The life of the mind—including the life of the theological mind—experiences rhythms in which attention waxes and wanes. At one moment a significant plurality of thinkers will be focused upon some particular topic, but at a later moment their focus will have shifted to a different theme. Those who work with their minds instead of their hands will find that these ebbs and flows determine at least a part of their task. Whatever one’s discipline, one constantly feels the pressure to respond to the questions that are being asked at the moment. For the most part, even theologians are not free simply to ignore the immediate in favor of more remote personal interests.
The present moment is especially propitious for theologians who wish to think about the Trinity. Through its brief history, American evangelicalism (including fundamentalism) has produced few minds that have given themselves to understanding Trinitarianism. More typical have been those who, like J. Oliver Buswell, were willing to jettison certain aspects of the traditional doctrine that they perceived as meaningless. For his part, Buswell tried to dispense with the eternal generation of the Son, even though he acknowledged that his proposal was “somewhat revolutionary” (Systematic Theology 1:111). One wonders at the “somewhat.”
While Buswell serves as a convenient illustration, he is hardly alone. During his generation, the greatest challenges to orthodox Trinitarianism came either from theological liberalism (which pantheized God and divinized humanity) or else the unreconstructed Arianism of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Both approaches represented a direct and immediate threat to the deity of Christ. In those days, reflection upon the Trinity occurred primarily in the context of defending the deity of Christ. Other Trinitarian questions tended to fade in importance.
Now, however, several currents are flowing together to focus attention upon the doctrine of the Trinity. The first and most obvious is the collision of Christianity with Islam. Believers who share their communities with Muslims are discovering that these neighbors understand monotheism and unitarianism to be virtually identical categories. Witnessing to Muslims involves explaining how biblical Trinitarianism is fully and unapologetically monotheistic. In order to offer such explanations, Christians must be prepared to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity so that it is clearly distinguished from tri-theism.
New interest in the doctrine of the Trinity is also being fueled by the debate between complementarianism and egalitarianism. Complementarians insist that men and women can be fully equal even though they are assigned distinct roles in which women must sometimes submit to men. They believe that they see a pattern for this submission-in-equality within the Trinity itself. Egalitarians, however, argue that if submission is grounded in ontology, then it necessarily implies inferiority. Consequently, any submission on the part of one Person to another within the Trinity must be simply an economic relationship worked out as part of the unfolding plan of redemption.
Resurgent Mormonism is also provoking new interest in careful articulations of the doctrine of the Trinity. Mormons very much wish to be recognized as mainstream Christians. They have mastered the technique of using orthodox Christian terminology. What they mean by that terminology, however, is poles apart from the Bible’s teaching about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. What Mormonism forces Christians to do is to pay attention, not merely to their terms, but to what they mean by those terms.
No influence has done more to reawaken interest in Trinitarian formulations than the re-emergence of Modalistic Monarchianism. Modalism is the ancient theory that reduces the Trinitarian distinctions to economic manifestations. Just as one man may manifest himself as a husband to his wife, a father to his children, and a professor to his students, God manifests Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Within Modalism these distinctions may be called persons, but the subject-object relationship between them collapses. Modalism shows up in at least two forms that have lately become rather public.
The first is an Asian import. The followers of Witness Lee have recently broadcast a series of publications in which they seek to vindicate themselves from the charge of Modalism. Once one wades through the personal skirmishing, however, their argument can be reduced to the following points: (1) the followers of Witness Lee refuse to employ traditional orthodox terminology in their description of the Trinity, and, in fact, believe that such terminology can be rightly charged with tri-theism; (2) the followers of Witness Lee insist that Jesus is the Father and that Jesus is the Holy Spirit, and they offer no qualification or interpretation of these assertions that might help to reconcile them with an orthodox understanding of the Trinity; (3) the followers of Witness Lee insist, however, that it is unfair to charge them with Modalism because they give their very solemn assurance that they are not Modalists. This appears to be a classic case of wishing to be recognized as orthodox while refusing to abandon, qualify, or even explain the formulations that give rise to accusations of heresy.
The second form in which Modalism has recently emerged is Oneness Pentecostalism, specifically as personified in T. D. Jakes. Also known for preaching the Prosperity Gospel, Jakes has become the most popular and public figure who has ever attempted to go mainstream from the Jesus Only Movement. For years, Oneness Pentecostalism hardly merited notice, but Jakes changed that.
Actually, Jakes is not personally responsible for raising the Trinitarian issue. It was really raised by mainstream evangelicals who wished to bask in the reflected glow of Jakes’s celebrity. Both the presence and treatment of Jakes in James McDonald’s so-called “Elephant Room” conversations have forced many to reflect upon their understanding of the Trinity.
Unfortunately, neither McDonald nor his fellow-interlocutor, Mark Driscoll, seems to have done much reflection. In their puppy-like slobbering over Jakes, they were only too eager to deliver him from the charge of heresy. They asked him a couple of questions that failed to get to the heart of the matter, and then McDonald began to effervesce: “I think you honor us and you humble us, a man of your stature and commitment to the gospel and fruitfulness would come and sit with us in this room, let you and me ask him what he believes.”
A man whose ordination is from a heretical church ought to be asked what he believes. He ought to be asked much more pointedly than Jakes was asked by McDonald and Driscoll. He ought to be asked the questions without any apology. When asked, such a man ought to be eager to give clear answers. If he is truly prepared to leave heresy, then he ought to covet instruction—the kind of instruction that McDonald and Driscoll never offered.
The Trinity is a doctrine that is essential to the faith. It is essential to the gospel. There is a reason that the church fathers thought carefully about terms like substance, person, and nature. There is a reason that they crafted careful phrases like “begotten before all worlds” and “begotten not made.” There is a reason that they debated the meaning of terms like generation and procession. There is even a reason that they devoted serious attention to obscure formulations like filioque.
The hour has come for renewed reflection upon the Trinity. We cannot claim to be gospel-centered while we are trifling with an important doctrine upon which the gospel depends. We are responsible to articulate the faith for at least the next generation of Christians. The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most vital aspects of that articulation. We must not leave it to dilettantes.
This article by Kevin Bauder was found here.