The doctrine of the Trinity: less than the sum of the parts

Read time: 8 minutes

Fred Sanders appears to be the go-to evangelical academic for a defence of Trinitarian orthodoxy these days. In a post last week on the Zondervan Academic blog he asks ‘Is the “Trinity” in the Bible?’ In it he sets about defending the doctrine of the Trinity against the perennial protest that it isn’t found in the Bible. I’ll summarise his argument and then set out my objections, which are not to the doctrine of the Trinity per se but to the apparent disregard that theologians have for the historical character of scripture.

1. Sanders starts with the argument of the fourth century theologian Gregory of Nazianzus that—in Sanders’ words—“a narrowly literal approach to Scripture is unable to detect all that Scripture teaches”.

2. The baptismal formula “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19) at least makes it clear that “the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are related in Scripture as a threeness of some kind, though the word… is not written”.

3. Fifteen hundred years after Gregory, Warfield defended the doctrine on the grounds that “the sense of Scripture is Scripture”. What that appears to mean is that theology systematically separates the truth of the text from the words of the text and then declares that this truth and not the words is authoritative.

4. Sanders explicitly says, therefore: “If forced to choose, the theologian would have to choose the truth of Scripture rather than the words of Scripture.”

5. But even in choosing “truth” over words, theology “should at least keep itself on a short tether connecting itself to the words of Scripture”. Invoking Barth, Sanders says that dogmatics is “intelligent paraphrase”.

6. As a paraphrase or translation of the text, theology “sets something new against what is there”. Theology is not just a restatement of the words of Scripture. “It answers back with what it hears there, and in giving its answer, theology may be heard making any number of noises not found in the text.”

7. Theology has to translate biblical language into “its own helpful vocabulary”. But the distance between the two vocabularies should be kept to a minimum “to keep the next generation’s language-learners from forgetting what all these terms indicate”.

8. In the past the effort of Trinitarian theologians went into elaborating the “metaphysical implications” of the doctrine. The overriding task today is “to demonstrate as directly as possible that it is biblical”.

9. To conclude: “In contemporary intellectual culture, the full evidential weight of Christian faith in the triune God must fall on Scripture.”

That’s Sanders’ argument in outline—I hope reasonably accurate. I object, first, to the casual willingness to detach the “truth” of scripture from the words of scripture and discard the words if necessary; and secondly, to the failure to take seriously what the words are actually saying, which has to do with the historical existence of the people during a period of eschatological crisis.

Theology and arithmetic

In the mind of the theologian the fundamental hermeneutical division is between word and meaning, text and theological “truth”, form and content. Once this disconnection has been enforced, the supposed theological content takes on a life of its own. We are now free to assume that there is more to scripture than meets the eye. Theology has no interest in history—either in the historical context and contingency of the text or in the historical distance between text and interpreter. Theology prioritises truth as a universal rational abstraction.

Sanders cites the argument that Gregory of Nazianzus makes from arithmetic: “Supposing you mention ‘twice five’ or ‘twice seven’ and I infer from your words ‘ten’ or ‘fourteen…’ would you allege that I was talking rubbish? How could I be? I am saying what you said.” But, of course, arithmetic doesn’t change from one culture to the next, from one historical period to the next. Arithmetic is a-historical.

A predominantly Jewish church would have felt under no scriptural obligation to rewrite eschatology as metaphysics.

Theologians think that they are doing a form of arithmetic. So if the early church says that it baptised people in the names of three persons, the theologian assumes that the underlying arithmetic stays the same. Sanders writes: ‘When Scripture lists the persons and we reply that there are three (perhaps even adding that these three are one), we are saying to Scripture, “I am saying what you said.”’

Typically, theologians don’t bother to stop and ask historical questions about the “Son of God”—the source of the terminology, or the story that he is part of. They don’t ask about the nature of the relationship between the Father and the Son in the context of Israel’s history. They don’t think it necessary to examine the eschatological significance of the Spirit. They are concerned merely about numbers.

Theology can’t have it both ways

In the mind of the historical interpreter, on the other hand, the fundamental hermeneutical division is between past and present, between how the text was read in its original historical context and how it came to be read much later. The blatant separation of word and sense that Sanders permits is a hermeneutical offence of the first order. Biblical truth is not arithmetical; it is witness and perspective, and it is expressed through the peculiar historical language of scripture.

Historical interpretation, therefore, is not “narrowly literal” in the dismissive sense that Sanders uses the phrase. It is not just a “restatement of the words of Scripture”. It asks about the full meaning of the text according to its historical and literary context and undertakes to reconstruct that context, to the best of its ability, in the interests of fair and accurate interpretation. What is the outcome? Well, a sense of the “truth” of the text. That’s all there is too it.

Theology can’t have it both ways. If it insists on dividing words from meaning, if it wants to introduce something new into the equation, it cannot then claim to be interpreting scripture. There is no such thing as “Theological Interpretation of Scripture”. That is a contradiction in terms.

Sanders’ insistence that theology should be kept on a short tether sounds reassuring, but it is largely meaningless because the crucial epistemological move has been made: truth has been severed from the “sounds and syllables” that make up the text.

So to be honest, when Sanders says that a doctrine must have “some purchase on the text”, the image that comes to mind is of a parasite clamped to the body of scripture—a louse or a leach—draining the life blood of the text. Or perhaps we might think of theology as a cancerous growth produced by exposure to the alien radiation of Hellenistic thought. Just because a doctrine has some purchase on the text doesn’t mean that it’s a legitimate or inevitable expression of its content.

Things might have been different

The doctrine of the Trinity is not in the Bible. It is at best—and this is a large concession—a latent or potential development under certain historical conditions.

If Israel had repented as a nation after AD 70, as Paul had hoped, and confessed that YHWH had made his Son Lord and Christ, perhaps the Gentilisation of the churches would have been halted—a sufficient number of Gentiles having come in (cf. Rom. 11:25)—and the people of God would have preserved a core Jewish identity. In that case, would they have developed a doctrine of the Trinity? I doubt it.

If they had continued to baptise people, they would presumably have done so in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. But that would simply have been a formulaic reference to the transformative events of Jesus’ life and the renewal of the covenant community. A predominantly Jewish church would have felt under no scriptural obligation to rewrite eschatology as metaphysics. On the contrary, incoming Greeks would have had to acquire a Jewish and biblical worldview.

[tweetable]We got the doctrine of the Trinity at the expense of a meaningful understanding of the kingdom of God.[/tweetable]

In my view, the relation of the doctrine of the Trinity to scripture is not that of fully developed theory to embryonic idea—as though biblical thought was bound to move in this direction sooner or later. It is that of a Greek answer to a Jewish question, of a philosophical solution to an eschatological problem.

The sense of the text as we have it is not the “truth” that theologians—cultural aliens—attached to it. It is the apocalyptic story about Jesus. Here is my main issue with Sanders’ method. I accept that the church in the Greek-Roman world, having lost touch with its Jewish origins, needed to revise a basic philosophical monotheism to accommodate the prominence given to both the exalted Jesus and the Spirit in the New Testament narrative. Fair enough.

But the insistence that this revision is an interpretation or explanation of the New Testament material is to consign the powerful apocalyptic narrative about kingdom, which is how and why the New Testament talks about Father, Son and Spirit, to the dustbin of history as mere “sound and syllables”. We got the doctrine of the Trinity at the expense of a meaningful understanding of the kingdom of God.

The Patristic reinvention of God was a massive erasure of the historical experience that had made the theological translation necessary in the first place. The sense of the New Testament is not the theological recalculation of God as three-in-one. It is the prophetic witness to the lived historical experience of the community. The reinvention is a subsequent accretion, an addendum—a parasite on the text, if we are not careful.

This is not an argument against Trinitarianism…

So this is not an argument against Trinitarianism. It is, admittedly, an argument for acknowledging the historical contingency of Trinitarianism. But more importantly, it is an argument for reinstating the powerful, compelling, transformative historical narrative that lies at the heart of the New Testament, which is the account of how YHWH would be glorified among the nations of the Greek-Roman world through the faithfulness of his Son and the witness of his Spirit-filled people.

The reinstatement is necessary for two reasons. First, it gives us a much better hermeneutical grid for reading the New Testament than Trinitarian theology. Secondly, I think that the narrative-historical paradigm gives us a much better perspective on the existential crisis now facing the church in the secular West than dogmatic theology does. The church will not be saved by Trinitarianism. The church will be saved by an honest, dynamic, forward-looking missional faith in the God of history.

Working through an article by Fr. John Behr that makes the same type of claims. He says, “…unless one is reading Scripture ‘apocalyptically’ or ‘allegorically’ one is not reading it is as Scripture, but as merely as history.” Yikes.

Couple questions for you.

1) Is there a trinitarian reading of Scrip more in line w/your historical narrative approach? What might it be?

2) How does your approach to Scrip accommodate that Scrip itself is latent with meaning only made obvious w/later revelation — e.g., the Jesus event and its impact on the meaning of certain OT passages (meanings that have very little to do w/their original contexts and historical settings)?


That’s a very strange definition of “apocalyptically”. To my mind “apocalyptic” is history. But yes, it’s this mere history assumption that is so wrong-headed. I would call it heresy—a profoundly damaging misrepresentation of God and of the scriptures.

1. To deal with Trinity in narrative-historical terms means, I think, either i) explaining it eschatologically (eg. the baptismal formula is a shorthand reference to the transformative events associated with Jesus mission, death, resurrection and exaltation) or ii) regarding the development of the doctrine as itself narrative-historically determined—a contingent feature of the continuing story of the people of God, whatever its relation to scripture. Or both.

2. This is a big question. To address the particular issue, if the New Testament thinks that the “Jesus event” affects the meaning of certain Old Testament passages, that is a matter of the historical outlook of Jesus or of the New Testament community. The narrative-historical approach does not say, “Oh, that means there is meaning latent in the Jewish scriptures that has been uncovered by later revelation.” It says, “Oh, so that’s how the New Testament community understood—or saw fit to make rhetorical use of, which is a different matter—that particular Old Testament text.” We could then say the same thing about the Church Fathers. They read the New Testament in a certain way, according to prevailing historical-intellectual conditions. We do not have to conclude either that the New Testament really means what they said or that we should make use of the same hermeneutic.

@Andrew Perriman:

“This is a big question.” Absolutely. I would love to see you dedicate more space to this question.

One of my frustrations as I’ve sought to understand the development of the Trinity revolves around this very issue. A standard defense of the development is that Scripture is inherently cryptic (or latent) w/layers of meaning. In fact, we are told, that is what it means to be Scripture — to be inspired. This assertion then allows for the formulation of doctrines whose “planks” and grammar aren’t found in Scripture.

This assertion allows Sanders, for example, to say the doctrine can “arise” out of Scripture — and thus “is” Scriptural. Or to argue that a “trinitarian reading” of Scripture is demanded by the very “cryptic” nature of Scripture.

My complaint is that such approaches “flatten” the historical/contextual landscape of Scripture. I am looking for a better approach and I think you may be on to something. At this point, however, I not sure how to connect your approach to the complexities — Scriptural, historical, philosophical, political, etc. — of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity.

So, again, I would love to see you deal w/this issue (in both of my original questions) in more detail. (BTW — my reasons are pastoral as well. I teach Bible to a group of men. Teaching the Trinity as, say a Sanders would, has proven to be woefully inadequate.)


At this point, however, I not sure how to connect your approach to the complexities - Scriptural, historical, philosophical, political, etc. - of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Well, arguably, it’s very simple. A consistent narrative-historical approach only requires us to keep telling the story. We are under no obligation to treat it as a rational or rationally explicable process. What holds everything together is history.

The New Testament understanding of the relationship between Jesus and God was contingent upon a reading of the scriptures, apocalyptic developments in the Hellenistic-Roman period, the situation in Palestine, and other historical factors.

The Patristic understanding was similarly contingent but the shaping factors had changed: the Jewish-apocalyptic frame had been replaced by something more Platonist; the crisis of first century Judaism had been replaced by the challenge of establishing faith in Christ in the Greek-Roman world.

In the modern era the historical conditions for making sense of the relationship between Jesus and God have changed again, no less dramatically. My argument is that a leading factor in this development is the weight attached to critical historiography as the intellectual frame for thinking about the ancient world. Increasingly, we are finding that trust in history is not incompatible with “evangelical” witness.

peter wilkinson | Thu, 12/21/2017 - 11:40 | Permalink

I started to read the Fred Sanders article, but came over quite dizzy and needed to have a little rest.

On the other hand, Matthew’s baptismal formula isn’t a bad starting point for reflection on whether it points towards a theologically developed Trinity by its author (just as other NT passages might , and for which Acts 2:33 is, in my view, a lynch pin).

Such reflection on the words of scripture is no more removed from the meaning of the words and their historical context than your own speculations, such as when you provide an alternative meaning of the baptismal formula:
“a formulaic reference to the transformative events of Jesus’ life and the renewal of the covenant community”.

This is not providing a meaning of the words in a literal or even historical sense, but is squeezing them into a mould which you have provided, and then asserting that this is the actual meaning of the formula. In the interests of level playing fields, I think it should be conceded that this is just as much separating the truth of scripture from the words of scripture, which you criticize theologians for doing.

As for Fred Sanders, he may be a “go to” theologian, but as I still have a headache, I won’t be going to him again any time soon.

@peter wilkinson:

It seems to me rather ironic that you complain that I am squeezing the words into a mould that I have provided with no historical basis but cite Acts 2:33 as a point of connection with a theologically developed Trinitarianism. Acts 2:33 is an excellent example of what I mean: it ties reference to Father, Son and Spirit to an eschatological narrative about the exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of God and the outpouring of the prophetic Spirit on the witnessing community. I know it’s nearly Chfristmas, but it always looks, Peter, as though you go out of your way to misunderstand what I say. 

@Andrew Perriman:

No, I’m not complaining, nor suggesting that there is no historic basis for a historical narrative interpretation of Matthew’s baptismal formula. I’m suggesting that it is just as speculative as seeing a theological meaning in the formula. That’s hardly controversial.

Acts 2:33 is an excellent example of a Trinitarian text. Jesus is given equal status with God (for which “exalted to the right hand of God” provides the closest possible approximation, whatever historical narrative meaning you may also want to give it). Between Jesus and God, a space now opens up for the Spirit (which you call the prophetic Spirit, but that isn’t a scriptural term used in the text), which Jesus “has poured out”. “Holy Spirit” is a new term, which should draw our attention, but “Spirit” or “Spirit of God” is another way of saying “God” in OT usage; it’s not a substance which is in some way inferior to or less than God.

Acts 2:33 provides a foundation for Christian experience which goes beyond Acts in the NT, and beyond the immediate historical contingences. It’s a good lens through which to view the other triads of Father, Son, Spirit in the NT. I’m not at all sure where Christmas comes into all this, but happy to include that too if you think it’s significant.

Doane | Thu, 12/21/2017 - 21:03 | Permalink

I’ll just throw out a simple take on this complex topic.

1) you can understand the Trinity just as much as you can understand God having always existed. You can’t fully understand it. It’s just told to us.

2) God is One.

3) if The Father, Son and Spirit are all called God and show God attributes then we have the doctrine of the Trinity.

That easy.


Andrew, have you looked into the work of Daniel Boyarin or Michael Heiser on the topic of binitarianism in Jewish thought? Their arguments seem to be becoming more popular among Christians — that Jesus was recognized by Second Temple Jews as the second YHWH in heaven.


I just stumbled on this myself. It appears some are now arguing that the Gospel of John was identifying Jesus as the Memra of Yahweh, rather than identifying him with (female) Wisdom. I’ll have to read Boyarin’s “Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity.” Here’s a brief description from Heiser:


I wonder which is the chicken and which is the egg, here.  Since the concept of Memra is primarily found in the Targum, it could be that the idea of Memra was borrowing from Logos as opposed to the other way around.

@Phil L.:

I think it’s unlikely Targum writers would borrow from a Christian source or from Philo’s platonic logos.

Regarding Ronning’s Jewish Targums and John’s Logos Theology, Craig Evans wrote, “There should no longer be any doubt about the role played by the targumic memra (‘word’) in Johannine Christology.” This is interesting because I’m pretty sure in the 90’s Evans was saying the Targums couldn’t have influenced the author of the 4th Gospel.

Boyarin’s book on the subject looks good. And I think Heiser may be onto something with his Two Powers connection.

Samuel Conner | Fri, 01/06/2023 - 16:52 | Permalink

Thank you, Andrew; this is helpful.

I’m late to this one, having only just noticed it in the “related posts” list of your most recent post.

A quick thought regarding this:

“Theology can’t have it both ways. If it insists on dividing words from meaning, if it wants to introduce something new into the equation, it cannot then claim to be interpreting scripture.”

I agree in the sense that Theology of this kind should not impute to itself a conscience-binding authority rooted in texts that it uses in this way.

I do think that there is a place for what might be called “speculative theology” that starts with premises rooted in Scripture and works out possible implications, checking back with the texts to see whether these are permitted or forbidden (though admittedly this search for corroboration might itself not be an entirely proper use of some of the texts, and probably would be subject to strong confirmation bias given the sensitivity and importance of the subject).

An example of this that strikes me as appealing and plausible (though not so compelling as to bind the conscience) is Jonathan Edwards’ “Essay on the Trinity”. In it, he starts with some affirmations about the nature of the One True God and argues from these that this God’s “knowledge of Himself” and “love of Himself” would for all practical purposes be distinct persons within the Divine being. He adduces Scripture to identify the Person that theology sees as in hypostatic union with the living man Jesus as the Divine “self-knowledge” and the Holy Spirit as the Divine “self-love”.

I don’t think it’s a strong enough argument to prove Trinitarianism (and it’s not clear why this generation/procession process would terminate at 3 persons), but it seems to me a valid argument for, at least, the plausibility of the concept.

Perhaps one could see Edwards’ argument as granting “permission” to believe that Trinitarianism could be valid on first principles, while not conceding to Trinitarians the right to anathematize unitarians, binitarians, or N-itarians.

I would like to think that Jesus-followers of different persuasions on this subject would be able to be at peace with one another, but historically that has not been the case.

@Samuel Conner:

Thanks, Samuel. Do you mind if I push back a bit? This is how the essay begins:

IT IS COMMON when speaking of the Divine happiness to say that God is infinitely happy in the enjoyment of Himself, in perfectly beholding and infinitely loving, and rejoicing in, His own essence and perfection, and accordingly it must be supposed that God perpetually and eternally has a most perfect idea of Himself, as it were an exact image and representation of Himself ever before Him and in actual view, and from hence arises a most pure and perfect act or energy in the Godhead, which is the Divine love, complacence and joy.

I’ll have a go at reading the whole thing, but my first thought is: why begin here? Why should we say that God is infinitely happy in the enjoyment of himself? It may be common to say it, but is it true? Why characterise God as a narcissist? Is there any biblical precedent for that sort of presumption?

Secondly, does the language of “image,” “face,” “form,” when applied to Christ really have reference to an internal self-knowing? That would certainly not be my current understanding. At least, “image” and “face” seem to belong at the interface between God and humanity, and “form of a god” is another thing altogether.

But also, what you are proposing appears to have to do with how the church uses trinitarian language. My argument is that we need to reckon with the fact that trinitarian language no longer serves a public purpose. I think that we are having a hard time coming to terms with that.

@Andrew Perriman:

Thank you, Andrew.

I think that Edwards’ argument doesn’t need to begin with Divine narcissism (and I agree that there is a strong hint of this; I think it shows up also in JE’s The Nature of True Virtue) it depends on comprehensive Divine self-knowledge. Whether the Deity likes or dislikes what He knows about Himself would not affect “eternal generation”; that question comes in at the 2nd part of the argument, regarding “eternal procession.” 

Is this a misunderstanding or misapplication of the language of the texts? It may very well be — Edwards reads the texts he cites through a theological lens, not an historical one. 

I do think that this kind of reflection still can be valid — “if God were like thus and so, what would that imply?” If God has comprehensive self-knowledge, for example, the consequences worked out in Edwards’ argument may follow. He doesn’t actually need the biblical texts to make his case; what he needs is the validity of the premises of the argument. 

The thought behind the proposal is to “downgrade” this kind of reflection on the nature of the Divine Being from “dogma” to “speculative theology.” It’s a proposal for peace among the churches.