Christians should be saying the right things about the triune God, feeling properly-formed feelings of responsive devotion and worship, and behaving as those who believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But whenever the church or its teachers underperform in one of these areas (and “we all stumble in many ways,” as James 3:2 says), the problem is not that Trinitarianism as such has died the death. The problem is misalignment.
Rumors of the death of Trinitarianism, even rumors of its dearth, have been grossly exaggerated.
This is not to ignore the problems, failures, errors, and weaknesses that sometimes attend it. We don’t need to suppress any evidence in order to reject the drastic diagnosis. When I look around churches and the theological scene today, I see areas of weakness and suggestions for how evangelical Christians in particular can enter into our Trinitarian birthright more fully, more fluently, and more fruitfully. But I have never been able to embrace the idea that the state of the doctrine of the Trinity in contemporary Christian life is so threatened that drastic action is necessary.
The everything-you-know-is-wrong diagnosis fails to distinguish between primary and secondary Trinitarianism. The distinction is a very helpful one. Primary Trinitarianism (the term seems to have been coined by Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson) is the underlying reality of the presence and work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the life of the church. Anyone who is born of the Spirit and testifies that the Father so loved the world he gave his only-begotten Son (John 3:14–16) is fluently speaking primary Trinitarianism. That person is giving an account of the triune structure of salvation history itself in the Bible’s own language.
If they were to theologize on top of that, they would begin speaking secondary Trinitarianism. In short order they would bring forth words like Trinity, three, persons, and essence; helpful terms that are just a step or two from Scripture itself. As the need arose, they would pursue questions about how the three persons are one God, and how their temporal appearances in salvation history related to their eternal relations. In doing so, they would offer even more elaborate theoretical concepts and terms: procession, consubstantiality, perichoresis, and so on.
Primary Trinitarianism is the life of God in the soul of the redeemed; it includes the actual history of salvation, the biblical witness, and the spiritual reality of meeting the Son and the Holy Spirit. Secondary Trinitarianism is the ability of the redeemed to articulate who God is on the basis of what he has done; it includes doctrinal statements, theological awareness, and church practices by which we respond to God’s grace.