Bible,  Musings,  Theology

The revelation of the Trinity in Scripture is perfect

“The revelation of the Trinity in Scripture is perfect”, says Fred Sanders in ‘The Triune God'[1]Sanders, F., 2016. The Triune God, M. Allen & S. R. Swain, eds., Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.. As Sanders says this, he means that the disclosure in Scripture of God’s identity is complete, sufficient, and the way it is meant to be. Or, to put it another way, we could not have done a better job of revealing the Trinity if we wrote the Bible ourselves. 

When you really think about that statement, it leads to a realisation that, in Scripture, we have all the information that the True and Living God wants us to know. It also means that to ask questions beyond what Scripture reveals is to ask questions that God does not want us to know. This raises several implications for Christians in how we teach the Trinity, and in how we think about applying the doctrine. 

To begin, it affects what we do with Scriptural formulations. If we really believe that revelation is perfect, it should cause us to not impose such formulations on the biblical text. This is not to say that formulations are inherently bad – the word “Trinity” could be considered as one! Yet, there have been many examples of debates that have taken place over recent years that highlight the issue for us. Too often Christians have attempted to achieve purposes that the Bible is not interested in achieving. This has led to some bad-blood, a lot of ink-spilled, and (in many cases) many believers confused. Instead, as we come to Scripture, our formulations and frameworks should be kept open for correction. As we teach the Bible, we should not use the text as a theological launchpad to share everything we have gleaned from elsewhere on the subject. A sermon on the Trinity every time the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are mentioned is very likely to miss the point of the text. Instead, we should consider what the author intended to communicate as they mention the Trinity. The distinctive emphasises of the passage are important and fit together into a coherent whole. What is the New Testament author’s purpose in including Jesus in the Godhead at this location? Why does the Holy Spirit not get mentioned here? It is in those subtleties – as we hold back our formulations – that we discover a greater depth to the revelation than we had before.

It also means thinking hard about progressive revelation – that is, the order of revelation. If the revelation of the Trinity in Scripture is perfect, it means that, as Sanders says, “Scripture is rightly ordered, with the emphases falling in the right places.”[2]ibid p242. Scripture is not a series of scraps waiting for a clever scavenger to find and assemble into the right order. We should not think that Moses was not clear enough by the Oaks of Mamre.[3]Genesis 18 We are not required to read later revelation into the plurals at creation.[4]Genesis 1:26 Instead, we should consider why it is that the Trinity is revealed in the way we have it. We should ask why it is that the only way we know about the Trinity is through the apostle’s testimony. 

Let us take John’s gospel as an example. We should ask why John’s gospel begins the way it does. Should we have noticed that ‘the Word was with God, and the Word was God’[5]John 1:1 – ESV before, or should we let John guide us in how that works? It is the second of those that is more in line with John’s intent in his gospel. As we progress through the gospel, we should ask how Jesus relates to the one true God, and then how the Holy Spirit relates to Jesus. As John points us to the Old Testament, we should be wondering how the revelation there was used by John to make his point clearer. In effect, when John says that “no one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” [6]John 1:18 – ESV we should take him as being serious and truthful. After all, it is through Jesus that people see the one true God. [7]John 14:9

Of course, this does differ from the common approach taken in systematics. For many, the task of the theologian is to collect the little bits of data and synthesise them into a logical system. Once we have our systematic theology right, we can truly speak of the Trinity say some. It must be said that systematic theology is a great safeguard, and a stimulus to thought. It can highlight areas where our thinking may be off or may cause us to think harder about other parts. But to rely on systematics for our understanding of the Trinity is to miss a trick. It is to approach the topic in an outside-in way. Doing so can inevitably lead to a flattening of revelation – and sometimes even to tacitly denying the revelation we are given.

Instead, going with the grain of Scripture allows us to tackle the questions that the Bible answers. Many times, we are stuck asking how 1+1+1 equals 1. Other times we are repeating again that “inside the one being that is God are three persons Father, Son and Spirit.” The questions and statements are good in their place. We do want to be asking those questions and formulating the data we have. But they are not the right place to start since they are not where the Bible starts. John has questions he wants us to ask, and answers he wants to give. Since, as we have the revelation of the Trinity in the way the Trinity wants to be revealed, we should be asking the questions it has. How is it that Jesus of Nazareth relates to the God of Israel? Is Jesus another God – a rival? How does the Old Testament hope of God coming to be with His people work out?

Doing this avoids the mistakes found in theologies that derive systems from the Trinity. Models for marriage through to governmental structures have been created from connections that are supposedly ‘discovered’ in trinitarian texts. Applying doctrine by asking questions we want answers to can be disastrous.

This leads to yet another related implication. The revelation of the Trinity in the form we have helps us land the punch of Scripture. There have been many times where the emphasis of the Bible has been put in the wrong place. Examples abound from Marcion to John Wimber. When we fail to see the unity of the Bible’s storyline, and the goal of the Triune God in His self-revelation to mankind, all sorts of errors occur. The Bible is not like a murder mystery, with hints that lead to a big reveal. Instead, as we follow the revelation given to us, we discover the Trinity is the punchline of the biblical narrative. As we read the words of the Bible, we see how the Trinity is the hope of Israel come to fruition. This means that as we come to apply the doctrine of the Trinity, we should be seeing it as the objective of the canon. When we look at the cross, we can see it as the revelation of who God is. When we think about Pentecost, we see how the mission of the Spirit requires the prior mission of the Son. We understand how the work of the Spirit is a continuing work of the Lord Jesus, in making God known to the world.

This impacts our teaching. It is sometimes said that if you only preach the text, you will never teach on topics such as the Trinity. This simply cannot be true though. If we truly believe that Scripture reveals the Trinity (and we do), then faithful teaching from the Bible will be Trinitarian preaching. Returning to John’s gospel, if we get the argument that John is making, our communication of that argument will surely present Trinitarian thought. John wants to make it clear to us that God has revealed himself in the sending of the Son and the Spirit, and therefore, if we preach John faithfully, we will be doing the same. Perhaps if this is not the case, the issue is with us, not with an inside-out view of Scripture.

So, in conclusion, it can be said the Bible has already achieved all that it needs. God was not waiting for Augustine, or Athanasius, or Calvin to sort out the mess he had made of articulating His identity. In fact, there are no improvements that can be made to the revelation we have. When we grasp that, it affects how we teach doctrine and how we apply doctrine. The revelation of the Trinity in Scripture really is perfect.


Thanks for reading! The above is an essay I wrote on the revelation of the Trinity in Scripture. Any feedback greatly received as I continue to think through this topic!

References

References
1Sanders, F., 2016. The Triune God, M. Allen & S. R. Swain, eds., Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
2ibid p242.
3Genesis 18
4Genesis 1:26
5John 1:1 – ESV
6John 1:18 – ESV
7John 14:9

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.