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. Continue reading

Gunton Saves the World

I don’t agree with everything that the late Colin Gunton said about the doctrine of God, but he makes a significant point about divine freedom in the immanent Trinity in relation to the integrity of the world as contingent order:

In face of both of these polemics against the doctrine of the ontological Trinity, and against any suggestion that it is only the freedom of God that is at stake here, it can be argued that on the contrary that doctrine serves as a foundation for the relative independence and so integrity of worldly reality also, and thus for human freedom.  It is because God is a communion of love prior to and in independence of the creation that he can enable the creation to be itself (Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, p. xviii).

Ultimately, Gunton writes, the elision of the immanent Trinity has a propensity to ‘the pantheism which results from any attempt to bring God and the world too close’.  In other words (and to go a bit beyond Gunton’s own phrasing), the moment we negate the fullness of God’s being in its antecedence to the world, the world takes on a character that it was never meant to have and must bear the unfortunate burden of assisting in the project of God’s own self-realization.

What do you think about this point?  What are some ways of drawing out the implications of the preservation (or forfeiture) of God’s freedom in se for our understanding of creation?

Steve Holmes on the Twentieth-Century Trinitarian ‘Revival’

Earlier this year Paternoster released Steve Holmes’ new book The Holy Trinity: Understanding God’s Life in the Christian Doctrine in Historical Perspective series edited by Alan Sell.  Steve has been at work on the doctrine of God for some time now and this book, as Karen Kilby’s blurb on the back cover notes, can be viewed as both a textbook for historical theology and also an ‘intervention’ in recent debates about the doctrine of the Trinity.  The volume certainly endeavors to canvas the historical and modern developments in a level-headed manner and yet, insofar as contemporary trinitarian doctrine must heed the wisdom of our theological forebears, it cannot help but call into question a number of the more recent proposals.

At the end of the book, there is a seven-point summary of patristic trinitarianism that includes, among other things, divine simplicity, the limitations of human speech about God, and the persons being distinguished by the relations of origin alone.  Here is the provocative last paragraph of the book:

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‘Jesus Said Nothing about…’

I don’t have any hard facts on when this tack became plausible or on how pervasive it is (no doubt the bifurcation of Jesus and Paul is somehow a factor), but it seems lately that the claim that Jesus himself did not overtly express concern about a particular spiritual or ethical issue in the Gospels constitutes an argument to the effect that Christian believers need not concern themselves with that issue.  This can be (and has been) used in the case of homosexuality, for example: Jesus apparently did not feel the need to address the matter; therefore (so the logic runs), Christian believers are not obliged to take a hard line on whether such conduct is sinful.

Whether the issue at hand is homosexuality or something else, there are at least two significant problems with this approach to dealing with hot-button spiritual and ethical quandaries in our day.  First, it proceeds on a warping of the analogy of Scripture, or the commitment to allowing clearer passages of Scripture to help in interpreting more difficult ones.  The analogy of Scripture is useful when one text genuinely boggles the mind of even the most careful reader and other relevant texts can be invoked to establish parameters within which the difficult text should be understood.  However, in the case of things like homosexuality, the importance of well-ordered doctrinal formulation, the importance of church polity (all things about which, allegedly, Jesus was not terribly concerned), there are texts that come at these topics in a reasonably straightforward fashion (Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 6:3; 2 Tim. 4:3 ; Titus 1:9; 2:1; Jude 3; Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 3:1-13; Heb. 13:17; Jas. 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1-5).  Moreover, instead of employing particularly lucid texts in those cases to help in wrestling with difficult passages, the ‘Jesus said nothing about…’ argument actually attempts to use mere silence as the lens through which to view passages concerning homosexuality, etc.  In other words, a move with some resemblance to the use of the analogia Scripturae actually lacks both of the conditions for using the analogy: unclear texts and clearer ones that shed light on those that are unclear.

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Athanasius on the Trinity

My students and I were reading Athanasius and Hilary of Poitiers today on the topic of God’s self-disclosure. On one hand, the teaching that God is in some sense unknowable has always been a part of orthodox Christian belief. But on the other hand so has the claim that God has made himself known in Jesus Christ; ‘Emmanual,’ God is with us. To feel the tension you can go any number of places in the Christian tradition, but Athanasius and Hilary open this up really well.

This excerpt from Athanasius is on the Trinity and only indirectly about revelation (for Athanasius to talk about revelation is to talk about the Trinity), but it is just marvelous, so I had to post it:

As the Son is an only-begotten offspring, so also the Spirit, being given and sent from the Son, is himself one and not many, nor one from among many, but Only Spirit. As the Son, the living Word, is one, so must the vital activity and gift whereby he sanctifies and enlightens be one perfect and complete; which is said to proceed from the Father, that it shines forth and is sent and is given. The Son is sent from the Father; for he says, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.’ The Son sends the Spirit; ‘If I go away,’ he says, ‘I will send the Paraclete.’ The Son glorifies the Father, saying: ‘Father, I have glorified thee.’ The Spirit glorifies the Son: for he says, ‘He shall glorify me.’ The Son says: ‘the things I heard from the Father speak I unto the world.’ The Spirit takes of the Son; ‘He shall take of mine,’ he says, ‘and shall declare unto you.’ The Son came in the name of the Father. ‘The Holy Spirit,’ says the Son, ‘whom the Father will send in my name’ (Letters to Serapion, on the Holy Spirit)

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). Continue reading

Recasting Nicea

I have had some interest in the theologian Samuel Clarke (1675-1729), particularly his trinitarian thought. I have just finished reading a great book on this aspect of Clarke’s thought, Thomas C. Pfizenmaier’s The Trinitarian Theology of Dr. Samuel Clarke (1675-1729): Context, Sources, and Controversy. Clarke was considered one of the brightest young lights in the church of England. In 1704-5 he gave the Boyle Lectures, and, particularly from that point, was seen as a key defender of orthodoxy. Then, in 1712, in the midst of anti-trinitarian thoughts, Socinian gibberish and the rise of deism, Clarke published his Scripture-Doctrine of the Trinity. This is a fascinating book, which starts with 55 propositions on the Trinity that is followed by an incredible listing of biblical support and Patristic backing.

Pfizenmaier provides a brief overview of the work. “In Part One, Clarke collected from the entire New Testament every text relating to the doctrine of the trinity with ‘such references and observations, as may (’tis hoped) be of considerable use towards the understanding of true meaning.’” (4) In part one Clarke collected some 1,251 texts from the New Testament. In part two, Clarke builds on his biblical exposition by developing propositions, from the “text up” as it were, and rounding those out with a barrage of quotes from Patristic sources. The third section is devoted to the “present liturgy of the Church of England,” where he addresses how the liturgy itself backs his view.

Clarke’s work caused something of a mass hysteria in the church and academy. In the midst of the powder-keg he hoped to quell, Clarke lit the match that set the whole church in an uproar. Since that time, even to today, Clarke has been labelled an Arian. Continue reading

Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? (pt 2)

McCall begins the first chapter of the book by lamenting that ‘systematic theology of recent vintage’ has failed to shed light on the ‘threeness-oneness problem’ in theology proper and by finding encouragement in philosophers of religion contending for the coherence of ‘the distinctness and divinity of the persons’ and ‘the oneness or unity of God’ (p. 11).  A number of analytic proposals are recapitulated in this chapter.  Cornelius Plantinga and Richard Swinburne come under scrutiny as representatives of social trinitarianism.  After critics of social trinitarianism (Brian Leftow, Dale Tuggy, and others) have had their say, the ‘Trinity monotheism’ of J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig is unfurled as a defense of social trinitarianism.  For Moreland and Craig, there are ‘two ways to be divine’.  The first belongs to the Trinity as a whole, which is ‘the sole instance of the divine nature’, while the second belongs to the persons, which are not ‘instances of the divine nature’ but rather ‘parts of God’ which are fully divine, as parts of a cat are fully feline (p. 31; this is Moreland’s and Craig’s analogy, not McCall’s or mine).  For Moreland and Craig, God is ‘one soul endowed with three complete sets of rational cognitive faculties’ and hence the persons are ‘three centers of self-consciousness, intentionality, and volition’ who are still the same divine being, as Cerberus, the three-headed dog thought to guard Hades, would be one being with three centers of consciousness that might be called Rover, Bowser, and Spike (pp. 32-3; this is Moreland’s and Craig’s analogy, unembellished by McCall or me).  After Moreland and Craig, Keith Yandell’s trinitarianism is presented as another variation on the social construal.  In Yandell’s account, the Trinity is complex but not composed of parts because the Trinity and the persons and the persons themselves cannot exist without one another.

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Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? by Thomas McCall (pt 1)

In view of what he calls ‘a dearth of engagement with the work being done by analytic philosophical theologians’ (p. 4), Thomas McCall has written Which Trinity?  Whose Monotheism?  Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology (Eerdmans, 2010) in hopes of promoting more interaction between systematicians and Christians doing analytic philosophy.  Both spheres have much to learn from one another, McCall urges, especially when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity.

The book contains three major sections.  The first unpacks different proposals for understanding the Trinity that have been proffered by analytic philosophers, delineates theological desiderata that demand more attention than they have received in the analytic world, and then evaluates the various analytic trinitarian schemas in light of those desiderata.  The second deploys the ‘conceptual tools of the analytic approach’ in appraising the doctrine of the Trinity in Robert Jenson, Jürgen Moltmann, evangelical debates about the ‘eternal subordination of the Son’, and John Zizioulas.  The third concludes the book with ‘theses for scholastic disputation on the future of Trinitarian theology that is both faithful to its truly theological heritage and attentive to contemporary metaphysical issues’ (p. 7).

I’m interested to engage this book on two levels.  First, I’d like to explore how exigent and promising are the proposals being developed by analytic philosophers on the doctrine of the Trinity.  Second, I’d like to explore more generally (and perhaps only implicitly) what to make of philosophers who are Christians and passionate about theological issues (not simply theologians with a watchful eye on philosophical stirrings or a keenness to glean things from philosophical resources [say, speech-act theory or Aristotle on causation]) taking up the task of constructive work in Christian doctrine.  A related question: should there be such a thing as ‘Christian philosophy’ or simply Christians who do philosophy in its own right and perchance see some of their insights utilized ad hoc by Christian theologians to whom the work of dogmatics is properly allocated?

Any thoughts before we get into the content of the book?

Calvin, the Divine Essence, and God the Father

I’ve been slowly re-reading Calvin’s Institutes and came across a section in Book I Chapter 13 on the Trinity that I thought would be fruitful for discussion here. In I.13.24, Calvin aruges that the name “God” in Scripture does not refer to the Father alone. In my mind, what this does, not necessarily for Calvin, but for many of his followers after him, is to de-personalize the name “God” and apply it to the divine essence, so that there is, as it were, a God behind the trinitarian God.

In this section, Calvin is knee deep in polemical argumentation against a sort of Arianism. His worry is that if the Father is only considered “God,” then the Son would, in some sense, be less than God. He doesn’t seem to notice that the Fathers, from what I can tell, are unanimous that the term “God” is used in Scripture of the Father, and that his counter-examples in his polemics simply don’t make his argument. Calvin fluctuates between “God” as a name and “God” as deity, and doesn’t draw a distinction between them. Therefore, he can argue, that when Christ says that no one is good but God alone, then you have to say Christ isn’t God if only the Father is God (thereby reducing name to deity). Continue reading

Evagrius and the Persons and Essence

I’ve been perusing some of Evagrius of Ponticus’ writings (as you do), and in light of our vigorous interchange in the comments of my “God and Motion” post, I thought I would add some thoughts from Evagrius. Evagrius is interesting, in part, because he was heavily influenced by the Cappadocians. In fact, the letter from which I will quote was thought to be written by Basil. You often find this letter in Basil’s works as “Letter 8″. The following are some thoughts from the letter that represent Evagrius’ trinitarian theology:

Number is a property of quantity; and quantity is linked to bodily nature; therefore, number is a property of bodily nature. We have affirmed our faith that our Lord is the fashioner [demiorges] of bodies. So every number designates those things that have been allotted a material and circumscribed nature; but ‘One and Only’ is the designation of the simple and uncircumscribed essence.”

“And yet we, in keeping with right reason, do not say the Son is either like or unlike the Father; each term is equally inapplicable. For the terms ‘like’ and ‘unlike’ are used only with respect to qualities, whereas the divine is free from quality. But as we confess the identity of their nature, we also accept the identity of their essence and disavow the idea fo a composite nature – for the Father, who is God by his essence, has begotten the Son, who is God by his essence. Thus, the identity of their essence is shown: for one who is God by essence has the same essence as another who is God by essence.”

“So, too, those who fight God seize on the verse, ‘The Son can do nothing of himself’ [Jn 5:19] in order to destroy those who listen to them. But to me even this passage attests chiefly that the Son is of the same nature as the Father. For if every rational creature with free will can do of itself what it wills and has equal inclination toward the good and the bad, whereas the Son can do nothing of himself, then the Son is no creature; and if no creature, then he is of one essence with the Father…You say that the Holy Spirit is a creature. But every creature is its creator’s slave. ‘For all things are your slaves’, he says [Ps 118:91]. If he is a slave, then he possesses holiness as an adjunct – but everything that possesses holiness as an adjunct admits of evil; whereas the Holy Spirit, being holy by essence, has been proclaimed ‘the fount of holiness’; so, then, the Holy Spirit is no creature. But if he is no creature, he is of one essence with God.”

Quoted from A.M. Casiday, Evagrius Ponticus in The Early Church Fathers Series by Routledge.

What do you think about this? Evagrius’ concern seems to be to utilize the creature/Creator distinction, in part, to highlight the essential unity of God as One. This reminds me of some of the post-Reformation anti-trinitarian polemics, where the individuality of the three are assumed, and the polemical issues revolve around unity. Any thoughts?

Moltmann, Calvin, and the Cross

The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is not exactly fashionable these days, so perhaps making its exoneration the topic of one’s first post on a blog is rather inadvisable.  Yet whatever a person’s opinion of the doctrine may be, it’s only reasonable to spend a bit of time wading through some of the caricatures in order to face up to the most robust treatments on offer, at which point a critic may begin properly to criticize and an adherent may begin to draw from such resources for contemporary restatement.

One criticism directed toward penal substitution is that it envisions discord within the Trinity: God the Father opposes God the Son in punishing God the Son on the cross (see, e.g., Joel Green and Mark Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, p. 147).  Interestingly, this concern about a rift within the Trinity brings to mind the language of Moltmann, a theologian, in my experience, not readily associated with the penal substitutionary construal of Christ’s death.  Commenting that in Jesus’ cry of dereliction he calls God simply “God” and not “Father,” Moltmann writes, “If we take the relinquishment of the Father’s name in Jesus’ death cry seriously, then this is even the breakdown of the relationship that constitutes the very life of the Trinity: if the Father forsakes the Son, the Son does not merely lose his sonship.  The Father loses his fatherhood as well.  The love that binds the one to the other is transformed into a dividing curse” (The Trinity and the Kingdom, p. 80).  Of course, Moltmann goes on to speak of this as a voluntary separation on the part of the Father and the Son, with the Holy Spirit as the bond between them persisting even during the hour of separation.  The point, though, is that at least formally (materially as well?) a description like Moltmann’s could be implicated in the God-the-Father-versus-God-the-Son objection to penal substitution.

Calvin, the man typically credited with a formative influence on the doctrine of penal substitution, comes at the  trinitarian dynamics of the cross in a different way.  Continue reading

Baptism and Christian Identity

I want to take a look at Gordon S. Mikoski’s new volume, Baptism and Christian IdentityBaptism and Christian Identity: Teaching in the Triune Name (Eerdmans, 2009). This is another work in practical theology which seeks to breath fresh life in the conversation concerning practices which is either dying or else never truly came to life. This work, on the other hand, has promise. There is no doubt from the get-go that this is a work of practical theology. The author talks about his denominationally oriented point of view, the importance of looking at concrete situations and then engages in a detailed analysis of his church’s practice of baptism. In other words, not only will this volume look at Gregory of Nyssa and Calvin, nor will it simply look at theology and Christian education, though it does both. This volume will look at the theological and practical issues against the backdrop of very real conrete situations and help to ask real questions about how our theology should substantialize.

Mikoski does not choose baptism at random, as if it were simply one of many possible practices to choose from. Continue reading