Home » Christology » What Does Doing Trinitarian Theology Really Mean, Bobby? Come on, We are all evangelicals here; we all affirm the Trinity!

What Does Doing Trinitarian Theology Really Mean, Bobby? Come on, We are all evangelicals here; we all affirm the Trinity!

To elaborate further on my last post, and a move (by myself, personally) into a Trinitarian jesusicon2theology approach towards doing theology, let me highlight what this means a little more extensively. I mean after all, what I am asserting (about doing Trinitarian theology) might sound strange to most evangelical theologians, and Christians in general, since all evangelicals affirm the doctrine of the Trinity as an article of the Faith; indeed when in seminary, when I told one of my evangelical profs that I was into Trinitarian theology (at that point for me it was mostly Colin Gunton’s work), he said: “aren’t we all?” But he wasn’t really grasping what I meant; and I am afraid his refrain might really be the common one among many evangelicals when they hear such things. So let me elaborate.

Michael Bird in his yet to be released (October 29th, 2013) systematic theology captures well what is going on when I refer to the doing of Trinitarian theology. And so let me quote him, and then quote Timothy Keller (so that I can appear less critical than I have been of Keller in a few prior posts to this one) who Bird quotes in his footnote to the quote that I am offering from him (Bird). He writes:

If the gospel is the anchor point for our study of God, we must start with the Trinity. We do not commence theology with apologetic arguments and theistic proofs that seemingly prove God’s existence since we are not going to let skeptics set the agenda for the order of our study. We do not open our theological project with bibliology or a doctrine of Scripture since that would make reasoning from Scripture our foundation, whereas the foundation for our knowledge of God is God himself as revealed in the gospel. Theology is about God; therefore, we must begin with the person of God as we encounter him in the gospel through his operations as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.[1]

And Bird’s favorable quote from Timothy Keller and D. A. Carson:

We also thought it was important to begin our confession with God rather than with Scripture. This is significant. The Enlightenment was overconfident about human rationality. Some strands of it assumed it was possible to build systems of thought on unassailable foundations that could be absolutely certain to unaided human reason. Despite their frequent vilification of the Enlightenment, many conservative evangelicals have nevertheless been shaped by it. This can be seen in how many evangelical statements of faith start with the Scripture, not with God. They proceed from Scripture to doctrine through rigorous exegesis in order to build (what they consider) an absolutely sure, guaranteed-true-to-Scripture theology. The problem is that this is essentially a foundationalist approach to knowledge. It ignores the degree to which our cultural location affects our interpretation of the Bible, and it assumes a very rigid subject-object distinction. It ignores historical theology, philosophy, and cultural reflection. Starting with the Scripture leads readers to the over confidence that their exegesis of biblical texts has produced a system of perfect doctrinal truth. This can create pride and rigidity because it may not sufficiently acknowledge the fallenness of human reason. We believe it is best to start with God, to declare (with John Calvin, Institutes 1.1) that without knowledge of God we cannot know ourselves, our world, or anything else. If there is no God, we would have no reason to trust our reason.[2]

johnlockeThere are some things that I would take issue with in regard to what Carson and Keller communicate about the impact of the enlightenment; I do not see it as negatively as they do, even though, to be sure, there are some negative things about it—as there is with any period of ideational development. But in principle, what Bird, Carson and Keller affirm about doing theology, theocentrically, and more pointedly, in Bird, Trinitarianly is laudable!

In my own published writing, I have engaged with this in an even more pointed fashion by comparing and contrasting an analogy of faith/relation approach (pace Barth and Torrance) with an analogy of being approach (pace Thomas Aquinas and some of the post Reformed orthodox after him). After developing what these two disparate approaches are, I then compared how these have had the propensity to get cashed out into the making of some Reformed Confessions (Scots Confession, Westminster Confession, Belgic Confession), and one Catechism (the Heidelberg). Let me quote what I wrote in the last section of my chapter after doing the comparative work and some commentary on these Confessions & Catechism. I will have to follow this up later, with another post, since after I quote myself, this will make this post twice as long as the attention span is for most blog readers (which is usually about 1,000 words, and not any longer). The following then is taken from my chapter in our edited book (Evangelical Calvinism), the chapter is entitled: Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis?: Either through Christ or through Nature, covering pp. 108-11:

The Preaching of Knox before the Lords of the Congregation, 10th June 1559 1832 by Sir David Wilkie 1785-1841

At first blush there might not be much apparent difference between The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), The Belgic Confession of the Faith (BC), The Heidelberg Catechism (HC) and The Scott’s [sic] Confession 1560 (SC); but this requires further reflection. The “Westminster” tradition starts talking about God by highlighting his “attributes,” these are characteristics that are contrasted with what humans are not (analogia entis). We finally make it to God as “Father, Son, Holy Spirit,” but not before we have qualified him through “our” categories using humanity and nature (analogia entis) as our mode of thinking about “godness.” This is true for both the WCF and the BC. Jan Rohls provides a helpful insight on this when he speaks to the nature of the composition of many of the Reformed Confessions (including both the WCF and the BC):

It is characteristic of most of the confessional writings that they begin with a general doctrine of God’s essence and properties, and only then proceed to the doctrine of the Trinity. The two pieces “On the One God” (De deo uno) and “On the Triune God” (De deo trino) are thus separated from each other. . . .[3]

Nevertheless, this is not the case for all Reformed confessions and/or catechisms. We should consider the possibility of learning to read some confessions and catechisms together, relative to shared theological emphases.[4]

The Heidelberg Catechism and The Scots Confession both emphasize the Triune nature of God as Father; in other words, as Rohls notes above, these two statements do not separate God’s personal relations from his works or attributes—as does both The Belgic Confession of the Faith and The Westminster Confession of Faith. The emphasis of these documents is thus on the economic revelation of God in Christ as the “eternal Son of God” who exegetes God’s inner-life as loving Father of, Son, by the Holy Spirit as the shape of his being. James K. A. Smith picks up on this same reality as he comments on The Heidelberg Catechism, when he expresses his opinion that:

But I have to confess that when I discovered the Heidelberg Catechism, it was like discovering a nourishing oasis compared to the arid desert of Westminster’s cool scholasticism. The God of the Heidelberg Catechism is not just a Sovereign Lord of the Universe, nor merely the impartial Judge at the trial of justification; the God of the Heidelberg Catechism keeps showing up as a Father. For example, when expounding the first article of the Apostles’ Creed (“I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth”), the Heidelberg Catechism discusses all the ways that God upholds the universe by his hand, but also affirms that this sovereign Creator attends to me, a speck in that universe. And it concludes the answer to question 26 by summarizing: “He is able to do this because he is almighty God; he desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.” [5]

This illustrates the reason why, out of the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms, these reflect themes which are central to Evangelical Calvinism. It is the all important Doctrine of God embedded within these statements that Evangelical Calvinism believes is so important. In Smith’s words, it is the language of Father that should be emphasized; the Father of the Son by the Holy Spirit—or the Trinitarian nature of God. To repeat for sake of emphasis: according to Evangelical Calvinism, God is Father of the Son by the Holy Spirit—constituently—before he ever becomes or is known as Creator (Law-giver, etc.). God becomes Creator by a free act of gracious love for the other, and out of this free un-restrained act he graciously creates because he is a lover first; which shapes his creating (and saving and re-creating) activity in grace.

Thomas Torrance quite clearly understood how important this emphasis is to our understanding of God, especially as this is expressed in our confessional documents. He is worth quoting in full here:

 . . . in the Scots Confession as in John Knox’s Genevan Liturgy, the doctrine of the Trinity is not added on to a prior conception of God — there is no other content but the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There was no separation here between the doctrine of the One God (De Deo Uno), and the doctrine of the triune God (De Deo Trino), which had become Roman orthodoxy through the definitive formalisation of Thomas Aquinas. This trinitarian approach was in line with The Little Catechism which Knox brought back from Geneva for the instruction of children in the Kirk. “I believe in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ his Son and in the Holy Spirit, and look for salvation by no other means.” Within this trinitarian frame the centre of focus in the Confession and Catechism alike is upon Jesus Christ himself, for it is only through him and the Gospel he proclaimed that God’s triune reality is made known, but attention is also given to the Holy Spirit. Here once again we have a different starting point from other Reformation Confessions. Whereas they have a believing anthropocentric starting point, such as in the Heidelberg Catechism, this is quite strongly theocentric and trinitarian. Even in Calvin’s Institute, which follows the fourfold pattern in Peter Lombard’s Sentences, the doctrine of the Trinity is given in the thirteenth chapter within the section on the doctrine of God the Creator. Calvin’s Genevan Catechism, however, understandably followed the order of the Apostles’ Creed. The trinitarian teaching in the Scots Confession was by no means limited to the first article for it is found throughout woven into the doctrinal content of subsequent articles.[6]

This delineates how Evangelical Calvinism substantially moves away from the Thomist doctrine of God presented by Classical Theism and Classical Calvinism. Torrance’s point on a wedge between the “single substance” of God versus the “thrice personages” of the Trinity within “‘Classical’ Theologies” is significant. In other words, as Torrance highlights, we should not start with a notion of “god,” and then add on the hypostasis of the Trinity to that concept; instead Evangelical Calvinists believe, along with Torrance, that the ousia of God (de Deo uno) finds its shape in the coinhering inter-relations of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (de Deo trino).[7]


[1] Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (USA: Zondervan Publishing, 2013), 92-3.

[2] D. A. Carson and Timothy Keller, Gospel-Centered Ministry (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 6 in Bird, Evangelical Theology, 93, n. 11.

[3] Jan Rohls, Reformed Confessions: Theology from Zurich to Barmen, (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Westminster Press, 1998), 48.

[4] Reading confessions and catechisms together is not a foreign practice in the Reformed churches, for example the Dutch Reformed church has, historically, read The Belgic Confession of the Faith, The Heidelberg Catechism, and The Canons of the Synod Dort together as an ecclesiological basis for “unity” among the Reformed churches—known as “The Three Forms of Unity.” Jonathan Neil Gerstner writes:

The Three Forms of Unity, the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of the Synod of Dort, form the confessional basis of the Dutch Reformed Church. They also demonstrate how much the Dutch Reformed church was influenced by the broader Reformed community. The Canons of Dort were the only one of the three Dutch Reformed confessions composed in the Netherlands, and it included delegates from every Reformed church in Europe which were permitted to attend. The earlier two creeds reflect the two major strands of the Reformed tradition which merged in the Netherlands, the French and the German.

 Gerstner, The Thousand Generation Covenant, 11. For more discussion on various usages of the Reformed confessions and catechisms see Rohls, Reformed Confessions, 265–302. Given the subordinate nature of the Reformed confessions to Scripture, there is a flexibility that inheres with their relative usage. Just as the Dutch Reform church adopted three particular Reformed statements within the confessional framework; likewise, Evangelical Calvinists operate with the same liberty in appropriating The Heidelberg Catechism and The Scots Confession of Faith for theological purposes.

[5] Smith, Letters To A Young Calvinist, 55.

[6] Torrance, Scottish Theology,  3–4.

[7] It is important to keep in mind that all “Protestant Reformed Confessions” intend on presenting a way to think about God that accurately captures who he has revealed himself to be. The point of contention then is not over an issue of intention, but instead whether or not the chosen philosophical apparatus actually allows some of these Confessions to present a doctrine of God that should be emphasized if in fact we are being sensitive to the Revelation of God in Jesus Christ; and all of the categories and emphases that are attendant with “that” Revelation.

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