Advancing Trinitarian Theology

I just returned home after participating in the LA Theology Conference. La TheologyHere, I want to give some highlights, a general overview, and then pose a question I had after the conference was completed. First, the conference in general was fantastic. Fuller was a great venue, it was run incredibly well, and the event as a whole had a nice overall rhythm to it. In some conferences you feel like you are running around non-stop, but this was full without being overwhelming. It didn’t hurt, of course, that January in So Cal is gorgeous, so sitting outside having a coffee in between sessions was a nice way to decompress. Second, the plenary sessions were great. There was a nice variety, but they built off of each other well without simply patting each other on the back. The one obvious agreement among the plenary speakers was that social trinitarianism is something of a train wreck, but even that was handled in different ways. And finally, ending the conference with a panel discussion really helped tie it all together. It was here where the disagreements came to the surface. There was some question about apophaticism, and along with that, with analogical or univocal predication. There was a general dislike of the immanent/economic distinction, with different individuals accepting it as an imperfect but helpful distinction, and Lewis Ayres claiming it was too broken to salvage. Ultimately, it was all very interesting.

This leads me to a question I asked at the end of the panel discussion. Over and over again at the conference there seemed to be a general disagreement among plenary speakers and certain members of the audience, and this even came up in a couple of the plenary sessions themselves. I was hoping to shed light on what this disagreement was, but I either posed the question poorly or else was simply misunderstood. My goal was to highlight that each plenary had a notion of what you could say about God within himself, and how far one could go to do so. Tom McCall asserted a certain amount of univocal predication concerning God’s life and our own understanding of identity. Fred Sanders talked about the economic imaging the immanent. Steve Holmes, Lewis Ayres and Karen Kilby, on the other hand, took a much more apophatic approach. The question I asked is why. What previous commitment, doctrinal or otherwise, leads one to make this claim? I find it particularly important because what one assumes about this issue will ultimately do an incredible amount of work for them, both in the doctrine of God in general, and in developing an overarching theological hermeneutics. It will, in other words, create a dogmatic structure around it, and it will be at the center fueling the whole enterprise.

This leads me to my worry. I worry that personality ultimately drives much of this. For instance, in the audience there were clearly a handful of analytic theologians, who simply have no problem assuming univocal predication, and so this drives their account. God is controlled by the notion of deity simply because that is where their interests lie. Likewise though, we could make the same assertion with apophaticism, etc. How are we making judgments concerning what God reveals to us, and what it means to assert truth claims about God in himself? Holmes, Kilby and Ayres have the advantage of asserting continuity with and accountability from classical trinitarianism. None of them were seeking to “advance” trinitarian theology beyond a pure retrieval (and then advancing its implications – Kilby was particularly insightful here). I think this question is particularly important for evangelicals, who continually embrace biblicism, and who will, I fear, embrace the heresies that always follow alongside biblicism (always trinitarian and christological). Since we tend not to be grounded in the tradition, the fundamental issue concerning knowledge of God in himself seems left to personality rather than revelation. It strikes me as a particularly important question these days.

All in all, fantastic conference. I just wish we had more time to talk about this particular issue.

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5 thoughts on “Advancing Trinitarian Theology

  1. Thanks for this, Kyle. Here are just a couple of very quick observations about the discussion:
    The anti-ST backlash was indeed pronounced, but I tried to be clear that my disagreements with ST are primarily (a) at the level of sloppiness when it comes to “application” or “ethics” or “implications;” and (b) at the level of what ST says (and sometimes doesn’t say) about divine oneness rather than at (c) the common ST understanding that there is something of a profound I-Thou distinction of mutual love between the divine persons. I think that ST is correct about (c), and that there is solid biblical and traditional warrant for this. I took Lewis Ayres (though not Steve Holmes or Karen Kilby) to agree with me substantially on this (although he says some things about apophaticism that I don’t fully understand or endorse).

    By the way, meeting you was one of the real bright spots of the conference for me (and there were many!).

    Tom McCall

    • Tom,

      Thank you for your thoughts. It was great meeting you as well, and I really appreciated your paper. I found your delineation between the various kinds of simplicity really helpful, especially considering that I will be writing on the topic this Summer. It is nice to know a bit of the variety.

      In terms of your point (c), I think this is right. I would have liked to hear Holmes talk more specifically about this point specifically. I’m not entirely certain he would have disagreed, as along as it was in the right context. I think Holmes wanted to push back against some of the line of questioning that seemed to allow for a very clear-cut understanding of what God is like, that might have made him seem a bit one-sided. Maybe I’m wrong about that though.

      I’ve had to deal with this issue a bit in Edwards studies. There is a strand of the secondary literature that claims that Edwards utilized both a psychological analogy and a social analogy without ever bothering to link them. One of my arguments against this notion is that a classical trinitarian can have social language without becoming a social trinitarian (your point “c”). Their arguments were basically that social language implies social trinitarianism, and I just don’t think that is the case.

      Anyway, thanks again Tom! I hope our paths cross sooner than later!


  2. Thanks for reflecting, Kyle … wish I could have been there! Hopefully next year.

    I like your question. It is interesting how personality and predisposition comes to express itself when someone becomes a theologian. I think you make a great observation, there, Kyle. For example, I don’t like math; and so for me dialectic works much better :-). And I’m not really an artist, so aesthetic theology doesn’t work so well for me either (although I can appreciate it!) — sorry Von Balthasar :-) .

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