When Doctrine Dances: Why the Trinity Matters for Churches

By Obbie Todd

Church history is a dance between two partners: God’s people and God’s Word. It’s a beautiful, 2000-year-old display conducted for an audience of one. Unfortunately, that dance isn’t always a ballet; it can get messy. But that’s by design. God has a funny way of keeping the dance in sync. From time to time another dancer cuts in and threatens the bride’s performance. And in God’s sovereignty, the heretical intruder only serves to strengthen and sharpen the faith of God’s people. The delicate orthodoxy of the Chalcedonian Creed, for example, is a picture of beautiful choreography: “…one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably…”

If we look more closely at this theological gem, we can discern its contours refined in the fire of heresy: (1) Arius brought us to savor the only-begotten Son. (2) Apollinarius forced us to defend His two natures. (3) Eutyches brought us to affirm His unchanged and unmixed natures. (4) And Nestorius aided the church in recognizing the indivisibility and inseparability of those natures. Heresy isn’t just a roadblock to orthodoxy. Oddly enough, the road to orthodoxy is often paved with heresy. And that road doesn’t end with Christology. A heretical group known as the Montanists actually served to re-accentuate the role of the Spirit in the church. Time after time God strangely calls His church back to orthodoxy through heresy. And while our creeds serve as adequate safeguards for proper choreography, Jehovah’s Witnesses (Neo-Arians) and Pentecostals (Neo-Montanists) continue their attempt to cut into this divine dance.

While the music plays on, however, we are in constant danger from those who would seek to usurp the rhythm of the dance. The modern church  is in danger of losing its dance partner or of getting out of step with his leading. This is the result whenever the pulpit has surrendered to the pew. Sadly, many Christians have heard more sermons about Mother’s Day than they have about the most foundational doctrine of our faith: The Trinity. In his book The Holy Trinity, Robert Letham asserts, “Today most Western Christians are practical modalists.” (5) In other words, most American Christians are completely unaware how to articulate the very identity of their God. Instead they’ve traded in the Trinity of Persons for a more comprehensible God in three forms. We see it when pastors offer the pitiful illustration of water, ice, and steam. The introduction of liberal thought into the church has virtually dissolved Trinitarian thought. Friedrich Schleiermacher, the so-called “father of modern liberalism,” placed the Trinity as a mere addendum at the end of his famous The Christian Faith (1821). The experiential German theologian Albert Ritschl, in his systematic theology, failed to even broach the subject! In his famous Christianity and Liberalism (1923), J. Gresham Machen describes liberalism as “pantheizing. It tends everywhere to break down the separateness between God and the world, and the sharp distinction between God and man.” (55) Therefore topical, man-centered sermons are a direct by-product of a church that has taken its eyes off of the Triune God and His holiness. As a result, countless pastors have abandoned ship instead of navigating their churches between the Scylla of modalism and the Charybdis of tritheism. Unless a church preaches the Trinity, it arrives at one or the other.

Understandably, the heavy philosophical language employed in Trinitarian doctrine makes it difficult for many untrained pastors to teach with confidence. For starters, the word Trinity isn’t found in the Bible. In fact, the Latin word “Trinitas” wasn’t even used by Tertullian to describe God until the early third century. (Against Praxeas, 2-3) Still, Theophilus of Antioch used the Greek term “trias.” (To Autolycus 2.15) It’s an example of why the entire history of interpreting the Trinity has centered around the problem of language. Tertullian first used “tres personae” after 213A.D. in reference to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (Against Praxeas, 2) However, “persona” was often used to denote a “mask” for actors in Latin plays. And this suggested a kind of modalistic Sabbelianism. It wasn’t until the Cappadocians in the fourth century that the Greek word hypostasis became the standard equivalent to describe the personhood of the Trinity. It was at the Council of Nicaea that the “consubstantiality” of the Father and Son was articulated in the word homoousias (“of the same essence”). Such language is the best we can muster in describing the mystery of the Triune God. But does Joe Christian even know how to pronounce homoousias? Or consubstantiality? Church history doesn’t lack for some complicated language on the subject…

1. Eternal generation of the Son from the Father (Origen)2. Consubstantiality of the Son with the Father (Athanasius)
3. Consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and Son (Gregory of Nazianzus)
4. Procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father through the Son (Cappadocians)
5. Procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and from the Son (Augustine)
6. The coinherence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (John Chrysostom, John of Damascus)
7. The autotheos (of God in Himself) of Father, Son, and Spirit (Calvin, Athanasius, Augustine, Cyril)

Today most conservative scholars credit one man for re-introducing the Trinity into mainstream theological consciousness: Karl Barth. And the Swiss theologian’s understanding of the Trinity can aid us tremendously today as we seek to re-establish this essential doctrine in our pulpits: “It is the doctrine of the Trinity which fundamentally distinguishes the Christian doctrine of God as Christian – it is it, therefore, also, which marks off the Christian concept of revelation as Christian, in face of all other possible doctrines of God and concepts of revelation.” (The Trinity and Christian Devotion, 47) While John Calvin had included the Trinity significantly in his doctrine of God (Institutes) and John Owen had introduced the idea that the saints could enjoy communion with each divine Person of the Trinity (Of Communion with God), it was Barth who gave primacy to the doctrine and all but made Trinitarianism synonymous with biblical revelation. To him, the Three-in-Oneness of God was “essentially identical with the content of revelation.” (In This Name, 161) And barring Barth’s Neo-Orthodox view of revelation, our churches would do well to heed his advice.

When a church forsakes expository preaching, the doctrine of the Trinity immediately suffers. Nature teaches us that God is One. But only special revelation reveals that God is also Three. Scripture is the key to delivering a proper Trinitarian faith inside of our churches, precisely because it comes from no other source. A battle for the Trinity is a battle for the Bible. The very idea of a Three-in-One God is foolishness even inside of monotheistic communities like Judaism and Islam. And with the rise in world communication through innovations in technology and commerce, dialogue with Islam will only increase. An apologetic and evangelistic church begins with a catechetical church – teaching the Trinitarian faith. Are we teaching the Trinity? Intentionally? The very identity of God is at stake in the minds and hearts of our people. Do our churches know the Triune God they profess to believe in? Fortunately today the opportunities to teach the most foundational doctrine of our faith are present and real.

Despite the theological haze that fogs the modern American pulpit, there are small signs of Trinitarian thought emerging in the modern church. Hillsong’s This I Believe (The Creed) and The Newsboys’ We Believe are simplified versions of the Apostles’ Creed put to popular music. Millions of nominal Christians imbibe Trinitarian thought simply by turning on K-Love in their cars. But is that theology being processed by their church? In addition to music culture, moral culture has also seen the advance of Trinitarian thought. In God’s strange providence, the issue of same-sex marriages in churches has breathed new interest in the hierarchy of the Triune God. Copious amounts of conservative literature are now being written to defend the biblical concept of Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS). Scholars like Wayne Grudem, John Piper, D.A. Carson, Russell Moore, Bruce Ware, Jim Hamilton, and Scott Oliphint are rallying around the traditional idea that while co-equal in deity, power, attributes and personhood (“ontological Trinity”), the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have differing roles of authority (“economic Trinity”). For example, the Son submits to the Father, but the Father and Son are also one. (John 14:28, 10:30) And this “functional” hierarchy is eternal, evidenced by passages like 1 Corinthians 15 which feature the Son delivering the kingdom back to the Father at the end of the age. (vv.24-28) Why is this relevant? Scholars like Gilbert Bilezikian, Rebecca Groothuis, Stanley Grenz, and even Millard Erickson contend for an “egalitarian” (as opposed to “complementarian”) view of marriage based on an egalitarian view of the eternal Trinity. The orthodox dance between God’s people and God’s Word is being interrupted by an unwelcome intruder: a postmodern, liberal, egalitarian dance partner attempting to re-write the Trinity in order to promote a modern social agenda. The result is the church’s return to Scripture to define the Triune God. In His sovereignty, through a social and political issue, God is re-invigorating His church with a renewed interest in the most foundational doctrine of our faith: the Triune God.

In the midst of a sexual revolution God has managed to draw His true church back to Himself. And we see this most vividly in the fight for the Trinity. Are we meeting that call? Or are our teenagers humming lyrics they don’t understand? Are our families accepting societal norms without an understanding of principles grounded in the very identity of God? Churches who seek God in His Word will seek after the Triune God. And churches who desire to know the Triune God will seek Him in His Word. It’s a difficult doctrine and dance to learn. But then again, He’s God. If He were like us, there’d be no need for such precious revelation.


Obbie is married to Kelly. He attended the University of Kentucky (B.A.) and SBTS (M.Div and Th.M).  Obbie is Associate Pastor of Students at Zoar Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Obbie is currently a doctoral candidate in Theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

 

 

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