Reforming God?

I have become convinced that the doctrine of God as Trinity is central to Protestantism.

It is arguable that the Protestant heresy par excellence is Unitarianism, an error on the doctrine of God which can co-exist with a very high view of scripture. Many of the early Unitarians, the Socinians exhibit this. Thus, when John Owen engages with the Socinians, he really doesn’t have much to say about their doctrine of Scripture. He and his opponents are in fundamental agreement on the idea that Scripture is true and authoritative, and that it norms their doctrinal formulations. The big area that Owen focuses on is the doctrine of God.


Let me begin with a couple of anecdotes on how I became involved in this broad topic. The first takes place after I finished my PhD on the impact of Luther on the early English Reformation. I was looking for another project on which to engage, and I read a book with which I profoundly disagreed, on the understanding of the atonement in John Owen. So I decided my next project would be Owen on atonement. Yet what started as an attempt to address what I thought was a misreading of Owen’s doctrine of the atonement became in the end a study of Owen’s doctrine of the atonement in the context of his doctrine of the Trinity. This brought home to me the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity for basic soteriological doctrine. That was an intellectual side of what made me interested in this topic.

The second personal anecdote involved my early years at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. I was asked to teach the medieval course when a colleague was away, and I did a section of that course on Eastern Orthodoxy. I became aware that a number of students in the class were contemplating converting to Eastern Orthodoxy. I wondered about how to approach this.  I could have given arguments as to why that was a bad idea but I decided to opt for a more practical approach. I thought that it might be instructive to experience an Eastern Orthodox service together – after all, there is nothing like standing up for two hours during an ancient Greek liturgy to make people think twice about converting to Eastern Orthodoxy. After the service I took the students out to lunch. We had a roundtable discussion and I opened it up by asking, what do you think was good and what do you think was bad about the service? What struck me was the recurring assessment that the service was so distinctly Christian, because of its emphasis on the Trinity, especially at the end, when the priest raised his arms and said, “Go in peace, for the Trinity has saved you.” The student reaction really provoked me to thinking about the lack of the role of the Trinity in practical everyday church life in Protestantism.

In the years since, I have spent much time reflecting on the doctrine of God and its place in Christianity.  As a result, I have become convinced that the doctrine of God as Trinity is central to Protestantism, both for our historical orthodoxy and as a major source of error within our communions. Quite often as conservative Reformed Protestants we instinctively think about doctrine of Scripture as the “mother of all errors,” and there is a lot of truth to that, but historically, the doctrine of God flowing from the Reformation has also proved to be just as – maybe even more – problematic.

It is, in fact, arguable that the Protestant heresy par excellence is Unitarianism, an error on the doctrine of God which can co-exist with a very high view of scripture. Many of the early Unitarians, the Socinians exhibit this. Thus, when John Owen engages with the Socinians, he really doesn’t have much to say about their doctrine of Scripture. He and his opponents are in fundamental agreement on the idea that Scripture is true and authoritative, and that it norms their doctrinal formulations. The big area that Owen focuses on is the doctrine of God.

The Socinians were anti-Trinitarians and this is significant: The Trinity is probably the key problematic area for Protestants because it raises in an acute form a number of questions that they are often uncomfortable handling. Consider, for example, the status of nonbiblical language, particularly the nonbiblical language of metaphysics. That’s something of which a lot of Protestants are instinctively suspicious. Such language raises questions of being as well of questions about economy and we are often happier thinking of God’s actions than about what must be ontologically true of him for to act in particular ways. This lay behind the question I posed last night at the discussion about the redemptive-historical method. Redemptive history tends to focus on the developing narrative of the Bible, the acts of God in space and time. With this tilt towards the economy, we may neglect to ask important non-economic questions, such as, “Who does God have to be in eternity for these acts to make sense?”

That also then raises the question of authority. Why do we as Protestants accept the doctrine of the Trinity? The great example of raising this question in an acute form would be John Henry Newman in the nineteenth-century. It’s his study of the fourth century that ultimately takes him to Rome. I have a coffee cup at home with a quotation from a later edition of his famous essay on the development of Christian doctrine, “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”  Newman’s point is that when you start getting into the thick of the key debates, the dense weeds of the creedal discussions of the early church, the question of “who decides who’s getting it right?” rises in an acute form, particularly in doctrinal matters as subtle and complicated as those clustered around the doctrine of God. So, the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of God, is of central importance to the matter of authority.

Before we consider some pressure points and offer some examples of how the Reformers responded to these things, I want to make a few comments about the Reformation in general. First of all, we must raise the issue of the Reformation’s relationship to tradition. Often part of the Protestant problem with the Trinity and like doctrines, is that it seems to derive its life, its significance, and its language, from tradition – and there is a long-standing, and not entirely bad, tradition of Protestant polemic against tradition. Weren’t the Reformers those who polemicized against tradition? Didn’t they want to bring us back just to the Bible alone?

The twentieth-century Reformation scholar Heiko Oberman makes a very helpful distinction between what he calls “Tradition One” and “Tradition Two.” He claims that you cannot read the Reformation as a blanket rejection of tradition, because there are different kinds of tradition. Tradition one (T1), Oberman says, is the tradition of doctrinal formulation that is closely tied to, and justified by, reflection on the exegesis of Scripture. The traditional teaching of the church on the virgin birth, for example, would represent what Oberman describes as T1. This is what Paul was talking about when he told Timothy to pass on, or hold fast to, the form of sound words: it is passing on the tradition of teaching derived from the Bible. So there is good tradition and, in fact, most pastors operate with some form of tradition (T1). If you are preparing a sermon on a Sunday, typically speaking you won’t just stare at the page of the Bible and hope for enlightenment, you will pull your commentaries and maybe a systematic theology or two off the shelves in your study to help you better understand what the passage means.

The Reformers were comfortable with T1. When they attacked “church tradition,” they were referring to what Oberman would call tradition two (T2). That’s the tradition of dogmatic or doctrinal formulation which stands somewhat independent of biblical exegesis and rests its authority on the magisterial, direct teaching of the church herself. If the virgin birth is an example of T1 kind of teaching, we might say that the immaculate conception of the virgin, the idea that she was conceived without original sin, would be a T2 doctrine. (Now I know a very good Roman Catholic theologian, like Matt Levering, would try to make a case that you could justify the immaculate conception on the basis of Scripture, but I am not persuaded.)

In sum, there are two kinds of traditional teaching, that which rests closely on reflection of exegesis of Scripture and that which rests more directly on the magisterial claims of the church. Hold that in mind.

Oberman is correct in his analysis of tradition in the Reformation but we need to add one further dimension to it. The Reformers operated with what I would call a hermeneutic of trust regarding the past. One of the things that characterizes our present age is suspicion, particularly suspicion of authority and suspicion of tradition. Cynicism and suspicion are in the very air we breathe. For the Reformers that was not the case. How did that affect their view of tradition? Well, we might fairly characterize them as accepting church tradition as being T1 unless it was self-evidently T2. To put this another way, they accepted the historic teaching of the church on any given topic unless it became very clear that it wasn’t justifiable by reflection on biblical exegesis. That is quite a significant way of thinking about (and not simply doing) theology. I remember during the heat of the 2016 Trinity controversy, somebody asked me, “well, how do you justify eternal generation?” I said, “In my world I don’t have to justify it, that is the traditional teaching of the church. If you reject it, the burden is on you to prove that the church is wrong.” You see the difference in cultural mindset? The basic assumption of the Reformers is that the doctrine of the Trinity is part of T1. It is taken as a given that should only be modified as and when it is demonstrably incorrect or inadequate.

Now I want to refer to a few pressure points or areas of acute polemical concern. Some of these I will not pick up on later, but they will hopefully set synapses firing as you start thinking about these things yourselves. There are a number of issues in the sixteenth century that shape the Reformers’ approach to God. First of all, there’s the very material one, the impact of the rise of literacy. We all know that the printing press brings about a technological revolution. But it also brings about a cultural revolution in terms of the rise of literacy. Why do I raise that? Not all things that present themselves in history as doctrinal issues necessarily have exclusively doctrinal explanations. Work done in the 1960’s in South America has indicated that, as literacy rates rise, radical thinking within society increases. In the context of this lecture, we might rephrase that to say that, as literacy rates rise, tradition comes to have less of a hold on the popular imagination and intellectual iconoclasm begins to flourish. Having just noted that there was a hermeneutic of trust in the Reformation, we should also note, therefore, that the sixteenth century witnessed the rise of other groups such as the Socinians which were much more radical in their mentality. That is in part the result of having the material means of learning – the printing press.

Secondly, there is an attraction in such a context towards biblicism. Biblicism seems to make things easy. One reason why debates about the doctrine of God are so difficult to pursue with evangelicals is that to say God is three and God is one is profoundly counterintuitive and cannot be justified by simply quoting a few Bible verses. Compared to the theological and historical work that must be done to understand why the church formulated the Trinity in the way she did, it is a much simpler task just to quote plain old Bible verses as if their meaning is self-evident.

Further, and this is important for the story, in the late seventeenth century we witness the collapse of classical metaphysics. When classical metaphysics collapses so does the doctrine of the Trinity. The Trinity is challenged in different ways in different places, but one thing that Unitarian theologies all have in common by the end of the seventeenth century is an anticlassical metaphysical aspect. I have ambiguous feelings about some of the theology of Jonathan Edwards but what he was trying to do is something he could hardly avoid. He was trying to recast classic Reformed orthodoxy in a context where the metaphysics which Reformed orthodoxy had assumed was no longer plausible in the wider culture. So, to give Edwards credit, I think he was attempting a heroic task – saving the faith at a time of philosophical flux. Whether he was successful or not I leave for others more clever than I to decide. But that was the metaphysical challenge he faced.

It’s worth noting at this point that it is often said that the doctrine of God is not a subject of significant revision in the Reformation. I call that a most mischievous truth. It’s a truth, but it’s mischievous because of the way that it is sometimes used. Yes, the doctrine of God is not significantly revised. Calvin raised some questions about the aseity of the Son and there are certain very serious matters that surround that discussion. But, on the whole, the doctrine of God is not subject to significant revision by the Reformers. I am going to argue that relative to Luther in just a few moments.

Still, the way that this claims that the Reformers did not revise the doctrine of God, has come to function is important. In some narratives, it is used to argue that the Reformation was only half-done. Soteriology was subject to Scriptural scrutiny, the doctrine of justification by grace through faith emerged, imputation, etc., but the Reformers should have been more thorough in their revision of the doctrine of God. That is a serious misrepresentation of what’s going on. It is so because, even in Reformed circles today, that kind of argument is being used in order to advocate for things like passibility and mutability – things which that would have been anathema to, say, the Westminster Divines. What is happening to the doctrine of God is this: the alleged methods of the Reformers are being set against the conclusions of the Reformers. We often hear that phrase, “the Reformed church must always be reforming,” and, while there’s a true sense to that, there’s also a very mischievous sense to that expression. It can be used to justify a kind of doctrinal relativism at times. I want to argue that the Reformers didn’t revise the doctrine of God because they didn’t think it needed revising.

One other pressure point – an area where the Reformers, we might say, innovate – which is very important to them is Christology. In a couple of ways, the Christological modifications and arguments that the Reformers put forward do raise challenging questions to the doctrine of God. Do they compromise the classical doctrine of God in order to accommodate their Christological changes? We will come to that a little bit later.

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