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.
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.