Bedouin Rublev

Bedouin Trinity

Just hung this painting (by a Jordanian artist) in my living room. Our daughter picked it up in Jarash (Jordan) a few years ago and gifted it to us. We have a fair number of items in our home that we picked up through the years living overseas. This painting – which I call “Bedouin Rublev” – is one of my favorites. It’s not an official icon of the Trinity, but that’s all I see when I look at it.

Trinity and Cross: Karen Kilby on von Balthasar—Part 3


I hope those interested in Balthasar ponder Karen Kilby’s reflections. Here is the third and final portion of her Ch. 5 response to Balthasar’s views on the Trinity and the Cross.

Too Integrated?
The previous section focused on how Balthasar knows all that he seems to know, how indeed any theologian could possibly be in a position to make the claims that Balthasar does. We turn now to a more critical consideration of what he says. In other words, even if one might accept in principle that any such detailed and intimate portrait of the inner life of the Trinity could be acceptable, there is an aspect of Balthasar’s account which ought still, I will suggest, to give significant pause. I will argue that we find in what Balthasar says of the Trinity the apex of a tendency which is in fact met at all levels in his writings, and that whatever one makes of this tendency which is in fact met at all levels in his writings, and that whatever one makes of this tendency at other points, here it is distinctly troubling.

What is this tendency? Suffering, loss, and self-abasement get a strong press in Balthasar’s works. A proclivity to case suffering in a positive light, and to link faith, love, and obedience with self-loss, self-abasement, even something like annihilation of the self, is something that constantly makes itself felt.

One can see this first of all in Balthasar’s treatment of the Cross, and the extension into Holy Saturday. There is here a dwelling upon suffering, a concern to bring out the depth, the immensity, the all-exceeding quality, of Christ’s agony. The interest is not primary with Christ’s physical suffering, nor with his suffering of injustice, humiliation, and betrayal on the part of authorities, disciples, and so on. Balthasar’s concern pivots rather on Jesus’ suffering of God’s wrath, his suffering the betrayal and abandonment by the Father, the hell of absolute God-forsakenness. And he is very concerned to insist on the intensity, the unbearable, unspeakable, unthinkable enormity, of this suffering. Because of Christ’s “filial intimacy with the Father,” Balthasar writes, he can “suffer total abandonment by the Father and taste that suffering to the last drop.” Balthasar affirms at a number of points that the experience of Holy Saturday is timeless; Pascal is right to say that “Jesus’ agony lasts until the end of the world” as is Be’rulle to speak of the eternal openness of Christ’s moral wounds. Balthasar represents Christ’s sufferings as exceeding and so in some sense containing all other suffering; he endorses Barth’s claim that “All that happened to Israel then [in the Old Testament] and since in terms of divine judgment is ‘only a faint reflection compared with the infinitely more terrible happenings that took place on Good Friday’,” and writes elsewhere of “wounds which transcend all inner worldly hurts.” Christ’s suffering “towers far above chronological time,” he writes in his collection of aphorisms, and “Never will an individual man or the totality of all humanity even approximately grasp and encompass these sufferings.”

If the salvific suffering of Christ, and an instance on its eternity and enormity, is important in Balthasar’s theology, then so is the fact that this is something which Christ can graciously “share” with his followers, Balthasar affirms at a number of points the existence of a mystical participation in Christ’s Passion, in Holy Saturday, in Christ’s experience of abandonment and God-forsakenness. He is interested in the mystics’ “dark night of the soul” in general, and in the experiences of Adrienne von Speyr in particular.

The importance in Balthasar’s theology of Christ allowing others a share in his suffering leads at some points to the distinctive and rather surprising exegetical moves. Why does Jesus weep at the death of Lazarus? This is a traditional conundrum, since, if one supposes that Jesus knows that he will raise Lazarus, there seems little cause for tears at his death. One solution that has been given in the tradition is that Jesus wept for the suffering of Martha and Mary, and on this Balthasar puts an unusual spin of his own:

He must have been deeply moved at the inner tragic dimension in which he had to share his God-forsakenness on the Cross (eucharistically and by way of anticipation) with those he loved in a special way.

In the delay of his arrival, in other words, through his temporary “abandonment” of them, Jesus has allowed Martha and Mary to share in his own experience of divine forsakenness, and it is for this, according to Balthasar, that he weeps. Or, perhaps even more startingly, Balthasar suggests that in the words to Mary from the cross, “Woman, this is your son,” Jesus is not so much providing for his mother as rejecting her and so allowing her a share in his forsakenness.

If, for some, an aspect of the Christian life may be the “gift” of a share in unimaginable suffering, in Christ’s Passion and God-forsakenness, this Christian life for all is fundamentally to be characterized as surrender. Self-abnegation, loss of self, and sacrifice of the self, are constantly to the fore in Balthasar’s presentation of faith and the Christian life – and these not just as the vocation of some, or as things that faith might sometimes require, or as things that the Christian must when necessary embrace willingly, but as essential, constitutive, defining components of Christian faith and life.

It is instructive here to consider Balthasar’s treatment of Mary’s fiat, her consent to the angel’s message in the annunciation. This Balthasar takes to be the perfect and archetypal response of faith. “Let it be done to me according to thy will”: allowing oneself to be molded and stamped by God, allowing oneself to become as wax is, for Balthasar, the perfection of faith. He is keen to insist that this is not passivity, but what he calls “active receptivity.” Nevertheless, it is construed very much in terms of self-abnegation. Mary’s achievement, the “highest…made possible by grace,” is “unconditional self-surrender,” “pure transparency. Pure flight from self. Pure emptied space for the Incarnation of the Word.”

The sense that suffering, self-abnegation, and indeed humiliation carry some sort of positive valuation for Balthasar is confirmed at almost every turn in his writings. If we limit ourselves to a single, relatively slender volume of essays in ecclesiology (the second volume of Explorations in Theology), we find reference to the Church as “borne by the suffering members” to the “inner mystery of suffering” that the Constantinian church of glory hid; to the true Christian spirit as “the will to poverty, abasement and humility”; to the “real, fruitful humiliation” of Peter, which was not a “mere exercise in humiliation”; to a humility which, because we are sinners, must be “instilled into us by humiliation”; to “self-abnegation in the service of Christ” as the only way to reveal Christ’s own self-abnegation; to a self-abnegation that liturgical piety requires – one which indeed Balthasar describes as “this violent, this often ‘crucifying’ sacrifice of the pious subject to the ecclesial object”; and to “complete self-abnegation and obedience to the hierarchy” as something Charles de Foucauld rightly commended.

Even when Balthasar expresses thanks to his family, this same alignment of love and suffering makes itself felt. In a retrospective essay written in 1965, after a paragraph on the impossibility of properly acknowledging all that one ought to be thankful for, we find the following:

And where would a man end, if he wanted to begin thanking those of his fellow men who accompanied him on his way, formed him, protected him, made everything possible? Left and right the greetings would have to go: to the nameable and the nameless. A mother is there, who during the course of a long fatal illness dragged herself to Church each morning to pray for her children. Other close relatives, of whom (to what ends God knows) fearful sufferings were demanded. Only in the light of God will one really know what he has to be thankful for.

He is of course thanking his family for nurturing, loving, and educating him – this is presumably all covered in the first sentence cited. But what particularly calls out for granted here is, first, the painful prayers of one suffering and dying, and then simply sufferings whose purpose is unknown.

retablo_of_the_holy_trinity-by_alcario_otero-2001What are we to make of all this? Opinion will perhaps divine. Balthasar is not alone in this sensibility which aligns on some very fundamental level love and sanctity with suffering, and faith with self-abnegation. Something similar can be found in late medieval thought and practice, and in strands of Counter-Reformation and nineteenth-century piety. On the other hand, to develop such alignments is by no means an instinct which has characterized the whole of the Christian tradition: it is largely absent from the Fathers and from Thomas, for instance. It is a sensibility which some will take to be an authentic, developed expression of a theology of the Cross, and element of the mystical tradition that Balthasar laudably retrieves and revitalizes in the fact of the shallow optimism and activism of his time and our own; and which others will find alien, and see perhaps as a masochistic distortion of Christianity.

Whatever one makes of this alignment as it pertains to the characterization of Christian faith and the Christian life, however, there is a fundamental problem when a similar alignment is imported into speculation about the inner life of the Trinity – and this is in fact what we find in Balthasar.

I write of a “similar alignment” rather than “the same alignment” because Balthasar does not – quite – bring suffering into the Trinity. But he does speak of something in the Trinity which can develop into suffering, of a “suprasuffering” in God, and, as we have seen, of risk, of distance, and of something “dark” in the eternal Trinitarian drama. We have seen that he consistently construes the giving internal to the Trinity in terms of giving away, giving up – in terms suggestive of loss. And we have seen that he has a kenotic understanding of the giving which makes up the Trinitarian life, so that he can speak of the Father letting go of his divinity, giving it away, surrendering himself, going “to the very extreme of self-lessness.”

By bringing together in his depiction of God self-loss, self-abnegation, something that comes very close to self-annihilation on the one hand, and love on the other – or again, by bringing bliss together with something that can be described either as supra-suffering, or as that which can develop into suffering – Balthasar is fundamentally blurring the distinction between love and loss, joy and suffering. If love and renunciation, suffering (or something like it) and joy, are linked, not just in the Christian life, but eternally in God, then ultimately suffering and loss are given a positive valuation: they are eternalized, and take on an ultimate ontological status. And then, it seems to me, it becomes hard to understand how Christianity can possible be “good news.” [66]

Donald MacKinnon, an early and highly influential Anglican admirer of Balthasar, reads Balthasar as a theologian who, more than many others, reckons with the Holocaust. In an essay dealing with the Christological of the Theo-Drama, MacKinnon, writes:

In the pages of his work with which we are here concerned there is comparatively little that treats directly of these horrors; but the nervous tension of the whole argument bears witness to the author’s passionate concern to present the engagement of God with his world in a way that refuses to turn aside from the overwhelming, pervasive reality of evil…[Balthasar] insists on a vision that can only be won through the most strenuous acknowledgment of the cost of human redemption.

MacKinnon is certainly right about Balthasar’s insistence on a “strenuous acknowledgment of the cost of human redemption”: as we have seen, Balthasar insists on stressing the enormity, the infinite weight of what took place on Good Friday and Holy Saturday – where Christ in some sense plunges into the experience of all that is most wrong with the world and bears it himself. But we have also seen that Balthasar is concerned to root the Cross firmly in the immanent Trinity, so that there is no question of God at this particular stage taking on something new, something previously unknown (this is what Balthasar believes must be rejected of Moltmann): instead there is the working out on the Cross of something always true of the immanent Trinity. The blurring that I have described in Balthasar’s thought, between bliss and suffering, between love and loss, necessarily follows from these two moves: if Christ is to take into himself all that is most wrong, and if this is not to be something new, but something always in some way anticipated in the Trinity, then it seems that there is no way to avoid importing into God’s eternity something of all that is most wrong and so introducing a sort of fusion of the highest love and the greatest bliss with (something like) the greatest suffering and the profoundest loss. In Balthasar’s hands the effort to grapple in full theological seriousness with tragedy seems in great danger of finally flipping over into something like a divinizing of the tragic. [68]

This section is entitled “Too integrated?” and we are now in a position to see why. On the face of it, Balthasar is impressive, perhaps unsurpassed, in the integration he achieves between soteriology and Trinitarian theology. But the cost turns out to be high. The way in which Balthasar brings together reflection on the immanent Trinity and reflection on the world’s horrors involves, in the end, an introduction of elements from the latter into the former, elements of darkness into the divine light. The highest love of God and the greatest misery of the world are reconciled in his thought by introducing elements of misery, destruction, and loss into the conception of love itself.


[66] I would, in other words, be inclined to judge exactly the reverse of Balthasar about the relation between darkness and God. He writes that “we have no right to regard the Trinity one-sidedly as the ‘play’ of an absolute ‘blessedness’ that abstracts from concrete pain and lacks the ‘seriousness’ of separation and death.” (The Action, p. 325) I would suggest to the contrary that Christians have no right to overcome their incomprehension of evil by introducing pain, separation, and death (or something like them) into their talk of God, no right to the intellectual resolution that comes from knowing of some happening in God that “justifies the possibility and actual occurrence of all suffering in the world” (ibid., p. 324).

[68] Alyssa Lyra Pitstick’s Light in Darkness picks up well on these or closely related dangers in Balthasar’s thought. In contrast to the tradition, she writes, “Balthasar seems to ascribe a positive value to suffering and death in themselves in virtue of their likeness to the suffering Redeemer, not to mention the Trinity” (p. 133). She argues very effectively, too, that although Balthasar may maintain that sin has no place in the Trinity, “this position remains on the level of assertion” (p. 238), in that the whole weight of his thought, both in making sin a reality in itself, and in relating it to the distance between Father and Son, in fact points in the opposite direction. In her conclusion Pitstick insists that “Christ has come that we might have life, not death, and that we might have it in its fullness (see John 10:10). It would be the worst betrayal of this age (not to mention of Christ) to offer it elaborate theological platitudes suggesting its woulds are its life, thereby remaking God in its image” (p. 347). The characterization here of Balthasar’s theology as platitudinous is surely rather polemical, but in other respects I would concur with Pitstick.


Trinity and Cross: Karen Kilby on von Balthasar—Part 2

5120SYOd3HL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_In Part 1 I posted a portion of Karen Kilby’s reflections, outlining in the briefest of terms Balthasar’s views of the Trinity and the Cross. In this Part 2 and upcoming Part 3 I’ll present her responses (with portions of relevant footnotes added). As I’ve said already, she expresses doubts and reservations that have been forming in my own mind as I’ve slowing been getting to know Balthasar’s views.

Too Vivid?
Balthasar portrays the immanent Trinity, then, in a way which is vivid and powerful. There is eternal kenosis, infinite difference, distance, and otherness which is nevertheless united in love, a “primal drama.” But does he have a right to be so vivid? We turn now to the question of how Balthasar can know what he appears to know about the Trinity, and indeed what exactly some of his language about the Trinity might mean. [31]

Insofar as Balthasar provides an explicit account of a method of Trinitarian reflection, there seems little to which one might object. Like most theologians, Balthasar maintains that we learn of the Trinity not through philosophical reflection on God and the world, but through Christ:

It is only on the basis of Jesus Christ’s own behavior and attitude that we can distinguish such a plurality in God. Only in him is the Trinity opened up and made accessible.

This insistence on the centrality of Jesus to our understanding of the Trinity is affirmed at a number of points:

The revelation of the Trinity is bound to Jesus Christ, to his self-giving and hence to his consciousness.

We must hold fast to the conviction that the Trinity is not a synthesis of monotheism (Judaism) and polytheism (Hellenism) but only comes to light with the figure of Jesus Christ.

As will be clear from what has already been outlined, more than many theologians, Balthasar lays particular emphasis upon the Cross as revelatory of the Trinity. But there seems little reason, a priori, to object to this given the centrality of the Cross in the gospel accounts and indeed in Christian belief and practice. And, finally, we should note that at certain points Balthasar makes explicit gestures in the direction of epistemological humility: he writes, for instance:

On the basis of what is manifest in God’s kenosis in the theology of the covenant – and thence in the theology of the Cross – we must feel our way back into the mystery of the absolute, employing a negative theology that excludes from God all intramundane experience and suffering, while at the same time presupposing that the possibility of such experience and suffering…is grounded in God. To think in such a way is to walk on a knife edge.

One can find, on this level, an acknowledgment of the difficulty and the precariousness of reflection on the immanent Trinity.

The problem here does not become clear, then, from what Balthasar says about how one should reflect on the Trinity. To see the problem one needs to look once again at how he in fact proceeds. Let us consider, for instance, Balthasar’s language of distance in the Trinity. Between the Father and the Son, united though they are in love, Balthasar maintains, there is an infinite distance. This is, as we have already suggested, a relatively novel claim. It is not, or at least it has not traditionally been thought to be, something that self-evidently follows from standard affirmations about ousia and hypostases, processions and relations.

How, then, does Balthasar think we know of this infinite distance, separation, otherness, in the Trinity? There are two routes by which he arrives at this point. One – perhaps the less important one – has to do with the avoidance of modalism. Balthasar seems to suggest that something like distance, or “infinite space” must be necessary for the distinction between the Trinitarian Persons to be real. The second route, more frequently stressed, is by way of the Cross: we do not, he thinks, know of this inner-Trinitarian distance only from the Cross, but we somehow know it better, know of its full seriousness, from the Cross: “It is only from the Cross and in the context of the Son’s forsakenness that the latter’s distance from the Father is fully revealed.”

But simply to say that we learn of this distance from the Cross is in fact a little too easy. It is not the case that one has only to look at the Passion narratives to come to the conclusion that there must, in eternity, be an infinite distance between Father and Son. Certainly this is not something that most of the tradition has in fact learned from these narratives, nor is it, I suspect, something most Christians today learn from reading them. At least two things are required in order to learn of distance in the Trinity from the Cross. The first is a particular construal of the Cross itself; the second is a more speculative move from the Cross (thus construed) to what one could call the eternal conditions of its possibility.

The first thing, then, is that one must construe the Cross, Christ’s Passion and death, as most fundamentally a drama of abandonment of Christ by the Father. Although Balthasar is not alone in interpreting it in this way (for all the differences at other points, here he is fundamentally in accord with Jurgen Moltmann), this cannot pose as an obvious or unquestionable reading of the New Testament. There is, first of all, considerable scholarly debate over how to interpret Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?,” as recorded in Mark and Matthew: is this an expression of a sense of abandonment, or is it, as a quotation of the first line of Psalm 22, an affirmation of faith? And even if one accepts the former interpretation, and remains untroubled by the fact that there seems to be no overtones of such an experience of abandonment in the accounts of Luke or John, one needs still to make a further step: one needs to move, that is, from observing that Jesus is portrayed as suffering a sense of abandonment to affirming that what is most fundamentally being depicted and played out is in fact the abandonment of Jesus by the Father. The abandonment, in other words, needs to be thought of, not just as an element in the experience that Jesus as a suffering and dying human being has, but rather as the underlying truth, the central underlying truth, of what is taking place on the Cross.

MYST-PHaving determined to read the Cross as a drama of God’s abandonment by God, the Father’s rejection of the Son, the second thing one must do to arrive at the notion of distance in the Trinity is to suppose that this abandonment on the Cross (and during Holy Saturday) is possible only if the eternal Trinitarian relations are characterized by infinite, absolute distance, radical otherness, separation. This is not a matter of reasoning from an effect back to its cause, exactly, but rather from a historical (or quasi-historical)[39] drama of the economic Trinity to the characteristics of its eternal ground. What must have always been the case in the relations between Father and Son if they can on the Cross be expressed in terms of abandonment of the latter by the former? To be able to answer this question, it is worth noting, one has to suppose one knows how to do a certain kind of sifting, considering the various elements of the drama of the Cross and distinguishing between those which are specifically intramundane on the one hand and those which reveal something of the eternal life of the Trinity on the other. One does not, for instance, directly impute rejection and forsakenness to the immanent Trinity, but one does learn of distance and separation.

What I have so far suggested, then, is that to make the move Balthasar does from the Cross to an infinite distance in the eternal life of God requires both that one adopt a particular, contested reading of the significance of the death of Jesus, and that one then make a particular deduction, from the drama of the Cross thus construed, to the eternal conditions of its possibility. None of this need be illegitimate. But what I think does emerge is that this notion of infinite, absolute distance in the Trinity cannot be put forward as a kind of obvious and self-evident starting point for further argument or reflection, but is at most the highly tentative and rather precarious conclusion to a train of theological argumentation. If we construe the Cross in a particular way, then perhaps we can indeed tentatively hypothesize something like infinite distance in the Trinity to make sense of it. But to treat this notion of inner Trinitarian distance as though it were itself simply a given, a dogmatic datum, something to be understood with confidence, built upon, and further refined, would be illegitimate.

Another way to come to see the precarious nature of this notion is to turn to the slightly different question of what exactly it might mean to talk to infinite distance in the eternal Trinity. It is certainly a suggestive and evocative notion, but not on the face of it a particularly clear one. Balthasar does not, of course, propose that the Trinitarian Persons have bodies which could be located at particular points in space, and between which one could be located at particular points in space, and between which one could therefore measure physical distance. But if not as physical or spatial, how then are we in fact to think of this distance? Rowan Williams suggests that we might take the German here (Abstand) as “difference,” so would be perhaps make more headway if we ask what might be meant by the infinite, absolute difference between Father and Son? This too is, prima facie, difficult to grasp, given that the Perrsons of the Trinity as consubstantial. That everything the Father is, he gives to the Son, is a traditional claim, and one also reaffirmed by Balthasar. The difference cannot lie in the “what” that is given, then: the only place left to locate the difference would seem to be in the fact that in one instance something is given, in the other received. The Father is the one who gives everything to the Son, the Son the one who receives everything from the Father. Can this difference, distance, separateness, of which Balthasar speaks – this infinite and absolute difference, distance, separateness – be a matter of the difference between total gift and total reception? Perhaps. But there is still quite a bit of room for questions.

Reflection on instances of giving that are rather more familiar might prompt one kind of hesitation. In general, we do not think of giving, and in particular giving of oneself, as creating distance, difference, separation between giver and receiver – at least not unless the giving somehow goes wrong. One might argue that it is otherwise in sexual relations, where difference and intimate giving seem in some sense to go together. We will return to this area, one very important to Balthasar, in the next chapter, but for the moment it is worth noting that even if difference is important here, sexual difference is not so much constituted by acts of giving and receiving, as it is (perhaps) the precondition of this particular kind of giving and receiving.

Even if we set aside such analogies as irrelevant – perhaps giving and receiving just are radically different in the sphere of the divine, or perhaps in light of the Cross and the Trinity we must reconceive all giving in terms of the creation of distance and otherness (indeed, as we shall discuss below, this is not too far from what Balthasar does propose) – even if we set all this aside, there are other difficulties lurking. The Father, according to Balthasar, empties himself, strips himself, in the originally kenotic act of giving himself to the Son, and we are exploring the possibility that it is in the difference between such kenosis and the Son’s reception that the infinite distance or difference is to be found. But then the Son is of course also engaged in kenosis – the Son follows the Father in this self-giving, self-stripping: the Son too, as image of the Father, completely gives himself away. So how can this, the difference between giving and receiving, actually constitute the otherness, the distance, the difference, between Father and Son, if self-giving is one of the things in which the Son precisely images the Father?

Again, here too perhaps answers can be found. Perhaps it is not in giving and receiving as such that one is to find the locus for the infinite, absolute difference, but the very particular relation between Father and Son that involves the one always giving and the other always receiving. Perhaps it is then this particular act of giving and receiving that somehow sets the two in a relation of infinite difference. The “somehow,” though, needs to be distinctly stressed here.

I do not mean to suggest that we should say that language of difference or separation in the eternal life of the Trinity is senseless, that it can in principle have no meaning. But certainly it seems like we find ourselves in rather difficult waters if we try to imagine what is in fact envisaged here; it is not particularly easy to offer a positive account of what “distance” or “difference,” much less infinite, absolute distance or difference, might look like in the Trinity. Ultimately, it seems that the position is something like this: if the Cross is conceived as God abandoning God, and if we are not, like Moltmann, to think of it as introducing something new, something previously unexperienced, into the life of the Trinity, then we are bound to suppose that there is something eternally present in the life of the Trinity which anticipates it, something to which it gives expression. Balthasar calls this whatever-it-is that anticipates the Cross distance, but, as the explorations above suggest, that really gets us no further towards imagining what it might be than would the phrase “that inexplicable, incomprehensible X in the eternal life of the Trinity, whatever it may be, which is a condition of the possibility of the Cross.”

von-BalthasarWhat is striking in Balthasar’s Trinitarian discussions, however, is that in a great many cases they are not marked by the tentativeness, the sense of precariousness, that ought to follow both from the way such notions about absolute distance are derived, and from the questions surrounding what they might mean. Instead we find confidence, ease, expansiveness, fluency – a sense that Balthasar knows very well what he is describing and is quite happy to fill out the picture. We find in him, not someone driven to stutter uncertainly, somehow, in light of the Cross, about the Trinity, but rather a theologian who seems very well to know his way around, to have a view – even sometimes something that seems remarkably like an insider’s view – of what happens in the inner life of the Trinity.

Balthasar is expansive on a number of fronts. He comments relatively freely, first of all, about the mechanics of the Trinitarian processions. He affirms, for instance, not only that the Father begets the Son, but that the Son “antecedently consents” to being begotten, that he holds himself in readiness to be begotten, that Son and Spirit place themselves at the disposal of their generation. He also seems to know a good deal about the attitudes of the Trinitarian Persons towards each other. Thus, he affirms that the Father is grateful to the Son for allowing himself to be begotten, who in turn is grateful to the Father for wanting to beget him; he also tells us that surprise, “eternal amazement,” is an element of the life of the Trinity, so that for instance “It is as if the Son…‘from the outset surpasses the Father’s wildest expectation’,” while the Son himself is always beholding the Father from new angles. The eternal life of the Trinity is, he seems to know, characterized by thanksgiving (each hypostasis “can only be itself insofar as it endlessly affirms and gives thanks for its own existence and all that shares existence”), by worship, and even by petitionary prayer.

The sense that Balthasar knows his way around the inner workings of the Trinity surprisingly well is at its strongest if one looks at the way he describes what one might call the Trinity’s decision-making processes. Consider the following passage:

If the Father has a (primary) intention – perhaps with regard to the shape of the creation he has planned – he communicates this intention to the Son in begetting him, giving him “preludes, beginnings taken up by the Son to be realized”; thus he leaves it to the Son to “promote the fatherly purposes.” In begetting the Son, the Father, as it were, addresses a request to him, and the Son in turn wishes nothing other than to employ his entire filial freedom in fulfilling the Father’s will. So “the Father is the first to ask: and he asks the Son, in order to give him the joy of granting his request….Even before the Son asks him” (for instance, to be entrusted with the task of saving the world through the Cross), “the Father wants to make his request, as if to give the Son precedence in the delight of granting.”

The Father, then, has the broad ideas, but he leaves it to the Son (out of “consideration,” a desire to give the Son a certain precedence) to work out the details of implementation. Just how concretely and seriously this division of labor is meant becomes clear in a further citation from von Speyr that Balthasar provides in a footnote: “Perhaps the Father would have had other suggestions, other ideas pertaining to redemption that would not have made the abandonment of the Cross necessary. But he does not express them; he leaves redemption up to the Son. In love, what is best is always what the other wishes.”

Much of what I have cited in the last two paragraphs comes from the fifth and final volume of the Theo-Drama, but though it is here that Balthasar waxes most eloquent (whether in his own words, or through his endorsement of those of von Speyr) about the inner life of the Trinity, it would be wrong to suppose that this late volume is somehow an aberration. We have seen some examples of quite free and confident language of divine self-stripping and a primal kenosis in the fourth volume, and one can find already in the second volume references to mutual acknowledgement, adoration, and petition among the Persons of the Trinity, the need for each to have “space,” and an insistence on the “joys of expectation, hope, and fulfillment.” Balthasar’s thinking about the Trinity and the Cross is actually remarkably consistent from the time he published Heart of the World in 1945 through to the end of his life.

At times, as we have seen, Balthasar makes gestures of epistemic humility. At times he points to a scriptural basis, or a process of reasoning, by which he arrives at his claims about the inner life of God. But taken as a whole, he does not write like a theologian who is “feeling his way back” into a mystery, on the basis of Christ and the Cross; he writes more like a novelist who, with a particular understanding of the Cross as a starting point, freely fills out background, adds character details, constructs prior scenes (“a primal drama”), and evokes a general atmosphere, all to make the central point plausible, powerful, effective – to make it work. [52]

The result is a theology that is undoubtedly integrated and vivid: integrated, because while it may not be especially plausible to claim that all Balthasar tells us of the Trinity is derived from Christ and the Cross, it is for the most part in one way or another related to Christ and the Cross, and vivid, because the larger story in which Balthasar places the Cross does serve to lend a kind of intensity to its drama. But it is also a work which seems to transgress the usual bounds of theology, to speak with too much confidence, to know more than can be known.


[31] One question that I will not attempt to deal with here is whether Balthasar is in fact propounding tritheism. This is a concern to which his theology, like that of the social theorists discussed above, can give rise. In both cases the Persons of the Trinity seem to be presented as three centers of consciousness, three “I’s” with three wills which are, in principle at least, distinct.
[39] Balthasar characterizes Christ’s experience of hell on Holy Saturday as “timeless,” which raises questions about whether one can describe the event of the Cross as historical.
[52] Rowan Williams makes a related point, though in typically understated form: “there is an inevitable risk,” he writes in an essay on Balthasar and the Trinity, “of creating a divine narrative, a story like the stories of contingent agents, of the kind that mainstream Trinitarian theology has consistently sought to avoid” (Balthasar on the Trinity,” p. 47).

Trinity and Cross: Karen Kilby on von Balthasar—Part 1

sidebar_topHans Urs von Balthasar (d. 1988), Swiss Catholic theologian and author, towers over Christian thought at the end of the 20th century and continues to inform and inspire thinkers into the 21st. I confess – I share the struggles of those who want to understand him well but who find his writing always daunting and often inaccessible. I’ve depended on others to sift through his opus and make sense of it for me. My most recent help has come from Karen Kilby’s (Durham University) Balthasar: A (Very) Criticial Introduction, a short introduction that has received both (well-deserved, I think) praise and criticism from Balthasar fans.

There is no ignoring Balthasar’s colossal output, which is why I continue to try to access him. I’ve naturally gravitated toward works that focus on his Trinitarianism (his speculative reach to describe the event(s) that constitute God’s inner life), his Christology (particularly his kenoticism), and his understanding of the Cross (as divine abandonment) – all three of which are a single subject for Balthasar.

As I got into Kilby’s responses in Ch 5 (“The Trinity”), I found myself doing far too much highlighting. Objections I had loosely and tentatively formed over several years in my own mind are explicitly described by Kilby. So I’d like to present three portions of this chapter (with relevant footnotes) – the first (in this post) a summary of Balthasar’s views (‘Trinity and Cross’), then a second and third which form Kilby’s (and my own) reservations.

Trinity and Cross
We saw in the previous chapter that Balthasar highlights as “the quintessence of Scripture” five biblical motifs surrounding the Cross (self-surrender, exchange, liberation, our being drawn into the divine life, God’s love as the primary source of the whole). And we saw that in his survey of the tradition he presented each of his predecessors as having taken up some but not all of the motifs, or else having failed to maintain the appropriate balance between them. Balthasar in fact proposes that two things are needed in order to do justice to the full range of motifs. One, we have already seen, is a dramatic approach, which can keep in play and hold in tension a variety of elements, rather than attempting to reduce everything to any single concept. The second, which is our concern here, is what he calls a “Trinitarian substructure.”

What, then, is this Trinitarian substructure? It has to do with the nature of the relations between the Persons of the Trinity. These relations Balthasar characterizes not only in the familiar terms of love and gift, but also in terms of distance (in fact, infinite distance), otherness, risk, and kenosis.

Now, the language of the Father giving everything, giving indeed himself, to the Son, is very common in traditional Trinitarian reflection. What is far less familiar is the way Balthasar consistently glosses this giving as a giving up, giving away, a self-stripping: “the Father strips himself, without remainder, of his Godhead and hands it over to the Son”; the Father “can give his divinity away”; the Father “lets go of his divinity”; this is an “original self-surrender” in which the Father “must go to the very extreme of self-lessness.”

Where classic treatments of the Trinity tend, if anything, to emphasize the closeness, the inseparability, of the Persons, Balthasar writes repeatedly of the distance (in his more cautious moment, of “something like distance”) between them, of otherness and separation. The Son is “the infinitely Other” of the Father; there is “an absolute, infinite ‘distance’” between them, “a unique and incomprehensible ‘separation’ of God from himself.” Interestingly, where in classic treatments, the closeness, the inseparability, of the Persons tends to be conceived as linked to the fullness of the Father’s self-gift – because the Father gives everything he is to the Son, there can be no distance between them – in Balthasar’s thought this same self-gift of the Father’s (though here conceived as self-stripping) leads, it would seem, in precisely the opposite direction: Balthasar’s assertion of the infinite difference or separation of the Persons regularly follows references to the Father giving himself away completely to the Son.

Kenosis – self-emptying – begins, then, not in the Cross or the Incarnation, but in the Father’s generation of the Son. The Father does not actually do away with himself in this kenosis: “the Father, in uttering and surrendering himself without reserve, does not lose himself. He does not extinguish himself by self-giving.” Nevertheless, Balthasar is keen to preserve something like a sense of risk, something vulnerable and dangerous, in this giving away.

What such an understanding of the inner relations of the eternal divine Persons does is to allow Balthasar to develop a Trinitarian understanding of the meaning of the Cross, which can then be seen not as a breach in or a change to the eternal inner-Trinitarian relations, but as an expression of them. He is able, that is, to present the Cross as the enactment of a drama between the Father and the Son, while at the same time insisting, with the tradition, that God is not somehow altered through an engagement with history.

The Cross should not be understood, Balthasar insists, simply as God incarnate, in his human nature, undergoing suffering and death on behalf of or in the place of sinners. Such a statement may not be false, but it does not go far enough, does not get to the most profound level of what is at stake. It is not just God incarnate who undergoes the Cross, but the Son, and what is undergone is not just suffering and death, but more profoundly forsakenness, abandonment, rejection, by the Father. On the Cross we see God rejected by and alienated from God. On the Cross the relationship between God’s wrath and sin is played out between the Father and the Son, and therefore taken over into God, into the relationship between the Father and the Son. But because of what we have seen above, of the infinite distance, the “incomprehensible separation” which all along, so to speak, characterizes the Father/Son relations, this is not the introduction of something new into the Trinity because infinite distance and something like alienation were always already there. The Trinity, one could say a little crudely, is “big enough” to encompass and so overcome even the terrible distance between the righteous and angry God and the lost sinner.

Balthasar’s much debated proposal concerning Holy Saturday is essentially the working out of this same idea. What happens in the time between Christ’s death and resurrection, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday? There is a biblical reference (1 Peter 3:19; 4:6) to Christ’s preaching to the dead, and traditionally this has been developed into a notion of a victorious descent, “the beginning of the manifestation of his triumph over death and the first application of the fruits of redemption.” [*] Balhasar proposes, by contrast, that Christ is utterly passive on Holy Saturday, that he can no longer act, that he is genuinely dead in solidarity with the dead, and indeed that , having become identified with sin itself, he experiences the full horror of it, which is to say hell, utter rejection, and abandonment by the Father.

Balthasar’s soteriology is powerful and vivid. It seems to show how we can take seriously the gravity of sin, and the recurrent biblical theme of divine wrath against sin, while presenting a drama in which the overwhelming theme is still that of God’s love. It takes up the traditional themes (typically emphasized in Protestant theology) of Christ’s substitution for us, even of Christ bearing punishment for us, but because of the thoroughly Trinitarian way in which Balthasar sets out the drama, the usual difficulty of these themes – that a requirement for a perfectly just man to be killed for the iniquities of the unjust is repellent, arbitrary, unfair – is, if not entirely eliminated, at least reduced. The dominant sense one is left with is not of God insisting on punishing one party instead of another, but of God taking into his own life the necessary conflict between us as the provision of an explanation, but as the exploration of a drama, he is able to put the emphasis on bringing out, rather than dissolving, conflicting themes and forces.

Our main concern at this stage, however, is not in his soteriology for its own sake, but in Balthasar’s treatment of the Trinity, and particularly the way he interweaves reflections on the Trinity with soteriology. To appreciate the distinctiveness of this integration, it is useful to compare it to what has become in recent years the more typical pattern of Trinitarian reflection.

As I mentioned in the opening paragraph of the chapter, many contemporary theologians feel the need to restore the doctrine of the Trinity to a place of centrality and importance, to restore to it a sense of relevance, to rescue it from the realm of technical puzzles, intellectual gymnastics, celestial mathematics. One very common strategy is to reject the traditional Western “psychological analogy” for the Trinity and introduce instead a social analogy: the Trinity is to be modeled, not on the multiple faculties or multiple activities of a single mind, but on a small community bound together by love. The relevance of the Trinity is then found in the way it becomes itself a model for community, and in the quality of the relationships within it, relationships so profound that they can make the Three genuinely One. If the doctrine of the Trinity portrays the divine in its innermost reality as Persons-in-relation, as relationships so profound that they constitute the Persons, or as relationships so profound that they lead to a “perichoretic” unity of Persons, then surely it has something to say about how we think about family, about the Church, about society at all levels, and about ourselves. In this way the Trinity is found to be, after all, an edifying doctrine with a range of very practical applications.

Social theories are, of course, varied, but many share in a basic pattern, a pattern of abstraction followed by application. One moves away from the complexities of the biblical texts, away from discussion of creation, Incarnation, Cross, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost, to rest one’s focus on a set of quite abstract concepts – concepts of Persons, relations, and perichoresis – and then, taking these to be what ware at the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity, one looks to find application for the concepts, to give these abstractions relevance. So one can find a Colin Gunton, for instance, writing enthusiastically about the applications of the notion of perichoresis in metaphysics or in conceiving of the interpenetration of different academic disciplines, or a Jurgen Moltmann drawing on the eternal relations of the Trinity as a way to provide a model for Church polity and indeed a way to move beyond the impasse between Western individualism and Eastern communitarianism.

On some points Balthasar is at one with these social theorists. He too envisages the Persons of the Trinity functioning as something not too far from persons in our ordinary sense of the term, and so he too imagines the Trinity as something closer to a small society or family than to differing aspects of a single psyche. But here the ways part, for Balthasar does not engage in the abstraction so characteristic of social theories of the Trinity. The Trinity is never, in Balthasar’s theology, a doctrine in search of a meaning, and he does not need to propose for it some extra relevance of its own: it is rather, as he presents it, intimately concerned with, and necessary for the understanding of, the life of Jesus and particularly the Cross. So, for example, though Balthasar is like the social theorists in showing a concern with the eternal inner relations of the Trinity, he leads us not into a reflection about a general concept of relations that can then perhaps find useful application elsewhere, but into a reflection very specifically about the relation of the Father to the Son (and to some extent of the Holy Spirit to both). We have in Balthasar, then, as vivid and gripping a presentation of the inner life of the Trinity as any social theorist could wish for, but one which maintains at every stage vital links with the drama of salvation.

* Not to be confused with Balthasar, this quote if from Alyssa Pitstick (First Things, December 2006)

Face to face with Greg


Many thanks to Greg Boyd for taking time to respond (his Part 1 and Part 2) to my comments (Parts 1-4) reviewing aspects of his new Crucifixion of the Warrior God (CWG). I went on to post some relevant follow-ups as well:

● How Jesus viewed his cross
● My God, My God, how have we misinterpreted you?
● Saved by joy

Our blog here occupies a very quiet place on the edge of the edge of the blogging world, so it’s nice to have Greg engage me over at ReKnew in a response to my review. I know he’s busy and I appreciate the effort. Several of my comments (together with, I suspect, the prolonged nature of our objection to key aspects of Greg’s theology) seem to have gotten under Greg’s skin. Maybe not, but if they have, then I hope I can bring some clarity to our differences. I won’t take up each point in his responses, but there are a few points I should comment on for clarity’s sake.

First–that I attack Greg’s integrity.
Greg senses that I’ve leveled an ad hominem attack on him by questioning his integrity regarding his use of (his) Trinity & Process (T&P) in support of claims he makes in CWG when the supporting arguments in T&P are positions Greg no longer himself holds. I believe I said this seemed to be an issue of academic integrity, and I went on to explain that what I had in mind was what I understood to be a standard of good scholarship, namely, that when a recognized scholar departs significantly from his own published work, some account/defense of the reasons for the change in mind is expected. I haven’t suggested Greg knowingly plotted to deceive readers. I’m just saying that there’s a level of explanation missing from Greg’s ongoing work relative to his earlier work in T&P that I understand to be a part of good scholarship. It is a bit surprising also to hear someone of Greg’s recognition admit that it wouldn’t matter what the philosophical arguments were in support of older positions he no longer holds because utter philosophical nonsense would be “a small price to pay.” Do I criticize this? Well, yes. I don’t mean thereby to attack Greg’s faith, character or sincerity. It’s just my understanding of a canon of scholarship that includes managing one’s intellectual journey a bit differently. If I’m wrong about what makes for good, responsible scholarship, more’s the pity.

I do take it to be a given (well-documented here) that Greg’s present views are incompatible with convictions at the core of T&P – namely, the abiding nature of God’s essential triune ‘experience’. If Greg really thinks there’s no significant change in his thought relative to this core and he’s not interested in arguments to the contrary, well, so be it. But if he is ever interested in batting those questions about, I’d be happy to pitch him a few.


Second—not defining ‘violence’.
Regarding Greg’s not defining ‘violence’, he decided against it. I get that. My point in bringing it up was that much of the ongoing conversation (pro and con) regarding CWG turns precisely on what one thinks goes into making a thought, intention, or act ‘violent’. It would surely help if Greg (and others) would be explicit. Take Bruxy Cavey, for example. At a recent Woodland Hills Church CWG Q&A session, Greg was somewhat surprised when Bruxy (disagreeing with Greg’s view that Peter used his irrevocable God-given spiritual powers to kill Ananias and Sapphira [Acts 5]) said he thought God took Ananias and Sapphira out of the equation and that this was in God’s perspective a right, wise, and loving thing to do. The interesting point is that Bruxy and Greg are equally committed to ascribing zero violence to God. So the only reason Bruxy can see God’s taking Ananias and Sapphira out of the equation as wise and loving and Greg not see it this way is because the two of them define ‘violence’ differently. The difference won’t show up in genocidal passages (which sort of passage Greg suggests to me was one reason why he chose not to define violence), but it will and does show up in other controversial passages (like Ananias & Sapphira) that are central to Greg’s thesis. As it so happens, in recently attempting to get people to be explicit about what really constitutes ‘violence’, I was surprised to discover little general interest in the question and little agreement over what constitutes an act’s ‘violence’. I think this is pretty significant.

Third—making a certain view of the Cross the ‘exclusive’ center.
Greg points out that I’m wrong about saying he suggests the Cross “exclusively” defines the hermeneutical center. Fair enough. But I didn’t mean to suggest that Greg takes no notice of the incarnation or the resurrection as definitive of the Cross. I was referring to Greg’s positing a choice between taking the Cross over the life of Christ as the defining center. I’m referring, of course, to Greg’s own arguments for why the entire life of Christ (considered as a whole) cannot successfully be considered the center because it’s too broad a center and it involves too many disagreements. The Cross, Greg argues, is a narrower and more agreed upon thematic center. It’s that particular choice I was speaking to. That is – our options are exclusively binary – either Christ-centered (taking the entire Christ-event as the center) or Crucicentric (taking the Cross as the center). I didn’t suggest Greg doesn’t integrate everything outside the Cross, I was only commenting on his reasons for why the Cross, and not the entirety of Christ’s life, be the center.

Fourth—not evaluating the lengthy case Greg makes for his understanding of the Cross.
Greg chides me a bit for not evaluating the lengthy case he makes for his particular understanding of the Cross (as opposed to focusing on the Cry of Dereliction as a tiny aspect of the Cross). I confess I’m baffled by this. I actually have commented on the principles of divine accommodation, spiritual warfare (basically agreeing with the reality of creaturely choice and the nature of created opposition to God, but stopping short of making Satan a functional demiurge), and semi-autonomous power. But most reviewers focus criticism on what they find most objectionable, and that’s what I did.

It seems to me that if one places the Cross at the center of one’s theology, what one believes the Cross to be defines that center. True, Greg says a great many things at length about the implications of the Cross, but it seemed clear to me as I read CWG that the Cross understood as God’s own experience of godforsakenness and self-estrangement was the center of gravity around which the rest of the work revolves. I focused on this aspect because, though Greg didn’t spend hundreds of pages on it, by the very nature of its relevance, ‘divine abandonment’ constitutes the center of the center. Yes, of course the Cross is also an ‘accommodation’ to our fallenness. Yes, it’s also ‘warfare’. But the divine act in/on the Cross which makes its accommodating act an engagement with the fallen powers (which I don’t disagree the Cross is) is precisely the divine abandonment that Greg posits. It’s this reading of the Cross that I focused my objections on because that’s what I find objectionable.

Now, in his response to me Greg seems to be suggesting that viewing the Father’s abandonment of the Son is a minor and negotiable point because it receives only a fragment of CWG’s 1,400 pages. If this is the case then many of us are truly dumbfounded, for we assumed Greg’s view of the divine abandonment “behind the scenes” which defines the Cross was indeed central to his thesis. Now it seems Greg is acknowledging that how he interprets the Cry of Dereliction isn’t definitive of the Cross that defines the center. If that be the case, then – forgive me Greg – this really is a poorly written book, because nobody reading vol. 2 would think that the divine abandonment which Greg defines as the truth of what’s going on “behind the scenes” is for Greg a negotiable, non-essential aspect of the cruciform thesis. It’s not always about volume, i.e., how many pages one spends discussing a question. It’s where you’re standing in relation to the whole when you say what you say, even it’s a fragment of the whole.

If I was the only one who thought any of this, I would never have reviewed CWG to begin with, but it was the overwhelming push back on precisely this aspect of the book that encouraged me to express my own thoughts too.

facetoface2Fifth—on the ‘intrinsic’ nature of the consequences of our choices.
Then there’s the issue of the intrinsic nature of the consequences of our choices. Greg argues that Jesus suffers the death consequences intrinsic to our sinful choices. Now, I question the very notion that Christ can suffer any intrinsic consequences of our sinful choices, especially if, as Greg says, those consequences are ‘organic’ to the choice. If organic to the choice, then – I say – organic to the chooser. Indeed, it’s undeniable that the despair and godforsakenness Greg holds to be intrinsic to our sinful choices are already invariably experienced by those who make those choices.

Greg apparently questions this line of reasoning (if I’m following him) and offers a strange defense of the transferability of the intrinsic consequences of one person’s choices onto another subject. Here’s the analogy: Joe gets drunk and passes out on some train tracks. Bill steps in to pull Joe away from an oncoming train. Joe is saved but Bill gets stuck and is killed by the train. In Greg’s view, Bill experiences the consequences that were ‘intrinsic’ to Joe’s choices. But this seems mistaken. Getting struck by a train is not intrinsic to the choice to get drunk; nor is getting struck by a train intrinsic to passing out drunk on train tracks. But, one might reason, Bill gets struck by a train only because Joe was there drunk and in the way of an oncoming train, so surely Bill suffers ‘what Joe would have suffered’ had Bill left Joe on the tracks. Not exactly, but let’s go with that. Even so, this is not to transfer to Bill what is ‘intrinsic’ to Joe’s choice. On the contrary, Bill experiences the consequences intrinsic to his choice, namely, to risk his safety to save Joe. But that risk is not intrinsic to Joe’s decision to get drunk.

This brings up my comments that Greg’s view appears to me to maintain a penal-substitutionary flavor or orientation, a point about which Greg expresses some disappointment in my reading of him. My reasons for reading Greg this way are documented here and elsewhere by others who have reviewed CWG. No need to repeat all the points. I’ll just say a few things to clarify. First, I could of course be reading Greg wrong, but I’m not the only one to see CWG as offering a version of penal-substitutionary atonement. Virtually all those involved in recent online conversations pick up the same penal assumptions at work. Secondly, Greg feels that since God doesn’t transfer our actual guilt onto Jesus and doesn’t emotionally vent rage upon Jesus, and since Greg doesn’t articulate what does go on in the Cross in forensic terms, he’s clear of any penal associations. However, transfer of guilt and feelings of rage are not an essential, defining aspect of a penal model of atonement.

It would be interesting to pursue this more, but I’ll close this point by saying, thirdly, that another reason the force of Greg’s response to me on this point is surprising is that elsewhere online recently, Greg asked those of us in the room to clarify why we were all objecting to his book on the grounds that it offers a non-Girardian, penal view of the Cross. I responded to him in precisely the terms I’ve done on this post, saying:

Of course, as you say, the Father turns Jesus ‘over to the crowds’ (i.e. surrenders Jesus to human violence). Everybody agrees on that much. But that’s not “all [you’re] saying.” You’re saying that in addition to our abandoning Jesus, the Father himself abandons Jesus and the pain of the latter abandonment is what does the saving work. But there’s no logical connect between God’s turning Jesus over to be abandoned by the world and God’s abandoning Jesus. Why must such abandonment occur? The intrinsic death consequences to all sin. But this just is PSA. You have a softer articulation of it because you emphasize the love that motivates it and you also don’t limit it to the elect. But it’s still the same exchange. Why *must* there be satisfaction of the so-called intrinsic consequences of sin? What is forgiveness after all? Why cannot God welcome us home without suffering his own antithetical negation? You already grant that God forgives us entirely apart from such abandonment. So follow the logic of that through – what kind of love is capable of ‘forgiving’ us without suffering self-inflicted self-negation but is not capable of being present with us in transforming ways without such negation?

To which Greg responded (to me and the group):

Oh, okay. For the first time I think I may see how you construe my view as PSA. I have been utterly baffled up to this point. I’ll have to think about this some more and I suspect it will need [a] separate post to address, but I suspect the problem comes from different understandings of “abandonment” and why Jesus had to die.

Ya think? My point exactly, which is why I’m confused over why Greg in his ReKnew response now seems at all surprised or bothered by my describing his position as reducible to penal-substitutionary assumptions. He had already agreed to understanding why I and others were reading him that way.

Seventh—regarding whether God’s experience of himself is “reduced” to godforsakenness.
I expressed my objection to Greg’s view of the Father forsaking the Son, and of the divine persons being “estranged from one another,” in terms of Greg “reducing” God to godforsakenness. Greg objected to the word “reduce” here and insists he doesn’t reduce God to godforsakenness, and he wonders why I would think he holds such a position. To clarify, I didn’t say Greg reduces God simpliciter to godforsakenness. I said Greg reduces God’s triune “experience of himself” to godforsakenness and self-estrangement. We’re only talking about God’s “experience.” Why? Because Greg is the one who makes the distinction (vol. 2, chapter on divine withdrawal) between God’s essential unity of being (or “existence”) as such and God’s “experience” of his own unity. And Greg builds his view of divine abandonment on the premise that God has no experience of his essential triune being that transcends the world. In existential terms (terms Greg introduces to accommodate the compatibility of godforsakenness with God’s essential unity), God is reduced to the pain of godforsakenness, i.e., there is no transcendent experience Father and Son enjoy that is not affected by the Cross. That’s what I mean by “reduced to.”

I appreciate and admire many things about Greg. None of my comments was meant to impugn his character, his love for God, or his passion for people. I’m only interested in the content of his views, particularly his Christology, in relation to his Trinitarian arguments in T&P (Trinity & Process), and I encourage Greg to consider integrating T&P into his present views in a serious, more thoughtful way. That would be an interesting read!

(If there are any worries about the picture opening this post, it’s a picture of two boxers going toe to toe – just in case anyone thought it was Greg and I.)

Go with the Flow

rohrThanks to Fr Kimel for the heads up on Fred Sanders’ review of Richard Rohr’s new book Divine Dance: Trinity and Your Transformation. I don’t usually get with the Gospel Coalition’s vibe in general, their view of the atonement, or their rejection as heresy of other orthodox positions, “but never mind that for now” (as Sanders repeatedly says in his review). I have not yet read Rohr’s new book (definitely will, and soon). I also want to kick myself for not remembering the passage, but I do recall running across the word “dance” in one of the Greek Fathers in reference to the Trinity. Regardless of the accuracy of my memory though, I don’t share Sanders’ suspicion of the word “dance” to describe the dynamism of the Trinity’s fullness.

Not having read Rohr’s book, it’s impossible to judge the content of Sanders’ review. That said, I didn’t find Sanders’ tone insulting or dismissive, even if it was passionate. He was helpful and fair, ever if he ignores the notorious (and orthodox!) language of the mystics (like Eckhart) who are infamous (and loved!) for their shocking claims regarding being one with God and experiencing one’s own self as inseparable from the divinity in (even ‘of’) all things. If Sanders hasn’t read Denys Turner on the Christian mystics, that might help him understand people like Rohr and what such language is doing (even if it doesn’t always announce what it’s doing). There’s no way to bring mystical expression (more art that a recipe to follow) into any neat – concept for concept – alignment with precise doctrinal formulae. You’re going to have messy conceptual leftovers on the table. I could pull phrases out of Maximus, not identify him as the author, and almost certainly get a similar assessment of them by Sanders. Rohr is a mystic, and you have to remember that.

However, at the same time I’m glad we have the mystics to push us beyond stale and clinical formulae, I’m thankful we have thoughtful, informed, debated, conciliar statements too. I’ve posted on aspects of Rohr’s thought from earlier works that I find helpful, but if Sanders has accurately captured Rohr’s essential claim regarding the Trinity, I agree with Sanders that there’s room for great concern – not because Rohr uses the words “dance” and “flow” (those can be put to good use), but because of more sinister metaphysical assumptions at work (i.e., God’s dependency upon the world by which God constitutes or enriches his own being, a distinction between the divine persons and something “other” [viz., “the Flow”] than those persons in which the persons participate, or the idea that we participate in that “Flow” as the divine persons do and so expand the Trinity’s partnership to Four, etc.). If this is just Eckhartian mysticism being uncomfortable with the boundaries of neat formulae, fine. That just is the ongoing conversation that is Christianity. Experience will always exceed language, territory will always exceed the map. Hopefully Rohr will clarify his position. But if these other metaphysical assumptions are at work, those are of concern.

So, another book to buy!

Tying a Trinity Knot—Part 4

knot3I’m trying to process Unitarian objections to Trinitarianism. I’ve been exploring this conversation in the context of Dale Tuggy’s writings. Here’s my struggle. Dale sees Trinitarianism and Unitarianism both as viable expressions of Christian faith because both share the earliest belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior. The earliest believers, Dale points out, didn’t have any developed belief in the Trinity. The faith was defined as trusting in Christ (his life, death, and resurrection) as God’s means of salvation—period. Beliefs outside of that act of faith shouldn’t be subject to condemnation.

How later conciliar expressions of the faith can legitimately be viewed as authoritative is an extremely important issue and I’m very interested in it. However, that’s a separate question unrelated to my interest here regarding the Unitarian’s openness to embrace Trinitarians as Christian believers. I don’t see how Dale can maintain that Trinitarian faith is compatibly biblical, Christian monotheism. Why do I suppose this? Because surely monotheism is essential to biblical faith generally and to the NT proclamation of the gospel and participation in its salvation specifically. But Dale has made it clear, or so I understand, that he knows of no trinitarian version of the faith that successfully qualifies as monotheistic. The Unitarian’s rejection of Trinitarianism isn’t the rejection of one adiaphoron in favor of another more preferred adiaphoron. I don’t see how Unitarians can regard Trinitarianism as other than polytheism and thus as not viably Christian. So I should think Unitarians are bound to treat Trinitarians the way Orthodox Trinitarians treat Unitarians, i.e., as something other than Christian however historically related Unitarianism might be to Christianity and its first confessions. But in accepting the other as compatibly Christian, Trinitarians and Unitarians both compromise their commitment to what each must believe is fundamental to his/her view of God. Orthodox Trinitarians concede this already. My point here is that Unitarians also cannot maintain that their Unitarianism is adiaphorous to Christian monotheism.

God’s triune actuality the only metaphysical necessity

16_Dorrien_FIG1It’s no secret here that Dwayne and I are big fans of Greg Boyd’s early work on the Trinity (Trinity & Process | TP) and that we think positions he presently holds essentially abandon that work. I thought of a series of posts boiling down the arguments of TP, but this week I was thumbing through Trinity in Process (Bracken/Suchoki, 1997) in which Greg contributes a chapter summarizing TP quite nicely. I may just upload that chapter, but for now let me share a passage from that chapter that express well that earlier view of God which Greg held and which we’ve argued his kenoticism essentially denies. Greg’s chapter is “The Self-Sufficient Sociality of God: A Trinitarian Revision of Hartshorne’s Metaphysics.” Nearing the end of his essay he writes (p. 86f):

God’s Actuality as the Only Metaphysical Necessity. We might point out that Hartshorne faces this very same problem in relationship to God’s abstract nature, because, in his view, it is only the abstract nature of God that is necessary. On a concrete level (God’s Consequent Nature), God is wholly contingent. But how is the abstract necessity of God to be rendered intelligible if everything concrete about God is contingent, while abstractions are held to be derivative from concreteness? How can an abstraction from the concrete possess a quality (viz., necessity) which the concrete it abstracts from altogether lacks? What, in other words, renders intelligible the necessity of God if God’s actuality is altogether contingent?

I certainly agree with Hartshorne’s arguments concerning the necessity of God, but for just this reason, I maintain that God must be essentially constituted by a necessary actuality. The abstract necessity of God, I argue, is not rendered intelligible if God’s actuality is wholly contingent. Once we locate the necessary experiential, social, and aesthetic features of being within the one necessary being, however, this problem is solved. For what is abstractly necessary is, in God, also concretely necessary. [my emphasis]

If my case against Hartshorne’s analysis of the principle of contrast is correct, then there are, again, no longer any grounds for maintaining that the supreme Being must eternally contrast with an actually non-supreme world. Indeed, there are, we have seen, good metaphysical grounds to deny that God must do so. The nature of metaphysical necessity is intelligible only as applied to a necessary actuality and, hence, not as applied to a world of contingencies.

Finally, to bring this essay full circle, what I have been arguing is that the nature of this sole necessary actuality is intelligible only on the supposition that God satisfies within Godself all the a priori conditions of being; namely, as being self-sufficient and unsurpassable in sociality and aesthetic satisfaction. By metaphysical necessity, then, God must exist as a plurality of experiential centers, socially related in an unsurpassably intense aesthetic satisfaction by virtue of the unsurpassable openness and availability each center has toward the others. Among all the available theistic options, I submit, only the classical trinitarian understanding of God articulates this conception unambiguously. [my emphasis]

By ‘sociality’ is simply meant the ‘communion’ of the divine persons, the essentially relational nature of divine triune being. There are other interesting questions to pursue here (What is meant by “centers”?), but the point I want to bring up is Greg’s identifying God’s necessary concrete actuality with God’s triune sociality as such. That’s the material point. God’s essential, necessary concrete actuality just is the experienced sociality/relationality of the Father, Son and Spirit. But it is also this which makes impossible kenotic models (like Greg’s present position) of the Incarnation which posit a real cessation of this experienced actuality. To go kenotic in this sense one has to construe (as Greg explicitly does today) God’s experienced sociality/relationality as contingent and not necessary.

One could maintain that God is essentially triune even in the absence of God’s concrete triune experienced sociality, but one would be affirming a mere abstraction, and this would be open to the same criticism Greg levels against Hartshorne, namely, that what is abstractly necessary is also concretely necessary (in the sense that abstractions are by definition abstractions ‘of’ or ‘upon’ or ‘relative to’ concrete realities). Hence, if one then says that the experienced loving sociality of the divine persons ever fails concretely (say, upon the Cross), it follows that it fails abstractly as well as a necessary feature of God’s existence. To be a kenoticist, then, one has to abandon the necessity of the One God’s essentially triune ‘concrete’ existence.

To explore a bit of Greg’s reasoning along these lines, check out TP (pp. 212-217), a portion of which I present here:

Whitehead thus correctly saw that the intelligibility of God’s relationship to the world (and hence the intelligibility of the world process itself) requires that the necessary self-defining features of God be identified with a “reality,” a reality which is more than an abstraction and which, in fact, is “complete” and “unconditioned” in relation to the contingent temporal process. The categories of his system, however, did not allow him to carry this insight through to its end. Likewise Hartshorne, therefore, the full actuality of God must here be viewed as being constituted as a prehension of antecedent (non-divine) data…[emphasis mine]

The perfection of God, that which defines God’s self apart from all interaction with a non-divine reality (viz., is “unconditioned”) must be identical with a necessary and actually abiding reality. As to God’s necessary existence, God does not have the abstract features of goodness, love, awareness, etc. God is—actually—goodness, love, awareness, etc.

To use traditional terminology, God’s “abstract” essence is God’s necessary concrete existence. The a priori features which “abstractly” identify God as God constitute God’s essential actuality. God’s actuality is not, therefore, simply a contingent exemplification of divine attributes.

The “abstract” attributes of God are, on this account, given an intelligible normative status over all of God’s contingent activity. The “absolutely fixed” and “ungenerated style” of God, the “law” of God’s concrete contingent activity, is simply the aseity of God’s eternal actuality. God’s necessary character is not paradoxically “contained in” God’s contingent actuality: it is, rather, identical with God’s eternal actuality. [emphasis mine]

It is not difficult to see how a kenotic Christology abandons this reasoning, for the necessary divine actuality which must be “complete” and “unconditioned” antecedent to all created contingencies is, as is argued here (in TP) by Greg (with Orthodoxy), the full and unconditioned actuality of the Father, Son and Spirit in their full and reciprocal knowledge of, love for and enjoyment of each other.

(Picture, “Freedom” by Rafael Lopez)