Keep within the lines

Remember when you learnt to colour in as a child? The priority was not to be an amazing artist on day one or to demonstrate your creativity. You had one job. Keep within the lines.  The rule rule applies to theology too, especially when talking about the Trinity.

There are a few new books coming out at the moment from some of the people who have been sparring over the last 5 or six years about the Trinity. I’ve written substantially about the debate between the EFS and Neo-Classical Theist advocates. I don’t therefore intend to revisit the arguments or behaviours involved in depth today. You can read about all of that here. 

I do want to come back to that crucial point though about why and how it is important to stay within those lines.  Staying within the lines means keeping within the framework of what Scripture says on the matter. It means recognising that because we are finite creatures talking about an infinite God that there is plenty of space for discussion and exploration within those lines.  In the case of the Trinity, the lines are as follows

The ancient creeds such as the Nicene Creed in effect put those lines in place. They do so through taking time to reflect on and summarise what Scripture has to say. 

Often the problem comes when we react to what we perceive others to be saying and see them pushing towards or even risking crossing other boundaries.  So, there have been various occasions when Christians have spoken about God in a way that seems to downplay the distinction between the persons. Think of the example we saw the other day when looking at Incarnational Sonship. This view in fact seemed to cross the line by losing the eternal distinction between Father and Son.  A traditional failing in this area has been Modalism which treats each person as just a revelation of the same person, a mode of appearance where the true God is hidden and we end up only seeing puppet forms of his existence.

The reaction to that direction of travel has often been to head towards a denial of the oneness of God, towards social trinitarianism and/or a denial of his equality, seen most overtly in Arianism where the Son is a created being, subordinate to the Father.

Now, in my previous articles I’ve shown that both the EFS and the Neo-Classical Theist position do keep within the lines. Neither is a heresy, neither is really in error. However, I think that we can see when we look at them both how there is what we might refer to as a pushing up against those lines. One side seems to emphasise the distinction less, so the other emphasises this more but in so doing doesn’t seem to express the equality so well. Each side reacts further and the result is that they risk pushing up against the particular boundary that they are hugging closer and closer to. 

If their theology at times sounds a bit off centre, if their descriptions lack a certain smoothness so that we experience friction and turbulence, then this is why.

Once again, my appeal to both sides would be to stop the name calling – even if it sells your books. Take a bit of time to think about two things. First, step back and think about your responsibility as theologians to serve the church. What will truly serve them well? Secondly, think about what will most glorify God and that is most likely to happen when you are remembering and highlighting all three of the things that we must say about God: that there is no denial of oneness, equality and distinction.

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