Volume 21 - Issue 1

Why our Evangelism Must be Trinitarian

By Stephen N. Williams

… Or why should it be? A case: a church in its evangelistic preaching proclaims that there is a God from whom we are alienated who sent His Son to die for us so that we, believing in him, may have eternal life. Some believe. Later on they are inducted into belief in the Trinity. This they find it hard to accept, if not incredible. Now comes the problem: is trinitarian belief a basic Christian belief? This is not a case or question artificially or hypothetically constructed. Having encountered it again recently in circles where the concerns of Themelios are very much in evidence, it seems meet and important to touch on the topic.

Of course, ‘trinitarian’ or ‘the doctrine of the Trinity’ are words and phrases variously used. By ‘the doctrine of the Trinity’ people often mean: the formulation explicitly hammered out and adopted as a result of fourth century controversies: one being, three person. Defenders of the biblical basis of the doctrine of the Trinity, so understood, often say three things. Firstly, it is not found in the Bible. Secondly, it was historically the conceptualization of, not an addition to, biblical teaching. Thirdly, its basis is solidly biblical. The first point is correct; the second point, if very carefully explicated, is correct. The third point I take to be correct too, but nota bene: the basis of a doctrine may be rather far from a doctrine. We talk about the basis of a belief or an accusation: it is not the same as establishing a belief or an accusation. We should use rather stronger language, although language which may be ambivalently deployed. The Bible contains the elements of the doctrine of the Trinity. Elements have to be assembled, but they go beyond a basis.

Nor should the task be too complex. If it proved to be so, it would become the harder to defend the centrality of belief in God as Trinity in the web of Christian beliefs. The New Testament seems to take it as axiomatic or on occasion to make explicit the Christian monotheistic conviction (Mk. 12:29: Rom. 3:30: Jas. 2:19). Three names nevertheless appear which are distinguished, the distinction being inevitably described as personal. In the case of Father and Son and equally inevitably or overwhelmingly probably to be regarded as personal in the case of the Spirit, as it has seemed to many. In each of the three cases we can fittingly speak of ‘God’ if we synthesize the canonical data. I confess to being numbered amongst those who do not think that all this is difficult to establish; who think that this effectively secures what is needed in order to speak of God as Trinity; and who consequently do not find such a belief emerging at the end of a long and suspiciously scholastic process.

But what has this to do with evangelism? In the case with which we started out, the missing party was the Spirit. Evangelism often makes little of the Spirit. The consequences are deeply damaging. People set out on the life of faith deprived of the knowledge that it is designed as life in the Spirit. Then they give up or they are forced to regard themselves as believers, but without being able to reassure themselves of change in their earthly walk, while clinging to assurance of a new heavenly destiny. Then, when they discover the Holy Spirit, many different scenarios are possible, some less desirable than others, all brought on by a missing ingredient in the earlier understanding. This is not the place to begin commenting on this or to argue a theology of the Holy Spirit against the current controversial background. But, we shall not shift reference to one controversial text, for it leads us to our connection between evangelism and the Trinity.

The passage is Acts 19, where Paul found ‘some disciples’ at Ephesus; asked whether they had received the Holy Spirit when (or after) they believed; discovered that they had not even heard of the Holy Spirit; enquired about their baptism and, on finding that they had received ‘John’s Baptism’, spoke of Jesus and baptized them in (or ‘into’) the name of Jesus (1–5). We shall eschew exegesis even if we can not quite eschew controversy at this point. What is interesting is that Paul’s discovery that the Ephesian dozen had never heard of the Holy Spirit alerted him to the fact that they had not received proper Christian baptism and ignorance of the Holy Spirit turned out as evidence of ignorance of Jesus. The connection between hearing and knowing of Jesus and of the Spirit is here intimate, intrinsic. It is beyond dispute that the New Testament regards possession of the Spirit as indispensably involved in becoming a Christian although plenty else, both with regard to the Spirit and in relation to this passage, is disputed.

So evangelism must be trinitarian, else God plans our salvation before time, executes his plan once in history, but holds back from personal empowerment of the believer by the Holy Spirit. That is not to say that in evangelism the word ‘Trinity’ must be used, still less that the homoousios be proposed to those we call from darkness into light. Indeed, even theological reflection must heed a point made by Emil Brunner earlier in our century and mistakenly interpreted by some as a denial of the Trinity: that the Trinity should be the terminus of our theological thinking, not its (speculative) object. Be this as it may, a rounded evangelism must be roundly trinitarian in the sense of speaking of God—the one God—as Father, as Son, and as Spirit. The three-point sermon, decked out in memorable alliteration, still enslaves some practitioners. It should enslave us still in our evangelism, as long as we substitute for alliteration the three points: Father, Son and Spirit. This not only communicates fullness of life. It enhances our sense of the importance of Christian belief in God as Trinity.

Those who regard the foregoing as trite and fronting a deeper-lying concern may be right on the former but only half-right on the latter score. The concern just as stated is important. But there are indeed wider ramifications. If we are to find any way out of the impasse in currently divisive arguments over the Holy Spirit and the presentation of the gospel to the nations, it must be by an understanding of the nature of God and the nature of salvation which are so integrated that we can not possibly think of or understand them apart. Indeed, the Fathers generally knew this well; their theology is nothing if not integrative on this score. May we follow suit, with our witness to the conviction that our evangelism must be trinitarian.

With this issue we bid farewell to Steven Singleton, who, as RTSF Secretary, has been industrious ex officio for a number of years as Consultant Editor to Themelios. We are most grateful for his dedication and work. We warmly welcome Tony Gray as his successor in this position.

Stephen N. Williams

Stephen Williams is professor of systematic theology at Union Theological College in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and served as general editor of Themelios from 1995 to 1999.