Recently I sat down and did a little planning for the articles I’m writing and I realized something I’ve been waiting for: that the time was right to begin to write on the Triune Gospel. This is a subject I’ve been very excited to share more about, but for some reason, the timing hasn’t felt right until now to begin to do so. Whatever the reason, the time feels right now, and I’m excited to begin to dive in. To that end, this is early in a series of posts called the Triune Gospel Series.
What Even Is This?
Before we even begin down this road, I think it will be helpful to take a step back and clarify what to expect ahead. In this and a number of future posts, we are going to be unpacking what I call the “Triune Gospel.” This is a term of my own coining as it represents a body of knowledge that so far as I can tell, is unique in its expression to myself. I have the blessing and the curse of being somewhat of a “theological innovator” – a gift that is both an incredible blessing and a challenge, as the mindsets of theology and innovation are rarely brought together outside of the context of the accusation of false teaching.
Be that as it may, I don’t seem to be able to help myself; I am an ideas person. I work with them, play with them, and fit them together in new ways almost compulsively. It’s what I’m made to do – it’s why I was good at physics and it’s why I get described as a “revelatory preacher”.
So I suppose the best way to classify what we are about to unpack is just that: a theological innovation. Now before you click off for risk of me being a heresiarch (a $ 50-word meaning “founder of a heresy”), I want to put upfront the important conditions that I would suggest any theological innovation needs to meet, and the way we can test this is not a dangerous new teaching.
How do we Test a New Teaching?
These are my reflections on the ideas as a whole and why I believe we should consider it as a valid step forward in our theological body of knowledge (rather than something that opposes or contradicts our current theology)
It is substantially different as a framework of understanding the gospel than any other articulation I’ve seen.
The first question at hand is, “is this actually a different set of ideas, or a recycling of old ideas?” This is a very important question to ask because there is a whole lot out there that is termed as “new” which is really just the latest pass on very old ideas. Take, for example, the late resurgence in Christian Universalism – the belief that there is no hell and that through God’s love and mercy all souls are saved. This is often purported as a new idea, but in reality, has been around in various forms for centuries. If the cycle is just longer than our lifetimes, things that are not new may feel new. If the church has wrestled with a teaching before (just in a different guise perhaps), then looking at what the church concluded before will likely be a strong indicator for how we should approach the idea today.
Unlike these ideas, so far as I can tell, his casting of ideas is actually a new framework. Now, doubtless, the ideas here have been around for nearly 2,000 years if they’re biblical, but this integration of them seems to be different. (If, as we go, you discover this is something that has been taught this way before, please let me know! I would love to be aware of that context.) This new framework has direct implications for how we walk out our own lives of faith and how the Church plays out its role in the world.
This difference appears not as a discontinuity of our current understanding, but as a framework that includes and transcends our current understanding.
This is a critical point regarding the trustworthiness of any proposed theological development. We should always ask the question, “In what way is this different?” There are, in general, different categories of different ideas: there are ideas that are different because they are in opposition to ideas we already have. For many of us, Christian Universalism fits in this category. It is new because it is discontinuous with what many believers hold to: many believers believe there is a negative state in the afterlife and that people who do not put their trust in Jesus during their life on earth wind up there. Christian Universalism is different in that it asserts that idea is incorrect. It is contradicting a body of belief.
To be clear, not everything that contradicts current beliefs should be immediately discarded. Martin Luther’s teaching that we are justified by grace alone through faith alone contradicted the majority of the church teaching in his day – and most of us would say his teaching was deeply, deeply important!
The second way that a theological development can be different is that it can include and extend beyond our current understanding of ideas that we already believe in. A good example of this in church history would be the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. The idea that God exists as Father, Son, and Spirit, co-equal, co-eternal, one God in three persons was hammered out primarily in the fourth and fifth century AD, and it wasn’t a development that contradicted what was already believed, so much as it integrated what was already believed into a more comprehensive body of understanding.
It is this second type of difference that the Triune Gospel is. It isn’t teaching something different; it is taking our working body of knowledge of Christianity and the gospel and wrapping it together in a new way. I think being clear on these differences, and which of these categories we are working in is critical. If you tell me that you’re going to contradict what I already believe, you’re going to need to work really hard to prove to me it is biblical and sound. If you show me how what I already believe fits together differently than I expected, we are having a very different conversation. We should be far more skeptical of the first conversation because if we are wrong, we do risk real error (potentially even the “heresy” word). If we are wrong about how the fundamental truths we believe fit together, we aren’t really risking serious error.
It matches and helps us understand the biblical terminology in a more coherent way.
One of the critical tests of any theological idea is to what extent it helps us understand the Bible. I think one of the things that is important to keep in mind is that the Bible is what was inspired and gifted to us by the Holy Spirit, not theology. Theology is a set of mental models we construct to help us make sense of the Bible, our faith, and the world around us. Theology is wrestling to make sense of the Bible, but the Bible what we have directly from God. As such, I would suggest a test of any specific theological teaching is whether it helps us understand the Bible. When we interact with the Bible, does our theology help us understand what the Bible is saying in a coherent and consistent way? If so, then we should weigh that as an indicator that teaching is functioning in the way it should be: it is a mental model that is functioning to make sense of the Bible (and hence there is a reasonable chance it will help us in our journey of faith as well).
I think the critical idea here is that the teaching makes sense with the whole of the Biblical teaching. Many teachings fit with one particular passage while making others more confusing. We aren’t looking to make trades on understanding parts of what the Bible says and not others; we want the full value of the whole God’s counsel in the Scriptures.
While it is different, to the degree of exposure it has had, the community of saints agrees that it is totally orthodox and biblical.
I believe this is another critical test of any teaching: what does the greater body of Christ believe? How are leaders and teachers in the body of Christ responding to what is being put forth? The witness of the Spirit in the broader body of Christ is an important measure for weighing teaching (It was a factor in deciding which writings would be canonized into the Scriptures). This theological framework has been shared with denominations leaders of multiple countries and explored by some of the top theologians in the Vineyard movement, and so far no one has raised any flags that this is out of bounds. What I’ve heard universally expressed so far is that this is totally orthodox, totally biblical, and potentially very helpful!
Beyond the weighing of people in positions of authority in the Church, we also need to consider what is the fruit in the lives of people who have embraced this teaching. Has it helped their spiritual journey? Are they more in love with Jesus and do they live his ways more faithfully to the world around them? My experience to this point has been yes, it has. Many people seem to feel this framework clicks into clarity a lot of layers of teaching and gives some very practical tools for navigating our own spiritual growth, as well as sharing our faith with others. So far, the fruit has been good.
It is with all these tests in place that I feel comfortable beginning to share the Triune Gospel with you. Is this different than what you’ve heard before? Likely. But it’s not the kind of different that we should immediately discard because we should suspect it will lead us down an unhealthy road. It is the kind of different that we should consider and weigh with its alignment with the Scriptures, the witness of the Spirit, and the fruit it produces in the lives of people who embrace it.
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on Putty Putman