Must We Believe in the Doctrine of the Trinity?

The following is an excerpt from Yarnell’s recently published book, “God the Trinity: Biblical Portraits.”

Evangelicalism in America has amalgamated for scholars in the organization known as the Evangelical Theological Society. The two parts of its “doctrinal basis” concern the Bible’s truthfulness and God the Trinity. While some evangelicals have addressed the Trinity in terms of systematic theology and others have employed the Trinity in debates over gender relations, few monographs are dedicated to evaluating the biblical source material for the Trinity.

This is an odd oversight for a people whose confession centers on only the Bible and the Trinity. Anecdotal evidence, moreover, suggests such work should begin in earnest, for if a recent survey is correct, most evangelical Christians in the United States are not necessarily Trinitarian. One-fifth of American evangelicals claimed Jesus is the first creature created by God, and more than half claimed the Holy Spirit is a force and not a personal being. That survey gives some credence to Curtis Freeman’s controversial claim that “most Baptists are Unitarians that simply have not yet gotten around to denying the Trinity.” If evangelical scholars are Trinitarian, the people in the churches may not be.

In addition, there is some diversity among Christian scholars regarding whether the Trinity is a necessary doctrine. One well-known evangelical theologian, Roger E. Olson of Baylor University, says the doctrine of the Trinity is a true conclusion, but belief in the Trinity is neither necessary nor part of Gospel proclamation. Another, R. Albert Mohler Jr. of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., to the contrary classifies the doctrine of the Trinity as “fundamental and essential to the Christian faith.”

Leaving to the side the issue of “theological triage,” which both theologians affirm, an evangelical equivocation regarding the Trinity remains. In writing this book, we set out to answer these two questions: Is the doctrine that God is Trinity a biblical doctrine? Is it, moreover, a doctrine that is necessary to believe? The eight chapters in this book contribute toward the answers.

In the midst of engaging in the close theological exegesis of eight important biblical texts, it became evident that a Trinitarian reading of Scripture also required an evaluation of Protestant hermeneutics. The method of Bible study many evangelicals are taught to use must be substantially revised if the Trinity and the Bible are to coalesce. As a result, there arose the need to wrestle with interpretive method as much as Trinitarian exegesis. Indeed, we almost adopted the subtitle, “The Trinitarian Revision of Biblical Hermeneutics.”

Karl Barth observed this difficulty and opted to diminish hermeneutics out of concern that any interpretive criterion beyond the text necessarily distorts exegesis. While there is much to learn from Barth, and his call to enter “the strange new world of the Bible” warms the heart of this free churchman in his own friendly remonstration toward Protestant evangelicalism, we have opted to revise rather than repress evangelical hermeneutical method.
In the following study, comparison is made with the art of painting as a helping metaphor. This was deemed helpful on several accounts. First, it allows for a focused consideration of the various texts, treating each according to its own authorship, genre and context. From a modern critical perspective, this properly takes the history and grammar of any text as a distinct phenomenon with utmost solemnity.

Second, the appeal to art helps construct a bridge from the rationalism endemic among the practitioners of my own discipline in theology to the more holistic approach of the biblical writers. The critique of any work of literature requires both reason and imagination, but the theological interpretation of Scripture especially requires the graces of both logos and pneuma.

Third, the art metaphor allows this author to function as an appreciative if critical commentator upon each text as a great work of theological literature. Avoiding the extremes of the Enlightenment and Romanticism, we sought to weave a middle way through the judicious employment of both modern and pre-modern methods.

Finally, the meticulous treatment of each text on its own later permits the epilogue to pursue a distinct canonical approach, as when art is gathered thematically for review in contemporary art galleries.

“God the Trinity” can be ordered at LifeWay, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Christianbook.com.

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