In June 2021, Dr. Ed Litton was narrowly elected the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention. His critics soon drew attention to doctrinal statements on his church’s website, including the following:
God is One, the Creator and Ruler of the universe. He has eternally existed in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. These three are co-equal parts of one God.
The language of “parts” of God came under intense scrutiny, and soon the sentence was scrubbed. At the time of my last viewing, the entire statement had been deleted. Now the website simply directs readers to “The Baptist Faith and Message 2000.”
In a matter of weeks, then, the church of the head of America’s largest denomination accommodated three different articles on God within its confession of faith. In the eyes of many Christians, whose confessions have been mostly unchanged since the seventeenth century, events like this only confirm the idea that Baptists are doctrinally untethered.
Difficulties in articulating an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity are not limited to Baptists and poorly worded megachurch websites. In his widely discussed 2017 book All That is in God, James E. Dolezal surveys the many unorthodox claims, inconsistencies, and historically illiterate statements in today’s expositions of the doctrine of God. “Traditional understandings of God . . . have been caricatured for the sake of replacing them with notions of a changing, temporal deity whose oneness is merely social.” Dolezal terms this phenomenon “theistic mutualism,” by which he means that God changes because of the actions of creatures. It represents a clear departure from a historically orthodox doctrine of God.
What we know as classical orthodoxy today was hammered out during the Arian crisis of the fourth century and enshrined in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381. Nicene orthodoxy declared that the Son is homoousios with the Father and condemned all Arians and semi-Arians who denied that this was the true teaching of the Bible. The point of saying that the Father and the Son are one (homo) in being or substance (ousia) is to protect divine simplicity and unity and to rule out all forms of subordinationism.
The major shock in Dolezal’s book is that he establishes that it was not only liberal theologians, such as those associated with process theology, who veered away from orthodox trinitarianism in the twentieth century. Unorthodox views on the Trinity made significant inroads in evangelical and confessional Reformed theology as well. Dolezal indicts theologians such as J. I. Packer and Donald Macleod for having either denied some of the classic attributes of God or affirmed a social trinitarianism in which the three persons have separate wills and centers of consciousness within the eternal Trinity.
The decline of orthodox trinitarianism is evident in the bestselling systematic theology textbook of the past few decades: Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. Over the past decade, this popular volume has attracted serious criticism for its idiosyncratic teaching on the “functional subordination of the Son.” Grudem contends that the Son is ontologically equal to the Father but functionally subordinate. He does not mean simply that the incarnate person Jesus Christ is submissive to the Father in his human nature, as all orthodox Christians have said throughout history. Rather, he contends that the Son submits to the Father in the eternal Godhead apart from the Incarnation. This reads the economic Trinity back into the eternal Trinity in such a way as to collapse the crucial distinction between the eternal processions of generation and spiration and the historical missions of the Son and Spirit. I cannot see any way to understand Grudem’s doctrine except as positing the Father and Son as having two separate wills and thus being two separate centers of consciousness. Otherwise, how could the Son submit to the Father eternally? Grudem’s approach suggests something other than monotheism.
At the beginning of the fourth century, all parties agreed on the doctrine of divine simplicity. The question was how to express the doctrine of God as Father, Son, and Spirit in such a way as to show that the simplicity—or unity—of God was being maintained. Important practical implications follow from the fact that the three are homoousios. An orthodox Christian must affirm that there is one divine will and one power in God and that the three persons work inseparably. Divine simplicity operates, therefore, not merely as a verbal formula, but as a practical guide to avoiding tritheism in theology. Introducing either agreement or disagreement of divine wills (plural) into the eternal being of God amounts to tritheism.
Grudem presents but an instance of a general problem. There are three common errors in contemporary trinitarian theology. First, there is the error of denying one or more of God’s metaphysical attributes (such as simplicity, unity, eternity, immutability). Second, there is the error of denying the Nicene doctrine of homoousios, usually by some form of subordinationism. Third, there is the error of characterizing the God-world relation as bidirectional, such that God affects the world and the world affects God and they evolve through time together—theistic mutualism. It should be clear that the third error implies a denial of immutability and thus logically comprehends the first error. Likewise, subordinationism cannot really get off the ground without an implicit denial of simplicity and immutability.
Many modern theologians who deny or reject divine simplicity and other attributes argue that this “orthodoxy” arose from an uncritical adoption of Greek philosophy into Christian theology, an argument that has been described as the “Hellenization thesis.” It gained traction in the nineteenth century through the works of liberal theologians who argued that the idea of immutability might be incompatible with the biblical portrayal of God as speaking and acting in history. Karl Barth reinforced the Hellenization theory by adamantly rejecting natural theology. In his wake, much of twentieth-century theology was marked by a sense that divine immutability and divine action in history were incompatible. Therefore, immutability must go—or so many graduate students of theology and their eventual parishioners have been led to believe for at least two generations.
Ironically, these arguments themselves reflect the capture of theology by contemporary metaphysical assumptions. In a post-Hegelian world, God has been historicized and the paradoxical relation between immutability and divine action has become increasingly intolerable. But what is today referred to as classical theism—that God is the one, simple, immutable, eternal, self-existent, perfect first cause of the cosmos—is just a summary of the basic trinitarian principles found in the Bible as taught in the creeds and confessions of the Church. By itself classical theism is insufficient, since it does not account for the doctrine of the Trinity or the Incarnation. But to attempt to develop a doctrine of the Trinity or the Incarnation without rooting them in the metaphysical attributes is foolhardy and leads to heresy. The loss of classical theism in the twentieth century is the background to the mess that is the twentieth-century doctrine of God.
Another source of the twentieth century’s trinitarian chaos is results-oriented theology. Theologians have deployed forms of social trinitarianism in the service of various and incommensurable social agendas. Some of the debates have focused on church government. Theologians such as Miroslav Volf propose social trinitarianism as the basis of a congregational system of church government, whereas John Zizioulas and others enlist it in their apologetic for episcopacy. Other debates center on the relations between the sexes. Most famously, Grudem and other conservative evangelicals deploy a version of social trinitarianism in defense of complementarianism, while many others use it as the grounds for their promotion of egalitarianism.
Social trinitarianism is very flexible—a matter of where you put the emphasis: on the monarchy of the Father, or on the mutuality of the three persons. A doctrine that can undergird monarchy or democracy and everything in between runs the risk of losing all credibility. But the far greater problem is that social trinitarianism denigrates God’s being and lowers him into creation as a being among beings. It remakes God in our image, rationalizes mystery, and fails to protect the worship of the Church from idolatry.
I have some sympathy for those who make these errors in trinitarian theology, because twenty years ago I was partially taken in by similar ideas. My graduate and doctoral studies were significantly influenced by Barthians, and my dissertation focused on the Barthian theologian and ethicist John Howard Yoder. In 2004–05 I secured a contract to write a book on the doctrine of God as a basis for social ethics.
Through reading prominent late-twentieth-century theologians such as John Zizioulas, Colin Gunton, Miroslav Volf, and Stanley Grenz, I had become convinced that social trinitarianism was essential to a distinctively Christian approach to social ethics. I had bought into the narrative that praised the Cappadocian Fathers for emphasizing the threeness of God while decrying Augustine, whose emphasis on the oneness of God set the West on the ruinous path toward Unitarianism. By recovering the social analogy for the Trinity, I thought I was recovering the “real” meaning of Nicaea.
All went swimmingly until I dug into the primary sources.
I started reading fourth-century Fathers Athanasius, the Cappadocians, and Augustine, as well as the leading patristic scholars, and I was shocked by what I discovered. There was no historical basis for associating social trinitarianism with the Cappadocian Fathers. The fourth and fifth centuries had seen, on all the major issues, a broad consensus among the various strands of pro-Nicene theology around the Mediterranean basin. Everyone assumed divine simplicity, inseparability of operations, immutability, one will in God, and so on.
Lewis Ayres’s magisterial text, Nicaea and Its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, opened my eyes. Ayres shows that Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine agree on the irreducible oneness and irreducible threeness of God. They share the affirmation that the reality of one being, three persons is a paradox rather than a contradiction. Ayres also shows that the East-versus-West narrative promoted by many modern systematic theologians is not endorsed by the leading patristics scholars.
It took me some time to absorb the extent to which the fourth-century Fathers considered it necessary to uphold the unity, oneness, and uniqueness of God in order to express correctly the biblical teaching of the Trinity. For them, the Bible is a unity, and the Old Testament teaching that God is one does not contradict the New Testament teaching that God is three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. Yet I was still haunted by the accusation that the part of their doctrine indebted to classical theism had resulted from an uncritical appropriation of Greek philosophy.
It was at this point that another book shaped my thinking: Matthew Levering’s Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology. Levering argues that we should reject the alleged opposition between scriptural and metaphysical modes of reflection (while at the same time recognizing they must not be conflated). He presents theology as contemplation of the Holy Trinity, including contemplation of the metaphysical attributes and intra-Trinitarian processions. This helped me see why the twentieth century’s so-called “revival” of Trinitarian theology—often attributed to the influence of Barth, among others—was not a revival of Nicene Trinitarianism. Levering’s analysis confirmed Ayres’s damning accusation:
In many ways the argument . . . is not that modern Trinitarianism has engaged with pro-Nicene theology badly, but that it has barely engaged with it at all. As a result the legacy of Nicaea remains paradoxically the unnoticed ghost at the modern Trinitarian feast.
Levering also helped me see that the first forty-three questions of the Summa Theologica are a brilliant summary of the thought of the Fathers. By simultaneously integrating and correcting Aristotelian philosophy, Thomas was doing something like what Augustine had done with Neoplatonic thought. Thomas’s goal, like that of the Fathers, was the critical appropriation of Greek philosophy under the authority of biblical revelation. The “Hellenization thesis” was disproved; the “Scripturalized theory” is more accurate.
My project of providing a social trinitarian basis for social ethics was in shambles. But I still had a book to write, and I had become preoccupied with God, almost to the point of losing interest in social ethics. I wanted to talk about God in himself. I wanted to commend the Nicene doctrine of God as a richer, more biblical tradition than the twentieth-century’s so-called “revival of the doctrine of the Trinity.” There was one big problem, however. Modern assumptions make it almost impossible to read the Bible the way the Church Fathers did.
The Nicene faith is the true faith of the Bible. However, I am convinced by my study of the fourth-century Fathers’ exegesis that Nicene doctrine cannot be separated from a patristic approach to biblical interpretation. If I could prove that contemporary Trinitarian theology was not Nicene, many theologians would say, “So what?” They might assume that their doctrine was an improvement, thanks to the supposed advancements of modern, historical-critical exegesis over the approach of the Fathers.
I realized that if classical theism was to be retrieved, it was necessary to defend the superiority of patristic exegesis, a project I undertook in Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis (2018). By the time I published my original project on the doctrine of God, Contemplating God with the Great Tradition (2021), I realized that a third volume would be needed, one that dealt with metaphysics. This work, Doing Metaphysics with the Great Tradition, is underway. The goal of this trilogy is to recover the exegetical, theological, and metaphysical resources that are necessary for practicing sound theology in and beyond modernity.
We need this recovery.
A feature common to both liberal and evangelical systematic theology in recent years has been a pragmatic focus: Theology is valued not for what we learn from it about the being of God, but for how it helps us have better marriages, better ecclesiology, better political systems, and so on. Theological doctrines and systems must prove their usefulness to be accepted.
Theological pragmatism arises as we lose confidence in the possibility of speaking truthfully about God in himself. Modern analytic philosophy stresses inner logical consistency as the main criterion for assessing the validity of various models of God. In post-structuralist thought, the connection of language to reality is severed. In short, we live in a culture in which most people no longer believe that language can bear witness to mind-independent reality. As Richard Rorty put it, language is not the mirror of nature. If we lack confidence that we can say anything true about reality, including God, then theology must be justified by some pragmatic usefulness. It helps us fight injustice, or it gives us meaning, or it soothes our anxieties.
I now realize that, in this modern sense, Nicene theology is gloriously useless. The purpose of theology is to speak truthfully about God, to purify our ideas of God so that we can enjoy him. It is to enable the rational worship of God, which is polluted by idols (1 John 5:21). In other words, theology has no pragmatic purpose in the way moderns think of it. A good theologian is not one who tries to imagine how theological statements might have some practical usefulness for human projects, but rather one who seeks to contemplate, and to bring others to contemplate, the beauty of God’s being for its own sake.
Craig A. Carter is research professor of theology at Tyndale University in Toronto.
Image by Lluis Mateu via Creative Commons. Image cropped.