Theology in the Modern Era: Matthew J. Hall on The Trinity and Jesus Christ

Historical Theology for the Church is a new book from B&H Academic that treats the entire 2000 year history of Christianity with a focus on doctrinal development through major figures, events, and written works. By steering this work “for the church” this textbook shows the development of doctrine in history through congregations as well as provide a resource for contemporary congregations. The following is an excerpt from one of the contributing authors’ chapters.

Matthew J. Hall serves as Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Administration of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Introduction

On the other side of the Enlightenment, trinitarian orthodoxy in general, and Chalcedonian formulations about the person and work of Christ in particular, came under intense fire.

As already noted in the previous chapter covering the modern era, these challenges were rooted in a preceding epistemological crisis. If human beings have limited access to the supernatural or, as Immanuel Kant put it, the noumenal, how can we really make theological propositions about the nature of Jesus Christ?

Over the course of several centuries, this Kantian question was answered in a variety of ways, resulting in a myriad of deviations from classical Christological formulations. But at the center of these debates, the question remained for the church in every age, just as it does today: Does sinful humanity stand in need of a Redeemer? And if so, how does Jesus Christ function as that Redeemer?

Historical Overview

At the Enlightenment’s peak, many observers assumed that the future of Christianity would entail a rejection of trinitarian orthodoxy, presuming the latter had been rendered inherently irrational. Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) captured this sentiment in his own prediction in 1822: “I rejoice that in this blessed country of free enquiry and belief, which has surrendered it’s[sic] creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the US who will not die a Unitarian.”

Ultimately, Jefferson’s prediction proved to be far from true. Although Unitarianism would retain some prominence among corners of elite American culture in the nineteenth century, and is still present in the contemporary Unitarian Universalist Association, it is particularly small. What Jefferson, along with many others, seemingly never anticipated was the resurgence of evangelical Christianity in North America that would soon come in the form of a series of nineteenth-century awakenings.

Ever since the Enlightenment, a growing bifurcation between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith remained remarkably conspicuous. Different theologians and different traditions might use their own terminology, but underlying all of these was the fundamental epistemological doubt that modern people could trust the portrayals of Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament Gospels as historically reliable and accurate. Although evangelical scholars have defended a confessional Christology that presumes the verbal plenary inspiration of the Scripture, and therefore the reliability of the Gospels, they have had to do so amid hostile intellectual headwinds.

In general, liberal Protestantism remained increasingly uninterested in the doctrine of the Trinity and effectively redefined Christology in ethical or functional terms.

Thankfully, the onslaught of theological revisions to historic Christology and trinitarian orthodoxy did not go without evangelical responses. Not only did evangelical scholars offer rigorous defenses of historic doctrine, but they often also worked to further clarify what those classical formulations meant. At the close of the nineteenth century and the dawn of the twentieth, this vision was perhaps nowhere more evident than at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Case Studies

1. Kenotic Christology

2. Ritschl and Christology

3. Princeton Theology

For the Church

If creatures are to know anything of their Creator, it is only by means of his condescension to reveal himself. And if those creatures are fallen in sin, as we most clearly are, divine self-revelation is all the more astonishing, gracious, and vital. Without God’s special revelation in the form of his inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word, there can be no hope of knowledge of God. And this certainly applies to knowledge of the ontological realities of the triune Godhead.

In our time, as it will be until Christ returns, the call must be for churches to proclaim the whole counsel of God and to do so with absolute confidence that the Bible is without error, that the truths that it proclaims to the world are absolutely essential to any real knowledge of the triune God who made us and who calls us to repent and believe in Jesus’s atoning work for sinners and promises the gift of the Spirit to all who are united to the Son by faith.

Historical Theology for the Church
Jason G. Duesing & Nathan A. Finn, editors
B&H Academic, 2021