“The Triune Nature of God”, by Robert D. Cornwall

The Triune Nature of God, by Robert D. Cornwall

A Review by Steve Kindle

This book is Published by Energion Publications in their Topical Line Drive series. The publisher states, “The Topical Line Drive booklets are designed to demonstrate a point of scholarship or survey a topic directly, clearly, and quickly.” Dr. Cornwall manages to pack a survey of the development of the Trinity doctrine and evaluate it in just 42 pages. Consequently, more questions are asked than answered, but his purpose is to raise questions for others to ponder. His immediate audience is part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but he addresses issues far beyond denominational borders. In the process, he has done both trinitarian and nontrinitarian Disciples of Christ a huge favor. He has brought to the fore a facet of our life (and for many non-Disciples) that has been discreetly avoided, namely, how are we to live together and with the larger Christian community with this serious rift in our theology? Do we worship the same Jesus?


Two questions occupy the book. The first, with the most space devoted to it, is “In What way is Jesus the Son of God?” The Second, “I want to pose the question of whether having a creed is a necessary step in our ability to speak faithfully as Christians about God.” These questions are asked within the context of a denomination that eschews creeds and leaves doctrinal questions open. Yet, Cornwall reaches well beyond his denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), as he notes the widespread confusion among many Christians regarding the Trinity. So, he offers this book as a means to begin a fruitful conversation.

As a reviewer, I fit his audience perfectly. As a Disciple pastor, I am anti-creedal, non-trinitarian, and don’t understand Jesus’ divinity as described in the 4th-century creeds. Yet, I’m fully ecumenical in my embrace of other Christians. Cornwall notes that he was a trinitarian before he was a Disciple (via the Episcopal Church), and continued in that belief. I was a trinitarian before I was a Disciple (via the Lutheran Church), yet I moved away from it. Why these different outcomes are possible will find their way into this review.

Cornwall begins with a summary history of Disciples’ understanding of creeds and the Trinity focusing on the three seminal founders, Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone. All three began as Presbyterians, but only the Campbells remained trinitarian in belief, if not in terminology. The early figures of the Restoration Movement preferred using biblical terms, regarding any post-biblical notions as “inventions of men.”  So they filled the biblical term “godhead” with trinitarian substance. Stone, on the other hand, is hard to categorize, but the consensus is that he was not heterodox, but what was he? They managed to remain in fellowship as none of them would make the Trinity a test of faith, buoyed in their common dislike for creeds as postbiblical and therefore unbiblical instruments.

The Restoration Movement was energized by the felt need to find a means for Christian unity. Creeds were divisive, not unitive by forcing people to accept them or be alienated from the community. More preferred was uniting around the biblical essentials. “In essentials unity, in non-essentials, liberty, in all things charity,” became their rallying cry. Thinking that the essentials were plain and few in number, it would be a workable answer. However, it proved to be as difficult as uniting around creeds. One person’s essential was another’s non-essential. And not much charity followed major disagreements. Cornwall notes that both the credal and biblical affirmations are open to interpretation, but wonders if “we haven’t reached the point where embracing a creedal consensus might be necessary” to achieve unity.

I find this suggestion less than helpful. First, it is a top-down approach to unity. The theologians (in the place of bishops) tell us what to believe and we either accept it or are forced out. Next, if we are given the right to self-determined interpretation, who sets the boundaries? I, for one, can affirm the Apostles’ Creed, but only if defined on my terms. I can’t say the same for the Nicene Creed. And if acceptance of a creed is not mandatory, I can see its use as a teaching aid but fails as a means of unity. Unfortunately, Cornwall does not supply his reasons for believing creeds can unite. This would be a fruitful follow-up book!

Actually, I find the whole notion of unity based on conformity to be wrongheaded. I have a de facto unity with all who confess Jesus as Lord without the necessity of determining if we mean the same things. I accept that we don’t and then remove myself from being another’s judge. A de jure ruling is unnecessary.

I am also uncomfortable with the quotes of certain theologians Cornwall uses to illustrate his position. He writes, “…If we take away the Trinity, then the Christian affirmation of the incarnation collapses,” “and [quoting Miroslav Wolf] with it the whole Christian faith.” Christianity survived, even thrived for four centuries without the Trinity. Trinitarian Christianity may collapse, but not Christianity. Then Cornwall goes on to make this suggestion, “…if Jesus is not the incarnate one, but rather one prophet among many, perhaps we should embrace Islam.” Or, why not encourage Muslims to embrace Christianity?

Cornwall quotes Brevard Childs, “Indeed, it is the doctrine of the Trinity which makes the doctrine of God actually Christian.” This, of course, calls all non-trinitarian depictions of God, at least insufficient, if not heretical. The creedal champions at Calcedon were successful in declaring nontrinitarians heretics. This is the price we pay to enable creeds.

The result of the anti-creedal position and openness to varied opinions in the Restoration Movement resulted in “an ambivalence in our tradition.” An ambivalence that continues to today. To assist Disciples (and others) to work through this, Cornwall begins by asking, “…why did early Christians move toward a trinitarian understanding of God?” Before we get to the substance of his answer, he notes some Disciple answers. Quoting Edward Scribner Ames, “The doctrines of the Trinity have little significance in our time….Therefore they may be allowed to pass with the intellectual world to which they belonged.” Here is the crux of the situation from my perspective. Cornwall offers little in the way of engaging the worldview of the 4th century to determine its value in ours. Particularly important is how these ancients viewed substance. Their understanding differs greatly from ours. In short, were the equivalent of the Nicene bishops assembled today, we would not be talking about homoousiosis and homoiousiosis. Platonic and Aristotelian philosophical concepts continue to influence the world but in their generalities, not specifics, either in one form or another of idealism or realism.

He also quotes Leonard Allen, a Church of Christ theologian (a wing of the Restoration Movement), “…the explicit doctrine of the Trinity that gradually emerged in the first four centuries was not simply a philosophical construct imposed back upon Scripture but rather a result of the necessary work of filling out the New Testament’s pervasive triadic language about God as the gospel mission engaged the Greco-roman culture.” I would argue that the 

language about God in the New Testament is neither pervasive nor triadic. At the most, it is spotty and dyadic. Restoration Movement Christians had no recourse other than to leave the trinitarian question as indecisive as the New Testament evidence. At every turn, we run into Adoptionism or Subordinationism, never a full-blown ontological trinitarian formula.

So, why did the (not so early church) move toward a trinitarian understanding of God? Cornwall first looks at the biblical witness and sees potential for implicit trinitarian readings in such concepts as Wisdom, Spirit [ruarch] of God, Word [dabar and logos], and shekinah, although he hastens to add that neither the Old or New Testaments offer any explicit trinitarian moments. So what are we left with? Nothing that couldn’t fall into the category of metaphor. And if these are pre-trinitarian concepts, why did Mark see Jesus adopted as Son of God at his baptism, and Paul declared Jesus to be declared Son of God at his resurrection? Even the incarnation need not be ontologically understood. If, indeed, Jesus gives us as complete a picture of God as any human could, is that not metaphorically incarnation?

As for any implicit reference to the Trinity in Romans 8:11, If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. This supports Tritheism more than the Trinity. It wasn’t bad exegesis that gave rise to heresy, it was the New Testament itself.

There are more than a few New Testament passages that are treated lightly by trinitarians such as John 20:17, Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” This is Subordinationism at best. Add to this Mark 10.18: Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

John 14:28 – the Father is greater than I. 1 Cor. 11:3 – God is the head of Christ. Col. 1:15 – the firstborn over all creation. Many counter that Jesus prior to his ascension was subordinate to God but not pre-incarnation or after his ascension. Yet Paul wrote after the ascension describing Christ’s present state before God. There is no reason not to see them all in this way.

Perhaps, as Cornwall suggests, we should take Veli Matti Karkkainen’s advice that we avoid trying to find prooftexts and attend to the basic issue at hand.” So, who is Jesus? For Cornwall and other trinitarians, Jesus was the Second Person of the Trinity incarnated in the person Jesus, fully God and fully human.

We have seen that this is not supported explicitly by the Canon and that it took roughly four centuries for it to materialize. And even then it was not universally accepted until the church became powerful enough to enforce it. I wonder why we are not content with the biblical explanations for Jesus? “Son of God” is well-known as an honorific for kings of Israel. In fact, upon ascension to the throne, the kings became adopted Sons of God! In Jesus’ encounter with Nathanael, we find this. Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ John 1:48-49 Son of God:King of Israel; Hebrew parallelism is at work here.

The full divinity of Jesus has taken a huge toll on Christian behavior. Although Athanasius observed: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God,” few believe it and others think it’s a heretical statement. The reality is that there is a built-in reluctance to try to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. “After all, he is God and I’m not. There is no way I can live up to that expectation.” I once had an elder tell me that Jesus prayed to give us an example, because, after all, he was only praying to himself. But, if Jesus was truly and only human, then I have every expectation that I too can become close to God. Perhaps not as close as Jesus was, but the possibility is always there. I can then relate to Jesus as my brother (one in kind), my actual spiritual brother, as he is to all who follow his teachings.

When we speak of Jesus’ nature, we are speaking ontologically, that is, the nature of God. I think this is above our paygrade. No one can articulate the inner nature of God. Who are we kidding? In John 17:20,21 Jesus prays, ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. Couple that with John 10:30, The Father and I are one.’, and you discover not an ontological basis but a oneness in mission. There is no ontological way that God, Jesus, and disciples can be considered ontologically one. But they can all be one in mission.

We would do well to heed Aristotle’s advice, “To attain any assured knowledge about the soul is one of the most difficult things in the world.” The same goes for penetrating the essence of God.

I know many trinitarian and nontrinitarian Disciples (and others). Most trinitarians cannot articulate why they believe the doctrine other than it’s what the church teaches. If they ever try, they quickly fall into one heresy or another. Water, ice, steam anyone? This in itself is an indictment of the doctrine. No wonder the church prefers to leave it as a “mystery.” We deserve better than that. Dr. Cornwall encourages us to look deeper. He, and his book, deserve a fair hearing.

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