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).
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?