Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Trinity & Church - Part XIII

Continued from Part XII

Methodological Challenges

In keeping with my purpose to provide a few prima facie arguments, I will move on from this brief discussion of the image of God without attempting to work out the details of how human community images the triune Creator’s social life. The broad outline seems clear enough, but the particulars need to be worked through carefully by orthodox Reformation theologians. I want to conclude with a few comments that hopefully will remind us of our need to be self-conscious about our theological methodology when we attempt to flesh out the concrete implications of God’s triune life for human community. Augustine’s warning, spoken with reference to trinitarian theology proper, will also need to be heeded when we do trinitarian anthropology and ecclesiology: “For nowhere else is a mistake more dangerous, or the search more laborious, or discovery more advantageous” (De Trin. 1.5).

First, it seems likely that different theologies of the Trinity may generate correspondingly different ecclesiologies. Doubtless, it will be very difficult to trace the lines of influence, especially when we are attempting to wed various historical ecclesiologies with distinct trinitarian emphases. I think it is safe to say that differing ecclesiologies do not always have their origin in differing conceptions of God’s triune nature. They may. But we cannot make such a universal claim without a careful investigation. After all, the Medieval church gives evidence of quite a rich variety of ecclesiologies, but none of them seems to have been spawned by some newly formulated, distinctive view of the Trinity. Even if we argue that there is within each distinctive ecclesiology an implied or hidden concept of the Trinity, one can ask whether it is fair to subject any given ecclesiology to trinitarian “decoding” in order to discover features unacknowledged by its adherents (see Scott H. Hendrix, “In Quest of the VERA ECCELESIA: The Crisis of Late Medieval Ecclesiology,” Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies 7 (1976): 347-378).

But what of the opposite claim—that distinctive ecclesiologies will generate corresponding trinitarian distinctives? Maybe “ecclesiologies” is not the word we are looking for. The questions is: will distinctive ways of living in the church as a community tend to produce accounts of the Father, Son, and Spirit that “image” an ecclesiastical community’s experience ? It is sometimes argued, for example, that hierarchical relations in the church gave rise to hierarchical conceptions of the Trinity. This thesis seems more likely than that made in the previous paragraph, but it would appear to be very difficult to prove. As a polemic against hierarchical ecclesiastical government it has a powerful attraction and is similar to Harnack’s thesis that the early church developed her distinctive dogmatic formulations because of her “hidden” and often unselfconscious loyalties to Hellenistic intellectual culture. But will it hold up under scrutiny?

The problem is that the formulation of the creedal dogma of the Trinity in the early church, according to her own explicit witness, was developed for other reasons. Rather than an attempt to ground her hierarchical power in God’s nature and life, the dogmatic trinitarian formulations were designed to defend, explain, and safeguard the reality of salvation through Jesus. Whatever evidence of “hierarchical” or relational subordination early trinitarian theologians identified seems to have been grounded more in their desire to be faithful to the scriptural data than by an attempt to justify their own ecclesiastical power.

Having said that, we should not discount the possibility that distinctive trinitarian motifs are being used in the modern church to justify particular forms of ecclesiastical life. Free church ecclesiologies, for example, seek an ontological grounding in a conception God’s egalitarian relationality. Hierarchical forms of ecclesiastical life seek justification in the eternally God’s ordered sociality. Such “trinities” run the risk of being projections of an author’s own presupposed ideal human society. Although it would be an overstatement to deny any legitimate link between ecclesiology and trinitarian formulations, justifiable connections must be identified with great care.


Jim said...


You wrote: "I will move on from this brief discussion of the image of God without attempting to work out the details of how human community images the triune Creator’s social life."

But I'm not sure that it's the "details" that are left to be worked out.

I mean, the claim seems plausible enough on one level, but whether and how the image works seems pretty important to thinking through applications of the claim. After all, human community and triune community are alike in all areas. So what "alikes" count, and which do not?

IMHO, I'd say that it's pretty important to nail down the major premise before moving onto ecclesiological applications.

Jeff Meyers said...

Well, I'm trying to make a prima facie argument that working on the details is a worthy theological project.

I think it's enough at this point to acknowledge that we do image God in our social relations. That's all I'm arguing at this stage.