Sunday 17 February 2013

Teaching the doctrine of the Trinity

In the coming semester I'll be teaching a subject on the doctrine of the Trinity, focusing on close readings of three formative Christian texts. The classes are on Thursday nights over twelve weeks (and as always, auditors are welcome to come along!). I'll be teaching each class with Matt Wilcoxen; we'll engage in discussion and debate together, instead of presenting monological lectures. I've pasted below the introduction and weekly schedule – I'd be interested to know if any other educators out there have approached the subject this way, or have used a similar kind of dialogical lecture form. Classes don't start for a couple of weeks yet, so all ideas and suggestions are welcome!


In this subject, you are invited to explore the central mystery of the Christian faith: the mystery of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity is the belief – shared by all the main historic Christian traditions – that within God there is a living threefold movement, and that this divine three-in-oneness is the secret of the world’s creation, redemption, and final restoration.

It was the experience of salvation in Christ that led early Christian thinkers towards a doctrine of the Trinity. From the earliest days, Christians were convinced that in Christ they had experienced God’s saving self-revelation. And if Christ reveals God – if, looking at Jesus, you find yourself looking at God – then Christ must somehow be said to share in God’s divinity. Otherwise, you wouldn’t really have met God in Christ, and God would remain unknown. The doctrine of the Trinity was formulated as a way of safeguarding these basic convictions about salvation and revelation.

In its briefest form, this doctrine can be summarised with the statement that God is “one being, three persons.” In the more elaborate language of the Nicene Creed, the doctrine of the Trinity centres on the affirmation that “Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, [is] eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made.”

How exactly does this language about the Trinity relate to our ordinary Christian experience of salvation? How does it relate to the spiritual life? How does it relate to the way we read the Bible? And is this doctrine really just one theory among others? How can be sure that we really know anything about God at all?

These are some of the key questions that we’ll be exploring throughout the semester. We will be reading and studying three major Christian thinkers: the Greek-speaking theologian Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389/90); the North African bishop Augustine of Hippo (354-430), and the twentieth-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). We will be focusing especially on these writers' patterns of biblical exegesis, and on the way they view theological reflection on the Trinity as a path of spiritual transformation. These are creative, challenging, highly imaginative Christian thinkers. At first it will take some patience and hard work to get familiar with them. But they will amply repay as much effort as you bring to them.

Our weekly classes will be led by two lecturers, Ben Myers and Matt Wilcoxen, who will engage in discussion, debate, and dialogue about each week’s reading. Make sure you’ve read the text before you come to class – underline, annotate, jot down one or two questions that arise for you from the reading – so that you can join in the discussion.

This is an exciting topic, and these are exciting Christian texts. We look forward to learning together with you over the coming semester!

Weekly Schedule

1. The spirituality of theology (Oration 27)
2. The unknowable God (Oration 28)
3. The revelation of the Son (Oration 29)
4. The light of the Spirit (Oration 31)

Text: Augustine, The Trinity
5. Jesus, the divine Saviour (selections of Books 1 and 4)
6. The life of the mind: A wounded image of the Trinity (Books 9-10)
7. The healing of the wounded image (Book 14)
8. Knowing the triune God from the inside (selections of Book 15)

Text: Barth, "The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country," CD IV/1 (study edition), §59.1
9. Jesus, the humble Lord (pp. 150-69)
10. Divinity and kenosis (pp. 169-86)
11. The humble God (pp. 186-98)
12. Naming God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit (pp. 198-204)


* Assessment 1: short research paper on Gregory's scriptural exegesis
* Assessment 2: short research paper on Augustine's images of the Trinity
* Assessment 3: theological essay drawing on the class texts, with essay questions on topics like spirituality, exegesis, gender, language, art, and preaching. 

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