Category Archives: Trinity

Very Early Trinitarian Expressions

Jeff “The Data Miner” Downs alerted me to a recent article by Stuart E. Parsons in the Tyndale Bulletin called “Very Early Trinitarian Expressions.” Here’s the abstract:

While older scholarship identified the earliest use of Trinitarian terminology near the end of the second century in the work of Theophilus of Antioch, some recent studies have challenged this view. However, while affirming certain insights of these newer studies, it is necessary to revisit them in light of the historical setting of the second-century apologists. In reality, Theophilus and other early apologists evidenced a certain implicit Trinitarianism by affirming unity, distinction, eternal pre-existence and economic subordination in the Godhead. Studies of early Trinitarian terminology must look beyond explicit descriptions of the Godhead. They must consider also broad patterns of implicit Trinitarianism.

Here’s the PDF. I plan to give it a look while at work today.

B”H

Help a Brother Out!

Okay, so I’m in need of a bunch of articles, and I have one of my heroes (Fred Sanders) to blame! A while back he mentioned the Symposium on Kendall Soulen‘s  The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity: Distinguishing the Voices published in the Winter 2014 issue of Pro Ecclesia, which reminds me that I (1) need to finish Soulen’s book, and (2) really need to read these articles! If anyone can help me out I’d greatly appreciate it!

And now today I see Fred mention that Evangelical Quarterly 86/1 has a number of articles that originally appeared as papers discussing Stephen R. Holmes’ The Quest for the Trinity last July. Trust me, I need to read these articles as well! So the same applies: If anyone can help me out I’d greatly appreciate it!

B”H

Thoughts on Dave Barron/Chris Tilling Discussion, Part 1

Mike Felker emailed me last week and asked if I had listened to the recent discussion between Dave Barron and Chris Tilling on the subject of divine Christology in Paul, and if so, would I be commenting on it on my blog. I hadn’t planned to say anything initially, but after toying around with the headset I got my daughter for her PS3, I thought I  might as well go ahead and record some thoughts. Those thoughts are below.

I’d ask you to forgive me for the scattered nature of my comments and the seeming unpreparedness of them as well. I was going off of my memory of the Theopologetics Podcast, Episode 113, which I listened to almost two weeks ago and didn’t take notes on. I’d also ask forgiveness for the constant nose breathing you’ll hear on the recording. Apparently the mic is more sensitive than I had originally thought!

After listening to the playback I realized that there were a few things that I could have said better or articulated more clearly and there were other things that I had originally wanted to say but had forgotten about in the process of recording. There are also things that I didn’t think to say until after I had gotten done recording. So a part 2 will be forthcoming in which I hope to discuss the role of Deuteronomy in 1 Corinthians 8-10 in a bit more detail. I’d also like to say more about Malachi 2:10. And if I can remember, I’d love to lay out my thoughts about divine agency more thoroughly.

Until then, here’s what I have to say:

https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/97323218/03_18_2014_ON-BARRON-AND-TILLING-DISCUSSION.mp3″

Metaphysics & the Tri-Personal God

pdc.jpgHasker, William. 

Metaphysics & the Tri-Personal God

Oxford Studies in Analytic Theology

New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. viii + 269. Hardcover. $99.00.

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With thanks to Oxford University Press for this review copy!

An appeal to mystery has always been a mainstay in trinitarian theology. Whether attempting to describe God apophatically or cataphatically, the Christian tradition has always ultimately been forced to throw up its hands and say, “I just don’t know…” It’s not that Christians don’t know that  God is Trinity—we know it by revelation—it’s just that we don’t know how God is Trinity. I believe that  Philip Ryken and Michael LeFebvre got it right when they noted that our problem isn’t so much logical as it is analogical. God is unique; there’s nothing like God in existence for us to compare him to and get a completely accurate picture. And yet we wrestle with the seeming logical incoherence of the Trinity all the time.

It’s interesting to note that many who have tried to solve the alleged problem of the Trinity throughout history have either abandoned the faith when they couldn’t or have fallen into one heresy or another when they thought that they had (see the first chapter of James Anderson’s Paradox in Christian Theology for examples). The last few decades have seen philosophers of religion working in the analytic tradition turn their attention to this matter while coming up with some very different conclusions. Perhaps the most refreshing thing about some of this work is the desire and attempt to adequately account for God’s revelation in Scripture while seeking to maintain Christian tradition and simultaneously providing a rigorous philosophically coherent doctrine of the Trinity.

William Hasker, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Huntington University in Indiana, offers up Metaphysics & the Tri-Personal God (hereafter MTG) as “the first full-length study of the doctrine of the Trinity from the standpoint of analytic philosophical theology” (back cover). One might be tempted to challenge this claim in light of Thomas H. McCall’s Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?, but in point of fact, McCall’s work turns out to be much more survey and prospect than a full-length study in its own right. In this sense Hasker is something of a trendsetter, elaborating on subject matter that has only really appeared up until this point in journal articles and anthologies.

MTG is divided into three parts of near equal proportion. The first part discusses “Trinitarian Foundations” and focuses on early Patristic trinitarian theology with an emphasis on the work of Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine.  The second part, “Surveying the Options,” turns to an explanation and brief examination of the trinitarian theologies of modern systematic (Barth, Rahner, Moltmann, and Zizioulas) and analytic (Leftow, Van Inwagen, Brower & Rea, Craig, Swinburne, and Yandell) theologians. The third and final part, “Trinitarian Construction,” finds Hasker mounting a case for his version of social trinitarianism, which he believes to be faithful to both Scripture and the Pastristic tradition.

Hasker is not among those who believe that the word “person” in reference to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a mere placeholder, i.e., something to say rather than say nothing at all (à la Augustine). He believes that the same (or at least a very similar) concept of personhood that we apply to human beings is applicable to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That is, each is a “distinct center of knowledge, will, love, and action” (22, 255-56). Where many social theories break down at precisely this point Hasker grounds the perichoretic unity of the three persons in their sharing a “single trope of deity” (a concept appropriated from anti-social trinitarian Brian Leftow), which he explains by an appeal to the metaphysical notion of constitution (i.e., each person is constituted by the divine nature without being identical to it).

Throughout the course of Hasker’s descriptive and constructive tasks he repudiates the classical doctrine of divine simplicity while defending the classical doctrines of the Son and Spirit’s eternal generation/procession. This seems to be trademark of Hasker’s work in this volume. At every point we find a theologian who is seeking to be faithful to the tradition (so far as he understands it) but who isn’t content to stay stuck in a mode of thinking that was adequate for fourth century thinkers but is considered by many to be outmoded for today’s philosophers and theologians (some might call this chronological snobbery).

There are a few things about MTG that I liked very much. First I have to readily admit that Hasker’s version of social trinitarianism—an elegant fusing of various theories taken from his peers in the field along with some fresh insights—is perhaps the most palatable version on file. His use of Leftow’s “single trope of deity” is a helpful way of looking at the divine being without falling into the modalism inherent in Leftow’s own proposals. I’m also partial to the notion of “constitution” although I’m persuaded that the impure version of relative identity that Rea & Brower argue for is stronger than Hasker would have us think.

I also appreciate Hasker’s writing style, which for the most part is easy to understand and to the point. At times he can get a bit technical but the interaction with his dialogue partners requires it. His critiques of Craig & Swinburne are especially poignant and to be considered carefully by those holding to similar social theories. In the end I’m still unconvinced that Hasker’s accounts of constitution, perichoresis, and a single trope of deity do the heavy metaphysical lifting required to elevate social theories of the Trinity above the appearance of tritheism but his is the best attempt to overcome that obstacle that I’ve seen to date.

Not everything that Hasker does and argues in MTG is helpful though. On the minor end of the spectrum is the brief attention given to debunking divine simplicity (55-61). Hasker’s case feels like an introduction to an argument rather than a developed argument in and of itself. A bit more troubling is his tendentious (and anachronistic) reading of the Fathers. Hasker has an odd way of arguing that if they didn’t explicitly condemn social trinitarianism then that means they were not anti-social trinitarians, and if not anti-social, then pro-social (e.g., 44-45 cf. 49). Unfortunately there’s no sustained interaction with the likes of Stephen Holmes, Karen Kilby, or Sarah Coakley who all argue against social trinitarianism in the Fathers.

Likewise, Hasker’s reading of Gregory of Nyssa leaves something to be desired. While he is correct in arguing that Gregory affirmed three persons in the Trinity, Gregory’s understanding of the divine persons was not what Hasker proposes. Remember, Hasker tells us that each divine person is a “distinct center of knowledge, will, love, and action,” and yet Gregory says that “the will of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is one” (NPNF2 5.132); and that “there is no delay, existent or conceived, in the motion of the Divine will from the Father, through the Son, to the Spirit” (NPNF2 5.335). Likewise, Nyssa focused heavily on the one divine action of the three divine persons (see Giulio Maspero, “Unity of Action” in The Brill Dictionary of Gregory of Nyssa, 771-72).

There’s also the issue of Hasker’s use of “split brain” and “multiple personality” studies in psychology as an argument for the viability of multiple persons within God (231-37). To start, the split brain cases cited show the two hemispheres of the brain operating independently, but not simultaneously; features that both fail to account for the personal activity that we find in the Trinity. Concerning multiple personality, Hasker’s case studies suggest multiple consciousnesses that do operate independently, but I’m afraid that they don’t necessarily yield multiple human consciousnesses. It’s entirely possible that such cases are evidence of demon possession (see Mark 5:1-20), a possibility that’s not even mentioned let alone explored.

But one wonders why (or how) exactly Hasker believed that even if he were able to convincingly show “multiple centers of consciousness, supported by a single instance or trope of humanness” (237) that his “trinitarian possibility postulate,” which says, “It is possible for a single concrete divine nature—a single trope of deity—to support simultaneously three distinct lives, the lives belonging to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit” (228) would be true. It seems backwards to reason from the creature to the Creator, and yet this is precisely the heart of Hasker’s case throughout. What we can say about God is determined by what we can say about humans.

And this is why, in the end, I believe that Hasker has failed to make his case (although I’d highly recommend interested readers to judge for themselves whether this is so). There’s little reference to Scripture in this volume and yet it is precisely in God’s revelation through Scripture that we find the bedrock of trinitarian theology. What we can confidently say about God is constrained by exegesis and it is at the exegetical level that we are forced, in the end, to appeal to mystery. We just can’t know more than God has revealed. Hasker’s conception of the Trinity ends up looking all too familiar and thus removes God’s uniqueness. I can appreciate the desire to solve the mystery, but I pity the man who thinks he has.

B”H

The Father’s Spirit of Sonship: Reconceiving the Trinity

pdc.jpgWeinandy, Thomas. 

The Father’s Spirit of Sonship: Reconceiving the Trinity

London: T&T Clark, 1995; repr. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2010. Pp. xi + 148. Paper. $18.00.

Wipf & Stock | Amazon

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With thanks to Wipf & Stock for this review copy!

Introduction

Fr Thomas Weinandy is a Capuchin Franciscan who has a penchant for tackling weighty theological subjects. He’s written books on divine impassibility, divine immutability, Christology, soteriology, confession, and perhaps the most important of all these subjects, which is the focus of the present volume, the Trinity. The Father’s Spirit of Sonship: Reconceiving the Trinity was originally published in 1995 by T&T Clark and has since been reissued by Wipf & Stock as an affordable reprint. The volume under review is the 2010 Wipf & Stock reprint.

Weinandy shares that “as a result of being baptized in the Spirit within the Charismatic Renewal and, after witnessing the changed lives of many others who similarly had experienced this baptism” (ix) he began to prayerfully reflect on Romans 8:14-16 and thought “if we, who are Christians, are conformed into sons of the Father by the Spirit through whom we are empowered to cry out in the same words as Jesus, then the eternal Son himself must have been begotten and conformed to be Son in the same Spirit in whom he too eternally cries out ‘Abba!’” (ix-x). Weinandy’s experience has led him to want to give the Holy Spirit his due, so in reconceiving the Trinity he sought to understand the Spirit’s active role within the Trinity, rather than simply his passive role of proceeding from the Father (and the Son as Western Christianity has it).

Summary

Weinandy’s central thesis is that “the Father begets the Son in the Spirit and thus that the Spirit proceeds from the Father as the one in whom the Son is begotten and so in turn proceeds from the Son as the one in whom and through whom the Son loves the Father” (89). He describes this as the “one act by which the one God is a trinity of persons… in which act both the Father and the Son are conformed to be Father and Son in the Spirit” (80). In his focus on the Spirit’s active role within the Trinity Weinandy coins a new verb in saying that the Spirit “persons” the Son to be Son and the Father to be Father. By “persons” Weinandy means “conforms” or “defines” so that the personal relationship between Father and Son is dependent upon the Father begetting the Son in the Spirit and the Son loving the Father in the same Spirit in which he is begotten (17).

Weinandy sees his thesis as the fix to the shortcomings of both Eastern and Western conceptions of the Trinity throughout history. Both traditions, Weinandy claims, are reliant upon errant philosophical presuppositions. The Eastern view takes its cues from Neo-Platonism, which results in an emanationist view of God whereby the Son and Spirit simply come out from the Father passively in some sort of linear sequence. The problem with this scheme is that the Father’s monarchy results in subordinationism, perhaps even tritheism. The Western view is indebted to Aristotelian epistemology, which states that “something cannot be loved until it is known, and thus the Father logically begets the Son before he spirates the Spirit” (10), and the same logical or conceptual priority of the Father over the Son and Spirit results.

But if the Spirit “persons” the Father to be the Father and the Son to be the Son then every member of the Trinity plays an active role and each person is mutually constituted by the others, creating a symmetry that has been absent in both the Eastern and Western conceptions of the Trinity (80). Weinandy feels that his thesis “captures the authentic concern of the Orthodox in that it grounds more deeply the monarchy of the Father, but also his inherent dynamism” (73). He rejects that the Godhead resides in the Father alone (the Eastern view), or that it’s a substance distinct from the Trinity (the Western view), but rather suggests that “the one Godhead, the one being of God, is the action of the Father begetting the Son and spirating the Spirit, and so sharing with them the whole of his deity, constituting them as equal divine persons” (60).

Weinandy also sees his reimagining of the Trinity as having ecumenical significance; perhaps even being a resolution to the filioque controversy. Saying that “the Father begets the Son in the Spirit confirms and stresses that the Spirit principally proceeds from the Father. The Spirit must proceed from the one source of the Father because it is only in the procession of the Spirit that the Father begets the Son” (95). The Orthodox should be happy, according to Weinandy, to see the monarchy of the Father preserved alongside the distinct personality of the Spirit here and “should not only find this conception of the Trinity reassuring, but actually helpful in sustaining their authentic objectives” (95). The West wishes to say that the Spirit proceeds from both Father and Son, which Weinandy’s thesis affirms in saying that “the Son, being begotten by the Father, is conformed as Son by the Spirit (of sonship) and so the Spirit proceeds from him as the identical Love for the Father in whom he himself is begotten” (96).

Critique

Weinandy’s project is ambitious and he should be commended for seeking to adequately situate the Spirit within the Trinity in a fresh way. “Third article” theology is all the rage now but in 1995 Weinandy was something of an innovator. Yet it seems to me that along with his ambition comes a bit of hubris. It takes a certain kind of arrogance to argue that “neither the East’s nor the West’s conception of the Trinity is sufficiently biblical” (94) and have in mind the entire theological tradition of the entire church for the past two millennia! This isn’t to say that Weinandy is wrong on these grounds alone, but I haven’t been convinced by his overall case. I think his argument suffers from a flawed hermeneutical method; shifting perceived problems rather than solving them; caricature of the traditions; and certain unsubstantiated “scare tactics” for lack of a better term. Let’s begin by briefly highlighting the latter and working backward from there.

“Scare Tactics”

The heart of Weinandy’s critique is the repeated claim that both East and West “are scripturally inadequate precisely because both contain foreign and non-biblical philosophical presuppositions” (94). He repeatedly shouts “(Neo-)Platonism” (10-14, 55-56, 63-65, 74, 77, 79, 94, 134-35) and “Aristotelianism” (10, 14, 56, 72, 77, 82, 94) and immediately expects villagers to attack these pagan monsters with pitchforks firmly in hand. The problem is that he simply tells us that there is something wrong with “Neo-Platonic emanationism” and “Aristotelian epistemology” without telling us exactly why they are wrong. In addition to this Weinandy never actually makes a case that either the East or the West is dependent upon these foreign philosophies. He simply assumes it, but as Fr Andrew Louth has pointed out, Christians and pagans belonged to the same world of thought and discourse and within that world of discourse often responded to things in very similar ways (my paraphrase of Louth here).

Caricature

The point being that it won’t do to simply shout “Neo-Platonic emanationism” and expect those who hear it to recoil in fear, when in fact it may very well be “Christian emanationism,” or something of the sort. In reality, the charge of “emanationism” rings hollow as any conception of eternal generation and eternal procession is enough to nullify such a criticism, but add to that the understanding of Father, Son, and Spirit as homoousios, and the case should be closed. Yet this caricature of Eastern trinitarianism pervades this slim volume and along with it comes a few other caricatures such as the claim that, following the Cappadocians (as opposed to Athanasius), the East has situated the Godhead in the Father alone (10, 12-13, 54-55, 60). Is this really the case or has Weinandy misunderstood or perhaps even misrepresented the tradition?

Take something as representative as the Symbol of Chalcedon, which states that the Lord Jesus Christ is “of one substance with the Father according to the Godhead” and see if this makes sense. Or search through the voluminous writings of the Cappadocians and find statement after statement concerning the shared Godhead/nature of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Weinandy contradictorily says that “because the Father alone possesses the Godhead, which he shares with the Son and the Holy Spirit, making them homoousios with himself, this position always tends, despite the sincere disclaimers, to undermine the unity of the Godhead and the equality of the Son and the Holy  Spirit to the Father” (55). One wonders how exactly the Father “alone possesses the Godhead” while at the same time he “shares [it] with the Son and Holy Spirit.” A shared Godhead would make it theirs, not his alone, would it not?

And what are we to make of Weinandy’s resolution to the problem here? He says, “The one being of God is the Father giving the whole of his divinity to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. This is ultimately what the Orthodox, I believe, rightly wish to proclaim and preserve” (56). Again, he says, “The one Godhead, the one being of God, is the action of the Father begetting the Son and spirating the Spirit, and so sharing with them the whole of his deity, constituting them as equal divine persons” (60). How, exactly, is this substantially different from what the Orthodox do proclaim? And how are statements about the “Father giving the whole of his divinity to the Son and to the Holy Spirit” and “sharing with them the whole of his deity” not open to the same criticism that Weinandy levels against the Eastern tradition? Unfortunately, this book is full of such inconsistencies.

Unresolved Problems

Weinandy’s understanding of the Eastern view of the monarchy of the Father makes him concerned about a “sequentially obtained deity” (54). But this would only be a problem if the Father existed apart from the Son and Spirit eternally and then shared his Godhead with them in time. This isn’t the case. The sequentialism that Weinandy takes issue with isn’t exactly resolved by his proposal either though. For example, he says:

If the Father begets the Son in the Spirit then the sequentialism is done away with. The Father does not first beget the Son so that the Son then becomes the precondition for the procession of the Spirit. Rather the begetting of the Son is the precondition of the proceeding of the Spirit in the sense that the Father only begets the Son in or by the Spirit. The Spirit proceeds from the Father as the one in whom the Son is begotten (91, n. 6).

But this simply shifts the issue. The Spirit now becomes prior to the Son as being the one in whom the Son is begotten. The Spirit becomes the precondition. It doesn’t solve the alleged problem; it just restates it in different terms. I say alleged problem because again, sequentialism is fictive in the eternal life of God. There is no time and thus no actual sequence in God. The Son’s generation and the Spirit’s procession are simultaneous, eternal, and distinct. I stress this distinction because Weinandy says, “it is only in the procession of the Spirit that the Father begets the Son” (95), which would seem to conflate the generation and procession, and yet he also argues that procession is “simultaneous with and constitutive of” begetting (91). So again, we see some confusion with Weinandy’s thought process.

The conflation doesn’t end there. Elsewhere Weinandy speaks of the Father “exercise[ing] his paternity in spirating the Spirit as the fatherly love in whom and by whom the Son is begotten” (73, emphasis mine). If the Spirit is “fatherly love” and the one “by whom” the Son is begotten, then is the Spirit to be identified with or as the Father? A sort of crypto-modalism seems to lurk beneath the surface of such conceptions. I should also mention that in Weinandy’s zeal to figure out the Spirit’s active role within the Trinity he undermines his stated desire to preserve the monarchy of the Father. If the Spirit “persons” the Father to be Father and Son to be Son, and the Spirit “constitutes their distinct personalities” (7), then he shifts the monarchy from the Father to the Spirit (cf. 54, 60 where Weinandy says this role is ascribed to the Father by the East).

Flawed Hermeneutic

In all of the above one could argue that theology of this kind goes beyond the text of Scripture and leaves all sorts of room for divergence and disagreement. But when we examine Weinandy’s exegesis we can discern something unsettling about his hermeneutical maneuvers. Remember, Weinandy stated that the his personal experience in the Spirit led him to conclude that “if we, who are Christians, are conformed into sons of the Father by the Spirit through whom we are empowered to cry out in the same words as Jesus, then the eternal Son himself must have been begotten and conformed to be Son in the same Spirit in whom he too eternally cries out ‘Abba!’” (ix-x).

Note the trajectory: from Christian to Christ. The entire second chapter argues that “Christian conversion and the Christian’s subsequent life” offer an “exact paradigm” of Jesus’ sonship in the Spirit (33). It is usually, if not always, a mistake to reason from creature to Creator; from the finite to the infinite. This backward trajectory results in some dubious claims such as saying that the “Holy Spirit that guarantees our inheritance as the Father’s children” is “the very same Spirit that made Christ himself an heir” (37, emphasis mine). What does this suggest about eternal sonship? If Christ was “made an heir” then it would suggest that there was a time when he was not. That sounds adoptionistic at best and Arian at worst! Weinandy is on better footing in the third chapter where he attempts to reason from infancy and baptism narratives to his eternal sonship, but there’s much to be desired in his exegesis on those points as well.

The Spirit as Love; Not as Person

I think that the most disappointing aspect of this volume, however, is that for all Weinandy’s attention to the Spirit, he never actually makes a compelling case for the Spirit as a divine person. Weinandy criticizes the Western tradition saying “the Holy Spirit assumes a rather passive function. The Spirit is merely the Love or Gift shared by the Father and the Son. It is therefore difficult to see why, in the Western conception of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is a distinct person or subject – a who” (8). This is a valid concern and a common criticism of the Western tradition, but Weinandy reaffirms it repeatedly throughout the course of his argument. We’re told that the Spirit is the “bond of love between the Father and the Son” (30); the Son’s “love for the Father” and the Father’s “love for the Son” (37); the “bond of love, given to us by God upon faith in the Son” (46); “the love in whom the Father begets the Son and so conforms himself as Father and conforms the Son as Son” (50); so on and so forth (see also 73, 75, 79, 83, 84).

The Spirit is still very much passive in Weinandy’s thesis aside from the ascription of the verb “persons” to his activity or assigning to him the actions that the traditions have reserved for the Father. For all the focus on the Spirit he still feels like the third wheel or silent partner of the Trinity. We’re told that “it is through the Spirit that that the Father and the Son exist for one another” (52), yet we never read about the Father or the Son existing for the Spirit. We’re never told how or even if the Father and Son love the Spirit. Who is the bond of love between Father and Spirit or Son and Spirit? Who “persons” the Spirit and how exactly is that supposed to look? In Weinandy’s quest to detail the manner in which the Spirit acts upon the Father and the Son, we’re left with little understanding of how they act upon him, other than the old standby, which is to say that they spirate him.

Conclusion

I greatly appreciate what Weinandy attempted to do in this volume. While I’m of the opinion that the understanding of the Trinity reached during the patristic age was correct and can be little improved on; I also recognize a need to translate ancient insights into modern faith. I think Weinandy has attempted to do just that; I simply think he’s missed the mark. But the manner in which he missed the mark was thought provoking. There’s hardly a page of this little book that I haven’t scribbled notes all over. Yes, most of them are in strong disagreement, but this is the best kind of disagreement; the kind brought about by someone who has challenged me to think; rethink; and think some more after that. And for this reason alone I can recommend Weinandy’s work as a useful volume to engage. Whether or not you agree with his thesis, you’ll think deeply in reaching your conclusions.

Trinitarian Gospel

Thomas A. Noble:

As Peter’s first declaration of the Christian gospel on the day of Pentecost demonstrates, a Christ-centered gospel that proclaims his death and resurrection has to be seen in trinitarian context. The expanded form of the gospel that Christ died and rose for our sins is that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, and that the Son came in the power of the Spirit and then sent the Spirit from the Father to empower the mission of the church.

Holy Trinity: Holy People, 181.

B”H

Framing the Debate

On Friday nights we have elders classes/meetings at my pastor’s house. A couple of weeks ago we were discussing the Eucharist and somehow or another we got into the subject of humility. He wanted us to watch a variety of YouTube videos and discuss the different preachers or something like that. One of the preachers on the list was T. D. Jakes, and I made the comment in passing that he’s a heretic, which he is, and that sparked up a debate I’ve been having with my pastor for years, i.e., the “are Oneness Pentecostals saved?” debate.

Well, he proceeded to tell everyone else at the table that nobody gets saved believing in the Trinity, rather they get saved calling on Jesus, and most Oneness believers don’t know about Oneness doctrine, so he’s not willing to say that they’re not saved, unless of course they’re extremely legalistic and make things such as baptism and speaking in tongues a requirement for salvation. He then told them that I “put them all in hell” for not believing in the Trinity. So, of course, when framed that way, I look like the bad guy who’s unwilling to compromise or allow for any exceptions to the rule.

I had to explain that (1) I don’t have a hell to put anyone in, and that (2) rather than focusing on what Oneness believers don’t believe, I prefer to focus on what they do believe. When I frame the debate I don’t appeal to knowledge of the Trinity as necessary for salvation. Any real salvation experience is Trinitarian through and through, but most folks wouldn’t know it. That doesn’t mean much of anything to be honest. I don’t doubt someone’s salvation if they’re ignorant of the Trinity. I do question the salvation of anyone who’s been presented with the Trinity and outright denies it. But more to the point, I don’t focus on the Trinity so much as I focus on Oneness theology positively stated.

What do Oneness believers believe about God? Well, they believe that God is one person: Jesus. Jesus is at the same time Father, Son, and Spirit. The Father is Jesus’ divine nature while the Son is Jesus’ human nature and the Spirit is a way of speaking about Jesus’ immanence in the world. The problem with all of this is that it’s contrary to God’s revelation of himself in Scripture. It’s likewise contrary to our experience of salvation, but again, most of us are ignorant of the Trinitarian nature of salvation anyway, so…

So let’s forget what Oneness believers don’t believe for a second and discuss what they do believe. Is that belief what the Bible speaks about with reference to salvation? Is that the picture of the divine economy that we see in Scripture? If not then why would we make allowances for Oneness believers when we wouldn’t make them for Jehovah’s Witnesses based on their aberrant views of God and Christ? Or Mormons based on theirs? And that’s a point I always return to with my pastor. He’s quite happy to exclude Mormons and JWs but not so happy to exclude Oneness believers. Why? It’s inconsistent.

But let me close with this—and it’s something I’ve said on this blog plenty of times before—ignorance covers a multitude of sins. I’ll grant that there are plenty of folks sitting in Oneness churches who have never so much as heard anything about Oneness theology. They’ve probably heard plenty about Jesus without ever getting into the finer points. If we’re only talking about those folks then fine. I won’t deny them salvation for believing in Jesus. But it’s never those folks I’m talking about. I’m talking about the folks who know what they believe and why they believe it. I’m talking about the folks who actively deny the Trinity because the Trinity isn’t the God they love and worship. Can they be saved? Of course! But it will require repentance from idolatry and a turning toward the Trinity.

B”H

The Journal for Trinitarian Studies and Apologetics, Vol. 1

I received word from Michael Burgos that the first volume of the Journal for Trinitarian Studies and Apologetics has been published. You can purchase a copy on Amazon for a nominal price. I was invited to contribute an article to this volume but the busyness of life and massive amounts of procrastination kept me from doing so. Maybe next time. I’d be honored if the editor wanted to send me a copy for review though. :-)

B”H

The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity

pdc.jpgHolmes, Stephen R. 

The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity

Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012. Pp. xix + 231. Paper. $26.00.

Amazon | CBD

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With thanks to IVP Academic for this review copy!

There’s been a steady stream of books published on the doctrine of the Trinity over the last few decades. Many of them tell the same story about the “recovering” or “rediscovery” of the doctrine, which had allegedly been “lost” or “forgotten.” We’re often told that since Karl Barth and Karl Rahner there has been a “renaissance” of Trinitarian theology. Recent works (e.g., the multi-authored The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity) have rightly challenged this notion by pointing out that the Trinity has never ceased to be a topic for reflection among theologians in any era.

Stephen R. Holmes (senior lecturer in systematic theology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland) adds his voice to the discussion in The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History, and Modernity. The subtitle confuses the order that Holmes follows throughout this volume. He begins by examining the so-called trinitarian revival of the 21st century and finally ends up in the same place. All the usual suspects are mentioned (e.g., Pannenberg; Jenson; Moltmann; Zizioulas; et al.) and he even takes some time to highlight the work of analytic philosophers of religion like Brian Leftow; Michael Rea; and Cornelius Plantinga. But whatever it is that these folks are doing, it isn’t reviving the doctrine of the Trinity; at least not the classic doctrine of the Trinity.

The remainder of the book takes up a historical recounting of the major events and ideas involved in Trinitarian theologizing from the Patristic era all the way up through the modern era. This involves outlining the major debates; challenging Théodore de Régnon’s paradigm, which suggested a vast difference between Eastern and Western approaches to the Trinity; and highlighting the primacy of exegesis over philosophy. The roots of what we know as the classic doctrine of the Trinity are exegetical.

What Holmes uncovers throughout his investigation are seven points of agreement among the orthodox throughout these eras:

  1. The divine nature is simple, incomposite, and ineffable. It is also unrepeatable, and so, in crude and inexact terms ‘one’.
  2. Language referring to the divine nature is always inexact and trophic; nonetheless, if formulated with much care and more prayer, it might adequately, if not fully, refer.
  3. There are three divine hypostases that are instantiations of the divine nature: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
  4. The three divine hypostases exist really, eternally, and necessarily, and there is nothing divine that exists beyond or outside their existence.
  5. The three divine hypostases are distinguished by eternal relations of origin – begetting and proceeding – and not otherwise.
  6. All that is spoken of God, with the single and very limited exception of the language which refers to the relations of origin of the three hypostases, is spoken of the one life the three share, and so is indivisibly spoken of all three.
  7. The relationships of origin express/establish relational distinctions between the three existent hypostases; no other distinctions are permissible. (146; 199-200)

These are not all points that modern theologians who have been said to be “reviving” the doctrine agree on. Holmes doesn’t take a stand on whether or not the alleged revivers are correct; nor does he argue for the correctness of the classic doctrine; he simply recounts the history and notes the disparity.

But this is the volume’s primary weakness; at least on my reading. I was ecstatic to read the first chapter and see Holmes challenge the modern trinitarian “revival.” I think this challenge is necessary; but simply pointing out that this is not truly is a revival doesn’t seem to take the investigation far enough. Should we seek a revival of the classic doctrine or continue along the current path, which for all intents and purposes, seems bent toward one brand of social trinitarianism or another. Holmes may not have the final (or even an authoritative) word on this, but his opinion would be both welcomed and helpful. We can’t fault authors for not doing what they never intended to do in the first place, but we can question their original intentions and express a desire for them to have done more.

And this is really my main complaint. His retelling of history is more than adequate even if his style of writing leaves a bit to be desired (Holmes has what seems to be a deep appreciation for commas and semicolons, which result in long, sometimes cumbersome sentences). On one occasion he refers to Fr. John Behr’s work as “astonishingly concise and informative” (92n39) and I’d describe Holmes’ volume in much the same way. He runs through a lot of history in 200 pages and does a great job of covering the most important people, ideas, and events.

The book’s target audience is said to be “upper-level undergraduates” (xvii) so Holmes doesn’t shy away from technical jargon, but if I’m honest, I know more than a few grad students who would find certain portions of this work challenging. Holmes often provides his own translations of Greek, Latin, German, and French works, so it’s not inconceivable to think that he could translate some of the technical vocabulary by providing a glossary of terms in the end of the volume (cf. Robert Letham’s The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship). He does, after all, provide an index of technical terms/phrases in Latin/Greek (224). Even without such a feature, the back matter proves useful with its bibliography and indices.

B”H

Wrong on Both Counts

Louis McBride recently posted dueling opinions from Walter Martin and D. A. Carson the eternal generation/sonship of Christ. I’m in full agreement with Carson on the matter but wanted to highlight Martin’s error in the first point that Louis quotes. Martin said:

(a)    “The doctrine of ‘eternal generation’ or the eternal Sonship of Christ which springs from the Roman Catholic doctrine first conceived by Origen in A.D. 230, is a theory which opened the door theologically to the Arian and Sabellian heresies which today still plague the Christian Church in the realms of Christology. (Kingdom of the Cults, rev. ed. [Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2003], 139)

I’ve never been the biggest fan of Martin’s work and this is a prime example of why. Contrary to his claim that eternal generation “opened the door theologically to the Arian and Sabellian heresies,” it actually guards against them both. The Sabellians on the one hand had the Son as the second of three successive manifestations of God. This is impossible if eternal generation is true since it posits an eternal distinction and relationship between Father and Son.

The Arians on other hand had the Son as coming into existence at some point. “There was [a time] when he was not,” they said. He was the highest order of creature, but still a creature.  But this too is impossible if eternal generation is true since eternal generation says that the Son has always been; there was never a time when he was not. Being eternally begotten eliminates the possibility of coming into existence.

It’s disappointing that Martin’s weak case against eternal generation made it into the revised, updated, and expanded version of his work. One would think that Ravi Zacharias would have had enough sense to edit that bit out.

B”H