Thursday, October 16, 2008

Why a Doctrine of the Trinity?

In keeping with their Jewish heritage, the first Christians were strict monotheists (cf. Dt 6:4). Nevertheless, they believed that God had come among them in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The gospel writers assert that Jesus is "Immanuel": God with us (Mt 1:23). Thus, the problem for the early Christians was not whether Jesus Christ was God, but how, within the boundaries of their inherited monotheism, could the unity of God be maintained while equally holding to the deity of one who is distinct from God the Father. In short, how could they assert that Jesus is one with God while maintaining there is only one God? Said another way, how could they maintain both the unity of God and the distinction of personhood between the Father and the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom the early church also worshipped as divine?
While there is no formal doctrine of the Trinity articulated in the New Testament, there are many scriptures that plainly indicate the triune pattern of God's self-revelation in salvation history. Thomas Oden (Systematic Theology I) lists twelve "classic texts" that point to an incipient doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament: i) the baptismal formula (Mt 28:19-20); ii) Jesus' baptism (Mt 3; Mk 1; Lk 3; Jn 1); iii) Paul's apostolic benediction (2Cor 13:14); iv) the varieties of gifts (1Cor 12:4-6); v) the Ephesian formula (Eph 2:18; 4:3-6); vi) Jude's summary instruction (Jude 20, 21); vii) John's Prologue and the Farewell Discourse (Jn 1; 14-17); viii) the Johannine letters (1Jn 3-5); ix) the Apocalypse salutation (Rev 1:4-6); x) the kenosis (Phil 2:5-11); xi) introduction to Colossians (Col 1:13-16), and xii) Hebrews summary of salvation history (Heb 1:1-4). In addition, there are many more texts that plainly lend themselves to a trinitarian interpretation.
Even as New Testament scripture was being written, the early Christians were compelled to reflect on their encounter with Jesus Christ, either personally or through the power of the Spirit. The early church believed that God was present and active in the ministry of Jesus and that the resurrected Jesus was personally present in the life of the community through the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the starting point for early (not later) Christian reflection on the nature of God was the biblical witness to the presence and activity of God in Jesus Christ as attested by the Holy Spirit. In short, the early church's speech (confession) about God began with the unique self-revelation of God, the incarnate Son of God, the historical Jesus, and his ongoing presence in the community of faith through the power of the indwelling Spirit.
The Christian confession of God as triune is a "summary description" of the biblical witness to the Father's unfathomable love for all humanity as revealed in the incarnate Jesus Christ and experienced and celebrated by the Christian church in the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity is the always-inadequate attempt to interpret this witness in images and concepts comprehensible to the community of faith. The doctrine of the Trinity is the product of the ongoing meditation and reflection of the church over the gospel proclamation of the "good news of the love of God in Christ" that continues to work in the world through the Holy Spirit (Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, p. 67). In short, the doctrine of the Trinity is the result of sustained reflection by the early church upon the exact nature of the relationship between Jesus Christ and God (and later, the Holy Spirit).
Roman Catholic theologian Catherine Mowry LaCugna describes the doctrine of the Trinity as "the summary statement of faith in the God of Jesus Christ" (LaCugna, God for Us, p. 21). She adds the important observation that the doctrine originated as "an explanation of how God's relationship to us in the economy of salvation (oikonomia) reveals and is grounded in the eternal being of God (theologia). God is none other than who God is revealed to be in Christ and the Holy Spirit" (p. 8).
Reformed theologian T. F. Torrance asserts the importance of the connection between God's self-revelation in time and space, that is, in salvation history (oikonomia) and the inner, eternal being of God (theologia). As the theologians of the early church reflected on the incarnation of the divine in Christ, says Torrance, they were faced with the fundamental question as to how the self-revelation of God, manifested within the limited capabilities of human comprehension, is related to the "invisible, intangible, and incomprehensible Reality of God in the mystery of his own ultimate being" (Torrance, Christian Doctrine of God, p. 77). Unless there is a substantial connection between the visible, tangible, and comprehensible and the invisible, intangible, and incomprehensible, there can be no firm basis for actual knowledge of God as God is in himself (God in se). Without such a connection, argues Torrance, the Gospel is detached from reality and its account of God's redemptive activity in human history is nothing more than a "mythological projection of human fancy."
Torrance, a Protestant theologian, and LaCugna, a Roman Catholic theologian, both assert the supreme importance of the bridge between oikonomia, defined here as God's self-revelation in the history of Israel, the incarnation of Christ, and the sending of the Holy Spirit, and theologia, God's eternal intradivine nature considered apart from his action in the world. LaCugna echoes Torrance in her assertion that the "central theme" of trinitarian theology is the relationship between the economy of salvation (oikonomia) and the eternal being of God (theologia). In the terminology of Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, trinitarian doctrine focuses on the relationship between the economic Trinity (oikonomia) and the immanent Trinity (theologia) (LaCugna, 1991: 22). In plain speak, trinitarian theology focuses on the relationship between God's self-revelation in time and space as incarnate Son and the indwelling Spirit (economic Trinity) and God's eternal, internal relationships in the triune Godhead (immanent Trinity). The task of trinitarian theologians is to articulate the innumerable theological, anthropological, cosmic, soteriological, and eschatological implications of God's triune self-revelation as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. No doubt, notwithstanding the efforts of Barth, Torrance, Gunton, Jenson, Kruger, LaCugna, Rahner, Zizioulas, and many others, this task is still in its early stages.

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