I have a lot of work to do on hermeneutics in the coming months. One of the books I am reading is Craig Bartholomew’s Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics: A Comprehensive Framework for Hearing God in Scripture (2015), which seems to be both a general introduction to the field and a defence of a trinitarian hermeneutic—that is, reading the scriptures through a trinitarian lens—in particular. Why a trinitarian hermeneutic is so unhelpful for New Testament interpretation is apparent from this statement (I’m reading on Perlego, so I can’t provide the page number, which is very annoying):
The emphasis on perichoresis in trinitarian doctrine… stresses that while all three persons of the Trinity are involved in all their acts, the Father is particularly associated with creation and Israel, the Son with the fulfillment of redemption, and the Spirit with mission.
The broader point that Bartholomew is making here is, on the face of it, a good one: a trinitarian hermeneutic has to allow the voice of the Old Testament to be heard on its own terms. What he means by this, however, is that in scripture we have a “historical unfolding of God’s revelation in the economy of his world.” So the Father is assigned to the Old Testament narrative; redemption through Jesus is the turning point in history; and then the Spirit-driven mission of the church runs all the way through to the end.
A neat bit of safe evangelical reductionism. For all the emphasis on the historical unfolding of revelation, this qualified Modalism hardly does justice either to the biblical narrative or to history, I’d say. Let me explain.
The biblical story of Father, Son, and Spirit
God as God is associated, in the first place, with the creation and maintenance of the cosmos and and as Father with the creation and maintenance of Israel (e.g., Mal. 2:10), which is his firstborn son (cf. Exod. 4:22). Divine fatherhood, however, takes on a particular intensity and poignancy in the New Testament where it is intimately associated with a faithful community—Jesus at its forefront or “head”—which must suffer for the sake of the coming kingdom of God. It is those in anguish in the darkness of their Gethsemane in whom the Spirit inspires the cry, “Abba, Father” (Mk. 14:36; Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6).
I’m surprised, therefore, that Bartholomew links the Father specifically with Israel and not with the church. I would have thought, in fact, that in the Old Testament the sonship of Israel is a more prominent theme than the fatherhood of God. But that then suggests that when Jesus is called “Son,” he is being identified not with God but with Israel, perhaps in the person of Israel’s king. Jesus is the infant son called out of Egypt in symbolic re-enactment of the foundational election of Israel as a servant people (Matt. 2:15; cf. Hos. 11:1). So a biblically correct trinitarianism would somehow have to include Israel or Israel and the church in the godhead, wouldn’t it?
Secondly, in the New Testament witness, the Son is associated primarily not with the fulfilment of redemption but with the prospect of kingdom, which will take the concrete historical form first of judgment against both Israel and the nations of the Greek-Roman world, then of the ongoing rule of Israel’s messianic king, seated at the right hand of the Father, over the nations.
Because Jesus attained this kingship by his faithfulness and death (cf. Phil. 2:6-11), however, a secondary achievement emerges: his death is interpreted as the redemptive event which both ensured the survival of Israel beyond the catastrophe of the war against Rome and opened the way for the inclusion of Gentiles in the community of eschatological witness.
Again, the story is told in Hosea. When Israel was a child, God loved him and called his son out of Egypt, but they sacrificed to the Baals, burnt offerings to idols, committed unrighteousness, and refused to return to YHWH. Therefore, Assyria will be their king, the “sword shall rage against their cities, consume the bars of their gates, and devour them because of their own counsels” (Hos. 11:1-6). Jesus is called out of Egypt and is obedient to the Father even in the face of death; therefore, his death becomes the means by which a renewed people is not made subject to Rome and is not destroyed.
Thirdly, the Spirit in the New Testament is associated primarily with the eschatological mission of the Jesus movement but also with the renewal and formation of the post-Torah community. In accordance with the two-part role of the Son, the mission of the early church was, first, to proclaim and embody the future rule of the root of Jesse over the nations of the Greek-Roman world and, secondarily, to see people—Jews and Gentiles—“saved” as part of a redeemed priestly-prophetic community. It is important to stress that the outpouring of the Spirit of prophecy at Pentecost specifically equipped the followers of Jesus for witness against Jerusalem and against a corrupt generation of Judeans (cf. Acts 2:40) at this moment in history.
Trinitarianism and the suppression of history
What Bartholomew provides is a “trinitarian hermeneutic” that suppresses what is arguably the most important theme in the New Testament—the coming rule of Jesus over the nations. The outlook of the New Testament is thoroughly eschatological, rooted in Jewish presuppositions about God and history. The Greek doctrine of the Trinity was a necessary compromise or synthesis or accommodation, but it was a repudiation of eschatology and presupposed the end of history. What is needed, therefore, is not a trinitarian hermeneutic of scripture but a historical hermeneutic of trinitarianism—to restore some historical perspective on the doctrine.
It no doubt still has significance today in various areas of religious life and thought, but what the “evangelical” church principally needs—what will save it—is a reimagined eschatology, a sense that the God of history is “with us” in this crisis. Whether a new, prophetically and intellectually relevant trinitarianism will arise out of that reimagining remains to be seen.