Malcolm Yarnell’s God the Trinity [Updated: Chs. 1 and 2 Reviewed]


This is an ongoing chapter-by-chapter review that will be periodically updated and moved to the top of the site as new chapter reviews are added.

Chapter 2 (reviewed on May 28, 2016)

Dr. Yarnell’s primary text in chapter 2 is 2 Corinthians 13:14.  In keeping with his art metaphor, Yarnell sees 2 Corinthians 13:14 as a Pauline miniature.  He does not mean by this, however, that it is of miniature significance.  Rather, this verse is a priceless miniature in the grand Trinitarian gallery of scripture and a crucial text for our understanding of the Trinity.

Here are a few different English translations of this text from

New International Version
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

New Living Translation
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

English Standard Version
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

New American Standard Bible
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.

King James Bible
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen.

Yarnell’s impressive exegesis of this verse fleshes out the many ways in which it contributes to biblical Trinitarianism.  He writes of the immanent and economic Trinity though gives a qualified nod to Karl Rahner’s contention that the former is the latter and vice versa (telling us that he will explain his qualification in a later chapter).  Yarnell also tantalizingly writes that “human salvation is from beginning to end purely a work of God’s grace” (“tantalizingly,” I say, because of some of Yarnell’s earlier interactions with Reformed folk within the SBC) but then moves on to quote Conzelmann approvingly to the effect that the Pauline conception of grace is rooted in the historical work of Christ and it is therefore there, and not to the divine decrees, that theologians should look for their theology of grace.  Yarnell further argues that grace, before it is manifested outwardly towards us, is an internal reality within the triune God.

He makes a persuasive argument regarding the significance of the conjunction kai (and) and how Paul’s use of this conjunction links it with Matthew 28:19 both structurally and theologically.  The use of kai in both cases undergirds the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and “is perhaps the strongest indication of equality among the three.  These three are treated as one God” (44-45).  Perhaps one might say that Matthew 28:19 alludes to the immanent Trinity and 2 Corinthians 13-14 to the economic, if one were to use the old categories?

Yarnell’s discussion of the final phrase, “and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all,” was fascinating.  He explains that there is controversy over whether or not this third genitive is a subjective genitive (in which case it should be interpreted to mean that fellowship comes from the Holy Spirit just as the grace of Jesus and love of God comes from them) or an objective genitive (“we enter fellowship with God through communion with the Holy Spirit” (50)).  Yarnell (if I understand him rightly) argues that both are, in a sense, true.  As a result, we are drawn by the Spirit into fellowship with the triune God.  In this sense, we participate in the Trinitarian community while maintaining our status as creatures.  I appreciated this section since it is one of the few Baptist interactions I’ve seen with the patristic (and primarily Eastern) concept of “deification,” the idea of our participation in the fellowship of the Trinity.

Yarnell concludes that the doctrine of the Trinity is no mere exercise in speculation but has instead very concrete implications for the whole of the Christian life, both individually and corporately.  His primary thrust in this chapter regarding its applicability relates to worship and how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit should alone be the objects of our worship.  But the Trinity has implications for every aspect of the Christian’s life, Yarnell writes, including “ethics, mission, and Christian unity, as on all of our thoughts, attitudes, and actions) (55).  This is true, and Yarnell’s work in this volume appears to be an invaluable contribution toward a greater understanding of that fact.

This is a very interesting and very helpful chapter.

Chapter 1 (reviewed on April 15, 2016)

The esteemed and justly revered Dr. James Leo Garrett, Jr. shared with me recently that he believes this new book by Dr. Malcolm Yarnell of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary may be the best book on the Trinity ever written by a Baptist theologian.  That, to put it mildly, does arrest one’s attention.  That is not to say that the appearance of this monograph was not significant on its own merits without such a telling endorsement.

Dr. Yarnell is a very smart guy with a keen, sharp mind and an evangelist’s heart. He is also a disciplined thinker, an adept observer and miner of various fields of study, an astute and wide reader, and a person with an undeniable sense of genuine passion for biblical truth, the gospel of Christ, and sound doctrine.  He occupies the chair once occupied by Dr. Garrett (if I’m not mistaken) and is proving to be worthy of that honor.  God the Trinity is the kind of serious and significant work that strengthens an institution’s reputation, that solidifies a theologian’s reputation, and that furthers Trinitarian conversations within Evangelicalism.

Not, I hasten to add, that Yarnell had any of those in mind as primary motivations when he wrote this book.  On the contrary, Yarnell appears to be driven by a sincere conviction that the idiom of scripture is itself Trinitarian, that post-enlightment propositional rationalism has been so elevated as to obscure the multiform flora of the Bible’s diverse means of communication, and that the assumption that the absence of meticulous propositional doctrinal formulae in the scriptures is synonymous with the absence of the realities to which such formulae point have all combined to prejudice modern readers against Trinitarian idiomatic dynamics in scripture that are present in both “micro and macro” ways and in both biblical testaments.  Yarnell is attempting to show in this book that the absence of such propositional formulae concerning the Trinity is neither surprising nor in any way deleterious to the assertion that the Bible teaches the Trinity.

In order to illustrate how the various New Testament writers approach truth through various idioms, Yarnell draws from the world of art and parallels the writers to various artists.  So, for instance, John is somewhat akin to Claude Monet, and just as Monet’s impressionistic experiments with light were mocked as so much artistic degeneracy by painters with more classical tastes, so some critics miss the point of the biblical writers’ intentions and, most tragically, of the ideational content of much of their writing by misunderstanding the idioms which constituted their art.

In the first chapter, Yarnell considers the Trinitarianism inherent in the Great Commission:  “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”  He pronounces this the locus classicus of biblical Trinitarianism and then offers a helpful exegesis of the passage.  He points to the singular form of “name” and argues that this form “appears to indicate a singularly identity for the three” (20).  Furthermore, he argues that “and” “most often indicates ‘a marker of coordinate relations'” (20).  Thus, the text suggests unity and coordinate relations.  This is not a creedal propositional Trinitarian formula, but it is blatantly Trinitarian.  We simply need to appreciate the theological assertions of scripture in the ways in which they are presented to us.

The Trinity, Yarnell tells us, is present “in word and deed.”  This was helpful to me recently when I preached on Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus.  I mentioned Yarnell’s point and noted that the baptism of Jesus is an example of Trinitarianism “in deed.”

This chapter represents a strong start to the book.  I do get what Yarnell is trying to do with paralleling the biblical writers with artists, though I will say the artistic sections in the first chapter felt a bit clunky and disruptive to the flow of Yarnell’s prose.  For some reason it struck me the way that Steve Harmon’s Ecumenism Means You Too did, structurally speaking, that is.  That is to say, both authors have a unique artistic parallel, an illustrative hook we might say, but it really can be difficult to integrate such seamlessly into works of theology.  As one who appreciates art, however, I do so applaud the effort and appreciate it.  The problem may be with my having to adjust to a unique approach to theological writing.  I’m sure I’ll get in sync with Yarnell’s stylistic approach as I continue through this.

This is an exciting and significant work of theology and one that I am very much looking forward to continuing to read and from which I know I will continue to benefit.

I’ll be blogging this review one chapter at a time.

Roger Olson and Christopher Hall’s The Trinity

I highly recommend Roger Olson and Christopher Hall’s The Trinity.  This book is part of the Eerdman’s Guides to Theology series.  It appears that there are only two contributions thus far to this series (this and one on feminist theology), so I can’t make any comment on the series as a whole.  Regardless, this volume is a very well done and thought-provoking overview of the doctrine of the Trinity throughout the ages.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the Trinity lately and trying to think through how a proper understanding of this biblical truth can impact not only our understanding of God, but also our lives together as Christians.  To this end, this book was very helpful insofar as it provides a concise but thorough look at how believers throughout the ages have understood this doctrine.  This is historical theology at its finest.  The snapshots are not so surface level as to be useless, neither are they so dense as to be cumbersome.  They provide, in my opinion, just enough information to give the reader a general but good sense of where Trinitarian thought was going in various ages of the Church’s life.

To me, this would be a good introduction to any study of the Trinity.  It sets the stage and helps us get a big-picture view of where we’ve been and where we’re going with the doctrine of the Trinity.  That’s a view I like to have when studying a particular doctrine.  It gives perspective and context.  And, as none of us arose out of a vacuum, it helps us understand our own minds.

If you’d like to begin studying Trinitarian theology, this would be a great place to begin.

Timothy George’s (ed.) God the Holy Trinity

I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable this collection of essays on the Trinity was.  Edited by Timothy George, these essays were originally delivered at The Beeson Divinity School of Samford University.  The contributors are an impressive lot:  Alister McGrath, Gerald Bray, James Earl Massey, Avery Cardinal Dulles, Frederica Mathewes-Green, J.I. Packer, Ellen T. Charry, Cornelius Plantinga, and Timothy George.

The essays approach the Trinity from a number of interesting starting points.  James Earl Massey (a prince of a man!) discusses the Trinity and African-American spirituals.  Avery Cardinal Dulles discusses the Trinity and Christian unity.  In a brief and fascinating essay, Frederica Mathewes-Green discuss the Trinity in the Old Testament.  J.I. Packer gives a very interesting look at Trinitarianism in the thought of John Owen.  Timothy George has penned a very helpful essay on the Trinity and Islam.

As I say, these are compelling essays, and each of them, to varying degrees, is helpful.  The highlights for me are (in this order):  (1) Cornelius Plantinga’s fascinating and soul-stirring sermon, “Deep Wisdom”, (2) Alister McGrath’s balanced and level-headed overview of and cautions concerning modern Trinitarianism, and (3) Timothy George’s careful but clear call for courageous Trinitarianism in the context of conversing with Islam.

I found Ellen Charry’s essay, “The Soteriological Importance of the Divine Perfections”, to be tedious initially, but it ended well and I think I get what she was driving at.  Furthermore, James Earl Massey’s essay, “Faith and Christian Life in the African-American Spirituals”, was good but I do wish it would have been longer.

Get this book.  It will sharpen your thinking about the Trinity.