It was put to me in a comment on FaceBook this week that from time to time I “point out the weaknesses of the Trinity”. That’s true, but the statement needs careful qualification. I point out the weaknesses of the theological formulation of Trinitarian belief for hermeneutical reasons—I think that it constitutes a misleading grid for interpreting the New Testament narrative.
I replied that I don’t argue with the Trinity as a “post-biblical theological rationalisation” of the New Testament story, which elicited, understandably, the response: “I’m not sure on what basis one can validate it as a post-biblical rationalisation without also validating other enculturated doctrines for the same reasons.” So as a rather oblique way of celebrating the resurrection of the Son of God, which is not the rationalisation of God the Son, I will try to explain what I mean. Naturally, this will be an over-simplification.
The primary and dominant narrative of the New Testament, by a long way, is the apocalyptic-kingdom one: Jesus is sent to Israel with a message of judgment and salvation for his people; he faithfully carries out his prophetic-messianic mission even to the point of death; God vindicates him by raising him from the dead; God seats him “at his right hand in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:20); and he gives him supreme authority to judge and rule over both Israel and the nations throughout the coming ages. It is a story about what God is doing with regard to his people at a particular moment in history. I may have said something along those lines before.
The Easter event is part of this narrative. What we celebrate this weekend is not the eternal existence of the Father, Son and Spirit as three-in-one but the vindication of the faithful servant of the Lord, the “Son” with whom God was well-pleased, and the assurance thereby given to the early persecuted church regarding the life of the age-that-was-soon-to-come. Hallelujah! He is risen indeed!
There is a later, secondary, minor, non-apocalyptic narrative according to which Jesus comes from God, as the Word become flesh, to save humanity and then returns to God. Roughly speaking. It emerges—noticeably in John’s Gospel—as theological reflection on the apocalyptic-kingdom narrative from some cultural and intellectual distance.
As long as the church felt insecure and vulnerable in the Greek-Roman world, the apocalyptic narrative continued to resonate: it accounted for suffering and offered the hope of vindication and victory. But as things settled down and the church became increasingly confident that it would get the better of paganism, it became necessary to translate the apocalyptic-kingdom narrative into a conceptuality that would define and sustain a new “Christian” worldview under very different socio-religious conditions.
The doctrine of the Trinity as it was formulated by the Church Fathers was an idealising rationalisation of the apocalyptic-kingdom narrative in incarnational terms, largely reliant on John’s Gospel. It brought the New Testament story to a halt and installed in its place a systematic theology. It was an inevitable, and I would say necessary, development. The doctrine of the Trinity was not an arbitrary “enculturation” of the biblical material. It was an enculturation and rationalisation of—an attempt to solve the real problem of—the core apocalyptic narrative of the New Testament. It has some claim, therefore, to being a pivotal and defining translation at least for as long as the cultural and intellectual conditions of western Christendom prevailed.
In the modern era, however, two related developments brought the reign of theology in the western world to a demoralising end. First, with the Enlightenment the idealising or Platonic epistemologies (ways of knowing) that had sustained the theological worldview for more than a thousand years began to lose ground to a critical, empirical, and increasingly secular form of reasoning.
Secondly, arising out of this intellectual shift, the Bible was subjected to fierce historical-critical examination. The very damaging impact of this was met by entrenched fundamentalist-conservative resistance from sections of the church, but over the last 50 years we have learnt to relocate the New Testament story in its Jewish setting and we have found that it makes very good, believable historical sense. Basically, this boils down to the so-called “Third Quest” for the historical Jesus and the New Perspective on Paul.
My “narrative-historical” approach is simply a more rigorous application of the methodology: I think that New Testament thought or theology is consistently—apart from a peripheral conviction about a final judgment and renewal of creation—the expression of Jesus’ and the early church’s engagement with history as part of the narrative of second temple Judaism.
One of the consequences of the recovery of history has been, however, that to varying degrees it now appears that the major theological constructs passed down to us—such as Trinitarianism, an individualistic soteriology, and an a-historical, absolute eschatology—are rather poor lenses through which to read the New Testament. My view, therefore, is that we need to undertake a quite radical overhaul of our everyday “theology” in the light of the emerging historical perspective.