Collins, Paul M.
The Trinity: A Guide for the Perplexed
London: T&T Clark, 2008. Pp. ix + 194. Paper. $24.95.
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With thanks to the kind folks at Continuum for this review copy!
In chapter 3 Collins seeks to “identify core words and concepts in the complex landscape of Trinitarian technical language.” (p. 93) He begins by noting that John’s use of logos was a word familiar to both Jews and Greeks. He says that:
The controversies within the Christian tradition that led to the calling of ecumenical councils in an attempt to solve them, arise from legitimate questions concerning that interface between the Christian kerygma and the expression of that kerygma in Hellenistic language and terminology, as the Johannine appeal to logos demonstrates. (p. 54)
Moving into the Nicene period the focus is on the term homoousion as a response to the theology of the Arians and Pneumatomachians. Unfortunately Collins’ treatment of the term is underdeveloped as he fails to note the semantic overlap between homoousios and homoiousios and the fact that the term homoousios carried enough ambiguity that both sides of the debate could affirm it with differing nuances. I also found it a bit strange in this section that Collins would refer to the understanding of the Godhead as homoousion as “an understanding of the Godhead as an horizontal egalitarian community of three.” (p. 56) A page earlier he attributes this shift to the Cappadocians (which is somewhat paradoxical since they all affirmed the monrachy of the Father, something that Collins later highlights), but aside from his description being anachronistic, it’s somewhat vague.
When Collins turns to the “divine three” we’re faced with a blatant contradictory statement: “God is a being, one being, who is also three beings; or God is a single substance, which is expressed in or exists in the form of three substances or subsistences.” (p. 57) He blames this on the English “one substance, three persons” not accurately reflecting the Greek “mia ousia, tres hypostaseis.” Whether or not one accepts that as the best English rendering, Collins seems to miss the point in that “mia ousia, tres hypostaseis” is highlighting different aspects of God, which his statement completely erases! His treatment of the relations of origin is sufficient in that he notes that the Father is unbegotten (agennetos), the Son begotten (gennetos), and the Spirit breathed forth (ekporeusis). As I mentioned above, he notes the monarchy of the Father by drawing attention to the various terms applied to the Father, i.e., principle (arche), source (pege), and cause (aitia).
From here Collins moves on to discuss the concept of personhood in modernity. He briefly looks at personhood in the thought of Karl Rahner, Karl Barth, and John Zizioulas. Both Rahner and Barth eschew the word ‘person.’ Rahner prefers ‘distinct manner of subsisting’ while Barth prefers ‘mode of being’ (German: Seinweise). Both theologians understand God as a single person in terms of his only having one center of consciousness/personality, but in Rahner it’s the “threefoldness rather than the oneness” (p. 66) we encounter in the divine self-revelation. And while Barth’s language raises the concern of modalism it’s actually the result of his recognition that “the hypostasis in the ancient world did not carry the connotations that ‘person’ carries in the West in the modern period.” (p. 67) Barth uses the term “tropos hyparxeos to denote the differentiation of the Godhead which is known in the divine event of self-revelation […] [but] the term tropos hyparxeos does not convey with clarity what the threefoldness of the Godhead is, and Barth himself readily admits this.” (p. 68, 69)
Barth and Rahner both have their problems but Zizioulas is the most alarming. In his thought personhood “has the claim of absolute being” which “leads to an understanding of the person (hypostasis) as an ontological rather than a functional entity.” (p. 70) Collins says that “[h]is concept of being is inseparable from his concept of the person,” (p. 71) and while Collins points to critiques of Zizioulas’ work, he doesn’t detail them or state what’s floating right there on the surface, namely that Zizioulas’ conception is akin to tritheism! If personhood and being/ontology are be be identified with one another in the manner laid out in Zizioulas’ work (at least as laid out by Collins) then there is no escaping the charge of tritheism. And this is not a charge that Zizioulas can side-step by saying that the “ontological principle of God is the Father” (p. 71). This raises a whole new set of problems in that it doesn’t sufficiently explain how the Son and Spirit are also persons. Sadly, Collins is too sympathetic to Zizioulas’ work to offer any sustained criticism.
The section on perichoresis is somewhat frustrating as the concept in modern theology bears little to no resemblance to the concept in the patristic witness and Collins doesn’t really highlight just how far modern theologians have strayed. With pop-theological statements about the “intra-divine life as an egalitarian community of love” (p. 81) and all of the references to Catherine LaCugna and David Cunningham’s depiction of perichoresis as “cosmic dance,” which Collins cites with approval, this section was decidedly the worst of the chapter. One also wonders how Collins sees perichoresis as a friend to social Trinitarianism since to my mind it works against the concept. Social Trinitarianism can talk about being in communion but how it actually accounts for interpenetration or mutual indwelling is beyond me. He closes out with brief mentions of gendered language (which is obviously metaphorical, or is it?), the feminist critique of gendered language (in which it’s not enough to use neutral terms but distinctly feminine terms should be used instead), sophiology (which was a bit of a throw away section) and finally iconic language (which argues to stick with the language of Scripture [and tradition] since this was how God chose to reveal himself).
At this point in the book one thing is becoming clear, Collins has no intentions on explicitly stating his position on any of this stuff, at least not yet. One can’t fault him for this since he’s already said that his intention is to get the reader to ask questions, but I’m questioning where Collins stands on everything. I can guess from the way he makes use of his sources, but I’d prefer something more concrete. We’ll see if I get it.
To be continued…
7 thoughts on “The Trinity: A Guide for the Perplexed (2)”
Hi Nick, thanks for this ongoing review. It does indeed sound like Collins is himself perplexed! His treatment of homoousios/homoiousios sounds under-informed, and his failure to offer a differential account of ousia/hypostasis also reflects a failure to account for the historical development of terminology.
Zizioulas needs some sustained critique, since his appeal to the Fathers is on shaky ground. By turning relations into ontology, he’s undermining the whole pro-nicene solution to the Trinity
Seumas: I concur. Have you read Lucian Turcescu’s various criticisms of Zizioulas’ work?
No. Do you have an article or something in mind?
Seumas: Two in particular:
Turcescu, Lucian. “‘Person’ Versus ‘Individual’, and Other Modern Misreadings of Gregory of Nyssa.” Modern Theology 18/4 (2002): 527-39.
––––––. “Prosōpon and Hypostasis in Basil of Caesarea’s ‘Against Eunomius’ and the Epistles.” Vigiliae Christianae 51/4 (1997): 374-95.
If you don’t have immediate access I’d be happy to email them to you. The first article directly interacts with Zizioulas while the second (older) article lays the foundation on which the other is built.
Nick, if you could email me the second article, that would be great. Much appreciated.
I’m curious as to where you think John Behr’s interpretation of the Fathers would fall in this discussion.
Nick: Well, concerning the Trinitarian ontology of Zizioulas, I think Behr’s interpretation of Basil seriously undermines Zizioulas’ project. E.g., Behr notes:
With regard to perichoresis Behr basically makes the same observation that I have above, namely that this modern pop-theological concept of the doctrine is miles away from how the fathers understood it. I also appreciate the way that Behr notes the important role that Scripture played in the fathers’ conception of the Trinity.