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 century C.E.
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.