Interview with Brandon D. Crowe and Carl R. Trueman, editors of THE ESSENTIAL TRINITY: NEW TESTAMENT FOUNDATIONS AND PRACTICAL RELEVANCE

Published on January 10, 2017 by Joshua R Monroe

P&R, 2017 | 320 pages

What do you get when a New Testament Theologian and a Historical Theologian who is also a pastor team up to put together a book on the Trinity? Today we’ll find out!

I’m Fred Zaspel, executive editor here at Books At a Glance, and today we’re talking to Dr. Brandon Crowe and Dr. Carl Trueman, editors of the new book, The Essential Trinity: New Testament Foundations and Practical Relevance. Dr. Crowe is professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary here in Philadelphia, and Dr. Trueman is professor of Historical Theology also at Westminster – he is also pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Ambler, PA. Both are friends of Books At a Glance, and Carl has served on our Board of Reference here at Books At a Glance from the beginning.

Great to have you guys with us, and congratulations on your new book!

 

Zaspel:
Before we talk about the book, Carl, your church is in the middle of a wonderful local outreach – would you mind telling us about it?

Trueman:
Yes, it’s called Narnia in the Park. We are a church of about 100 – 150 people in a suburb of Philadelphia and we wanted to find some way of getting ourselves better known in the community, and cultivating a good public image of ourselves in the community as well. So about four years ago we decided that once a year we would go to a local park, and over a period of five nights put on some musical entertainments and then I would read through one of the Narnia books. We are in the fifth one at the moment – A Horse and His Boy. We have local people come and bring their kids along and just sit and listen to the guy with the accent read them a Narnia story. Afterwards we serve water ice and get out booklets about the gospel in Narnia and I talked to the kids and, hopefully, everybody has both a good time and has their soul somewhat fed.

 

Zaspel:
I think it’s a great idea.

Okay, let’s get into the book. Let’s start with basics: just what is the doctrine of the Trinity? Can you give us a brief statement of what we mean when we speak of God as Trinity?

Crowe:
The short answer, and maybe one of the easiest answers. I looked at the Westminster Shorter Catechism – how many gods are there? There is one God, the living and true God. And how many persons are in the Godhead? And here’s where we come to the Trinitarian nature: there are three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one God. The same in substance, equal in power and glory. So what we’re talking about is one God – the three persons: father, son, and Spirit, who are one God. As soon as you start going much beyond that and start to try to explain it in your own words you can get into a little bit of trouble if you are not careful so I think a simple definition may be the easiest.

 

Zaspel:
Carl, give us a historical perspective here. How does our understanding of the Trinity – and perhaps the relative prominence of the doctrine today – compare to that of other periods in the history of the Church?

Trueman:
Certainly from a historical perspective the Trinity is, in many ways, the big question of the first three centuries after Christ. The first three or four centuries after Christ. It reaches, pretty much, its final definition at the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD. So when you think that the doctrine is dealing with the very identity of God and how God’s identity is expressed in the economy of salvation, clearly this is an extremely important doctrine. If we take the term “Christian” in its broadest sense or Christendom in its broadest sense, the doctrine of the Trinity is really something upon which all Christians everywhere agree. It’s not an issue that divides Protestants from Catholics, for example. It is such a basic foundational doctrine because it’s dealing with the very identity of God. At an academic level, the last 40-50 years have really seen a tremendous renaissance of interest in the Trinity.

Not all of the academic writing on the Trinity has been good or orthodox, but the Trinity has been a central note, or central theme within a lot of academic biblical studies and systematic theological studies now for close to half a century. In terms of the more grassroots level of the church, I think it remains a doctrine that most Christians, if you ask them, would say, “Oh yes, I believe in that.” But when you asked them to explain it, or explain why it is significant, people may struggle a bit more in that kind of context. So that was, actually, one of the reasons why we put together the book we have done. We wanted to try to bring the fruits of some of the best, a high level reflecting on Trinity. We wanted to bring that into the pew; make it clear to people in churches why this doctrine is beautiful, why it’s glorious, and why it’s very important for Christians.

 

Zaspel:
Tell us what is distinctive about your book. What is the contribution you are hoping to make? While you’re at it give us a brief overview of the book and tell us about some of the other contributors.

Crowe:
A couple of things make this book distinctive. First off, as I’m sure will discuss in a minute, it is comprised of two halves, two approaches. The first half of the book is more Biblical theology; whereas the second half of the book takes the fruits of Biblical and systematic theology and looks to a more practical direction with the issues.

In the first half of the book, what we are doing Biblically is seeking to tease out what the various books of the New Testament say, not only about high Christology, but about the relationship of the Father and the Son and the Spirit. As Carl said, the Trinity is a doctrine that is a nonnegotiable for Christian orthodoxy. And if that’s the case, then it must come from Scripture. And indeed it does. But how does it come from Scripture? What does the Scriptures say about the Father and the Son and the Spirit? In the first half of the book, that’s what we try to tease out.

We tried to gather a collection of contributors who are knowledgeable and leaders in their respective fields of study, and who can bring, in many cases, a lifetime of experience thinking about some of these questions to the table and talk about father son and Spirit, whether it be in Matthew, Mark, Luke and Acts, John, Paul, Hebrews, the Catholic and general epistles or Revelation. There’s also an essay on the Old Testament. And so the point is not to under read these texts, whereby miss what’s there, or not to over read them so we don’t make them be explicitly saying what was codified in later ecumenical councils, because that’s not quite how the Scriptures communicate the Trinity to us. They give it to us in the Biblical theological fashion, and as we reflect on the Scriptures. That’s the way we then come to more systematic formulations.

But what do the text actually say to the Trinity, if, in fact, the Trinity is a Scriptural doctrine? One of the presuppositions that I bring to this is the fact that the Trinity is the right way to read Scripture. Reading these texts in the Trinitarian fashion is not one allowable way, but it is the right way to read these texts. And, in fact, the texts point asked in that direction. Someone has called this the Trinitarian pressure of the texts that force us to read them in the sense that there is one God; that Father, Son, and Spirit are all this one God. In teasing out how that is, done in a Biblical theological fashion in the first half of the book. Maybe Carl can speak more about the second half of the book and what is in there

Trueman:
Yes. In the second half of the book we wanted to get into the nitty-gritty of what difference does it make? We certainly don’t want to reduce Christian theology to pragmatism – it’s only true because it makes a difference. But the Trinity does make a difference. Understanding who God is in Himself and how He has acted in His Trinitarian way in the economies of creation and salvation is vitally important for Christians. So we put together a small team of theologians in the second half, to address these more practical aspects. We start off with what I would regard as a very foundational essay by Scott Swain, talking about the mystery of the Trinity. And Scott makes a very important point there that if you are coming to Trinitarian doctrine to understand the Trinity exhaustively, you’re never going to get it. It is certainly a profound mystery that God is three and God is one, so Scott really lays a nice foundation there setting the limits, if you like, of what we can expect to grasp of Trinitarian doctrine and pointing towards the fact that the ultimate response to God as Trinity is adoration. I have a little chapter on Trinity and prayer where I look at two aspects. I look at how Christ’s intercession before the Father, even now is so important for us. Hebrews makes the point that we have this great high priest and therefore we should go boldly to the throne of grace. The incarnation, and the incarnation in Trinitarian context should actually make us bold in the way we approach the Lord in prayer. So that’s very, very practical significance. I also touch on John Owens’ understanding of communion with God in three persons – how we commune differently with Father, son, and Holy Spirit. And then in the final three essays we have Mark Thompson writing on Trinity in Revelation looking at how God’s Trinitarian nature connects to the way in which he is revealed himself. Bob writes on how Trinitarianism should consciously shape our worship. Mike Reeves looks at the connection between Trinity and preaching. The idea is that in these latter chapters we really bring home what’s been established in the first half of the book to say to you believer in the pew on Sunday, “This is the difference it makes to what you hear, to what you’re seeing, to how you pray, to how you think about God on a day-to-day basis.”

Crowe:
To follow up there, Fred, I don’t think that I went through the contributors to the first part of the book, so if it would be helpful, I can do that briefly.

Zaspel:
Sure.

Crowe:
I have two essays, one on Matthew and one on the general epistles. The gentleman who wrote the essay on Mark, his name may not be well known to you the readers of your website but his name is Daniel Johansson. He is Swedish, but he knows all of the literature in basically every language related to the issues of Christology and Mark; and he is able to bring his expertise on Mark in Christology to this Trinitarian framework, and it is a very good chapter. On Luke and Acts – Alan Thompson, who has written a book that your readers may know of: Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus, for example, in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series. He writes on both Luke and Acts. On John we have Richard Bauckham who, of course, is well known and has written much on Christology. He brings to this writing project his perspective on Divine Identity Christology, of course, putting that into a Trinitarian framework. On Paul we have Brian Rosner writing on all of the Pauline epistles. On Hebrews, another British scholar named Jonathan Griffiths from, I believe, Cambridge, or some place in England. He wrote his PhD thesis on Divine Speech in Hebrews. On Revelation, Benjamin Gladd from RTS down in Jackson. And then on the Old Testament we have a very fine essay by Mark Gignilliat, who is at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham. He is bringing both his knowledge of the History of Old Testament studies and Old Testament Exegesis, along with the History of Systematic Theology to the table there.

 

Zaspel:
The way or manner in which the doctrine of the Trinity is presented in Scripture has long interested me. There is no single place where a given New Testament author sets out to expound God as Triune, as such, and yet it’s a doctrine so clear that virtually all flavors of Christians hold it as essential. Brandon, can you give us an overall sense of how the doctrine is presented?

Crowe:
Yes, that’s a great question, and one of the reasons for the book in fact. I think this brings us back to that phrase, “good and necessary consequence,” where things don’t have to be explicitly stated in the way we might expect them he stated, to be necessarily stated the text. What that means is that the Scriptures are very clear that there is one God. That is never in question. There’s only one God. And yet, there are certain prerogatives this one God has that are not shared by any creature; that are characteristic of both the Son and the Spirit. And so if there is only one God and the divine prerogatives that belong only to God – being Savior, receiving worship, things like this – are shared by both Son and Spirit, then that forces us to reckon with the possibility, in fact, the necessity that God is one God, but in three persons. So Father, Son, and Spirit are equally God in a way that does not, in any way, compromise the oneness of God. And so you have the names of God are being applied to Father, Son, and Spirit: worship is given to father, son, and Spirit: the attributes of God are attributed to Father, Son, and Spirit; the works of God are attributed to Father, Son, and Spirit. So you have that on a broad scale, and then you have these smaller glimpses into the tri-unity of God in places like the baptism and the transfiguration of Jesus in the Gospels.

You have it in Jesus’s prayer in Matthew 11 and Luke where Jesus knows the Father exhaustively, in a way that goes beyond any creature. You have the preexistence of the Son clearly taught in the New Testament. And so all of these things together force us to reckon with the oneness of God, yet in a way where Father, Son, and Spirit are God. You see in another place, it might be I Corinthians 8 where you have one God and one Lord that’s representative of the Father and the Son quoting from Deuteronomy 6, the Shema, which says that there is only one God. So as you read these texts, the symphonic voices coming together lead to what we have in the great councils of the church where they are wrestling with these passages. And that’s one of the ways we see the Trinity is a Biblical doctrine, because the church fathers were always wrestling with Scripture and that was the final authority and as they do, they come to the realization, as we now know, there is one God in three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and these three are one God. You’re right that it is not an explicit text that says there is one God in three persons, but as you read the texts carefully and faithfully that is the conclusion we are forced to.

 

Zaspel:
Warfield makes an interesting observation. An observation that I thought was fascinating in that regard that when we get to the New Testament, well, of course, as it has often been pointed out, the doctrine of the Trinity is given its full light, and we can see better. But he points out that the doctrine is not argued so much in the New Testament as it just appears full-blown – common property of the church. It is assumed in so many passages; it’s reflected in many passages in the way you’ve talked about it; it’s already the common property of the church.

Crowe:
I think that’s exactly right. That sometimes you see the deepest presuppositions of the writers in what they are simply assuming as a shared perspective in the churches to whom they are writing, for example, in the epistles. So I think Warfield is correct on that account.

 

Zaspel:
Can you give us some brief suggestions as to how we can approach the study of the Trinity in the Old Testament?

Crowe:
That’s a great question, and I would recommend Mark Gignilliat’s chapter, but in brief, I think we could say a couple of things. One is the need to remember, first of all, progressive revelation. So God is more fully revealed in the New Testament than in the Old Testament. But at the same time, and this is so important, we are not dealing with a different God in any way. If God is triune, then he is eternally triune. And so the Old Testament is not given to us in any way by a different God; but it is the same God who was there who has just not as extensively revealed himself in the Old Testament because we are progressively working towards the fullness of his revelation in the New Testament.

So you have a difference in what has been revealed in the Old Testament, but you don’t have a different God in the Old Testament. I think that’s crucially important as well as, for example, the preexistence of the Son, which is clearly taught in the New Testament. So if that is the case, then the son of God is also not a creation at, you know, Christmas morning. The son of God is always active as the logos in the Old Testament and so we must be alert to that. And this is something the church fathers would focus on from the earliest days, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus and people like that, they were focusing on what does it mean to say that the Son is the logos and then trying to correlate that back, in various ways, to the speech of God in the Old Testament, for example. All of our questions aren’t answered, but we know we are dealing with the same God in the Old Testament. And I think that’s very helpful to keep in mind.

 

Zaspel:
Talk to us about the Trinity and Prayer, and the Trinity and Worship. What ought to be distinctive about the worship and the prayer of a Trinitarian?

Trueman:
What’s interesting about the worship question, of course, is that I think the debates within the early church are driven by worship questions. One of the ways I start my Early Church Trinitarian class at Westminster, I always start by saying it’s going to get abstract. We’re going to be using terms like hypostasis and ousia that don’t seem to connect with personal piety very easily; but you need to remember this, that all of this language is being deployed in an ongoing debate, really, about Christian worship.

The big questions, I think, that drive the early church fathers are this: what do we mean when we say Jesus is Lord? How do we ascribe Lordship to Jesus? That’s a very radical thing to do – ascribing divinity to this man, Jesus Christ. And the other question is: why do we baptize the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit? So there’s a sense in which Christian worship is always Trinitarian. I think the question for us today is: do we realize that? Are we conscious of that? If you been baptized, you been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t come more basic than baptism – that’s Trinitarian action. If you have sung a hymn, or prayed and referred to Jesus as Lord, you’ve actually engaged in Trinitarian worship there, because the doctrine of the Trinity was the church’s explicatory framework, if you like, for making sense of these New Testament liturgical actions.

So I would say, all Christian worship is, by definition, Trinitarian. The key thing that I would like to see us cultivating and developing, is becoming more conscious of that. Because once you become more conscious that what you’re doing already is Trinitarian, guess what? You can do it better. You could do it more self-consciously.

In terms of prayer, to me, one of the key, practical things about prayer is knowing that the Son prays to the Father and the Father already knows that which the Son is going to ask him, and he likes to granted to him. Why? Because the Father and Son are one God. The Son asks for nothing that the Father does not desire to give him. That actually tracks back to the ousia question. People say, homoousia sounds like a terribly abstract term. Well, think about it. What it does, is it establishes that Father and Son are one God; and that means that the Son’s heavenly intercession is infinitely powerful because he asks for nothing that the Father does not already desire to grant him.

And that, of course, has immediate practical implications for us. I think it lies behind the writer to the Hebrews’ comment that therefore we should approach the throne of grace without timidity. We can go boldly to God, because we know that we are praying to God, our Father, through the Lord Jesus Christ; and our Father delights to give us that which, through Christ, we have asked for. It’s not a blank check, the Christological component is vital there, but it is to say that our prayers go to the Father through Christ, by the Spirit, and therefore are powerful. We can be bold in the way we approach our Father. So those would just be two things on the worship front – Christian worship is always Trinitarian; it’s a question of how well we understand that. And prayer – the essence of prayer is Trinitarian. Prayer – and I don’t mean this in an irreverent way, but prayer only works because it is Trinitarian. We can only be confident that it’s going to work because it’s Trinitarian.

 

Zaspel:
Do you address Owen’s Communion with God?

Trueman:
I touch on that as well, yes. He talks very clearly there about how, when we think about God, when we ascribe things to God, we need to worship the different persons in some way for, you might say, different inflections of the economies of creation and redemption. We are still worshiping the one God, but the Son fulfills a different role to the father; albeit that all acts of the Trinity are acts of the one God. We think of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as having different inflections of that salvific economy.

 

Zaspel:
Theological discussion in recent weeks of course has been marked by debate regarding the relation of the Three Persons – specifically whether the submission of the Son in the outworking of redemption reflects a relationship to the Father that he has sustained from eternity. Do you get into this question at all in your book?

Trueman:
You know, Fred, I completely missed that debate. I haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about.

Zaspel:
Yeah, right! (laughing)

Trueman:
Thankfully, and I think Brandon can confirm this, my memory of reading the text is, thankfully, that the book was put together before that all exploded. I think there are implications of what we say for that debate, but the purpose of this volume is not polemical. It’s expository, explanatory and applicatory. Though I would add, just to sort of clear my own name a little bit on this – nobody denies that the relations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in eternity shape the economy in history; that the different persons play different roles. There’s a long-standing discussion of that from the patristic era through the Middle Ages. The question is, of course, what is the nature of that relation between Father and Son, and how does it track to the economy of salvation? I think that’s the point at issue.

 

Zaspel:
But as far as the book is concerned, all sides can relax; they don’t have to be afraid, right?

Trueman:
I hope so! My hope is that this book doesn’t just add to the pile of literature on the Trinity, but it is a book that pastors can give to thoughtful laypeople or to their elders, and they can read it and find something that will change the way they think about church. Change the way they think about God in a good and positive way.

 

Zaspel:
I think it’s a great resource.

We’re talking to Drs. Brandon Crowe and Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary and editors of the new book, The Essential Trinity: New Testament Foundations and Practical Relevance. It’s a very helpful new resource, and we encourage you to “take and read”!

Brandon, Carl – thanks so much for talking with us today.

Buy the books

THE ESSENTIAL TRINITY: NEW TESTAMENT FOUNDATIONS AND PRACTICAL RELEVANCE

P&R, 2017 | 320 pages