How We Got Here: The Evangelical Trinitarian Milieu
Editor's Note: For more on these issues, see Jason S. Sexton, "The State of the Evangelical Trinitarian Resurgence," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54:4 (December 2011).
Evangelicals have a peculiar relationship with the doctrine of the Trinity.
Defined nearly as much by the way they hold their values and beliefs as the beliefs themselves, evangelicals value the Bible as God's distinct self-revelation. They are people of the Book, and therefore, if it's evangelical, it is usually going to be biblical. And yet, the formulation of the creedal doctrine of the Trinity that came down from Nicaea isn't stated in the Bible.
Excellent proposals have recently been provided for understanding how the triune God reveals himself as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in Scripture, including these:
- Andreas J. Köstenberger and Scott R. Swain, Father, Son and Spirit: The Trinity and John's Gospel (IVP, 2008)
- R. Kendall Soulen, The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity: Distinguishing the Voices (WJK, 2011)
But the manner in which evangelicals arrive at the doctrine has been contested. Such a predicament led some early Pentecostals to break ranks with orthodox Pentecostals over the doctrine of the Trinity and have only recently begun to discuss their theological differences. A revealing 2008 report published in the academic journal Pneuma shows that Oneness scholars almost conceded to an inexplicable threeness in God's being, while the trinitarians allowed that the language of "persons" is not sacred in trinitarian theology. These were significant steps to clarifying positions on the doctrine of the Trinity.
Aside from a few exceptions, however, evangelicals have not often given much thought to their articulation of trinitarian doctrine. In the 20th century, evangelical theologians used the doctrine for almost exclusively apologetic purposes. Today, in independent evangelical churches and institutions of higher learning, the trinitarian articles in their doctrinal statements are often haphazardly constructed, and rarely seem to receive much attention. Yet while the doctrine itself often remained underexplored, evangelical theology was always assumed to be "solidly trinitarian." Only rarely was this affirmation moved to the front and center of evangelical confession, as it was in the case of the 1989 insertion of the explicit affirmation of the doctrine of the Trinity into the Evangelical Theological Society's Doctrinal Basis. Otherwise, the doctrine has more often been assumed rather than defended or explicitly and thoroughly appropriated.
There are exceptions to this, of course, as Fred Sanders has recently shown in his remarkably helpful and highly accessible work The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Crossway). This book shows not only that evangelicalism is tacitly trinitarian but also how some notable leaders within the tradition (e.g., Susanna Wesley, Nicky Cruz, and Francis Schaeffer) devoted meaningful attention to the doctrine. Nevertheless, these are rare exceptions that reveal an unfortunate feature of evangelical theology.
Suggested by some as being a legacy of Calvin to locate Scripture at the beginning of doctrinal formulation---as he did in the Institutes---evangelicals have often followed suit, relegating the doctrine of the Trinity to second rank. I suspect this move, along with the doctrine of the Trinity relegated to having primarily apologetic import, has also caused evangelicals to wonder where to locate the doctrine in their own formulation and articulation of the gospel.
Recent evangelical publications have tended to belabor this point about the difficulty or inaccessibility or impracticality of the doctrine, thus denying the church the benefits of sustained reflection on the ineffably sublime triune God on the basis of what he has done in Christ. Recent studies within leading evangelical institutions have even defined major stalwarts of late 20th-century evangelicalism as "sub-trinitarian." After surveying the writings of John Stott, Alister McGrath concluded, "There is no sense, at least in Stott, that the Trinity is the cornerstone of evangelical identity." Evangelical organizations like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and the Evangelical Free Church of America have recently corrected some of this negligence by reasserting the doctrine of the Trinity's primary significance in Christian confession, locating it as the primary article in their respective statements of faith. Some new collaborative organizations (including The Gospel Coalition) have also located the doctrine of the Trinity front and center, a promising move for evangelical confession.
Assumed Then Lost
The trinitarian underemphasis has generated some of the confusion that presently exists within evangelicalism, especially among those who otherwise share many core and common doctrinal convictions and commitments. And yet, on a much larger scale, this may be a similar feature to the oft-quoted quip from Don Carson, that when the gospel (in this case: the triune nature of the God of the gospel) is assumed, the passion is lost in proclamation, and could likely be lost within a generation.
I shudder to think how long and for how many generations evangelicals have "assumed" the doctrine of the Trinity. While any genuine salvific movement of God in the world always gives birth to trinitarian faith, tacit trinitarianism is not satisfactory for evangelical theology. Instead, the doctrine of the Trinity ought to inform everything---in theology, ministry, ethics, and all of life.
This trinitarian paucity may have resulted from evangelicalism's focus on other emphases, such as world evangelism and biblical scholarship. And yet, recent work from a number of missional and biblical theologians has shown strong efforts to be more trinitarian in emphasis and outlook. A leading example is the work of Christopher J. H. Wright and his recent efforts with The Cape Town Commitment. Additionally, the following publications offer some of the best trinitarian engagement in recent years:
- Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship (CUP, 2010)
- Stephen R. Holmes, The Holy Trinity: Understanding God's Life (UK: Paternoster, 2012; US: IVP, 2012)
- Keith E. Johnson, Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism: An Augustinian Assessment (IVP, 2011)
The difficulties between evangelicals and the Trinity are simply part of the present state of evangelical identity---an identity inherited from the particular 20th-century emphases within evangelical theology. We should therefore not be surprised by confusion or lack of nuance, even among some of our best teachers and leaders. This is our situation. We can do better, and have begun to in very hopeful ways.
There is still much more to say by way of understanding the nature of the triune God, the divine life, and God's working in the world. Of all people evangelicals shouldn't be afraid of further development in our doctrines of the Trinity, as we hold out hope in the gospel of the triune God who passionately loves the world.