Rodrick K. Durst. Reordering the Trinity: Six Movements of God in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2015. See here to purchase the book.
Is the Trinity in the New Testament? We do see New Testament
references that mention the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all
together. Sometimes, that occurs within a formula. An example that
many Trinitarian apologists like to cite is Matthew 28:19, in which
Jesus commands his disciples to baptize people in the name of the
Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Many Christians are accustomed to ordering the Trinity as Father,
Son, and Holy Spirit, as Matthew 28:19 does. The Apostle’s Creed and
the Nicene Creed do this: they discuss the Father, then the Son, and
then the Holy Spirit. But there are places in the New Testament that
choose not to follow that particular order. II Corinthians 13:14, for
instance, states: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of
God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all” (KJV). This
passage orders the Trinity as Son, Father, and Holy Spirit.
Is that significant? Are New Testament authors trying to get across a
specific point when they order the Trinity as they do? Rodrick Durst
thinks so. For him, the Father-Son-Holy Spirit often occurs in the
context of God sending God’s people for mission. The order of
Son-Spirit-Father often relates to salvation. The order of
Son-Father-Spirit often concerns God indwelling believers. The order of
Spirit-Father-Son often pertains to sanctification and the believer’s
standing in God. The order of Father-Spirit-Son often relates to God
shaping us in spiritual formation. And the order of Spirit-Son-Father
often concerns God uniting believers in the church. Durst does not just
consider formulas that mention the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit
(in whatever order), but also New Testament passages that discuss them
and their work.
Notwithstanding this categorization, Durst seems to recognize, on
some level, that things are not that neat. So many of these topics
overlap with each other, and one can probably tie all sorts of passages
in the New Testament to these topics. At times, as Durst notes, the
conversation about the three persons in New Testament passages appears
to go on: a New Testament reference may refer to the three persons, then
mention one of the persons again a couple of times, not following a
strict threefold pattern. Perhaps Durst should have appreciated more
than he did the difficulty of categorizing the New Testament references
to the three persons; to his credit, however, he does grade each New
Testament reference according to how well it supports the categorization
in which he is tempted to place it, and a number of references do not
get an “A”!
Durst discusses related issues, as well. For one, he is responding
to people who do not believe that the Trinity is spiritually practical
for believers. He points to Kant and Schleiermacher as two thinkers who
had a dismissive attitude towards the Trinity. For Durst, the Trinity
is spiritually practical, and the numerous passages in the New Testament
about it demonstrate that to be the case. Durst not only discusses the
passages one-by-one, but he also includes sample sermons on how to apply
the concepts that he discusses.
Second, Durst is responding to those who believe that the Trinity is
not a doctrine in the New Testament but was developed after the time of
the New Testament. For Durst, the Trinity is in the New Testament, for
the New Testament often mentions the Father, the Son, and the Holy
Spirit (in whatever order) together. Durst argues that the doctrine of
the Trinity may even go back to Jesus himself, and that it actually
accords with aspects of the Hebrew Bible. Durst does acknowledge that
there has been historical development in the conceptualization of the
Trinity, however, and he includes a chapter about patristic attitudes
towards the Godhead and the Trinitarian controversies of the fourth
Regarding Durst’s categorization of the various orderings of the
Trinity in the New Testament, I doubt that the orders can be neatly or
rigidly categorized. At the same time, I do believe that, in a number
of cases (not necessarily all), the New Testament authors use the order
that they use for a reason. If the Son is mentioned first, then
something is being emphasized about the Son.
Sharing my religious and academic background may place my following
critiques in context. I grew up in a non-Trinitarian denomination, an
offshoot of Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God.
Armstrongism was binitarian: it believed that the Father and the Son
were God, but that the Holy Spirit was God’s power, not a person within
the Godhead. One argument that Armstrongites made is that there are
many places in the New Testament that appear binitarian: Paul introduces
some of his letters by mentioning the Father and the Son, for example,
but he does not mention the Holy Spirit.
When I started studying the New Testament academically (which is not
to say that it is my field of study, but that I took classes in it), I
encountered the view that the New Testament contains various
Christologies, that not every New Testament author conceived of Jesus as
God before he came to earth. Some did not present Jesus as
pre-existing his earthly life. Some thought that Jesus became divine at
his resurrection. There are New Testament scholars today, such as Bart
Ehrman, who argue for Christological diversity in the New Testament.
My liberal academic background in religious studies also frowned on
treating the Hebrew Bible as a Christian document. Saying that the
Trinity or Jesus is in the Hebrew Bible was considered a projection of
Christian ideas onto the Hebrew Bible, not an approach that was faithful
to the Hebrew Bible’s original messages and meanings.
In light of all that, here are some questions and critiques:
A. Durst does well to note that there are New Testament references
that mention the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all together. At
the same time, he should have addressed why there are binitarian
passages in the New Testament: passages that mention the Father and the
Son, but not the Holy Spirit. Why, for example, does Paul sometimes
fail to mention the Holy Spirit in introducing his letters?
B. Although the New Testament mentions the Father, the Son, and the
Holy Spirit together, does that mean that it always assumes a Nicene
view of the Trinity in those cases—-a Christology in which Jesus was God
before he came to earth, or a conceptualization of the Holy Spirit as a
person? A New Testament reference may mention the Son with the Father
and the Holy Spirit, but that does not necessarily mean that it believes
that the Son pre-existed; it could think that Jesus became the Son at
his birth, his baptism, or his resurrection.
C. Durst’s argument that the Hebrew Bible is consistent with the
Trinity is thoughtful and rigorous, but not entirely convincing. Durst
makes a big deal about the Hebrew Bible using a plural word, Elohim, for
God, but Judges 16:23-24 uses elohim for the pagan god Dagon, while
using a singular verb to describe what Dagon was allegedly doing. Were
the Philistines seeing Dagon as a plural deity? I have my doubts:
perhaps the plural is used to highlight the majesty of the deity.
Moreover, Durst says some things that, in my opinion, can account for
elements of the Hebrew Bible better than the Trinity can. A number of
Christians say that the angel of the LORD in the Hebrew Bible was Jesus,
one reason being that the angel speaks for God and interacts with
people as God. Durst states, however, that there was an ancient belief
that messengers represented the person sending them, and that the
messengers speaking was the same as their senders speaking. If that is
the case, does one have to resort to the Trinity to explain the angel of
the LORD’s activity in the Hebrew Bible? Finally, Durst should have
explored more deeply whether Second Temple Judaism conceived of God in a
plural manner, since that helped form the historical context of the
historical Jesus, and Durst seems to want to argue that Jesus teaching
the Trinity was consistent with his Jewish heritage.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from Kregel Academic, in exchange for an honest review.
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