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The Trinity’s Biblical Foundation: A Review Article

Andrew J. Miller

The Trinity and the Bible: On Theological Interpretation, by Scott R. Swain. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Academic, 2021, 144 pages, $19.99.

We simply do not think about the Trinity enough. Too many of us do not understand how the doctrine of the Trinity can be practical. Nor do we really understand how the Bible reveals the Trinity—some think that only the New Testament features the Trinity! Experience shows that candidates for ministry come to presbytery with a decent understanding of soteriology but a weak doctrine of God. Seminaries have a difficult task in inculcating a rich and orthodox doctrine of God in students over a relatively brief period.

Is it too much to say that we have put the cart before the horse? If we do not understand the Trinity, how can we understand soteriology, the work of the Triune God wherein the Father sends the Son to accomplish a salvation applied by the Holy Spirit? As John Webster writes, “in an important sense there is only one Christian doctrine, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity in its inward and outward movements. Whatever other topics are treated derive from the doctrine of God . . . .”[1]

It is this spirit that Scott Swain’s The Trinity and the Bible comes in service of the church. Swain shows us how the Bible teaches the Trinity, giving a masterclass in how theology and exegesis relate in practice, hence the subtitle Theological Interpretation. Just as years ago I marveled at how Calvin’s Institutes reasoned from Scripture for the filioque (The Spirit proceeding from the Father “and the Son”), Swain’s method left me likewise thinking, “of course, why did I not see that before?” This book explains the way in which the Bible teaches what would later be articulated as Nicene orthodoxy.

Brief but powerful, The Trinity and the Bible brings together Swain’s previous essays on biblical reasoning and the Trinity (3). After laying out recent approaches to drawing the doctrine of the Trinity from the Bible, Swain reflects on B.B. Warfield’s explanation, then follows this with several chapters wherein he expounds the Trinity from key texts: Mark 12:35–37, Galatians 4:4–7, and Revelation 4–5. Swain’s final chapter gives “Seven Axioms: On the Trinity, the Bible, and Theological Interpretation.”

Swain’s first page thunders with Scripture on the Trinity and practical implications. For example,

The Bible . . . promises a Triune reward to its faithful readers: “The river of the water of life . . . flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Rev. 22:1) is our promised inheritance (Rev 21:6–7). Holy Scripture mandates baptism in God’s Triune name (Matt 28:19), calls us to bless God’s Triune name (Eph. 1:3–14), and blesses us in God’s Triune name: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14). The Trinity is the foundation of typological reasoning: God’s agency through Christ and the Spirit connects Israel’s exodus and Christian baptism because in both events both parties ‘drink of one Spirit’ (1 Cor. 12:13; see also 10:1–4). And the Trinity is the foundation of moral reasoning: Paul urges the Ephesians to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Eph. 4:3) because “there is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4–6). (7–8)

This selection of passages provides a taste of how the Scriptures speak the language of the Trinity. Clearly, as the early church formalized its understanding of the Trinity with the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, technical language like homoousia was used to express what the Scripture said. Swain suggests theology as a “grammar of the language of Holy Scripture” (15). The Scripture speaks the language of the Trinity, and the church’s doctrine of the Trinity explains the grammar of that language. The development of the doctrine can be compared to children learning about nouns and verbs—it helps them to understand the language they already speak. This protects us from thinking that our theological formulations improve or refine Scripture (16, cf. 98).

While there is much to appreciate from B. B. Warfield, Swain takes issue in his second chapter with Warfield’s rejection of the designations Son and Spirit expressing their relation to the Father (34, 38). Traditionally, God’s “modes of operation outside of himself (ad extra) follow God’s ordered modes of subsistence inside himself (ad intra)” (37, cf. 52). Yet, Warfield’s doctrine of the Trinity was one of “‘principled non-affirmation’ of the doctrines of the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Spirit” (40). This was a “not unnatural development within a Princeton theological traditional already characterized by what we might call a ‘tepid affirmation’ of the doctrine” of eternal generation (41). Swain asserts that this even follows a trajectory begun by Calvin, but unnecessary—as Turretin and others recognized, “it is precisely the Son’s distinct mode of being as one eternally begotten that accounts for his being consubstantial with the Father” (43). Not accounting for these principles emasculates passages like John 5:26, Heb. 1:3, and Col. 1:15–16 that feature the affirmations of both the equality of the Son with the Father and the Father as begetting the Son.

Swain’s third chapter explicates the Trinitarian implications of Mark 12:35–37, where Jesus affirms that God is one and asserts himself as David’s divine Lord. Here Swain shows his work—focusing on the particulars of a biblical text and deriving theological implications. Theological Interpretation not only reminds us of the dance between exegesis and theology, but it also reminds us of the goal of exegesis: exegesis is “the act of loving attention we give to the historical and literary shape of scriptural texts in order to discern the singular identity and activity of the Triune God who presents himself therein” (1, cf. 61). One of the hallmarks of Swain’s idea of theological interpretation is the belief that God still speaks through his Word and Spirit. “Reading is . . . a living conversation between an eloquent Lord and his attentive servants,” Swain writes, “a conversation in which the reader is summoned to hear what the Spirit of Christ says to the churches (Rev. 2:7)” (62).

Chapter four covers Galatians 4:4–7, which clearly teaches Trinitarianism: “God sent forth his Son . . . God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” Swain’s argument is that

The distinction between God, his Son, and the Spirit of his Son in carrying out God’s redemptive purpose is not a distinction between God and other creaturely agents. It is rather a distinction within God’s monotheistic agency. In other words, God’s singular saving agency is intrinsically threefold. (88)

In the context of Galatians, Paul combats the Judaizers by showing that God saves by his own agency—salvation belongs to the Lord (92; cf. Ps. 3:8; Rom. 8:3). In this text the internal relations between the persons (one who sends and two who are sent) are naturally extended towards our redemption (94).

Our language about the Triune God must recognize God’s utter uniqueness, and Swain’s chapter on Revelation 4–5 argues “When Revelation 4–5 evaluates God’s worth, it does not locate his worth on a larger scale of meaning and value. Revelation 4–5 takes up the ordinary grammar of naming to convey God’s transcendent oneness” (104). “The One who sits on the throne is the transcendent Lord above all” (107). He is “the One who was and is and is to come” (Rev. 4:8), recalling Exodus 3:14 and Isaiah 6. This same transcendent God is the Lamb who was slain, yet the persons are also distinguished and both praised: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” (Rev. 5:13). Nor is the Spirit left out: “The Spirit before the throne is the Spirit of the two who are on the throne. The Spirit before the throne is the Spirit who proceeds ‘from the throne of God and of the Lamb’ (Rev. 22:1)” (114). Clearly, Revelation 4–5 “envisions the worship of one God in three persons,” who alone creates and redeems (117).

Swain’s final chapter, “Seven Axioms,” emphasizes key principles of theological interpretation. In summary, we are utterly dependent on God; knowing the Triune God is the gift of the Triune God.

The Trinity and the Bible is one of several solid new books on the Trinity. It helpfully clarifies several important issues. While academic, this book will help most readers cherish how the Bible speaks of the Triune God. It will certainly equip readers to defend the Trinity as biblical. I hope it finds wide readership, to the doxology of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Endnote

[1] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013), 145, cf. 27.

Andrew J. Miller serves as pastor of Bethel Reformed Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Fredericksburg, VA. Ordained Servant Online, November 2022.

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Ordained Servant: November 2022

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