The Trinity and Trinitarianism

Later this week I’ll speak to a group with the task of comparing a “Trinitarian” to a “non-Trinitarian” understanding of God. It’s an important topic; and I probably should have launched the Spreading Goodness site with this question since it stands behind much of what we’ve offered here since beginning. On the other hand it’s a complex topic with a huge range of engagement so I approach it with respect and a sense that this is just an initial foray that will certainly call for corrections and further development.

That said, this comparison may or may not be familiar to many readers. For some it will create a response of, “What you’re talking about?” while for others, “Please! Not another dose of this topic!” It depends on what circles we run in. Let’s start with that as context.

Christians of all orthodox varieties affirm the doctrine of the Trinity as a crucial truth: that God exists eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; but not all agree on much beyond that triadic label. Today there are, in fact, some wide variations of understanding in place even among evangelical Christians. Given those differences “Trinitarian Theology” refers to an effort by some to clarify and reform views of the Trinity that are, according to Trinitarian reformers, broken.

Broken by what measure? By measure of the creedal statements endorsed by the major 4th century church councils—e.g. Nicaea in 325 and Constantinople in 381. That means that the label “non-Trinitarian” as used above is a misnomer because it refers to real Christians who affirm the Trinity at some level but who either aren’t alert to the issues at stake here; or who are informed, but who don’t fully engage or embrace the Nicaea-Constantinople tradition. This brief entry, then, aims to orient the former group—those who are still unaware of the conversation—rather than to convince the latter crowd.

My own awakening to the topic came during my doctoral days at King’s College London where I participated in the weekly seminars of the Institute for Theological Research led by the late Colin Gunton, a noted Trinitarian scholar. I first attended the seminars as a guest (liable to be exiled if spare seats weren’t available!) because my own research was not in systematic theology (Gunton’s department) but in church history. My subject was a 17th century Puritan preacher, Richard Sibbes. I attended the Research seminars just to round out my exposure to theological traditions, both old and new.

It was a happy accident. Sibbes, I discovered, was an avid student of the major figures of the 4th & 5th centuries—the so-called Nicene and Post-Nicene fathers. He not only examined that era but he also recognized how these early Trinitarian views were later engaged and promoted by Martin Luther and John Calvin, among others, as key tenets of the Protestant Reformation.

At the same time Sibbes—moved by what he found—gently but firmly resisted a new movement in his day. That movement—now called Post-Reformation Scholasticism—sought to restore key values and axioms of medieval Aristotelian Christianity. It was a model best represented by the 13th century scholar, Thomas Aquinas, hence “Thomism”.

The new movement found widespread traction in Sibbes’ day given that in the 16th-17th centuries European and British universities all relied on Aristotle’s works as the curricular core of undergraduate education. So when students moved on from their undergraduate studies to graduate studies in theology, they found that the earlier works by Aquinas had already synthesized Aristotle’s philosophy with theology—so they embraced the Thomist package. That synthesis, in turn, did much to shape what became the Westminster tradition. Ironically it was Thomas’s theology that Luther & Calvin had energetically dismissed years earlier. And that opposition was rooted in some of the key differences between the Thomistic view of the Trinity and the Nicene version.

Let me return, then, to what I found at King’s College. Many of the theology faculty and PhD students there were tracing Barthian theology. Barth, I soon discovered, had also been captured by the major figures of the 4th & 5th centuries—the same Nicene and Post-Nicene fathers that Sibbes loved. Barth then traced the way in which the Trinitarian views of those fathers were developed and transmitted by the Protestant Reformation through figures like Martin Luther and John Calvin. Gunton, as a Barth scholar, was aware of all this.

A purpose of Gunton’s research seminar was to allow doctoral students to present aspects of their research. So when the time came for me to offer a presentation of Sibbes’ theology—with Gunton as the host that day—he was clearly surprised. It turned out that the common ground between Sibbes and Barth was deep and wide. Barth, it turns out, was also resistant to any place for Aristotle’s influence in the Christian faith.

That surprise connection then set up my sense of partnership with current Trinitarianism, a movement that today owes much of its energy to the works of a Scottish clan, the Torrances, especially two brothers, James and Thomas (or T. F.). An American scholar, Robert Jenson (Gunton’s doctoral mentor), is another key figure here. My own postdoctoral studies have remained oriented to the Puritan era so I only have a passing exposure to what these men have written, but what I have read of them aligns well with Trinitarian figures like Sibbes and those he influenced, including Jonathan Edwards [on this connection, see Amy Plantinga Pauw, The Harmony of All].

What, then, are some of the differences between Trinitarians and non-Trinitarians? For lack of space let me list just four here. We’ll also call the latter tradition Western Theists because the movement is mainly a product of the West (over against the more overtly Nicene Eastern Church) and they do, of course, affirm the Trinity.

Where to begin? For Trinitarians any discussion of God must engage the Trinity as its starting point. Western Theists, on the other hand, locate the Trinity as a secondary feature within the larger conversation about God’s essential being. In virtually every expression of Western theology—including Aquinas, Turretin, Hodge, and Erickson—the standard approach is to take up the Trinity as a primary topic only after ten or more expositions of God’s monad-like attributes and being, as in Aquinas who touches on God’s existence, simplicity, perfection, goodness, infinity, immutability, eternity, unity, and more (26 in total) before reaching the Trinity. Whatever benefits these lists offer—and there are certainly some—they effectively restructure God’s actual self-portrayal. In the Bible there is, instead, a priority given to God’s relationality as in John 1:1, a text that consciously echoes and expands Genesis 1:1. “In the beginning” of Genesis we find a God who comes speaking in his triune reality, “Let us make man in our image” and “In the beginning [of John’s gospel] was the Word and the Word was with God”.

Christology. Western theology continues to be plagued by impulses toward Unitarian defections—whether covertly or overtly. A problem with the attribute-list vision of God is that an essential-God-who-is-behind-the-shared-deity-of-Jesus is suggested. This, then, sets up the misimpression that there is a greater and truly ultimate Deity in the Father who resembles the monadic deities of Aristotle, Judaism, and Islam. This, in turn, sets up an implicit subordination of being between the Father (as the “real” source of deity) and the lesser Son (as his mere extension, with an implicit prospect that he himself was created). The student of this system then shares in Philip’s request to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us” (John 14:8). Christ’s sharp response to him, then sets out a Trinitarian counter-vision, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father!” It is only in the Son that we gain a clear picture of God! He is our proper starting point in coming to God. And then, through the Son’s disclosures of the Father’s love and glory, we engage our relational God in proper terms [see the great prayer of Jesus in John 17].

Pneumatology. Western theology finds it difficult to characterize the Spirit in robust and personal terms, no matter that the Nicene fathers called for just that. He, instead, tends to be an explanatory and mysterious force who accomplishes God’s desires, often as an “it” rather than “him”. Trinitarian theology, in stark contrast, centers in the divine communion of God—the Perichoresis—as a reality facilitated by the Spirit’s eternal work of mutual interpenetration. He takes all that is in the Father and shares it with the Son; and takes all that is in the Son and shares it with the Father in a mutual reciprocity so that all that is in the Father is in the Son, and all that is in the Son is in the Father; and all of this is shared by and through the Spirit who is both the Spirit of the Son and of the Father. The Spirit, then, is the one through whom we, too, are bonded in a real participatory union in the Son, and through the Son, with the Father. Thus life eternal comes to us by the Spirit’s communion.

Love. We read that “God is love” in John 4:8&16, yet in Western Theism love is, at best, treated with a certain embarrassed silence. One looks in vain for a Western based systematic theology that gives love the prominence it receives in the Bible as God’s great motivation and his greatest commandment for humanity. Why? Because the God of Western Theism is characterized mainly by his powers—as the great “unmoved mover”—which leaves no place for him to be “moved” by anything in his creation. This sets up a commitment to anthropopathic explanations of God’s love—that his love is actually a function of his will, and that he lacks any affective-or-responsive qualities. Instead we hear that God covets glory for himself while love languishes: duty always trumps desires in Western Theism. Then our human anthropology is reinterpreted in light of a disaffected divinity so that volition—finding and obeying God’s will—has primacy, and not our response of love to the God who first loved us. In a Trinitarian reading of the Bible, on the other hand, we find the Father as the great lover, the Son as his beloved, and the Spirit as the communicator of that Love. There is a divine passion that in no way threatens God’s stability or his eternal purposes: in love he chose us before the world was even created! This offers us a mystery that only eternity may resolve as there we will continue to experience Christ’s love that surpasses knowing.

There’s so much more to this! In fact the great opportunity for those of us who have been drawn to the communion of God’s love there are a host of corrections in our theology called for in light of the Trinity. Sin, for instance, is a relational violation rooted in absolute disaffection (“hatred”) that Jesus overcomes by his own loving atonement. So, too, revelation is no longer seen as merely contractual and rational but as the passionate and compelling disclosures of the Triune God’s love for us.

So I conclude by inviting readers to never quit exploring all that the Triune God offers us: “Oh, taste and see, the LORD is good!”

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8 Comments

  1. Terry

    Thanks Ron. I’ve been waiting for this article for quite awhile. This summary/overview highlights your strengths professionally, historical theology, and reveals your heart affectively, God loves us and we love him. Thanks again.

  2. Jesse

    Great post. Are you familiar with Gunton’s works, and if so, any recommendations? I’ve heard that “The Promise of Trinitarian Theology” is good, but haven’t had the time to get around to it yet.

    -Jesse (Andrew Naffin’s friend)

  3. andrew

    Excellent synthesis and analysis! I really appreciate the focus on the Trinity as the starting point of knowing God! I find it sad, but indicative of the non-Trinitarian perspective that permeates so much of the church, that I could grow up in the church and Christian community yet never confront the reality or implications of the trinity. (I only began seeing this about a year ago…after twenty odd years as a follower of Christ.) The focus on inter-relation within God and the love of God absolutely revolutionizes our view of Christ, the Father, and our own purpose. The duty-bound Christians, trying vainly to follow the law are, ultimately, an outgrowth of our non-Trinitarian perspective. Thank you for sharing these ideas and offering their historical context.

  4. R N Frost

    Yes, Jesse, I’m familiar with many of Gunton’s works. The Promise of Trinitarian Theology is a good start. He’s never an “easy” read, but is always worth the time it takes.

  5. Gretchen

    Thanks, Ron. I always appreciate your posts on this topic, as they help bring clarity to my Bible reading. I value the history lesson as well!

  6. Bobby

    Good one, Ron! I feel like I’m back in class 😉 . . . the good ole’ days 🙂 .

  7. Sarah S

    You wrote: “There’s so much more to this! In fact the great opportunity of those of us who are captured in the communion of God’s love through our union with Christ by the Spirit, there are a host of revisions-to-theology that are called for in light of the Trinity.”

    Please keep ’em coming!

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