Essay / Theology

Not Your Old New Trinitarianism, A New New Trinitarianism

“Remythologizing” is a mouthful of a word, and it may scare people a few away from Kevin Vanhoozer’s fascinating book Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship (2010: Cambridge University Press). Vanhoozer explains in great detail what he means by it, and I won’t rehearse that here. But one of the reasons he picked the title was because it rhymes with the famous mid-century buzzword of a certain kind of liberalism, Rudolf Bultmann’s demythologizing. Vanhoozer’s style of theology is certainly setting out on drastically non-Bultmannian lines! Remythologizing is pretty much the opposite of demythologizing.

But as the book progresses it becomes apparent that, never mind the rhyme, the major opponent throughout this book is not Rudolf Bultmann, but Jürgen Moltmann. The cluster of ideas that make up the new orthodoxy, especially the kenotic-relational panentheism that has been drawing the doctrine of God toward itself for the past several decades, can all be found in Moltmann’s theology. I don’t want to overstate his influence, but Moltmann is at least a theological bellwether. It’s remarkable how consistently he has been the spokesman for the new constellation of doctrines. He’s also been the contemporary theologian who has most clearly linked the new theism to a new excitement about trinitarianism.

I picked up the trailhead in Moltmann’s 1980 book The Trinity and the Kingdom. But the trend was identified long before that by Karl Barth. In a prescient letter that he wrote to Moltmann on Nov 17, 1964, Barth expressed some reservations about Moltmann’s Theology of Hope. 1964, by the way, was the year after Robinson’s Honest to God appeared; Moltmann’s early work looked so much more vigorous than Robinson’s old-and-busted liberalism that it must have been hard to see Moltmann’s trajectory as dangerous. But Barth nailed it right away. He asked the younger theologian, “Would it not be wise to accept the doctrine of the immanent Trinity of God?” Already Barth could see Moltmann pressing his view of the divine being down into the flux and progress of created reality. Barth had passed away long before Moltmann got around to writing at greater length about the Trinity, and what Moltmann ended up saying was complex. But suffice it to say that his handling of the immanent Trinity didn’t follow the advice offered by Barth.

But “accepting the doctrine of the immanent Trinity of God” is decisive for the course correction offered by Vanhoozer’s remythologized theology and the communicative theism it advocates. The doctrine of the immanent Trinity of God makes all the difference in Vanhoozer’s doctrine of God.

Vanhoozer is definitely on the bandwagon with the rest of modern theology, excited about the Trinity. It’s all over the place, with obvious passion:

To recover the doctrine of the Trinity is to recover the God of the gospel: The personal and compassionate love of the Father made known in Christ through the Spirit… And it is to understand that the Father, Son, and Spirit are not simply the way God appears to be but rather the way God truly is. (p. 105)

But as his radically consistent trinitarianism becomes more explicit, it becomes evident that Vanhoozer is often standing against much of the recent recovery of Trinitarian theology, or at least against the sort that turns wildly relational and economically reductionistic.

His criticisms are sharp and to the point: “while something important has indeed been recovered” in the new trinitarianism, “something equally important has also been lost.” (p. 111)

What the ‘second coming’ of Trinitarian theology has lost, in short, appears to be the fatherhood of God… the thrust of the new orthodoxy is to inflate the economic Trinity precisely in order to call into question the aseity and impassibility of God. p. 112

Vanhoozer is right about this, and reading around in the literature of the modern trinitarian revival bears him out. While we have needed to pay more attention to the doctrine of the Trinity, it has been a shame to see renewed interest in the Trinity leveraged to hoist classical theism out and kenotic-relational panentheism in. Vanhoozer warns that the distinctions being blurred here are not just a matter of details of advanced trinitarianism. These are the distinctions that theology ought to be most invested in maintaining: “Unless we resist collapsing the Father into the work of his two hands, Son and Spirit, it will be difficult to resist what Calvin thought to be the persistent temptation in religion, namely, to blur –or collapse altogether- the distinction between God and the world.” (p. 112)

Just as much of Remythologizing Theology is devoted to shooting down Moltmannian trouble in the doctrine of God, one of the most stratetic decisions Vanhoozer makes is the decision to draw these clear lines in the sand of the new trinitarianism. If Vanhoozer’s argument wins the day, we can get on with some new new trinitarianism that doesn’t bottom out in panentheism like the old new trinitarianism.

The motto of the new trinitarianism could be “In the beginning was relation.” That’s a line Martin Buber, which appears on page 11 of Jurgen Moltmann’s God in Creation, the book in which Moltmann drew the panentheistic conclusions of his revised trinitarian theology. As Vanhoozer comments, “At the end of the twentieth century, theologians awoke (with a groan?) to find their world, and ontology, relational.” (p. 117) Vanhoozer rightly tracks all of the confusion over divine suffering back to Moltmann’s fundamental loss of the immanent Trinity.

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