Thursday, August 2, 2007

Trinity & Church - Part XII

Continued from Part XI

Three Persons

A prima facie argument for my thesis (the church ought to image the social life of God) can also be made from the very the language we use in the doctrine of the Trinity. If the members of the Trinity are “persons,” and they interact as Persons one with another, it would be difficult to believe that their interaction would not be paradigmatic for human social relations.

To put it another way, it would seem as if one would have to deny that the Three are “persons” in any normal sense of the word in order to deny that their several relations one with another are exemplary for human relations. How can we avoid affirming the Trinity as image if we use personal language to describe the members of the Trinity and their complex relations one with another?

I am not suggesting that the word “person” can be univocally applied to both God and created humanity. Our language and conception of personhood is theomorphic (not anthropomorphic) since we are created in the image of God. We need not worry about projecting “personhood” and “personality” onto the divine nature since God himself has described his life and work to us using the language of personality and personhood. If we bracket all personal language in our theologizing about God, we will not arrive at a purified, transcendent being worthy of the divine nature, but with abstract, lifeless philosophical categories that in the end will work to depersonalize his existence and relations with creation.

It is interesting to note that much of the Western trinitarian theological tradition after Augustine has only affirmed that the Three are “persons” with great hesitation. One might legitimately ask whether the absence of a trinitarian-informed ecclesiology in the West has had something to do with this tendency.

Augustine himself laid the ground work for substituting more abstract, philosophical terms to describe the Three and their relations when he predicated “personhood” to the Three only as a necessitas loquendi (“a necessary manner of speaking”; De Trin. 5.9, 92). On one level, the entire Western tradition fails to articulate adequately immanent personal relations within the Godhead. The West has always tended toward Modalism. Thus there is a powerful propensity in post-Augustinian theology to de-personalize the eternal fullness of God’s inner life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

So much of pre-modern trinitarian theology’s discussion of the intra-divine strikes one as reality oddly modalistic . For example, Aquinas speaks of “subsistent relations,” Barth of seinsweise (“mode of being”), and Rahner of “three distinct manners of subsisting.” Cornelius Plantinga rightly questions these terminological attempts to define more philosophically the relations of the Three. The Trinity consists of “real persons, just as they are in the Gospel of John.” He questions substituting paternity, filiation, and spiration for the concrete personal names of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I think he's right.

In addition to this terminological confusion, there is an undercurrent throughout this history that trumps the language of inter-personal relations with terms which imply ontological and/or hypostatic relations of causation among the Three. Much of this scholastic philosophizing has only served to obfuscate the inter-personal relations between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so realistically narrated in the Bible. This, in turn, historically has bracketed trinitarian theology from any significant interaction with anthropology and ecclesiology.

Whether the Augustinian trinitarian heritage is as bad as some have suggested, nevertheless, the reluctance to speak of God’s inter-trinitarian relations in fully personal terms has perhaps led to a corresponding lack of interest in developing trinitarian-informed theologies of the nature and life of the Church. Modern trinitarian theology has steadily moved away from Augustine’s analysis of the Trinity in terms of an individual’s inner consciousness toward more and more creative reflection upon the insights of the Cappadocian Fathers. Their trinitarian constructions emphasized the “social” or personal unity of Father, Son, and Spirit, who exists as one being in communion. The persons of the Godhead are not best understood in the abstract, scholastic, even a-historical categories of subsistent relations, but as dynamically interacting personal subjects. A refashioning of traditional trinitarian theological categories in more personalist and relational terms has set the stage for the current interest in trinitarian ecclesiology.


Roger du Barry said...

Jeff, when you speak of the inner life of the Trinity, are you thinking apart from the incarnation? Is the hypostatic union part of this thinking? Or are you thinking only of the divinity?

Jeff Meyers said...

Good question. I am articulating what I believe the incarnation has revealed about the divine being. The social relations revealed in the story of Jesus as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit speak with and act in relation to the others - this is a window into the divine mode of life. The incarnation is the life of God turned outward toward us.

Roger du Barry said...

And one more impertinent question: how is this being related to the story of Israel? :)

Jeff Meyers said...

Well, you've got a smiley face on your question, so I'm not sure if it's serious. But in case you are, I would say, first, that the triune being of God revealed in the story of Jesus is the God of Israel. And secondly, since the story of Jesus fulfills the story of Israel, we can go back to the story of Israel and see Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the prophetic/typological history of Israel. That's where it gets real interesting. I should post something on that sometime soon.