Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Review of "Doctrine": The Trinity

I'm very excited to be blogging through Doctrine by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears. When the Mars Hill Church sermon series started in 2008, I was a first-year college student running a Bible study for new Christians at a local youth center. One of most-asked questions that the students had was "what's the deal with the Trinity?" In my struggle to put together a handout for these youth, Mark Driscoll's sermon and notes on the subject -which, at that time, were less than a week old- were invaluable. I have been waiting for the material to come out in expanded book form ever since, keeping tabs on the development of Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe for the last two years. So once again, it is with great excitement that I am beginning a 13-week series of blog posts to examine the new book in depth. I have already skimmed over the chapters that lay ahead, and I can assure you that there is some fun stuff to cover. If you also have a copy of the book, I would love to steal your superior analysis of this book interact with your take on Doctrine in the comments section!

Content: A Great Overview of the Trinity
(1) Aside from a few small problems with the opening (see below), the chapter beautifully sets out that we long to see the unity, selflessness, and love that exist in the relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit reflected in our world. (2) There is a standard section on what the Trinity is, explaining that there is only one God, but the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each declared to be God in Scripture, and that these three are distinct persons. (3) Third, Mark spends a good chunk of time expositing Exodus 34:6-7 to show what God is like: compassionate, helpful, slow to anger, lovingly faithful, dependable and truthful, forgiving, and just. (4) There is also a section on whether the concept of the Trinity appears in the Old Testament, and it covers such things as the plural language used for God in Genesis, the Angel of the LORD who seems to be a pre-incarnation Jesus, and a small list of Trinitarian verses from the Psalms and Prophets; interestingly, the Targum Neofiti is mentioned. More on that later. (5) Trinitarian formulas are also shown as evidence of the Trinity in the New Testament. (6) In what is possibly one of my favorite sections of the chapter, Mark lays down a brief history of the doctrine of the Trinity, bulldozing its way through the Apostles' Creed, Tertullian, The Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon, and the Roman-Eastern Catholic split over the filioque clause at the Council of Toledo. At the end, Mark summarizes what each of these councils and theologians taught the Church about the Trinity. (7) We are encouraged to study the Trinity because God has revealed it in His Word, and therefore it must be important. (8) In a section on major doctrinal errors regarding the Trinity, Mark helpfully provides the examples of Modalism which denies that God is three Persons, Arianism which denies that each Person is fully God, and Tritheism which denies that there is only one God. (9) Finally, since we are made in the Image of God, we are told of a few ways in which our understanding of God's nature impacts our humility, loving-kindness, worship, relationships, unity in diversity, submission to authority, and joy.

Negatives: Opening, Footnotes, Targum, Section Divisions
Doctrine is a great book; it is my new choice for reading in Systematic Theology, and I will likely buy numerous copies for people over the course of my lifetime. With that said, there are some shortcomings that should be considered when Mark & Gerry go to edit together a second edition of the book.

First, what could have been a strong opening about our human longing to see a harmonious world, reflecting the harmony of the persons of our Trinitarian Creator, falls flat. There simply aren't any images for the mind to work with. Our desire for trinitarian love could have been made more real by the picture of people trying to feel that intimacy through the use of porn; desire for unity could be connected to the different subcultures that we try to fit into in order to belong; our desire for selfless good might have been portrayed by the popularity of the movie martyr-hero, the Hollywood character who gives his life on behalf of his friends. As it is, the beginning felt flat, out-of-touch with reality, and sort of weak.

Second, there were a few places where footnotes would have been helpful, but none were given. Tertullian is referenced multiple times without any footnote for follow-up study of his thought; there is nothing below the pages to connect to other parts of the book where the authors discuss God's nature and being; there is no footnote to the websites of Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons when describing their theology of the Trinity; there is no footnote explaining the earliness of the Apostles' Creed; there is no footnote providing a definitive work on the Arian controversy for readers to follow up on for more information (and there are definitive works on the Arian controversy). These are small editorial mistakes and authorial omissions, but they should be fixed before the next edition comes out.

Third, there is no clear defense of Driscoll & Breshears' use of the Targum Neofiti. When Mars Hill Church first put out their clip on the Targum Neofiti, there was a lot of discussion on youtube about the fact that the targum could be a 200 AD Christian rendering of Genesis instead of a 200 BC Jewish rendering. It would have been nice to see something showing why it was more probable that Jews wrote it and not Christians, and why it is more likely a BC document instead of a targum written in the early centuries AD, as this was clearly a cornerstone of Doctrine's section on the Trinity in the Old Testament.

Fourth, the section Why Should We Study the Trinity? could easily have been combined with What Are the Practical Implications of the Trinity? The answer to the question, "why should we study this?" can be answered by "because there are practical implications." As such, the two sections easily fit together.

Positives: Sleek, No Nonsense Resource
In comparison with other Systematic Theology textbooks that talk about the Trinity, Doctrine is the rock star of Christian dogmatics. Dustin Kensrue (lead vocalist of the band Thrice) was right when he endorsed this new book as a "sleek, no-nonsense resource" for the Christian believer. Once you get over the fact that it is different from previous Driscoll books, you begin to appreciate how well-written the book is and how much information is summarized in its relatively few pages. This chapter on the Trinity especially has some good points: (1) It does a great job providing a definition of the Trinity, defines the terms used, and expands well on its main points; (2) It goes into Church History, and puts tradition in its proper place as a great help in understanding the mysteries of the faith--doing so without putting making tradition equal to Bible; (3) in the section on the Trinity in the Old Testament, there is a great paragraph on "the Angel of the LORD", and makes a good case that this Angel is God incarnate--in other words, Jesus; (4) When describing the major Trinitarian heresies, everything is laid out very well. The main points of Trinitarian doctrine, that there is one God (denied by Mormons), existing in three persons (denied by Oneness theology and classic Modalism), who are all equally and fully God (denied by Arianism and Jehovah's Witnesses) is well written and easily understandable; (5) Both the opening and the ending of the chapter are intensely practical; this is a book that does not allow the truths of the Christian faith to remain abstract, but instead makes them immediately applicable and shows why it is important that you believe them.

For all of these reasons, the section on the Trinity is worth reading over multiple times and studying in groups. (By the way, if you choose to use this book in group study, Mars Hill elder Brad House has written a study guide which is included in the back of the book. I think it's pretty nifty.)

Memorable Quotes
"This means that there are incredibly powerful demons-- with names such as Baal, Chemosh, Molech, Brahman, Allah, Mother Earth, Mammon (money), Aphrodite (sex)--that are wrongly worshiped by multitudes as gods... From the very beginning the people of God have lived with constant pressure to accept other religions and 'gods' as equally worthy of our worship as the God of the Bible... To help embolden us, the Bible presents stirring stories of faithful followers like Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Daniel who would not compromise and who never wavered in their devotion to one God even in the face of great opposition and persecution." -Pg. 14, paragraph 1 and 2

"Trinitarian life is unified and diverse. Greek Christian theologians are fond of describing the Trinity with the term perichoresis. As the three persons of the Trinity are mutually indwelling, or permeating one another, we are deeply connected as part of the body, yet we retain our own identity. We are always persons in community." -Pg. 34, paragraph 6.

Outline of Chapter One
  • We Long For a World Which Reflects Our Trinitarian Creator
  • What is the Doctrine of the Trinity?
  • What Is the Trinitarian God Like?
  • The Trinity in the Old Testament
  • The Trinity in the New Testament
  • The History of the Doctrine of the Trinity
  • Why Should We Study the Doctrine of the Trinity?
  • What Are the Major Heresies Regarding the Trinity?
  • What Are the Practical Implications of the Trinity?


  1. Greetings StuntMonk

    On the subject of the Trinity,
    I recommend this video:
    The Human Jesus

    Take a couple of hours to watch it; and prayerfully it will aid you to reconsider "The Trinity"

    Yours In Messiah
    Adam Pastor

  2. Thanks Adam. I think you've recommended this link to me before, though, and it wasn't very convincing the first time. Would you be willing to talk about it a little bit more, though?

  3. By the way, Adam, are you a Jehovah's Witness? I quickly looked at your blog, and the views that I see there seem to reflect the teachings of the Watchtower organization. Just thought I'd ask.

  4. StuntMonk, have you actually watched the video yet?
    Now that you mentioned it, I did indeed send you the video link before -
    you were on a different blogsite.
    At that time you thought I was a Oneness or Modalist believer! Now you ask if I am a JW?
    The video ought to have made it obvious that I am NOT.

  5. I think the confusion is that the video seems to lean more in the modalist/oneness direction, but I see stuff on your blog that mostly agrees with what I know of Jehovah's Witnesses theology.

    If I agree to watch this link all the way through, will you look at one of the links that I put up for you to check out?

  6. Sure, by all means, supply the link.
    However, please endeavor to watch the video.
    Watch you it prayerfully and hopefully you will see that there are no modalist directions in it.

    BTW, Jehovah's Witnesses theology, is Arian - that is there believe that Jesus 'pre-existed' as a spirit being or angel.

    Neither my blog nor the video espouses that belief.

    Yours In Messiah
    Adam Pastor
    The Human Jesus


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