The “Social Trinity” vs. Nicene Christianity

The “Social Trinity” vs. Nicene Christianity January 19, 2022

 

What God do you worship?  For Christians, the object of their faith is the one God in Three Persons, the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

After being downplayed or denied in mainline liberal theology, the Trinity is back in vogue in those circles.  But not in the sense of the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, which teach, for instance, that the Son is “of one substance with the Father.”

The Church Fathers explained the Trinity in terms of “being,” with the related concepts of “essence” and “natures.”  But modernist philosophy, particularly the existentialism that has greatly influenced modernist theology, has gotten away from those concepts, which has led to the relativism and subjectivism of postmodern thought.

So contemporary theologians have redefined the Trinity in terms of  “community.”  In the “social Trinity,” the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit are separate persons who come together to form a community.  And we are to do the same.  And since the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–conceived mainly in a tritheistic manner–are equal to each other, we should have the same equality in our families, churches, and nations.  This provides a theological basis for the current focus in Mainline Protestantism on feminism, race, LGBTQ issues, etc.

Now it isn’t surprising that liberal theologians would take a traditional Christian doctrine, turn it inside out, and make it support some contemporary preoccupation.  That’s what liberal theologians do.  That’s what liberal theology is.

But now some evangelical, ostensibly conservative theologians are also replacing the doctrine of the Trinity as formulated by the early church in the creeds with the social Trinity.

Matthew Barrett, professor at Midwest Baptist Seminary, writes about this whole phenomenon in an article for Christianity Today entitled Evangelicals Have Made The Trinity a Means to an End. It’s Time to Change That, with the deck “For 2,000 years, church leaders held to the same Trinitarian doctrine. How did we lose our way?”  (The article is behind a paywall, though you might get a limited number of free articles.)

When these evangelical theologians are accused of holding views of the Trinity that are quite clearly heretical by all the standards of the historic church, they invoke “sola scriptura.”  They say that as evangelical Protestants they are not bound by creeds, but only the Bible, which they claim supports their view.

Never mind that the Reformation was fully committed to the ecumenical creeds, Nicene Christology, and the historic doctrine of the Trinity, all of which are Biblical.  The same is true of later Protestants and evangelicals, including those who did not use creeds but who considered their teaching about the Trinity to be that of Scripture.

All of those Christians of the past, though, must have been mistaken about the God they served.  Only now do we understand the true community of Gods, imply these evangelicals, in a view that happens to coincide with that of liberal theologians.

Prof. Barrett points out that the advocates of the social Trinity do not even understand the Nicene teachings they are criticizing.  They are, he says, using the doctrine of the Trinity as a means to an end, revising a foundational teaching of Christianity so that it accords with their social teachings, whether of the left or the right.
His article for Christianity Today, which names names and goes into detail about these issues, is drawn from a book he has written on the subject entitled  Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit.
I would add that the truth that the Father and the Son share the same substance is absolutely necessary for a robust understanding of the Incarnation.  And that, for us Lutherans, the Nicene emphasis on God’s being is necessary for our sacramental theology, our teachings about the two natures of Christ and the communication of attributes, the Atonement, and, ultimately, the Gospel.
The social Trinity explains how some theologians–both liberal and evangelical–can say that God punishing His Son for our sins amounts to cosmic “child abuse.”  They do not grasp the implications of the Incarnation, that the Father and the Son are one substance, so that in Jesus, God is taking the sins of the world into Himself and atoning for them with His own death for our salvation.

Illustration:  13th century version of “The Shield of Faith,” at left, plus modern version, by AnonMoos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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