A key part of the broad “thesis” that I am putting forward on this blog and in my books is the observation that the New Testament texts reflect a consistently apocalyptic outlook. What I mean by this, essentially, is that the whole story about Jesus and the emergence of the churches is directed towards certain decisive future events by which the status and condition of the people of God in relation to the nations would be dramatically transformed. This was expected to happen within a realistic and relevant historical horizon: it was to impact the world as the early church knew it. It was not the whole story: the New Testament narrates a critical episode in the continuing story of the family of Abraham, which has Genesis 1-11 as its preface and John’s vision of a new heaven and new earth as its epilogue. We cannot, therefore, simply apply the theology of the New Testament to the church today as though nothing has changed.
Within this apocalyptic frame, the dominant narrative about Jesus, as I understand it, is that he renounced any right to claim equality with God, he pursued a path of faithful obedience, he suffered, died, was raised from the dead, was made to sit at the right hand of God, and was given authority not only to reign over a reconstituted multi-ethnic people but also, eventually, to judge and rule over the nations; he would “come” at some point in a foreseeable future as ruler of the nations to deliver and vindicate his “elect” and to defeat their enemies. This is what mattered to the early church. This was the orientation of their theology.
This is the section of the narrative marked by the pink block, from the birth of the king who would save his people from their sins to the eventual defeat of pagan empire at the parousia. From the resurrection onwards Jesus reigns at the right hand of the Father over the family of Abraham. What the diagram is meant to highlight is that the main biblical story only runs as far as the conversion of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē. The story of the people of God, however, continues indefinitely beyond that—through Christendom, schism, imperial expansion, modernity, consumerist evangelicalism, postmodernity, globalization, and onwards into a very uncertain future….
Now here’s the question: How do we get from this dominant narrative about Jesus to classical Trinitarianism? How do we get from a first century argument about the Son of God to a fourth century argument about God the Son? Can we realistically jump that far?
In a recent address to the Italian Conference of Bishops, in which he explores the significance of the resurrection, Tom Wright made this statement:
The point about Israel’s Messiah is that when he appears he will be king, not of Israel only, but of the whole world. Paul’s vision, that ‘at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow’, is an essentially messianic vision before it is even a vision of Jesus as the second person of the Trinity, though it is that as well, and Paul believed the two were made to fit together.
I disagree with Wright about the nature of the climax that Jesus’ resurrection represents. In my view Jesus fulfils Israel’s story, but history does not come to a halt at this point. Major historical events such as the destruction of Jerusalem, the defeat of paganism, and the conversion of the empire remain prophetically and theologically important—they constitute the substance of New Testament apocalyptic. Paul’s “whole world” was not our whole world; it was the world of Greek-Roman paganism, and it was in the context of the clash with this world that Jesus would appear as judge and king.
I also do not think that in Philippians 2:9-11 we have a vision of Jesus as “second person of the Trinity” in the sense that we commonly understand it. Paul does not here state either that Jesus is God or that he has become God. Rather, the name “Lord”, formerly reserved for YHWH alone, has been given to Jesus. The obedience and loyalty that should have been given to YHWH alone are now to be given to Jesus, and not by Israel only but also by the nations (cf. Is. 45:22-23). It’s as though God steps back and lets Jesus take the credit.
People will come from the ends of the earth, abandoning the worship of idols, and will bring glory to Israel’s God by swearing allegiance to Jesus as Lord, on the “day of Christ”, when the long struggle of the churches to embody the gospel in Greek-Roman world will be over (Phil. 1:6), when those who remain faithful in the face of intense opposition will be vindicated (1:10; 2:16), when their enemies will be defeated (1:27-28), when the Lord Jesus Christ, who has been given the power to subject all things to himself, will transform their current condition of humiliation into one of glory (3:21). Paul is not saying that because Jesus now has the name that was formerly YHWH’s name, he is to be identified with YHWH. He is saying, I think, that Jesus has been given the authority and power to bring about this radical transformation of the ancient world.
But the basic point that Wright makes is correct. We are having to work with two distinct visions of Jesus—as apocalyptically conceived messiah and as philosophically conceived second person of the Trinity. Somehow we must show that they were “made to fit together” if we wish to affirm the integrity of the development of Christian theology.
Can it be done without a massive leap of faith? I’m not sure, but I did wonder if we might not simply inject the apocalyptic meaning into the Trinitarian formula so that the “Son” who is the second person of the godhead is understood precisely and only in this dynamic apocalyptic sense. He is the “Lord” through whom the ancient world was transformed and who continues to reign over his people. It would amount to the apocalyptic subversion of philosophical Trinitarianism, but in a post-Christendom, post-modern context it may offer the best way forward.
So when the church speaks about God—about who our God is, about how he differs from the God of Judaism or the God of Islam or the God of the philosophers—it always acknowledges or confesses or narrates the apocalyptic development. The delegation of kingship is incorporated into the godhead. We cannot know God apart from the one to whom all authority has been given. But this is a statement not so much about divine being as about the dynamic of “kingdom”. The doctrine of the Trinity, therefore, is supremely a matter of how we as the people of God, in history, acknowledge and confess the kingship of Jesus. In other words, we should not expect Jews, Muslims and philosophers to agree with us on this. This is our God, as we relate to him, as a people accountable to him.
Such an understanding of the Trinity binds our God into the narrative of history, not in modalist or process terms, but perhaps eschatologically: it is our way of saying that we relate to God only on the grounds of the messianic intervention in the story of Israel and of the hope of a final new creation to which that intervention gave rise. Significantly, Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 that at the end the “kingdom”—this authority to rule—will be given back to God the Father, with even the Son subjecting himself to him. That would make the “Trinitarian” arrangement contingent, not absolute, confined to the circumstances of human history and the contextualized witness of the covenant people.
There is, arguably, a good biblical reason for this. Kingdom is inseparable from the narrative of sin and oppression. The people of God need a king to rule over them because they are disobedient and because they are threatened by enemies—by the surrounding nations and cultures, but also by the last enemy death. In the new heavens and new earth there will be no more sin, and all the enemies of the people of God will have been destroyed, including death. So there is no longer any need for “kingdom” to be exercised. And no further need for a Trinitarian understanding of God. Perhaps.
The doctrine of the Trinity may not come into quite the same category of redundant intellectual furniture as theories of the atonement, but if we are going to retain the construct, I would argue that it has to be done in a way that is much more transparent to the dominant lines of biblical thought. Clearly we still need to be able to speak coherently about Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but I seriously wonder whether the Western ontological-relational paradigm still serves a useful purpose. As with the atonement, I suspect that the narrative-historical approach has a lot to teach us.