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Radical Trinitarianism §3: Christology & Theological Method

If theology is to be radically Trinitarian, where then must theology begin? The standard answer to the beginning point of dogmatics has long been a contentious question for Christian theologians. Do we begin with the Doctrine of God or of Scripture? It seems we should begin with God, because after all, God is at the center of everything Christians believe and do. “For from him, and through him, and to him are all things, to him be the glory forever!” (Rom. 11:36).

But, of course, as some evangelicals are quick to point out, how do we come to know God? The answer on the tip of their tongues is always and everywhere: the Bible!  But this of course unleashes a herd of methodological problems of its own. First of all the church has not always had the Bible, but it has always been busily doing theology that bears witness to the gospel. Secondly, there is of course the issue that the Bible needs to be interpreted and as such constitutes at best an ambiguous and difficult starting point for theology. Indeed, one of the key aims of theology is to guide the church into the right interpretation of Scripture, to believe for example that Jesus’ teachings about not taking vengeance are more central to the Christian life than the war-making methods of ancient Israel.

These conundrums are all to well known, and frankly, utterly boring. Both take their impetus in a foundationalist approach to theology seeks to derive either an ontological bedrock from God upon which our metaphysical claims can securely rest, or an epistemological beachhead in Scripture which can be an incontestable foundation for our claims about God. Both of these impulses are at once ahistorical and non-confessional. Christian theology, I contend is thoughtful reflection on the confession of the Christian church regarding Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection as the definitive revelation of the God of Israel. Thus, the starting point of theology is Christology. The Scriptures bear witness to Christ (Jn. 5:39-40), in whom is life. And God is revealed in Christ and indeed, primordially and exclusively in Christ (Jn. 1:18).

Thus, Christian theology begins with the confession of Jesus Christ both as the Messiah of Israel’s Yahwistic promises, and as the definitive embodiment of the divine identity in the world. Christian theology begins with the confession of Christ as internal to the divine identity thus seeing the relationship between Christ and the Father as definitive of the nature of the God of Israel. The nature of Christ’s relationship to the Father, as it is unfolded in the narrative of Christ’s person and work, is likewise a narrative which depicts Christ and his Father as existing in a relationship of ontologically definitive intimacy. The relations between Christ and the Father as revealed in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are shown to be definitive of the identities of Christ and the Father, and thus of the nature of the God of Israel.

It was impulses such as these, grounded in the narrative of Jesus and his relationship with the Father that led the church to develop the various forms of the regula fide, the rule of faith. These early creeds shaped the church’s interpretation of Scripture in such a way as to orient their understanding of God to the trajectories of the gospel, namely in showing the Christ’s person and work are internal, not external to the identity of God, and coterminous with this assertion soon came the confession that the Spirit of the Father and Son, whom Christ sent upon his followers after his resurrection and ascension is likewise internal to the mystery of God.

Christian theology begins in the disciple’s confession that Christ is the Son of God. Christian theology is the working out of the confession that the divine identity of the God of Israel is what we are given in Jesus as attested to by the Spirit, Scripture, and ecclesial Tradition. The genesis of theology is in the reality of the church’s being incorporate, by the Spirit into the Son’s relationship with the Father. And thus, Christian theology is Trinitarian theology. It is theology which, precisely by confessing Christ as the incarnate God, finds itself located within the same sphere of relations which define Christ and those who make up his body. Theology then is to be radically Trinitarian, because its ultimate context is the Trinity itself. Theology exists as our human attempt to understand and rightly participate in the depths of the divine love into which we have been drawn by the Spirit of Christ. Christian theology begins with the confessional narrative of the history of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecostal breathing forth of the Spirit of the Father. And Christian theology begins thusly because the church (and thus, the theologian) is a participant in this ongoing drama of the Triune God’s redemption of the world.

All of this, of course will not satisfy everyone. Many theologians feel the need for a more secure footing upon which to do theology than the contingencies of confession and history. To found one’s theology upon a confession is an act of epistemological vulnerability (which is not the same thing as epistemological recklessness). On this point, and in all the doing of theology we must remember that we cannot be more concrete or definitive than God has revealed himself to be in Jesus. We follow a God who was tortured to death, and as such, why should needing to submit our thinking about God to the contingencies and vulnerabilites of a particular history and confession surprise us? If theology is a practice of discipleship (and it is), then we should expect it to take the same shape as its subject matter. If God is the Triune One who kenotically pours himself out into the world in the history of Jesus Christ, through crucifixion, resurrection, and Pentecost, then why should theology expect to be able to practice its task an a non-kenotic, secure, invulnerable manner? The theologian, above all must remember the words of Jesus of Nazareth who is the Trinitarian Son of the Father:

“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!” (Matt. 10:24-25)

11 Comments

  1. bobby grow wrote:

    I am one of those who is a bit uncomfortable with divorcing the doing of theology from scripture. I see scripture as instrumental, or as the spectacles (Calvin) that knowledge of God comes through. In fact it seems logically prior to knowledge of God as trinity.

    I suppose my reticence to your approach, Halden, is that it places tradition and scripture on equal footing; when I believe that scripture is the “tradition” from which the church bases her tradition regula fide. My concern is with authority . . . more than anything.

    I’m not into foundationalism, necessarily, I do believe though, that scripture instrumentally should be seen as our epistemological basis for “talk” about God; and the narrative which the church finds herself within.

    Thursday, June 21, 2007 at 12:20 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Well, I’m certainly not divorcing Scripture from theology here. In fact, the only authority I cite in this post is Scripture! But, I don’t think its tenable at all that Scripture is in any way prior to the knowledge of God as Trinity. After all, one the major criteria on the basis of which many books were excluded from the NT canon was because of how they didn’t measure up to an orthodox Christology (which was the linchpin of Trinitarian doctrine).

    I believe that the narrative in which the church finds herself includes but exceeds Scripture. Scripture is a witness to the Triune God’s work in Christ. An inspired, authoritative witness to be sure, but it is not the story itself. It is a history of much of the story, and even in some sense a participant in the ongoing drama that is God’s story.

    Certainly Scripture is authoritative for the church, but that authority derivative, not inherent. The Scriptures have authority because we have discerned that they bear witness to the Triune God as revealed in Christ. Christ, not Scripture is the Word of God.

    Thursday, June 21, 2007 at 12:33 pm | Permalink
  3. bobby grow wrote:

    Halden,

    I guess my simple point was that God precedes scripture ontologically, but that scripture precedes God epistemologically. What I would need further clarification on is when you say:

    . . . But, I don’t think its tenable at all that Scripture is in any way prior to the knowledge of God as Trinity. After all, one the major criteria on the basis of which many books were excluded from the NT canon was because of how they didn’t measure up to an orthodox Christology (which was the linchpin of Trinitarian doctrine).

    Where did this criteria come from? From the “Church”, and who is that? I would submit that this tradition was couched within the authority of the APOSTLES; viz. . . . They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching . . . (Acts 2:42a)) deposited in the scriptures, and not an external “authority” of the church.

    How do we have knowledge of God as trinity today? The same way the early church did, from the disclosure of Christ through the witness of the Apostles as the foundation of the Church.

    You said:

    . . . The Scriptures have authority because we have discerned that they bear witness to the Triune God as revealed in Christ. . . .

    I agree, but w/o the scriptures prescribing the significance of identifying God as triune, the unity or tri-unity of God would have no purposeful meaning . . . other than a contrived meaning constructed by the “Church”. The consequence in my mind is that scripture has inherent authority because of its author, and not derivative. Our ecclisiology is different, I think Halden.

    Thursday, June 21, 2007 at 1:32 pm | Permalink
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    Thursday, June 21, 2007 at 1:55 pm | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Yes, our ecclesiology is different. Certainly the authority of the Scriptures derrives from their apostolicity (though of course you can’t be hard and fast about even that, because not all of the NT was written by “Apostles”.) But who was it that discerned what was “Apostlic” and what wasn’t? The church! And they did so on the basis of the revelation of God in Christ as passed in the rule of faith.

    We have knowledge of God as Trinity today the same way that the church always has, by virtue of God’s revelation in Christ and the outpouting of the Spirit, which the church has always believed and passed on and to which the Scriptures bear witness. The Scriptures are part of the equation, but as a witness, not as “the source”. When Jesus left the world he didn’t leave behind a book, he left behind a community to bear witness to him. For me that is more primary because it is true to what has actually happened in the history of God’s work with his people. Formalistic principles of Scripture’s authority, such as the one you support are comforting in that they give the impression of great security, but they can’t hold up to an actual examination of the historical phenomenon of Scripture. It’s just too messy for a principle like that to be viable.

    And the fact is you can’t just “read” the Trinity out of Scripture. You have to read it in a particular way, a way guided by the Apostlic rule of faith and tested and discerned in the church. At least that’s what Cyprian, Irenaeus, Augustine and all the other church fathers I know of thought.
    So yeah, I guess the difference really does come down to one of ecclesiology.

    Thursday, June 21, 2007 at 4:24 pm | Permalink
  6. bobby grow wrote:

    Halden,

    the regula fidei was tradition that reflected the teaching of scripture or of the Apostles (loosely defined), as I understand Tertullian’s and Irenaeus’ usage of it. J.N.D. Kelly says:

    . . . So Irenaeus claims that, however much Christians may differ in language or mental capacity, the ‘force of tradition’ (i.e. the ‘faith’ or ‘preaching’ communicated by the apostles)remains one and the same; while Tertullian can refer to the whole body of apostolic doctrine, whether delievered orally or in epistles, as apostolorum traditio or apostolica traditio. J.N.D. Kelly, “Early Christian Doctrines,” 36

    It seems that you make a distinction between the rule of faith as distinct from what is materially communicated in “written tradition” (scripture), the New Testament, that we have today. In my reading of Kelly, this seems to create a false dichotomy, since it appears that at least both Tert. and Ir. believed them to be self-same.

    Given your characterization, who has the “keys” to the Apostolic rule of faith today . . . and where has this “rule of faith” been deposited? Or is the rule of faith a “fluid reality” (or progressive) that reflects the role of tradition in the magesterium of, for example, the Roman Catholic church?

    Friday, June 22, 2007 at 12:01 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Yes, the regula fide certainly refelcts the teaching of Scripture (though for the early fathers, this meant primarily the OT, as the NT did not exist in any finalized sense until the 4th century).

    I don’t think that the rule of faith is distinct from what is in the NT. What the rule of faith is is a hermenutical framework through which to read the NT. Like I said, you can’t just “read” orthodox theology off of the Bible, you have to read it in a particular way, and that way (according to all the early fathers) was to read Scripture in the context of the church community’s discernment and be guided by the rule of faith.

    I think the Scripture makes clear that the “keys” are given to the Apostles as the nucleus of the church, and I think the church retains that insofar as it remains in continuity with Apostolic teaching. I believe that teaching is contained in the Scripture and in church tradition. I also believe that Scriptures can correct and question tradition, but no less that tradition is the indispensable context in which to rightly interpret Scripture. It’s like perichoresis, I suppose. :)

    Friday, June 22, 2007 at 12:11 pm | Permalink
  8. bobby grow wrote:

    Halden said:

    . . . (though for the early fathers, this meant primarily the OT, as the NT did not exist in any finalized sense until the 4th century).

    I don’t agree with this, i.e. OT/NT, since clearly any “authority” the regula fide reflected was derivative from the “teaching of the Apostles”; which entails Apostolic interpretation of the OT which=the New Testament.

    Halden said:

    I don’t think that the rule of faith is distinct from what is in the NT. What the rule of faith is is a hermenutical framework through which to read the NT. . . .

    What is the “rule of faith”, I can’t find that in my hermeneutics notes from Koivisto :) ? Seriously, what are you talking about, what are the hard and fast features that make up the rule of faith? Are you talking about analogia scripture or fide, scripture interpreting scripture? Or are you saying that the ecumenical church councils reflect the regula fide?

    It is posited by some, i.e. Gundry, that the Synoptists used a testimonia, a template to interpret the OT promise/fulfillment motifs relative to understanding Jesus’ significance . . . does this parallel your “rule of faith”? Some sort of template that we should be using, provided by the Patristics to come to interpretive conclusions relative to NT dogma?

    Halden said:

    . . . but no less that tradition is the indispensable context in which to rightly interpret Scripture. It’s like perichoresis, I suppose. :)

    I agree with your evaluation, to a point, Halden . . . and I like the perichoresis analogy here. Again I think our difference revolves around ecclesiological variance.

    Friday, June 22, 2007 at 1:06 pm | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    Well, we could go round and round with this forever. You’re right, there are basic ecclesiological differences between us.

    Just a couple points to tie my comments in this discussion.

    1. The Rule of Faith is a term that is used to describe basic creeds that were promulgated very early in the history of the (the Apostles Creed is one of them), which chrystalized the basic narrative of the gospel. They gave a basic template for how to rightly read the Scriptures.

    2. The “Apostolic Teaching” was not a static reality that just existed and was codified for us in the New Testament. For goodness sake the NT is composed of highly occasional corespondeces between Apostles and churches for the most part! The NT does not codify all of the Apostles teaching (although much of it is in the NT), but rather presupposes that teaching as a reality that shapes the individuals and communities to which the various letters and gospels are addressed. What makes all the various books of the NT what they are today as a unit is canonization, and the process of canonization is a historical phenomenon which took place in the church and was guided by the Apostolic tradition (the rule of faith). But regardless, it simply is a fact that the NT as we know it did not exist in any meaningful sense as a unified whole until the 4th century.

    3. Maybe part of the problem is that you’re relying on your Koivisto notes from old MBC Hermeneutics 348! :) But, seriously, I think that you would find some acual studies of the process of the formation of the NT interesting. There is an excellent new book out by Craig Allert called A High View of Scripture?: The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon. He definitely addresses this issue from within the realm of the questions evangelicals have about the authority of Scripture, and looks at how a hard look at the history of canonical formation would impact our way of reading Scripture.

    Ultimately I think he is right that no view of Scripture which ignores the actual historical phenomenon of canonization, and the theological process it entailed can truly be called a “high view”.

    Friday, June 22, 2007 at 2:26 pm | Permalink
  10. bobby grow wrote:

    Halden,

    I actually don’t disagree with any of your points above . . . it’s just my “Fundy” predispositions that make me cringe anytime I think I hear someone mitigating the authority of scripture via relegating it to the same “level” as church tradition. But upon further reflection I don’t think that’s what you’re doing.

    Actually I think it was my Lubeck “Text and Canon” notes I was relying on; not Koivisto’s . . . that’s the problem ;) . That’s funny, you actually know the class numbers, i.e. #348, is that because you stock the shelves with all of these class notes at Windows :) ? I’ll give that book a read, hmm should I do that after or before Barth ;) .

    Saturday, June 23, 2007 at 2:34 am | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    Actually, a couple of posts down the line in this series I’ll unpack my view of the relationship between Scripture, Tradition, and the church a bit more. I’d call my position prima scriptura, which I think avoids some of the problematic connotations of the typical sola scriptura formulations.

    Saturday, June 23, 2007 at 10:46 am | Permalink

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