Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Trinity for the Simple

Twelve years ago I wrote an interesting (to me!) paper on Luther's doctrine of the Trinity for a graduate seminar class at Concordia on Luther's Small and Large Catechism. The title of the paper was "Die Dreifaltigkeit für die Einfältigen: Luther’s Catechetical Doctrine of the Trinity." The German phrase means "The Trinity for the Simple."

I've been looking over my past work on the Trinity lately, wondering if I might actually be able finally to finish that book I've always wanted to write. We'll see. At any rate, I'm going to simplify (remove all the German and dispense with the academic references) and update this old essay of mine and publish it here as a series of posts. Perhaps someone will find it helpful.

Now, one caveat: my observations and analyses are dated, especially with regard to the literature available to me in 1996 on Luther's doctrine of the Trinity. There's been some advance in Luther studies re: the Trinity. So if I had the time to do the research, I would probably qualify some of the first few paragraphs. So here goes.

When the Lutheran theologian Walter Elert describes Luther’s traditional theology of the Trinity, he makes this charge: “In general, the doctrine of the Trinity came to a standstill in his theology like an erratic boulder.” The French Roman Catholic theologian Yves Congar’s opinion was similar. “Luther is not a man for the mystery of the Trinity.” Edmund J. Fortman’s The Triune God devotes only four of its 380 pages to the Reformation understanding of the Trinity: Luther and Melanchthon are treated in less than one page each. Fortman’s conclusion: “His [Luther’s] Trinitarian doctrine remained largely a simple, devout expression of his belief in the traditional dogma.”

One might have anticipated a more positive evaluation of Luther’s doctrine of the Trinity to emerge in the wake of the modern renewal of Trinitarian theology in the last few decades. So far, however, recent opinions appear not to have altered much. The contemporary Roman Catholic Trinitarian theologian Edmund J. Hill says, “In Luther’s own writings, the Trinity plays only a very minor theological role, serving largely to buttress his real concerns, which are those of faith and justification.” At least Hill says something about Luther’s doctrine of the Trinity. Most contemporary Trinitarian theologians ignore Luther altogether on this subject. Nobody, as far as I have been able to discover, even notices the theological potential in the Trinitarian shape of Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms.

Was Luther’s doctrine of the Trinity as unsophisticated and slavishly tradition-bound as these authors would lead us to believe? Did Luther’s use of the Trinity have no more profound motivation than an unselfconscious “traditionalism”? Does the doctrine of the Trinity appear in Luther’s catechetical work as something sterile and inert? Granted that Luther does not utilize most of the traditional metaphysical terms and distinctions available to him as heir of a rich repository of Western Trinitarian reflection, does this necessarily imply that his Trinitarian theology is unsophisticated, artless, and ultimately barren? That it has no deep roots in the historical church’s Trinitarian heritage? Why indeed does Luther “neglect” certain aspects of classical Trinitarian theology? Does that neglect arise self-consciously as a critique of Scholastic/Augustinian Trinitarian speculation or does it simply point to Luther’s own theological ignorance, possibly even stubbornness?

Others have analyzed Luther’s general doctrine of the Trinity; my purpose in this brief essay is to explore Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms in order to examine the “simplicity” of his catechetical exposition of the Trinity. I will argue that Luther’s catechetical understanding of the Trinity is not simply simplistic, but deceptively, even elegantly simple. Even though, or very possibly because it is aimed at instructing simple or ordinary Christians rather than impressing metaphysically minded academics, Luther’s catechetical construal of the Trinity is more profound and potentially productive than what was passed on to him in the classic Western tradition. Luther’s own metaphysically uncluttered exposition of the Trinitarian structure of God’s relationship with his people implies (even if he does not always explicitly argue for it) a deep-seated critique of the philosophically cast tradition of the church and academy of his day. In fact, Luther’s Trinitarianism evidences both a return to a more biblically faithful instruction concerning the Godhead as well as a creative rediscovery of the soteriological foundations of Patristic Trinitarian creedal theology. These three concerns—biblical faithfulness, soteriology, and catechetical fitness—combine to insure the elegant simplicity of Luther’s catechetical Trinitarian theology.

Continued in Part 2


John H said...

Be interested to read this when it appears.

You may find a couple of posts by the Lutheran blogger Josh S interesting on this subject, in which he emphasises the Trinity as a (indeed the) baptismal doctrine: a matter of identity rather than ideology.

Given the critical importance of baptism to Luther's theology and indeed Lutheran self-identity to this day - an importance which, it seems to me, is underestimated by many Reformed Christians - it may be that the place to look for Luther's trinitarianism is in his baptismal theology and in particular his understanding of baptism as the basis for the whole of the Christian life, rather than in his engagement with the "ideology" of the Trinity.

Which seems to chime with what you're saying in this post, so as I say I await the essay itself with interest.

Jeff Meyers said...

John: absolutely right. Good comment. Thanks for making it. Of course, when Luther deals with the Trinity he's expounding the three articles of the Apostles' creed as the gift of God himself given to the one baptized.