The Bible as a whole, and the NT in particular, is Christocentric. That is, the gospel as the center of the Bible is a story of how Jesus as Israel’s Messiah has come to restore the world through is death and resurrection. Other attempts as bringing in other “center” language has brought about quick corrections, e.g., Richard Hays rightly corrected his original framing of Paul’s reading of scripture as “ecclesiocentric” to be described later as “ecclesiotelic” in a “Christocentric” framework. I heartily agree that the Christ-event is at the heart of the biblical story and of the Christian faith, but there is a consistent problem that I have noted among scholars and students: this Christocentrism has become a Christomonism, or we might also say the Trinitarianism of the Christianity is regularly becoming binitarian because we have lost sight of the Spirit in our theology.
Though this problem is not limited to Evangelicals, we often experience this because as a “Word” centered movement, Jesus and the Bible are are the heart of our spirituality and practice. A robust Trinitarianism, which entails a strong view of the Spirit’s work, is often missing. If any aspect of the Trinity is missing, it will be the Spirit, as the Father and Son are regularly represented. When is the last time your church mentioned the Trinity, much less had sermon or a sermon series on the Trinity?
Let me offer for some examples for my case.
- At the heart of my evangelical up-bringing was a heavy emphasis on reading and (properly) interpreting the Bible, an inheritance that I happily try to pass along to my students. However, when I was learning my hermeneutical method, the Spirit played a minor role in the process. Evangelicals have bought into the Enlightenment presupposition that one who employs the right method can get to the right meaning in the text. I was taught the “historical-grammatical” method in distinction to the “historical-critical” method, but in either case the method entails the search for objective meaning. Where is the Spirit in the method? We were regularly encouraged to pray for the Spirit’s guidance, but I couldn’t tell you how a 1 Corinthians 2-3 epistemology was incorporated into the method. There is much talk of the Bible as Spirit-inspired, but little training or emphasis on interpretation as Spirit-enlightened. In the end, we relied/rely on a new holy Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Bible. The Word is central, but where is the Spirit in our hermeneutics?
- About a year or two ago I heard someone describe (folk) evangelical preaching and theology as “deistic therapeutic moralism”, that is, a focus on self-help practices focused on right living. While evangelicalism has a more robust theology than this, I think it is an apt description of the average Christian mindset. Many things over the past century have fed into this folk theology, but one of the main influences is again the Enlightenment deistic presuppositions. People hear messages about repentance and holy living, but without a robust Trinitarian framework with the Spirit working in and transforming people, they are left with a call to morality without divine empowerment. There is little place for a focus on New Covenant theology where God is restoring people’s hearts and not just giving them a right status.
- The lack of a place for the Spirit was brought home to me clearly when I taught a class on Paul and His Letters this fall. One of the textbooks I require is Gordon Fee’s Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God. He has an excellent section on the trinitarian nature of Paul’s theology, and as we were discussing this an able student asked if I was worried about people thinking there are three gods since we are talking about the Spirit so much. We talk about Jesus and the Father constantly, but are we worried about people thinking we believe in two gods? No, but since we have no place for the Spirit in our theology of God, we work from a functional binitarianism rather than a Trinitarianism.
- My last piece of evidence comes from a series of Biblical Theology lectures that I listened to. I won’t mention the name because these otherwise helpful lectures were marred by a Christomonist portrayal of God’s work in the world. In distinction to the Trinity as central or the Father working through Christ and the Spirit to establish his kingdom, or any other model of Biblical Theology, this speaker only mentioned Christ as the center of the biblical story. Yes, Christ is central to God’s action in the world, but where is the biblical view of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit acting in conjunction. The Spirit didn’t come into these lectures until the very end, almost as a side-note. However, if God has revealed himself as Father, Son, and Spirit shouldn’t we begin with a Trinitarian framework for understanding his work, at least in discussing canonical theology?
As a mentioned above, I agree that the Bible is Christocentric: the gospel as the center of the Bible is a story of how Jesus as Israel’s Messiah has come to restore the world through is death and resurrection. However, how can we understand the New Covenant work of the God-sent Messiah without understanding his Spirit-anointing which brings about a transformation of believers’ hearts as a fulfillment of the New Covenant?
In contemporary theology there has been a return to a focus on the Trinity as the center of the Christian faith, as affirmed in the Nicene Creed. I think this is a healthy move, but if we are going to pursue a robust Trinitarian theology, the area that will need much refinement and focus is that of the third article of the Creed–the Holy Spirit. With pentecostalism as the dominant growth force in the church globally, the importance of the Spirit will no doubt bring rise in prominence. However, you don’t have to be a charismatic to be a Trinitarian. If you think about your theology, do you have a robust Trinitarianism? If not, I doubt it is because your view of the Father working through the Son is lacking. Rather, do you have a place for the Spirit as essential to your view of God’s work in the world? If not, I encourage you to seek out balanced voices like Gordon Fee and (re)discover the Spirit in the Trinity’s work in the world.
This post is a fruit of a review I’m doing on Najeeb Awad’s God Without a Face?: On the Personal Individuation of the Holy Spirit (Dogmatik in Der Moderne).