How and when the doctrine of the trinity emerged
One of the reasons for the the myth of a-contextual theology is the assumption that many of the tradition’s longest held theological beliefs somehow emerged because great christian thinkers (usually men) spent their lives in solitary, prayerful reflection on scripture. This assumption comes from a few places, but could largely be attributed to:
Now, I understand that for a lot of people who have been brought up a certain way, this is bordering on dangerous territory for them. I get it. Happy to chat if you want.
What I want to show you, as briefly as possible, is how something even as significant to the christian tradition as the doctrine of the trinity emerged as contextual theology.
“Christianity is not an ethereal, eternal doctrine about God’s nature, but rather it is the presence of God in the world in the person of Jesus Christ. Christianity is incarnation, and therefore, it exists in the concrete and the historical.”
- Justo Gonzalez (church historian)
Christianity begins with a problem. In the earliest years of the Christian church, the early Jewish converts had to make sense of their core theological confession that יְהוָ֖ה alone is God (see Deut. 6:4) in light of the new claim that this same God was uniquely self-revealing through the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth (see Col. 2:9). For this early Christian community, what was fueling this problem was not some abstract thinking about God, it was the lived experiences they had with the human Jesus in their midst that challenged their previous assumptions of who they believed God to be. In order to make sense of this, certain theological categories that they would have already been familiar with had to be stretched to their semantic possibilities. This is why much of the earlier Christological discourse in the New Testament is borrowing and adapting ideas from the Hebrew Scriptures. This is because for the very earliest church, their context was mainly trying to tell the story to a Jewish audience and demonstrate continuity with how God had self-revealed through the story of Israel. However, as the context began to shift, so too did the theological language.
Written around sixty years after the life of Jesus, the Gospel according to John contains some of the most robust and fascinating theological ideas in the entire New Testament. The writer of this Gospel employs language about the Spirit that is found nowhere else in Scripture. Here we find a pneumatology that is building upon previous theological categories for understanding the Spirit of God; but going past them to speak directly into a new context. As with all theology, this Gospel was not written in isolation. Rather, it is a pastoral response to the questions and challenges of its time; a church now entering its second generation. Of particular relevance here is a church whose expectation of the imminent return of Jesus was beginning to fall into doubt.
The Johannine community represents the latest stage of the church represented in scripture; thus, they are dealing with different problems than those immediately following the life of Jesus. Each Gospel (as well as the Epistles) represents theology done in context. Any attempt to synthesize them into one coherent, transcendent systematic is a modern approach that ignores the hermeneutical importance of contextual variety. The diverse theology of the New Testament, from which we have formed our doctrinal confession of a Triune God, is developed within various contexts and in response to particular concerns that the church was facing at that time.
Gregory of Naz-a-what?
Nearly 300 years after the Gospel of John was written, Gregory of Nazianzus became a key voice in defending Trinitarian theology against the growing threat of Arianism in the Eastern region of Cappadocia. His work would go on to be foundational in how later generations would understand a formal doctrine of the Trinity; and yet, we must also see Gregory as a theologian working in the context of a faith community and responding to the challenges of his day.
Like everything else, context matters.
Gregory’s dad had been a pastor who, in 361 signed the anti-Nicene creed of the Empire which caused a lot of local tension and threatened to split his church. By the time Gregory came on the scene to take over his father’s congregation, the Nicene position had become the fringe position rather than the orthodox one.
Gregory combined his extraordinary skills as a theologian, philosopher, and speaker to create a whole new language of speaking of God as a means of confronting the heresy threatening the church. He himself wrestled with the desire to live a quiet life of deep reflection, but was compelled to remain embedded in the life of his church.
It cannot be overstated how important his work was in shaping Christian thought and speech around the idea of the trinity.