It is always entertaining to read the online theological commentary following Trinity Sunday. One of the most popular memes was ‘Heresy bingo anyone?’ (Do a search if you did not see it.) The most strident comment amongst my Facebook ‘friends’ was this:
This morning had to listen to another tediously irrelevant sermon on the lines that Trinity is a difficult subject.
No it isn’t. I am a father, a son and a spirit. So is God. That’s it.
Now get off your backsides and stop reading irrelevant theology and go and visit your parishioners!
As I quickly pointed out, this is the early heresy of modalism—the notion that God is one, and that the different ‘persons’ of the Trinity are just different modes in which he is known. The obvious reason why this has little relation to the nature of God is that we read (particularly in John’s gospel) that the Son was ‘sent by’ the Father, and that the Father and Son ‘send’ the Spirit. I as a father cannot send myself as a son anywhere, whilst I as father remain in the place that I am.
The thread then moved away from the question of the Trinity to the wider question of whether theology matters at all. My interlocutor commented:
I have no difficulty accepting that things work without knowing how they work. I have little idea how a computer, car or television works. I know they do, and have no problem using them. You no more need to be a theologian to be a Christian than you need to be an electronics engineer to watch television.
I think that is an interesting comment and, in my experience, fairly widely held…and completely wrong. First, it suggests that Christian faith is analogous to the kind of passive consumption that TV watching entails. Second, it suggests that the church can be divided into the ‘expert’ providers (engineers) and passive consumers (watchers). Not a small amount of discussion amongst clergy appears to assume this (‘we know what we are doing’) and, sometimes unintentionally, members of congregations collude with this by leaving the theological thinking to the clergy.
Here it is, Trinity Sunday. You’re preaching but in preparation failed to read Gerald Bray’s article on “Trinity” in the New Dictionary of Theology, 2nd edition. Well, good luck with that.
He was referring to the revised edition of the IVP New Dictionary of Theology (Historical and Systematic) a copy of which I have just been sent. It is a significant revision to the 1988 New Dictionary of Theology, in part by adding and updating articles, and in part by removing articles on biblical theology which some time ago found their way into the 2000 volume New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. The introduction to the original 1988 volume is strikingly relevant to our post-Trinity Sunday discussion:
‘Everything a theologian does in the church,’ said Martin Luther, ‘contributes to the spread of the knowledge of God and the salvation of men’. That may not sum up ever Christian’s attitude to theologians and theology, but it strikes the right note…The Christian whose diet has no theological content is likely to suffer from stunted or unbalanced growth instead of developing maturity of mind and heart.
The dictionary was aimed, it seems, not just at clergy, but at every Christian who is concerned about ‘developing an ordered understanding’ of his or her faith. You might expect that the list of contributors reads like a list of contemporary leaders in evangelical thinking, and in some ways it does. But in fact there is a surprising breadth to it, including what might be described as progressive, post- and ex-evangelicals along the way. This is line with the original vision:
While the common standpoint of the editors and contributors is allegiance to the supreme authority of the Scriptures…no attempt has been made to exclude or minimise diversity of interpretation with these boundary marks.
Not surprisingly, quite a few of the articles focus on the key theological issues as read through the historical lens of the Reformation, particular those that originated in the first edition. But there appear to be a good number of new articles which are highly contemporary—I particularly enjoyed ‘Ethics’ by Jonathan Chaplin of KLICE, which sets out the current agenda and challenges for Christian ethical thinking, and ‘Scripture, Doctrine of’ by Kevin Vanhoozer.
I have bought dictionaries of various subjects since I was a teenager. In each article, you get a distillation of the subject from an expert, and reading dictionaries is a short cut to gaining an overview of a whole range of issues. I love ‘chain reading’, where I move from one article to another by means of the cross-referenced terms, but there is also value in simply browsing, picking up ideas at random as they take one’s interest. They are a great resource in deepening the thinking of the whole people of God.
So what does Gerald Bray say about the Trinity? He starts by noting its importance, and the origin of the term with Tertullian. He then offers an extended discussion of the NT data, particularly noting the relation of Trinitarian theology to Christology. Once Paul talks of there being ‘one God…and one Lord’ (1 Cor 8.6) you have moved in one step from Jewish monotheism to the beginnings of Christian Trinitarian thinking. Bray then explores in summary the early church debates about the Trinity, and mediaeval revisions of this. He looks at the rationalism scepticism of the doctrine starting in the 17th century, and Barth’s reaction to that which led to the renewal of Trinitarian thinking in the twentieth century. The second half of the article might not shape your preaching, but the first half certainly offers plenty of material.
But the bigger question, with which we began, is the issue of who does theology? As the New Dictionary points out, ‘theology’ comes from the Greek terms meaning ‘speaking of God’—which implies all Christian are theologians. The only question is whether we are well-informed ones! If you are ordained, do you see the task of doing theology as one you share with the whole congregation? If you are not, do you see yourself as a partner in the task of doing theology together? For both parties, the New Dictionary of Theology is a great place to start.
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