How We Got Here: The Evangelical Trinitarian Milieu

Editor’s Note: For more on these issues, see  Jason S. Sexton, “The State of the Evangelical Trinitarian Resurgence,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54:4 (December 2011).


Evangelicals have a peculiar relationship with the doctrine of the Trinity.

Defined nearly as much by the way they hold their values and beliefs as the beliefs themselves, evangelicals value the Bible as God’s distinct self-revelation. They are people of the Book, and therefore, if it’s evangelical, it is usually going to be biblical. And yet, the formulation of the creedal doctrine of the Trinity that came down from Nicaea isn’t stated in the Bible.

Excellent proposals have recently been provided for understanding how the triune God reveals himself as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in Scripture, including these:

But the manner in which evangelicals arrive at the doctrine has been contested. Such a predicament led some early Pentecostals to break ranks with orthodox Pentecostals over the doctrine of the Trinity and have only recently begun to discuss their theological differences. A revealing 2008 report published in the academic journal Pneuma shows that Oneness scholars almost conceded to an inexplicable threeness in God’s being, while the trinitarians allowed that the language of “persons” is not sacred in trinitarian theology. These were significant steps to clarifying positions on the doctrine of the Trinity.

Aside from a few exceptions, however, evangelicals have not often given much thought to their articulation of trinitarian doctrine. In the 20th century, evangelical theologians used the doctrine for almost exclusively apologetic purposes. Today, in independent evangelical churches and institutions of higher learning, the trinitarian articles in their doctrinal statements are often haphazardly constructed, and rarely seem to receive much attention. Yet while the doctrine itself often remained underexplored, evangelical theology was always assumed to be “solidly trinitarian.” Only rarely was this affirmation moved to the front and center of evangelical confession, as it was in the case of the 1989 insertion of the explicit affirmation of the doctrine of the Trinity into the Evangelical Theological Society’s Doctrinal Basis. Otherwise, the doctrine has more often been assumed rather than defended or explicitly and thoroughly appropriated.

There are exceptions to this, of course, as Fred Sanders has recently shown in his remarkably helpful and highly accessible work The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Crossway). This book shows not only that evangelicalism is tacitly trinitarian but also how some notable leaders within the tradition (e.g., Susanna Wesley, Nicky Cruz, and Francis Schaeffer) devoted meaningful attention to the doctrine. Nevertheless, these are rare exceptions that reveal an unfortunate feature of evangelical theology.

Second Rank

Suggested by some as being a legacy of Calvin to locate Scripture at the beginning of doctrinal formulation—as he did in the Institutes—evangelicals have often followed suit, relegating the doctrine of the Trinity to second rank. I suspect this move, along with the doctrine of the Trinity relegated to having primarily apologetic import, has also caused evangelicals to wonder where to locate the doctrine in their own formulation and articulation of the gospel.

Recent evangelical publications have tended to belabor this point about the difficulty or inaccessibility or impracticality of the doctrine, thus denying the church the benefits of sustained reflection on the ineffably sublime triune God on the basis of what he has done in Christ. Recent studies within leading evangelical institutions have even defined major stalwarts of late 20th-century evangelicalism as “sub-trinitarian.” After surveying the writings of John Stott, Alister McGrath concluded, “There is no sense, at least in Stott, that the Trinity is the cornerstone of evangelical identity.” Evangelical organizations like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and the Evangelical Free Church of America have recently corrected some of this negligence by reasserting the doctrine of the Trinity’s primary significance in Christian confession, locating it as the primary article in their respective statements of faith. Some new collaborative organizations (including The Gospel Coalition) have also located the doctrine of the Trinity front and center, a promising move for evangelical confession.

Assumed Then Lost

The trinitarian underemphasis has generated some of the confusion that presently exists within evangelicalism, especially among those who otherwise share many core and common doctrinal convictions and commitments. And yet, on a much larger scale, this may be a similar feature to the oft-quoted quip from Don Carson, that when the gospel (in this case: the triune nature of the God of the gospel) is assumed, the passion is lost in proclamation, and could likely be lost within a generation.

I shudder to think how long and for how many generations evangelicals have “assumed” the doctrine of the Trinity. While any genuine salvific movement of God in the world always gives birth to trinitarian faith, tacit trinitarianism is not satisfactory for evangelical theology. Instead, the doctrine of the Trinity ought to inform everything—in theology, ministry, ethics, and all of life.

This trinitarian paucity may have resulted from evangelicalism’s focus on other emphases, such as world evangelism and biblical scholarship. And yet, recent work from a number of missional and biblical theologians has shown strong efforts to be more trinitarian in emphasis and outlook. A leading example is the work of Christopher J. H. Wright and his recent efforts with The Cape Town Commitment. Additionally, the following publications offer some of the best trinitarian engagement in recent years:

The difficulties between evangelicals and the Trinity are simply part of the present state of evangelical identity—an identity inherited from the particular 20th-century emphases within evangelical theology. We should therefore not be surprised by confusion or lack of nuance, even among some of our best teachers and leaders. This is our situation. We can do better, and have begun to in very hopeful ways.

There is still much more to say by way of understanding the nature of the triune God, the divine life, and God’s working in the world. Of all people evangelicals shouldn’t be afraid of further development in our doctrines of the Trinity, as we hold out hope in the gospel of the triune God who passionately loves the world.

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  • John C

    Helpful article. The big omission is hymnody. The claim that evangelicals just assumed the Trinity will only hold if evangelicals stopped singing the Trinity. But the hymns of Watts and (especially) Wesley, were deeply, even daringly Trinitarian, and hugely popular. The hymnwriters may have done a better job than the pastors and theologians.

    • Jason Sexton

      Great point, John. Incidentally, a generation ago Lewis & Demarest groped around before concluding this: “Until a view is proposed that more coherently fits the biblical passages on both the unity and the diversity of the Godhead, we do well not only to believe and to sing about the Trinity, but also to defend trinitarianism.” So the doctrine was there, but by admission, underexplored. And of course evangelicals sung about the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, three-in-one, three persons, etc. I highlight this in “ecclesial trinitarianism” in the JETS essay. James Torrance also attempted to integrate and develop some of this in his theology, which a lot of evangelicals drew from. But implications for the doctrine running the range of Christian faith and informing it at every turn is where we can do better, I think, especially as it relates to our theological self-identity as evangelicals.

    • Tony P.

      It should be noted that the hymnwriters you mentioned were actually pastors and theologians. Perhaps more pastors and theologians need to be poets.

  • Fernando

    Lex orandi, lex credendi. When I finally found a home in a more liturgical church, I found myself reciting the creed every Sunday and ending prayers with an explicit mention of the Trinity. By contrat, in many services in evangelical churches God’s triune nature is never even mentioned. It’s not surprising that it would leave people confused.

    • Jason Sexton

      Thanks, Fernando. I’m not convinced liturgy is the way forward for all. There’s a reason why the creed has been a core component of Christian confession, but it’s not the only way to confess or articulate the heart of the gospel. Perhaps better than anyone, Fred Sanders has challenged the claim that only (or even primarily) the liturgical traditions are trinitarian. Personally, I think it’s a rather shallow claim that doesn’t adequately reckon with the nature of “confession” of the one true God in a larger historical perspective (e.g., prior to the “Apostles Creed”). But I also appreciate very much how the Anglicans I worship with at Oak Hill College during chapel svcs find a lot of help in the liturgy. I’m just nervous about locating the confession in the liturgy which could tend to locate our confession exclusively within the church gathering and perhaps not so much in the mundane features of everyday life and realities outwith the church, over which also Jesus reigns as Lord, and for which (and whom) we seek to articulate this faith whilst on mission.

      • SirBrass

        The problem with liturgy is often for the common man, the only thing religious they ever learn is what is said in the liturgy. Simply mentioning the trinity in liturgical prayers is all well and good, but often that’s as far as it goes.

        To be truly confessional, the confessions have to be held to, taught, and defended not just by the so-called clergy, but taught to the so-called laity as well (I would argue that to say there’s a distinction is distinctly unbiblical. out of the congregation are trained men who are called to be deacons and elders, and no other office, and we are all a priesthood of believers). Not just recited daily.

        I was raised episcopalian and could recite the nicean creed word for word. Yet, that great creed was just words to me. It was something I knew we were supposed to believe, but all I knew was the creed, not what it really meant. It wasn’t until I was in a non-liturgical church (and in the interim was saved, btw) that I truly began learning from the church about the creeds and confessions.

        Liturgy is nice, but it is often a thin veneer over a whole host of vast ignorance.

      • Fernando

        No one claims that the liturgy is enough! Nor am I saying anything so preposterous as the claim that only liturgical churches are trinitarian. The point is not the liturgy per se; it’s the place of the Trinity in our worship. It’s perfectly possible, I think, to have a more “contemporary” style of worship that every Subday reminds believers that their God is named Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But I’ve never seen one. The fixed liturgy at least puts the words there, a foundation on which to build.

  • James

    One small denomination that is doing a great job of recovering and trumpeting the centrality of the Trinune nature of God is Grace Communion International. GCI, formerly the Worldwide Church of God, held an heretical, ‘Binitarian’ doctrine of God that badly misinformed many of our doctrines. After a mighty move of the Holy Spirit a great, grace transformation took place, and at the center of this denominational reformation was the doctrine of the Trinity. As a people who formerly wandered in ‘a wilderness of theological confusion’ denouncing the teaching of the Trinity as pagan, we now have a deep appreciation and zeal for this central doctrine. For us, it is not an abstract, technical discussion about answering “difficult scriptures”; it is the lens through which we understand God, humanity, eschatology, salvation, the gospel, etc… and has practical implications for all that we are and do. We thank God for pursuing us with the truth of who he is.

  • RD

    A careful reading of scripture shows that there really isn’t biblical concensus concerning the trinity or the divinity of Jesus. Certainly, certain biblical passages DO offer that understanding, but there are many other passages that very definitely express Jesus’ relationship to God as being an appointed special servant (the Jewish Messiah). This understanding is very different from the understanding that Jesus and God were one and the same.

    • Darren

      Hey RD, your observation doesn’t actually throw uncertainty on an orthodox understanding of the Trinity, but actually fills it out. The Son is appointed by the Father, a distinction exactly affirmed by Trinitarian doctrine. The Son becomes flesh, fully God, fully man. As the “last man”/”second Adam” (cf. Rom 5:12f; 1Cor 15), he is the Messiah, and fulfills the requirements of the law. No contradiction in the Scriptural texts. Just paradox.

      • RD

        Darren, Thanks for the reply. The orthodox view of the trinity is, as you noted in your comment, that Jesus was fully human but also fully God. The last part of that statement is what can be called into question if you openly read the scriptures. The OT speaks prophetically of the coming messiah of Israel. We are familiar with so many of these verses that we don’t really consider them carefully. Verses that speak about the suffering servant who will bear our iniquity, etc etc. In each instance this messiah is NEVER described as actually being God. In fact, the designation of “messiah” is the exact same language used to describe King Cyrus of Persia. He was God’s anointed “messiah” entrusted to deliver the exiled Hebrews. In the book of Acts, the disciples use this exact language when they are presenting Jesus. I’ve never seen an instance in Acts where Jesus is proclaimed to be divine (the Son of God); instead, he’s proclaimed to be God’s anointed servant through whom God worked miracles and wonders and whom God raised from the dead to be the messiah.

        • Tony P.

          RD, I think part of the problem in what you are claiming is with respect to the NT quotes of and allusion to the OT. Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, and Phil 2 are a couple that come immediately to mind. Peter says, “whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” The Christ hymn in Phil 2 has Isaiah 45 as its background. Both of these passages in their OT contexts direct the bowing to, confessing of, and calling upon toward Yahweh. In the NT, these passages that were speaking of the God of Israel are now applied to Jesus. It seems that part of the message of the NT is that Jesus is Yahweh, who is a triune being.

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  • Eduardo

    I agree that every doctrine that we assume, will be lost in the second or third generation, whether is the trinity, justification by faith alone, the doctrines of grace, etc.

  • Lamar Carnes

    It is rather sad and discouraging to learn that our present day ministers/teachers etc., have neglected such a valuable and important doctrine of the word of God. Neglect of study relating to our past generation giants of the faith and their writings on this subject is one of the problems. There seems to be always a difficulty within each generation to “study” history of any kind and so they have to rediscover things like they are “brand new” and never existed thus wasting precious time and moments which could have been directed to more important aspects of the faith. We don’t need to re-invent the wheel on everything that is going on in the body of Christ. Much should not be “thrown out” which was found to be profitable in the kingdom, but yet, because it was and/or is old stuff, the younger generation thinks it isn’t relevant. How wrong can you be? Not all that is “old” is irrelevant. In fact, it may be very wise to listen and follow “old” things which have been proven to be of value in the past. In fact, isn’t the Holy Bible an “old” writing and book? Sure, but it is always fresh and new to us every day isn’t it? Let us not show disdain for small things or old things just based on those terms!!