The Christian experiences God as the Trinity. Whether he belongs to a tradition which explicitly implicates the Trinity in its liturgy or to one which briefly invokes the triune name occasionally but rarely teaches the doctrine for fear it will confuse the parishioners, the Christian’s actual experience of God invokes the full Trinity. Those who do not teach the names of the Person*being experienced do a disservice to their pupils, for this triune experience of God has been the defining characteristic of Christianity from its inception.
My current work will show, starting with the earliest Christian documents and working through the end of the first-century, that the triune experience of God by the primal Church not only defined the first and subsequent generations of believers, but created them as such and caused them to form and reform their theology around the triune experience. As they encountered the triune God, these first believers shifted their worldview to fit the new evidence about God and, using the identifications given to them, either from their previous understandings (as in the case of “Christ” and “Spirit of Holiness”) or from their direct contact with this God (as in the case of “Father” and “Son of God”), they named God according to his self-revelation, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” the same name we teach and invoke in our churches today.
Why Biblical Studies?
As I read various treatises on trinitarian studies, among the histories of the Apologists finding in the Trinity a Hellenic mediator, the pre-Nicean controversies, the Cappadocian clarifications and philosophical subtleties, and the Western church’s bungling of the Greek ideas, a question often pops into my head: Why am I approaching the doctrine of the Trinity from a biblical studies standpoint? Most of the work that has been done on the biblical side of trinitarianism is a review of the work previously done by the aforementioned theologians, and that review is usually done either as a segue to or as a part of a discussion on the aforementioned theologians. I find this unsatisfactory. Why should we not turn the extensive growth of biblical interpretation towards this primal theological question?
As it stands, we most often speak of the Trinity either as a product of the controversy which was born of the collision of Hellenic theology with the Hebrew YHWH or in the language of the resolutions to that controversy. If, however, the Bible is the record of the people who struggle with (and against) YHWH, and if the encounters with that God described therein were the bases of our faith’s theological reckonings, and if we claim to be both adherents to orthodox trinitarianism and to a biblically-based and sound theology, then we must be willing to go back to the Bible and find the evidence of those encounters which first led Christians to call upon the Triune name of God. If we can do so while setting aside post-Nicean, post-Cappadocian, and post-Augustinian preconceptions, then we stand a better chance of finding the original starting point of the discussion of the trinitarian question. Unfortunately, we have learned from post-modernism that preconceptions will always be present, making this a moot point.
Which brings us back to the question: why biblical studies for a theological problem? The simple answer is that the Bible is the source of Christian theological discussion, thus anyone who would take up the task of trinitarian studies must first be a student of the Bible, then of ecclesiastic history, and finally of the philosophies which tie the two together and which bring them into our contemporary discussion. It is a long road which the responsible scholar of theology takes, and this study in the biblical development of the doctrine of the Trinity is but an early step on that road.
* I intend to be bullishly vague in my usage of this word. I mean both the person we call “God” in our monotheism and the “persons” of the Trinity as we encounter them.