Is Nicene Christianity that important? An historical-ecumenical note

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There is an interesting statement about the Trinity by Gospel Coalition council member and regular contributor, James Macdonald, with reference to his invitation to T D Jakes to speak at a conference.  I quote the relevant section:

I affirm the doctrine of the Trinity as I find it in Scripture. I believe it is clearly presented but not detailed or nuanced. I believe God is very happy with His Word as given to us and does not wish to update or clarify anything that He has purposefully left opaque. Somethings are stark and immensely clear, such as the deity of Jesus Christ; others are taught but shrouded in mystery, such as the Trinity. I do not trace my beliefs to credal statements that seek clarity on things the Bible clouds with mystery. I do not require T.D. Jakes or anyone else to define the details of Trinitarianism the way that I might. His [Jakes'] website states clearly that he believes God has existed eternally in three manifestations.

The statement is interesting for a number of the claims it makes:

1.    The Trinity is apparently clearly presented in scripture but later creedal statements involve detail and precision which belie scripture's deliberate lack of nuance and opaqueness on this issue.
2.    Further, creedal Trinitarianism seeks clarity on issues which the Bible clouds with mystery.
3.    The deity of Jesus is clearly taught in scripture.

Well, point 3 is good.  The problem, of course, is that a cursory glance at church history would indicate that it was wrestling with the implications of point 3 which drove the whole creedal Trinitarian debate in the first four centuries.  The deity of Christ may have been clear, but the implications of this statement for Jewish monotheism were not so. The question could not be avoided and, over time, various options were put forward; ultimately, only Nicene orthodoxy was found satisfactory as a means of connecting the deity of Christ to the unity of God in a manner which did clear justice to the biblical text and also provided a Christ who could save.  For the record I do not know how Jakes uses the terminology of manifestation; in fact, other than his diet book (out of disbelief that he had written one, doubting Thomas that I am), I have never opened any book written by him.  Still, the language of manifestation is vulnerable to being seen as modalist; and a modalist God cannot save.  The best one could say is that he uses very dangerous terminology at this point.

Further, to place Nicene orthodoxy in the category of over-scrupulous doctrinal precisianism is, in effect, to declare the entire church (except for strands of American evangelicalism, apparently) from 381 to the present day to be wrong-headed. True catholic Christianity has always regarded Nicene orthodoxy as vital.   An evangelicalism which argues for the basic irrelevance of such is simply not part of that catholic tradition; rather than being generously connected to other believers, it effectively isolates itself from the mainstream Christian tradition.  Maybe there are consciences here bound to scripture.  I would certainly never demand that a man subscribe to something which he does not see in scripture; but for myself, I need more than a few brief blog comments to understand why I should abandon Nicaea as crucial to salvation, revelation and my doctrine of who God is and what he has done. I want to know how and why Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and Owen, to name just eight representatives of Trinitarianism, considered this to be more than a matter of over-scrupulousness.  A humble listening to the past is important for the church in any circumstance; in the context of the creeds, such listening is absolutely non-negotiable.

The detail in Trinitarian debate was vital. Of course, many Christian believers have a shaky grasp of Trinitarianism; it is a difficult theological area and it is therefore important that those who hold teaching office do grasp this area so that they can bring their members on to maturity in this matter.  Thus, for an evangelical leader to argue that creedal developments on Trinitarianism are of little importance is a fascinating glimpse into the doctrinal make-up of what constitutes contemporary evangelical leadership in the United States as it connects to catholic Christianity and, indeed, any tradition which regards the insights of Nicene Christianity as of importance in the overall transmission and articulation of the identity of Jesus Christ and thus his gospel.

Posted September 27, 2011 @ 7:25 PM by Carl Trueman
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