Continued from Part I.
Social trinitarian concerns are not well represented in Reformed tradition. Perhaps what is not explicitly dealt with in our own confessional books will always be viewed with suspicion. As far as I can tell, neither the confessions nor the catechisms of the Reformation and Protestant Scholasticism explicitly connect the Church’s common life together with God’s communal life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. No doubt, this lacuna within the symbolic books of the Reformation reflects the fact that the Reformers themselves, while affirming and defending the Trinity, and clarifying its defining significance for the divine-human relationship, nevertheless, did not attempt to develop a trinitarian theology of human-human relationships within the church. This second theological move, although hinted at by earlier, pre-Reformation trinitarian theologians, has only begun to be explored by modern theologians in tandem with the blossoming of interest in what has been called “social trinitarianism” in the 20th century.
Unfortunately, the fact that most of the productive theological work on the social character of the God’s triune life has been done by modern theologians who can at best be described as less than confessional often conjures up for conservative Reformed pastors and theologians fears of inadvertently supporting the questionable theological presuppositions of more liberal and neo-orthodox modern “social trinitarians.”
I think one can detect such a fear, for example, in Peter Toon’s Our Triune God: A Biblical Portrayal of the Trinity (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), esp. chapters 2 and 3. Sometimes this “fear” of modern trinitarian theology manifests itself in the absence of any mention of modern insights; so, for example, in Robert Morey’s 600 page doctrinal exposition of the Trinity not one 20th century trinitarian theologian is even mentioned, let alone interacted with (The Trinity: Evidence and Issues [Grand Rapids, MI: Word Publishing, 1996]).
Those modern Reformed theologians that have done work in trinitarian theology more often than not evidence Barthian sympathies, a fact that certainly does not help them gain a fair hearing in more traditional Reformed academic communities that often have good reasons for being highly suspicious of neo-orthodoxy. It doesn’t help any that Barth himself was at the headwaters of the revival of interest in the doctrine of the Trinity in the twentieth century. In fact, Barth does, however imperfectly, discuss the community of the church in the light of the doctrine of the Trinity (Church Dogmatics, 4/2, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, trans. by G. W. Bromiley [Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1958], pp. 643ff. The trinitarian scheme of Barth’s ecclesiology is everywhere evident in his works (see Colm O’Grady, The Church in the Theology of Karl Barth [London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1968], p. 99).
One also suspects that the association of social trinitarianism with left-leaning socio-political agendas and ecumenical efforts has dampened the interest of confessional Reformation communities, which tend to be much more conservative in their social philosophies. One might argue that for many modern theologians not only how one might use the Trinity as a ideal for reform in church and society, but also how one formulates a doctrine of the Trinity has a great deal more to do with certain pre-theological sociological and political commitments than to careful expositions of the Bible and received trinitarian theological tradition. Those who favor radical pluralization in church and state often develop or adopt more radical social constructions of the Trinity.
This does not mean, however, that all influences arising from one’s life in a specific church or culture ought to be excluded when theologizing about the Trinity. Zizioulas notes that the ecclesiastical experience of the early church helped shape the development of the patristic doctrine of the Trinity (lex orandi, lex credendi) (John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church [London: Darton, Longman, & Todd, 1985], p. 16ff.). Miroslav Volf suggests that “the trinitarian character of the church was gradually acquired parallel with the growing consciousness of God’s triune nature” (After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998], p. 195). Certainly our experience of God within the liturgical, sacramental, and communal life of the church affects our understanding of the Trinity. What would seem suspicious, however, is allowing our extra-ecclesiastical political and social experience to dictate how we construe the Trinity, especially when we have some secular agenda to push.
The “socialist” programs of radical modern theologians, who argue from the communitarian nature of God for egalitarian social agendas, do not sit well with American orthodox theologians. The easy rapidity with which many modern social trinitarians move from theological reflection on the interpersonal trinitarian relations to egalitarian social and political conclusions is astonishing. And it is indeed a contemporary novelty not found in the Christian tradition. The church seems to be bypassed or, if included in these reflections, becomes little more than an instrument for accomplishing sociopolitical goals directly skimmed off of the creamy top of their trinitarian speculation. Even modern trinitarian theologians who evidence a more “conservative” bent overall often readily use their social construal of the Trinity to argue for egalitarian structures of ministry within the government and liturgical life of the church. One can sympathize with the skepticism of conservative Reformed theologians. But is this the only way to do trinitarian theology? Is social trinitarian theologizing always and only a foil for socialist political visions?
Go to Part III