The Heresies of American Evangelicalism, Part II: The Doctrine of God

Part II: A less-than-fully triune God

Let me be clear about this first problem. I do not think most evangelicals, when pressed, would deny the Trinity. I would be shocked if that were the case. What I am criticizing here is the lacuna in much contemporary evangelical worship when it comes to addressing and speaking about God. The lacuna takes various forms. Many evangelicals seem to have a very limited vocabulary and speak only of "God" or "Lord," while others will speak of "Father" and "Jesus." The Jesus-is-my-boyfriend variety will often use "Abba."

What is the common link between all of these variations? In some sectors, an almost complete lack of emphasis on the Holy Spirit. To be sure, there is a great emphasis on the Spirit in missional-postmodern theologies, but this has little if any effect on evangelicals who will almost always pick up a devotional book over a theological study. Evangelicals speak of the church as the "body of Christ," but rarely will they speak of the church as the community of the Spirit. Those who do, however, tend to swing in the opposite direction. In these sectors of the American church, people will pray to the Spirit, pray for the Spirit, and speak about the guidance of the Holy Spirit. People in this camp are either pentecostal, or they are in the younger age bracket (18-30) and often attend an "emergent"-like church.

The common bond in all scenarios is thus a less-than-fully triune God, i.e., an emphasis on one or two persons of the Trinity rather than all three equally. This usually takes the form of a Father-Jesus binitarianism, in which preachers will speak about the relation between the Father and the Son, as if that exhausts the nature of God. Some churches are even worse, and are solely Jesus-centric. I grew up in this environment, and two proof-texts were always cited to justify this limited language of God: (1) Matthew 6:9-13 & parallels (the Lord's prayer, specifically, "Our Father in heaven..."), and (2) John 14:12-14, which states:
"I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it."
Combined, the two passages have convinced most evangelicals that the only proper way to pray is, "Dear Father ... in Jesus' name, Amen." If the person is creative, he or she might say, "Dear Jesus," or "Lord in heaven," or maybe "Abba, Father." While I am comfortable with people sticking with the Pater Noster, the John 14 passage and the idea that prayers must end with the name of Jesus is far too limiting. It also betrays a biblical literalism at the expense of good theology, because if Jesus Christ is part of the Godhead, we should be able to pray to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and still follow what Jesus says in the gospels.

The issue of prayer aside, I wish to address something more sinister. I sense that part of the problem is a subtle leaning toward modalistic monarchianism. This ancient heresy stressed the oneness of God to the extent that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit became modes of God's one being. They were the manifestations of God's singularity, but not individual hypostases. The point is that evangelicals by and large speak about God with two main metaphors, God as father and God as ruler or master. The former is the comforting, affirming God that is "seeker-friendly," and the latter is the commanding God that separates us from the world and demands allegiance (and often becomes the means by which some Christians enforce their personal political ideologies).

These two metaphorical extremes—father and ruler, friend and master—are not unbiblical, but they do not give a complete picture of God's nature as a being-in-communion. They, in fact, lean towards a monarchal god, in that they present God as a benevolent ruler in the sky. The attraction to monadic metaphors is obvious: they require less creativity in our worship and they are more understandable in terms of worldly, human analogies. So Christians will sometimes say to a child, "God is like the President for the whole world," or "God is like a perfect father for all people." The fact that I have met people at my old church who honestly thought God was male only goes to show that these "analogies" (horrible as they are) often only end up making God in our own image.

Solution: I am not of the persuasion that we should avoid speech about God altogether in order to keep God a total mystery and free from our mistaken metaphors. That would be an even greater mistake. Silence is not permitted by the gospel. The gospel, the "word of the cross," compels us to speech. What we need is to think, speak, and worship using language that is as trinitarian as possible—and, when it isn't cumbersome or distracting, gender-free as well.

If we are going to be truthful in our speech about God, we must insist that our imagery present God as a "communion of mutual otherness" (Jüngel), as the glorious and beautiful triune mystery which is never reducible to a divine monad nor to three individual gods. We must worship the triune Creator as a being-in-becoming, a God who is not static but is dynamically involved in the world and revealed this in the incarnation of Jesus and in the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit who is the deposit given to the church until the consummation of creation at the eschaton. We must affirm the trinitarian rule—opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa—that whatever any of the three persons does, the other two persons of the Trinity do as well. The Son suffered, and thus so did the Father and the Spirit (though not in the same way). The Spirit guides the church, and thus so does the Father and the Son (though not in the same way). The Father created the cosmos, and thus so did the Son and the Spirit (though not in the same way). When we isolate the three persons from the other two, we either wander into modalism or tritheism—both of them condemned heresies. We must hold all three together in our confession of God as Lord.

So as a way of helping the church move forward, I will quote a couple prayers written by the great German theologian, Eberhard Jüngel, that he composed to help churches use trinitarian language. These are from a translated essay, "Trinitarian Prayers for Christian Worship."
We thank you, dear heavenly Father,
That every morning your grace comes fresh and new. Today also you
quicken us with your inexhaustible power of life. Eternal God, we
sing your praise now and forever.

Lord Jesus Christ,
You are the spring that stills our thirst for life. We thank you with our
hearts and mouths and hands.

God, Holy Spirit, come,
Open our hearts, open our mouths, open our hands, that we might
magnify God's name with our thoughts, our words, and our
courageous acts, singing a new song before all the world!
You, we praise; you alone, our triune God. Amen.

Lord our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
We cry to you. See how our world has grown old! Come Holy Spirit
renew the world. And give us, too, a new and confident spirit, able t
withstand the assaults of unbelief.

Lord Jesus Christ,
You are the bright day who expels all our darkness. Come to us now
with your creative word, that we might praise you and the heavenly
Father who sent you.

Dear Father, almighty God,
Through your Son Jesus Christ, you have entrusted yourself to us.
Make us so trust you and one another that we become witnesses of
faith in this world of mistrust and suspicion, demonstrating to all how
much you love them. For this we love you, you eternal God, you
human God, you coming God. Amen.

Lord God, merciful Father,
We thank you that you alone are our judge. You make us hope and
you give us courage, for you judge us with righteousness and
compassion. Lord, have mercy upon us.

Dear Lord Jesus Christ,
We praise you, for you have allowed yourself to be judged on our
behalf. You gave yourself up to judgment out of love for us. You give
us confidence and you make us free, for your love is strong as death.
Your love frees us from our guilt and liberates us from the powers
into whose hands we have fallen Your love leads us to the Father's
side where you intercede for us and rule the world with grace and
mercy. Christ, have mercy upon us.

Come, Holy Spirit,
Speak to us, that we have ears to hear in a world hard of hearing.

Come, Holy Spirit,
Awaken us from the nightmares that oppress us.

Come, Holy Spirit,
Renew us through and through, that, in a world of violence, we
become instruments of peace and, in a time of injustice, we become
witnesses of compassion. Amen.


byron smith said…
Love those prayers.

This usually takes the form of a Father-Jesus binitarianism (I have coined this word, but if there is a better one available, let me know)
No need to coin.

Do you think that Father, Son and Spirit are interchangible in prayer? Is there any (non-exclusive)priority on praying to the Father through the Son, in the Spirit?

Great point about the inability to be silent.

And about all three being at work together (however, there are still distinctions between them; the Father doesn't suffer in the same way as the Son).

Speaking of trinitarian liturgy: do you have any thoughts on trinitarian hymns that have four verses (one to/about the Father, one for the Son, one for the Spirit, and then one for the Trintity)?
God bless the Anglicans for giving us the following prayer form:

"________ Father, ... , all this we ask for the sake of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ who lives and reigns with you in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.
Thanks for the heads-up on the word. I had no idea. I will change my post accordingly.

Re: prayer, I don't think there is necessarily any priority in praying to the Father, but the tradition is strong enough that it's perfectly valid. My question is this: how do you convey in worship and prayer that it is "through" the Son and "in" the Spirit? It seems the only way to do this is to address the three persons by name.

Re: hymns, I don't have any particular thoughts on those with four verses, except that I applaud music and poetry that emphasizes God's triune nature. The more trinitarian our liturgy, the better.

Indeed, Travis, that is a beautiful prayer.
David Wilkerson said…
David said: "The Son suffered, and thus so did the Father and the Spirit."

As Byron said, there must still be some distinction between the way the three suffer or you wander ironically into patripassionism, the original modalistic monarchianism you are trying to combat.

The Son became incarnate but the Father did not. Jesus was not the Father incarnate. So the Father did not suffer on the cross in the same way as the Son. I think the early fathers may have been trying to protect the Father from any suffering at all which is another heresy in itself.

I tried to clarify this stuff in a Sunday School class recently, but the group was unimpressed. The best they can do is basically pray to the Father, picturing Jesus from some movie as visual aid, and using the word Spirit to denote the one God's presence with them. Water as ice,liquid,gas basically i.e. modalistic monarchianism.

This is not just an evangelical problem, but probably a post-Enlightenment problem for us all.
"This is not just an evangelical problem, but probably a post-Enlightenment problem for us all."

I think you are more right than you know. Unfortunately, such a discussion will have to wait.

"As Byron said, there must still be some distinction between the way the three suffer or you wander ironically into patripassionism, the original modalistic monarchianism you are trying to combat."

We can only avoid patripassianism to the extent that it becomes modalistic. But we cannot avoid theopaschitism. Here we wander into difficult waters. In order to reject some heresies we wander into others. Hence my christocentrism leads me to universalism, and my trinitarianism leads me to theopaschitism. There are some solid theological reasons why people like Barth, Juengel, and Moltmann affirm the suffering of God -- and it's not because they want a friendly God who "feels our pain." Theology worthy of the name is theologia crucis, and out of that center along with a robust doctrine of the Trinity and revelation, we must affirm that the divine nature of Christ suffered -- i.e., that God suffered.
Shane said…
"In order to reject some heresies we wander into others. Hence my christocentrism leads me to universalism, and my trinitarianism leads me to theopaschitism."

There are, of course, lots of theologians who believe that it is possible to hold that God is triune and impassible. As I understand it, this is more a christological than trinitarian problem. Does the union of the hypostases imply that the divine nature suffers?

I think there are probably good reasons to say no--one of which would be divine transcendence.

byron smith said…
Going back to my four verse hymn point, my concern is that some hymns (and discussions in systematics!) seem to imply there are four members of the Godhead: Father, Son, Spirit, Trinity/God.

Re: prayer, I don't think there is necessarily any priority in praying to the Father, but the tradition is strong enough that it's perfectly valid.
Surely more than a tradition? We do not treat all the persons of the Trinity in the same way: our relationship to the Father is mediated by Christ in the Spirit. There is nothing arbitrary about the fact that it was the Logos who was incarnate, not the Father or Spirit. And also nothing arbitrary about the fact that he was incarnate as a human. Jesus is the 'door' into the Trinity. The relationship we have to the Father is that of a son, indeed, grounded in the Son. We are not, however, a son of the Son. Thus, the manner of our prayers to each member may well be different and I think there are not only traditional, but both scriptural and theological reasons for a priority on prayer to the Father through the Son in the Spirit (though I don't rule out other kinds of prayer).

My question is this: how do you convey in worship and prayer that it is "through" the Son and "in" the Spirit? It seems the only way to do this is to address the three persons by name.
As I understand it, we address the Father, in the authority of the Son and the power of the Spirit. The Son and Spirit are in some sense co-pray-ers with us, as well as the recipients of our petitions.
Alan Torrance in Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace has a lengthy discussion of some of these matters.

I mostly agree with you. The problem is that when you go along with that logic, you threaten to end up in tritheism. The old Augustinian rule concerning the Trinity and the doctrine of perichoresis together affirm that while there is nothing arbitrary about the appropriation of economic activity among the three persons, the three are also conjoined in true unity so that praying to the Father is also praying to the Son and the Spirit. And praying to the Spirit is praying to the Father and the Son. The way to emphasize that this is the case in our worship practices is to pray to all three by name. Theologically we can then say that there are differences between the three, in that the Son mediates on our behalf and the Spirit groans for us when we cannot, but we address the Trinity as a unity in our worship.

Shane, obviously this is a much larger issue. I will definitely give it a post in the future. Suffice it to say, divine transcendence is not in the least lost in affirming God's suffering in the world, unless you wish to argue that the incarnation itself is a loss of transcendence -- in which case, I agree! That's the whole point of the incarnation, that God is not some God "above us," but that God truly reveals Godself to be "with us" and "among us" -- the "Holy One in our midst" (Hos. 11).
It is one thing to suffer. It is another thing to suffer to the point of losing self-determination. The latter is the thing to be avoided in our discussion of God's suffering.


God is so transcendant that God can become immanent without losing transcendence. Not exactly a logical possibility, but there we are.
John P. said…
How about:

"Dear Lord, Baby Jesus..."

(in the words of Ricky Bobby)
In your opinion, D.W., can one use feminine imagery for God without either (a) lapsing into some form of goddess worship, (b) being modalist, or (c) having really cumbersome speech?

I remember asking my theology teacher, Molly Marshall, whether one could accept the feminist critique of god language and still be fully trinitarian. She said, yes, but you will be condemned to very complex sentences--and so it has proved.