Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Mere Trinitarians?

In his celebrated essay on The Trinity, Karl Rahner laments that,
“despite their orthodox confession of the Trinity, Christians are, in their practical life, almost mere ‘monotheists.’ We must be willing to admit that, should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain virtually unchanged.”

Even those who harbor qualms about particular aspects of Rahner’s theology (and I am one of them) should consider themselves indebted to him on this count, at least. He tirelessly worked to identify areas where renewal was necessary in Christian theological reflection, and was one of the main inspirations for the Trinitarian revival in dogmatic theology over the last few decades. Amidst this revival and because of it, the following comments I make may be unsavory, but I believe they’re in the spirit of Rahner’s intentions. They are certainly intended to encourage work in Trinitarian doctrine rather than diminish it.

Much as in contemporary work on pneumatology, it is rather fashionable to preface a study on Trinitarian doctrine with a brief gesture to the fact that “the Trinity has been woefully neglected by theologians for some time now,” with perhaps an added jab at “Western” theologians in particular. Following this preface is, of course, a long line of citations of recent and contemporary work on the very topic that is supposedly being ignored! These days I think it is safe to say that if a theologian talks about someone “inadequately focusing on the Trinity”, what she really means is probably that “I don’t like what they do say about the Trinity.” Anyone who is taken seriously in Christian theological circles these days is most certainly a robust Trinitarian.

But are we mere Trinitarians?

Presumably Rahner wouldn’t say that it’s bad to be a monotheist. After all, “We believe in one God…” when we believe in “the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” What is problematic is mere monotheism, the kind that does not recognize the one true God as triune and fails to comprehend the dynamism of the drama of redemption played out in the majesty of the Godhead. When this is the case, as Rahner says, the doctrine of the Trinity can be dropped without much change occurring in the life of faith or dogmatic reflection upon it.

What I fear has happened is that many theologians have become overly excited about the trinitarian revival in theology. These revivalists, much like those in great evangelistic awakenings of the past, have in their zeal failed to retain perspective on the work of the Spirit that is occurring. Dropping the doctrine of the Trinity will certainly not leave things unchanged anymore, but are we so infatuated with the Trinity as a theological concept that practically anything else could fall out of our theological purview without our noticing?

Too often the discussion is thought to be concluded with a sophomoric deconstruction of the God of the philosophers and savants followed by a pious trinitarian doxology. But to leave it at “Our God is the TRIUNE one!” is to be content with a slogan if it is not accompanied by more serious and sustained reflection on the truth of the Gospel.

I think that we are past the point where we need to be concerned about the place of the Trinity in theological reflection, and there is (thankfully) not much need to be on the lookout for those we deem “inadequately trinitarian” (the trinity is altogether too trendy these days to allow anyone to get away with that crime for very long). What I would suggest is a re-engagement with other aspects of dogmatic concern that might unfold in a way that is seemingly peripheral to any Trinitarian fixation. Why not mine the neo-scholastic manuals for ideas about the attributes of God? Or the neoplatonists for thoughts about metaphysical hierarchy? Why not engage with Islamic theologians the way that our medieval counterparts did to such fruitful end?

Of course we won’t find the robust trinitarianism that we’ve come to expect from trustworthy dogmaticians, but aren’t we mature enough to wander a bit from mere trinitarianism and explore other avenues of theological reflection without worrying about whether we come across as mere monotheists by guilt of association? I feel as if the theological growth of some in the Church has been stunted by a childish adoration of the Trinity, and I think we can do better than that.


  1. So I don't really know what to say on this, but the fact that you put up facebook note about it suggests you're looking for feedback.

    I will say that it is an excellent instinct: misplaced emphases can be damaging for intellectual pursuits, even if the intellectual is dead-on, substantively. You can make a lot of valid statements about the trinity, but you may make those statements at the expense of developing other ideas or even other perspectives on the same idea.

    Now - this is the second time you've brought up dialogue with Islam. Do you have something specific in mind? Specific issues to banter about? Or are you still pretty abstract on this?

  2. I'm entirely too ignorant about Islamic theology to say very much about it, but one of these days I should educate myself enough to work constructively with it. I think as a robust monotheistic doctrinal system Islam would simply be a valuable conversation partner, much as it has been in the past along with neoplatonism. My hunch from general impressions is that good work could be done specifically in discussing traditions of theological voluntarism, where God's will is emphasized in particular (as opposed to rationality or anything else). I think more extensive work has been done with Jewish theology already because of the fact that Christianity was born out of it and accepts the Hebrew scriptures as its own in a way that it of course does not for the Koran.

    While trinitarian theology has certainly developed substantially in recent decades, much of it is also just simplistic parroting of creedal piety. Of all of the ink spilled about the Trinity, there are probably only a handful of monographs that really break new or at least interesting substantive ground. I think that's what really inspired me to write this post- the focus on the doctrine of the Trinity has made "the Trinity" sort of a magic concept. Add to that the faux mysticism that pervades much of today's spiritual climate (even in genuinely orthodox studies of liturgy and ecclesiology), and I think that theology has become overwhelmed with the Trinity the way that "Jesus" was always the right answer in Sunday School.

    Conveniently, Ben Myers has posted a review of a book of essays edited by Bruce McCormack of PTSEM- I've only skimmed a few of the essays but it looks like a good collection, a good example of doing theology without getting caught up on trunity as a simplistic answer to everything (the one essay that seems to consider the Trinity in depth is on Jonathan Edwards, and moves on to discuss individuation and simplicity)

    Faith and Theology: Bruce McCormack: Engaging the doctrine of God

  3. Sorry, my link was a little funky so it brings you to the bottom of the post.

  4. So, we have many academics who have found it fashionable to, somewhat myopically, focus on the Trinity; wouldn't you say the reverse is true in the pew? Many folks are unitarians with respect to the second person of the Trinity?

    Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,
    Sweetest Name I know,
    Fills my every longing,
    Keeps me singing as I go.

  5. Chris, these are certinaly important points, but I hesitate to jump to a Jesus-only accusation. If you will, entertain some shameless prooftexting of the stanza you provide:

    -Acts 4:11-12, "This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved."

    -Phil. 2:9-12, "Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

    -John 6:35, "Jesus said to them, 'I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.'"

    ...this should give at least a simplistic "biblical" label to most of the stanza, although I couldn't think of chapter-and-verse for the fact that Jesus keeps anyone "singing as they go". My point is that there is a focus on Christ that is appropriate, it is in fact established by the Father that the Father would be glorified, so it opens up to a properly trinitarian understanding of the Godhead. Jesus has come and died upon a cross, risen from the dead, and is the way through whom we find salvation. So while I can respect the concern you express, it's this very focus on God's mission as it is found in Jesus that I think is a helpful alternative to sitting back and reflecting on "the" Trinity. In any case, I think there is just as much talk about the work of the Holy Spirit amongst the laity- certainly the Spirit enjoys just as much time on pop Christian bestseller lists as the Son. I'd even go as far as to say that what we academics might identify as "mere monotheism" is actually reference to God the Father, who is understood quite simply as "God" (in contrast to the Nicene affirmation of the Son who is God from God rather than simply God).

  6. I completely agree with you as I limped and cringed into this line of criticism. To be sure, accentuating Jesus is appropriate, indeed, obligatory. I'm just still recoiling from this image I happend upon the other day.

  7. "My point is that there is a focus on Christ that is appropriate, it is in fact established by the Father that the Father would be glorified, so it opens up to a properly trinitarian understanding of the Godhead. Jesus has come and died upon a cross, risen from the dead, and is the way through whom we find salvation."

    This is obviously true and well worded I might add. However, I do believe that the usage of this particular name is not in the same spirit as the verses you cite. The "name of Jesus" in contemporary Christian culture strikes me as a childish ramanama than as an austere, solemn expression of ancient Biblical tradition and dogma. To be frank, I find, by way of acquaintance and association, that the people using this phrase are simply relegating the dissonance of existential understanding to communal, neo-collectivist courage to be as part but without the courage.

  8. Evan,

    I certainly share your exasperations at the rhetoric that accompanies the "revival Trinitarian discourse." Further, i completely agree that we must be willing to think critically about other areas of doctrine and Christian life. That said, i think that you may have spoken too soon on whether or not we need to continue to focus on the Trinity.

    By way of personal example, coming from an independent conservative upbringing and college, it wasn't until i was exposed to Barth in graduate school that i came to see its value outside of knowing what to say to be considered orthodox.

    This seems to be the case in many other like-minded institutions. I'm not sure how long we wait for everyone to "catch up," but it seems pretty unlikely that everyone now knows how important the Trinity is.

    Switching gears a bit, I wonder if sometimes people who are academically minded think that it is time to move on more because THEY are ready to, while most of the church really isn't. Can we honestly say that most church activities model and reveal a Trinitarian understanding of God? Again, i'm skeptical. If we act in the service of the church, how can we say we are ready to move on when the church isn't? Obviously more than theology comes into play here, but i doubt that most worship services aren't Trinitarian because they stand in defiance of what theologians are saying.

    Lastly, i understand the fear that overemphasizing the Trinity can lead to deficiencies in other areas, but if the Trinity is the grammar of our language of God (to use James Torrance's idea), then how can we speak of any area of theology without coming back to it? I'm not sure that we can or should want to emphasize any other part of doctrine over the Trinity. As you put it, we may not want to be MERE Trinitarians, but if we are FUNDAMENTALLY SOMETHING OTHER than that, then inevitably we will lose our footing and fall.

    I know that some of this is pretty simplified, but i thought I would play devil's advocate here. Thanks for the provocative post.

  9. brainofdtrain, I think you make some very good points. I'd agree with you that I don't think we should move on to something else, leaving the Trinity behind in our theological reflection. Nor would I consider the presentation of Barth's thought on the Trinity in various theological schools as the sort of object that I was intending to critique... rather what much of the Trinitarian revival has done to such solid thought as Barth's on the doctrine is what is problematic. As Mark Husbands pointed out in a recent conference at Wheaton College, the Trinity is not "our social program". Nor is it, I would be bold enough to say, the "grammar" of any language, nor the name that is above every name. The Trinity is what it is: a wonderful construct we have been blessed with to understand who our Lord God is.

    As a dogma, it could be debated what emphasis should be put on the triunity of God as opposed to any other doctrinal point. Luther made a similar point as the one that you make here, only for the doctrine of justification rather than for trinitarian doctrine. I'm perfectly willing to understand the theological work of the Church as in need of various objects of special focus at different times or places, based on the circumstantial needs. I think it's also important to emphasize how certain points of the faith, such as justification or the Trinity, must remain rather permanently central. But past that, I think we're granting doctrine an existential importance in our life of common prayer that goes well beyond its purpose as doctrine (strongly confessional Lutherans might be a counterpart example for the doctrine of justification, or law and gospel). And that's not to diminish the place of something like "the trinity" by failing to recognize that our God is a/the Trinity; rather I wouldn't want to mistake the doctrinal concept for the triune God Himself. It is the same dilemma that we face for any other name of God- it is really the same dilemma that monotheism faces in its critique by Rahner. Currently, however, orthodox Christian theology stumbles upon trinitarian theology rather than philosophical-necessity type theisms or sophiology or idealism. And this does not mean that there's anything wrong with trinitarian doctrine, but rather with how we approach it.