Some Cautions and Controls
We must be cautious how we use the doctrine of Triune fellowship in constructing a theological model of the church. The implications of the fact that the nature of God is “being in communion” ought not to be carelessly applied to ecclesiastical pragmatics. Gunton summarizes the dangers:
. . . the temptation must be resisted to draw conclusions of a logicising kind: appealing directly to the unity of the three as one God as a model for a unified church; or, conversely (and, I believe, more creatively, though still inadequately) arguing from the distinctions of the persons for an ecclesiology of diversity, along the lines of the expression currently popular in ecumenical circles of ‘reconciled diversity.’ That would be to move too quickly, playing with abstract and mathematically determined concepts and exercising no theological control over their employment.We might add two “controls” that reflect orthodox confessional commitments and that would help those who would appropriate the insights of modern social trinitarianism to discern the wheat from the chaff. One is methodological and the other theological.
The first might sound rather simplistic, but it is nonetheless crucial. For orthodox theologians the Bible must be allowed to control, indeed, veto, if necessary, our trinitarian theologizing about the nature and life of the Church. In other words, ecclesiastical speculations arrived at by “deduction” from the doctrine of the Trinity must be subject to those passages in the Bible that speak directly to questions about the life and structure of the church. This biblical control is violated, for example, when idealistic visions of human ecclesiastical communion are presented as if fully realizable before the eschaton. Some Eastern Orthodox ecclesiastical visions approach this when they ignore what confessional Reformation confessions declare about the biblical doctrine of human sinfulness. According to one Orthodox theologian (Nicholas Fedorov), his trinitarian social program is achievable by us before the eschaton because the resurrection power of Christ is “capable of transfiguring nature” and because “God has placed in our hands all the means for regulating cosmic disorders" (Miroslav Volf, “‘The Trinity is Our Social Program’: The Doctrine of the Trinity and the Shape of Social Engagement,” Modern Theology 14 (July 1998): 403-404).
Certainly the resurrected Christ is able and indeed does to some degree “transfigure nature,” and this means that people can, through Christ’s gracious power, learn to live in self-denying love one with others as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live. But the question is: has God completely given over “all the means” necessary for achieving such a goal? The biblical doctrine of depravity ought to control all such chimerical proposals. We do not expect that our efforts will actually achieve what is reserved for the eschatological future. Reformed pastors and theologicans will want to incorporate our calling to image the divine life into the already-not-yet character of our participation in the God’s trinitarian communal life.
A second example of the need for biblical control comes from Colin Gunton’s speculation. Although Gunton himself cautioned against “moving too quickly” from Trinity to ecclesiology, he himself does not submit his applications to biblical control. Ironically, Gunton offers his own trinitarian speculations about proper male-female relations in the church as an illustration of the “caution” needed in “arguing directly to the church from the immanent Trinity.”
Based on his own understanding of immanent trinitarian personal relations, Gunton argues against any relational subordination of women to men (presumably in marital as well as ecclesiastical relationships). Then, surprisingly, after quoting 1 Cor. 11:7 (“A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man”), Gunton says, “Paul’s exegesis and theology are both questionable.” Paul misuses “trinitarian attributions” because he moves “directly” from them to relations in the church. “Rather, we should not claim such detailed knowledge of the inner constitution of the godhead that we can attempt direct and logical readings-off of that kind" (The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, p. 73-75).
What Gunton fails to see is that his own “logicising” has elevated his own pet conception of trinitarian relations to a position where it trumps biblical statements. His call for an “indirect kind” of trinitarian theologizing about the church has conveniently permitted him to avoid direct Scriptural evidence of Paul’s own inspired trinitarian logic. This kind of “indirect” theologizing produces ecclesiastical theologies that are not subject to the control of direct statements in the Bible concerning the life and order of the church. This is exactly the kind of trinitarian theologizing about the church that sours Reformed pastors to the whole project.
I'l deal with the second "theological" control in the next post.