Thursday, July 12, 2007

When should we bring up the Trinity?

I have been asking myself when we should bring up the doctrine of the trinity. I am asking this question for a number of overlapping contexts: christian education, theology courses, textbooks, systematic theologies, etc. When should it come up? When does it make sense to come up? Where does it best fit? Where does it do its best work?

Here are some options that come to mind:

(1) At the end of the Doctrine of God. This is probably the most "traditional" place for the doctrine of the trinity. After introducing the subject of theology and discussing God's existence, nature and attributes, one turns to the persons in God to round out the doctrine of God. The advantage here is that one has the trinity up an running early without having to deal with it too early. The disadvantage is that it might give the impression that all the stuff before the trinity is just about "god-in-general" and not the specifically Christian God.

(2) Piecemeal. Another option is to address the doctrine of the trinity in pieces: first the Father under the doctrine of God at the beginning, then the Son under the doctrine of salvation in the middle, and finally the Spirit in conjunction with ecclesiology and eschatology. The advantage here is one is that the complex and cumulative character of trinity doctrine is respected and utilized. The disadvantage is that God's triunity may be split up into parts in the process. Plus, the terminology and concepts needed for trinitarian reflection are deeply intertwined and so may need to stay together to make sense.

(3) First. One way to deal with the problems in both of the above approaches is to front-load the doctrine of the trinity so that it controls all our theological language. The advantage here is that the specificity of the Christian God is emphasized and the triune shape of all theological language can be thereafter perceived. The disadvantage is that, if one is not careful, the trinity doctrine appears to just fall out of the sky without reference to the full history of salvation. Additionally, trinitarian ideas are some of the most demanding and do not make for good "introductory" material.

(4) Last. Another way to deal with the problems above is to do the opposite: put the doctrine of the trinity at the end as a triumphant conclusion of sorts. The advantage here is that the complex and cumulative character of trinity doctrine is respected and utilized yet without splitting the doctrine into pieces. Plus, one will be more ready for the demands of trinity doctrine at the end of theological inquiry rather than the beginning. The serious disadvantage is that the trinity could become a forgotten appendix and the trinitarian shape of all theological language would be at best implicit.

Any thoughts?
Are there any other good options I have overlooked?
Which of these options appeal to you? Why?
Should any of these options be ruled out? Why?


Anonymous said...

I think that I would want to give hints about the Trinity from the start. At creation, we could speak like Irenaeus and say that God (the Father) created the world using His two hands, the Spirit and the Word. The advantage to bringing the Persons in early is that it prepares the hearer for anthropology, the Incarnation, Pentacost, and eschatology. Humans are made in the image of the Triune God. The Incarnation is the enfleshing of God's Word. Pentacost is the indwelling of God's Spirit. And, all three, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are active in re-creating humanity in the image of God at the endtimes.

I think that the biggest disadvantage to such an approach is that it becomes exclusively Christian very quickly. While this is not so bad in a catechism or seminary course, it does provide obstacle in interfaith dialogue. Although, perhaps the obstacles are simply a part of good dialogue...

The Reverend Professor said...

You do not list the option I think best, so let me suggest one: all the time! The Trinity is about who God is, which is what theology and the Christian life are all about!

Well, the Trinity is just as important to the Church today as it was almost 2,000 years ago (at least it should be). Let me suggest several reasons why.

First, the Trinity teaches us that a personal relationship with God necessarily involves getting to know the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in an intimate way. We are meant to be in relationship with the entire Godhead.

Second, when taught properly theology is not what we know about God, it is how we come to know God. The point of the Trinity is not to get an algebraic or complete understanding of God. We are not to know God in the way that we know the principles of a particular science. The Trinity teaches us who we need to know and serves as a guide toward that greatest of all ends.

Third, the Trinity touches every aspect of the Christian life. Correctly taught and understood, the Trinity is:

1. the revelation of God's heart, i.e., theology (knowing who and what God is)

2. the road map of salvation, or how we get to God

3. it is the blueprint for discipleship, or how the life of a follower of Jesus should be lived

4. it is the grammar and vocabulary of prayer, or how we ought to communicate with God

God the Father sent Jesus Christ, His only Son by nature, to teach us about God's heart and love for us in order that we may become 'adopted' children and joint-heirs with Christ. And it is the Holy Spirit that works within us in order that we may become sanctified and have a life that is qualitatively (though not exactly) like Jesus' own relationship to the Father (Romans 8:14-17).

I find the lack of Trinitarian teaching and biblical interpretation to be a disturbing trend in Western Protestant Christianity. Hopefully, those who are trying to change this will be successful.

Scott Hendricks said...

I like the idea of teaching on the trinity as an unfolding mystery in the history of salvation, first with the revelation of Jesus as universal Lord and savior, and then the coming of the Spirit, and then maybe discuss the development of doctrine concerning "the persons of the godhead." I think honesty at this level helps make sense of "why Christians believe that God is three-in-one and one-in-three."

Halden said...

I don't honestly know that I could do much theology at all without mentioning the doctrine of the Trinity. I don't think we have to have just one starting point for writting a systematic theology, but I do think that however we begin it, we must constantly refer to the history of Jesus and the Triune God to illumine what we say about everything else.

Stooge said...

Great question. I think that most of the members of your audience (in any of the settings you mention) will have heard of the trinity and will be hoping to get a better understanding of the trinity. You mentioned that the trinity concepts are "demanding" and difficult to sort out and "make sense." I think you are a bit optimistic. I think the trinity is truly incomprehensible, not because God is so great and complex, but rather because all the explanations really don't make much sense. I think you should assume that your audience feels the same and feels frustrated by it. I would also suggest that you encourage your audience not to expect to understand the trinity or get comfortable with the concepts. If the concepts start making sense, then you are doing something wrong. The concepts of the trinity are attempts to come to make a harmony out of facts that just don't harmonize. Your audience should understand that this is something that no theologian has yet explained in a satisfactory way.

Stooge said...

Whoops. I forgot to answer your question. I think you should start with the trinity right out of the gate.

David Drury said...

My take on this question is to emphasize the "Crescendo of the Trinity" in theology and biblical narrative. In some respects this position is a "first and last" approach (Alpha and Omega, anyone?)

Consider the Trinity in some minute respects at the beginning but with more and more emphasis as the story, and theological develop, goes. Of course, I think that follows the narrative pattern of Scripture and of the "sending of the Son & Spirit" sequencing in the gospels and Acts too.