In 1962, Arthur W. Wainwright penned a classic on the Trinity in the New Testament (that was his book’s title). It is not as if many Christian writers had not already published studies on the trinitarian material of the Bible. Of course, they had been doing that for the past 1900 years. Great Bible scholars had quite exhaustively combed the Scriptures for information about the Triunity of God. These ecclesiastical titans of intellect and piety, one would think, had said all there was to say. But Wainwright’s work was new.
Wainwright came at the subject (or the “trinitarian problem”, as he liked to call it) by seeking to answer the question: what were the New Testament authors thinking when they wrote the letters they did? These letters birthed our understanding of God as triune, but it took centuries to figure it out from them. The unavoidable conclusion from the apostolic writings was that God was Three and yet One. But what did the original authors think? Most were Jews and all were dyed-in-the-wool monotheists. So how in the world could they write the things they did about Jesus and the Spirit and Their divinity (e.g., Mat 28:19, Joh 1:1, 2Co 13:14, Rev 1:4-5)? When really understood, these seemed to be impossible statements to be made by people who believed that God is, first of all, One (Deu 6:4, Rom 3:30, Jam 2:19). But the apostolic writers never stop and say, oh, for those of you who are bothered by what I am implying, here is what I mean, or this is why I am saying this. They never apologize or even break stride in their sentences, as if they might want to be careful here. So what on earth were they thinking?
In a way, the time was ripe for Wainwright’s work. The Enlightenment’s advances in hermeneutics helped the church to locate the meaning of any Biblical writing in the intersection of the text itself, the audience, and the author. And the early twentieth century was the time of focusing on the author. So Wainwright was a product of his time in asking the question this way. (He was also a product of his time in entertaining some of the silly form critical ideas of that century in his book, but let’s not let that detract from his helpful effort.)
Perhaps the question, “What were they thinking?,” cannot be answered. We cannot climb into the head of Matthew or Paul, or interview Luke with pointed, precise queries. But just trying to answer the question, if one considers the writings authoritative, yields a great understanding of what God was doing as He revealed Themself in the first century of our era. Wainwright carefully examines how people at that time thought of God and what He did, and then how the New Testament writers cheerfully apply those same thoughts to Jesus and the Spirit.
Wainwright’s answer is that three authors are aware of the problem and are attempting to answer it. While we can find trinitarian implications, sometimes startling, in all the New Testament writings, it was Paul, the writer of Hebrews, and John, who understood that the “trinitarian problem” was there and offer a way to solve it. These three knew what they were doing and were self-consciously explaining what the world had just experienced in the coming of Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit from the Almighty. The first two give a primarily “binitarian” solution but John, writing probably decades later, saw the paradox in full relief and explains it in his gospel and letters. (I don’t think Wainwright gives enough attention to Revelation, where more awareness can be found for sure.)
I am quite thankful for the work of Arthur Wainwright and others after him because understanding the individual authors’ intent helps us understand what they are saying much better. Another scholar taking this approach of “What were they thinking?” today is Matthew Bates, who has recently helped us take a huge step forward in deepening our understanding of the Trinity.
And during this time when I believe God is helping us understand ourselves much better, this knowledge of God, in whose plural image we have been formed, is critical.