5 Ways the Doctrine of the Trinity Keeps Theology Healthy & Balanced
Oliver Crisp and Fred Sanders believe the time is ripe for both theological retrieval and construction, exposition and reflection with the doctrine of the Trinity. It’s why they organized this past year's Los Angeles Theology Conference around this theme, and why they’ve worked with Zondervan Academic to collect the presented papers into an edited volume, Advancing Trinitarian Theology.
It is part of what they call the Trinitarian Theology Project, a sort of resurgence of trinitarian engagement in response to oversimplifications and derelictions of the dogma. The project is represented by leading counter-revolutionary voices, including Lewis Ayres, Stephen R. Holmes, Karen Kilby, Donald H. McCall, and others.
The first essay, which I've engaged below, is an orienting one. In it, Sanders describes how the doctrine should function within systematic theology by offering five important ways the doctrine of the Trinity promotes the health and balance of Christian theology as a whole.
Read it, share it, and consider how the doctrine functions in your own theological system.
What does the Trinity do?
1) Summarizes the Biblical Story
First, the Trinity summarizes the whole Biblical storyline. More precisely the formula “The Father sends the Son and the Holy Spirit” is a summary of the entire Bible. (25) While there are other characters and other themes, Sanders argues the whole narrative arc pivots around these central agents, from the Old to the New testaments:
To trace the story line of Scripture, and especially of the Old Testament, as the God of Israel promising to be with his people in a Son of David who is the Son of God, and to pour out his Holy Spirit on all flesh in a surprising fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, is the task for a comprehensive biblical theology. (25)
Such a reading is not only appropriate given the content of the Story, but pedagogically advantageous given how many Christians struggle to see the doctrine of the Trinity in Scripture. “It yields the doctrine of the Trinity, not in scattered verses here and there that tell us weird doctrine at the margins of the faith, but as the main point.” (28)
2) Articulates the Content of Divine Self-Revelation
One of the most important questions in trinitarian theology is this: What do the sending of the Son and the Holy Spirit signify about the eternal life of God?
Sanders insists this question “is where major doctrinal judgments are rendered. At stake here is the utterly fundamental issue of how we understand God on the basis of self-revelation in word and act.” (36)
He provides a helpful chart to illustrate the spectrum by which this question has been answered:
In the middle of the chart sits the classical answer, “maintaining that the mission in the economy of salvation are revelatory of eternal relations of origin.” (35) Accordingly, “the coming of the Son and the Spirit into our history is an extension of who they have always been.” (35)
God’s self-revelation is as Father, Son, Spirit because He is essentially that way. Sanders argues God did not make this revelation “to satisfy our curiosity about the divine, but in order to reconcile and redeem us,” which should beckon us toward wonderment and praise. (30)
3) Orders Doctrinal Discourse
The doctrine of the Trinity also orders every other doctrine by nature of its vastness. “It is a field that encompasses many other fields of theology, most notably the doctrines of Christology and pneumatology.” (37)
Given the nature of the doctrine’s all-encompassing nature, Sanders says “The health of a doctrine of the Trinity is a good indicator of the overall vigor of a theological system… [It] shapes the entire outlook of theology and serves as the matrix for the placement and treatment of all other doctrinal loci.” (37)
Barth seemed to intuitively know this, having placed the doctrine at the forefront of his dogmatic endeavor. Schleiermacher, however, did not, having relegated it to a mere footnote as an appendix in the back of his The Christian Faith.
4) Identifies God by the Gospel
Fourth, the doctrine of the Trinity both identifies God by the gospel and specifies the identity of the Christian God. “It does so primarily by insisting that God is the author of two central interventions into the course of human history, the incarnation of the Son and outpouring of the Spirit.” (39)
Sanders insists these two events mark God as a particular God: “The God who sent a Son and a Holy Spirit.” Given that God had always already had both Son and Spirit, this God “must be essentially different from a God who could not and did not self-communicate in this way.” (39)
Sanders goes on: “To say this is to treat the doctrine of the Trinity as a kind of name of God…” (39, emph. mine) In other words, Trinity is God’s name; Father-Son-Spirit is who God actually is.
To my thinking this raises an interesting implication: one could argue that Allah and the Christian God are not one in the same, because Allah sent neither a Son nor a Spirit.
5) Informs & Norms Soteriology
Finally, Trinitarian theology plays a crucial role in orienting the doctrine of salvation. It shapes, gives the material consent, and dictates salvation’s parameters.
Sanders insists soteriology needs this sort of “outside guidance” in order to guard against two errors: defect and excess, “of not enough salvation on the one hand and too much salvation on the other.” (40)
First, there is a “perennial tendency to minimize soteriology, to diminish it to something with no depth of ingression into the life of God… Trinitarian theology summons Christian soteriology to go deeper.” (40)
Second, the error of excess “obliterates all distinctions between divinity and humanity, leaping over every barrier, beginning with that between creator and creature.” (40-41) Trinitarian theology guards against the celebration of theosis and maintains this crucial distinction.
This summary just scratches the surface of Sanders’ article, and I’m looking forward to reading the other articles including "Trinity and Politics: An Apophatic Approach," "Obedience and Subordination in Karl Barth's Trinitarian Theology," and "A Confessing Trinitarian Theology for Today's Mission." Crisp and Sanders hope the collection of essays in Advancing Trinitarian Theology “may contribute to the project of revitalizing the study of the dogma of the Trinity and the advancing of a properly trinitarian ad majorem Dei gloriam.” (20)
Engage these important essays yourself “For the greater glory of God” in your own ministry and studies.
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