A scene from the Leben der heiligen Altväter (1482)

Too Little or Too Much: Troubleshooting Contemporary Trinitarianism

Modern Reformation 23:6 (Nov-Dec 2014), 54-55

The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the classic achievements of early Christian theology. The fathers of the early church drew together the strands of biblical argument so compellingly that all through the Middle Ages and the Reformation, theologians have gratefully affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity in the classical form bequeathed to them by the early church. Protestant theologians, as is only right for sola scriptura believers, have reserved the right to check all received doctrines against Scripture itself. But when the Reformers investigated the patristic arguments, what they found was that the fathers got it right: Scripture confirmed classic Trinitarian doctrine, or to put it the right way around, classic Trinitarianism arose from what the Bible says.

Too Little

In recent years, however, a trend has developed that reaches different conclusions. A number of Protestant theologians (including evangelicals) have declared that, while the overall doctrine is definitely biblical, certain components of its traditional form allegedly fail the Bible test. One aspect of traditional Trinitarian theology that has been increasingly criticized is the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. This doctrine teaches that the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son, stands in a coeternal and coessential relationship to the First Person, the Father, and that this relationship is one of origination: the Son comes from the Father in a relation of origin that is spiritual and eternal. The early church found its way to this doctrine mainly by two paths: first, by reasoning back into the being of God from the way the Father sends the Son (Gal. 4:4) and the Holy Spirit (Gal. 4:6) into human history; and second, by analyzing the ultimate meaning of the revealed name “Son.” Among the contemporary theologians and teachers who deny eternal generation, there is definite agreement about the eternal nature of the Son’s Sonhood—remember, these teachers are Trinitarian. But there is less confidence about whether the classical tradition of Christian doctrine was wise to trace that eternal Sonship back to a relation of eternal generation. Sometimes this is expressed as outright denial of eternal generation. Other times it is expressed as reticence and reserve about saying anything more than what the Bible itself says on these points. We can be confident that the Son of God was and is eternally God the Son, and the Spirit of God eternally God the Spirit, apparently, but we ought not to speak about arcana such as eternal processions in the essence of God.

Too Much

So some modern teachers want to say less than the classic tradition did on this subject. But on another subject they want to say more than the tradition, and that is on the subject of the personhood of the three persons. The classic tradition, both East and West, both patristic and Reformation, spoke with a certain reserve about what “person” meant when applied to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…