Tuggy Interview: Stephen Holmes’ The Quest for the Trinity

quest-for-the-trinityStephen Holmes’ The Quest for the Trinity (2012) is on my to-read list (toward the top, when I get the cash) and is the topic of discussion of Dale Tuggy’s interview with Holmes. It’s an informative and helpful discussion. And you’ve got a second very interesting interview on the book with Holmes here. Thanks to Dale for landing such great interviews.

The art of divine napping—Part 1

1033There he is — God incarnate. That zygote right there. And the Logos became flesh. We’ve discussed the whole zygote thing before. While debates about divine incarnation in the womb might appear fantastic or as uselessly speculative as arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, whether or not God really took the human journey in its entirety certainly bears on the integrity of the incarnation and with it the salvation Christians suppose is therein provided.

One possible line of inquiry which might shed light on recent discussions regarding kenoticism was suggested to me by Dwayne. It asks us to consider what it means for the Son to “have life in himself just as the Father has life in himself” (Jn 5.26; cf. Jn 1.4; 1Jn 1.1-2) and explore what the consequences of this would be for the kenotic claim that this same Son relinquished all attributes not compatible with the natural constraints of a created, embodied human nature. A couple of obvious questions might include:

(a) What would “possessing life in one’s self as the Father possesses life in himself” entail?

(b) Is the answer to (a) instantiable exclusively in terms of the constraints of embodied human nature?

Additionally, an important methodological question might be:

(c) What ought to be the proper order in answering (a) and (b)?

This last question (c) is unavoidably important. We recently finished up discussing Bruce McCormack’s Ch. 10 on Barth & open theism, and we noted McCormack’s complaint that open theists fail to make Christology the proper starting point for their doctrine of God. We are to start, he argues, with Christ and, not stepping outside the event of God’s own self-revelation in Christ, determine our understanding of God from there. Greg Boyd, not a Barthain by any means, is nevertheless equally passionate in advocating for a Christ-centered understanding of divine being. Jesus is God incarnate, and that should provide us a straightforward strategy for knowing just what being God really/essentially amounts to. Whatever supposedly essential divine attributes fail to be instantiated by Christ within the constraints of his embodied human experience can summarily be dismissed as not necessary or definitive of what it means to be God. Greg argues the point:

“If we allow the incarnate and crucified Christ to define God for us while embracing the Kenotic understanding of how the Son became a human, it becomes clear that the only attribute that defines God’s divinity is his love. That is, if Jesus was ‘fully God’ without exercising his omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence, then clearly God need not exercise omnipotence, omniscience and/or omnipresence to be God. One might of course argue that God must at least have the potential to exercise these attributes to be God. But it nevertheless remains true that….”

Thus kenoticism follows from a Christ-centered methodology for determining truth about God. If God’s essential attributes are to be understood as instantiated exclusively in terms of the boundaries of Jesus’ human experience, then what you see in Christ is all God is essentially and necessarily, “all that it takes” to be God. And, so the logic goes, since Jesus isn’t omnipresent and omniscient (among other things), these attributes aren’t essential to being divine. What is the only essential, God-defining attribute that can be gleaned from Christ’s life? What nevertheless remains true? Greg explains:

“…it nevertheless remains true that Jesus’ self-emptying entails that the only thing God cannot stop exercising and yet be considered God is his essence-defining love.”

Unfailing love. That and that alone is God’s self-defining essence and necessary actuality. Jesus loves without fail, therefore Jesus is God (never mind for the moment that we also shall one day love without fail without being God). And certainly no Christian wants to say God isn’t personally present in Christ or that God isn’t personally and authoritatively revealed in Christ, or that God doesn’t love without fail, so non-kenoticists like Dwayne and me are in the apparently disadvantaged position of having either to:

Answer (a) (i.e., what “possessing life in one’s self as the Father possesses life in himself”) prior to answering (b) (and thus be guilty of constructing our doctrine of God independently of Christology)


Somehow argue on biblical/Christological grounds that there’s more to the Son’s being divine than there is to the embodied experience of Jesus.

Sleepy God

We take the latter route, in view of which let us offer three suggestions for this Part 1 which have to do with the scope of the Christology at play in (b) and also with the nature of the apostolic testimony regarding God.

First, we’d like to suggest that the ‘Christ’ who ought to occupy the place of pre-eminence in shaping our understanding of God is not simply any single event in Christ’s life described in the gospels (as is the case, for example, with Greg Boyd who via a ‘cruciform hermeneutic’ argues that it is not the entirety of Christ’s incarnate career which finally and authoritatively determines our understanding of God but only the cross), nor Christ’s life as reconstructed on the basis of the gospel accounts only, but rather the entirety of Christ’s life as interpreted and applied apostolically. It is theologically illegitimate to pretend to have access to Christ independent of the whole range of apostolic authority and voice. The voice of the entire New Testament is equally authoritative for Christians in understanding Christ — who he was, what he accomplished, what his life means, in what sense he is God and in what sense he is human.

Second, it seems equally misguided to suppose that a description of Jesus’s life and career by Luke or Matthew is more definitive of our understanding of God than a description of God by, say, Paul which is not explicitly a reflection upon any aspect of Christ’s life. For example, Paul affirms (1Tm 6:16) that God is “immortal and lives in unapproachable light.” Where did Paul get this idea? Certainly not from any observation of the events of Jesus’ actual life. It doesn’t obviously follow from Jesus’ life, or his pre-eminent role in defining our understanding of God, that God should be thought of as immortal. It would seem Paul’s belief in God’s immortality was not derived Christologically but from the wider witness of the Hebrew Scriptures. This is not to say Christ’s life does not in fact render much of Israel’s understanding of God false. But it certainly means our doctrine of God is not simply the end product of looking at Jesus, writing down what we see and calling it ‘all that it takes to be God’.

If we have grounds on statements made by the apostles outside the gospel texts (Eph 2.20) for thinking God to be of a certain nature, then it would seem to follow that the Son, being divine, exemplifies this same nature though incarnate. Point is, statements made in the NT about God which are not obviously Christologically derived nevertheless have implications for what it means for us to say that the “fullness of deity” indwells Christ bodily (Col 2.9).

Third, unless one wishes to advocate an adoptionist Christology in which the Son descends upon or personally assumes an already existing human individual at some point (childhood, adulthood), we must understand incarnation to begin with Jesus’ conception. This means that whatever one wishes to believe God is on the basis of Christology, the scope of that Christology should embrace Jesus not just as a mature adult in responsible relationship with his Father or suffering in love on the cross, but also as a newly conceived zygote. The womb, not the Cross, is the least common denominator which kenoticists are obliged to reduce divinity to.

Problem is zygotes are neither personally consciousness nor self-aware, neither volitional nor relational nor subjects of a benevolent disposition or character — nothing that might fulfill that unfailing choice to love which Boyd supposes is the only necessary self-defining feature of God’s actuality. At this point we don’t wish to argue there are other self-defining features of God’s necessary actuality (although we believe there must be). We simply want to insist that whatever one supposes constitutes God’s self-defining necessary actuality, one must equally hold that the person of the Son instantiates this through the entirety of his incarnate career beginning with being a zygote. If the self-defining essence of divine being is unfailing love, then the Son must instantiate this unfailing love and do so exclusively in terms of a zygote’s created, embodied natural capacities (not just as a mature and responsible adult rationally exercising his freedom). It’s one thing to limit your Christology to the adult Jesus choosing the cross in the garden, or to his mature identity as the Father’s Son asking the Father to forgive them for they know not what they do and so conclude that “full divinity” is just the unfailing disposition to love at cost to one’s self. It is an entirely different thing to account for a zygote’s being divine exclusively in such terms.

Teaser sleepingWhere is the Son qua zygote doing what any of us thinks is necessarily involved in “being God”? Some kenotic answers we’ve met in conversation include, “Well, you’re still a person when you sleep, so the Logos is just sleeping in the womb,” or “You still love your wife when you’re asleep, right?” or “The Father and Spirit just agree to cover for the Logos during his absence.” I guess that must be what’s going on in that zygote there — the eternal Logos, the Father’s own Image, the author of life who possesses life in himself “just as the Father possesses life in himself” is taking a nap while the Father and Spirit cover for him.

In Part 2 we’d like to explore what it means for “the Father to possess life in himself” and then ask what it means to do Christology from this point of view on the assumption that the Son possesses life in himself “just as the father does.”

(Pictures here, here, and here.)

Schrodinger’s God

tumblr_mqj8e2rQV21sti3zno1_1280I’d like to qualify the analogy we shared at the end of the previous post. It was a favorite of James Loder. I’m a fan, but Dwayne is a real student of his thought. So the qualification on the use of quantum mechanics (QM) I’d like to make is to remind readers that for us QM is definitely not any kind of analogy of the Trinity. It is instead an instance of the kind of epistemic humility we think belief in the Trinity occasions. As predictable as the behavior of the quantum world is, its behavior continues to surprise and baffle all accounts of its ultimate treasure. Ask a particle-like question and the quantum world provides a particle-like answer. Ask a wave-like question and you get a wave-like answer. We’ve even invented new words (combining elements of both ‘particle’ and ‘wave’) to posit ‘that which is’ the quantum reality itself, even though these terms are ‘off the map’; that is, they exist only as descriptions of a reality we are forced to recognize but unable to capture in terms of any concept we have. It’s not like these new terms are categorically parallel to a general experience or manifest instance of a general kind of thing. They are unique.

The sort of epistemic humility we’re trying to express and advocate theologically for is forced upon us by the failure of language to account finally for the manifest experience of God (in Christ via the Spirit) in ways that simultaneously affirm and defy the given categories of our created contexts. As we’ve urged previously, this humility is palpable. It is felt and lived every time we open our mouths to speak of God or sing his praise (as opposed to its being just affirmed as a proposition and set on the shelf until we need to be reminded of it again). It is a kind of learned ignorance that journeys with you, the linguistic effects of God’s transcendence, and it is humbling. The experience of it can be surprising, upsetting, or chaotic. Again, as Denys Turner reminds us (Silence of the Word):

“So it is not that, first, we are permitted the naïve and unself-critical indulgence of affirmation, subsequently to submit that affirmation to a separate critique of negation. Nor is the ‘way of negation’ the way of simply saying nothing about God, nor yet is it the way simply of saying that God is ‘nothing’: it is the encounter with the failure of what we must say about God to represent God adequately. If talk about God is deficient, this is a discovery made within the extending of it into superfluity, into that excess in which it simply collapses under its own weight.”

In a similar vein, Karen Kilby advocates for many analogies of the Trinity because no one category will bear the weight of explaining the divine reality behind our experience of the full, manifest, transcendent treasure of salvation. The QM analogy is brought in simply to demonstrate that we are not entirely incapable of embracing such failure of our language. Even within the context of created things (i.e., QM) our language and categories collapse under the weight of experience and evidence. How much more humble ought we to be when speaking of the divine mystery of uncreated being? Particle and wave explanations of quantum behavior are both true so far as our language functions to describe things from a particular context under which we encounter the mystery in question. But each explanation also fails, even contradicts, other explanations when contexts are compared to one another. And all the while we admit, for good reason, that the final, ultimate reality in question, that which we name the “quantum world,” is not in fact self-contradictory but is an indivisible and meaningful unity. Even where apprehending the ‘essence’ of any created entity is concerned there is genuine ‘ineffability’ to be confessed (something Gregory of Nyssa knew centuries ago).

We’re advocating for a similar epistemic humility not just regarding how far our language and categories are able to take us in accounting for God as triune, but for how conflicted our explanations may often be in terms of their own semantic reach. The question is, have trinitarians successfully justified the claim that the Trinity is in fact a case in point were Christian faith must humbly embrace a transcendent triune mystery? In the case of QM, we have clear experimental evidence in ‘particle’ behavior to justify a particle explanation (so far as it goes), and we also have ‘wave’ behavior to justify a wave explanation (so far as it goes). Perhaps the challenge for Trinitarians is to show that there is, equivalently, divine behavior which justifies a ‘monotheist’ explanation as well as divine behavior that justifies a fully ‘trinitarian’(in terms of three ‘persons’) explanation. But it can’t be an argument against trinitarianism per se that it involves us in strange or contrary explanations of divine behavior taken as a whole (any more than the explanations of QM as ‘particle’ and as ‘wave’ are evidence that there isn’t a quantum world whose integrity isn’t truthfully described by both).

(Pictures here ).

Toward the Trinity

warning-analogies13If we had to go with Dale Tuggy’s categories for the moment, we’d liken orthodox trinitarianism to what Dale calls “noumenal concurrent modalism” as opposed to his “phenomenological modalism.” The latter form of modalism posits ‘modes’ adopted by God as means of representing himself to the world. As such they’re not self-constituting; God relates only to us now as Father, now as Son, etc., and the distinction between these is merely formal. Modalism of this sort was condemned historically because the divine relations were believed to be definitive of God in more than a merely formal sense.

If the divine relations are forms of self-relation, then we’re not talking about a merely formal distinction between modes or roles God adopts in representing himself to the world. Instead, we’re imagining relations (perspectives? Language strains!) as constitutive of divine being per se (as far as we’re able to speak of these relations analogously).

What might such an analogy look like? In our view it could extend from human being as an analogy of God. As sentient beings, conscious subjects, we self-perceive or self-relate, and in self-relating are able to objectify ourselves; we image ourselves. We exist as persons minimally as this self-constituting conversation. We also reflect upon this conversation and observe it. This may not conform nicely to the options which Dale specifies as being our only trinitarian options in, say, his Stanford article (i.e., “She’s a three-selfer,” or “He’s a one-selfer”). Dale may need some new boxes. But it seems to us that the concern to regard YHWH as being the One God can be adequately accounted for in terms of the (Orthodox belief in the) ‘monarchia’ of the Father. As Nicaea begins, “I believe in One God, the Father Almighty….” No ambiguity there.

Imagine (analogously) a self-relationality (that which defines us as personal/relational beings) that obtains perfectly and paradigmatically in God (as he whose image we bear). Edwards’ approach expresses it nicely. Just as I self-contemplate or self-perceive and in this self-defining act generate an ‘image’ of myself as the objectified content of my self-perception, so God can be thought. Every conscious self objectifies itself and in this act self-relates. Kierkegaard would help here.

One concern is that even if this were true of God (such that the divine relations could be viewed as God’s self-existent act) these ‘perspectives’ don’t seem sufficiently independent or concrete. These ‘perspectives’ within us aren’t distinct ‘persons’ (and this is where our term ‘person’ fails). Hence at best we get what Dale calls a “noumenal concurrent modalism” — three ‘perspectives’ that define God essentially but which can’t bear the weight of the additional claim that these perspectives are ‘persons’. What to do?

It may be that Edwards can help us here. He suggests that where our powers to perceive (and in perceiving to reproduce or represent to ourselves, i.e., to have a perspective on ourselves) the truth about ourselves (thus generating our own image and self-relation) are inherently limited, God is not so constrained. I cannot consciously contemplate all that is in fact true about myself without remainder, and what I contemplate cannot reproduce the contemplated in its actuality. In addition, as a finite being whose ‘essence’ and ‘existence’ are in no way identical, this distinction between ‘essence’ and ‘existence’ is not the case with God. As a created being who exists contingently in the perpetual movement from potency to actuality, my existence and essence are never coterminous. This could not be the case with a necessarily existing self-existent God. In God’s case, all that is in fact true and actual about God the Father (YHWH) becomes true of his self-contemplated image. Nothing that ‘is’ in the case of the Father could fail ‘to be’ in the case of his own self-perceived image, with the exception of course that the ‘image’ (as the word suggests) is ‘derived’ whereas the Father is not so derived (i.e., the Father is not an image of anything else). This distinction is Athanasian.


Is my own ‘image’ me? Well, yes. And “I” wouldn’t ‘be’ apart from this self-relation. Are both numerically identical? Well, no; though where this relation is constitutive essentially of God’s self-defining actuality, both would share a single ‘nature’. But they are different self-constituting ‘perspectives’. This dialogue, this address and response, constitutes God’s undivided existence. (We’re definitely not thinking of a social trinitarian model.)

As an analogy, we’d like to extend a thought James Loder used to explain how ‘reason’ and ‘language’ map our experience of quantum mechanics (QM) as a means to imagine our shortcomings along theological lines. QM defines itself in terms of the question put to it. The answer you get (‘location’ or ‘velocity’) depends on the question you ask (Where are you? vs What’s your velocity?) But scientists and philosophers suppose reality — that which the world ‘is’ — not to be ultimately contradictory, and that ultimately how our experience of the world requires us to describe things is transcended by what is in fact the case. Whatever reality truly is (at the subatomic level), it is in fact a unity whose indivisibility just is the different answers it yields on the level of our perception and description re: relation and identity. We are led by our reason to posit that which ‘cannot be said’. The shape and form of our saying it at once involves us in paradox, though we must say it as we do.

In terms of one articulation of things, yes, Dale’s right, the truth of God certainly appears ‘modalistic’ in light of every attempt to possess the relations in terms of their unity. Similarly, the truth of God will appear ‘polytheistic’ in light of attempts to possess the relations in terms of their diversity. But — returning to QM for the moment — the math which describes reality achieves a sort of ‘creedal’ status and affirms both unity and diversity. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Planck’s constant are the Nicaea and Chalcedon of QM — we might say. We comprehend their terms and we must ‘say it’ so, but we can’t help but complain that they posit a world which defies final explanation and which the categories we have to deploy balk at in their own way.

Having offered a psychological analogy of the trinity, we want to make it clear that (a) this is an analogy and not a claim to have univocally described ‘what’ God is, and that (b) other analogies are needed to expresses other aspects of the biblical narrative, and that (c) all these analogies together fail, as all analogies must, to reduce triune being to their respective truth. Karen Kilby is right to warn us against too confidently reducing God to any one analogy (cf. her “Is an Apophatic Trinitarianism Possible?” International Journal of Systematic Theology 12, no. 1 (2010): 65–77). We don’t assume God is simply a blown-up version of what human ‘personal’ existence is. However, it is our personal existence (as opposed to that of rocks, trees or cows) which by virtue of bearing the divine image is an analogy of God.

(Pictures here and here.)

Human Self-Presencing an Image of the Trinity

I’m coming up on finishing Kaled Anatolios’ Retrieving Nicaea. It’s a wonderful book with a helpful thesis around which he organizes the 4th and 5th century Christological debates. The chapters on Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine are great. I thought I’d share a portion of his chapter of Augustine. Enjoy!

This is where Augustine’s project of “looking inward” achieves its full existential and social resonances. As it turns out, the question for the trinitarian image in humanity coincides entirely with Augustine’s moral schema of the ordering of love. Charges that Augustine’s project is solipsistic can only be sustained if we omit the connections that he himself is at pains to draw between authentic self-knowledge and self-love, and being in right relation with the whole order of reality. The mind’s proper self-knowledge is bound up with its correctly placing itself within the hierarchy of being…If the mind’s self-awareness is to correctly imagine its own existence, so as to safeguard the perfect mutuality whereby it knows itself exactly to the extent that it is, then this self-knowledge must take the exact measure of the mind’s creaturely mode of existence.

It is the same with an authentic and true self-love. In both cases, the perfect mutuality and equality between the mind’s existence, its self-knowledge, and its self-love is not simply manifest in the human condition. This equality and mutuality, which [are] integral to the divine image in humanity, is a moral task susceptible to moral failure: “The mind therefore and its love and knowledge are three somethings, and these three are one thing and when they are complete they are equal (cum perfecta sunt aequalia sun). If the mind loves itself less than [as] it is—for example, if the mind of a person loves itself only as much as a person’s body should be loved, though it is itself something more than body—then its sins and its love is not complete. Again if it loves itself more than [as] it is, for example if it loves itself as much as God is to be loved, though it is itself incomparably less than God, here too it sins by excess and does not have a complete love of itself.” The motif of the ordering of loves explains the discrepancy between the mind’s ineluctable self-presencing and its habitual self-forgetting. The self-forgetting through which the mind appears to fail to know itself is not due to the real absence of self-knowledge that constitutes the self-presence that is identical with the very being of mind. Rather, this self-forgetting happens when the mind’s act of self-presencing is overlaid by an excessive and inordinate attachment to what is external to it. By improperly identifying itself with what it is not, the mind loses sight of its own act of self-presencing. This fate is unavoidable unless the mind attends to God according to its proper creaturely mode of being and thereby knows itself and loves itself in subordinate relation to its knowing of God and loving of God. The human person most properly knows herself and loves herself through knowing and loving God. When this happens, the human person also knows and loves other creatures in proper subordinate relation to knowing God. But the mind that does not attach itself to God will become attached to other lesser realities, precisely because the mind is so innately transitive. In that case, the mind will not authentically know God or itself or other creatures, nor will its self-knowledge and self-love be equal and identical to its real existence, or even transparent to itself. The trinitarian image imprinted in human consciousness will thereby become obfuscated, and the mind’s capacity for certainty will be radically compromised. That is the situation of the human person in exile from the enjoyment of knowing and loving God.

Augustine wasn’t the first to imagine the divine relations in such (psychological) terms or to see human self-relationality (human self-presencing by which we perceive our own image of ourselves in conversation with ourselves) as an analogy of the triune relations. Anatolios provides passages in Gregory of Nyssa which are similar and a few in Athanasius which at the very least anticipate such conceptions.

(Picture here.)

Caution Re: Trinitarian Models

Karen Kilby has just taken up the Bede Chair of Catholic Theology at Durham University. Her work engages 20th century Catholic theologians (esp. Rahner and von Balthasar, about whom she’s published introductions). I’ve just enjoyed a very interesting essay by her (“Is an Apophatic Trinitarianism Possible?” International Journal of Systematic Theology 12, 1 [2010]), and I appreciate the caution she advises in this interview.

God free—to be or not to be?

YaniI’m intrigued when Orthodox friends tell me I’m getting too philosophical or analytical when I explore what it might mean to say God is three ‘persons’ or that God is ‘loving’ and ‘personal’ existence. Then I run into the likes of Orthodox theologian/philosopher Christos Yannaras who provides some pretty philosophical heavy lifting. Here (and in pdf below) is an address he gave to St. Vladimir’s in 2010 that captures one very interesting claim regarding divine freedom about which I’m still looking for clarification and over which I notice not all Orthodox seem to be in agreement. The question has to do with the nature of God’s freedom as it relates to his existence as triune.

Yannaras (and Zizioulas, and even David Hart at times) appears to claim God’s very existence and triune relations are ‘free’ in the sense of ‘freely chosen’ in contrast to being necessitated or ‘given’. The Father freely chooses to beget the Son. The Son freely chooses to affirm his personal existence in love to the Father, and thus with the Spirit.

Now, if all Yannaras means is that God’s existence (including the begetting of the Son and the proceeding of the Spirit) isn’t subject to necessity in the sense of conforming to or ontologically obliging some objective standard of logic or meaning, then I don’t know any who would disagree. God doesn’t exist because he ‘has’ to, nor is the Father under some ‘constraint’ to beget the Son, etc. We agree that in fact God can’t be said to exist “because of” anything. His existence is not a reply to or conformity to necessity. There is no metaphysical ‘deep magic’ which might be said to supervene upon God’s being in or which prescribes for God that he is to exist or that the Father is to beget the Son, etc.

However, both Yannaras and Zizioulas seem to be saying much more than this, namely, that God chooses freely to exist, chooses freely to be triune, etc. But I don’t have any idea of what choice or freedom means in this case. God chooses to exist? Only what exists can choose. Or, as existing, the Father chooses freely to beget the Son? God chooses to be triune? In that case, what becomes of Zizioulas’ “being is communion” or Yanarras’ “relational ontology”?

Aristotle Papanikolaou discusses (Being with God, pp. 148-161) this very point in evaluating Zizioulas, qualifying him to a point but essentially agreeing:

“[The reason] Zizioulas does not ‘conceive of the intra-divine communion of the Trinity as the ground of all that is’ is, quite simply, Zizioulas’s rejection of linking the divine life to any form of necessity. For Zizioulas, the price for making the intra-divine communion the primordial concept is the negation of absolute freedom. God’s existence is not absolutely free if it is necessarily one of intra-divine communion.”

And again:

“Freedom, according to Zizioulas, is precisely freedom from the given. ‘Givenness’ is what constitutes ‘the greatest provocation to freedom’.”

Metroop-Zizioulas1But this seems to me to undo the very thesis Zizioulas argues, namely, that to be is to be in communion. Alan Torrance (Persons in Communion) levels the same criticism against this notion of divine freedom as well, asking “Is the freedom of the Father to be conceived as qualitatively distinct from that of the Son and the Spirit?” and “Does the ontological freedom of the arche vis-à-vis the hypostases of the Son and the Spirit parallel the cosmological freedom of the Father vis-à-vis the created order as a whole?” Torrance wonders how, if creation is the result of a freedom from the given, is divine freedom in the act of creation different from that of the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit if the divine persons are also free from all relational givenness as Zizioulas argues, or indeed if God is free from the givenness of his own existence?

If as Zizioulas says “being is communion,” then you don’t get any more primordial than than being-in-relation. But Yanarras and Zizioulas both insist upon extending divine freedom to the Father’s begetting of the Son and procession of the Spirit (and the Son and the Spirit’s reciprocal freedom to affirm or reject their own being begotten and proceeding), threatening the very claim that “being is communion.” If communion is freely chosen, then being is not communion, it is rather absolute freedom to be or not to be in communion, which is not what either Zizioulas or Yannaras seems to want to say.

Tying a Trinity Knot—Part 3

imagesCAOX8RNXWhy should the Trinity be essential to Christianity?

The main Patristic reason (and mine too) is that our final salvation requires a Triune God. The Unitarian God cannot ultimately save. Once this is perceived and experienced, its clarity grows. I’ll try to express my own understanding of this in three key claims:

(1) God cannot give us in salvation that which he doesn’t possess.
(2) What is not adopted is not healed.
(3) The salvation of humanity is finally achieved through participation in God’s being and life (2Pet 1.4).

Working backwards from (3), human salvation isn’t the achieving of a legal status before God. It is in the end nothing less than the perfection of our natures, our actually becoming, in relationship to God, all that he intended us to be. God saves us not by a wave of the divine wand and simply declaring it to be so. We are finally saved/perfected in union with God, in relationship to him whose own existence and life achieve and ground the abiding perfection of our natures. One friend recently insisted that God is free to forgive us apart from incarnation and the Cross. Quite true, though entirely beside the point. Final salvation is so much more than forgiveness.

On to (2). By what means is created human being to participate in the life which saves, that is, in the life of uncreated divine being, and so find its final fulfillment? The two must be united. God must adopt or take up human being into his own life. So incarnation becomes essential to the redemption and healing of humanity (contrary to those who suppose that our final and fullest perfection in God is conceivable apart from incarnation). If our salvation is participation in divine being, and if our participation in divine being requires incarnation, then incarnation is the ground and means of our salvation. Incarnation saves, and it saves because our created nature which requires relationship to and union with the uncreated God is taken up by him personally and irrevocably.

Which brings us to (1). Is God essentially, within himself, that life and love sufficient to save and fulfill us? If our final salvation requires participation in the life of God, then the question is — Is God’s life sufficient to save? Is God’s way of existing/living what we require to exist/live in the fullest sense possible? And this is where Unitarianism is exposed as non-Christian and void of saving efficacy, because a Unitarian God cannot be (in and of Godself, essentially) a loving and personal being. How can a solitary, unrelated Unitarian God whose existence and essential experience by definition are void of the personal address and response definitive of love and personal being (“I/Thou”) be that which bestows fully relational and loving existence upon us? A Unitarian God stands alongside created individuals as needing that which bestows fully personalized, loving existence. The Fathers saw this, which is why their understanding of salvation as fully realized loving/personal existence, the kind of existence and life which are essentially God’s, available to us through Christ, eventually and naturally (and rightly) led to a trinitarian understanding of God.

If God—the One true God—isn’t a God who is love, who is essentially a fully realized personal and loving being apart from all created being—then God is not in himself that which saves us and if God is not that which saves us, we are lost.

Tying a Trinity Knot—Part 2

trinityknot_V41I won’t address here the Trinitarian texts. I’ll agree that they nowhere explicitly describe a full-blown version of the doctrine. It’s also the case that these same texts nowhere describe a full-blown Unitarianism either, though the Unitarian argument proceeds, arguably, on the basis that since there’s no full-blown doctrine of the Trinity explicit in the texts, Unitarianism must be true. After all, Christianity was born out of Judaism and early believers were all Jewish monotheists, right? What other options are there? But it isn’t that simple.

The earliest believers were Jewish and monotheist, yes, but their experience and worship of the risen Christ demanded a rethink of God, and that’s where we find them in the NT texts, in the middle of that rethink. Some aspects of this rethink are clear to them. Others are not as developed. But there’s enough implicit in the texts, and enough explicit in their experience and worship of the risen Christ, to see that later generations were right to draw the conclusions they did regarding the belief that God is internally self-related or Triune. Not rethinking God and just maintaining the established monotheism wasn’t going to work because it simply couldn’t accommodate their experience of salvation through and worship of Christ. Trinitarianism is where that ‘rethink’ was headed, and it short-sheets our theology to insist that simply because there’s no explicit Trinitarian doctrine in the text, the doctrine is either false or, if not false, not essential to anything.

The early believers were simply not finished unpacking what kind of ‘One God’ God must be if (as their monotheism rightly told them) God alone is worthy of worship and if (as their experience of Christ rightly told them) Jesus was deserving of that unique worship.

But if one is a believer in the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, interpreted as meaning every confessing Christian has the responsibility to determine and interpret Scripture independent of the tradition-embodied-community (never mind where Scripture actually explicitly expounds such a doctrine), then in the end nothing about traditional beliefs and nothing said by other Christians in any format is ultimately prescriptive for Christian identity and there are no categorically defining beliefs which are irreducibly communal in nature. If “I” read the Bible this or that way, I get to call it “Christianity.” I define the Faith for me. You get to define it for yourself, and so forth. I’m told by believers in sola scriptura that this does not permit a ‘free for all’. But all we have is their word for it, though I can think of no authority upon which a ‘free for all’ would be defeated.

If this is your view, it’s going to be difficult to be open to the idea that the authoritative text of Scripture isn’t the text-as-blank-slate and then interpreted-solely-by-each-individual sort of text. My sense is that while there’s something unique and authoritative about Scripture, the authoritative text is the text-interpreted-in/through-the-community of those who offer to Christ the worship God alone deserves, the same worship that produced the very texts in question.

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Tying a Trinity Knot—Part 1

trinity-knotBeing recently asked why I would ever insist that Trinitarianism is essential to Christian faith and experience, I thought I’d like to try to describe why belief in the Trinity is not only important but is, in the end, non-negotiable.

Let me begin by saying that I don’t mean (and don’t believe any of the Fathers meant) to say that unless a person comprehends the Trinity and intentionally confesses a studied doctrine she cannot in any measure experience Christ’s salvation. One mistake some make when thinking through this is to suppose that only beliefs which are absolutely necessary to the initial experience of “getting saved” (I don’t much care for that phrase any more) should be allowed to define essential Christian belief. That is, whatever one needs to believe to enlist, to sign up, to “get in” with God in the Christian sense is all one should ever need to believe. And since—so the thinking goes—one doesn’t need to understand a doctrine of the Trinity in order to begin a life with God, belief in a Trinity isn’t necessary to Christian faith and experience.

There are a couple of problems here. The first is to think that “getting saved” (to go with that language) defines a kind of end to Christian experience, a point of “arrival” if not a “crossing” of a finish line. You’re “in”—pause—and whatever it took to get you in is all that the Church should ever consider “essential” to the articulation of its experience, identity and destiny. One reasons that since one can begin life with God through, say, trusting Christ without any conception of the Trinity, it follows that one can mature into the fullest experience and expression of human existence as God intended it without the Trinity. But does that follow? Why must successfully ending a journey, or achieving one’s telos, not require of one any more than beginning it required? Secondly, such reasoning is so individualistic (typical of Protestants and Evangelicals) that it fails to appreciate the role that shared belief and community play in defining what the Christian faith essentially is for those who wish to identify with and belong to it. The problem is that for many today, community doesn’t have a role in defining Christian faith and experience.

Sadly, these mistakes are built into Protestantism which only a sincere intention will help Evangelicals consciously avoid. Might a person begin a life with God with no comprehension of the Trinity? I certainly hope so. Might a person step into faith believing that Christian faith and experience are all about her “individual” journey? Let’s hope so, since this is pretty much where all us Protestants and Evangelicals get our start (and where a frightfully increasing number of us have parked ourselves permanently). But since one can launch out into faith in such circumstances, should the faith and beliefs that define the Church as Christ’s Body and which express its identity and destiny grounded in the identity of God not exceed those circumstances? I think not. Stay tuned.

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