Some hazardous thoughts on the Trinity for a new year and a new era

This isn’t what I was planning to do today, but a blog post by Roger Olson suggesting that evangelicals are more tolerant towards the modalism of Oneness Pentecostals than they used to be got me thinking again that we are moving towards some sort of revision of classical Trinitarianism. So here, by accident, is another crude attempt to outline a narrative-historical rethink of the doctrine of the Trinity.

The controlling New Testament paradigm

At least in what I regard as the dominant “apocalyptic” New Testament tradition (principally the Synoptics, Acts, Paul, Hebrews, Revelation), Jesus is not thought of as a pre-existent person. See, of course, my book In the form of a God: The Pre-existence of the Exalted Christ in Paul.

The post-existent exalted Christ had pre-existed as a Jewish male person, born of a woman, born under the Law of Moses. It’s all about point of view. He had been sent out by God, as the prophets were sent out before him, to redeem his people (cf. Gal. 4:4) from the coming judgment of God, which would take the form of a disastrous war against Rome with its concomitant destruction and loss of life.

He was killed by the régime, raised from the dead, and seated at the right hand of God. Divine authority was devolved to him to judge and rule both over his own people and over the nations of the Greek-Roman world, along with the martyrs. This constituted the heart of the New Testament vision for a transformed historical future. I am firmly of the view that the vision was realised and that we have in this fulfilment the most powerful apologetic for the validity of the New Testament testimony about Jesus.

New Testament christology, therefore, must be understood as a component of the tumultuous dénouement to a long story of “kingdom” that goes back at least to the exile. It is the final chapter in the story of how the God of Israel, who is the one, true, living God, became the God of a pagan world which had for centuries opposed him and oppressed his people. The critical move made by God in this struggle for supremacy was to transfer to Jesus a dynamic political authority, to put in his hands the subsequent history of Israel and the nations of the Greek-Roman world.

Creation and kingdom

Jewish belief was, first, that one God had made the heavens and the earth, and secondly, that he had chosen Israel to be a dedicated priestly people, who would serve him in the midst of the nations (Exod.19:6).

By making this choice, however, the creator God became embroiled in national and regional politics: on the one hand, it was necessary to maintain the inner integrity of his priestly people; on the other, the troubled relation of his people to the surrounding nations required careful management under changing historical circumstances—exodus, conquest, kingdom, exile, restoration, and occupation. So God, as Israel knew him, had two “functions” or two functional orientations: towards creation and towards his people. He was the one God who alone created and sustained all things; and he was the one God who governed Israel, for the sake of his own glory.

The first function could not be shared or delegated:

For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it empty, he formed it to be inhabited!): “I am the LORD, and there is no other.” (Is. 45:18).

The second function had long been delegated in a limited way—and not without controversy—to Israel’s kings, whose responsibility had been both to judge the people and to lead them against their enemies (cf. 1 Sam. 8:19-20). It is this political function which was devolved to the resurrected and exalted Jesus, only now in a transcendent sense: he reigns not in Jerusalem but in heaven; he is no longer subject to death, so his reign will have no end; and he has been given the Spirit of God to pour out on his followers.

The church faces a dilemma. Do we preserve the intellectual anachronism? Or do we rethink the doctrine from the ground up?

In this carefully differentiated respect, we can perhaps say—with a nod to Richard Bauckham—that Jesus was now included, to all intents and purposes, in the divine identity. Isaiah imagined that YHWH would one day gain the worship and allegiance of the nations of the Babylonian empire by himself (Is. 45:22-25). Paul imagined that the goal would be achieved by proxy, under the shifted geopolitical circumstances of Greek-Roman domination, through the witness of the churches to the story about Jesus, who had been made the agent of eschatological transformation, to the glory of the God of Israel (Phil. 2:9-11).

That this remained a qualified inclusion, however, is apparent from the clear statement in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 that once the last enemy of God’s people has been destroyed, the messiah will give his kingly authority back to God the Father. He will become subject again, so that “God may be all in all.” The integrity of Jewish monotheism is safeguarded, therefore, not terminologically but eschatologically. For more on this, see the section on 1 Corinthians 8:6 in my book In the form of a God: The Pre-existence of the Exalted Christ in Paul.

The word became flesh

The basic prophetic-apocalyptic or historical or eschatological story about Jesus runs from his baptism (going back to his birth would not make much difference) through to the marriage supper of the Lamb and the establishment of a new social-religious presence in the world following the overthrow of pagan Rome.

On reflection, however, it appeared to Jesus’ followers that in what he did and said and suffered he was the deeply paradoxical embodiment of the creative wisdom of God—or in language oriented more towards the Greeks, of the creative and life-sustaining word of God. The central christological problem was not the relation of Jesus to the Father but the offensiveness and improbability of the means of historical transformation—the way of weakness, rejection, suffering, and death.

New Testament wisdom christology, in its various forms, is perhaps the key factor in solving this problem, reframing the manifest failure of Jesus’ career as the decisive creative event by which a new “world” was being brought into existence.

From drama to dogma

Once the biblical kingdom objective had been attained, however, the New Testament christological paradigm had to be repurposed. As the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē abandoned their idols to serve the living God and confessed his Son as Lord, the post-biblical work began of painstakingly constructing a whole new political-religious symbolic order. This was the difficult “happy ever after” that never gets depicted in the fairy stories.

The classic doctrine of the Trinity was a rationalisation of the Jewish prophetic-apocalyptic narrative of the New Testament for the purpose of constructing a robust theological worldview for the emerging “Christian” civilisation. In effect, the church defeated idolatrous polytheism—conceived in its most potent and vicious form as the beast of Roman imperial power—on Jewish-biblical terms; but it constructed a new social-religious order in collaboration with Greek rationality. The dynamic, prophetic-apocalyptic, kingdom narrative was translated—necessarily—into a static, philosophical-theological system.

The doctrine of the Trinity then became the keystone in the great dome of the Christendom worldview and remained in place for fifteen hundred years. The church fathers should get some credit for that.

Back to the future

The Greek rationalisation of the Jewish apocalyptic construct as one God existing in three coequal, coeternal, consubstantial persons gets no traction as a piece of thought in the modern era. The vertiginous intellectual architecture of European Christendom was pulled down long ago. The keystone of the Trinity is a museum piece; it supports nothing, it explains nothing.

The church, therefore, faces a dilemma. Do we preserve the intellectual anachronism? Or do we rethink the doctrine from the ground up?

This is fundamentally a historical challenge that comes to us on two levels.

First, the church in the West, as the direct heir of a collapsed European Christendom, is becoming increasingly aware that this is a pivotal or epochal—we might even say eschatological—moment in its history, comparable to the great turning points in the story of biblical Israel. What was for the early church a driving hope has become a fading memory, and one of the things that has faded is the metaphysics that made the doctrine of the Trinity publicly meaningful.

Secondly the emergence of a critical historical consciousness over the last two hundred years or so has, ironically, enabled us to gain a much more compelling understanding of the historical origins and outlook of Jesus and the eschatological movement that he inspired.

So here, I think, is the task:

  • to retell an intelligible and comprehensive story about the historical Jesus and the eschatological ambition of his followers;
  • to treat the theological work of Christendom as no less a matter of historical contingency than the apocalyptic vision of the New Testament;
  • to find new ways of expressing the involvement of the post-Christendom church in a long story about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in its now diminished and marginalised state, under vastly different intellectual conditions, with global-ecological rather than regional-political outcomes in view.

Anyone want to have a go at that? My own view is that the old biblical categories should be more or less adequate. If we are talking more these days about Jesus as Lord than as second person of the Trinity, it’s perhaps because we feel the need for someone to get a grip of the situation.

Scott | Fri, 01/06/2023 - 03:35 | Permalink

“The Greek rationalisation of the Jewish apocalyptic construct as one God existing in three coequal, coeternal, consubstantial persons gets no traction as a piece of thought in the modern era. The vertiginous intellectual architecture of European Christendom was pulled down long ago. The keystone of the Trinity is a museum piece; it supports nothing, it explains nothing.”

This may be neither here nor there in rethinking an apocalyptic-eschatological way forward for today in light of the biblical narrative’s own apocalyptic-eschatological telling of the story, but there is some sense of a resurgence of Trinitarian language within contemplative spirituality. From the language of perichoresis in the Cappadocians to the relational insights of contemplatives to perhaps theosis in Orthodoxy, many are drawn to Trinitarian ideas (me included). This is not as a rationalisation of the Trinity, but rather as relational spirituality. So, perhaps on some level, Trinitarian thought does get traction today, but from a different angle than rational metaphysics.

I’m not advocating a wholesale rejection of Trinitarian language. I just don’t think it can be expected to serve the same intellectual function as it did under Christendom. It neither elucidates scripture nor integrates public thought. Drawing on tradition to shape a contemplative spirituality, perhaps as an antidote to the banality of much modern evangelical spirituality, is another matter.

I think my question is how do we now speak publicly about the transcendent Christ? Over the last twenty years I have seen the church that I am familiar with both look back to the earthly Jesus, as some sort of ideal radical human, and reassert the lordship of Jesus—though to what effect is less clear. Does Trinitarian language about the eternal Son still have public evangelical-missional validity? If not, is there an alternative post-Trinitarian way of construing the godhead?

Thanks for posting on this. Your title is spot on in that to engage in speculation on this topic is indeed “hazardous” in Christian, especially evangelical circles where heresy hunters are quick to label such speculations and speculators as potentially dangerous. I found this quote of particular interest: “The central christological problem was not the relation of Jesus to the Father but the offensiveness and improbability of the means of historical transformation—the way of weakness, rejection, suffering, and death.” Perhaps a key for our reformulation is to seize on this again and reapply it in the West where we seem prone to identify with political power.

Perhaps a key for our reformulation is to seize on this again and reapply it in the West where we seem prone to identify with political power.

Yes. There’s nothing very new about the idea, but it was one of the really fun parts of reconstructing the “incident” behind Phil. 2:6-7 in my book on pre-existence. And with regard to the place of the church in the modern world, the question of relevance and plausibility is again at the forefront.

C. Randolph Ross | Sun, 01/08/2023 - 22:39 | Permalink

Andrew, I think you are spot on!  I have long thought that if we can help people become more Biblically literate, and realize that there are different explanations of Jesus’ central importance even within the New Testament, perhaps they can acknowledge our ability to utilize different interpretations today.  But as this would involve pointing out the unhelpfulness of the Trinity as dogma (at least for many of us), I do not know how to do this in a way that produces more light than heat.

David | Sat, 01/28/2023 - 02:02 | Permalink

There’s a substance to this that I find useful and important, which puts the apostolic kerygma about Jesus in its historical context, and there’s an element to it that I find unhelpful for the opposite reason, which is that it does not put the Nicene synthesis quite precisely into its historical context. Specifically:

I buy the general thesis, which is also the academic consensus, that the earliest followers of Jesus believed he was a glorified/deified human and it is only in later layers of the New Testament that Jesus is characterized as a preexistent, divine being of some kind. I *would* add that Matthew and Luke, at least if some of their Son of Man sayings make allusions to or quotations of Parables of Enoch, may well have associated Jesus with a preexistent divine figure, albeit one still subordinate to the God of Israel. I would even add to this picture and say that the first two centuries of ante-Nicene Christology after the NT continue to paint Christ as a subordinate figure to God, and that in this sense, Rowan Williams was totally right that the Arians were the traditionalists in the late third/early fourth century debates.

Where I am less convinced by the narrative you’ve constructed about the Trinity is the lack of detail about why the specific formulae—homoousios at Nicaea, one ousia and three hypostaseis in the Cappadocians Father Gregory of Nyssa, afterward the standard—were adopted. These have to do with sea changes in the philosophy of later antiquity as much as they do with the increasing public visibility and patronage of Christian communities. Where in, say, Origen’s De Principiis, a subordinate Christology does not undermine Christ’s status as the second fundamental, substantive reality after God the Father and therefore his divinity, by the end of the third century, the rise of creatio ex nihilo as a metaphysical framework meant that Christ’s status as creature undermined his ability to communicate the divine nature (something cherished by Christians for centuries at that point). Indeed, the whole narrative of salvation, and the scriptural predication of common qualities and attributes to God the Father and to Jesus, seemed at threat in the eyes of the Nicenes given the truth and necessity of creatio ex nihilo (that God was truly the infinite God, and not merely a finite, conditioned demiurge). Nicaea was an innovation, but one that preserved the soteriological logic of the Gospel as it was known to Christian communities in preaching and liturgy. It also did not complicate monotheism half as much as it is often accused of doing, since hypostasis does not mean “person” in the sense of discrete center of consciousness, but the instantiation of a nature. That is, the divine essence or what-it-is to be God is instantiated in Father, Son, and Spirit; in fact, because these hypostaseis are not delimited by accidents, so argued the Fathers, they are better understood as tropoi hyparxeos, modes of the One God’s existence. 

Individual Christians or groups may still well find this dissatisfying, and there is no reason why a compelling philosophical issue with this picture would not produce its own revision. But I do not see how the circumstances of the first century and the theological language of the NT in its original context, while a necessary point of reference, would necessarily snip this particular branch of Christological development. In fact, it would seem that the logic of the eschatology you embrace—the Jesus Movement itself is the desired kingdom—would imply that the historical trajectory that comes to see what was revealed in Christ as God himself in human form would have its own revelatory significance. It is, after all, the last common point of reference that the vast majority of Christians on earth historically and today can plausibly look to as a source of meaningful unity. 

David, many thanks for this. I have a rather sketchy grasp of how Christian thought and theology developed in the post-biblical period, so any contribution, clarification, or correction is most welcome. A few thoughts in response come to mind, mostly marginal to your main concerns.

I question whether the earliest followers regarded Jesus as a “deified” human. What would support that specific designation? Pagan deification may have been part of the conceptual background, but Paul theorises about the resurrected Christ as an instance of resurrection in general terms—albeit a primary instance, a last Adam, a “second anthrōpos” (1 Cor. 15:35-49). The resurrected martyrs would reign in heaven with him—glorified, indeed, but deified?

I also tend to think that “Jesus is characterized as a preexistent, divine being of some kind” gets it the wrong way round: a pre-existent “attribute” of God (word, wisdom) gets new and—importantly—paradoxical traction in history in the person and career of Jesus.

I don’t see any evidence that Matthew or Luke thought of a pre-existent Son of Man. Is there any? It seems to me more likely that Jesus and/or the Synoptic tradition consciously or unconsciously resisted the sort of elaboration of the “son of man” motif that we in the Parables of Enoch, holding closer to the prophetic form and purpose. I think that Jesus’ use of the term is fully explicable from Daniel.

So a key question for me would be: when and why did the followers of Jesus come to think that his forward-looking status as judge and ruler of Israel and the nations entailed a retrojected personal pre-existence from eternity? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I’m not sure it happens in the New Testament.

Indeed, the whole narrative of salvation, and the scriptural predication of common qualities and attributes to God the Father and to Jesus, seemed at threat in the eyes of the Nicenes given the truth and necessity of creatio ex nihilo (that God was truly the infinite God, and not merely a finite, conditioned demiurge).

Yes, but this seems to me only to underline the fact that by then they had lost touch with Jewish conditions of the story being told in the Bible. The “soteriological logic” has changed considerably.

As a general point, I think it is important that we have some more or less reliable way of narrating the transition from the Jewish New Testament with its pressing eschatological goals to the synthesis of a new worldview by the Greeks. That’s what appealed to me about Kegan Chandler’s book, which in effect extends the political narrative through to Constantine.

By the same token, I think that we need to take into account what has happened since the collapse of that synthesis. I’m not sure, then, that recovering the eschatological trajectory of the New Testament should “snip” the branch of the Christological development that you describe. The question is whether subsequent “sea changes” in the philosophy of modernity allow us to preserve the intellectual output of antiquity.

It’s not a branch, it’s a road. History is driving us into the unknown as God’s people, but history as a critical discipline has also given us the tools to understand our origins much better. Whether we like it or not, we have been deconstructing Christendom for a long time, and for that reason I suspect that we have more to learn from the New Testament than from the church fathers.