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Is the Doctrine of the Trinity Useful? Relevant? — An Excerpt from "Two Views of the Doctrine of the Trinity"

Categories Theology


Inevitably, in a discussion about the nature of God and the Trinity, the question "Why is it important to believe the Trinity?" arises.

As I've taught theology and fielded this question, two others follow closely: What use is the doctrine of the Trinity? And, Is it still relevant?

Stephen R. Holmes and Thomas H. McCall answer these questions in their essays on the doctrine of the Trinity appearing in the soon-to-be released book Two Views of the Doctrine of the Trinity. (Releasing 9/2/2014)

As a classical trinitarian, Holmes says ”If the doctrine has any use, it is in clarifying errors about its own articulation."

Representing relational trinitarianism, McCall argues it is relevant because “God created us to share in the divine life of holy love, and he has redeemed us so that we might be rescued from our sin and come home to that life.”

Read their excerpts to be reminded why the doctrine of the Trinity is still useful and relevant today.

-Jeremy Bouma, Th.M. (@bouma)


The Use of the Doctrine (Stephen R. Holmes)

What use is the doctrine of the Trinity? In the sense in which the question is usually put, my answer is robust and required. The doctrine of the Trinity is necessarily and precisely useless, and that point must never be surrendered.

The doctrine of the Trinity is an account — a careful and spare account, paying as much or more attention to what cannot adequately be said as to what might, hesitantly, be said — but an account nonetheless of the divine life. Now, to gaze on the beauty of God’s eternal life is, according to medieval tradition, our highest end — the doctrine of the beatific vision. In a different strand of the tradition, the chief end of humanity is asserted to be “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Whichever strand we follow, we are led to confess that knowledge of the divine life is necessarily our highest end.

Now, Jonathan Edwards does the analysis, but the point is easy enough: it is of the essence of a highest end that it has no use. A highest end is of value in itself, not an instrumental step to some other end. If the doctrine of the Trinity is taken — as on the account I have given, it must be — to be an anticipation, partial and hesitant, but still an anticipation, of this eschatological vision, then it can have no instrumental use.

If the doctrine has any use, it is in clarifying errors about its own articulation. So the doctrine of the Trinity is useful in confronting Arianism and “social trinitarianism”; it is also useful in correcting narrower errors, such as the strange idea becoming prevalent in certain evangelical circles of “eternal functional subordination.” To be brief and straightforward, the language of “function” is necessarily meaningless in narrating the eternal life of God. There is one will, one activity, one life, that is the divine Trinity. So language of “functional subordination” is either a logically confused attempt to reintroduce Arianism, or is simply meaningless.

Fundamentally, however, the doctrine serves no end. It offers us a glimpse — spare and austere, certainly — but a glimpse nonetheless, of the beauty and the glory of the eternal divine life. And for us to see the beauty of the divine life and to respond with awestruck worship is not something that serves another, higher, end, not something of use. Instead, it is, simply and bluntly, what we were made for. (Pgs 47-48)

Trinity and Creation: The “Relevance” of the Doctrine (Thomas McCall)

Creation and redemption are, in Scripture, the work of the triune God. Indeed, the early Christian theologians began to articulate the doctrine while reflecting on the saving work of God. So it should come as no surprise to us that the doctrines are closely related.

At the same time, however, we should see creation as the free expression of the holy love of the triune God. Creation ex nihilo, when considered within a trinitarian framework, is completely consistent with creation examore. As William Lane Craig reminds us, this is a “remarkable conclusion,” for

alone in the self-sufficiency of his own being, enjoying the timeless fullness of the intra-trinitarian love relationships, God had no need for the creation of finite persons.... He did this, not out of any deficit in Himself or His mode of existence, but in order that finite temporal creatures might come to share in the joy and blessedness of the inner life of God.

So according to a biblically grounded and properly trinitarian doctrine of creation, human creatures are made to participate in the holy love of the divine life. We also find in Scripture that we have fallen into sin and stand in desperate need of redemption. Moreover, Scripture contains the wonderful news that the triune God has acted on our behalf. Indeed, as Fred Sanders says, “the gospel is trinitarian, and the Trinity is the gospel.” For just as we were created for nothing less than communion with the triune God, so also are we saved for nothing less. The entire ordo (or viasalutis is trinitarian: the Son becomes incarnate for us and our salvation as he is sent by the Father and empowered by the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit continues to work to transform God’s children into the image of the only-begotten and to bring us home to the Father. The Son makes atonement for the sins of the world, and believers who are joined in union with Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit are then justified and counted righteous in God’s sight. But more than our legal status is changed by the Trinity, for the same Spirit that unites us in justifying faith to the incarnate Son also truly sanctifies us as he transforms filthy and perverted rebels into saints of whom it can truly be said: “These are my beloved sons and daughters, in whom I am well pleased.”

So we should conclude that the doctrine of the Trinity is incredibly relevant for life today. God created us to share in the divine life of holy love, and he has redeemed us so that we might be rescued from our sin and come home to that life. Beyond such biblically grounded (and historically affirmed) conclusions, however, we should exercise great care and caution in thinking about the “relevance” of the Trinity. The last few decades have witnessed an incredibly wide-ranging series of “trinitarian” pronouncements on theological and sociopolitical issues, many of which are only loosely related to serious trinitarian theology and some of which are actually contradictory. The flood of such competing pronouncements has led critics to call the entire enterprise of trinitarian ethics into question.

The dangers of projection loom large. Indeed, some of these projects in trinitarian theology must be judged as striking confirmation of Feuerbach’s own exaggerated claims. The sad irony is that much theology of recent vintage has “explored” all manner of areas of “relevance” even as it has largely ignored the genuine relevance as taught in Scripture.

My own advice is this: while we should not dismiss all such considerations out of hand, we should proceed with caution as we work to distinguish genuine “implications” from spurious claims and we seek to understand what we might learn from Scripture about the issues under consideration. (Pgs 134-136)


doctrine-trinity-coverTwo Views On The Doctrine Of The Trinity

Edited by Jason S. Sexton

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