Essay / Theology

The Modern Doctrine of the Trinity

The Trinity is God, and God does not change. The Trinity doesn’t develop, mature, improve, shift around, wax or wane, or alter with the latest trends and fashions. But the doctrine of the Trinity is something theologians talk about, and theologians do change, and the way they talk changes. So it’s possible to describe the way the doctrine of the Trinity has been handled differently during the modern period, or roughly the last two hundred years. The doctrine has even made something of a comeback in these two centuries, though the story we usually hear about “the return of the Trinity” tends to emphasize only the last few decades, especially the avalanche of books since about the 1970s and 1980s.

But the doctrine of the Trinity made its modern comeback closer to 1785 than 1985. The late eighteenth century was when the Romantic reaction against Enlightenment rationalism kicked in. The brightest minds of the Enlightenment found the doctrine of the Trinity to be hopelessly pre-modern and irrational, a dead piece of tradition that could not survive into modernity. Thomas Jefferson spoke for the educated classes when he sneered at “the incomprehensible jargon of the trinitarian arithmetic” which encumbered his simple view of God. But Romanticism, which according to Jacques Barzun “began as a cluster of movements and became the spirit of an age,” brought the doctrine back by seeing it as a stimulating source of reflection on a set of themes that were dear to the heart of Romanticism: History, Experience, and Retrieval of the Past. Briefly, here is how those three forces helped create a situation in which the doctrine of the Trinity could reclaim the attention it deserves from theologians.

First, the category of history. For the Enlightenment, the quintessence of truth was not just propositions, but the kind of propositions that could be distilled from all possible historical flux or cultural diversity. Thinkers like Gotthold Lessing took it as axiomatic that anything that happened in the course of history, at one particular time and place, could never have ultimate or universal meaning.

Along came G.W.F. Hegel, though, who told the story of world history as a kind of coming-of-age novel with Truth itself as the central character. For anybody captivated by Hegel’s view of reality, history was not an obstacle to Truth with a capital T: History with a capital H was the only place you could ever hope to find capital-T Truth hanging out. This view of world history as ultimate reality was so big for Hegel that the Trinity fit neatly inside of it: The Father is the idea of the Absolute, the Son is what happens when the Universal goes out of itself and enters into the particular, and the Spirit is how the Universal and the Particular reunite. In the process, the world is engendered, falls, and is redeemed. No wonder philosopher Charles Taylor said “the dogma of the Trinity is ideal for Hegel’s purposes.” Whether Hegel was ideal for the Trinity’s purposes is another question.

Nobody can or should follow Hegel in everything, but plenty of modern theologians have been moved by his impulse to find the course of world history as the arena where all the trinitarian action is happening. Especially if you develop that Hegelian impulse in terms of the centrality of the cross of Christ and the final consummation of the Kingdom, you get a thick theological brew. That’s exactly what Jürgen Moltmann brewed up with statements like this: “If the cross of Jesus is understood as a divine event… the doctrine of the Trinity is no longer an exorbitant and impractical speculation about God, but is nothing other than a shorter version of the passion narrative of Christ in its significance for the eschatological freedom of faith and the life of oppressed nature.” Moltmann even argued that “the history of God” had a retroactive effect on the being of God, so that God turned out to be essentially shaped, affected in his divine essence and identity, by the event of the cross.  Other theologians who can be found rooting God’s identity in the outcome or the conduct of world history include Wolfhart Pannenberg (God self-actualizes in history) and Robert W. Jenson (God identifies himself as his story). Process theologians, when they consider the Trinity, make a similar move, as do open theists and panentheist thinkers.

The second major Romantic category is experience. If Enlightenment rationalism prized truths that were true whether you experienced them or not, Romanticism viewed experience, deep experience, as the key to truth. F.D.E. Schleiermacher made experience central to his reconstruction of Christian theology, defining Christianity as the religion which is “essentially distinguished from other faiths by the fact that in it everything is related to the redemption accomplished by Jesus of Nazareth,” and declaring that the proper business of theology is to “consider the facts of the religious self-consciousness,” to see what the born-again mind contained within its Christian consciousness. Did it contain the Trinity? Not quite. No matter how saved you may feel, you can’t exactly feel the Trinity. And if God were Father, Son, and Holy Spirit whether we existed or not, we would have “no formula for” expressing that God-in-himself anyway, since any formula we would have would be ours, derived from experience. If God were Triune in the woods and nobody experienced it, would he make a sound? Schleiermacher wasn’t sure, so he put the doctrine of the Trinity at the very end of his 700-page systematics. Was it the capstone of the whole structure, or an optional appendix? The latter.

But Schleiermacher reoriented modern theology toward experience just as definitely as Hegel had toward history, and so it was only a matter of time before modern theologians succeeded in re-thinking the Trinity as an object of experience. In recent decades, the most thorough case for this was made by Catherine Mowry LaCugna, who argued in her controversial book God For Us that “the doctrine of the Trinity is ultimately a practical doctrine with radical consequences for the Christian life.” The doctrine is a kind of shortened description of how God gives himself in salvation history, and how we receive grace.  Modern theologians working in the liberationist mode have been especially motivated to connect the Trinity to experience, from Elizabeth Johnson’s argument that God is She Who Is, a Trinity that women can name toward from their own female experience, to Leonardo Boff’s presentation of Holy Trinity–Perfect Society as a model for egalitarian social and economic structures. In the latest literature, we are hearing more and more about “church practices” as the key to having true knowledge of God the Trinity.

Both of these trends brought mixed blessings to trinitarian theology, reinvigorating interest in the doctrine but also introducing considerable confusion and error. All the good and bad of both trends came together perfectly in the work of Karl Rahner. Rahner was equally interested in the course of salvation history and in the personal experience of grace. He believed that God communicated himself to humans in these two ways, with actual history corresponding to the Son’s incarnation, and the transcendental conditions of spiritual experience corresponding to the Spirit’s indwelling.  It was Rahner who summed up “the new trinitarianism” with the watchword, “The economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, and vice versa.”  That is, when we experience Father, Son, and Spirit in the course of history and our spiritual lives, we experience who God is inside himself (immanent to his own being), and –here the big step– what God is in himself is nothing but what he is for us.

The third major category of Romanticism that reinvigorated the doctrine of the Trinity was the retrieval of the past. If the modern world of Enlightenment thinkers rejected the doctrine, then so much the worse for the poor, modern world, according to the theologians who made a major mental investment in the pre-modern past.  “That’s so medieval” doesn’t have to be an insult, when it means close engagement with great minds like Augustine and Aquinas, to name just a few.

And here it is high time to admit that a large number of Christian theologians never recovered the doctrine of the Trinity after the Romantic reaction, because they never neglected or abandoned the doctrine of the Trinity in the first place. Jaroslav Pelikan, the great historian of doctrine, said that “the modern period in the history of Christian doctrine may be defined as the time when doctrines that had been assumed more than debated for most of Christian history were themselves called into question: the idea of revelation, the uniqueness of Christ, the authority of scripture, the expectation of life after death, even the very transcendence of God.” So it is understandable that in histories of modern theology, attention would be given to those who were making changes. But as Colin Gunton has pointed out, “In all periods there have been competent theologians, Catholic and Protestant alike, who have continued to work with traditional trinitarian categories while being aware of the reasons that have led others to question, modify or reject traditional orthodoxy.” For anybody who reads old books instead of recent dismissive summaries of them, it is easy to point to a constant line of writers, conservatives of various denominations down through the modern period, who recognized the doctrine of the Trinity as biblically clear, doctrinally certain, and experientially vital:  Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, Hermann Bavinck, William Burt Pope, Francis Hall, and many more.

In the 1930s, Karl Barth pulled off a heroic retrieval, apparently single-handed, of the doctrine of the Trinity as the starting-point of Christian thought. The story is often reported as if the doctrine had been utterly dead and that it sprang back to life under the hands of Dr. Barth. Indeed, in 1931 an exasperated German-American theologian named Wilhem Pauck was reviewing Karl Barth’s use of the doctrine, and exclaimed, “As if it were really a matter of life and death, that as members of the church of the Twentieth Century– we should accept the dogma of the Trinity!” This is a telling remark in many ways. But one thing it should remind us is that Barth’s daring one-man swim against the tide of modern theology was a swim against the tide of modern liberal theology: the kind of person who was shocked by the assertion of trinitarianism was the kind of person who was capable of huffing and puffing about how “members of the church of the Twentieth Century” could hardly be expected to accept this fuddy duddy of an old doctrine. Barth gave those people a good thorough shaking. But there are other traditions, like conservative evangelicalism among others, who never allowed themselves to mock the old doctrine, and never stopped teaching it as they found it in the Bible. At their best, they never accepted the Enlightenment altogether uncritically anyway, so they didn’t have to participate in the same way in the Romantic over-reaction against the Enlightenment.

Was the modern trinitarian trip all a huge detour? Could we have arrived at the same place if we had just stayed conservative and waited for the prevailing winds to blow over? No, the categories of history, experience, and retrieval truly have served to enrich trinitarian doctrine and have made possible real progress in understanding, so long as they stay close to Biblical revelation. Because we have learned from the modern Trinity, the Romantic Trinity, that this is a doctrine which ought to be transparent to history, that ought to be transparent to experience, that ought to be transparent to the great theology that has gone before. But above all, the doctrine of the Trinity must be stated in such a way that it is transparent to Holy Scripture.

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