The More Things Change…

I’ve been teaching through various fundamental doctrines in Bible study at my church and right before the New Year we started in on the Trinity. The first class was an introduction, noting differences between the Trinity (who/what God is) and the doctrine of the Trinity (how we speak about who/what God is). The second class started in the beginning, in the book of Genesis, noting how God creates through his Word and Spirit. We noted features of the text that make sense for Trinitarians but not so much for non-Trinitarians. The third and fourth classes looked at the Angel of the LORD and the ways in which he is identified both as the LORD and as distinct from the LORD. Again, this is something that makes sense for the Trinitarian and not the non-Trinitarian.

But in all of this I’ve been hammering home the point that I reject the idea that there is no doctrine of the Trinity in the Bible as such. I’ve read that innumerable times throughout the years. The idea is that we don’t find fourth-century Trinitarian terminology in the Bible so we don’t have the doctrine of the Trinity in the Bible. Some are more generous and say that we find a doctrine of the Trinity in the NT because the NT was written after the Incarnation of the Son and the pouring out of the Spirit, but it was only hinted at in the OT at best. I reject these sentiments. Vehemently.

I don’t take fourth-century articulations to be the standard by which we judge everything else. I take the fourth-century for what it is, and likewise the NT for what it is, and before that the OT for what it is. In every instance we have a particular view of God, but if God is Trinity–and God is Trinity–then every witness to God in the Christian Scriptures is a witness to the Trinity. I can’t fault the OT for not saying what the NT says any more than I can fault the NT for not saying what the Nicene and post-Nicene fathers said. We don’t fault the early fathers for not saying what the medieval scholastics said, do we?

In any event, I was looking for a scan of a book chapter I sent someone a few years back and I found it in an email where I said the following:

I guess the standard answer to the question you raise would be an appeal to progressive revelation. It took the Incarnation of the Son and the giving of the Spirit to the Church for us to have all of the pieces in place to then formulate a formal doctrine of the Trinity. Plenty of folks suggest that God didn’t completely reveal himself as Trinity in the OT because of the rampant polytheism that surrounded Israel. It would have been all too easy for Israel to mess up God’s multi-personality and fall into worshipping multiple gods, or so the argument goes. I’d say that the OT gives us plenty to ponder concerning God’s multi-personality. The way that his Word and Spirit are depicted; or the enigmatic Angel of the Lord that is at once YHWH and an agent of YHWH; and those seemingly out of place plural pronouns and verbs that refer to God. Taken cumulatively it’s enough to get us asking some good questions.

And that’s where I’d differ from the standard answers usually offered. I think the OT forces us to ask questions that can only be correctly answered by speaking of the Trinity. We’re only able to get a doctrine of the Trinity in the NT because the OT already contains it. The NT simply assumes, builds upon, and makes clear what is already there. One thing that I often remind people about is how the Patristic writers’ arguments for the Trinity were exegetical. These early Christians formulated what most people consider “the doctrine of the Trinity” (i.e., Nicene Trinitarianism) from a close examination and interpretation of the Scriptures (especially the OT).

So I’d say that it was both hinted and revealed in the OT. We just have to allow for it to have been hinted and revealed in precisely the way that it was and not impose a later doctrine as the standard by which we judge the OT revelation. In other words, it doesn’t work to set 4th century Nicene Trinitarian theology as the standard and then say that the doctrine of the Trinity is absent from the OT (or even the NT) because they don’t use the language or arguments of 4th century theology. Likewise, I’d argue that the Son was revealed before the Incarnation in the NT. He was revealed in various theophanies; in God speaking to the Israelite King; as the Word through which God created; etc. This is why Jesus can walk with the disciples on the road to Emmaus and explain to them all of the things that the Scriptures said concerning him. They were prophetic, to be sure, but not merely in the sense of foretelling future events. They also spoke to a present reality in Israel’s life.

It seems like the more things change, the more they stay the same.

B”H

1 thought on “The More Things Change…

  1. One of my professors used to say “the Trinity is in the Bible in kit form.” It’s all there, just, “some assembly required.”

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