Key characteristics of evangelical trinitarian theology
One of the papers that I attended at ETS today offered a helpful summary of Evangelical Trinitarian theology as it stands today. The last several decades have seen a significant resurgence of interest in Trinitarian theology among evangelicals. And, according to Jason Sexton, this resurgence is marked by a number of important characteristics.
- Patristic Attunement: Evangelicals have taken more interest in understanding the patristic sources. And, Sexton argues that this is somewhat unique in evangelical theology, since we are not currently demonstrating as much interest in other aspects of patristic thought.
- Residual Social Trinitarianism: Sexton notes that many prominent evangelical theologians have argued for a social model of the Trinity. But, he also points out that many have been sharply critical of this approach, and at least one, Stanley Grenz, began to move toward different models later in his life. So, he concludes that evangelical trinitarianism is still marked by social trinitarianism, but not to the same extent that it once was.
- Subordination Moratorium?: This was the part of his paper that seemed the least clear. I couldn’t tell if he was saying that there should be a moratorium on arguments regarding whether there is an eternal subordination of the Son to the Father, or whether he thought that things had actually begun to move in that direction. Either way, he clearly argued that this would be a good development.
- Philosophical Interdisciplinarity: There has been more interest recently in philosophy, particularly analytic philosophy, as providing useful resources for developing and understanding the Trinity.
- Trinitarian biblical theology: Although evangelicals remain divided on whether the whole Bible should be read trinitarianly, there is growing support for the importance of developing a doctrine of the Trinity through biblical theology, and allowing our biblical theology to be guided by our understanding of the Trinity.
- Trinitarian theological interpretation of Scripture: I’m not entirely clear on how he was differentiating this one from the previous (partly because most people use the label “theological interpretation” ambiguously).
- Ecclesial Trinitarianism: Unfortunately he had to skip this part, but here is where he wanted to point out the importance of the Trinity for worship (including the sacraments), pastoral theology, and the mission of the church.
- Christ-centeredness: Evangelicals generally affirm that our understanding of the Trinity should be Christocentric, as long as this is not understood to be Christomonistic (i.e. everything reduced to Christology), and as long as our christocentrism is seen as serving rather than detracting from a robust appreciation of the Father and the Spirit as well.
Sexton concluded the paper by offering a couple of ways forward for evangelical theology:
- We must do a better job recognizing that understanding the doctrine of the Trinity is not an end in itself, but should serve the life and mission of the Church.
- Correspondingly, Trinitarian theology needs to be connected more clearly to pastoral theology. Sexton expressed concern in several places that we stop trying to move directly from the doctrine of the Trinity to specific issues in the human realm (e.g., women in ministry), but he does think that the Trinity can and must be intelligently and intentionally connected to such pastoral issues. “In short, the church needs a Trinitarian theology that moves toward being a public theology.”
- We need to be much more careful with the “heresy” label.