A Case for Reading Scripture through a Trinitarian Lens

by Brandon D. Smith

Whatever your method of biblical exegesis, theological construction, or preaching and teaching, the Trinity should never be taken for granted in how you read Scripture. The triune God choosing to reveal himself to mankind is the cornerstone of our relationship with him and the bedrock content of his revelation. He didn’t have to communicate with us—before or after the Fall—and he certainly didn’t have to leave us his Word. But he did. So we should be careful not to forget the God who speaks through its pages, in the Old and New Testaments.

Here are a few reasons why we should primarily and foundationally read Scripture through a Trinitarian lens:

1. A Trinitarian reading of Scripture is a Christian reading.

The Trinity is “both the foundation and the goal of Christian theology” and “a summary statement of the divine identity.”[1] Hearing God as he has revealed himself through his Word is, then, crucial to Christian living, and so a Trinitarian reading shapes Christian worship. As Karl Barth rightly observes, “in enquiring into what Holy Scripture attests as revelation we come up against the doctrine of the Trinity and thus have good reason to turn our attention to this first.”[2]

Additionally, God has revealed himself in Scripture as triune, and God has been affirmed as triune throughout the Christian tradition. Creedal Christianity is built on affirmations from Scripture, not in contradiction to them. Doctrine is biblical, yes, but tradition’s careful explication of Scripture should not be abandoned. This leads to the next point.

2. A Trinitarian reading “views ecclesial reception of Scripture as primary.”[3]

Since Scripture is God’s Word to his people, it is to be read and received within the community of faith.[4] Following the appeal of Francis Watson, Scripture belongs to the Church, “demarcating it from other writings that may or may not perform analogous normative functions in other communities.”[5] While tradition is not infallible, reception history of the Bible should not be undervalued. Indeed, the “Rule of Faith” has been crucial in preserving theological integrity and preventing heretics from making headway against Scripture’s teaching. As J. Todd Billings rightly reminds us:

The word of God is not an abstract word, but word with us, a word for us. The word of the triune God is not the word of a generic God, but the word of a God who has shown himself gracious and forgiving in the person of Jesus Christ, and who desires and creates fellowship with those who are in Christ by the Holy Spirit.[6]

One should also avoid the temptation to ignore the Spirit’s continued work in preserving and applying Scripture to the Church. Treier has helpfully written, “The Spirit works through tradition to help the church apply its criterion for wisdom—Scripture—in the midst of the drama [of redemption].”[7]

3. A Trinitarian reading is the proper, overarching eschatological reading of Scripture.

The God who speaks and acts is the God who guides history to its culmination in the redemption of all things (Rev. 21-22). One cannot ignore the economic Trinity when reading Scripture, and one cannot speak of an eschatological hope without speaking of Father, Son, and Spirit.

The God who “was, is, and is coming” (Rev. 1) is the God who we worship in Scripture, from beginning to end. The Bible shows us that God is not done with us because of our sin—and that sin will be dealt with by him alone. Scripture is one big story about an infallible God redeeming fallible people.

4. A Trinitarian reading is robustly canonical and brings together the two Testaments in a vital dialogue.

As Scripture clearly shows, the OT is foundational to understanding the NT. Although the OT is commonly called the Hebrew Bible, it remains nonetheless part of the Christian canon and provides context for the NT. The OT does not belong solely to the Jewish community from which it originated; it is one side of the same coin in the two-Testament canon.

Rather than imposing a foreign hermeneutic on the OT, a Trinitarian reading “alerts us to the historical unfolding of God’s revelation in the economy of his world,” revealing that “the Father is particularly associated with creation and Israel, the Son with the fulfillment of redemption, and the Spirit with mission.”[8] The Book of Revelation, for example, does not merely give us another code to unlock—it fills in the outlines already drawn by the canon. It uses OT language to point to God’s ontological reality as it is revealed in the NT. A Trinitarian reading draws the Bible reader into a fully-developed, canonically-shaped hermeneutic.

5. A Trinitarian reading is the most natural reading of the canon.

With the entire canon in view, the Trinity is front and center. One cannot concretely know much of what is debated in eschatology or and other -ologies, and this is largely why there are so many interpretations. Conversely, and similar to our first point, the truth of the Trinity is not debatable within orthodox Christianity. This is not to say that a Trinitarian reading is the easy way out, as though hermeneutics need to be “safe.” However, one should not spend more time in conjecture than in solid truth.

This is not to say that we should abandon all scholarly tools. Rather, interpreting the Bible theologically acknowledges that all readers come to the text with presuppositions, all of which contain theological commitments. The question is, then, whether or not those commitments are theologically sound. So utilize your exegetical tools—original languages, text criticism, theological interpretation, etc.—but don’t lose sight of the triune God whose Word you’re exegeting. The Trinity’s presence and actions in Scripture, if nothing else, gives us a clear way to read the Bible.

[1] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 43.

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, 304.

[3] Craig G. Bartholomew, Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics, 9.

[4] Bartholomew, Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics, 9-10.

[5] Francis Watson, “Authors, Readers, Hermeneutics,” in Reading Scripture with the Church, 119.

[6] J. Todd Billings, The Word of God for the People of God, 89.

[7] Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture, 150.

[8] Bartholomew, Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics, 10.