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Do You Know How Trinitarian Theology Impacts the Bible's Story? — An Excerpt from "Advancing Trinitarian Theology"

Categories Theology Book Excerpts

9780310517092Let’s be honest: Sometimes we forget what trinitarian theology is for.

Yes, we believe in it. We teach it and preach it. But do we understand how it should guide our theology and ministry?

That’s one of the goals of the new book Advancing Trinitarian Theology, a collection of the papers presented at the Los Angeles Theology Conference. The book is meant to retrieve this crucial Christian doctrine and help it guide us once again.

One of the ways the Trinity guides is by promoting the health and balance of Christian theology, which we explored earlier this week. In this introductory essay, Fred Sanders outlines the benefits of trinitarian theology, one of which is it’s impact on our telling of the Bible’s Story.

We’ve excerpted this benefit below. Read it to help you better understand how the Trinity summarizes the biblical Story.

The easiest angle of approach to the Trinity begins with a straightforward reading of the Gospels as rather obviously the story of three special characters: Jesus Christ; the Father, who sent him and who is constantly present in his conversation and actions; and then, rather less clearly, the Holy Spirit, who seems simultaneously to precede Christ, accompany Christ, and follow Christ. There are many other characters in the story, but these three stand out as the central agents on whom everything turns. The actions of these three are concerted, coordinated, and sometimes conjoined so that sometimes they can scarcely be distinguished; at other times they stand in a kind of opposition to each other. As for the salvation they bring, it is not three salvations but one complex event happening in three ways, or (as it sometimes seems) one project undertaken by three agents. The New Testament epistles, each in their own way, all look back on and explain this threefold story, adding more layers of analysis and insight but not altering the fundamental shape of what happened in the life of Jesus.

We could summarize this threefold shape of the New Testament story in the formula, “The Father sends the Son and the Holy Spirit.” …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 a task for a comprehensive biblical theology, but it can be undertaken while remaining in the mode of mere description, rather than moving to the more contentious field of systematic construction. In that case, giving a particular kind of interpretive priority to the New Testament because of its position at the end of a process of progressive revelation, the sentence “The Father sends the Son and the Holy Spirit” would be a summary of the entire Bible.

This particular threefold formula is not the only possible summary of the story line of the Bible. Other themes in salvation history could be highlighted. Even other threefold patterns could be discerned: exodus, exile, and resurrection suggests itself. The themes of kingdom or covenant could be pushed to the foreground, or even substituted for the Father, Son, Holy Spirit schema. Much can be gained from investigations that give prominence to these other themes, but what I am describing here is how to read the salvation history witnessed in Scripture in such a way as to reach the doctrine of the Trinity. The reason we would want to do that as Christians is that only the trinitarian reading is actually attempting to read salvation history as the revelation of God’s identity in a way that transcends salvation history; such a reading shows not only what God does but who God is. The stories of kingdom or covenant, of exodus, exile, and resurrection, could remain personally undisclosed except insofar as his faithfulness to stand reliably behind his actions suggests something about him. The trinitarian reading of salvation history goes further: it construes the divine oikonomia (God’s wise ordering of salvation history) to be simultaneously an oikonomia of rescue, redemption, and revelation — indeed self-revelation. Salvation history on the trinitarian reading is the locus in which God makes himself known, the theater not only of divine action but also of divine self-communication. A faithful God may stand behind other construals of salvation history, but on the trinitarian reading, God stands not behind but also in his actions, at least in the actions of sending the Son and the Holy Spirit…

To arrive at the biblical doctrine of the Trinity requires three large mental steps. The first step is simply to read the whole Bible, to achieve some initial mastery of the long, main lines of the one story that is the Christian Bible. An interpreter needs to be able to think back and forth along the canon of Scripture, with figures like Abraham and Moses and David and Cyrus standing in their proper places, and with categories like temple and sonship and holiness lighting up the various books as appropriate. This familiarity and fluency with all the constituent parts are prerequisite for further steps. 

The second step, though, advances beyond canonical mastery by understanding not just the shape of the biblical text but of God’s economy. What is required here is to comprehend the entire Bible as the official, inspired report of the one central thing that God is doing for the world. God has ordered all of these words and events that are recorded in Scripture toward one end. Simply knowing the content of the entire Bible is inadequate, if that content is misinterpreted as a haphazard assemblage of divine stops and starts. These are not disparate Bible stories, but the written witness of the one grand movement in which God disposes all his works and words toward making himself known and present.

The third step is to recognize the economy as a revelation of who God is. This is the largest step of all. Once interpreters have mastered the contents of the Bible and then understood that it presents to us God’s well-ordered economy, they still need to come to see that God is making himself known to us in that economy. After all, it is theoretically possible for God to do great things in world history without really giving away his character or disclosing his identity in doing so. This final step on the way to the doctrine of the Trinity is to recognize that God behaved as Father, Son, and Spirit in the economy because he was revealing to us who he eternally is, in himself. The joint sending of the Son and the Holy Spirit was not merely another event in a series of divine actions. It was rather the revelation of God’s own identity: the doctrine of the Trinity commits us to affirming that God put himself into the gospel.

Advancing Trinitarian Theology

Edited By Oliver Crisp and Fred Sanders

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