The Renewal of Trinitarian Theology

As you might be able to tell from my last several posts, I have been looking at various volumes for possible use in the classroom.trinitarian The latest I have perused is The Renewal of Trinitarian Theology: Themes, Patterns & Explorations by Roderick T. Leupp. I was first interested in this volume because I thought it would be helpful to provide students with an introduction to trinitarian theology that maps the various questions, issues and viewpoints. In the end, this was not exactly Leupp’s intention.

In his introduction, Leupp claims that,

Trinitarian theology is practical. It instructs in the way of Christian salvation and is a shorthand of the gospel. Trinitarian theology is also demanding, calling forth the strict exertions of thought and the purposeful resolve of action. Above all, trinitarian theology glows in its own beauty. Practicality and exertion are caught up into pure delight” (18).

In attempting to address the renewal of interest in trinitarian theology, Leupp spends the first chapter doing what I had hoped he would do for the entire book – surveying the trinitarian landscape (which happens to be the name of the chapter). Throughout the volume he shows his incredible breadth of knowledge in the field, which, at times, may actually hurt his ability to communicate the material. The argumentation in the volume seemed to be more of a development-by-mosaic approach to the issues, painting one small aspect of a theologian’s thought and then moving on until a larger picture became clear. The problem is that the picture didn’t usually become all that clear. I was left wanting to see Leupp do two things: Either, write a purely constructive work; or a simply a survey, tracing through various key viewpoints. As it is, I don’t believe any of the theologians addressed were developed enough for real understanding, and on the other hand, his own constructive work was lost in an overgrown thicket of quotations.

A point of interest in the volume was when Leupp turned his attention to the idea of perichoresis in trinitarian thought. This could be an interesting point of reference for some discussion. Leupp states, “Perichoresis is one of the live points of contact between the doctrine of the Trinity and theological anthropology, which answers the question ‘who is the human?…How can the perichoretic approach to personhood guide and in fact transform the ‘merely’ human grasp of personhood?” Leupp weaves together, or, if nothing else, quotes alongside one another, Boff, Moltmann, Millard Erickson and T.F. Torrance (which seems like an impressive feat in and of itself). Following Boff, Leupp suggests that there are two divergent meanings of perichoresis: first, a static state, which, in Leupp’s words, emphasizes that, “the three divine persons are situated in the same neighborhood. They live together, even under one roof, not begrudgingly but lovingly” (71). The second meaning (circumincessio), means to permeate or interpenetrate. Here, Leupp’s examples get a little more odd than the first, stating,

Here the three divine persons are not merely under one roof. They are playing, singing, even telling jokes together. They are doing what all families do, for they are the Primal Family.”

Now, I fully realize that these kinds of moves are much more common in discussions of the Trinity, invoking the unity amongst the three to make an immediate move into humanity’s social and ethical situations. My question for you is, what are your thoughts about this usage? If you wish to utilize the doctrine of the Trinity in this manner, why and what restrictions (if any) would you put on it? Also, what do you think of Leupp’s language? He certainly qualifies himself from time to time, but he seems to feel free to use a variety of images to talk about the Trinity, most of which are just three things, rather than a trinity. Also, Leupp seems to follow the line of thinking that since no image can fully incorporate the vast truth of the Trinity, then multiplying images is the answer. What are the pedagogical ramifications for these decisions?


8 thoughts on “The Renewal of Trinitarian Theology

  1. It seems to me, according to your description Kyle, that Leupp sees a paucity in the ability to elucidate the Trinity therefore one has the theological warrant connect any three images together (as long as they are morally equal) to explain it. It sounds a bit haphazard. I fear the the real tangible meat of the doctrine will get lost in the creative expressions – much like your concern

    I do appreciate pedagogically what he is driving at. Each one of us needs to be able to understand the trinity in ways that make since to us. So a classroom is full of different types of learners and people. For some, the philosophical hypostatic union is the best – for others who are more tangible, another metaphor might be better – again for others who are really creative, an emotive metaphor like above might work. The key is to make sure that each metaphor expresses clearly exactly the doctrine.

    Great question though Kyle. How are we to teach doctrine in fresh relevant ways while maintaining the integrity of doctrine?

  2. I would be interested to see if the traffic runs two ways for Leupp; meaning, its one thing to draw inferences about human ‘being’ and community from what we deduce about the divine life, while its entirely another to draw inferences about the divine life from what we ‘know’ about human ‘being’ and community. I am not allergic to the social trinitarian arguments about human relationality and community (one way traffic), but I am extremely wary when the traffic runs the other way. There is a level of hubris there regarding our knowledge even of ourselves that when applied to our understanding of the Trinity is bound only to lead down roads we don’t want to traffic.

    The really careful social trinitarians like Pannenberg are careful to keep the traffic going one-way only, and even then he is careful to emphasize our degree of ‘distance’ from the divine life and knowledge of it. Volf is the same. Even though he draws heavily from Moltman, I don’t see him making the traffic run both ways (although I am not entirely happy with all the social implications he draws from what he believes we can know about God’s trinitarian being. Making the Trinity our ‘social program’ as he has said more than once feels like one step too far).


  3. I am an apologist from India and this is my first opportunity to visit your website, which I enjoyed very much. Those in the field of apologetics need to do much to bring the doubting Thomases to faith and also to strengthen those who wish to get answers.

    I strongly feel that this kind of usage — where the sacred is explained in profane terms — will in the long term create a picture of Trinity that is no different from the polytheism of non christians

    Dr. Johnson C. Philip

  4. Dr. Johnson, I am glad you found the Forum and it is nice to have you contribute. I wonder if you might clarify what you mean by ‘profane terms’ and elaborate a bit on why you think it would lead to polytheism? What are the preferable language options in your opinion?

    Derek, social trinitarianism is the application of primarily relational/social terms to the Godhead rather than the language of processions or missions (The Son proceeds eternally from the Father, etc.,). The rationale for some is to move away from depictions of the Trinity that tend toward subordinationism (one divine person holds ontological priority over another). Even if you don’t ultimately agree with W. Pannenberg’s solution, if you want to follow up on this further his presentation of the history of interpretation on this issue might be helpful (Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 259-336). Hope that helps Derek.

  5. @ Dr Johnson,

    Im a Malaysia. Living in a Muslim country is a challenge. For me, Trinity is very simple and easy to understand. The theologions (western) make it so difficult to understand. Even worst, the analogy they used is so carnal, no diffrent that polytheism and other pagan religion.

    Look at the front page. Whats that? Trileaf and 3 human being represanting three person (gods??). You see, this confuse people. They shy away from Christianity.

    This is a setback.


  6. Convinced that I understand nothing about God except by the Holy Spirit. How did Peter understand Christ as the Messiah? The Holy Spirit by direction of the Father.

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