The doctrine of election.
The New Testament use of the Old.
The problem of evil.
These are just a few of the most complex issues we face when we read the Bible and formulate doctrine. They are debated by well-meaning and biblically-committed Christians, and often they leave us perplexed, if not flummoxed, at how to understand them and apply them to life.
Certainly, there are mysteries related to each of these doctrines, but in God’s revealed word, we still find ample evidence for explaining them as Scripture teaches. That said, I believe it is impossible to understand any of these doctrines rightly without a self-conscious awareness of how they all relate to the nature of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Or, to put it the other way, how a robust doctrine of the Trinity sheds light on these doctrines that relate God to his world and his Word. Let me try to illustrate.
How the (Economic) Trinity Informs our Theology
While it is en vogue to apply the Trinity to various doctrines, it is also (often) problematic. The Trinity is not merely an analogy to help us understand other matters of faith and practice. But because everything in creation and redemption is formed, upheld, and finished by the triune God, it is appropriate to consider basic Christian doctrines with respect to inseparable operations of the Father, Son, and the Spirit. With that in mind, let me suggest a few ways the Trinity informs our theology.
First, man’s freedom to choose must be considered with respect to the whole Bible (i.e., man in his four-fold state). At the same time, any study of free will must consider God whose freedom is fundamentally different from his creatures. As Creator, God has absolute freedom to do what his nature and will please. Likewise, in his covenant-making with creation, he freely chooses to bind himself to his words. And in the Incarnation, the Son models for us what true human freedom looks like. Put all of this together and you begin to see how a doctrine of free will requires more than a look at anthropology or a few proof texts.
Second, the doctrines of grace are best explained with respect to the Trinity. In other words, it is the Father who chooses and grants a people to his Son; it is the Son who obeys his Father and makes atonement for this countless multitude; and it is the Spirit who is sent by the Father and the Son to bring to life and grace to all whom the Son redeemed for the Father. If you have eyes to see, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, and Irresistible Grace—the core of the TULIP—are better described with respect to Father, Son, and Spirit. In TULIP, the doctrines of grace can be described abstractly, but when planted in the life of the Trinity, we begin to see more clearly what Scripture says about the God who saves.
Third, the problem of evil is also best explained with respect to the Trinity. In other words, because the Son took on flesh in order to be stapled to a cross, he became the archetype of the righteous sufferer. In absolute terms, Jesus alone stands as an innocent victim. And thus, in the Incarnation, planned by the Father and actualized by the Spirit, we find a key to the problem evil. While philosophical reasonings cannot come to grips with evil; the revelation of God crucified can. Again, this is not all there is to say about the subject, but without crucifixion the moral problem of evil will be unsolved and without the resurrection the emotional problem of evil will not find hope.
Finally, the hermeneutical challenge of intra-biblical interpretation (i.e., the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament) is also necessarily trinitarian. In other words, because the doctrine of the Trinity depends on the historical-personal revelation of the Son and the Spirit in the Incarnation and at Pentecost, we come to learn how the progress of revelation works. Speaking of the progressive revelation of the economic trinity, Fred Sanders in his book The Triune God, likens the revelation of the Triune God to a mystery (mysyterion). Indeed, “mystery” plays an important role in the relationship between the testaments, and if the revelation of God as Father, Son, and Spirit is the central reality of this mystery, then the more one understands how God has revealed himself, the more we can see how the whole Bible is unified and explicated.
Do Not Neglect the Trinity
Thankfully, the study of God as Father, Son, and Spirit has been on the rise over the last century. However, there are still many ways in which the doctrine of the Trinity can enlighten our understanding of biblical doctrines. In this way, the doctrine of the Trinity is not an appendix or a doctrinal loci in its own right—though we must speak properly of the Trinity—rather, it is a reality of God and his world and his Word.
On that point, B.B. Warfield is most helpful. He states, “Difficult, therefore, as the idea of the Trinity in itself is, it does not come to us as an added burden upon our intelligence; it brings us rather the solution of the deepest and most persistent difficulties in our conception of God as infinite moral Being, and illuminates, enriches and elevates all our thought of God” (“Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity,” in his Works, 2:139).
In truth, the more we think along the lines of the Bible, where God has revealed himself to us Father, Son, and Spirit because he is triune, the more it will shed light on many difficult doctrines. These doctrines are made more difficult when considered abstractly, impersonally, and divorced from God’s triune nature. But considered with the full revelation of the economic trinity, we can see how these “dead ends” become pathways to know more of the Lord, who Father, Son, and Spirit.
In that sense, let us not worry or complain about difficult doctrines. Instead, let them press us to know the triune God with greater clarity and doxology.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds