Trinitarian Personalism and Christian Preaching

Trinitarian Personalism and Christian Preaching

Written by Scott R. Swain |
Tuesday, January 11, 2022

He, someone not something, is the supreme subject matter and scope of Christian preaching: God the Son incarnate, clothed with the promises of the gospel, crucified and risen, ascended and coming again.

The Trinity and Christian Preaching

Recent days have prompted me to think about the relationship between trinitarian theology and Christian preaching.

The first prompt came in June while participating in the International Presbyterian Church’s Catalyst Conference in London. Over the course of three days, I had the opportunity to listen to a lot of good preaching, including three sermons from Sinclair Ferguson on the Pastoral Epistles. In the evenings, I had the opportunity to spend time with a number of IPC ministers and ministerial candidates, discussing the nature and calling of gospel preaching, as well as the current status of gospel preaching in the UK and North America. The second prompt came in July when I finished a short manuscript on the doctrine of the Trinity (which is to be published by Crossway next year). The third prompt came from research I am doing for other projects. The following are a few scattered thoughts on the relationship between trinitarian personalism and Christian preaching inspired by the confluence of these three prompts.

What Is Trinitarian Personalism?

“Personalism” is a term with specific philosophical connotations that I do not intend here. What I mean by “trinitarian personalism” follows from an insight, expressed by Thomas Aquinas in his disputation on divine power, that the term “person” is a term of dignity, which indicates two things about God’s supreme greatness and goodness.[1]

First, that God exists in three “persons” indicates that God’s manner of existing is the highest manner of existing. Specifically, the triune God is the living God; and the life he lives is a life of perfect intelligence, love, and beatitude. Second, that God exists in three “persons” indicates that God’s intelligent, loving, and blessed manner of existing subsists in three distinct, irreducible, unsubstitutable ways: as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The true and living God is the tripersonal God; and the life he lives is the life of the Father who begets, of the Son who is begotten, and of the Spirit who is breathed forth in their mutual love.

What does this rather fine metaphysical point have to do with Christian preaching? Stay with me.

Trinitarian Personalism in Patristic Exegesis

The Church Fathers display a kind of trinitarian personalism in the ways they read Holy Scripture. Three examples stand out.

The first example comes from Irenaeus of Lyon. In his dispute with Gnostic interpreters who so twisted Holy Scripture that its unified message became unrecognizable, Irenaeus argues that the main purpose of the “rule of faith” is to help readers identify the person of Jesus Christ as the handsome king to which all scriptures point. The scope or aim of Scripture, on this understanding, is not something but someone. Holy Scripture, in all its literary and historical diversity, is a book that holds forth before the eyes of faith God the Son, the handsome king.

The second example agrees with Irenaeus in seeing the persons of the Trinity as the central subject matter of Holy Scripture and (potentially) explains the origin of the term “person” in Christian theology. As Matthew Bates and others have recently argued, New Testament and early patristic interpretation of the Old Testament exhibits an ancient reading strategy known as “prosopological exegesis,” the practice of identifying otherwise unnamed or ambiguously identified characters (dramatis personae) within the drama of scriptural discourse. For example, the author of Hebrews identifies the king whom God addresses in Psalm 2:7 as Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity (Heb 1:5). This “person-centered” approach to exegesis is the “birth” of trinitarian personalism: the scriptural foundation of the church’s perception of three “persons” in one God.[2]

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