The Trinitarian Controversy and the Problem of Shallow Roots

One side of this controversy has deep roots in confessional and creedal orthodoxy, while the other does not

Confessionally rooted Christians will have zero sympathy for the Trinitarian revisions of both the egalitarians and the complementarians. This is not to say that only confessionalists understand the creeds of orthodoxy, but rather to recognize that true confessionalists must stand with the creeds It is possible to study and embrace creedal trinitarianism without a confessional tradition, but it requires heavy work.


I was looking at the enormous Norway Maple in my backyard the other day, and a question occurred.  How deep are its roots?  Living as we do in the age of Google, I soon found myself reading this fascinating and instructive article on the question of root depth.

Apparently there has been some dispute over the natural root depth of trees.  Back in the 1930s, scientists investigated this question by digging out the root systems of large trees.  The answer that they reached is one you may have seen in textbooks when you were a kid: that the root system of trees is as extensive as the branch system.  Indeed, reports exist of such trees to this day.

However, this was not the end of the question.  Many assumed that trees could not be grown in modern cities because the typical soil composition would not allow for the development of such elaborate root systems. It turns out, though, that those 1930s scientists had understandably chosen trees for their study which were planted in easily dug soil such as loess (sediment deposited by wind).  The more diggable soil allowed for careful extraction of a tree’s root system.  It turns out, though, that in such soil trees tend to grow deeper roots, but that the same variety of trees may also grow tall with roots stretching out horizontally.

Today, urban arborists often explain that trees don’t require deep soil, and common opinion has turned against the old deep-root theory.  The correct conclusion, as expressed by James Urban of the American Society of Landscape Architects is this: “Trees are genetically capable of growing deep roots, but root architecture is strongly influenced by soil and climate conditions.” Specifically, soil which is compacted and has poor drainage creates a poor environment for root depth.  This does not mean, however, that trees cannot grow, only that they may grow without deep roots.

Yet all may not be well.  A tree may look tall, full, and impressive, but its root system may prove insufficient. A tree with shallow, horizontal roots is more easily toppled.  Meanwhile, as we already knew, an attack on the roots threatens the tree.  These attacks, moreover, may not seem serious to the untrained eye.  A photo caption on the post explains the death of a largish tree after an irrigation contractor installed a water-line incorrectly, transforming the soil in which the tree was rooted.


Being a preacher by trade, I am unable to read something like this without analogizing. While more than one illustrative use might be made, my mind goes to the writing of theology.  What factors enable a theologian to put down deep roots?

The discipline of theology could be described as the work of identifying the proper, scriptural teaching on a number of questions.  To be a theologian is, by definition, to do more than quote a Bible verse.  A theologian must interpret and apply, and he must do so not only with a proof-text, but with all relevant portions of scripture.  Furthermore, he must do so in a way that is systematic, or internally coherent.  If what a theologian says on one topic invalidates what he said on another, he has not done his work carefully enough.

Anyone familiar with the New Testament should understand the dangers associated with this work.  False Teaching is endemic in the world.  We are commanded to be cautious, refusing some the chance even to speak because they have undermined the word of truth.  theologians should take this seriously, and I suspect that most evangelical theologians do.

What, though, is the ideal soil in which a theologian might be planted?  Where can he grow in soil that has not been compacted (that is, where he will not write in an echo-chamber of favorable opinions), and where many false and unhelpful ideas have already been drained away?  Where can he be planted that he can send down deep roots, nourished ultimately by the revealed truths of God?

You might think I’m going to say, “he needs to be planted in the Bible,” but I’m not.  That’s not as useful an idea as we might like to think. Every theologian of every stripe says he is basing his ideas on Scripture; most are even trying to do so.  However, the question of theology is, “How can we interpret the Bible rightly?”  We cannot answer, “By interpreting the Bible.” No, my question is instead this, by what means can a theologian protect himself against improper interpretation?

I would suggest that the answer is for theologians to be planted firmly within the soil of the creedal and confessional history of the church.  By this I do not mean that we make history a superior authority to Scripture, nor even that we make it an authority per se.

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