The Trinity and Christian preaching
Recent days have prompted me to think about the relationship between trinitarian theology and Christian preaching.
The first prompt came in June while participating in the International Presbyterian Church’s Catalyst Conference in London. Over the course of three days, I had the opportunity to listen to a lot of good preaching, including three sermons from Sinclair Ferguson on the Pastoral Epistles. In the evenings, I had the opportunity to spend time with a number of IPC ministers and ministerial candidates, discussing the nature and calling of gospel preaching, as well as the current status of gospel preaching in the UK and North America. The second prompt came in July when I finished a short manuscript on the doctrine of the Trinity (which is to be published by Crossway next year). The third prompt came from research I am doing for other projects. The following are a few scattered thoughts on the relationship between trinitarian personalism and Christian preaching inspired by the confluence of these three prompts.
What is trinitarian personalism?
“Personalism” is a term with specific philosophical connotations that I do not intend here. What I mean by “trinitarian personalism” follows from an insight, expressed by Thomas Aquinas in his disputation on divine power, that the term “person” is a term of dignity, which indicates two things about God’s supreme greatness and goodness.
First, that God exists in three “persons” indicates that God’s manner of existing is the highest manner of existing. Specifically, the triune God is the living God; and the life he lives is a life of perfect intelligence, love, and beatitude. Second, that God exists in three “persons” indicates that God’s intelligent, loving, and blessed manner of existing subsists in three distinct, irreducible, unsubstitutable ways: as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The true and living God is the tripersonal God; and the life he lives is the life of the Father who begets, of the Son who is begotten, and of the Spirit who is breathed forth in their mutual love.
What does this rather fine metaphysical point have to do with Christian preaching? Stay with me.
Trinitarian personalism in patristic exegesis
The Church Fathers display a kind of trinitarian personalism in the ways they read Holy Scripture. Three examples stand out.
The first example comes from Irenaeus of Lyon. In his dispute with Gnostic interpreters who so twisted Holy Scripture that its unified message became unrecognizable, Irenaeus argues that the main purpose of the “rule of faith” is to help readers identify the person of Jesus Christ as the handsome king to which all scriptures point. The scope or aim of Scripture, on this understanding, is not something but someone. Holy Scripture, in all its literary and historical diversity, is a book that holds forth before the eyes of faith God the Son, the handsome king.
The second example agrees with Irenaeus in seeing the persons of the Trinity as the central subject matter of Holy Scripture and (potentially) explains the origin of the term “person” in Christian theology. As Matthew Bates and others have recently argued, New Testament and early patristic interpretation of the Old Testament exhibits an ancient reading strategy known as “prosopological exegesis,” the practice of identifying otherwise unnamed or ambiguously identified characters (dramatis personae) within the drama of scriptural discourse. For example, the author of Hebrews identifies the king whom God addresses in Psalm 2:7 as Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity (Heb 1:5). This “person-centered” approach to exegesis is the “birth” of trinitarian personalism: the scriptural foundation of the church’s perception of three “persons” in one God.
The third example concerns an exegetical practice widely observed among students of patristic Christology. “Partitive exegesis” refers to the practice of ascribing both divine and human natures, actions, and sufferings from scriptural accounts of Jesus’s life to a single personal subject, the second person of the Trinity. Though his divine and human natures account for how Jesus did and suffered what he did and suffered (i.e., as God and man), they do not account for who it is who did and suffered what Jesus did and suffered. Partitive exegesis, as an exegetical practice, is a way of observing that, in all of his doings and sufferings, we are dealing with one personal subject, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity incarnate.
As with Irenaeus’ understanding of the scope of Scripture, and as with prosopological exegesis, partitive exegesis is a form of trinitarian personalism, an approach to interpretation which acknowledges that the focus of the Scriptures is not simply on ideas and practices but supremely on a person: the person of God the Son incarnate and the narrative of his saving work.
Trinitarian personalism in Protestant theology
One further example will help us appreciate the significance of trinitarian personalism for Christian preaching. Phillip Cary’s recent book, The Meaning of Protestant Theology, is a provocative and not uncontroversial take on the central contribution of Protestant theology to the church catholic. His thesis is that Protestant theology, preeminently in the work of Martin Luther, offers a new approach, over against the medieval sacramental system of piety, to the question of how human beings may obtain the grace of God.
According to Cary, Luther turned the medieval sacramental system on its head by preaching salvation by grace alone in a personal manner. The gospel is not simply about communicating certain saving benefits such as righteousness, forgiveness, sanctification, and so forth (though it is never less than this). Nor is the gospel simply instruction about “how to live the Christian life” (though it always entails this). In the preaching of the gospel, the preacher offers, and the believer receives, God in person, the gospel in person. In Cary’s words: “The Gospel, Protestant theology has taught ever since Luther, is God’s way of giving us nothing less than his own beloved Son.”
Protestantism at its best, according to Cary, is a form of trinitarian personalism in theology that entails a form of trinitarian personalism in ministry. Which leads me to the relationship between trinitarian personalism and Christian preaching.
Trinitarian personalism and Christian preaching
As I listened to the preaching of Sinclair Ferguson this summer, it occurred to me that one of the things that distinguishes his preaching from much contemporary preaching is its trinitarian personalism. Though many contemporary approaches to Christian preaching reflect a high view of Scripture, and though many contemporary approaches display a concern with being “Christ-centered” in their preaching, many still seem to fall short of a robust trinitarian personalism.
Often the commitment to a high view of Scripture yields a commitment to line by line biblical exposition, and this is well and good. Following the way the scriptural words run is essential to sound biblical exposition. However, there is a marked difference between preaching line by line through a scriptural text as a kind of running commentary and preaching line by line through a scriptural text as a way of adorning and commending a divine person. The former falls short of, whereas the latter serves, the Bible’s trinitarian personalism.
Often the commitment to being “Christ-centered” in preaching leads to sermons whose central point is the atonement or justification. Now mind you, one cannot preach Christ without preaching the atonement and justification. But there is a marked difference between preaching the crucifixion and preaching “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). And there is a marked difference between preaching justification and preaching “him who justifies the ungodly” (Rom 4:5). The former falls short of, while the latter serves, the Bible’s trinitarian personalism.
Jesus Christ is not the solution to a puzzle, whether that solution is derived by means of a sophisticated homiletical method or a sophisticated hermeneutical method. Jesus Christ is God the Son in person. Someone, not something, is the central subject matter and scope of Scripture. Someone, not something, should be the central subject matter and scope of Christian preaching.
As Sinclair Ferguson is wont to emphasize in his teaching and to exemplify in his preaching, Christian preaching is about “placarding” the Son of God incarnate, the second person of the Trinity, before the eyes of men and women, boys and girls (Gal 3:1). Though preaching involves the presentation of ideas and moral instruction, it involves so much more as well. And this “so much more” is trinitarian and personal. In preaching, we are heralds of the king, announcing that he has come and that he is coming again. In preaching, we are friends of the bridegroom, wooing the bride to embrace her beloved Lord. In preaching, we are ministers of the new covenant, presenting Jesus Christ, clothed in all the promises of the gospel, and summoning hearers to engage him in covenant union and communion.
He, someone not something, is the supreme subject matter and scope of Christian preaching: God the Son incarnate, clothed with the promises of the gospel, crucified and risen, ascended and coming again. This, it seems to me, is the fundamental implication of trinitarian personalism for Christian preaching.
 Thomas Aquinas, The Power of God, trans. Richard J. Regan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), Q 9, art. 3 (p.248): “We should say that . . . person signifies nature with a way of existing. But the nature that person includes in its meaning is the most excellent of all natures, namely, an intellectual nature by its genus. Likewise, the way of existing that person signifies is the most excellent, namely, that something exists intrinsically.”
 Matthew W. Bates, The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament & Early Christian Interpretation of the Old Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
 Phillip Cary, The Meaning of Protestant Theology: Luther, Augustine, and the Gospel That Gives Us Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019).
 Cary, Meaning of Protestant Theology, 2-3.