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A Really Big Idea: The Trinity (pt. 1)

The truth of the triune God is too important and relevant to approach in a hit-and-miss fashion.

This interview is part one of a two-part series.

PreachingToday.com: Is it so important to preach on the Trinity that we should schedule it into our preaching regularly?

Randy Frazee: In the early part of my ministry, I would have said yes for the same reason other preachers would say yes. I would have said yes because it's like saying I think prayer is important. But today I say yes in a much more significant way.

First of all, the Trinity is a big idea in our faith. It's a big idea in Christianity. Whether you look at the Bible or at church history to see what have been considered ideas worth fighting for, it's clear that God's identity is one of those big ideas. It is foundational.

The second reason is just one statistic: according to George Barna's book Think Like Jesus, only eight percent of adult Christians in America have a biblical worldview. If Barna is right in his research, then most adult Christians have a worldview that is not impacted by who God is. American Christianity suffers from a serious epidemic. We don't have a society in which evangelical Christians have the capacity to read—most Christians are not theologically literate.

We need to establish a way of seeing the world that is functional for people. And that means that teaching popular series, like series on finances or relationships or family, or even teaching the Bible exegetically, is not good enough. Components of the Trinity may show up everywhere in the Bible, but we're often so bent on relevancy that we don't teach on the big ideas with enough consistency to give reason for our people to have a biblical worldview.

If you want to see where your own congregation is theologically, pose to them a kind of litmus test. Ask them a series of theological questions, and intersperse a variety of views. For example, pose a question about the Trinity and ask them how true they believe that to be on a scale of one to five. Then ask a few questions that would support modalism, and then some that support pluralism. Do they believe that our God is the only true God—Father, Son, Holy Spirit—or that we have our God but other people have theirs? I bet you're going to find that, in most congregations, people are equally Trinitarian, modalist, and pluralist.

In most congregations, people are equally Trinitarian, modalist, and pluralist.

Of course, all this begs the question, So what? And for years I couldn't really get my arms around the significance of the Trinity. I got my arms around the significance of God, but I couldn't get my arms around the significance of the fact that our God is three persons, yet one essence.

And perhaps some pastors would say the Trinity is for pastors of large churches and writers who don't really have to work with real people. They think pastors who talk about stuff like this have too much time; they're dealing with people who have gotten a divorce or who can't make their mortgage payment, and we're sitting around talking about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But we have got to bring this idea to bear for people who are divorced, for people caught in addictions, for people who are lonely. We've got to do this. If we don't, I challenge whether our preaching is actually biblical.

You said it's not enough to go verse by verse exegetically through the Bible; what is the distinction between exegetical and theological preaching?

I have a concept of a three-legged stool of preaching. It doesn't matter which leg you start with, but you have an obligation to deal with all three.

First, there is a biblical leg, in which you open up the Bible and your starting point is a text of Scripture. And then from that you reinforce theology and answer questions of everyday life.

The second leg is a theology leg. Instead of starting with a text of Scripture, you start with a big idea of Scripture, like the Trinity. And you might refer to several passages of Scripture that teach or reinforce a component of this big idea, and you also tell the so what about that truth.

The third leg is the relevance leg; you actually start with a real life situation and then look back into the theology in the Bible to see how that idea is reinforced in a particular passage of Scripture.

In a lot of contemporary churches, pastors are starting with the relevance leg, and my challenge to them is not to start with the relevance question—because sometimes we never look back into the Bible or theology that way. We spend so much time trying to relate to the culture that we never actually give people a solid answer.

I'm not being critical of those pastors, because this was a big eye-opening experience for me. But I think a lot of the time we give answers that you could find in Barnes & Noble. We try to find a proverb to put a sort of window dressing on the truth, but we're not giving foundational answers. We haven't been trained as preachers to see the connection between theology and relevant life.

How do you incorporate the subject of the Trinity into your own preaching?

Well, the first way is through biblical teaching, like starting with the Book of Luke and then pointing out the concept of the Trinity within it. For example, I just did a message on Jesus raising the widow of Nain's son from the dead. I had an obligation to tie that individual message into a theological idea. I said the main idea of Jesus entering the town of Nain and raising the widow's son from the dead has everything to do with the Trinity.

The principle contribution of this particular passage of Scripture, while it is a fascinating story, is that Luke is trying to prove to his friend Theophilus that this person, Jesus, is not just a prophet, good teacher, or good man; this Jesus is God. And I think a lot of Bible teachers tell the fascinating stories of Scripture without attaching them to a big idea.

But even connecting a story to the big idea is not enough. I think you also have to teach specifically on the Trinity, so a second way I incorporate it into my preaching is by actually teaching the doctrine of the Trinity. For example, when I was in Texas, for four years in a row I devoted three weeks out of each year to teaching on the Trinity and taking that big idea—We believe the God of the Bible is the only true God: Father, Son, Holy Spirit—and reinforcing it. And each year I took a different approach to it; I just wanted the congregation to get a reinforcement of the notion of the Trinity every year.

A third way, then, is beginning with relevant topics like belonging or community. You can start with something relevant, like loneliness, which is a major problem today for many people, and you can bring out why loneliness is such a problem. Loneliness bugs us so much because we were created in the image of God, and God is a community. Instead of just giving two or three things that people can do or think to fix their loneliness, it's very important to talk about why it's such a problem. Why is this epidemic? It's epidemic because we've been created in the image of God, and God is a social being. So you can reinforce doctrine by starting with the relevance question, and we need to do that sometimes.

Do the history of the doctrine of the Trinity and the creeds surrounding it ever enter your preaching?

Yes, they do. You have to be careful that the student in you is not getting into the pulpit, but if you teach history in proper balance, people are intrigued and feel like they're learning and getting connected to the history of their faith. And when you do that, you also help to reinforce that, hey, they didn't have it figured out either. They disagreed with each other. We call these our church fathers, and even they didn't agree. So let's not get all huffy and puffy over the church down the street that doesn't see this point exactly like we do.

History is also useful to show people that the Trinity is not a new idea. This idea has been around for centuries. Giving an example of what someone who lived and ministered in the third century said about the Trinity can show how absolutely important this doctrine is.

In part two of this interview, Frazee will discuss how to preach on the Trinity properly, including appropriate use of analogy.

Randy Frazee is senior minister of Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas, and author of The Connecting Church.

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