A scene from the Leben der heiligen Altväter (1482)

The State of the Doctrine of the Trinity in Evangelical Theology

Southwestern Journal of Theology, 47/2 (Fall 2005), 153-176

[In this article I attempted to name the most important trends in evangelical Trintarianism, and make some guesses about how they would develop in coming years. Much of the reportage and analysis is still worth reading, but I ask current readers to bear in mind that 2005 is now a long time ago. If you quote this article, quote it as a period piece.)

After a long period of quiet, there is now considerable noise in evangelicalism regarding the Trinity. When I undertook doctoral work on contemporary trinitarian theology in the late 1990s, my bibliography was dominated by the usual suspects: Barth, Rahner, Moltmann, Pannenberg, von Balthasar, Jenson, Gunton, etc. My non–evangelical advisor at a non–evangelical school knew that I identified myself as an evangelical Christian, and became concerned that I was not engaging in dialogue with any evangelical authors. I assured him that I was not ashamed of my heritage, and that I would gladly have interacted with evangelical authors, but that there simply were none who were doing significant work in this field. Indeed, the entire late twentieth–century renaissance of trinitarian theology took place without active participation from evangelical theologians

There is still a dearth of significant evangelical books that offer worthwhile constructive treatments of the doctrine of the Trinity. It is not possible, for example, for this paper to proceed by reporting on major monographs on the Trinity published in the last decade by established thinkers, because there are none.3 However, percolating among the journal articles, book reviews, and controversial literature, there are several trends that bear closer examination, because they are indicators of how evangelicals are thinking about this doctrine, and they may exert pressure on eventual full–fledged formulations of evangelical trinitarianism. This paper offers a broad, journalistic survey of five factors affecting this field of doctrine: (1) the early high Christology movement; (2) recent questioning of eternal generation; (3) the gender relationships debate; (4) the explosive growth of philosophical theology; and (5) developments among anti–trinitarian groups. I have chosen to take up five disparate movements and treat each of them very briefly in one paper, because my goal is to survey a large territory by locating all five movements on the total map of trinitarian thought today. Each of these fields deserves closer scrutiny, preferably from specialists. My hope is that by showing them all at once at a generalist level, I can help those specialists get their orientation to where the real work needs to be done.

I intend this paper as a survey report on important trends rather than as a constructive argument of my own to be illustrated or applied in five areas. I attempt to be long on description and short on theological agenda. However, having as many axes to grind as anybody, I can offer in advance a modest thesis which did in fact lead me to select these five trends from among the many current developments. It seem to me that we are living through a period in which the traditional ways of deriving the doctrine of the Trinity from scripture are losing some of their persuasive power. The Triune God has not changed, nor has the Bible, nor has the essential Christian trinitarian doctrine of God. What has occurred over the course of the last few centuries, however, and with greater acceleration in recent decades, is that the platform of orthodox trinitarian theology has become more loosely connected to its ancient exegetical moorings. This situation, equal parts threat and opportunity, calls for a concerted response from the theological disciplines ranging from biblical studies through historical and philosophical theology, with contemporary systematic theology orchestrating the massive interdisciplinary effort. I will not argue this position at length in what follows, but it is a conviction that guided the selection of the five topics in this report, and I will return briefly to it in conclusion…