Rumors of the death of Trinitarianism, even rumors of its dearth, have been grossly exaggerated.
This is not to ignore the problems, failures, errors, and weaknesses that sometimes attend it. We don’t need to suppress any evidence in order to reject the drastic diagnosis. When I look around churches and the theological scene today, I see areas of weakness and suggestions for how evangelical Christians in particular can enter into our Trinitarian birthright more fully, more fluently, and more fruitfully. But I have never been able to embrace the idea that the state of the doctrine of the Trinity in contemporary Christian life is so threatened that drastic action is necessary.
The everything-you-know-is-wrong diagnosis fails to distinguish between primary and secondary Trinitarianism. The distinction is a very helpful one. Primary Trinitarianism (the term seems to have been coined by Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson) is the underlying reality of the presence and work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the life of the church. Anyone who is born of the Spirit and testifies that the Father so loved the world he gave his only-begotten Son (John 3:14–16) is fluently speaking primary Trinitarianism. That person is giving an account of the triune structure of salvation history itself in the Bible’s own language.
If they were to theologize on top of that, they would begin speaking secondary Trinitarianism. In short order they would bring forth words like Trinity, three, persons, and essence; helpful terms that are just a step or two from Scripture itself. As the need arose, they would pursue questions about how the three persons are one God, and how their temporal appearances in salvation history related to their eternal relations. In doing so, they would offer even more elaborate theoretical concepts and terms: procession, consubstantiality, perichoresis, and so on.
Primary Trinitarianism is the life of God in the soul of the redeemed; it includes the actual history of salvation, the biblical witness, and the spiritual reality of meeting the Son and the Holy Spirit. Secondary Trinitarianism is the ability of the redeemed to articulate who God is on the basis of what he has done; it includes doctrinal statements, theological awareness, and church practices by which we respond to God’s grace.
Christians should be saying the right things about the triune God, feeling properly-formed feelings of responsive devotion and worship, and behaving as those who believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But whenever the church or its teachers underperform in one of these areas (and “we all stumble in many ways,” as James 3:2 says), the problem is not that Trinitarianism as such has died the death. The problem is misalignment. Misalignment between primary and secondary Trinitarianism can be corrected patiently, kindly, and humbly (1 Cor. 13:4).
You Know More Than You Think You Know About the Trinity
What holds true in so many other areas of Christian life also holds true in the domain of Trinitarianism: We can fail to do justice to the deep theological realities that undergird our lives. Christians can come to the Father through the Son in the Spirit (Eph. 2:18), but only ever think of themselves as in the presence of God-in-general. Christians can intuit the profound truth that the Father, Son, and Spirit are each God but are not each other, and yet fail the “theology pop quiz,” giving modalist answers on the first page and tritheist answers on the next.
Christians can live in the Trinity but explain it poorly. Christians can have a far-off vision of the reality of God’s beautiful triunity, but then speak prayers which, taken strictly and literally, have to be judged by orthodox standards as not only awful but god-awful (“Thank you, Jesus, for sending your son,” or “Thank you, Father, for dying on the cross”). Christians can live the reality of being adopted by the Father through the Spirit of the Son (Gal. 4:4–6) but never say more than that they are simply saved.
The message we need is not “everything you know is wrong,” but “you know more than you think you know.” Christians, by definition, are always already involved in a Trinitarian reality, and ought to learn to experience that more profoundly and appreciate it with greater understanding. We can catechize young Christians into a deeper understanding of the God they believe in; worship with words that rehearse the triune distinctions until our hearts are at home with them; and mark the tracks of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all across the surface of Scripture as we study it.
There is plenty of work to do on this front. Speaking for myself, I’m devoting my entire ministry to this task for the rest of my life, and I do not expect to run out of meaningful labor in the field of evangelical Trinitarianism. There are some genuinely dangerous situations, doctrinally and spiritually, that cry out for the correction of better Trinitarian catechizing. Whole sectors of evangelical church life are arid and under-resourced in this regard. The glorious truth of the Trinitarian depths of the gospel is apparently not evenly distributed, and some evangelicals are eking out far too meager a theological existence.
Don’t Heed the Doomsday Prophets of the Trinity
The “everything you know about the Trinity is wrong” approach comes in many forms, but there are three main ways it shows up: a myth of the fall, nifty tricks to make the Trinity relevant, and the introduction of strange new content.
Myth of the Fall
Especially in academic theology, but also on the popular level, there is a pervasive idea that we have recently experienced some kind of revival of Trinitarian theology. Such a revival is, in some ways, an indisputable fact: More academic books and articles about the Trinity have probably been published in the last 30 years than in the 100 years before that. And in a wide range of churches and ministries, we hear more about the Trinity than we once did.
But every time you call something a “revival,” you suggest a complex history with at least three phases: a golden age, a fall from glory, and now, at last, a return to lost greatness. Anybody who writes this way about the doctrine of the Trinity owes readers a story. As it turns out, the authors who have talked about a Trinitarian revival have a lot of stories, and they don’t agree with each other about any of the dates or figures involved.
I confess, I have sometimes written in this vein, placing the blame on the recent past. If the evangelical tradition has suppressed and then recovered the doctrine of the Trinity, I have suspected that our great-grandparents’ generation had it right, but our grandparents and parents messed it up. Set aside the question of whether I could provide any evidence for this sort of revival thesis; instead look at how it sets up my generation in the role of hero. It has exactly the structure of a myth. It is a self-aggrandizing just-so story that condemns elders who I know, asserts a connection with a misty past, and congratulates myself for “finally getting it right.”
Other stories of a Trinitarian fall reach back further. Karl Barth blamed the Protestant modernism downstream from Schleiermacher (and to be fair, liberal theologians in this tradition had not only sidelined the doctrine, but in many cases argued explicitly against it). Postliberal theologian William Placher named the 17th century as the time when transcendence itself was domesticated and the Trinity marginalized. British theologian Colin Gunton considered the Cappadocian theology of the 4th century to be the golden age of Trinitarianism and painted Augustine as the looming villain who brought on the dark ages. Roman Catholic theologian Catherine Mowry LaCugna worried that Trinitarianism had already gotten off track with distinctions made in the theology of Nicaea. Do you see what is going on in these examples? They all agree that there was a golden age, a fall, and a revival in our own time. But there is no agreement about when that fall occurred. Was it in the 19th century? The 17th? Perhaps the 5th or 4th centuries?
“Make the Trinity Great Again” turns out to be a pretty unstable slogan as soon as we ask a couple of basic chronological questions:
- When was it great before?
- When did it stop?
- How are you restoring it?
Whatever form it takes, this mythological story of decline underwrites the contemporary teacher’s ability to bemoan the sad state of the doctrine in our own day. Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner lodged the most eloquent lament when he said that “despite their orthodox confession of the Trinity, Christians are, in their practical life, almost mere ‘monotheists.’” Rahner went so far as to say that “should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain virtually unchanged.” The Trinity was simply absent from “the catechism of head and heart (as contrasted with the printed catechism).”
If this lament rings true, then today is the day to repent of contemporary lapses in Trinitarian engagement. But the habit of constructing a story of how previous generations put us in this position turns out to be unhelpful. It’s a hard habit to break. We have inherited this self-justifying, blame-projecting pattern of thought from influential thinkers in previous centuries.
(If that last sentence was immediately convincing to you, you have not yet broken free.)
Nifty Tricks to Make the Trinity Relevant
Equally popular is the strategy of recommending ways of transforming the doctrine of the Trinity from a far-away, abstract truth into a fruitful principle of life. Most of the techniques can be described as some form of imitation or of taking the Trinity as a blueprint for human or social life.
If the Trinity can be viewed as a perfect community or a rightly structured society, then the way to make that doctrine relevant is to perfect our own created communities and to rightly order our own societies so that they reflect the equality, harmony, mutual self-giving, and so on that exist in the life of God. As the threefold structure above us in heaven is the ultimate expression of life together, we are told we should model our own lives together on earth after its pattern.
Unfortunately, those who agree that this mirroring is the right technique for rendering the doctrine relevant nevertheless disagree about what they see when they look into that mirror. Theorists influenced by socialism tend to see in the Trinity a perfectly equal society in which all property is held in common. Theologians who catch this vision frequently emphasize perichoresis, the doctrine that the three persons mutually indwell each other.
Theorists influenced by a different social theory have found just the opposite in the triune heavenly society: the free and fully-enfranchised negotiations of agents, permanently connected by a web of relations that are the uncreated paradigm of democratic capitalism.
In the ongoing argument between evangelical egalitarians and complementarians with regard to gender roles, the Trinity is often seen as either the primal source of absolute interpersonal equality or as the transcendent ground of ordered, non-interchangeable complementarianism.
If the “holy Trinity as perfect society” paradigm is not compelling, you may be interested in viewing the Trinity as the perfectly integrated self or perhaps as the fundamental structure of creative activity. It doesn’t much matter which one you pick, so long as it brings this stodgy old doctrine closer to home and shows how it is relevant.
The most obvious problem with this range of approaches is the mirroring technique: It is not something that the Bible ever directs us to do. “Be triune as I am triune” is not scriptural phraseology. Further, there are no controls on what we might find in God to imitate. The sheer diverse and contradictory wealth of options suggests that people are only finding in the Trinity what they themselves hid there in the first place.
But the bigger problem behind these neat tricks is what they presuppose. They seem to begin from the notion that the Trinity is not relevant until a technique like this makes it relevant to us. This presupposition can only come from a faulty idea of what would count as relevant. The doctrine of the Trinity is a teaching about who God is, based on the gospel and according to the Bible. Anybody who nods their head at these claims and then goes on to ask, “But why does it matter?” has a dubious grasp of the nature of theology, the character of the gospel, and the purpose of the Bible. If we believe that relationship with God is the most significant aspect of our existence, knowing what God is like ought to be supremely relevant to us. What if the doctrine of the Trinity were already as relevant as it needed to be, simply by being biblical and evangelical instruction about God?
Reading Too Much Into the Trinity
Psychologist Carl Jung examined the doctrine of the Trinity according to his theory of archetypes. He found that sex was strangely absent from this traditional teaching and pondered where the feminine principle should be located in God. Jung sometimes identified that feminine principle with the Virgin Mary, who he promoted to a place in the Trinity by misunderstanding Roman Catholic Mariology. Jung admitted that this would expand God to a quaternity, but in his eyes that was better anyway for its symbolic and archetypal completeness. Several alarms should have long since gone off for anybody who cares about the Christian doctrine of God as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. A quaternity generated by the need for a masculine and a feminine principle to be satisfied is pretty obviously the answer to a question no Trinitarian was ever asking. Strange new content has been poured into Trinitarian forms.
The visionary Shakespeare scholar G. Wilson Knight once tried his hand at Trinitarianism. In a book chapter called “The Eternal Triangle,” he described God the Father as the principle of something “inscrutably existing in and beyond our world,” which had to be harmonized somehow with a principle (the Son) that “champions man in this mysterious and unfriending universe.” Somehow these two poles are held together in a resolution that corresponds to the Holy Spirit. Once Knight begins conjuring with archetypes, he just keeps going, extending his meditations to geometry (Consider “the triangle which, however unequally it be drawn, remains yet more graciously beautiful than the most symmetric quadrilateral.”) and mathematics (We are “baffled by the dualisms of even numbers dividedly arrayed against each other [in two even halves] and find “odd numbers more profoundly mystic than even numbers, each in its indivisibility holding the secret of unity.”). Fascinating stuff, no doubt, but it’s hard to see what it has to do with the God of the gospel. Or with Shakespeare, though that’s another story.
In fact, Knight confesses that his goal is not to speak about God. His goal is to make use of traditional language and symbolism for its power in speaking about human things: “The Trinity is the most sublime simplification of human destiny ever imagined … a reflection cast by human existence on to the heavens above that we may there observe the eternal essence of that Life in whose drama we are actors.”
Not everybody who expropriates Trinitarian language for their own project is so transparent. There is a long tradition in the kind of spirituality literature that was once called New Age, of using Trinity symbolism to describe various spiritual dynamics. The most recent example of which I’m aware is Cynthia Bourgeault’s The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three: Discovering the Radical Truth at the Heart of Christianity. Bourgeault’s titular law is that “the interweaving of three separate forces creates a new arising on a new plane.” This may not sound much like the teaching of the New Testament. That’s because it isn’t. It’s from the writings of the visionary George Gurdjieff, and it’s a metaphysical psychology with roots that dig in somewhere besides the Bible.
How can the Gurdjieffian “Law of Three” be mistaken for the Christian doctrine of the Trinity? On the face of it, it doesn’t even seem to be an attempt to describe God, or to consider God the Father’s self-revelation in the Son and the Spirit. To get to Bourgeault’s pattern of threeness from Scripture, you would have to start by subtracting the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and examine the residue. But that residue would hardly be the Trinity, unless (like the Flannery O’Connor character who founded the Church of Christ Without Christ), you wanted the Trinity without the Trinity.
The Franciscan writer Richard Rohr is more concerned than Bourgeault to commend his work to a Christian audience, but his The Divine Dance: The Holy Trinity and Your Transformation is partly dedicated to the same kind of conjuring with symbols, makes use of Bourgeault’s “Law of Three,” and results in a praise of a mysterious Flow by which “the Three are formed and identified.”
Teach the Trinity That’s Already There
Of course, not everyone who begins their teaching with “everything you know is wrong” pursues a path toward the strange new content of these later examples. Most teachers who arrest our attention by lamenting the decline of the Trinity and its absence from our minds and hearts are just trying to increase our excitement about the traditional Christian doctrine. But the tone and the tendency of this widespread pedagogical habit is risky in a world where alternative gods are eager to crowd in under the cover of conventional language.
Theologians, preachers, and teachers ought to reconsider their use of these techniques. Every time a teacher announces that we’ve had the Trinity all messed up until lately, they are suggesting that the church has been muddling its way through history without knowing who it was worshipping. the Christian church could still be itself with the wrong doctrine of God. After all, that is what is at stake if everything we know about the Trinity is wrong: that the Christian church is an institution dedicated to the wrong doctrine of God. The kind of instability that presupposes and propagates in our doctrinal ecosystem is precisely the kind that opens the churches up to even greater disorder, including the importation of god-concepts with no hint of a family resemblance to the Trinity.
In a dark irony, what is killing Trinitarianism is the crush of doctors claiming they are here to help Trinitarianism. Every time one of these practitioners, even the well-meaning ones, assures us that the previous century’s theological doctor was a quack but that now the patient is in good hands, they undermine not only their own credibility but the reasonable confidence of Trinitarian churches. Churches who are eager to hear a good word about the triune God they know and love are instead treated like the poor woman who comes to Jesus after having bled for twelve years: “She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse” (Mark 5).
The kind of doctors who want to help and heal should attend to how much is already right with the patient. Every Christian church is inherently Trinitarian as the people of God, the body of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Spirit; some of those churches need to hear about their Trinitarian foundation more often. Christians live by the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 13:13); some of them need this benediction placed on them more emphatically. Every Christian prayer that goes up finds its way to God the Father because of the mediation of the Son and the intercession of the Spirit; pastors should draw attention to the direction of that current so that the people who pray to the Trinity can see what is always already Trinitarian in their prayers. Every soul that is saved has been adopted by the Father who sends the Spirit of his Son into our hearts crying “Abba, Father” (Gal 4:6).
There is a robust primary Trinitarianism at work all around us. Good theological work goes about the joyful task of explaining it.
Fred Sanders teaches in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He has written and contributed to a number of books, including The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything, 2nd ed. (Crossway, 2017), The Triune God (Zondervan, 2016), and The Image of the Immanent Trinity: Rahner’s Rule and the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Peter Lang, 2004).