Fred Sanders appears to be the go-to evangelical academic for a defence of Trinitarian orthodoxy these days. In a post last week on the Zondervan Academic blog he asks ‘Is the “Trinity” in the Bible?’ In it he sets about defending the doctrine of the Trinity against the perennial protest that it isn’t found in the Bible. I’ll summarise his argument and then set out my objections, which are not to the doctrine of the Trinity per se but to the apparent disregard that theologians have for the historical character of scripture.
1. Sanders starts with the argument of the fourth century theologian Gregory of Nazianzus that—in Sanders’ words—“a narrowly literal approach to Scripture is unable to detect all that Scripture teaches”.
2. The baptismal formula “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19) at least makes it clear that “the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are related in Scripture as a threeness of some kind, though the word… is not written”.
3. Fifteen hundred years after Gregory, Warfield defended the doctrine on the grounds that “the sense of Scripture is Scripture”. What that appears to mean is that theology systematically separates the truth of the text from the words of the text and then declares that this truth and not the words is authoritative.
4. Sanders explicitly says, therefore: “If forced to choose, the theologian would have to choose the truth of Scripture rather than the words of Scripture.”
5. But even in choosing “truth” over words, theology “should at least keep itself on a short tether connecting itself to the words of Scripture”. Invoking Barth, Sanders says that dogmatics is “intelligent paraphrase”.
6. As a paraphrase or translation of the text, theology “sets something new against what is there”. Theology is not just a restatement of the words of Scripture. “It answers back with what it hears there, and in giving its answer, theology may be heard making any number of noises not found in the text.”
7. Theology has to translate biblical language into “its own helpful vocabulary”. But the distance between the two vocabularies should be kept to a minimum “to keep the next generation’s language-learners from forgetting what all these terms indicate”.
8. In the past the effort of Trinitarian theologians went into elaborating the “metaphysical implications” of the doctrine. The overriding task today is “to demonstrate as directly as possible that it is biblical”.
9. To conclude: “In contemporary intellectual culture, the full evidential weight of Christian faith in the triune God must fall on Scripture.”
That’s Sanders’ argument in outline—I hope reasonably accurate. I object, first, to the casual willingness to detach the “truth” of scripture from the words of scripture and discard the words if necessary; and secondly, to the failure to take seriously what the words are actually saying, which has to do with the historical existence of the people during a period of eschatological crisis.
Theology and arithmetic
In the mind of the theologian the fundamental hermeneutical division is between word and meaning, text and theological “truth”, form and content. Once this disconnection has been enforced, the supposed theological content takes on a life of its own. We are now free to assume that there is more to scripture than meets the eye. Theology has no interest in history—either in the historical context and contingency of the text or in the historical distance between text and interpreter. Theology prioritises truth as a universal rational abstraction.
Sanders cites the argument that Gregory of Nazianzus makes from arithmetic: “Supposing you mention ‘twice five’ or ‘twice seven’ and I infer from your words ‘ten’ or ‘fourteen…’ would you allege that I was talking rubbish? How could I be? I am saying what you said.” But, of course, arithmetic doesn’t change from one culture to the next, from one historical period to the next. Arithmetic is a-historical.
Theologians think that they are doing a form of arithmetic. So if the early church says that it baptised people in the names of three persons, the theologian assumes that the underlying arithmetic stays the same. Sanders writes: ‘When Scripture lists the persons and we reply that there are three (perhaps even adding that these three are one), we are saying to Scripture, “I am saying what you said.”’
Typically, theologians don’t bother to stop and ask historical questions about the “Son of God”—the source of the terminology, or the story that he is part of. They don’t ask about the nature of the relationship between the Father and the Son in the context of Israel’s history. They don’t think it necessary to examine the eschatological significance of the Spirit. They are concerned merely about numbers.
Theology can’t have it both ways
In the mind of the historical interpreter, on the other hand, the fundamental hermeneutical division is between past and present, between how the text was read in its original historical context and how it came to be read much later. The blatant separation of word and sense that Sanders permits is a hermeneutical offence of the first order. Biblical truth is not arithmetical; it is witness and perspective, and it is expressed through the peculiar historical language of scripture.
Historical interpretation, therefore, is not “narrowly literal” in the dismissive sense that Sanders uses the phrase. It is not just a “restatement of the words of Scripture”. It asks about the full meaning of the text according to its historical and literary context and undertakes to reconstruct that context, to the best of its ability, in the interests of fair and accurate interpretation. What is the outcome? Well, a sense of the “truth” of the text. That’s all there is too it.
Theology can’t have it both ways. If it insists on dividing words from meaning, if it wants to introduce something new into the equation, it cannot then claim to be interpreting scripture. There is no such thing as “Theological Interpretation of Scripture”. That is a contradiction in terms.
Sanders’ insistence that theology should be kept on a short tether sounds reassuring, but it is largely meaningless because the crucial epistemological move has been made: truth has been severed from the “sounds and syllables” that make up the text.
So to be honest, when Sanders says that a doctrine must have “some purchase on the text”, the image that comes to mind is of a parasite clamped to the body of scripture—a louse or a leach—draining the life blood of the text. Or perhaps we might think of theology as a cancerous growth produced by exposure to the alien radiation of Hellenistic thought. Just because a doctrine has some purchase on the text doesn’t mean that it’s a legitimate or inevitable expression of its content.
Things might have been different
The doctrine of the Trinity is not in the Bible. It is at best—and this is a large concession—a latent or potential development under certain historical conditions.
If Israel had repented as a nation after AD 70, as Paul had hoped, and confessed that YHWH had made his Son Lord and Christ, perhaps the Gentilisation of the churches would have been halted—a sufficient number of Gentiles having come in (cf. Rom. 11:25)—and the people of God would have preserved a core Jewish identity. In that case, would they have developed a doctrine of the Trinity? I doubt it.
If they had continued to baptise people, they would presumably have done so in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. But that would simply have been a formulaic reference to the transformative events of Jesus’ life and the renewal of the covenant community. A predominantly Jewish church would have felt under no scriptural obligation to rewrite eschatology as metaphysics. On the contrary, incoming Greeks would have had to acquire a Jewish and biblical worldview.
In my view, the relation of the doctrine of the Trinity to scripture is not that of fully developed theory to embryonic idea—as though biblical thought was bound to move in this direction sooner or later. It is that of a Greek answer to a Jewish question, of a philosophical solution to an eschatological problem.
The sense of the text as we have it is not the “truth” that theologians—cultural aliens—attached to it. It is the apocalyptic story about Jesus. Here is my main issue with Sanders’ method. I accept that the church in the Greek-Roman world, having lost touch with its Jewish origins, needed to revise a basic philosophical monotheism to accommodate the prominence given to both the exalted Jesus and the Spirit in the New Testament narrative. Fair enough.
But the insistence that this revision is an interpretation or explanation of the New Testament material is to consign the powerful apocalyptic narrative about kingdom, which is how and why the New Testament talks about Father, Son and Spirit, to the dustbin of history as mere “sound and syllables”. We got the doctrine of the Trinity at the expense of a meaningful understanding of the kingdom of God.
The Patristic reinvention of God was a massive erasure of the historical experience that had made the theological translation necessary in the first place. The sense of the New Testament is not the theological recalculation of God as three-in-one. It is the prophetic witness to the lived historical experience of the community. The reinvention is a subsequent accretion, an addendum—a parasite on the text, if we are not careful.
This is not an argument against Trinitarianism…
So this is not an argument against Trinitarianism. It is, admittedly, an argument for acknowledging the historical contingency of Trinitarianism. But more importantly, it is an argument for reinstating the powerful, compelling, transformative historical narrative that lies at the heart of the New Testament, which is the account of how YHWH would be glorified among the nations of the Greek-Roman world through the faithfulness of his Son and the witness of his Spirit-filled people.
The reinstatement is necessary for two reasons. First, it gives us a much better hermeneutical grid for reading the New Testament than Trinitarian theology. Secondly, I think that the narrative-historical paradigm gives us a much better perspective on the existential crisis now facing the church in the secular West than dogmatic theology does. The church will not be saved by Trinitarianism. The church will be saved by an honest, dynamic, forward-looking missional faith in the God of history.