he was born, did this, this and this), but rather it’s a theological proclamation of him crucified.

Christ as the crucified and risen Lord is the central point of the Gospels. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked of Peter (Mk 8:29, Mt 16:16, Lk 9:20). Peter responds, “the Christ,” only to immediately tell the disciples how he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and to die.

Scripturally there are other titles also used of Jesus, such as Life, Wisdom, Savior, Author of Life, Icon of God, the Lord of Glory, etc. Temple imagery is also applied to him, such as High Priest, Lamb of God, Pascha, sacrificed for our sake, Ransom, Mediator, etc.

Jesus is described as divine by ascribing to him activities and properties that belong to God alone. These activities include: creating (Jn 1:3), bestowing life (Jn 6:35, Acts 3:15), forgiving sins (Mk 2:5-7), raising the dead (Lk 7:14-15), and receiving prayers (Acts 7:59).

In some places Jesus is also called God or Lord: Romans 9:5, Hebrews 1:8, Titus 2:13, II Peter 1:1, John 1:1, John: 1:18, etc. However, please note that Jesus is NEVER called the ONE GOD in Scripture. That phrase is used, but it is only used of the Father.

So, the gospel proclamation is the message of Jesus as the Christ, as the Crucified and Risen Savior, the one who is both human and God. For the New Testament authors, this was determined by encountering the Risen Christ and using Scriptures (Old Testament) to explain this (II Corinthians 3:12-18).

What we see in all the applications of the Old Testament to Christ is the assumption that there is one God, the Father, one Lord, Jesus, and one Spirit.

II Corinthians 4:6 is the ONLY place that explicitly links the Fathers of Jesus to the God of the Old Testament, though this link is implied throughout the entire New Testament.

God the Father is the ground and basis for all reality, divine and created. The Word of God, the Son, reveals God and God’s love and mercy through the apostolic proclamation. The ministry of the Spirit, as we know from John 16:12-13, is to guide the Church in Scriptural interpretation.

What occurs, then, is that the disciples encounter the Crucified and Risen Jesus and in order to understand this, they turn to the Scriptures (“Old Testament”). The vocabulary, terms and descriptions of Scripture are applied to Christ. In fact, the entirety of the Scriptures is understood to refer to the apostolic proclamation. This means that the relationship between Jesus and the Scriptures is a two-way street. Jesus the Christ opens the meaning of the Scriptures to the disciples but the Scriptures also point to Jesus the Christ.

Yet, this engagement of the Scriptures does not occur without its assumptions. The central hypothesis (thesis) behind this is that there is one God, the Father, one Lord, Jesus the Christ (who is God and Man), and one Holy Spirit.

I started here and explained all this because it is only through what Christ as done (the economy of salvation), as understood by the proclamation of Scripture that one can even think of turning to theology proper – which is the study of God in himself (the Trinity). I also walked you through this because I want to show that this theology is the theology that is proper with regards to Scripture, and it is not the thoughts of man.
Now let’s move on:

1) The general “scope” of the Scriptures is that there is a “double account” of the one Christ:

“Now the scope and character of the Scripture, as we have often said, is this—that there is in it a double account concerning the Savior: that he was ever God, and is the Son, being the Word and Radiance and Wisdom of the Father; and that afterwards, taking flesh from the Virgin, Mary the Theotokos, he became man. And this [scope] is to be found indicated throughout the inspired Scripture, as the Lord himself has said, ‘Search the Scriptures, for it is they that testify to me’ (John 5.39).” [Athanasius, Orations Against the Arians 3.29.1; translation taken from John Behr, The Nicene Faith (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004)]

2) The true sense of a passage can only be attained after determining what is the “time,” “person,” and “subject matter” mentioned. [This means the “true sense” is not found by way of modern methods, such as redaction criticism, source criticism, tradition history/criticism, and form criticism, but by the same approach seen in the New Testament, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus—believing all of Scripture to refer to Christ.]

3) The Incarnation leads us to realize that there are three at work—God the Father, the Son who has revealed him, and the Holy Spirit, who rests in the Son and makes the Son known to us. God the Father works through the Son, in the Spirit. Yet, because this is how God works, we know that all three are “God.” The Son and Spirit are God in a derivative manner, however, since “other than the Father, there is no God” (Letters to Sarapion 1.16). The Son is homoousios with the Father (of one essence with the Father). This means the essence is not generic, like a genus containing two species (one Father and one Son). If that were the case, the Son would not be revealing God the Father, but “Godness,” and so would not really be the Son of God. Yet, precisely because the Son is of the Father’s essence and is fully what it is to be God, we must say he is homoousios (co-essential, or of the same essence).

4) “What is not assumed is not healed.” This phrase, repeated throughout Athanasius’ writings, dictates that if any part of humanity is not “assumed” or “taken on” by the Son of God, then it is not healed, it remains fallen/sinful. Of course, this implies that the one doing the “assuming” or “taking up” is, in fact, truly God and capable of healing.

From here I could move on, but I think I’ll leave you with this to digest.


N.b.: I am indebted to the Rev. Dr. Oliver Herbel for posting his class notes, some of which are directly reproduced above, on his website: http://frontierorthodoxy.wordpress.com/


"Blessed art You O Christ Our God
You have revealed the fishermen as most wise
By sending down upon them the Holy Spirit
Through them You drew the world into Your net
O Lover of Man, Glory to You!" -Pentecost Troparion