I taught a class in church on the doctrine of the Trinity last week, and you know, all things considered, it went pretty well. I placed some emphasis on the developmental character of the doctrine. I explained that it’s not all there in the Gospels necessarily, but that some thin strands of theological reflection and charismatic experience emerged subsequent to the resurrection that were woven by the Greek and Latin theologians of the post-Jewish church into the highly rationalized doctrine of three differentiated but same-substance persons in a singular Godhead. That was their prerogative, and who am I to object?
To this effect I quoted from Alistair McGrath’s Christian Theology: An Introduction (249), which went down remarkably well:
The doctrine of the Trinity can be regarded as the outcome of a process of sustained and critical reflection on the pattern of divine activity revealed in Scripture, and continued in Christian experience. This is not to say that Scripture contains a doctrine of the Trinity; rather, Scripture bears witness to a God who demands to be understood in a Trinitarian manner.
However, McGrath begins his brief—that really should be emphasized—section on the biblical foundations of the Trinity by noting that there are only “two verses in the entire Bible which seem, at first glance, to be capable of a Trinitarian interpretation” (248). He goes on to argue, of coures, that there are several other texts which, at second glance, may be seen to have Trinitarian potential. But let’s just stick with these two.
From our post-Nicene perspective these verses certainly look Trinitarian. But if our chief interest is in their significance for understanding—or more likely proving—the New Testament origins of the doctrine, then I think we are probably going to miss the real point. It seems to me that these two verses have much more to say about the early Christian communities’ understanding of themselves than about their understanding of God.
The verses in question are the formulaic statements about Father, Son and Spirit that we find in Matthew 28:19 and 2 Corinthians 13:14:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
What I would suggest is that the force of the baptismal formula “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” was not so much theological as eschatological. It was not meant to align the early communities of believers with a particular understanding of the Godhead, though this may have been a legitimate later development. Rather it associated them with a particular eschatological narrative and with a particular eschatological response.
Arguably, both the narrative and the response were anticipated in Jesus’ baptism as the inauguration of a prophetic community of renewal from within Israel. Jesus’ baptism was in itself the fulfilment of a couple of critical Old Testament archetypes: he becomes the chosen “son” or “servant”, who has the Spirit of God, in whom YHWH delights, through whom Israel will be restored, who will “bring forth justice to the nations”, who will receive the nations as an inheritance (Ps. 2:7-8; Is. 42:1).
In any case, the compressed and over-familiar formula needs to be unpacked, the story needs to be told, the eschatological outcome needs to be brought back into focus.
In the name of the Father
To be baptized “in the name of the Father” meant to be associated with the agenda of Israel’s God—the “Father in heaven” whose kingdom would soon come in the form of both judgment and restoration. It meant to become part of a community that had been called into an intimate relationship with YHWH, grounded in a radical trust, through which eschatological transformation—by which I mean decisive historical transformation—would sooner or later be achieved. It meant to be ready instinctively to cry out, “Abba! Father!”, at times of uncertainty and fear, as Jesus had done in the garden of Gethsemane (Mk. 14:36; cf. Rom. 8:15).
And of the Son
To be baptized “in the name of the Son” entailed a close identification with the one who in the first place had responded in obedience, symbolized in his baptism, to the agenda of Israel’s God. It meant, moreover, to affirm a willingness to emulate Jesus in his suffering, with the same hope of vindication—it was a baptism into his death and resurrection (cf. Rom. 6:3-4). It meant, in effect, to become part of a martyr community, a community that would have to suffer rejection, vilification, arraignment, imprisonment, and quite possibly death, if a viable “new creation” people was to survive the devastation of the Jewish War and the extreme hostility of Rome towards biblical monotheism. And when fear got the better of them, they were to know that the Lord who had died and had risen from the dead ahead of them, would be with them right through to the end of the age of second temple Judaism (Matt. 28:20).
And of the Holy Spirit
To be baptized “in the name of the Spirit” no doubt echoed the “anointing” of Jesus as the eschatological servant who would “bring forth justice to the nations”, who would proclaim to Israel the imminent intervention of YHWH both to judge unrighteousness and to comfort those who mourned over the wretched state of Israel (cf. Is. 42:1; 61:1-4). But more importantly it signified direct participation in a prophetic community that would continue to proclaim to Israel—in Jerusalem, Judea, and throughout the diaspora—that a great and terrible day of judgment was approaching when only those Jews who called on the name of the Lord would be saved (Acts 2:17-21). The outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost constituted the extension of Jesus’ prophetic witness to the coming kingdom of God to the whole community of his followers. Those who were baptized “in the name of the Spirit” took upon themselves the enormous responsibility of living out that witness.
If an eschatological narrative of this sort was deliberately invoked when people—Jews first, but as time passed disproportionate numbers of Gentiles—were baptized into the prophetic communities of renewed Israel scattered throughout the pagan world, then it seems likely that the closing words of 2 Corinthians were intended to reinforce the point.
As a “Trinitarian” community the Corinthians identified themselves with the narrative of eschatological renewal prefigured in Jesus’ baptism and established in their own individual acts of baptism. This prayer was a simple reminder that they could not undertake their radical “mission” without the sustaining grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, who was utterly for them; that as they faced opposition and aggression, they could not be separated from the love of the Father who had called them for this purpose; and that they were all bound together in this by their participation in the Holy Spirit, through whom they had become a prophetic servant community.
The final point to make here is that there is no reason, as far as I can see, why churches today should not be equally self-consciously Trinitarian communities. We do not participate in the same eschatological narrative—we can’t, any more than we can participate in the Battle of Hastings or the D-Day landings; these are things of the past. But we can certainly reformulate our missional reliance on the Father who calls us apart to be radical new creation in the world, on the Son who safeguards the integrity of our communal life, and on the prophetic Spirit who drives us into an uncertain and difficult future to find a new contextualized missional identity.