Review: The Essential Trinity

(Opinions expressed herein belong to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Fides Quaerens, its editors, or any associated organization.)

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Brandon D. Crowe and Carl R. Trueman, editors. The Essential Trinity. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R, 2017. p. 320. $19.99 (paperback).

Much has been written on the doctrine of the Trinity over the last two thousand years and for good reason. The doctrine of the Trinity acknowledges and gives glory to God according to His self-revelation in His Word, that is, as one God who eternally exists in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. However, the contemporary Christian church has often failed to accurately articulate and apply Trinitarian theology in a biblically faithful and practically relevant way (p. 19). This is where Brandon D. Crowe and Carl R. Trueman have endeavored to contribute a resource of biblical exegesis and practical relevance that can aid pastors, scholars, and laymen.

Consisting of two parts, Part 1 addresses the Canonical writers’ clear trinitarian teaching and Part 2 articulates practical implications of this doctrine, particularly in the ministry of the Christian church. The theological scope of the book is decidedly directed towards pastors, though it seems to be the hope that this would trickle down to laymen in the pews. Crowe and Trueman have indeed provided a wealth of biblical work that will greatly benefit the church’s continued faithfulness to the Blessed Trinity.

The organizational structure of the book is straightforward with Part 1 naturally moving from Matthew to Revelation with the exception of an essay by Mark S. Gignilliat on the real presence of the Trinity in the Old Testament concluding the section. While Gignilliat’s essay is helpful in rightly identifying YHWH in the Old Testament as “the divine Godhead in its fullness, the divine essence equally shared by the three persons,” it does not seem clear as to why this essay was included at the end of Part 1, rather than the beginning (p. 207). There is no organizational structure in Part 2, though this does not add or take away from Part 2’s content in any sense.

As to the content of the essays, there is no question that they are all thoroughly exegetical, though helpful in varying degrees. Part 1’s essays demonstrate that the doctrine of the Trinity is unequivocally present in the New Testament. The Gospel essays overlap significantly, focusing on Christ on the Creator side of the Creator-creature distinction and the New Testament’s usage of Lord (kyrios) in reference to both the Father and the Son. While conceding that the Spirit does not necessarily play  a prominent role in the Gospel accounts, all authors make it a priority to avoid moving in a binitarian direction while focusing on the relationship between the Father and the Son. Bauckham’s essay on John is somewhat different from Crowe’s and Johansson’s in that John’s Gospel begins with a theology of the Word and His primordial or immanent relationship with God. Bauckham’s essay has some overlap with Crowe’s and Johansson’s, but adds more depth to the Trinity because of how John’s Gospel is textually different from the Synoptic Gospels.

Luke and Acts are covered by Alan J. Thompson, who starts by demonstrating the covenantal, promise-keeping nature of the triune God and the visitation of Jesus as a fulfillment of God’s promises (p. 70). He spills substantial ink covering the Lordship of Christ and the usage of kyrios in reference to the Father and the Son, much in the same way that Crowe and Johansson do. The uniqueness of Jesus and the uniqueness of Jesus’ relationship to the Father is again recounted by Thompson and he acknowledges the briefness of any technical discussion on God the Spirit, categorizing God the Spirit as generally functioning as “one who is most often involved in empowering God’s people to speak” (p. 80).

Thompson approaches Acts in a similar way, explaining that God is a promise-keeping God and His promises have been fulfilled in Christ (p. 69). However, on this side of the resurrection, “Luke continues to use Lord (kyrios) for Jesus and God the Father” (p. 82). Thompson demonstrates the strict monotheism of the New Testament believers and explains how Christ is indeed Lord in the same way as the Father. In this essay, the Spirit is given much more prominence, being identified as God in Acts 5 with elaboration from Thompson on how the Spirit operates in a manner consistent with the Father and the Son (p. 87). While Thompson’s section on Luke echoes those on Matthew and Mark at times, his section on Acts provides more clarity by utilizing similar themes of Christ’s lordship and the Spirit’s empowerment without being repetitive.

Brian S. Rosner’s essay on the trinitarian dimensions of the Pauline epistles is theologically helpful, but is difficult to read because it bleeds over into practical relevance frequently, which really ought to be the focus of Part 2. That being said, Rosner helpfully outlines the the trinitarian theology of Paul without inserting “later patristic formulas” into the Pauline epistles (p. 119). Rather than moving from epistle to epistle, Rosner systematically posits a Pauline doctrine of salvation, prayer, fellowship, and doing good through a Trinitarian lens. Organizationally, it’s different from the previous essays up until this point because Rosner addresses Paul’s trinitarianism as a whole, rather than the trinitarianism expressed in each epistle. Rosner concludes by saying, “When Paul deals with matters of pastoral concern, he cannot help but mention the united and collaborative work of God, Christ and the Spirit, three divine identities, who together constitute one God” (p. 134). Though Rosner’s essay is a blend of sorts between Part 1 and 2, there’s no question that it accomplishes the task of the book in providing biblical exegesis and application.

Jonathan I. Griffiths writes, “The character and work of the trinitarian God is expounded on every page of Hebrews”. Griffiths considers the ways in which the author of Hebrews “presents the three divine persons in relation to two central themes of his discourse, the themes of revelation and redemption” (p. 135). Griffiths tracks Israelite conception of revelatory angels and the incomparability of the revelation from the Son as “the Son is himself God’s revelatory Word, his speech in personal form” (p. 136). Griffiths explicitly explains the revelatory function of the Holy Spirit and His speaking to the people of God (p. 141–3). He then approaches the redemptive scope of Hebrews and the familial relationship between the Son and His people as Lord, brother, and leader (p. 143–5). Griffiths confirms the Spirit as an enabler of Christ’s work and mission and ends his essay by articulating the practical and pastoral implications of the Trinity in Hebrews for listening to God today through His Word (p. 152).

Brandon D. Crowe contributes an essay on the General Epistles, going through each epistle individually while stopping to explain the trinitarian themes present. Crowe writes, “These epistles move seamlessly between the persons of the Godhead and give us a peek into the trinitarian planning, accomplishment and application of salvation” (p. 154). Crowe is careful to emphasize the respective message of the epistles, while continually drawing out particular trinitarian themes that are spotlighted in each.

In James, Crowe focuses on the lordship that is attributed to Christ while James continues to emphasize the oneness of God. “Jesus is the glorious Lord just as God is the all-glorious One,” writes Crowe (p. 158). When Crowe moves to 1 Peter, he opens with an exegesis of the salvific, trinitarian greeting offered by Peter, suggesting that Peter “argues from the presupposition of a salvation that has a unified, threefold dynamic” (p. 159). Similarly, in 2 Peter, the same “triadic aspects” are present, but particular emphasis is placed on the divinity of Jesus (p. 164). Crowe tackles John’s epistles together, and like Bauckham, looks, first, at the pre-existence of the Son as strong evidence for Johannine trinitarianism. Crowe makes note of the consistent triadic passages that appear in John’s writing:

Those who keep God’s commandments abide in God (3:24); God’s commandment is to believe in his Son, Jesus Christ (3:23); we know God abides in us because of the Spirit he has given to us (3:24). We should abide in the Father (2:24; 3:24; 4:12) and the Son (2:6, 24, 27–28; 3:6), and it is the Spirit who provides the knowledge that we do (3:24) (p. 169).

Crowe focuses most of his attention on John’s first epistle, and only briefly mentions his second or third epistle throughout this essay. Lastly, Crowe emphasizes the lordship of Jesus in Jude, using verse 5 as an example of Jesus being placed in the Old Testament, explicitly claiming His pre-existence (p. 172). Crowe does not fail to include the Spirit, noting that prayers are to be given to the Spirit as they would be given to God (p. 173). According to Crowe, Jude’s exhortation is for believers “to pray in the Holy Spirit, and by so doing can keep ourselves in the love of God as we await the return of the Lord Jesus Christ” (p. 173).

Benjamin L. Gladd contributes an essay out of sync with the other essays of Part 1, in that while the previous essays have, for the most part, remained in their New Testament book of choice, Gladd’s essay on the Book of Revelation draws significantly from the Book of Daniel. Gladd argues, “The apostle John is indebted to Daniel’s conception of God and further develops how the triune God communicates within the Godhead and how the triune God communicates to the church” (p. 175). Gladd argues here that Daniel’s conception of God is highly influential on John’s conception of God in Revelation. He introduces God as the revealer of mysteries, the source of revelation in Daniel, and the ultimate source of revelation in the Apocalypse (p. 175-7). However, Gladd then shows how Christ is also the revealer of mysteries according to Daniel and Revelation (p. 179) and argues that the Spirit is the one who illuminates that revelation in Daniel and Revelation (p. 181). For Gladd, Daniel (and even Zechariah) are the apocalyptic keys by which the Trinity comes through clearly in Revelation. Gladd’s essay is certainly faithful to both books, and articulates the Trinity well in Revelation, but ultimately camps too much in Daniel in order to prove the trinitarian views of John in Revelation.

As mentioned before, Part 1 ends with an essay by Mark S. Gignilliat on the presence of the Trinity in the Old Testament. Rather than a survey of Old Testament passages that sound trinitarian, Gignilliat gives specific attention to the name YHWH, and it’s redemptive-revelatory significance. Gignilliat also moves through the encounter of Jacob and the ‘man’ in Genesis 32 while expounding the theological difficulties and exegetical solutions to a particularly mysterious passage in the Old Testament (p. 204). Gignilliat also moves to the identification of the Angel of the Lord (YHWH) with YHWH Himself on numerous occasions (p. 202). Gignilliat’s essay opens up the nuances of the tetragrammaton while helping readers identify where YHWH falls in a discussion of the essence and persons of God. Though there remains uncertainty as to the placement of this essay at the end of Part 1, this essay leads one to a better understanding of Crowe’s essay on Matthew, as Matthew’s conception of YHWH is described (p. 25-8), among other essays throughout the book.

Part 2 begins with an essay titled The Mystery of the Trinity by Scott S. Swain. Swain’s essay is not immediately practical in form, but his doxological approach to the Trinity will challenge pastors in how their own marveling at its mystery and power to change the way we perceive all else around us. Swain states this well:

Not only does the doctrine of the Trinity identify God; it also illumines all of God’s works, enabling us to perceive more clearly the wonders of the Father’s purpose in creation, of Christ’s incarnation and of the Spirit’s indwelling. All things are from the Trinity, through the Trinity and to the Trinity. And so, seen in the sublime light of the Trinity, we see all things in a new light (p. 213).

Swain cites Matthew 11:25–27 to demonstrate the joy of the Trinity, rather than the necessity of deciphering it as one who solves a puzzle (p. 215). He follows with a section on the common and personal properties of the persons of the Trinity and reflects on the heresies that have marked the Christian church through the ages. For Swain, the goal of trinitarian doctrine is to rejoice in each person of the Trinity “who fills our hearts with the fullness of love that characterizes God’s eternal, sublime life as Father, Son, and Spirit” (p. 221).

Carl R. Trueman contributes an excellent essay on The Trinity and Prayer. Though other essays are geared mostly towards pastors, such as the essay on revelation or the essay on preaching, Trueman’s essay is particularly applicable to any reader. Trueman draws out the implications of the Trinity in prayer by focusing on the priesthood of Christ, both as our intermediary and our model for trinitarian prayer. As is custom for Trueman, he uses the majority of the essay to focus on John Owen’s theology of trinitarian communion with God, its benefits and its implications for the believer as it pertains to prayer. Trueman concludes by encouraging congregations and pastors to make the content of their prayers during public and private worship trinitarian because “trinitarianism is vital to a confident prayer life” and “vital for a healthy Christian life” (p. 238).

Mark D. Thompson’s essay on The Trinity and Revelation seeks to describe the vital relationship between revelation and the doctrine of the Trinity. Thompson asks, “How necessary is God’s eternal triune nature to divine revelation in general and the Christian doctrine of revelation in particular? Then, what shape does God’s eternal triune nature give to the Christian doctrine of revelation?” (p. 243). Thompson believes that the Bible clearly teaches that “the eternal Father remains unknown and unapproached apart from the ministry of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son”. But Thompson isn’t merely suggesting that effective revelation can only be received by those who understand the doctrine of the Trinity, but rather that the doctrine of the Trinity is what drives an effective revelation of who God is (p. 244). Thompson balances God’s divine incomprehensibility and transcendence with His aseity. He comments, “Precisely because God is life in himself and sufficient in himself, and because this life and sufficiency has an ad extra as well as ad intra dimension, the free act of revelation is possible without any compromise of his essential nature and character” (p. 246). Thompson borrows significantly from T.F. Torrance in asserting that “the Word constitutes the epistemological center in all our knowledge of God” while also adding that the Son and the Spirit are mediators of divine revelation (p. 255). Thompson spends a significant amount of time parsing out the nuances of divine incomprehensibility and transcendence, but doesn’t elaborate any more on how the Son and Spirit are specifically mediators of divine revelation in a way that is practically helpful.

Robert Letham contributes a valuable essay on the Trinity and worship. Letham opens by outlining what worship is and how the triune God is to be the object of Christian worship, both public and private. He writes, “God calls his church to worship him. We worship because we must and because we may. It is our responsibility as creatures; it is our privilege as those united to Christ and given access to the communion of the life of God (p. 266). Letham goes on to define who God is and how he can be known through his self-revelation, “granting us knowledge of himself by the Holy Spirit” (p. 267). This appropriately follows the last essay from Thompson on revelation.

Looking at the patterns of worship in the New Testament, Letham addresses prayer in Ephesians 2:18 and the place of worship in John 4:23–24. Like Trueman, Letham takes John Owen’s theology of communion with God and applies it to worship. Lastly, Letham looks at how God is to be worshipped today, examining the lack of trinitarian worship in today’s Christian churches. In this way, Letham provides a strong framework for the practical relevance of the Trinity’s bearing on worship, and its application  in the life of the congregation. For starters, Letham suggests moving our hymnody in a robustly trinitarian direction; it is not enough, Letham suggests, to “bring to these texts trinitarian assumptions,” but “theology and worship are integrally connected, as the fathers taught” (p.279-80).

Letham’s strongest encouragement, it appears, is a return to the dialogical principle of worship, that is, God speaking (or acting) and God’s people responding in faith. He writes, “This human reply is by God’s grace, brought about by the Holy Spirit through the Son and focusing as the goal on the Father. In the worship of the church, Christ the Son joins with and leads the congregation in its praise to the Father (Heb. 2:10–13) (p. 280). Christ is the great worship director, as God calls us to worship, and we respond as His people (p. 281)”.

Part 2 of The Essential Trinity is concluded with an essay from Michael Reeves on The Trinity and Preaching. Reeves looks at the nature of God, meaning, God is a speaking God. “In the triune god”, according to Reeves, “we find a God who cannot be Wordless” (p. 290). And Reeves goes on to suggest that what God communicates is Himself, and He does so triunely (p. 291–2). He cites Calvin as a primary example, also drawing from Luther and Zwingli, to show the manner in which a preacher, as “participating in the life of God” (p. 291), shares in preaching the trinitarian nature of God (p. 294–8). Reeves elaborates on the reason for Calvin’s writing his magnum opus, Institutes of the Christian Religion, and walks through the Institutes noting in what manner it follows this “trinitarian shape”(p. 299). Lastly, Reeves comments on the divine emphasis and the divine intent of God’s communication of His redemptive-revelatory nature. Reeve’s use of Calvin’s Institutes and the practical implications thereof make this a helpful final essay for Part 2.

Overall, Crowe and Trueman not only provide a helpful resource for  defending the Trinity as a thoroughly biblical doctrine found in the New Testament, but also provide helpful instruction  on  how pastors can apply this theology of New Testament trinitarianism in their congregations. Though there are some outliers of varying relevance and helpfulness, there is a wealth of information here that will serve and inform the Christian church for years to come.

Kevin is a candidate under care in the Presbyterian Church in America, pursuing pastoral and theological education in North Carolina. When he’s not spending time with his wife and son, he enjoys reading 16th and 17th century Reformed theology. Kevin blogs at Confessional Millennial, You can follow him at @kevinsheth25.