The Spirit of Truth and Power

I am going to be doing some review essays on the book Spirit and Power of Truth: Studies in Christian Doctrine and Experience, which is a collection of papers from the ninth Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference. There are several essays I would like us to consider from this volume, so here I will start with Bruce McCormack’s essay, “Trinity of Life and Power: The Relevance of Trinitarian Theology in the Contemporary Age.” This article is particularly interesting in light of the emphasis in my previous post “Re-Casting Nicea,” which looked at Samuel Clarke’s doctrine of the Trinity.

At the heart of McCormack’s focus in this paper is the idea that some kind of subordination in the eternal (or immanent) Trinity is necessary and biblical. McCormack states, “The principle is this: A doctrine of the Trinity which would suppress or eliminate the element of subordination will inevitably be guilty of creating a mythological construct; an elaboration of a doctrine which has lost contact with the biblical witness and is now engaged in arbitrary and, typically, self-serving speculation” (25). The momentum in theological circles to make this kind of move is perpetuated by a fear, McCormack warns, that a subordination in the Trinity will be used to justify subordination in human relations. The response, he claims, “has been to construct a doctrine of the Trinity along the lines of the perfect democratic society” (25). This fear has led to a rejection of the Cappadocian insight that the Father is the source of being for the Son and the Spirit (more on this later), because, it is assumed, if they receive their life from the Father then they are ultimately dependent upon him (and “lesser” in a real way). The problem with rejecting this move, McCormack claims, is that it is the very place with the most biblical support (we saw this picked up by Samuel Clarke who read it into his subordinationism). McCormack, at this point, offers us a warning,

We might think that envisioning the Trinity as three distinct ‘persons’, each of whom is the source of being of the other two (in equal measure), is a much more useful doctrine where the fostering of non-hierarchical relations among human persons is concerned and we might even define the word perichoresis in such a way that such an outcome is then ensured. But in doing so, we would have created a beautiful picture which hangs in the air, without touching down in biblical soil” (26).

Turning to Gregory of Nyssa, McCormack notes that Gregory’s “social analogy” is dissimilar at the very place where social trinitarians want similarity. Gregory posits opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa to highlight the utter dissimilarity between three individuals and the three persons of the Trinity. The threefold undivided movement of God in the economy can be read back in the immanant life of God to reveal a true subordination in unity. This threefold unity, says Gregory, is that God’s actions have their “origin in the Father, proceed through the Son, and reach [their] completion by the Holy Spirit.” The unified threefold movement in the economy images God’s processions and show that God is one as his action is one.

Now, at this point I want to leave McCormack’s essay for Nick Needham’s paper, “‘And from the Son': The Filioque Clause in East and West.” Here, Needham picks up on the unity issue and posits that the “Eastern” view was the the Father was the unifying force of the Trinity, whereas, with Augustine, the West turned to the essence for this role. This picks up on McCormack’s point about the necessary subordination in the immanent life of God and the Cappadocian emphasis on the Father as “God” who gives his being to the Son and the Spirit. Needham explains, “The subordination involved is not an ontological subordination of essence, but a relational subordination of persons (hypostaseis), referring not to the divine essence itself, but to the manner or mode of possessing it” (40). The Father was the “bond of union” in the Trinity for the Eastern fathers, whereas, with Augustine, the oneness of God is understood primarily as the divine essence. The divine essence, furthermore, came to be seen as the Spirit flowing forth as the bond of union between the Father and Son as the divine essence. Therefore, for the East, it was unhelpful to distinguish between the persons as relations of the divine essence (which seemed modalistic), but, rather, persons have relationships but cannot be reduced to a relationship.

Needham weaves this analysis together to address his main concern with Augustine’s idiosyncratic development of the essence:

According to the tradition, if the divine essence was the source of an act not peculiar to one of the persons, then it was shared by all three persons, not just two of them; whereas if there was any act not shared by all three persons, then that act constituted a peculiar property of one of the persons, belonging to his particular hypostasis and distinguishing him from the other two. Augustine has disregarded both these rules” (44-45).

By giving the Fatherand the Son the property of spirating the Spirit, Augustine broke two major rules of trinitarian grammar. Needham suggests that Augustine’s anti-Arian zeal got the best of him, and his polemic lead him to push the Son into the sphere of the Father’s generative act.

In any case, I would love your thoughts on these. There are some good essays in this volume, and I will continue to explore a couple more of them.

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6 thoughts on “The Spirit of Truth and Power

  1. Maybe I’m thinking this b/c I only read your few quotes from McCormack, but why is it that a rejection of subordination must stem from either a mythological or speculative standpoint? I’m not sure why this can’t simply be another possible way of reading the texts. I would be surprised if McCormack was this simplistic and hope that it isn’t merely speculative/mythological anti-subordination vs. biblical subordination.

    What kind of subordinationism is McCormack arguing for (e.g. functional)?

    • Jordan, I’m not sure I understand the thrust of your point. McCormack’s point, as I understand it, is that the subordinationism found in patristic accounts, is the most low-flying biblical-exegetical aspect of their argumentation, such that a rejection of subordinationism is a rejection of biblical revelation when it comes to the Trinity. The question for him isn’t primarily what kind of subordination, although he addresses that, but is simply that some kind is necessary.

      • I’m happy to try again: I think it’s a poor move to say that subordinationism is biblical and antisubordinationism isn’t and conclude that such a view is merely a mythological construct or that it must necessarily be speculative. What about those who see antisubordinationism as a genuine/faithful reading of Scripture?

        I apologize if this is still unclear.

        • Ok, I see your point. Not to put words in McCormack’s mouth, but if I were to guess his response it would be either: 1. the stronger statement, that a non-subordinationist reading of scripture is simply not legitimate, or 2. the more judicious, that he has yet to see an interpreter give an adequate non-subordinationist reading. The other problem I think he would add, as would I, is that a non-subordinationist reading of the Trinity simply has no corrolation to the Patristic understanding of the Trinity.

          The pushback could be that this aspect of Patristic thought isn’t necessary for an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, and as long as they could make their case biblically then McCormack would have to argue against them on those grounds. McCormack just doesn’t seem to think that either 1. the case can be made biblically, and 2. that another agenda isn’t driving the desire to make that case.

          • That would be a fair reply and I am also struggling to think of an example where someone has given an adequate non-subordinationist reading.

            Who are his patristic examples? I can imagine a few different versions of “subordinationism” among various church fathers (as you can see, I’m still waiting on the book via ILL)

            • Jordan, I don’t have the book with me, but as I recall he didn’t really use any examples as much as just spoke about the Patristic era in general. I don’t take his point to be controversal in any meaningful sense, so I don’t think he felt the need to make his case that way. In terms of subordination, I think there are probably some nuances, but he was focusing on the reality that God the Father is the source of divinity that the other two persons partake in. There is equality, but there was never a question that the Father was the source. I still think Samuel Clarke’s book does a good job of pointing this out, he just doesn’t understand that it doesn’t lead to an ontological subordination.

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