Christ or Trinity?

Since the Colloquium on Theological Interpretation last month (see here, and here) I have been mulling the question of Christian hermeneutics. In particular: is there a difference between a Christological hermeneutic and a Trinitarian hermeneutic? And if so, why do I advocate Christological readings rather than Trinitarian?

The answer to the first question is decidedly yes: there is a difference between Christological and Trinitarian hermeneutics. The former, readings that explore the ramifications of scripture for the story of the crucified and risen Christ, points us to the ministry of Jesus, in particular his death, resurrection, and exalted Lordship. The latter points us to the divinity of Christ.

The clearest example I have seen of the important difference between these is the reading of Lukan intertextuality provided by Richard Hays at SBL last year. He cited Jesus’ words at the end of Luke, that Jesus opened the minds of the travelers to hear all the things written about him in the scriptures.

Hays then proceeded to engage with a far-reaching reading of how Luke was applying the OT texts that referred to YHWH to Jesus instead. The upshot of Hays’ reading was that Luke is showing us that the OT’s YHWH is none other than the Jesus of the Gospel.

Even though this reading focuses on Jesus, it is a Trinitarian reading inasmuch as the working assumption that makes the reading possible is the idea of an eternal Son coequal with and in some way identical to the God of the OT.

Luke, however, intends a very different interpretation of the OT as a witness to Jesus.

Luke does not simply say, the OT is about Jesus no go find out how I’ve shown this. He tells us precisely how the OT speaks of Jesus the Messiah. First, in Luke 24:26-27 he says, “‘Wasn’t it necessary for the Messiah to suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them the things written about himself in all the scriptures.”

The thing written about Jesus in the scriptures are not that Jesus is YHWH, but that Jesus, as Messiah, had to suffer and enter his glory.

This is even more clearly stated later in the same chapter:

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures,and said to them, “Thus it stands written that the Christ would suffer and would rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.(NET Bible)

To read scripture aright is not to read it as a witness to the eternal Trinity, but to read it as witness to the suffering and glory of the Messiah.

The presupposition needed for the Christological reading that Luke directs us to is not that Christ is preexistent or in any sort of ontological way identifiable with YHWH of the OT.

The presupposition required for a Christological, narratival hermeneutics is that Jesus who died was, in fact, the Messiah, that that God raise this Jesus from the dead and enthroned him over all things.

There is a difference, and Luke invites us to Christological narrative rather than divine onotology as the way to correctly read scripture in light of the Christ event.

The narrative of Jesus, not divine identity as it is often construed today, is the way to correctly read the whole Bible in light of Jesus as Messiah, according to Luke (and Paul and John and Matthew and Mark and Peter and Hebrews and Revelation). This means that our hermeneutics will be driven by the story of Jesus rather than the Trinity. It also means that when we chose to use the Rule of Faith as our hermeneutical grid, we have taken a significant step away from the Christian reading of scripture that is commended to us in the NT.

31 thoughts on “Christ or Trinity?”

    1. No, but there are close conjunctions of Father, Son, and Spirit that we should acknowledge and wrestle with. Trinity is a later, and important, formulation of the church. But how much control should it exercise over our readings of scripture?

  1. With regards to Luke’s agenda, I wonder if this is why Luke’s cues come from Daniel 7 in the foretelling of Jesus’ birth. Whereas Matthew is keen to state coming Jesus’ role as savior, the new Joshua who brings the people out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land (Mt 1:21), Luke emphasizes Jesus’ place as eternal king (Lk 1:32-33), who in Daniel receives his authority from the Most High (Dan 7:13-14, 18, 27).

  2. Also, I’d be interested in learning who else is doing their work in this manner. You mentioned a couple from the New Zealand conference, and, of course, Hays. I would put Greg Boyd in this category. Who else?

  3. Daniel,

    Your essay is thoughtful (as usual) and invigorating.

    New Testament is fundamentally Christ-centered as the living revelation of God. I fully agree that a Christological hermeneutic is better positioned to honor that perspective than a Trinitarian hermeneutic.

    Moving a Trinitarian hermeneutic to the forefront of biblical exegesis is typically anachronistic and at minimum brings in philosophical/ontological complications that did not concern first-century writers such as Paul, Luke, James–and their auditors when the letters were read aloud.

    As Son of God, Jesus indeed revealed the “close conjunctions” of Father, Son, and Spirit. Practically speaking, one can reasonably refer to “. . . the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Spirit” (Matt 28:19 NRSV) as essential *trinitarian* theology (with a small “t”).

    Rigid Trinitarian formulations of later centuries (big “T”), albeit significant in historic Christianity, have tended to be well-intentioned but complex human constructs to comprehend God beyond the NT witness in order to confront heretical notions.

    Paul preached Christ crucified and risen, honored the Father who raised Jesus from the dead, and attested to the Spirit’s ongoing mission to invigorate those who commenced a new corporate walk in Christ with resurrection life and the condition of divine sonship.

    Paul’s Christ-centered (and thus theo-centric) theology was also trinitarian (small “t”). The apostle routinely distinguished these revealed, (supra-) personal relational identities of God that coherently bring the gift of salvation to humankind.

    Perhaps I worry too much about the potential idolatry of creating a humanly defined “Trinitarian” God that conforms to philosophical conditions.

    I look forward to a readily comprehended, dynamically flexible, Christ-centered paradigm for understanding God as Father, Son, and Spirit.


  4. “To read scripture aright is not to read it as a witness to the eternal Trinity, but to read it as witness to the suffering and glory of the Messiah.”

    I’m going to appeal to the distinction between immediate and ultimate. The immediate ground of Scripture’s testimony is the triumph of the kingdom of God in the suffering and glory of the Messiah, the man of God, Jesus Christ. In reflection on this testimony, as you said in your comment to Reuben, the church later came to an understanding of God’s being as the Father, Son and Spirit in eternal triunity. Now, if this reflection is important, as you said, and so I assume you think its true, it cannot possibly be made a peripheral notion but is actually the ultimate ground of the gospel, the implicit ground on which the NT’s immediate and explicit witness has its ultimate meaning. It therefore cannot but control our reading of the whole of Scripture. That doesn’t mean we read Trinity into everything (“hey, when God says ‘let us make man in our image’ it must be the Father talking to the Son!”) – we should still be as careful as you habitually are to attend to the author’s perspective and intent. So, you’re right that the explicit focus of Luke is not on Jesus’ eternal consubstantiality with Yahweh; its on his crucifixion and resurrection as Israel’s Messiah in fulfillment of God’s covenant with them. But if the church is right, in light of its readings of John, Colossians, Hebrews, etc, that Christ is the eternal Son of God, ought it to intentionally forget that as it reads Luke? Yes, it ought to differentiate between what Luke is explicitly saying based on his understanding and what it knows through broader reflection on the ultimate ground of the gospel, but it would be entirely unnatural and even impossible to drive a wedge between this immediate focus and the gospel’s ultimate ground. I know (or I think I know) that you’ll say something like Luke has a gospel to tell that isn’t dependent on any explicit confession of the truinity of God’s eternal being, a gospel that makes sense simply by appeal to God’s covenant with Israel and his faithfulness to them through his Messiah, and of course that is entirely true and justifies Luke for not expounding an explicitly trinitarian theology. But the question I think that has to be answered is is the doctrine of the trinity true? If it is, can it possibly be peripheral to our reading of Scripture? Can we responsibly forget or repress our knowledge of Christ’s divinity as we read the synoptic’s portrayal of his divinely appointed humanity? Are there two Jesuses, a synoptic and a Johannine? If the New Testament has any actual unity, it has to be in the single person of Jesus Christ himself, and if that person is in fact God and man in hypostatic union, whether that formulation is early or late, if it is actually true, than our reading of the whole canon as it hangs together in Jesus Christ has to be informed by Trinity. Again, that doesn’t mean the whole Bible is about Trinity – you’re right, its about Jesus – but it does mean the whole Bible is ultimately about God’s acts of salvation in Jesus Christ who is rightly understood to be God the Son incarnate.

    Where you consistently lose me is in your refusal to simply deny the doctrine of the trinity. You keep wanting to hold on to it as a marginally important later reflection that shouldn’t actually do anything in our thinking or hermeneutics, but I just don’t see how it could possibly do that. Yes, it should be nuanced and kept from steamrolling over the whole text, and yes you can find all kinds of historical and contemporary examples of exegetes and expositors who epicly fail at that restraint, but I just can’t see asking it to do nothing in our reading of Scripture as a responsible recommendation apart from saying its just not true, that Jesus is just human or Arius’s firstborn or some other christology. If you want a Christological reading of Scripture that is not Trinitarian, than I think you need a Christology that is something other than Trinitarian. You repeatedly present a Christology that is less than Trinitarian, but then (seemingly reluctantly) acknowledge that the Trinity is somewhat or somehow true. If its true at all, it is the most revolutionary notion in the history of theology – it changes everything.

    1. I think that the answer to your question, “Can we responsibly forget or repress our knowledge of Christ’s divinity as we read the synoptic’s portrayal of his divinely appointed humanity?” is yes, we have to, or else we’ll be bad readers of the Synoptics. Not forget, but repress. We have to demand that the text say something else to us, our else our gut instinct that the whole thing means “Jesus is God” will disable us from being able to understand what the Synoptics are about.

      I suppose I don’t think that the Trinity is the most revolutionary notion in the history of theology. The idea of a crucified and risen savior takes that position. And, I think that the unity of the NT is found here rather than the later Trinitarian formulation.

      1. Isn’t the notion of a dying and rising savior or god (little “g”, as in not Israel’s YHWH) fairly standard in the ancient world?

        I’m not sure I track with your notion of what a good reader of the synoptics is. Why is reading a canonical book divorced from its larger canonical context (if we believe in such a thing as a coherent and inspired canon) and the theological impressions those make at the deep levels of our thinking a good thing? Why is having a “yeah, I guess so as long as it doesn’t do anything” doctrine of the Trinity a good thing?

        1. Why is it better to listen to what Luke himself (for example) wanted to say? Because I believe God wanted us to have the Bible he gave us. And that’s not just the Bible with John in it. Receiving this canon as the word of God means listening to each of its voices, so that the whole thing is a harmony rather than a song in unison.

          The Synoptics’ non-divine Jesus is not the only thing to be said about Jesus, but it is an important thing. To return to my musical analogy, if the bass section sings the Soprano line, the richness of the whole is lost. To read as part of a whole is not to make everyone witness to the same later theological affirmation, it is to allow each voice to make its contribution and then hear it as a whole.

          1. I take the point of the musical analogy – I’m saying a Trinitarian reading of Scripture doesn’t have to make everyone sing the same part, it just names the song. It says that the unity behind the various testimonies is that God has loved us with the love he himself is. Until we are brought to that ultimate ground, our Christology and thus our soteriology is lacking in ontological depth. Such a realization still leaves ample room for Luke to say what he has to say, but what he says need not be and ought not to be interpreted in isolation – tearing the soprano part away from the other parts and listening to it in isolation is a bad way to listen to the song.

            The Synoptics, accordingly, really can’t have a non-divine Christ if there is no non-divine Christ. His divinity need not be their explicit focus, and if it isn’t we should try to make it be, but if they are writing about him and he is divine then the he they are writing about cannot be non-divine, whether they explicitly speak of his divinity or not. If he is in fact divine, which I think you think he is, and the evangelists’ intent is to refer to him rather than to their own limited thoughts about him, then it is who he is in himself that ought to control our understanding of who he is in their reference to him rather than their explicit statements about him. Their explicit statements ought to control what we understand their point to be, and indeed their explicit point might not need Christ to be divine and that is important, but if their Christ is actually non-divine then what we have between the Synoptics and John, for example, is not harmony but irreconcilable contradiction. Saying I believe God wanted the Bible the way it is is fine, but does it amount to saying he wanted contradiction? I don’t think so. Two-nature Christology and Trinity can control our readings of Scripture so that they don’t contradict each other without controlling them in the sense of making Christ’s divinity and Trinity the point of every passage or book.

            1. ” the evangelists’ intent is to refer to him rather than to their own limited thoughts about him, then it is who he is in himself that ought to control our understanding of who he is…”

              This is nice, but impossible. Our own limited thoughts are always involved, whether it was the evangelists, or the early church father’s development of the theology of divinity/trinity, or in our own limited understandings of the evangelists, church father’s, and the divine.

              1. Adam, I have no stake in denying that our limited thoughts are involved in our discourse about Christ. My point is that when the evangelists refer to Christ, what they intend to refer us to is Christ, not their mental concept of him that they have constructed for themselves. Of course they had such a mental concept and could not think, speak or write about him without such a thing being involved, but their intent was to refer to Christ himself THROUGH their limited words and conceptual interpretations of him (making use of whatever OT literary themes in so doing). If we believe in Christ and believe that he appointed his apostles and their followers to testify to him so that he might make himself known in their testimony (Luke 10:16), then this has to be our conclusion. The tendency in modern biblical studies to attend only to the evangelists’ subjective understandings rather than to the objective realities they refer to is what has triggered the need for something like theological interpretation of Scripture, which ought to be a redundant phrase.

                1. That’s an interesting point, although, I am struggling to come to terms with “objective reality.” I’m not sure if such a thing can be spoken of in words, while it certainly exists. But if I take it for granted that we can speak objectively, then I would make a distinction between experienced reality and ontological reality. I have no problem accepting that the evangelists experienced Christ, through eye-witness (unlikely), other witnesses, and through the believing community (or “spiritual” life). But the step from the experience to making ontological claims about the experience is covered in subjectivity, not objectivity. Therefore, a most the evangelists are pointing us towards their experience of Christ, not their ontological claims of Christ-regardless of their intentions.

                  1. I see two questions in front of us here. First, what is the relationship between objective realities and our subjective knowledge of them. What I hear you saying (in a fairly Kantian way) is that we can’t know things as they are because our subjectivity is always involved. I just don’t follow that – the fact that my subjectivity is involved needn’t be a problem. Believing that knowledge is actually possible, I take that to mean that the objects I seek to know impress themselves on my subjective consciousness until what T. F. Torrance calls a “structural kinship” arises between the object I know and my knowing of it. Of course the distinction between the objective reality and my subjective understanding of it always subsists, but that need not be understood as a radical cleavage. It could be understood in such a way that someone’s subjective reference to an objective reality may actually lead the listener to the object itself so that the listener can then make their own subjective impression of the object based on their direct intuitive encounter with the object rather than merely on the basis of the speaker’s reference.

                    This leads us, secondly, to the question of the availability of the object in question, Jesus Christ. In merely historical reference, for instance, the object of reference is no longer available to the listener for direct encounter. In that case, all they have to base their subjective knowledge on is the subjective impressions communicated by the speaker. But in knowledge of living persons (or perpetually available objects of scientific investigation like rocks and stuff), it is unnecessary and silly if I really want to know about someone to be satisfied by what someone else says about them, no matter how well the testifier may be acquainted with the person I want to know. If the person is available for direct personal encounter, the testimony of others absolutely should not be seen as intending to terminate at the level of subjective understanding but to lead the listener beyond the speaker’s words and concepts to the person themselves who can then be known directly. In the case of knowledge of Jesus Christ, if we believe what the biblical writers say about him, that he rose again and is present to the church now by his Spirit through the proclamation of his gospel, then we must believe that we are not left at the level of subjective speculation about him based on the biblical testimony but through the biblical testimony are given direct personal encounter with the risen Christ by his Spirit. We can make references to him that terminate on him, not us. It is on this basis that the early church in their interpretation of Scripture, not stopping at the level of the evangelists’ explicit statements and the subjective understanding’ that lay behind them but penetrating through them to the present reality of Christ, understood him to be the Son of God incarnate and that this was the deep ontological basis that lay implicit beneath the evangelists’ testimony of Christ’s saving acts.

                    1. ” If the person is available for direct personal encounter, the testimony of others absolutely should not be seen as intending to terminate at the level of subjective understanding but to lead the listener beyond the speaker’s words and concepts to the person themselves who can then be known directly. In the case of knowledge of Jesus Christ, if we believe what the biblical writers say about him, that he rose again and is present to the church now by his Spirit through the proclamation of his gospel, then we must believe that we are not left at the level of subjective speculation about him based on the biblical testimony but through the biblical testimony are given direct personal encounter with the risen Christ by his Spirit.”

                      This is quite a conditional claim to be considered objective reality.

                      As for subjectivity, I don’t simply think that it gets in the way. It’s deeper than that. The problem is not our subjectivity, but language itself. Language is unable to capture “objective reality.” And we can only think with languages. Concepts like “trinity” vaguely describe an infinite God. Trinity historically has functioned in a way that let’s us know who the heretics are. But there are still many professed Christians who question or don’t believe in the trinity. So, while their may be a “structural kinship,” the reality of believers is one of diverse experiences of God, even within the Christian Evangelical tradition. This is the evidence that subjectivity is pervasive. The question is are we going to have a conversation or name heretics.

                    2. Of course its conditional; the condition is faith. But if we believe the object of our faith is entirely the product of our subjective thoughts then we don’t really have faith in anything but ourselves. My argument is that if we believe in the Jesus Christ of the New Testament, then this is what we believe about him – that he is present to us, making himself known to the church by the Spirit.

                      I don’t consider language any more a problem than subjectivity. Of course language cannot “capture” objective reality. It isn’t meant to. It is meant to point beyond itself to the thing itself. Yes the word “trinity” and the range of theological concepts behind it are unable to adequately capture God. At that level they are perpetually revisable in light of the reality of God himself. But since God in Christ does not just give information to the church but a job to do, a job that involves speaking of what it knows in Christ, we must use words to express what we know and are enabled to do so because Christ himself used words, inadequate in themselves as they are, to express the (subjective-objective) reality of God and then he passed his teachings on to his church through his apostles. So objections to Trinity can’t be based on the feebleness of words; yes, they are feeble and inadequate in themselves, but nevertheless appropriated by God and made adequate in his use of them.

                      Yes, some people call themselves Christians and deny Trinity. Conversation should indeed proceed from there on the basis of which understanding of God is more adequate based on the biblical testimony. I am convinced (though open) that the doctrine of the Trinity, the key behind which is the reality that the Word which became flesh was preexistently with God and was God (homoousia), is the key to unlocking the depths of the New Testament’s testimony to God’s acts of salvation in the man Jesus. If there are better proposals, lets talk about them. But if I’m not allowed to call someone a heretic, that seems like an arbitrary straightjacket to impose on an important conversation.

  5. Daniel, when the early church was arriving at those doctrinal formulations such as the divinity of Christ and the co-essentiality of the Father and the Son, was it interpreting Scripture? Or was it engaged in a different task?

  6. Not having read through all of the comments (because I really need to go to bed), I don’t see the distance between Christological and Trinitarian as huge if Jesus is fully God and full man (hypostatic union).

    What I see in your examples is the confusion of Trinitarianism with some sort of “timeless” gospel that doesn’t exist. In Christ, the Gospel plays out in real time and space. Attempts to read ahistorical details back into the text are rather pointless.

  7. Isn’t speaking of a “Christological reading” or “Trinitarian hermeneutic” of the Bible a bit like speaking of an “Elvish reading” or a “Bagginsian hermeneutic” of Tolkien’s LOTR?

    I’d be happier with using the vocabulary of how the author’s compositional strategy of plot, characterization, intertextual allusion, etc., creates arguments to convince and shape the reader. . .

    1. I think it’s most important in reading the OT, James, and a few other places. What is a Christian reading of the Bible? That’s a legit question. I think we do all read with some sort of hermeneutic, and it’s tied to our understanding of what our identity is as Christians. And then it gets tied to how we act.

      Should we look for indications of Jesus as God in Luke? I don’t think so, b/c Luke tells us to read Jesus’ life, in relation to the OT, with a different hermeneutical lens–and to read the OT in particular through that lens. And this is what happens in the speeches in Acts.

  8. It would have been nice if “Luke” had actually detailed the individual scriptures that proved the Messiah had to die (although to be sure, nowhere does Luke/Acts say that Jesus died for sins).

          1. I guess I’m struggling finding those too in the sermons in Acts. Which sermons? I think it is one thing to say that Jesus has to die, and it is another to say that God corrected Jesus’ unjust death (Acts 8.33) through the resurrection. With this distinction in mind, I’m struggling to find where Jesus has to die in Luke/Acts. But I’m looking at this question anew, so correct me if I’m wrong.

  9. Great post and stimulating discussion. If I could weigh in one small bit, I noticed that the two verbs being used to describe what we (perhaps) should or should not do in relation the theological dogmas when reading historical texts were “forget” and “repress.” All I’d suggest is that it might be clearer to say “suspend” than even “repress.” This may well be more of a connotation issue than anything, but temporarily pushing our belief to the side seems preferable to bottling it up or holding it in.

    The goal in faithful theological interpretation would then be to suspend our dogmas so that we can encounter the text on its own terms, after which we un-suspend our dogmas and adjust their content and/or emphases accordingly.

  10. If Jesus is showing his disciples all that concerns himself in the OT then part of that revelation is that Jesus is Yahweh (or. at least so other parts of the NT tell us). Why should this aspect be missing from Luke’s vision of Jesus?

    The question really is does Luke imply deity in Christ. Now I agree that deity is not to the fore as it is in John, but is it absent? ‘Should we look for indications of Jesus as God in Luke’? We should certainly note them if they are there. Further given the rest of the NT we should not be surprised if they are there. Surely, Hay’s point stands good:Ot references to Yahweh applied directly to Jesus strongly points to Luke suggesting a divine identity.

    Read Luke on his own terms yes. But let’s make sure we are reading on his terms and not ours.

    One added point, when we preach from a text we preach what it teaches but we preach it within our larger understanding of the faith. I agree with your reservations about systematics but we all have a systematic, acknowledged or otherwise unless of course we believe that books of Scripture have no unity and there is no such thing as ‘the faith once for all delivered to the saints’.

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