This week I had the opportunity to present a paper at the Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. My paper explores some of the topics that have shown up here at this blog, but does so in an academic setting. The title of my paper was: “The Bible and the Trinity: Trinitarian Reasoning among 19th Century Northern Baptists.” For those who might be interested, I am including the abstract to the paper below. For the full paper, you can access it on my academia.edu page here, or you can click here for a pdf.
Challenges toward Trinitarianism in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are well known. The continued attack on classical conceptions led to what historian Philip Dixon called a “fading of the Trinitarian imagination.” Baptists were mostly absent the early key Trinitarian battles in America, largely due to their position outside the mainstream and their pre-occupation with other theological issues (mostly revolving around Calvinism, revivalism, and their own Baptist distinctives). This absence makes it difficult to know how Baptists thought about the Trinity at the time. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, however, American Baptists began to publish theological treatises (including systematic theologies) in large numbers. These theologies give a good window into the status of the Baptist “Trinitarian imagination.” This paper covers Baptist theologians in the Northern United States (because those in the South were functioning out of a different theological tradition) from about 1865–1910, surveying their Trinitarian reasoning.
Most historians suppose that prior to the rise of the liberal “New Theology” of the later nineteenth century that Baptists largely held to what Timothy George has referred to as an “orthodox Baptist consensus.” This paper looks at how some Baptists within this so-called consensus approached Trinitarianism. Were they influenced by the relegation of the doctrine by Schleiermacher, the challenge of Unitarianism, by any confessional tradition, or by something else? This paper will argue that the Northern theologians were not bound by any confessional tradition (they consciously rejected such a notion), but instead approached the Trinity through the lens of their views of the Bible and their larger theological method. The result was a Trinitarian reasoning that was highly suspicious of metaphysical foundations and Biblicist in theological reasoning. They regularly rejected (sometimes in part and sometimes in the whole) the historic Trinitarian formulations of the early church councils. In the end, their Trinitarian theologies were significantly stripped down to only include explicit Biblical assertions and normally rejected “philosophical” notions such as eternal generation. The nineteenth century “orthodox” Baptist consensus also included a fading of the Trinitarian imagination, at least among Northern Baptists.