Trinitarian Theology for the Church: Social Trinitarianism

The next issue I want to highlight in IVP’s volume trinitarian theology for the churchTrinitarian Theology for the Church is the view of social trinitarianism. We are given two specific essays towards this end, the first by John Franke, discussing the social Trinity and the mission of God, and the second by Mark Husbands whose focus is explicit in his title: “The Trinity Is Not Our Social Program.” Franke follows a stream of interpreters (such as Gunton) who pit Augustine against the likes of Richard of St. Victor, creating a dualism between what is seen as a relational model and a psychological model of the Trinity. This is certainly not my area of expertise, but as far as I understand it, this conception of history is universally deemed anachronistic, positivist and overly-simplistic. Franke fails to interact with the likes of Ayres (amongst others), for instance, and therefore fails to do justice to the scholarship available for this kind of account.

By advancing an anemic account of the history of trinitarian thought, Franke opens himself up to critique from a variety of angles (which Husbands will exploit). Likewise, Franke moves into God’s social and missional attributes as grounding and directing the action and values of the church, placing himself within the sphere of interpreters who do, in fact, see the Trinity as our social program.

Husbands essay follows Franke and levels, in my opinion, a devastating attack on Franke’s view (if nothing else, on his historical development). Husbands focuses his attention on Miroslav Volf’s social trinitarianism, and tries to argue that Barth is, in reality, closer to the Cappadocians (who the social trinitarians seek to make their own) then the social trinitarians are. Husbands, in other words, is concerned that social trinitarianism trades on grammar that diminishes the sui generis reality of God’s life. He asks some telling questions:

Does Scripture, in other words, indicate that we are to ‘image’ the Trinity or experience a perichoretic life of creaturely fellowship? Or does it point us in the direction of realizing that our fellowship is fraught with brokenness and sin while we look forward to our redemption in Christ? Surely, an overrealized eschatology runs the risk of offering an idealized picture of Christian fellowship, one that is ill equipped to handle the difficult work of repentance and reconciliation” (126).

Husbands continues by advancing an overview of Gregory of Nyssa’s trinitarian thought, seeking to undermine what has become an assumption of social trinitarians, namely, that they are the rightful heirs of the Cappadocian tradition. This assumption seems to function through asserting that social imagery equals social analogy. This occurs in Edwards studies as well and is as out of place there as it is here. Note the emphasis of Gregory’s account here:

We do not learn that the Father does something on his own, in which the Son does not co-operate. Or again, that the Son on his own without the Spirit. Rather does every operation which extends from God to creation and is designed according to our differing conceptions of it have its origin in the Father, proceed through the Son, and reach its completion by the Holy Spirit. It is for this reason that the word for the operation is not divided among the persons involved. For the action of each in any matter is not separate and individualized. But whatever occurs, whether in reference to God’s providence for us or to the government and constitution of the universe, occurs through the three persons, and is not three separate things” (132-133).

Husbands distills the main point: “While social trinitarians accord pride of place to what they falsely adduce as a Cappadocian understanding of the perichoretic fellowship of the divine persons – by insisting upon the importance of ‘relational properties’ – they often fail to acknowledge precisely what Gregory insisted upon: the radical ontological distinction that obtains between God and humanity” (133-134).

While this kind of argument is devastating in one sense (if correct), that by undermining the historical justification for a view one, in essence, undermines the claim to authority, this certainly does not eliminate the view entirely. What do you think about a social trinitarian perspective, particularly the inclination to use the Trinity as the model for our own social and ecclesial relations? Does Husbands undermine any reasonable attempt at that, or is the historical case irrelevant?

About these ads

4 thoughts on “Trinitarian Theology for the Church: Social Trinitarianism

  1. Kyle,

    Thanks for this these reflections on Franke and Husbands’ essays.

    I think the historical issues are crucial here since 1) a theologian like Franke does have an interest in working in continuity with the Christian tradition and 2) it seems a bit trendy to speak against Western, classical theism, a phenomenon that might be tempered by a better understanding of patristic and medieval scholastic approaches to the doctrine of God. An essay like Husbands’ might help the theology proper pendulum to swing a little less vigorously and stop somewhere nearer the middle where we are better positioned to utilize the resources of both Eastern and Western thinkers.

    On a somewhat related note, I’ve been struck recently by reading Matthew Levering and Herman Bavinck both say quite simply that, since in the flow of redemptive history and accompanying Scripture we learn first of God as one, it makes good sense to begin our thinking about the Trinity with a sturdy account of God’s unity. Hopefully the emphasis on God’s triunity doesn’t crowd out the need to reflect on God as one and the implications of this for the life and mission of the church.

    On social Trinitarianism and the church, I think that Jesus’ prayer in John 17 warrants some exploration of how our fellowship with one another might take its cues from the fellowship of God the Father and God the Son, but I think in the current theological landscape it may be easy to overdo this in some ways.

    Again, thanks for posting thoughts on such a pertinent topic!

  2. Kyle said:

    . . . What do you think about a social trinitarian perspective, particularly the inclination to use the Trinity as the model for our own social and ecclesial relations? . . .

    I think we must “use” the Trinity as the model; but I also think (at least as I recall Grenz’s social tri. thinking) that we need to avoid engaging in negative methods of appropriating said “model.” In other words, there is always that danger of collapsing God’s life into our own, socially, so that in fact when we speak of God’s “social life,” we are actually imposing our conceptions of distinctiveness (i.e. individuality, etc.) upon the life of God instead of vice versa.

    Steve said:

    . . . it makes good sense to begin our thinking about the Trinity with a sturdy account of God’s unity. Hopefully the emphasis on God’s triunity doesn’t crowd out the need to reflect on God as one and the implications of this for the life and mission of the church. . . .

    I think this is what perichoresis (as articulated by Gunton, T. F. Torrance, and others from the past) is what is able to preserve both components Deo de uno and Deo de trino; so that God’s ousia is shaped by His hypostasis, and vice versa. In other words, to speak of God’s oneness apart from His threeness, and His threeness apart from His oneness is a revelatory impossibility. I think to speak of God’s oneness is to speak of His threeness, and I don’t think either reality is diminished thus speaking; but instead enhanced. That is to say, I think it creates a false dilemma to speak of such things in competitive ways (and I’m not saying that you are, Steve, necessarily).

  3. I don’t have the book with me, so I can’t say for sure, but I would guess not. He honestly doesn’t seem to be aware of the whole debate. He works through the material without even addressing it (and addressing that he won’t address it). It was a bit odd.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s