What the Trinity Debate Can Teach Seminarians

What the Trinity Debate Can Teach Seminarians July 3, 2016

I wrote the other day about why the Trinity debate matters for the pulpit and pew, hoping to help people outside or on the periphery of the debate understand why they should care about it. (By the way, I gave a bit of an intro and some recommended articles in that post, if you already have no clue what debate I’m talking about.)

A group of people who participated more directly in the debate is Bible college and seminary students. From undergrads to PhD students, it seems like everyone jumped into the fray, offering their opinions, rebukes, and asking the occasional question. Now, I’ve been around theology students long enough not to underestimate them, and I know some seminary students who contributed more intelligently and informedly than some professors!

But on the other hand, I’ve also been around Bible college and seminary students long enough to know that they often overestimate themselves–a year or two of reading some mind-blowing books can make you feel like a thoroughbred horse galloping around Churchill Downs, when in reality you’re more like a rhino running through downtown San Diego after breaking out of the zoo. I’ll never forget writing a paper in my master’s degree on the hamartiology of Paul, using Karl Barth to defend the same position as Tom Schreiner. My professor’s response was similar to that great Internet meme, “You keep using that word…”

Perhaps the most helpful result of this Trinity kerfuffle is two-fold: (1) professors are being forced to tighten up their language about the Trinity, with several scholars doubling back or modifying their positions; and (2) students are being forced to make sure they care about the nuances that some professors have overlooked. Theology students should be encouraged that this debate happened in public and right in front of them, because it can teach them (us!) a few good lessons.

1. Be Humble and Speak Slowly

The temptation for all of us, especially in the digital age, is to give our opinions. For example, this debate saw undergrads and seminarians calling out theologians like Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware before either man had time to respond to the articles aimed at him. Conversely, many decided to take on Liam Goligher and Carl Trueman in defense of Grudem and Ware, as though their multi-decade careers of studying and writing on the subject didn’t prepare them to defend themselves.

This is not to say that undergrads and seminarians can’t speak into the conversation. In fact, no one is barred from speaking into it and you’re not inferior to any of the scholars in the debate. But it’s an interesting phenomenon that Ware and Grudem didn’t have 48 hours to respond before half of the Internet was trying to speak on their behalf or against them. They’re big boys, they can handle it. And as seasoned laborers in this debate, it doesn’t hurt to let them have the first word out of sheer respect for their sacrifice and dedication.

Seminarian–maybe you do have something to say. Maybe you’ve read several books on the Trinity, including some of the primary sources from the 4th century patristic foundations of the debate. Maybe you already know how to parse generation and subordination, how to exegete the difficult texts, and what Gregory of Nyssa thinks about the subject. That’s great! But let me encourage you to practice being slow to speak, even if it’s not a sin to speak. As I mentioned above, there were Trinitarian scholars having to rethink a decade of work when this conversation arose! So there’s nothing wrong with sitting back and trying to learn even more before you attempt to school everyone else online.

2. Do the Quiet Work of Study

Semi-related, this debate shows us that doing the quiet work of deep study–that work that no one sees but you and the Lord–is extremely important. While some seminarians were moderately able to chime into the debate, the truth is, there was a lot of pontification with little substance. There were seminarians online who hadn’t read a single book on the topic, had no idea the difference between the Nicene Creed of 325 and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381, didn’t know basic terminology at hand, and didn’t even understand “what the big deal is.”

Worse, there were scholars taking the microphone and singing way out of tune, as though they’d never exercised their Trinitarian vocal chords before they stepped on stage at the Grand Old Nicene Opry. Some were ignorant of historical sources, others simply defiant toward what it means to converse intelligently and winsomely in academia. If anyone should be modeling the work of deep theological study, it’s our professors, right? Don’t be the person who “fakes it ’til you make it,” getting by on talent and even character without doing the work needed to genuinely contribute to the Church the way your career calls you to.

Seminarian–maybe you’re the smartest student on campus. Maybe you can riff on theology, wowing freshmen and first-year seminarians with your megabrain. Maybe you can write like a world-class poet. That’s great! Use it to encourage and educate when you care. But don’t forget to read, read, and read some more. Dig into primary sources. Read an occasional obscure article. Read biblical commentaries. And please, for the love of Tertullian, read your Bible. Don’t copycat your favorite theologian while not reading the stuff he read to get there.

In all things, remember that doctrine matters because speaking about God rightly matters. We shouldn’t take it lightly. So study hard and take on the character of Christ.

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