Friday, November 30, 2012

Some thoughts on the Freedom of the Trinity

Without an ontologically independent Trinity, one cannot properly conceive of God’s relation to creation.  The differentiated Triunity of God makes possible both an ontological and personal transcendence as well as an immanent presence through his Son and Spirit.  In this way God is covenant Lord over his creation.  We say that God is Lord “in this way” in order to avoid all non-biblical concepts of lordship.

A similar temptation arises with concepts like transcendence and immanence, indeed with every ascription we make about God.  If we are not careful to invest these common terms with biblical content, they are likely to tyrannize our doctrine of God and compel it to conform to whatever cultural, political, or philosophical meaning these terms posses in our modern world.  This, of course, does not constrain the theologian to use only biblical terms, since even biblical terms can become subject to unbiblical, alien connotations depending upon how are used by any particular culture.  Rather, we must carefully determine what the Bible says about God, and in this case about God as Lord, in order to faithfully communicate his proper relations with creation.

The Word of God, however, supplies every thing we need here.  If theologians would but pay careful attention to the richness of the ways in which God has revealed himself in the Bible, especially the diverse ways in which God in his freedom interacts with and makes himself immanent in the world as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, they would not have to shipwreck their theology either on the Scylla of “monotheistic” tyranny or on the Charybdis of “tritheistic” egalitarianism.  It is precisely the trinitarian lordship of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that richly transcends all such human dichotomies, as Pannenberg explains:

"The three persons of Father, Son, and Spirit are primarily the subject of the divine action.  By their cooperation the action takes form as that of the one God. This must be the starting point of a Christian answer to the totalitarian implications of a single divine subject acting without restriction." (Systematic Theology, vol. 1, p. 388).

Given the mystery of the Trinity, there simply is no one created analogy, no one relation between two different modes of created being that we can analyze and catalog for the purpose of providing us with a sufficient explanation of the fullness of the Triune Creator’s ways of relating to his creation, especially to those whom he has created for fellowship with himself.  As Barth explains, the absoluteness of God need not be feared.
Now the absoluteness of God strictly understood in this [trinitarian] sense means that God has the freedom to be present with that which is not God, to communicate Himself and unite Himself with the other and the other with Himself, in a way which utterly surpasses all that can be effected in regard to reciprocal presence, communion and fellow¬ship between other beings. It is just the absoluteness of God properly understood which can signify not only His freedom to transcend all that is other than Himself, but also His freedom to be immanent within it, and at such a depth of immanence as simply does not exist in the fellowship between other beings. No created being can be inwardly present to another, entering and remaining in communion with him in the depths of its inner life. No such being can create and sustain the life of another, seriously leading and governing, binding itself to the other and the other to itself in eternal faithfulness and whole-hearted devotion. The essence of every other being is to be finite, and therefore to have frontiers against the personality of others and to have to guard these frontiers jealously. It lies in the nature of the created being to have to be true to itself in such a way that with the best will in the world it simply cannot be true to another. It is its very nature that it cannot affirm itself except by affirming itself against others. For this reason it is only by simplification and tentatively, i.e., not with basic seriousness, that created beings can be present with each other, communicating and binding themselves to each other, listening to each other. Therefore between all such beings, as there is no genuine transcendence so there is no genuine immanence. A pantheistic or panentheistic alternation between God and another is required to affirm a true immanence even between created beings, instead of between God alone and all created beings. This affirmation needs a good deal of poetic fancy. But God is free. He is also free to be immanent, free to achieve a uniquely inward and genuine immanence of His being in and with the being which is distinct from Himself. (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/1, p. 313)

Even, or especially when God is acting as Emmanuel in his Son and Spirit he cannot be dissolved into his work and activity but remains the free Lord of all. Even as God has united himself intimately and without recall to our humanity in Jesus Christ, and even though that union in some sense conditions the being of God as the one who now and forever possesses our nature as our Savior and Redeemer, yet nevertheless there is no metaphysical necessity that demands that union since he has freely willed that union into all eternity. This freely chosen “conditioning” or “correlativity” vis-à-vis creation is entirely different than an ontologically or relationally necessary conditioning.  There is no mutual conditioning, only the conditioning that God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has chosen for himself as the one who freely loves his Bride, the Church.

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