Recently I post a blog entry called “A (genuine) Generous Orthodoxy.” In it, I mentioned in passing that I wouldn’t rule out a non-trinitarian from being “saved” with any kind of certainty. Shortly afterwards, I received an email from someone who does in fact deny the doctrine of the Trinity yet still identifies as a Christian.
This fellow had a question for me, although it had nothing to do with my post on generous orthodoxy. The question was: If the Trinity is such an essential doctrine, why isn’t it explicitly taught all in one place anywhere in the Bible? Why is it the kind of thing that you can only understand by inferring it from a whole bunch of statements in the Bible and then trying to synthesise those statements into a coherent system? Why couldn’t the biblical writers just state it plainly and simply in one utterance, especially if it’s so important?
I think there are several things to say in response to the question, and in answering the question I think we gain a better understanding of the nature of systematic theology, as well as – in my view – the relative importance that we attribute to certain doctrines. What I have to say here is not about whether the doctrine of the Trinity is biblical or not (although it is).
The first issue arises as soon as we say “If the doctrine of the Trinity is so important, then how come…” What do we mean by “so important”? In my earlier post on a generous orthodoxy, I expressed my view that standards of orthodoxy are not things that give us certainty about who is “truly saved” and who isn’t. They are more like safety standards that indicate what the truth is like, and we stray from them at our own risk. Whether a person accepts the doctrine of the Trinity is, I think, important in the sense that it reveals what they think God is like (or not like) in a metaphysical sense because God actually is a Trinity if I and historic Christianity are correct, but I am in no position to say that it gives us a guarantee about whether a person is accepted by God or not. Its subject matter is important of course, because the subject is God (which is about as important as subjects can be!), but it’s not important because a wrong answer sends you down the chute to hell.
So let’s forget the whole “if the doctrine of the Trinity is so important” part. What about the main thrust of the question? Why isn’t the doctrine of the Trinity spelled out succinctly in any one place in the New Testament (I refer to the New Testament because it would be completely unreasonable to expect the Old Testament to teach the doctrine of the Trinity before the birth of Christ)? My answer is something like this: Why would it be? To have that expectation is, I think, to misunderstand the reason that the Bible was written in the first place. I think that systematic theology has value, but the New Testament wasn’t written as a textbook on systematic theology. The New Testament’s purpose was far simpler than that. It was to announce that in Christ God has fulfilled his promise in sending a saviour, that Jesus is that saviour, to recount the events surrounding Jesus as saviour, and to provide guidance to the early community of the followers of Jesus on how to live as the people of God in the world.
Is there theology in the midst of this? Yes, absolutely, but that is not the focus. Even the Apostle Paul, the most prolific theologian in the New Testament, was primarily concerned with pastoral matters such as Christian living (also called practical theology) rather than more recondite theology. In 2 Timothy 3:10-17 he wrote to the young disciple Timothy, and this passage has become famous as an expression of the inspiration of Scripture. Yet look at Paul’s focus on what Scripture is for:
You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
From start to finish here, Paul’s concern is with following God by living for him. How has Timothy followed Paul’s teaching? By imitating his conduct and even enduring persecution. Who will endure suffering? Those who live a godly life. Yes, there is mention of the factthat Timothy should continue to believe the things taught to him, but then in the grand finale, that classic list of the things that Scripture is useful for, what do we find? Teaching, reproof and correction. What sort of teaching, reproof and correction? What’s the function of these things? It comes in the very next line: so that the man of God will be competent, equipped for every good work.
Let me anticipate one response: I am not saying that the biblical writers never ever taught specific theological truths. Sometimes they did. They taught about the resurrection of the dead. They taught about immortality. They taught about why we have the practices of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (although the concern here is fairly practical too). No doubt we can think of other examples. But the main reason we have the Scripture is not so that we can be schooled in every theological detail.
Here’s an example: Divine omniscience. Doctrines of divine omniscience, just like doctrines of divine ontology (of which the Trinity is one) come in at least several forms. Is God’s knowledge propositional or intuitive? Does God exhaustively know the future? What role does creaturely freedom play in God’s knowledge? There exists a range of possible understandings of divine omniscience. One of them is true, but there is no place in the Bible where one of them is set out and explicitly stated to be true. The same is true of doctrines of divine providence.
Does this mean we should reject all versions of divine omniscience (and providence) as unbiblical? Of course not! The expectation here just misunderstands the purpose of the Scripture. The fact that a given biblical writer did not take a break from his purpose as described earlier to lay out a doctrine of divine omniscience does not mean that he didn’t hold any doctrine of divine omniscience. That’s merely an argument from silence. What we need to do is look at the overall convergence of biblical evidence where it is available, which will not be all in one place. Any doctrine of divine omniscience is going to be an inference from a whole range of biblical considerations.
The same is true of the doctrine of the Trinity. There was no occasion in, for example, the letters to new churches, for the writer to break out into a discourse on divine ontology and the substance of God. Just as with other doctrines (such as divine omniscience), we have to step back and look at the overall convergence of evidence. This is the role of the theologian. This is how Christian theologians systematised the doctrine of the Trinity. It was never a case of proof texting. Instead it required patience and care, drawing out the biblical teaching from a range of authors on a range of different occasions, and coming up with models that made sense of all the data considered as a whole.
- Ehrman: I’m not destroying Christianity, I’m only destroying the Bible!
- Nuts and Bolts 012: Kenosis
- Nuts and Bolts 014: Relational Subordination Within the Trinity
- Divine Timelessness and the Death of Jesus
- On Being Protestant: Authority and Intellectual Evasion