Too Little or Too Much: Troubleshooting Contemporary Trinitarianism

Fred Sanders
Friday, October 31st 2014
Nov/Dec 2014

The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the classic achievements of early Christian theology. The fathers of the early church drew together the strands of biblical argument so compellingly that all through the Middle Ages and the Reformation, theologians have gratefully affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity in the classical form bequeathed to them by the early church. Protestant theologians, as is only right for sola scriptura believers, have reserved the right to check all received doctrines against Scripture itself. But when the Reformers investigated the patristic arguments, what they found was that the fathers got it right: Scripture confirmed classic Trinitarian doctrine, or to put it the right way around, classic Trinitarianism arose from what the Bible says.

Too Little

In recent years, however, a trend has developed that reaches different conclusions. A number of Protestant theologians (including evangelicals) have declared that, while the overall doctrine is definitely biblical, certain components of its traditional form allegedly fail the Bible test. One aspect of traditional Trinitarian theology that has been increasingly criticized is the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. This doctrine teaches that the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son, stands in a coeternal and coessential relationship to the First Person, the Father, and that this relationship is one of origination: the Son comes from the Father in a relation of origin that is spiritual and eternal. The early church found its way to this doctrine mainly by two paths: first, by reasoning back into the being of God from the way the Father sends the Son (Gal. 4:4) and the Holy Spirit (Gal. 4:6) into human history; and second, by analyzing the ultimate meaning of the revealed name “Son.” Among the contemporary theologians and teachers who deny eternal generation, there is definite agreement about the eternal nature of the Son’s Sonhood—remember, these teachers are Trinitarian. But there is less confidence about whether the classical tradition of Christian doctrine was wise to trace that eternal Sonship back to a relation of eternal generation. Sometimes this is expressed as outright denial of eternal generation. Other times it is expressed as reticence and reserve about saying anything more than what the Bible itself says on these points. We can be confident that the Son of God was and is eternally God the Son, and the Spirit of God eternally God the Spirit, apparently, but we ought not to speak about arcana such as eternal processions in the essence of God.

Too Much

So some modern teachers want to say less than the classic tradition did on this subject. But on another subject they want to say more than the tradition, and that is on the subject of the personhood of the three persons. The classic tradition, both East and West, both patristic and Reformation, spoke with a certain reserve about what “person” meant when applied to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For the great tradition, naming these three as persons (a word not used in Scripture itself in this context) certainly meant that they were real, distinct, and non-interchangeable; but with equal certainty it meant that they were not self-sufficient entities who were theoretically separable. The three persons could not be thought of as three people. When the classic tradition did get specific about the nature of the three, they gave precise definitions that opted for the metaphysical (“a person is an individual substance of a rational nature”), rather than the psychological or experiential (such as “a person is a center of self-conscious willing”).

In recent decades, however, the psychological account of personhood has come to seem so self-evident that Trinitarian theologians are increasingly applying it more directly to the Trinity, resulting in a description of God as three spiritual people. Again, teachers who move in this direction are not crossing the line into heresy. They are Trinitarians, not tritheists. But their modern account of psychological personhood, and their strong preference for a social or more communal model of the Trinity, marks their Trinitarianism as significantly different from the classical form of the doctrine.

These modern Trinitarian teachers appeal directly to the Bible and can be corrected only by scriptural evidence and argumentation. That is fine. But the major Protestant confessions were also hammered out on the anvil of sola scriptura, and in their considered judgments they set forth a doctrine of the Trinity far more aligned with the patristic doctrine: One God in three persons distinguished by their eternal relations of origin. As the Westminster Confession puts it, “The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.” The classic and consensual tradition of Christian doctrine may need to be investigated and confirmed by every new generation, but their great strength was in perceiving the main outline of God’s self-revelation in the words of Scripture. If contemporary theologians turn away from this confessional legacy in an attempt to be more biblical, they run the risk of being not only out of step with the classical form of Trinitarianism, but also of being too narrowly and selectively biblical and failing to see the big picture.

Friday, October 31st 2014

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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