Monday, July 9, 2007

Trinity & Church II

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


Sean Michael Lucas said...

Hi, Jeff:

This is all very interesting--I agree with you that for most conservative Reformed theologians, the natural default is the psychological analogy for Trinitarian theologizing because it preserves "oneness," which seems to be a higer, desired end than "threeness."

One of the interesting things, though, has been the influence of Jonathan Edwards on this whole discussion. Amy Pauw's dissertation on Edwards' trinitarianism, along with Sang Lee's Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards has pushed both the social analogy and dispositional ontology to the forefront of a number of theological conversations. I think this is an important move and will help us both understand Edwards but more importantly rethink conservative theologians latent unitarianism, especially as it affects worship and discipleship.

Thanks for thinking this stuff out loud. I still wish you'd finish your dissertation so that some of these things can be interacted with more directly...

Best, sml

Jeff Meyers said...

Hi Sean,

Yes, I agree about the potential in Edwards. I first came across Edward's fascinating trinitarian speculation in his Miscellanies about 12 years ago. I followed some footnotes in Robert Jenson's quirky little book about Edwards Amerca's Theologian (Oxford, 1988). I think I'll do my next post on that. Thanks for the reminder!

Sean Michael Lucas said...

Hi, Jeff: You probably have already seen this, but in the Yale edition of the works of JE, Sang Lee has edited writings on the trinity as well as grace and faith (vol. 21). In some ways, they collect together a number of the themes in the Misc.; perhaps he intended to transplant his thoughts there into his History of Work of Redemption project that he contemplated before his death. FWIW, sml

Jeff Meyers said...

Sean: Yes, I've seen it, but only glanced through it. I don't remember it containing anything I didn't already have in my Miscellanies volumes. Is Lee's introduction/analysis valuable?

Anonymous said...

At my College we did the doctrine of the Trinity as a post-grad module. Nothing at undergrad level at all.

I am a product of the Anglo-Saxon evangelical world, so it may be different in the USA.

Practically it means that most of my peers would be completely ignorant of the eternal generation and spiration, and the differences between the West and the East re the inta-Trinitarian relationships such as the filioque etc.

Is it possible that the dearth of material has something to do with this scenario?

Anonymous said...

A word of explanation: in the Anglo-Saxon world pastors do theology as a first degree, not a second post-grad degree as you do, I think.

Jeff Meyers said...

Yes, your right about theology degrees here in America, Roger.

As for the dearth of material, first, I'm not sure that there's really a lack of books on the trinity these days. There's a flood of books.

What I was commenting on is the lack of interaction with social trinitarianism in Reformed circles.

Anonymous said...

Doh. OK I am interested. Would you please name your top three books on the subject? I haven't read much apart from the Fathers, some Lossky and Warfield, and a little Gerald Bray.

Jeff Meyers said...

Off the top of my head, glancing at my bookshelves, if you are looking for a good overview of modern trinitarian theology, I would recommend:

• Stanley Grenz, Rediscovering the Triune God: The Trinity in Contemporary Theology (Fortress, 2004)

• John Thompson, Modern Trinitarian Theology (Oxford, 1994).

These two will serve you well as introductions to what has happened since Barth.

• Add to these Roger Olson and Christopher Hall, The Trinity (Eerdmans, 2002). This is a slim book that does a nice job of summarizing patristic, medieval, Reformation, and modern contributions to the development of the doctrine.

These are not necessarily the best books on the Trinity. You can, however, follow the footnotes in them and pursue what interests you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks very much.