Thursday, August 21, 2008

Breaking Free: Luther and Medieval Theology on the Trinity

This is Part III in my series analyzing Luther's Catechetical Doctrine of the Trinity. Part I. Part II.

It is time to examine Luther's way of teaching the Trinity.

The first thing we notice about Luther’s Trinitarian language is that something is missing. Luther consistently avoids any use of or reference to philosophical/metaphysical terms, problems, and distinctions traditionally associated with Trinitarian dogma.

Luther’s discussion of God the Father, for example, faithfully explains the text of the Apostle’s Creed using the biblical language of Father and Creator without introducing extraneous philosophical discussions about the divine essence. God is not defined in terms of his metaphysical properties, but according to what he does, specifically what he does pro homine ("for humanity"). “What is God for man? What does he do? How can man praise or portray or describe him so that man might know him?” (LC II, 10).

In answering these questions Luther makes what is for him a paradigmatic claim. He says that the answers are found in the Creed. “Therefore the Creed is nothing other than an answer and confession of the Christian. . .” The questions “what do you have for your God?” and “what do you know about him?” are both answered with reference to God’s relationship to the one asking the question. He is my Father by virtue of the fact that he created me and sustains me. As the Small Catechism puts it: “I believe that God has created me and all things; that he has given me my body and soul. . .”

The Father is the Father because he created me and sustains me. In other words, I know that he is the Father because I know what he has done for me. The Son is my Lord because I know what he has done for me. The Spirit is the Holy Spirit because of what he does for me: he sanctifies me. This kind of approach has very little continuity with the Medieval method of explaining God’s nature and existence.

What is absent from Luther’s exposition speaks volumes. For example, he shows no concern for demonstrating the intelligibility of the doctrine of the Trinity by searching for vestigia trinitatis (vestiges of the Trinity) within creation and the human soul. He provides no discussion of the “attributes” of God, no explanation of God de deo uno apart from Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, no elucidation of the problem of the one and many, no definition of the words “person” or “substance” or “relation,” no proofs of divinity of the Son or the Spirit, no extended explanation of the inter-Trinitarian relationships between Father and Son and Spirit, no treatment of the way in which each Person partakes of the divine essence (circumincessio), no argument for the monarchy of the Father, no explication of the meaning of “begetting” and “procession,” no discussion of the two natures of Christ, and, finally, he studiously avoids inquiries into and definitions of classic Trinitarian terminology (substantia, ousia, persona, hypostasis, coessentialitas, homoousios, etc.).

Unlike conventional Medieval treatments, then, Luther’s Trinitarian theology is not couched in the objective, analytic language of the academy, but the personal language of the Bible. No attempt is made to dialectically penetrate the ontological mystery of the Godhead. The threeness of God is not a complicating factor, but inexorably related to how God works in creation, redemption, and sanctification. Luther refuses to engage in speculative reflection on the Trinity cast in the language of metaphysics, that is, in terms of the philosophical issues of class and number, substance and individual, unity and plurality, etc. Nor does Luther introduce epistemological questions concerning the creaturely conceptuality of God’s essence or being.

By dumping all of this, Luther breaks radically with the medieval tradition of Trinitarian theological reflection. Schwöbel writes: “It would not be a gross exaggeration to see the mainstream of the history of Trinitarian reflection as a series of footnotes on Augustine’s conception of the Trinity in De Trinitate. Augustine’s emphasis on the unity of the divine essence of God’s triune being, his stress on the undivided mode of God’s relating to what is not God and his attempt to trace the intelligibility of the doctrine of the Trinity through the vestigia trinitatis in the human consciousness, mediating unity and differentiation, defined the parameters for the mainstream of Western Trinitarian reflection” (Trinitarian Theology Today [T&T Clark, 1995], p. 5). If Schwöbel’s observations are correct (and I believe, for the most part, they are), then Luther’s catechetical doctrine of the Trinity was something fresh and exciting, a new way of theologizing about the Trinity. By breaking with the medieval methodology and terminology, Luther opens up productive new possibilities for the church’s doctrine of the Trinity.

More on that next time.

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