White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Trinity Drift and the Prospect of Renewal

Published Friday, April 9, 2021 By Matthew Barrett

If Christian theology today is sometimes in disarray—as, indeed, I believe it is—then one of the major reasons is…its lack of roots. There can be few things more necessary for the renewal of Christian theology,” said John Webster, “than the promotion of awed reading of classical Christian texts, scriptural and other.

John Webster

Evangelicals are not the best at taking inventory. Then again, what tradition is? Self-examination can be painful, requiring brutal honesty and brazen humility, the type that counts confession of error a step towards reformation. In theology, that type of “taking stock” is rare, especially when it operates within a camp whose modus operandi can be a constant polemic against the “other.” For evangelicals, the “other” is typically modern theology. The trump card in this apologetic stance towards the “other” is that well-worn claim, we believe the Bible. Of course, what is meant is not merely a subscription to scriptural authority but a more pointed intimation: our beliefs are biblical, nothing more, nothing less. The insinuation is not hard to miss: the “other” side is not.  

The dogged determination to be biblical is nothing to be ashamed of, at least not in the Protestant tradition. However, a commitment to biblical authority is not the same thing as an ahistorical spirit of biblicism. The Reformers knew that much, distinguishing their theological method from radicals who considered themselves the first ones to read the Bible the right way since the apostles. Against Rome’s accusation that the Reformation was pure novelty, the Reformers made the audacious claim to catholicity, convinced their program stood on the shoulders of a patristic and medieval heritage faithful to the scriptures. Yes, they claimed the scriptures were their final, infallible authority, but the scriptures were to be read with the church. Reading holy writ without the church, as the radicals did, proved the real precursor to modernity and its hermeneutic of suspicion. Unfortunately, the latter is in no short supply within the evangelical warehouse. Born and bred within evangelicalism, I never cease to be amazed how many evangelicals—young and old—assume a biblicist mentality, even cling to it for dear life. Solo scriptura has replaced sola scriptura, and there’s not exactly a rush to correct this pervasive perversion of the formal principle.

More to the point, evangelicalism’s banner of polemics against the modern “other” coupled by its pervasive narrow biblicism is nothing short of ironic. The turn of the last century has revealed a disturbing incongruity, one many evangelicals are still slow and stubborn to admit: that most central and essential doctrine of Christian orthodoxy—the Trinity—has looked far more modern than biblical when dressed up for display by evangelicals. Evangelicalism has prided itself on a doctrine of the Trinity that is plain Bible, nothing more, nothing less. But as the smog of confidence has settled some, the debt evangelicalism owes to modernity—yes, modernity—has become conspicuous.  

First, over the last three decades major evangelical theologians have been anything but private in their suspicion towards the trinitarianism orthodoxy of creeds like Nicaea. Until recently, major textbooks—in systematic theology, which out of all disciplines should be the most historically attuned—exhibited little knowledge of historical development and displayed little hesitation discarding core trinitarian doctrines from divine simplicity to eternal generation. Biblicism was hard at work. Unable to find a proof-text for such doctrines, theologians showed Nicaea the door, ignoring two thousand years of biblical exegesis. That exegesis did not depend on a word study or a silver-bullet proof text, but its credibility relied on a Christian—dare I say, Christological—reading of the entire canon and the gospel in particular. A close read of influential contemporary theologians—like Wayne Grudem for example, whose Systematic Theology has been one of the most influential textbooks in evangelicalism and shows no sign of relenting—reveals that a biblicist approach remains adamant as ever. Even though Grudem has changed his mind on the issue of the eternal generation of the Son in the second edition of his Systematic Theology, for the most part, the change of mind has come because of new research on monogenes, the word traditionally translated “begotten” in John’s gospel. He still fails to understand the import of eternal generation’s far more encompassing canonical warrant or its theological and historical rationale. Worse still, he has told the next generation of readers that eternal generation now supports a subordination of the Son to the Father within the immanent life of God. If that is not an anachronistic manipulation of Nicene concepts for a novel position, one that could only be born within the biblicist womb of evangelicalism, then I don’t know what is.

Second, a far more subtle stratum of trinity drift—a drift towards modernity and away from historic orthodoxy—concerns evangelicalism’s warm welcome of social trinitarianism. As I chronicle in Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit, over the last century social trinitarianism has enjoyed its hot day in the sun, from Jürgen Moltmann to Leonardo Boff to countless others. The unity of Father, Son, and Spirit was no longer defined first and foremost by divine simplicity, but mutual cooperation and collaborative interpenetration between the persons. Sometimes simplicity was discarded altogether as each person of the Godhead was attributed his own center of consciousness and will, a move that invited the charge of tritheism from critics. In addition, the persons were not so much distinguished by their eternal relations of origin—the Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten, the Spirit is spirated—but by relationships within a divine society. Then came a most shocking shift on the heels of Karl Rahner’s collapse of the immanent and economic Trinity: this divine society is the prototype for human society. What else would we expect when God in himself is simply synonymous with God in history? Like never before, the Trinity became every theologian’s social program. In Keith Johnson’s breakthrough survey we witness the wax nose of a social trinity, justifying everything from politics to ecclesiology, ecology to ecumenism, egalitarianism or complementarianism to homosexuality. The list is endless; so is the manipulation.

The evangelical might be forgiven for muttering under his breath, thank God that’s not us. But that would be pretentious for many reasons. Popularevangelical philosophers and theologians alike have embraced a social definition of the Trinity and sometimes wholesale. They not only cultivate a suspicion towards divine simplicity but mark off separate centers of consciousness and will as their central commitment. Others continue to assume social trinitarianism is that foreign “other,” but even a quick glance at their vocabulary—defining the Trinity as a “society” of persons defined by their own, exclusive “roles” and “relationships”—says otherwise.

Have evangelicals avoided manipulating the Trinity for the sake of their social programs? Not really. Major evangelicals still swear a social hierarchy within the immanent life of God is not only justified but justifies hierarchy between the sexes, a move many of their own card-carrying complementarians cannot stomach. Evangelical egalitarians are not immune either, some appealing to societal mutuality among the persons to substantiate variegated shades of feminism. Wherever the reader lands on gender roles is irrelevant; the point here is inevitable enough: whether progressive or Reformed, evangelicals of all stripes have adopted a similar methodology to their modern counterparts, however much they deny dependence on them. Schweitzer’s quip deserves reappropriation: when evangelical scholars look into the deep well of trinitarianism, they see only a Trinity that looks a lot like themselves.

We are experiencing Trinity drift.

C.S. Lewis once lamented that “a great many of the ideas about God which are trotted out as novelties today are simply the ones which real Theologians tried centuries ago and rejected.” Today, that trotting continues. Evangelicals must decide whether or not the church going forward will continue that trotting or recover the scriptural, orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. Unadulterated. Uncorrupted. Unmanipulated. Evangelicals have always been at their best when they return to first things. Mere Christianity, as C.S. Lewis envisioned it, is not a settlement for doctrinal minimalism, and certainly not doctrinal revisionism. Rather, it is a deep-rooted commitment to classical Christianity. That commitment, however, demands humility, listening intently to the living voices of the dead. Then and only then will the disarray of evangelicalism give way to deep roots, roots that can bring about the renewal of Christian theology. Who knows, perhaps the trinitarian renaissance is still to come. Maybe, just maybe, even a modern reformation.

Matthew Barrett is the author of Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit(Baker). He is associate professor of Christin theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, host of the Credo Podcast, and executive editor of Credo Magazine.


Image: Council of Nicea 325, Fresco in Capella Sistina, Vatican. Public Domain {{PD-US}}, cropped by MR.

  • Matthew Barrett