Skip to content

Reading Scripture trinitarianly

. . . There is no such thing as a non-dogmatic or non-theological engagement of the biblical text, or of any text or language for that matter. Moreover, anti-Trinitarian frames of reference lead to fundamental problems for approaching the Bible and revelation. To illustrate by way of a historical parallel, the early Socinians, whose orientation was supposedly non-dogmatic, advocated an inspired and trustworthy Scripture, yet were closed to a Trinitarian perspective. They sought to divorce Scripture from its Trinitarian frame of reference. Their Unitarian view of God had repercussions for Scripture’s authority and inspiration. Perhaps it is the case that the seed of liberalism is sown on orthodoxy’s soil. That is to say, an over-objectified view of the Bible leads ultimately to radical objections to the Bible. A Trinitarian frame of reference is important for developing a doctrine of revelation, including Scripture’s status in the revelational framework, for God reveals God by God through Scripture in the life of the church. Scripture’s content, even the means through which Scripture is mediated, is ultimately Trinitarian. Once this view is lost, the radical objectification process is bound to begin. (Paul Metzger, ed., “Trinitarian Soundings in Systematic Theology: Chpt. 2 The Relational Dynamic of Revelation, A Trinitarian Perspective,” 23-24)

h/t Bobby

This reminded me of an old post called 'Theology - the end of the process?'  So here it is for Thawed-out Thursday...

Is “systematic theology... the end process of exegesis and biblical theology"??  Ben Myers writes persuasively against this idea.  To imagine that a pure biblical scholar can dispassionately read off the meaning of the Bible through the use of objective interpretive tools is ludicrous.  To imagine that then the systematic theologian comes to co-ordinate these propositions into a logically cogent order is similarly misguided.  As Myers says 'It's theology all the way down.'  Theological pre-suppositions and commitments necessarily guide and shape all Christian activity from exegesis to exposition to pastoral work, to evangelism to hospitality to everything.

And yet the idea that the Bible can be neutrally read is so tempting.  We would love to conceive of revelation as propositions deposited in a handy compendium simply to be extracted and applied.  Yet the Word is a Person.  And His book is Personal (John 5:39).  It's not something we judge with our double edged swords - the Word judges us. (Heb 4:12)

Now Jesus thought the Scriptures were absolutely clear.  He never made excuses for theological error.  He never gave even the slightest bit of latitude by conceding a certain obscurity to the Bible.  He never assumes that His theological opponents have just mis-applied an interpretive paradigm.  If they get it wrong He assumes they've never read the Scriptures (e.g. Matt 21:16,42; Mark 2:25)!  So the perspicuity of the Bible is not in dispute. 

But Jesus tells the Pharisees why they get it wrong - "You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God." (Matt 22:29)  And, again, "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life." (John 5:39-40)  They are wrongly oriented to the Power of God and the One of Whom the Scriptures testify - Jesus.  This is not simply a wrong orientation of the intepreter but of the interpretation.  Scripture reading must be oriented by the Power of God to the Son of God.  Within this paradigm - a paradigm which the Scriptures themselves give us - the Bible makes itself abundantly clear.

But this paradigm is an unashamedly and irreducibly theological one.  It is the result of exegesis (e.g. studying the verses given above) but it is also the pre-supposition of such exegesis.  Theology is not the end of the process from exegesis to biblical studies and then to the systematician! 

And yet, I have often been in discussions regarding the Old Testament where theologians will claim an obvious meaning to the OT text which is one not oriented by the Power of God to the Son of God.  They will claim that this first level meaning is the literal meaning - one that is simply read off the text by a process of sound exegesis.  And then they claim that the second meaning (it's sensus plenior - usually the christocentric meaning) is achieved by going back to the text but this time applying some extrinsic theological commitments.

What do we say to this?  Well hopefully we see that whatever 'level' of meaning we assign to the biblical text it is not an obvious, literal meaning to be read off the Scriptures like a bar-code!  Whatever you think that first-level meaning to be, such a meaning is inextricably linked to a whole web of theological pre-suppositions.  The step from first level to second is not a step from exegesis to a theological re-reading.  It is to view the text first through one set of pre-suppositions and then through another.

And that changes the direction of the conversation doesn't it?  Because then we all admit that 'I have theological pre-suppositions at every level of my interpretation.'  And we all come clean and say 'Even the basic, first-level meaning assigned to an OT text comes from some quite developed theological pre-commitments - pre-commitments that would never be universally endorsed by every Christian interpreter, let alone every Jewish one!'  And then we ask 'Well why begin with pre-suppositions which you know to be inadequate?  Why begin with pre-suppositions that are anything short of 'the Power of God' and 'the Son of God'?   And if this is so, then why on earth do we waste our time with a first-level paradigm that left even the post-incarnation Pharisees completely ignorant of the Word?  In short, why don't we work out the implications of a biblical theology that is trinitarian all the way down?  Why don't we, at all times, read the OT as inherently and irreducibly a trinitarian revelation of the Son?


0 thoughts on “Reading Scripture trinitarianly

  1. codepoke

    You've been beating this drum for a while, and with a sledgehammer, and it's been an awkward experience for me. I almost want to stand up and cheer, but then I just can't and I'm not 100% certain why.

    God was Trinitarian when He wrote the OT. So, yep, the OT is Trinitarian. I delight to read all the ways you draw that reality out of the scripture. This statement, though, seems to rub me wrong:

    > If they get it wrong He assumes they’ve never read the Scriptures (e.g. Matt 21:16,42; Mark 2:25)! So the perspicuity of the Bible is not in dispute.

    It's not the perspicuity of the scriptures that's on display here, but the revelation of the Spirit (2 Cor 3:14). Jesus says the scriptures that they search reveal Him, but only after He says, "And ye have not his word abiding in you: for whom he hath sent, him ye believe not." That word, "for," is a back-breaker. First comes believing, then comes seeing the meaning perspicuitously revealed in scripture.

    I don't know whether I've read any of the guys against whom you inveigh, but I think I have. I suspect NT Wright's "guilty" of setting you off, and I've read and loved his stuff on the OT. When I read Wright explaining to me authorial intent, I definitely believe he's helping me grasp the revelation of God. You seem to be suggesting he's interpreting without the Spirit. The disconnect between my experience and your apparent assertion is unsettling.

    So maybe I'm misunderstanding you.

    What do you intend to assert about the original authors? And what do you intend to assert about their modern interpretters? I know you've answered these questions at length, but it might help me if you answer them briefly.

  2. Perry Robinson

    Ok, you're preaching to the choir on this one. If what you say is true though, then exegetical methodologies and such presuppose a specific chritology and vice versa. This is why the church condemned the hermenutical method of Mopsuestia.

    To push back and for your consideration, if you're right, how Trinitarian is your worship?

  3. Paul Huxley

    The thing is that it's nothing close to 'sound exegesis' that gets us in these strange places.

    I'm pretty sure I'm with you entirely on these points. The question is in what way is the OT a trinitarian revelation of the Son?

    As in the quote, Trinitarian frame of reference be good. Understanding the OT in the way the NT does also be good.

    The ways the Bible reveals the triune God are more numerous than "Here's the Angel of the LORD, by the way, that's Christ" and "Here's a King, Christ's a King too, compare and contrast".

  4. Bobby Grow

    I think that's a great quote ;-)!

    I've come to the point that I hold that OT saints certainly thought of Yahweh not as a Unitarian substance; but as a Trinitarian relationship . . . I still think Jesus' penultimate revelation (the Incarnation) serves as the capstone which has provided substance (not Thomistically or Aristotelianly) to the shadows that prevailed under the Old Covenant.

  5. Glen

    Hey Code,

    I'd say that perspicuity and the Spirit's revelation go hand in hand. Without the Spirit the 'clearest' Scripture remains obscure and the Spirit reveals by unveiling the inherent clarity of the Scriptures.

    I'd also say that the Spirit of Christ was in the prophets revealing to them the Christ-focus of their writings (1 Pet 1:10-12). Further - that those who understood them (in any age), understood the writings according to the same Spirit.

    So I'd never say that Wright was interpreting without the Spirit. (I too have benefited lots from his stuff). Nor do I think that articulating an Old Testament understanding of faith is to be guilty of interpretation 'without the Spirit'. In line with my trinitarian beliefs regarding the OT, I believe that the OT saints were neither Christ-less nor Spirt-less.

    On authorial intent: I believe that the OT authors understood the Christ-focus of their writings (again 1 Pet 1) seeing through the shadows to the substance.

    I also think that the logic of John 5 is that Moses wrote about Jesus. The whole direction of Christ's admonition to the Jews was to go from Moses to Christ. If they had believed Moses they would believe Christ, for Moses wrote about Christ. The direction we usually travel is to talk about Christ taking us back to Moses to re-read him. I think John 5 says something else. It talks about understanding Jesus according to Moses because that was Moses' authorial intent.

    So for me it's about reading the OT from Genesis forwards fixed on Jesus (as the OT saints themselves were). This is the drum I'm beating in distinction to saying we read the OT first in a non-Jesus-focussed way and then once we get to the incarnation we go back and re-read in a way that Moses etc never intended.

    I can still gain a lot from reading theologians who do it in this second way. But I'm convinced there's a much better way.

    Does that at least set out where we might be disagreeing?


  6. Glen

    Hi Perry,
    If by worship you mean Sunday, liturgy etc, - I'm pretty glad to be in an Anglican tradition that's decidedly trinitarian. If you mean in general, I think 'Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace' by James Torrance was one of the most enjoyable reads of my bible college years.

    It came out as a talk here.

    Or did you mean something else?


  7. Glen

    Hi Paul,
    Yes, it's less about 'spotting the Angel' and far more just about assuming the triune God revealed in Jesus on every page. So the way to preach Christ from, say, Exodus 18 (as Dave B's doing soon) is not to try to look for the Angel or a type but simply to say that the LORD who is redeeming these Israelites is that very Person who took flesh and died to redeem us etc, etc. (Jude 5 is not eisegesis)

    The point of 'spotting the Angel' etc is never simply to say 'Look Jesus is in a handful of chapters from the OT!' but to simply demonstrate a trinitarian logic inherent to, and applying to, the whole bible.

  8. Glen

    Hey Bobby,
    Glad you're enjoying Blackham - I'll have to get that book.
    The only thing I'd add is that (some of!) the OT saints saw through the shadows to the Substance.

  9. Bobby Grow

    Yeah, Blackham's chapter was good!

    And I knew you would "add" what you did; but I'm happy with the way I stated it :-).

  10. Dev

    Glen your language is getting more complicated these days =)

    Mark 6:52 2 for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

    Mark 8:17 Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?

    John 8:43 43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word.

    not understanding the 'true - i.e. gospel/Christ' meaning of something = hardness of heart

    why is it we refuse to see Jesus in everything? because we cannot bear to hear it - because it implies that every square inch of our lives must be Christocentric too - and until we surrender it, we cannot live it, and we will not understand it

    Luke 8:18 18 Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.

    "take care HOW you hear"
    - come to Jesus with nothing and allow Him to explain all to you - then you will bear fruit

  11. codepoke

    Again, there's a lot in what you're saying that I applaud. His every act is an act performed from a foundation of relationship, from creation to choosing Saul to sending Judah into captivity. Understanding scripture that way makes perfect sense, and only understanding it that way can make it make perfect sense to us.

    That said, there's room for a question still, maybe. You said:

    > I’d also say that the Spirit of Christ was in the prophets revealing to them the Christ-focus of their writings (1 Pet 1:10-12).

    > On authorial intent: I believe that the OT authors understood the Christ-focus of their writings (again 1 Pet 1) seeing through the shadows to the substance.

    Well, I read the passage in Peter in several different versions. I'm going to pick the NLT simply because it draws out the conflict without much extra commentary.

    1Pe 1:10-12 This salvation was something the prophets wanted to know more about. They prophesied about this gracious salvation prepared for you, even though they had many questions as to what it all could mean.

    They wondered what the Spirit of Christ within them was talking about when he told them in advance about Christ's suffering and his great glory afterward. They wondered when and to whom all this would happen.

    They were told that these things would not happen during their lifetime, but many years later, during yours. And now this Good News has been announced by those who preached to you in the power of the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. It is all so wonderful that even the angels are eagerly watching these things happen.

    The verse simply does not say the prophets understood the various relationships that define God. It says they sensed something, and they probed and asked and waited, but it does not say they understood. It does not say they knew and understood that Messiah would be nothing less than Yahweh incarnate, and that while Messiah was the completeness of Yahweh He was not all of Yahweh.

    You say they saw through the shadows to the substance, but the verse does not say so. The ESV is even crystal clear that they were wondering what person the Lord would anoint.

    Again, everything our Lord does is done from a foundation of the eternal relationships of the Godhead. The Spirit undoubtedly cracked the door for His prophets. But to say they "saw the substance" seems a wide stretch when Paul only gives his own view a "glass darkly" rating.

  12. Glen

    Hi Code,

    From 1 Pet 1 we see that the prophets knew some things and didn't know others. The key phrase regarding what they didn't know is the contentious one: 'tina and poion'.

    The NIV's my usual translation - it translates it 'time and circumstances'. Young's Literal says 'what or what manner of time'

    It could be 'who or what' or as the ESV has it 'person or time'. I'm comfortable with all those translations.

    Frankly the NLT does a pretty awful job here. To say

    "even though they had many questions as to what it all could mean" is appalling mistranslation. 'They searched and inquired carefully' is the ESV.

    And what did they search out so carefully? Answer: The who and the what of the Spirit's prediction that Christ would suffer and be glorified.

    They wanted to know whether this son of David was the Messiah, whether these were the circumstances in which He would suffer and rise. They were looking into the future, knowing the predictions of the Messiah's suffering and glory, v12 explicitly says that they didn't think they were prophesying regarding contemporary events, and so they are looking eagerly into the future. They are straining ahead on tiptoes wondering whether this person will be the Messiah, whether these times will be the Messianic age, etc.

    Really the NLT (which I like on many verses but it's hardly the most literal translation) has read a lot of theology into this translation.

    I think the verse is pretty clearly saying they know they're talking about the sufferings and glories of Christ and they're eagerly looking for the when/who/what manner will it be.

    If you want it from another verse, what about Acts 26:22-23:

    Paul said "I have had God's help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen— that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles."

    Or take Jesus' condemnation of Jews in His own days - He just thinks they're slow of heart to disbelieve all the prophets have spoken (eg Luke 24:25) He doesn't say 'yeah, I know it's tricky, everything in the OT was through a glass darkly.' He says it's plain and you should understand these things. And some of them did - e.g. Simeon, Anna or John 1:41,45

    I'm not saying all the OT saints could have written the Athanasian creed but I do think their faith was fixed on the Messiah (and as 1 pet, Acts 26 and Luke 24 say, on His suffering and glory).

  13. codepoke

    Thank you, Glen. Well said.

    I was raised a hardline dispy, including the whole bit about how Jews were saved by works while we are saved by faith. When I learned the only two covenants that mattered were works (Adam) and grace (Adam a week later, and the rest of us on down) it about blew my mind. Suddenly, I had to re-read how many verses of the old testament with the understanding that all salvation is by faith? It took forever for me to really feel like that bizarre hypothesis could stand the exegetical test of time.

    It was really exactly what you're preaching here that slowly freed me. God may not have been in Christ reconciling the world to Himself until 4 BC, but they were working together to that purpose from day 1.

    Lord bless

  14. Glen

    Well said Kevin,
    It's very important to say that redemption was not purchased until Christ's incarnate work. Nonetheless the OT saints grasped His IOUs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Twitter widget by Rimon Habib - BuddyPress Expert Developer