Rediscovering the Trinity at Wheaton (Part One)


The annual theology conference at Wheaton College in Illinois is one of the spiritual high points of my year. Wheaton is the evangelicals’ Harvard, a small school located on an idyllic and superhumanly neat campus in the Chicago suburbs. This year’s topic was “Rediscovering the Trinity: Classic Doctrine and Contemporary Ministry”.

The Trinity is wonderful because, as Calvin College professor John Witvliet noted, its dynamic reconciliation of opposites (divine/human, unity/plurality, spiritual/physical) counteracts our perpetual tendency to reify particular concepts and then dismiss all aspects of life that fall outside our favorite abstract scheme. Nietzsche wrote that in every ascetic morality, man adores one aspect of himself as god and demonizes the rest. An incarnational, Trinitarian faith is anti-ascetic, frustrating our legalistic binary oppositions and the scapegoating that occurs when we inevitably project the disfavored trait onto some social group (as in, spirit=male, flesh=female).

In becoming man in Jesus, God redeemed all of human nature; therefore, no area of life is beneath God’s concern or unable to be used for God’s purposes. The sending of the Holy Spirit shows us that God is not only “up there” but equally an ongoing presence on earth; that revelation is not only in the past but continuing to unfold through today’s preachers, teachers, writers and mystics.

Several presenters at Wheaton noted that many Christians have a de facto Unitarian or dualistic faith because the doctrine of the Trinity has not been clearly presented in their churches. We imagine God as a static entity in heaven, sealed off in a realm of divine perfection, while we fumble around blindly on earth, unable to receive reliable communications from that other reality. But this is not the God of the Bible, who, though surely ineffable, time and again condescends to pour some aspect of His being into forms that we can comprehend. Kevin Vanhoozer, in his two-part talk on Trinitarian Biblical interpretation, noted that arguments against the Bible’s divine inspiration ask “How can the finite contain the infinite?” but that this is precisely what we believe happened in Jesus. That miracle was not a one-time event but continues through the Holy Spirit, who allows the human words of the text to be a channel for divine speech.

Other highlights:

Edith Humphrey of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary discussed the hierarchy of persons in the Trinity. Although the Son and the Spirit proceed from the Father, our thinking about God should begin with the Son, because Jesus is the lens through which we see, for the first time, the true identity of the God of the Old Testament. Humphrey pointed out some of Jesus’ miracles as signs of this self-identification. For instance, Jesus’ calming of the seas harks back to Psalm 107 and Isaiah 51 where God is named as the one who creates order out of the primordial waters. The Transfiguration similarly recalls the cloud of glory in which God appeared to the Israelites in Exodus. Finally, when the resurrected Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on his disciples, this is a new creation of humankind, replacing the breath that God breathed into Adam and Eve.

“Amazing love, how can it be/That thou, my God, shouldst die for me…” In word and song, Humphrey rhapsodized on the awesome self-limiting of God as revealed in Jesus. The God who restrains the seas now pours water into a basin to wash our feet; the one who fixed the foundations of the earth is affixed to a cross.

In what was an odd move by one of the only two female presenters, Humphrey ended with a strong critique of inclusive language in the hymns and liturgy (she’s an Anglican), saying that the new wording often obscured the hierarchy both within the Trinity and between God and His creatures. Because the question period was much shorter this year, I didn’t get to ask her whether hierarchy was inseparable from masculine language or whether instead this was just theological sloppiness by the revision committees. (Being among evangelicals makes my feminism more radical and vice versa.) Because of my own family background, I personally like imagining God as my father but I’m not going to defend it as theologically superior.

John Flett of Princeton Theological Seminary observed that Protestants have relied too much on secular social structures to give shape to our institutional life, allowing us to be co-opted by materialism and consumerist individualism. How can we recover the Catholic sense of the church as an alternative kingdom, without replicating its monarchical structure? In the Trinity we find a model of symmetrical and decentralized power. Flett and Humphrey seemed to be on opposite sides of the main divide running through this generally peaceful and collegial conference: the “social trinitarians” who emphasized egalitarian and pluralist aspects of the Trinity, and others who focused on hierarchy and unity. Among the latter group I sensed a certain donnish determination to “resist the spirit of the age”.

John Witvliet, one of the most engaging speakers, discussed ways to integrate Trinitarian ideas into our liturgy and spiritual practices. We need to communicate that the Trinity is life-giving, exciting and true — that we worship a God who embodies mutual love rather than solitary dictatorial power. Through the Son and the Spirit, we are invited to participate in the relational life of God. These fully divine agents perfect as well as receive our worship, making it a dance of grace that we join, not an achievement we must master in order to reach God on our own (contra the Pelagian heresy). Perichoresis, which means the mutual interpenetration and indwelling of the three Persons, is based on the Greek word for dance.

How do we get people to live their faith in a Trinitarian way? Witvliet said the real question is not “how do we theoretically explain the Triune God” but “how would your prayer life and identity change if you believed Jesus and the Spirit were fully divine?” As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity (Book IV, Ch. 2), when we pray, we are praying to God the Father, prompted within by God the Spirit, aided by God the Son who prays with and for us. Arian or Enlightenment theology eliminates this mediation, putting impossible pressure on us to close the human-divine gap with our own good works.

Gordon T. Smith, president of reSource Leadership International, made the case for a greater Protestant emphasis on the sacraments (baptism and communion) as the embodiment of our Trinitarian faith. Through the Lord’s Supper we accept God’s offer of Himself through Christ, and recognize the ongoing presence of the Spirit. We can’t experience God through theory alone. In the sacraments, the life of the Trinity is formed in us.

Protestants outside the Anglican tradition historically downplayed the sacraments in response to what they saw as Catholic superstition, investing too much power in a human being to magically turn bread and wine into divinity. However, this is not how the sacraments work. It’s not a human-effectuated transformation but a decision to recognize and participate in something God is already doing. A Deist or Unitarian theology puts God completely outside the material realm, but an incarnate theology shows that divinity already pervades this world through the actions of the Spirit (contra dualism), though God the Father is larger than His creation (contra panentheism).

Kevin Vanhoozer of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School argued that most contemporary Biblical hermeneutics are de facto Deistic. “Inspiration” is simply the answer to why we read this book (God as creator of the canon), but not a way of reading differently (i.e. with the Holy Spirit’s guidance). In some sense God’s providence is the cause of all books ever written, but that doesn’t make them Scripture. What sets the Bible apart is the claim that God continues to be involved in this text in a unique way, by promising that the Spirit will use it to disclose God’s truth over time.

Vanhoozer had some quibbles with the analogy of the Bible as a second Incarnation. The complete fullness of God does not dwell in the Bible as it does in Jesus and the Spirit, because the Bible is an object and not a person. Speech extends a person’s presence but is not a person in its own right. For me, this opened up some liberating possibilities for the development of doctrine. If the dynamic Holy Spirit in some sense outranks the static text, perhaps we block the Spirit’s action when we don’t allow new information from history, science, psychology or personal experience to reinterpret words whose meaning once seemed clear. (Insert your favorite controversy here.)

In the second installment of his talk, Vanhoozer depicted the Trinitarian God as essentially communicative, both in God’s inner life and in His interaction with the world. The gospel is not mere information but the speech-act of God’s declaring us to be forgiven. The Incarnation resolves the Kantian or postmodern impasse where we’re trapped in a play of symbols and perspectives, while true uninterpreted reality is “out there” in a noumenal realm we can’t touch. Our language is reliable because God uses and upholds it; by God’s grace, there is no incompatibility between divine transcendence and human speech.

The high-priestly prayer in John 17 shows that the three Persons communicate by giving glory to one another and declaring that glory to us. The Spirit makes public this intra-Trinitarian conversation, drawing the church into God’s communion by pouring divine love into our hearts. Conversing is part of God’s identity. One could say that God is the name for this mutual loving and glorifying activity of the three Persons. The Bible is the locus for this ongoing communication with God.

What then is the place of “truth” in a Trinitarian reading of Scripture? It is neither the liberal extreme of truth as fleeting interpretive moment, putting primacy on subjective experience, nor the conservative extreme as an objective property of the text, with no need for the Holy Spirit. The Bible is like a baseball bat that needs the Holy Spirit to swing it in order to hit a home run. Or, to use another analogy, Scripture is like a musical score that must be realized by the musicians, i.e. the worshipping interpretive community. Biblical truth is a dynamic event.

One comment on “Rediscovering the Trinity at Wheaton (Part One)

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