Matthew Barrett wants to take you on a journey in his time-traveling DeLorean. He wants to take you back to a time when pastors, theologians, and Christians read the Bible differently than we often read it today, to a time when the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity was birthed, by means of God’s sovereign Word and Spirit, in the church’s theology and piety. Why is such a journey necessary? Why should you consider joining him?
Dr. Barrett is no mad scientist; and his time-traveling quest does not stem from sentimentalism for a bygone golden age of the church. To borrow the lyrics of Huey Lewis and the News, Dr. Barrett wants to take you “back in time” because he believes that the future of the church’s doctrine, piety, witness, and worship is at stake.
Classical Protestant theologians spoke of two “foundations” of the church’s doctrine and life. They identified Holy Scripture as the “cognitive foundation,” the supreme source and norm of all that the church is called to believe and to practice, the foundation of “the truth, which accords with godliness” (Titus 1:1). In addition to this cognitive foundation, they identified the triune God as the “ontological foundation” of the church’s doctrine and life. As all things are “from” and “through” and “to” the triune God in the order of being (Rom 11:36), so, they judged, all things are from and through and to the triune God in the order of theological understanding and Christian living.
The doctrines of creation and providence, the person and work of Jesus Christ, the church and sacraments, salvation and the last things—each of these doctrines rests on the doctrine of the triune God for its meaning and significance, and the life of godliness that builds on these doctrines directs us to the triune God as our supreme good and final end. The confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Father’s Spirit-anointed Son, is the foundation of the Christian confession (Matt 16:16; 28:19; Mark 12:1-12; Eph 2:20). For this reason, the doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of Christian teaching and living. Without the doctrine of the Trinity, there is no Christianity. The doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of Christian teaching and living. Without the doctrine of the Trinity, there is no Christianity. Click To Tweet
Dr. Barrett wants to take you back in time because many Reformed and evangelical churches in North America and the United Kingdom have lost touch with this foundational doctrine in recent days. How did this happen? Unfortunately, our contemporary predicament does not arise from simple amnesia, simple forgetfulness of something we once knew. Our contemporary predicament arises from the fact that churches have been wrongly catechized in basic Christian teaching on the Trinity.
For reasons Dr. Barrett explores in the pages that follow, a number of late twentieth-century evangelical theologians neglected and/or rejected several common features of classical Christian teaching about the Trinity and, in place of those features, introduced a new and significantly distorted account of the Trinity, what Dr. Barrett calls a “manipulated Trinity.” Though this approach preserved the distinction between the persons of the Trinity, it wrongly divided the singular being and essence of the Trinity, ascribing different attributes to different persons (e.g., authority to the Father, submission to the Son) and thereby dividing God’s supreme and singular will.
Over the past several decades, this approach to the Trinity gained significant traction in evangelical circles through popular study Bibles, textbooks, journals, and conferences and through its promotion in some of the largest, most influential schools of pastoral training in North America and the United Kingdom. Sadly, this largely revisionist work of catechesis has been largely successful. Many evangelical Christians today have come to believe that the manipulated Trinity is orthodox Christian teaching. Our contemporary predicament arises from the fact that churches have been wrongly catechized in basic Christian teaching on the Trinity. Click To Tweet
It is not. And this is why we should welcome Dr. Barrett’s invitation to travel back in time. If we have lost touch with the supreme foundation of Christian teaching, if we have received poor training from our contemporaries, then we must find better, more faithful teachers, even if that means looking to the past. By God’s grace, such teachers exist, and they can help us better appreciate who, what, and how the triune God has revealed himself to be in Holy Scripture.
That said, our journey to the past is not for the sake of the past but for the sake of a better future. When something as valuable as orthodox Christian teaching on the Trinity has been lost, we must seek to retrieve it so that we, our children, and our churches might reestablish our faith on a more solid foundation, that we might redirect our piety by the light of a more brilliant star, and that we might renew our witness according to the measure of a more reliable standard. We should welcome Dr. Barrett’s invitation to travel back in time so that, by the help of God’s sovereign Word and Spirit, we too might join the chorus of saints in heaven and earth throughout all ages in offering the thrice-holy Trinity the worship that he alone deserves.
So buckle up. Dr. Barrett is a skillful driver and a reliable guide.
The triune God is not a means to an end. Click To Tweet And enjoy your trip. Which brings me to one final reason you should accept Dr. Barrett’s invitation to (re)discover the unmanipulated Trinity. One of the major missteps recent trinitarian theology took was to suggest that the Trinity is only meaningful insofar as we can demonstrate its usefulness for various practical, social, and political ends. But this is to get things utterly backwards. The Trinity does not exist for our sake or for the sake of our agendas. The triune God is not a means to an end. We exist for him (1 Cor 8:6). The Trinity is an end in himself (Rom 11:36).
Therefore, studying the Trinity—seeking better to know and understand, to cherish and adore, to worship and serve the triune God—needs no justification beyond itself. The reason for studying the triune God is not to bend the Trinity to our various social programs. The reason for studying the triune God is to bend our minds, wills, actions, and communities to the Trinity, confident that, in doing so, we will discover in him both the reason for our existence and the fullness of joy (Ps 16:11; John 15:11; 17:13).
**The preceding post was originally published on Scott Swain’s blog.**
Scott R. Swain
Scott R. Swain is President and James Woodrow Hassell Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Dr. Swain has served on the RTS faculty since 2006, having previously taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He serves as co-general editor of two series: Zondervan Academic’s New Studies in Dogmatics and T & T Clark’s International Theological Commentary. Dr. Swain is the author of several books including Retrieving Eternal Generation, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and Its Interpretation, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation and The Oxford Handbook of Reformed Theology (forthcoming). He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. He and his wife, Leigh, have four children. Dr. Swain blogs on a regular basis at Common Places.