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:

Continue reading

‘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.

Continue reading

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