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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On Doubting Ourselves (as Opposed to Holy Scripture)

I came across this comment in Bavinck as he examines the doctrine of eternal punishment and aims to bind the discussion to exegesis:

Human feeling is no foundation for anything important (RD, 4:708).

Bavinck has a deep appreciation for nature and for common grace.  For example, he affirms the reality of an implanted knowledge of God and recognizes the force of the consensus gentium (consensus of the nations) as an argument for belief in human immortality.  Yet, at the end of the day, he’s unwilling to crown fallen human intuition king in the realm of theology.

What do you make of the quote?  Is it helpful or unhelpful in relation to contemporary debates about hell and in relation to other theological loci?

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?

Bibliolatry or Biblical Theology?

A number of the essays brought together in B. B. Warfield’s The Inspiration and Authority of  Scripture contain meticulous analyses of different items pertinent to the Bible’s take on the Bible  (in one of them he spends a fair amount of time on what to make of verbs without a named subject  [e.g. legei] in the New Testament introducing a reference to the Old Testament, for example).  In  ‘The Biblical Idea of Inspiration’, he canvasses some of the Old Testament texts which were not  records of divine speech but are in the New Testament (e.g. Acts 1:16; Heb. 3:7) introduced with a  ‘God says’ or the like as well as some of the Old Testament texts which were records of divine  speech but are in the New Testament (e.g. Rom. 9:17; Gal. 3:8) introduced with a ‘Scripture says’ or  the like.  He comments,

They indicate a certain confusion in current speech between ‘Scripture’ and ‘God’, the outgrowth of a deep-seated conviction that the word of Scripture is the word of God.  It was not ‘Scripture’ that spoke to Pharaoh or gave this promise to Abraham, but God.  But ‘Scripture’ and ‘God’ lay so close together in the minds of the writers of the New Testament that they could naturally speak of ‘Scripture’ doing what Scripture records God as doing.  It was, however, even more natural to them to speak casually of God saying what the Scriptures say….The words put into God’s mouth in each case are not words of God recorded in the Scriptures, but just the Scripture words themselves.  When we take the two classes of passages together…we may perceive how close the identification of the two was in the minds of the writers of the New Testament (‘The Biblical Idea of Inspiration’, in The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, p. 148).

If Warfield is in the right, then it seems certain accusations of bibliolatry should give way to affirmations of the presence of biblical theology vis-a-vis the Bible itself.  Is this argument too simplistic post-Barth?  Does the bibliology of Barth and staunch Barthians in hesitating straightforwardly to identify Scripture as the word of God run aground on the Bible’s (explicit and implicit) testimony concerning itself?  Thoughts?

Not at our Beck and Call (a Prayer)

Let’s start the work week off with a prayer. The following is Walter Breuggemann’s, and I used it last week in conjunction with my teaching on the divine attributes. I am challenged every time I approach that topic with students for various reasons, not least of which because it is (undoubtedly) an area of Christian theology requiring great humility. The theologian finds themselves in a territory of Christian confession in which terms and appellates for God are lying ready at hand: love, power, mercy, knowledge, etc. Yet, in taking up and employing such terms what does one expect from them, and what is the reference point one uses for filling out their meaning? The risk is sharp that we unintentionally make God out into a bigger, stronger, version of ourselves, that without some care we find ourselves speaking about God by speaking about ourselves in a really loud voice.

In the face of such challenges, Brueggemann reminds us that the triune God “shows himself yet fresh beyond our grasp”:

We call out your name in as many ways as we can. We fix your role towards us in the ways we need. We approach your from the particular angle of our life.

We do all that, not because you need to be identified, but because of our deep need, our deep wound, our deep hope.

And then, we are astonished that while our names for you serve for a moment, you break beyond them in your freedom, you show yourself yet fresh beyond our grasp. Continue reading

The Church as an Extension of the Incarnation?

Following on Kent’s reflections about how to approach Barth’s work, I’ve  found myself interested to post on something from Barth’s treatment of  divine omnipresence.  The discussion of omnipresence in Church  Dogmatics is intriguing in its own right (even where one disagrees with  Barth) and exhibits the dialectical tack with which, as Kent mentioned,  Barth often operates.  However, it’s the way in which Barth’s notion of  Christ as the focal point, or ‘basis and constituent centre’, of God’s ‘special presence’ might meet current talk of an ‘incarnational’ view of the church  and its mission that has caught my eye.

In Barth’s discussion of the difference between God’s presence in Christ and God’s presence among his people, Barth remarks that, since in the Son God personally takes upon himself the human nature of Christ, this union is qualitatively different from our adoption.

But God is himself this man Jesus Christ, very God and very man, both of them unconfused and unmixed, but also unseparated and undivided, in the one person of this Messiah and Saviour.  This is what cannot be said about any other creature, even any prophet of apostle.  Jesus Christ alone is very God and very man.  And it is on the basis of this unio, but clearly differentiated from it, that there is an adoptio (CD II/1, p. 486).

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The Blessed Virgin, Purity and Divine Parenting

Well, I am not nearly as far in my Patristic reading as I had hoped to be at this point, but I am making progress. I wanted to provide some brief thoughts about Mary, since I am reading more about her than normal! What I find interesting about Mariology is that it tends to blossom with time. Once the virgin birth began to be read in terms of purity, it seems, there was a tendency for that purity to overflow as far as the church would let it. But as I think a bit more about the virgin birth, it seems to me that Cyril of Alexandria, building upon Athanasius’ Christology, had the right resources to talk about this in a different, and, in my mind, more fruitful way. The virgin birth, it seems possible, is meant to highlight the singular personhood of the Son of God. Gregory of Nazianzus is helpful here: Continue reading

God the Peacemaker: Some Brief Reflections

Having given a summary of Graham Cole’s God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom (InterVarsity Press, 2009), I’ll offer some reflections and another invitation to more interaction on a few of its themes and lines of argument.

On the whole, I think the book could serve as a reasonable introduction to the mosaic of biblical teaching on the atonement.  At the same time, I felt that, given the measure of specificity granted to the volumes of the New Studies in Biblical Theology series, it would have been good in some places to slow down and go for depth over breadth.  For example, chapter eight broaches a dizzying number of dimensions of the Christian life but could have concentrated on those more closely tied to living in light of the cross.

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On Pendulum-Swinging

I ran across an interesting comment in Bavinck about moving between theological extremes and seeking middle ground (Bavinck is quoting James Buchanan):

But it is common to all those who take the ‘middle way’ to show a greater preference ‘for that extreme they go halfway to than for that from which they go halfway’ (Reformed Dogmatics, 3:532).

Any thoughts on this?  Where do you see overcompensatory pendulum-swinging taking place in contemporary Christian and theological circles and what are some resources for decelerating the pendulum?

God the Peacemaker: A Review

Released in 2009 as an addition to the New Studies in Biblical Theology series from InterVarsity Press, Graham  Cole’s God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom bears the characteristic marks of that series:  attentiveness to pertinent biblical texts, concern for theological articulation, awareness of contemporary  debates, and sensitivity to the dynamics of Christian discipleship.   Each volume of the series unpacks a  particular scriptural theme and, says Cole, this one centers on atonement both broadly conceived as ‘all of God’s  saving work throughout time and eternity’ and more narrowly conceived in terms of its ‘central component’, the  cross (p. 24).

The first chapter frames the atonement with a consideration of the divine attributes, especially righteousness, holiness, and love.  The first and second of these precipitate the need for the atonement while the third precipitates the provision of the atonement.  All three are revealed on the cross and among them there is no conceptual conflict, even if we experience a ‘psychological strife’ in reconciling divine wrath and mercy, which are contingent expressions of holiness and love, respectively (p. 51).

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Theology as Apprenticeship

In his memoir, Hannah’s Child, Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas reflects on the relationship between the crafts of brick laying and theologian (the initial quotation is from Seamus Murphy’s memoir Stone Mad).

‘With hammer mallet and chisel we have shaped and fashioned rough boulders. We often curse our material, and often we speak to it kindly – we have come to terms with it in order to master it, and in has a way of dictating to us sometimes – and then the struggle begins. We try to impose ourselves on it, but we know our material and respect it. We will often take a suggestion from it, and our work will be the better for it.’ In like manner, I think of theology as a craft requiring years of training. Like stonecutters and bricklayers, theologians must come to terms with the material upon which they work. In particular, they must learn to respect the simple complexity of the language of the faith, so that they might reflect that radical character of orthodoxy. . . . Karl Barth’s work represented for me an uncompromising demand to submit to a master bricklayer, with the hope that in the process one might learn some of the ‘tricks of the trade’ (p. 37)

I resonate with Hauerwas’s description (see here), and it makes an apt metaphor for the professor.   I step into the classroom as a theologian and stand among young men and women who are themselves theologians (whether they know it or not). That they hone the craft of speaking to and about God under my watch and under my care is profoundly humbling. How I interact with the Christian Scriptures, which “masters” I direct them to look with me, and how my life takes shape under the Cross all has a part in their apprenticeship.

Perhaps more humbling is the apprenticeship of my children. Their theological instincts are  shaped through our everyday life together: our prayers, walks, my discipline or lack thereof, my tender or hurried embraces, the way I hold my wife, the look in my eye when they disappoint me. Whether I like it or not—whether I seize the opportunities or not—each are “showings” of life with God, living speech of an ongoing conversation. That is humbling.

Divine Simplicity and Theological Epistemology

I’ve been reading a well written, helpfully conceived and clear minded work on divine simplicity (no easy task). Furthermore, it was a former dissertation under Lewis Ayres (and yes, I said it is well written and clear). The volume is entitled Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity (Oxford, 2009) written by Andrew Radde-Gallwitz, and it is in the “Oxford Early Christian Studies” series. Radde-Gallwitz notes that much of the contemporary dissatisfaction with divine simplicity (most notably in the philosophy of religion sector in the analytic philosophy sphere) starts with the assumption that Aquinas’ view on divine simplicity is the standard and definitive statement. Going back to the Cappadocians and focusing on Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, Radde-Gallwitz seeks to show that the early adoption of the position was not simply (pun intended) the uncritial acceptance of Neo-Platonic thought.

Central to the debates were epistemological questions concerning the knowledge of God. For Eunomius, for instance, knowledge of God necessitated knowledge of God’s essence. Basil’s attack on Eunomius focuses, in contrast, on how knowledge of God does not depend on a knowledge of God’s essence. Continue reading

Choosing a Theology Textbook: Life in the Trinity – Part 3

This is my final look at Life in the Trinity by Donald Fairbairn. Here, I will briefly mention the remaining chapters in the volume and then pose some thought on the overall use of it in the classroom (or at least my general thoughts on its useability, etc.). Fairbairn continues with a helpful look at Patristic exegesis, focusing his attention on the use of the Old Testament. Next, he tackles the incarnation, focusing on Chalcedon and the emphasis on the identity of the Son of God as the same Lord Jesus who took on flesh. In his words, “The one who is consubstantial with the Father is the same one who is consubstantil with us” (145). Building upon these conclusions, he focuses his next chapter, “Redemption,”  on the idea that God the Son died for humanity. He advances his discussion with a look at natures and persons. Walking through sidebars of Athanasius, Cyril and Irenaeus, Fairbairn addresses the issues of Chalcedon, attempting to allow the “metaphyics” of natures and persons to guide the discussion.

Fairbairn shifts gears a bit in the last two chapters, tackling the issues involved in “becoming Christian” and “being Christian.” Becoming a Christian, for Fairbairn, is entering the Son’s relationship to the Father – in other words, becoming a child of God. In the former, he addresses election, justification and reconciliation, while in the latter he focuses on sanctification, issues of living in a fallen world and the eschatological orientation of the Christian life. Throughout each of these chapters, Fairbairn attempts to weave in theosis as the central thread which holds together the whole. Continue reading

Choosing a Theology Textbook: Life in the Trinity – Part 2

Fairbairn starts the third chapter with a discussion of the Trinity. There are several helpful elements to this. First, he does a great job of recognizing that his audience, if the book is used as he envisions it (as an intro text), will have little to know technical knowledge of the Trinity.  He does an excellent job of explaining technical terms and distinctions, as well as walking the reader through the development of trinitarian dogma. Second, he has patristic quotations interspersed throughout each chapter which he references in his discussion. I think this will be a helpful way to introduce students to some of the key thinkers without over-burdening them with lengthy and arcane readings. Lastly, his discussion of the Trinity is not simply to explain what trinitarian dogma is – but also how it functions. In his development, theosis, being grounded in a patristic reading of the immanent and economic Trinity, orients the theological task and highlights the particularity of Christianity:

Only Christianity affirms that within God there is love and fellowship. Only the Christian God has such fellowship to share with humanity. Thus only Christianity is willing to say that people are and always will be lower than God, but at the same time, we are not meant to be merely servants. We are meant to be Christ’s “friends”…We are meant to remain creatures and thus remain lower than God but at the same time to share in the fellowship and love that have existed from all eternity between the persons of the Trinity” (56-57). Continue reading