D.B. Hart on Divine Difference & Perfection

There are likely no deeper theological waters in which to swim than those of trinitarian doctrine. Here, theology in all its creaturely limitedness directs humble and careful attention to God’s being in and of himself – the divine life of Father, Son, and Spirit – and to God’s gracious self-giving in the economy of salvation. In other words, the doctrine of the Trinity inquires about how the threefold act of God in history (the Father sending the Son and the Spirit) corresponds to the being of God in eternity.

Why are the waters so deep, so dangerous? As Paul Molnar reminds us, “although we obviously have no alternative but to understand God in the categories available to us in our human experience, it is not anything within our experience or inherent in those categories that prescribes who God is in se and ad extra (Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity, ix).

So, in speaking of God’s being in se, we should caution ourselves against too carelessly reading back into God’s life our concepts and experiences of God – even though these are the only ones we have to work with. Keep this in mind as James and I (Kent) continue our reflections on David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite.

Kent’s Quote and Commentary

In the economy of salvation, one sees that the Son receives from the Father the power to impart the Spirit, and that the Spirit receives from the Father the power to communicate the Son, that the Son and the Spirit are both sent and sending (the Spirit sending Christ into the world, the waters, the desert, the Son sending the Spirit upon the disciples), that all give, receive, restore, and rejoice – to from, and with one another – and that, again as John of Damascas says, the Holy Spirit is always between the Father and the Son (1.13), occupying the distance of paternal and filial intimacy differently, abiding in and “rephrasing” it (p. 185).

Having argued that difference is essential to God’s essence (ousia), that already in the life of God (immanent Trinity) there is “‘language’…but neither negation nor sublation”, Hart allows the scriptural witness to the work of God in Christ (economic Trinity) to fill out his conceptions.

Why settle our gaze here? My comments have less to do with material as they do with method and presentation. Sections such as these (and there are many) are disciplined, guided, and informed both by the scriptural witness to God’s saving activities and the tradition. Hart consistently points readers back to the text in ways both mundane – scripture passages at the head of each section – and surprising – long, almost jazz-esk, riffs. Eat your heart out Coltrane.

James’ Quote and Commentary

In ways both fascinating and perplexing, Hart reframes, better, subverts, the classic questions of difference and sameness that have themselves been reframed in postmodern philosophy. He does so according to an aesthetical doctrine of the Trinity. Note his opening thesis: “The Christian understanding of difference and distance is shaped by the doctrine of the Trinity, where theology finds that the true form of difference is peace, of distance beauty” (p. 178. emphasis added). The following statements deserve attention:

[T]he strangeness of Christian language [is] its willingness to place difference at the origin. [Hence], [t]heologically there is no value in speculation about ideal or metaphysical causes of difference, ontic or ontological; the triune perichoresis of God is not a substance in which difference is grounded in its principles or in which it achieves unity of a higher synthesis, even if God is the fullness and actuality of all that is; rather, the truly unexpected implication of trinitarian dogma is that Christian thought has no metaphysics of the one and the many, the same and the different, because that is a polarity that has no place in the Christian narrative.


Whereas, for instance, the One of Plotinus eventuates in difference by way of conversion and remotion, the benign ontological apostasy that erupts from the theoria of Nous, for Christian thought difference does not eventuate at all, but is; Christianity has no tale to tell of a division or distinction within being between a transcendental unity and a material multiplicity that achieves – in tension between them and in the speculative convertibility of one with the other – the coherence of totality, but knows only differentiation and the music of unity, the infinite music of the three persons giving and receiving and giving anew (p. 180).

Once more:

Christian thought stands outside the opposition that is presumed within either a metaphysics of ontological hypotaxis (such as any idealism describes) or a metaphysics of ontological rupture (such as postmodernism professes); it knows only the beauty of being’s parataxis, its open, free, serial, and irreducible declaration of glory; it grasps being neither as an immobile synthesis that stands over against and sublates every utterance, nor as the sheer cacophony of aleatory violence, but as rhetoric, the outward address and proclamation of the God who has eternally spoken, who speaks, and who will speak, the God who “others” himself in himself and contains and surrenders otherness as infinite music, infinite discourse (p. 181).

This is because:

God, in short, is not a hierarchy of prior essence and posterior manifestation, indeterminate being and then paradoxical expression, but is always already expression, already Word and Likeness; to speak of his ousia is not to speak of an underlying undifferentiated substrate (a divine [hypokeimenon]), but to name the gift of love, the glorious movement of the divine persons, who forever “set forth” and “converge” (p. 182)

And so, as to distance:

Because God is Trinity, beings “pass over” from (or, rather, receive) being peacefully, for the motion of the distance is the movement of what moves, what gives: the divine persons who have being as that gift that passes from each to the other (p. 184).

For theologians like Hart, Christianity’s ontology is distinct; it does not play by the rules of some existing generally accepted ontology thought to be basic or universal. Christianity’s ontology must be unique because her God is unique, that is, her God is triune.

Hart is adamant on this point. For example, note what he says about Nicene Orthodoxy: “Orthodox trinitarianism, as it came to be articulated, far from simply absorbing into theology the speculative grammar of the circumambient philosophical culture, overcame the language of metaphysical order to which Christian thought might easily have succumbed, and in so doing arrived, for the first time in Greek thought, at a genuine concept of divine transcendence” (p. 182).

So, being/ontology must be thought according to the grammar of the triune life of God. This means, once again, allowing the relations of origin to do the work. Ontological “difference” and “distance” are replaced with the eternal begottenness of the Son and the eternal procession of the Spirit. And Hart uses aesthetical metaphors to describe these. Does it work?

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7 thoughts on “D.B. Hart on Divine Difference & Perfection

  1. Any attempt to posit Christian ontology (grounded in this instance in the Trinity) as sui generis is of course welcome. All the more if it seeks to be faithful to revelation. Rather than provide constructive criticism or comment however I will simply fling accusations of the usual batch of Trinity-related heresies and hope one sticks, or at the very least is relevant.

    Does the divine being’s”irreducible” “parataxis” necessarily entail tritheism?

    Does the description of being as “glorious movement” and what seems to be an “infinite relatedness” (this suggested by James’s comment that Hart is allowing the “relations of origin to do the work” ) necessarily entail some kind of “infinite regress” of being? In other words, an emphasis on “relations” without any discussion of the nature of “prior essence” (which I agree with Hart should not be spoken of simply in terms of “undifferentiated substrate” ) puts us in the position of being unable to speak of what exactly is in “relation” “with” anything else. If this is so, the music metaphor doesn’t help or illuminate. It’s pretty, but I’m not sure it’s useful.

    Good heavens I’m in the wrong end of the pool. And without my floaties . . .

  2. Beau, I am glad you jumped in the pool! If I am reading your thrust of your questions right (and there is no guarantee to that), then you rightly point out one of the great difficulties involved with trinitarian doctrine: speaking about the one and the three without faulting on monism or tritheism.

    As you say, discussing relations without discussion of “prior essence” leaves us without the capacity to completely define what exactly is in “relation” with what. Yet certainly this has always been one of the challenges with trinitarian doctrine. If we appeal to speaking of “persons in relation” then of course we risk reading into the divine life our understanding of two constantly shifting and unstable concepts: “person” and “relation”. So is language completely insufficient or are we simply stepping close to the limits of what one can say based on the biblical canon? My guess is the later (with a healthy dose of awareness to the former).

    To your question of music, if we allow our trinitarian doctrine to be as clearly transparent to the biblical text as possible, is music a sufficient trope? Well no, nothing is. That’s the risk of leaving a purely descriptive doctrinal account and employing a trope of any kind (music, drama, or whatever). Yet, it seems that music could be useful nonetheless for it entails an interrelatedness, a “language”, that is of the essence of music itself.

    Floaties anyone?

  3. Kent, thanks for the reply. I’m always skittish entering discussions regarding the Trinity and Trinitarian relations. This is due in no small part to a seminar on the subject I took during seminary in which the philosophers pounded on the theologians for 12 weeks or so. You can ask James about it.

    As someone who has for some time now cast longing glances at the playgrounds where social trinitarians frolic, I’m incredibly sympathetic to any emphasis on relations. I guess I’m a little curious as to what the music metaphor gets us that “persons in relation” (where persons are defined as constituted by relations) doesn’t. Does it move us any further along the road towards the “limits of what we can say based on the biblical canon”? In what way? Perhaps its a lack of imagination on my part or maybe its just late but it isn’t immediately clear to me.

    Full disclosure: I have not read, nor am I reading Hart’s book and I won’t have access to it for some time so my comments here run the risk of being irrelevant. But the above questions are sincere. Any clarity you could give regarding Hart’s use of the metaphor in addition to the quotes above would be appreciated.

  4. Beau, let’s leave the question of music’s legitimacy as a trope open as we move through the book. At this point I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it so I want to see how Hart employs it related to other doctrinal loci.

    As James said, stay with us throughout the discussion and we can return to his use of the music trope from time to time. I am particularly interested in it right now because I am writing on Pannenberg’s eschatology (in Systematic Theology), and he uses music as a way of talking about the “harmony” that the final consummation will bring about from the “dissonances” of human life.


  5. Hello, Hello!

    A long time ago I posted on this forum when it was a different site with a different name, but hopefully not so much time has passed that I might not add something of value to this discussion.

    Along with Beau I confess that I have not read the book under discussion, but I have read through all the previous posts and carefully considered the many excellent quotations provided and a couple observations come to mind which I would love to offer.

    First, it seems to me that the centrality of Gods glory may be a key to assessing the value of the music metaphor. As James quoted Hart in reference to these attempts towards finding language about the trinity, ” it knows only the beauty of being’s parataxis, its open, free, serial, and irreducible declaration of glory” (p. 181), and again, “the gift of love, the glorious movement of the divine persons” (p. 182).

    The question was raised earlier, does the language and metaphor of music add anything not already present in the language and metaphor of relationship? In essence, no I do not think it does because both portray the complex and beautiful reality of interrelatedness. However, when we remember the infinitely deep waters in which we swim (floaties or not, it seems that it might take more than a floaty to truly stay afloat amidst the awesome storm that is our glorious triune God) it seems that the similarity of the two metaphors might be part of their excellence and mutual necessity. Indeed, when one considers a beautiful diamond, I doubt they consider only one facet because the light will theoretically reflect off each of the other facets in much the same way. Or, when considering a beautiful piece of music they will listen only once because listening a second time will likely sound the same. Or when looking into the eyes of a loved one they will glance only once because the pigment has not changed. No, that is not that case. Rather, in each case we take more than a glance we look, listen, and experience as many times as possible in order to take something in that is greater than ourselves because the fullness of each cannot be grasped in merely one pass. And so, with this discussion of the trinity, something infinitely more complex than the finest diamond, infinitely more moving that the grandest symphone (or jazz riff if that is more your style), and infinitely more loving than even the deepest love for ones spouse, we should embrace various metaphors with a hope to somehow glimpse one more facet of Gods glory.

    It does seem that there are many similarities between the music metaphor and the relationship metaphor (and there will continue to be strengths and flaws found in both to be sure considering the ultimately finite nature of human language already mentioned above and may the Spirit continually remind us of that limitedness as the conversations continue and may we prayerfully proceed nevertheless in hope of bringing God glory) however, as we ponder something so glorious as the Trinity, may we embrace as much language and metaphor as possible, assuming it is not a hinderance to the cause, because even if it does not provide something completely new and different from a previous metaphor and vocabulary, it does allow us to glimpse yet another facet of that which is most infinitely beautiful and that is a worthy cause.

    Finally, I might offer the simple, even obvious, observation that one strength of the music metaphor is the experience had when one hears perfect harmony. Something is present that is greater than the individual notes of themselves and I think there is much in that experience of music that does get us close (as much as that is a word finite creatures can ever use when discussing the infinite) to the challenge of speaking about three and one without erring too far towards either three or one.

  6. Hi. I am a stranger to this blog. I’ve become interested in Hart’s work of late, and just discovered your discussion. I had a question for you consideration, and decided to risk posting it. I’m surely no expert in such things, in theology in any case. I’m a philosopher by trade, so please bear that in mind in what follows. Consider this:

    “Christianity has no tale to tell of a division or distinction within being between a transcendental unity and a material multiplicity that achieves – in tension between them and in the speculative convertibility of one with the other – the coherence of totality, but knows only differentiation and the music of unity, the infinite music of the three persons giving and receiving and giving anew (p. 180).”

    Judging from this snippet alone, Hart can hardly claim to have eluded the question of ‘totality.’ Christianity’s story – Hart’s story here, and the categories he’s deploying – already founds or narrates a totality, namely: the relationality of divine life as a kind of exemplar for properly human relationality, and the relation between the divine and human as one of peaceful giving and receiving. Hart succeeds in avoiding a Hegelian type of speculative or Total anthropological immanence (divine relationality is *just* human relation writ large, in the speculative identity of the Concept or Reason), i.e. the difference between God and the human is not merely the difference between the whole and the part. Yet in respecting the difference between divine and human, he apparently still gives us Total Divine Immanence (human relation is divine relation writ small), ‘total’ in the sense that the word ‘God’ already encompasses or names, what from a human perspective, is an excess or the infinite. This raises some questions. Hart is apparently equivocating on the question of identity in the following way: confusing epistemological (modern) and ontological (ancient) treatments. If God is not purely indeterminate, as he seems to be suggesting, then the categories delineating God and the divine are absolute and determinative ‘for us.’ In precisely this sense, he is giving us a Total Immanence, while allotting to transcendence or the infinite an aesthetic functions: the ‘beyond’ appears or twinkles in the beauty we experience at the (logical) limit. Considered ontologically: ‘We’ or the human are Totally Immanent to God, and hence, to the categories proper to theology. In other words, appeals to the infinite and the divine human difference don’t really outflank the problem of identity, since God – qua infinite – stands at the origin and end, or the beginning and horizon, of human life. God names the origin and destiny of the human, and this God is in some sense (apparently) determinate. As should be clear, this amounts to relying on while deferring (in the appeal to the infinite) the question of coherence, or presupposing rather than eluding the question of Truth. The commentators above claim:

    “For theologians like Hart, Christianity’s ontology is distinct; it does not play by the rules of some existing generally accepted ontology thought to be basic or universal.”

    Heart is indeed playing by the (logical) rules, while building his account in such a way that allows him to avert precisely the controversial questions. He seems stretched between modernity and antiquity – or epistemology and ontology – wanting to answer the former in terms of the latter, while implicitly accepting the legitimacy of the latter in the way those questions are formulated. Hence, quite like Milbank who makes similar methodological *decisions*, some of Hart’s claims appear to be question-begging. Consider:

    Because God is Trinity, beings “pass over” from (or, rather, receive) being peacefully, for the motion of the distance is the movement of what moves, what gives: the divine persons who have being as that gift that passes from each to the other (p. 184).

    What of freedom? Is the unity of the divine persons a necessary or intrinsic feature of God’s nature? If we say that it is then what, precisely, can ‘peace’ mean? Or love for that matter? I am admittedly quite ignorant of the rigors (and necessary paradoxes) of trinitarian theology, but if we think human relations by analogy to the divine life, my question is relevant. Here on earth, we are to ‘seek peace’ and to love our neighbors and even our enemies. If God has no internal dissonance or freedom in His Persons, we can not rightly claim the Trinity as a model for human relation. And pace Hart (and Milbank), we cannot (simply or only) criticize post-modern neo-paganisms for myths of necessity and polemos without ourselves thinking through precisely what Hell, for example, consists in, its relation to God and us, and so forth. They build an account that says ‘our story is better,’ without precisely facing the most difficult question, or the ways that our story and their story overlap.

    Thanks to all you souls who have read my query. Perhaps Hart’s work would have a response to these questions. Please don’t read this as an attempt to dismiss Hart’s project (or Milbanks). I regard him as worth reading and arguing with. And these questions have hit me in my initial forays into his works. Blessings!


    • Jack, these are interesting questions. I wrote this post several years ago, so it would take me some time to get my head back around that section in Hart. Unfortunately I don’t have time to give to that worthwhile task right now. I do hope you visit TF often and contribute to the discussions.


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