The God Who Is Triune: Revisioning the Christian Doctrine of God

By Allan Coppedge
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (2007). 345 Pages.

Reviewed by Clifford McManis
20.1 (Spring 2009) : 99-101

Coppedge is Beeson Professor of Theology at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He writes from a Wesleyan/Methodist perspective (11, 284) and is a staunch Arminian (193, 197, 252). His work represents the recent growing renewed interest in trinitarian studies from an Eastern emphasis as opposed to the Western’s bent toward the oneness of God’s essence (15).

The author’s goal in this book is multi-faceted: (1) he seeks to establish a Christological starting point as the basis for the rest of his theology (237, 251); (2) he purposes to study the Trinity from a scriptural basis as opposed to a philosophical one (149); (3) he attempts to view God first in His triune nature as the paradigm from which to explicate the doctrine of God (19, 113); (4) he wants to present a mediating position between open theism and classical theism (17); (5) in keeping with the subtitle, he tries to “revision,” or “redefine” some of God’s key attributes like sovereignty (210, 300, 314), foreknowledge (197-99; 314-16), and foreordination (197-99; 314-15); (6 ) and he wants to debunk the long-accepted classical view of God, the Trinity, and election (16, 272, 276, 297, 305).

This book has strengths and weaknesses. First are the strengths. Coppedge undertakes one of the most challenging tasks imaginable—trying to define and explain the nature and work of the eternal, triune God of the universe in a way that is reverent, comprehensible, practical, relevant, and in keeping with Scripture. Here he does an admirable job. He has a high view of Scripture (149, 191) and of God (131). He’s not a rationalist, but reserves room for mystery where Scripture is silent about God’s being (139, 196, 231, 319). His exposition of God’s transcendence is noteworthy, thoroughly biblical, and free of any dualism, naturalism, Platonism, or deistic tendencies (237-61). He is not an esoteric, ivory-tower theologian, but a schooled believer who is concerned about the church, Christ’s body on earth (19, 283-88).

The strongest contribution of this work is its explanation of perichoresis and its implications relative to the ontological and economic Trinity. He takes his lead here from the works of T. F. Torrance (14). Perichoresis refers to the shared life among the three Persons of the Trinity, who eternally, mutually, and equally coinhere or interpenetrate one another in all ways, at all times in perfect love and holiness (179-81). The doctrine of perichoresis is clearly taught in many passages like Matt 11:27; John 1:1,18; 10:30-38; 14:7 (28-29,180). Perichoresis, then, becomes paradigmatic for Coppedge’s hermeneutic in explicating the doctrine of God. He proposes that God should first be understood as a triune person, as revealed in Scripture, prior to investigating the relative and absolute attributes of God. Augustine and Aquinas (and many in the Western church who followed suit) had it backwards—they began a study of the nature of God irrespective of His triune nature, and began with isolated studies of His oneness, which in turn bequeathed an unbalanced view of God (16, 207, 211). This is a welcomed corrective on the part of Coppedge. Many systematic theologies begin the study of God’s nature with the relative and absolute attributes, relegating God’s triune nature to a mere aside or subpoint (296). Coppedge contends God’s triune nature is primary and every other attribute should be defined in that context (195, 211, 233).

Other strengths of the author include the following: (1) several charts and visual aids, some original, that effectively illustrate trinitarian truths and implications (112-65); (2) in his apologetics and epistemology, he is presuppositional (149, 191, 282); (3) he affirms historical-grammatical hermeneutics (55); he rejects subordinationism within the Trinity (134); (4) he rejects process theology (205); (5) and he gives an exhaustive outline of all relevant NT trinitarian passages (50-51).

But the work has many weaknesses. First, in ascending order of importance, an inordinate number of simple typos, usually elision (seventeen in all or one every twenty pages), characterize the work.

Second, Coppedge is at times theologically naïve. He asserts that Islam derives all of its doctrine and practice “from a single source: the Scriptures of Israel” (241, 265). That is overly simplistic and inaccurate. He is also too sympathetic to open theism. He wants to improve it by modifying it, rather than exposing it and rejecting it as a heretical system of thought (17, 311-26). Additionally, he misrepresents the historic definition of God’s “impassibility” (176, 211). H e is also ignorant of Calvin and unwittingly likens his trinitiarian views to those of Aquinas (16, 320). Letham, in The Holy Trinity (P&R, 2004), has painstakingly shown that Calvin and his predecessors were not akin in this regard. Letham shows Calvin was biblically driven in his theology, whereas Aquinas pursued philosophical arguments and syllogisms about the divine essence (252-68).

Third, his historical analysis of the doctrine of the Trinity is scant and non-determinative (79-110)

Fourth, although Coppedge gives evidence of being conversant with a vast array of theologians and current trinitiarian works, he has a proclivity for taking cues from those who lean toward liberal, higher critical hermeneutics, like Pannenberg, Kasper, and Gunton (14-15, 83), while at the same time he postures himself as the nemesis of reliable conservative scholars such as Frame, Feinberg and others (296, 320).

Fifth, exegesis in the book is frequently flawed and imprecise. Coppedge is a theological and dogmatic exegete more than an exegetical and expository one. This becomes most evident when he tries to explain the meaning of “foreknowledge,” “foreordination,” and “sovereignty.” Instead of giving a survey of such words from biblical occurrences, he simply assigns a preferred, strained meaning to the words in keeping with his loyalty to Arminian theology. He limits God’s “foreknowledge” to omniscience, divorcing it from God’s “foreordination” (314-15), and offers “middle knowledge” as a panacea (197). As a result, he says that God foresees what He did not foreordain. For Coppedge, foreordination has nothing to do with election, for he jettisons election altogether, often confusing it with determinism or fatalism (207, 210-11, 234, 251). He redefines “sovereignty” by bending over backwards to preserve ultimate human free will, alleging that, “God…limits himself by human freedom….God limits his own choices by permitting persons to make free choices” (308). The author is driven to preserve human freedom and God’s love so much that one could aver that Coppedge holds to universalism (296). He never gives a reference to the reality of hell and in his exhaustive study of God’s attributes, he never mentions “wrath” as a p art of God’s nature, but instead says God’s love is primary and paramount (166-90).

In conclusion, for this reviewer, the book’s weaknesses outweigh the strengths. The author’s Arminian propensity is all-embracing and infects his whole theology in an unbalanced manner. It could be a helpful book if the reader is keenly aware of the faults beforehand. But as an introductory and comprehensive study of the biblical doctrine of the Trinity, this book is not recommended. Rather, students should first be directed to Robert Letham’s unrivaled work, The Holy Trinity (P&R, 2004), as well as other standard works by James White, Millard Erickson, and John Feinberg.