In a recent issue of the International Journal of Systematic Theology, Gijsbert van den Brink and Stephan Van Erp lament the lack of any contribution from 20th-century Dutch theologians to the rediscovery of trinitarian theology. In their article, “Ignoring God Triune? The Doctrine of the Trinity in Dutch Theology,” they say that “Apart from some important historical work, not a single monograph on the doctrine of the Trinity and its ramifications has been published in Dutch Protestant theology during the past century.” Nor, as they document, did Dutch Catholics do any better. Van den Brink and Van Erp report on all the major Dutch theologians and show how they ignore the doctrine, neglect it, bend it to fit their own purposes, re-interpret it drastically, or even reject it.
The authors cite Arnold Albert van Ruler (1908–70) as an example of “an influential Dutch theologian who hardly showed an interest in the doctrine of the Trinity as such, but who nevertheless used it for his own purposes.” This was somewhat surprising to me, because the essays I’ve read by van Ruler are bristling with trinitarian slogans. He often makes pronouncements like “Theology must neither be christological nor pneumatological. These are only parts. In its total reach it can only be described as trinitarian theology.”
But as I look back through those essays, I do see van den Brink and van Erp’s point. What van Ruler is really interested in is a certain comprehensiveness in theology, and he sees trinitarian categories as the way to get to that comprehensiveness. He loves the phrase “not only . . . but also,” because he wants to cast his net wider and take in more ideas. The authors refer to this as a technique of “trinitarian spreading,” which helps make their point that van Ruler is using the doctrine of the Trinity “for his own purposes.” Part of van Ruler’s project is to ensure that “Everything Remains Undecided in an Open Plurality,” as he says in his essay “The Necessity of a Trinitarian Theology.” He is very excited (as so many contemporary theologians still are; wrongly, in my view) about the quite abstract notion of diversity (three!) being equally ultimate as unity (one!), and he finds this idea of “distinguishing and interrelating” enshrined in the trinitarian being of God. Follow that line very far and what you end up with is great interest in “trinitarian thinking,” but not much thinking about the Trinity.
A. A. van Ruler is still a very stimulating theologian to read, and I expect his stock will rise in the next few decades; he has fans who are publishing his collected works and even translating them into English and Japanese. You could almost read him with two different colored highlighters; one for the sparkling, golden statements that you can find all through his works, and another for the wrongheaded and even dangerous remarks that are distributed just as thickly on every page. I do appreciate van den Brink and van Erp for pointing out how his statements on the Trinity are motivated by an alien interest.
Having said all that, there is one van Ruler essay which I read a dozen years ago, which has helped me greatly. It alerted me to a task which every reader of Scripture ought to be involved in: Carefully distinguishing between Christ and the Spirit. Van Ruler, in just a few pages, draws attention to the different vocabularies used in Scripture for Christology and pneumatology, works them up into distinct theological grammars, and sketches out the “structural differences” between the two doctrines. The essay is “Structural Differences Between the Christological and Pneumatological Perspectives,” found in his book Calvinist Trinitarianism and Theocentric Politics: Essays Toward a Public Theology, trans. and ed. by John Bolt (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989), pages 27-46.
Van Ruler’s opening remarks are interesting, but here are the major points he presents:
I. Personhood. There is no already-existing human person involved in the incarnation. The Son is the divine person, and he takes a human nature to himself. But in the case of the Spirit, it is always a matter of a divine person interacting with a human person. In technical terms, Van Ruler says that enhypostasis is the heart of christology, but is a useless category in pneumatology.
II. Nature and Persons. In christology, taking on (or assuming) the one universal human nature is the key, but in pneumatology the key is indwelling various particular human persons.
III. Substitution vs. Empowerment. Christ saves you by replacing you and doing in your place what you could not do. The Spirit does not replace you, but empowers you and sets you to work. In pneumatology, it makes sense to talk about cooperating, working along with, God. Unless you distinguish christology and pneumatology, you are likely to talk about cooperating with Jesus in atonement and justification (!), or make the Holy Spirit take the credit and the blame for your deeds.
IV. Sacrifice versus Fellowship. The idea of sacrifice is central to the work of Christ. Van Ruler is tempted to say that it has no place in pneumatology, since nothing that the Spirit works in the life of the church should be seen as competing with, completing, or even continuing the once-and-for-all propitiation of Christ. But he notices that Christians are called to offer their bodies as a living sacrifice, to bring the sacrifice of praise, and to collect money as “the offering.” So van Ruler makes room for a pneumatological offering, but considers it a medium of fellowship.
V. Once-for-Allness. This is absolute in christology, but relative in pneumatology. Christ descended and ascended, but the Spirit descended and remains among. The church is an ongoing reality of the Spirit’s presence, and are for this reason is divine and human in a totally different sense than Jesus is divine and human.
VI. Indwelling. This is a christological heresy: You can’t say that God was in Christ by indwelling a human. But it is the central idea of pneumatological orthodoxy. In the Spirit, God indwells humans.
VII. Conflict and Progress. The Spirit’s work in a life is a matter of conflict; a person can resist, grieve, quench, and oppose the work of God the Spirit. Van Ruler also compares it to an extended game or conversation stretching over the span of a person’s life-history.
VIII. Mixture and Mingling. The Spirit’s work imparts gifts to us that become part of us; grace is infused into the Christian. There is a mixture or mingling of the divine and human in our lives. Again, this would be heresy in christological terms (the forecast calls for steady monophysitism with gusts up to pantheism). But van Ruler thinks there is room for the category of mixture in pneumatology.
IX. Perfection. The character of Christ’s work is to be absolute, complete, and perfect. But if you import the language of perfection into pneumatology, you run into all the problems of perfectionism and unrealistic ideals about the Christian life. Progress and reformation are key categories in the work of the Spirit.
Thus van Ruler. Some of his assertions seem poorly phrased and not well-enough supported by biblical evidence. And he has a sort of self-conscious bravura writing style (“…but I say unto you!”). But since reading his essay, I have been more alert to observing the differences between the work of Christ and the work of the Spirit, especially in Scripture. It is a difference worth becoming sensitized to, to help break the habit of assigning all the Spirit’s work to Jesus, leaving the Spirit unemployed.
My main criticism of van Ruler’s schema is that, having teased apart these two doctrinal perspectives, a theologian really ought to put them back together. After all, everything Christ does he does with the Spirit (conceived by the Spirit, anointed by the Spirit, sender of the Spirit, his presence now mediated by the Spirit, etc.), and everything the Spirit does he does with Christ (anointing Christ, applying the redemption in Christ, enabling confession of Christ, etc.). The two distinct works of Christ and the Spirit are internally connected to each other, and shouldn’t be played off against each other. There are not two different economies of salvation, but one twofold economy.
One example of how I think this could help the average Christian think theologically is the question of who lives in your heart. Most evangelicals know to say that Jesus lives in their hearts. But indwelling is more properly a pneumatological term, pointing to the work of the Spirit. It is one of the major points of the Bible that the indwelling of the Spirit is the fulfillment of the new covenant, while only a few scattered verses ever point to Christ as indwelling. So it would be more precise, and more robust, to say that the Holy Spirit lives in your heart. But once we’ve teased these two apart for the sake of clarity, it’s even more important that we put them back together: The ascended Christ sent the Holy Spirit to dwell in his disciples, as his way of keeping the promise “I will be with you to the end of the age.” Indeed, “Jesus is with us; for the Holy Ghost has not come to supply Christ’s absence, but to accomplish His presence.” (Adolph Saphir) Jesus does live in our hearts, by the Spirit. This is only true if christology and pneumatology are not the same thing, but are closely coordinated to bring about the one purpose of God.