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God the Holy Trinity (Beeson Divinity Studies): Reflections on Christian Faith and Practice

God the Holy Trinity (Beeson Divinity Studies): Reflections on Christian Faith and Practice

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God the Holy Trinity (Beeson Divinity Studies): Reflections on Christian Faith and Practice

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Oct 1, 2006


God the Holy Trinity brings together leading scholars from diverse theological perspectives to reflect on various theological and practical aspects of the core Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Throughout, the contributors highlight the trinitarian shape of spiritual formation. The esteemed lineup of contributors includes Alister E. McGrath; Gerald L. Bray; James Earl Massey; Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J.; Frederica Mathewes-Green; J. I. Packer; Timothy George; Ellen T. Charry; and Cornelius Plantinga Jr. This book will appeal to students, church leaders, and interested laity. It is the second book in the Beeson Divinity Studies series.
Oct 1, 2006

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God the Holy Trinity (Beeson Divinity Studies) - Baker Publishing Group




When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School during the 1970s, one of my teachers published a book entitled God the Problem. This prompted a retort from one of his colleagues: Those theologians, they can make a problem out of anything! While reveling in obscurity and complexity may be the delight of some theologians, if there has ever been a genuine problem in Christian doctrine, then surely it is how the eternal God can be both One and yet ever Three at the same time. But this is what all orthodox Christians do confess: that the one and only Almighty God who created heaven and earth has forever known himself, and through salvation history has revealed himself to us, as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So basic is this belief in the Holy Trinity that it has become one of the essential markers of the Christian faith.

The essays in this volume are part of the rich harvest of trinitarian thinking that has characterized Christian theology for more than seventy-five years now. We must set this revival of trinitarian theology against the backdrop of several centuries that saw declining interest in the doctrine. The Reformation, in both its Protestant and Catholic modalities, remained formally committed to the orthodox trinitarian consensus of the early church. The doctrine of the Trinity was not a matter of dispute between Wittenberg or Geneva and Rome. Most of the radical reformers also affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity, with the exception of a small number of evangelical rationalists such as Michael Servetus, Faustus Socinus, and the Polish Brethren. The two burning issues of the Reformation were soteriology, What can I do to be saved? and ecclesiology, Where can I find a true church? In his famous maxim To know Christ is to know his benefits, Philipp Melanchthon well expressed what we might call the soteriological concentration of Reformation theology. Melanchthon and nearly everyone else on both sides of the confessional divide in the sixteenth century assumed a trinitarian framework for their elaborate discussions of justification, predestination, eucharistic theology, and the like. Yet this would not be the case several centuries later, when scholars applied Enlightenment epistemology to the content of Christian theology. Immanuel Kant, for example, claimed that the human mind could know God only as an ordering concept, like the soul or the world. This meant that Christian doctrines such as the Trinity were at best constructs of human consciousness, a mental grid of sorts, certainly not a reality that one could know, appropriate, or enter into in the way the Christian tradition had always claimed. Given these two developments—the soteriological concentration of the Reformation and the Kantian limit upon knowledge claims—it was merely a matter of logic before trinitarian doctrine found itself on the margins of Christian theology.[1]

The father of modern theology was Friedrich Schleiermacher, who famously defined the Christian religion as a feeling of absolute dependence. Despite his roots in the Reformed tradition and his strong ties to Moravian Pietism, Schleiermacher was the first great post-Kantian theologian, and his treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity reflects this commitment. In a few paragraphs the Trinity makes a brief appearance at the end of his long doctrinal treatise The Christian Faith. The Trinity is not the apex of his thinking but rather an appendix, almost an afterthought. By radically reinterpreting traditional doctrines in the light of Christian self-consciousness, Schleiermacher was able to relativize not only the doctrine of the Trinity but also much of the substance of historic creedal Christianity. Others would go even further. As Jaroslav Pelikan put it, Schleiermacher’s dictum that certain doctrines may be ‘entrusted to history for safekeeping’ became an axiom by means of which other theologians could assign much of the orthodox tradition to irrelevance.[2]

Karl Barth stands at the headwaters of a renewed interest in the doctrine of the Trinity in the twentieth century. Unlike Schleiermacher, Barth places the doctrine of the Trinity at the beginning of his theological project, in the opening chapters of his Church Dogmatics. With Barth, theology begins not with human self-consciousness but rather with God’s self-revelation. Human beings on their own are not capable of peering into the mystery of God, but the God of the Bible has spoken—Deus dixit!—and this is the basis for our understanding of the Triune God as Revealer, Revelation, and Revealedness (CD I/1:295). Because God has made himself known in this way, we can truly know him, Barth says, in unimpaired unity yet also in unimpaired distinction.[3] Barth’s trinitarian thinking has proved enormously fertile for other theologians who, while critical of Barth at key points, have extended his own Christocentric emphasis. Among the most creative and notable theologians in this trajectory are Eberhard Jüngel and Robert Jenson. At the same time, we must recognize that the doctrine of the Trinity remained marginalized in a great swath of Protestant theology. For example, Rudolf Bultmann, one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century, showed no interest in the Trinity and remained much in the tradition of Schleiermacher on this subject.

Because Roman Catholic theology has retained the substance of creedal Christianity through the centuries, this tradition never seriously questioned the doctrine of the Trinity. This is not to say, however, that there has been no significant development in Roman Catholic trinitarian theology in recent times. In traditional Roman Catholic dogmatics, the doctrine of the Trinity (De Deo Trino) was always distinguished and treated separately from the study of God’s reality and unity (De Deo Uno). As a major corrective to this approach, Karl Rahner declared: The ‘economic’ Trinity is the ‘immanent’ Trinity, and the ‘immanent’ Trinity is the ‘economic’ Trinity.[4] It is misleading, Rahner argued, to divorce the reality and unity of the one eternal God from the way this God has manifested himself in the history of salvation. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not mere masks God wears at different moments in history, like the same actor who plays different parts at different times in a three-act play. Instead, these divine names are a divinely given and accurate depiction of who God actually is. Alister McGrath summarizes this view: "The same God who appears as a Trinity is a Trinity. The way in which God is known in self-revelation corresponds to the way God is internally."[5]

The early church worked out much of its trinitarian reflection in the East, and the Orthodox tradition has served as the guardian of this dogmatic consensus through the centuries. The major development in Orthodox trinitarian thinking came during the medieval era with the work of Gregory Palamas, who distinguished between the essence and energies of God. However, because the Eastern Church was spared the crises of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, the Trinity remained at the center of our Christian life, being reflected in the rich traditions of iconography, liturgy, and meditation. In recent decades, however, some of the most important contributors to the current trinitarian renaissance have come from the Eastern Church. Among the most notable of these perhaps is John Zizioulas, whose book Being as Communion (1985) has made an enormous impact. Zizioulas and other Eastern theologians have once again brought to the fore the teaching of the Cappadocian fathers concerning the perichōrēsis, the coinherence of the three divine persons in the Godhead. This motif was never completely lost in the West but tended to remain obscured by those who followed Augustine, and then Aquinas, in moving from a primary emphasis on God’s unity to the subsequent discussion of God’s tri-unity. The notion that, as Jonathan Edwards once put it, God is within himself a holy society, has spawned a new interest in the social Trinity, though some construals of social trinitarianism have moved far beyond the bounds of historic Christian orthodoxy.

The papers published in this volume were originally presented at Beeson Divinity School of Samford University in the symposium God the Holy Trinity: A Conference on Faith and Christian Life. The speakers represented Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant (Anglican, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Holiness) theological traditions. While there are diverse voices and varying emphases in these essays, they represent an underlying commitment to the trinitarian faith of the apostolic tradition, grounded in Holy Scripture and confessed by the early church. None of the contributors to this volume would for a moment minimize the serious theological and ecclesial differences that still, sadly, prevent us as believing Christians from coming together to the banquet of the Lord’s Table. But we do recognize one another as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, and we stand together in our commitment to the historic trinitarian faith of the church. As an expression of the unity we already have in Christ, for the fullness of which we still wait, we stood together with the congregation assembled for worship in the conference at which these papers were given, and in unison we recited the Nicene Creed.

Another theme runs through all of these essays. While not avoiding some of the sharp issues and debates, we were concerned that we not present the doctrine of the Trinity as a heady theological conundrum, a problem to be solved. We wanted to address a crucial question: How does the doctrine of the Trinity shape the ways of the Christian life, its worship and prayer, its service and mission? There is a pastoral theme in this book that highlights the trinitarian shape of spiritual formation.

In the opening chapter, Alister McGrath presents an evangelical reflection of the doctrine of the Trinity. He begins with a call to humility, reminding us that our best theological work on this theme will always fall immeasurably short of the reality with which it is concerned. Mystery is an oft-used but appropriate word to describe the God who is both hidden and revealed, the God whom we can never capture in any formulation. While McGrath applauds the resurgence of interest in the Trinity, following its long demise in Protestant liberalism, he also sounds a note of caution that the theological pendulum may have swung too far in a trinitarian direction. He leads us to Thomas à Kempis, who disparaged speculation about the Trinity in favor of a love for the Trinity, an affective response that requires conversion and a changed life.

One of the common objections to trinitarian theology, especially within the evangelical tradition, is the belief that it lacks sufficient scriptural warrant. The word trinitas is not found in the Bible but was coined by Tertullian many years after the final books of the Bible were written. In his essay, Out of the Box: The Christian Experience of God in Trinity, Gerald Bray challenges this idea by looking closely at the biblical basis for Christian trinitarian thought. In his exposition of the key verse, Galatians 4:6, Bray shows how the early church’s awareness of the Trinity stemmed from the basic experience of Christian worship and prayer: To confess God as a Trinity is to worship him in our hearts, as those hearts are stirred by the Spirit of the Son crying ‘Abba, Father.’

James Earl Massey’s essay, Faith and Christian Life in the African-American Spirituals, shows how poignant songs from the time of slavery reflect a deep and palpable response to the work of God as the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. The role of the Holy Spirit, often neglected in more scholastic presentations on the Trinity, comes to the fore in the moans, chants, and yearnings of the spirituals.

Avery Cardinal Dulles looks at the way the doctrine of the Trinity serves as a fundamental bedrock for ecumenical witness and work. From New Testament times onward, baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit has been a basic rite of initiation for the Christian community. As Cyprian put it in the third century, the church is a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Of special interest is Dulles’s review and critique of Vladimir Soloviev’s creative proposal, seeking a way forward for Christian unity based upon trinitarian ecclesiology.

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a member of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, and her presentation reflects the wider concerns of Eastern Christianity. She reminds us that the Trinity is central in Christian worship and that we often best approach this subject through the media of art, architecture, and iconography. Her meditation on a famous painting by the Russian monk Andrei Rublev, entitled The Old Testament Trinity, draws together important lessons about the nature and character of God through this visual interpretation of Genesis 18:1–20. She concludes her meditation with an exhortation to silence before the mystery of the holy.

J. I. Packer shows us how trinitarian thinking permeates the theological work of the great English Puritan John Owen. Packer rescues Owen from the dour stereotype often applied to all Puritans and presents him instead as a theologian of the heart, equally concerned with doctrinal and devotional issues. Packer describes Owen’s great book of sermons on communion with God as a radically trinitarian account of the inside story of Christian existence. The Westminster Shorter Catechism declares that the chief end of human existence is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. John Owen turns out to be an important spiritual guide in the fulfillment of this goal.

The Trinity has always been a contentious doctrine, not only within Christianity but also in Christianity’s engagement with other world religions, especially with the two other great monotheistic traditions, Judaism and Islam. In The Trinity and the Challenge of Islam, Timothy George examines the Christian-Muslim exchange over the Trinity. Among the issues he tackles is the question of whether Islam, in its formative phase, understood what Christians meant when they declared that God is both One and Three, or whether the quite negative reaction of Islam to the Trinity was really a response to a corrupted version of the doctrine. By confronting the provocative questions Is monotheism enough? and Does God need a Son? he explores the implications of the Christian understanding of God for Christian-Muslim dialogue today.

In her retrieval of Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity, Ellen T. Charry offers a stout critique of the trajectory of trinitarian theology represented by Barth, and more recently, Robert Jenson and Catherine LaCugna. When they focus so strongly on a communitarian model of the Trinity, sometimes in a socially reductionist way, these thinkers obscure something important about God’s divine character. Charry looks at various traits associated with the divine character and concludes that while God’s character is not unstable, our ability to understand it is partial. Knowing God well is an art, she says, and a difficult one at that. Alister McGrath opens this volume by sounding the note of mystery; Ellen Charry brings it to a close by reminding us of divine simplicity—an Augustinian perspective that stresses the transformation of the soul by the goodness, wisdom, and beauty of God.

The final chapter of this volume is a sermon by Cornelius Plantinga Jr. on Deep Wisdom. The Gospel of John has always deeply informed the richest strands of trinitarian theology, and here Plantinga works from several key texts. In the story of Jesus as John tells it, the glory of the one Triune God is manifested in the tangible elements of wine, water, bread, and blood. This is the deep wisdom that finds the power of God and the glory of God displayed for all the world to see one Friday in Jerusalem, on a hill called Calvary.

Finally, this volume is dedicated, with gratitude and esteem, to James M. Houston, the founding principal of Regent College in Vancouver, and a frequent visiting professor at Beeson Divinity School. Drawing on the wisdom of the Christian tradition in its fullness, he has served the evangelical church by forging a model of spiritual theology and theological education that brings us into the heart of the Holy Trinity so clearly revealed in the face of Jesus Christ.


The Doctrine of the Trinity

An Evangelical Reflection


One of my fonder childhood memories concerns a church service in Northern Ireland, in the late 1950s. I was growing up, totally disinterested in the Christian faith, but still feeling the cultural pressure to self-identify religiously and attend church. The Book of Common Prayer was still the only authorized form of worship, and we religiously—I think I can safely use that word!—followed its seventeenth-century English prose. On one occasion, for reasons that I cannot entirely recall, we said the Athanasian Creed. As we recited its rather ponderous statements, we came to affirming our belief in the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. I can still recall the loud voice of a slightly deaf local farmer, standing by my side, booming out: The whole damn thing’s incomprehensible. The congregation had paused for breath at that particular point and had no difficulty in hearing this piece of theological commentary.

At that stage, I have to admit that I had no particular interest in religion, regarding attending church as one of life’s less exciting inevitabilities. But some such thought has haunted the Western church throughout its history, particularly since the rise of the Age of Reason in the eighteenth century. Is the doctrine of the Trinity simply an intellectual incoherence? Perhaps it is the classic example of an outdated and outmoded demand that we, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, should believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.[1] There is no difficulty in identifying many who feel this way. While navigating that international superhighway of human knowledge and wisdom called the Internet, I came across the site, making some quite strident comments on the matter, in which the

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