Essay / Theology

Whither Trinitarian Theology (Holmes pt. 3)

See the other essays in this three-part series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Fred Sanders and Matt Jenson finish their series of posts on Steve Holmes’ new Trinity book, with a discussion about his overall project and what it suggests for trinitarian theology.

Jenson: Holmes steers awfully close to despair at the end of his book, Fred. On the last page, after a brief summary of the consistent Patristic understanding of the Trinity, he concludes: ‘In our accounts of a Trinitarian revival, we wanted little or nothing to do with such strictures. As a result, we set out on our own to offer a different, and we believed better, doctrine.’ Then he walks us through a series of wrong turns in which ‘we’ (it’s a gracious pronoun) repeated the mistakes of heterodox thinkers before us and failed to learn from their orthodox corrections. ‘We called what we were doing a “Trinitarian revival”; future historians might want to ask us why.’ There endeth the book. And as a historical account, that is as much as Holmes needs to say.

But I’m intrigued by a couple of comments he makes on the penultimate page. Holmes suspects that the 20th-century revival might have ‘begun in the right places’ with Barth and Rahner pointing to the ways the economy of salvation requires the doctrine of the Trinity as well as calling for a correlation of the eternal Trinity to the economy of salvation. Suppose this is right. Suppose, too, we learn from our mistakes, not least our ascription of independent centers of consciousness to each of the three divine hypostases, our readiness to involve God with the world and use language univocally of God and the world. Once we wash our mouths out with Holmes’ soap, what should our next move be? Here’s another way to ask the question: If we admit, as I think we must, that doctrine does develop in some sense  –not because the truth changes but because its unfolding in our common life in the church presents us with ever new ways to grasp the mystery of God– can we know more (if never less) about the Trinity than the Fathers? At least, can we grant their core dogmatic moves and yet explore areas they neglected? Or are we left with merely re-learning and re-articulating the Fathers’ core insights?

Sanders: I have to admit I’m actually temperamentally attracted to the idea of just getting back to the core insights of the Fathers, but I know what you mean. Surely there’s been some progress in trinitarian theology in the modern period, and surely some of the hard work that has happened since, say, Rahner and Barth wrote their treatises on the Trinity, must have resulted in some advance in knowledge.

To put it another way, it’s great to see Holmes burst the big, fat bubble of excessive trinitarian hype in recent theology, and his voice is a welcome interruption of the deafening chorus of self-congratulating “new trinitarians.” But can we really just re-boot the whole thing and re-set our trinitarian clocks back to somewhere in the middle ages?

I don’t think so, and I doubt Holmes does either. The Quest for the Trinity is framed as a historical report, so Holmes keeps some of his own judgments about constructive trinitarian theology to himself. But we got some hints about where he would go forward when he was unable to endorse patristic exegesis in any detail. The best Holmes could say about the way the Fathers derived the Trinity from Scripture was that they were broadly gesturing in the right direction, as long as you ignore the details. I certainly don’t want to roll back the responsibility and accountability of sober, grammatical-historical exegesis. As a critical thinker who values interpretive rigor, I can admire but not imitate patristic allegorical bravura.

And while agreeing that the radical trinitarians since Rahner have driven the doctrine car into the relational-perichoretic-univocally-social-trinitarian ditch, I’m also willing to admit that the tradition before then was in fact getting far too comfortable with a way of talking about the immanent Trinity that had very little to do with the events of the economy of salvation. So if the modern revival of interest in the Trinity has not been all that its boosters have claimed for it, I do think nevertheless there’s been a healthy re-centering on the economy of salvation.

Jenson: I’m interested in whether this re-centering on the economy of salvation funds an ability to say more about the immanent Trinity than traditional trinitarian theology has found legitimate. One needn’t–and shouldn’t–take Holmes’ brushback of, say, Moltmann to imply that Moltmann was wrong to find in the economy a revelation of God or even to want to move from a certain movement in the economy to an account of the eternal Trinity. We’d be missing a significant opportunity if we over-corrected Moltmann’s historicizing of God, his exporting, say, the death of Jesus directly into the life of God by articulating a doctrine of God that is fully determined prior to an engagement with the economy.

Fred, I recently read your book on The Image of the Immanent Trinity, in which you tantalizingly suggest that we might follow the Fathers’ circumspection and humility before the immanent Trinity and yet still establish more about Father, Son and Spirit in their eternally blessed life than the bare relations of origin that the Fathers acknowledged. The Fathers said that the Father = Son = Spirit in every way, except that the Father isn’t the Son or the Spirit. So Gregory of Nazianzus writes in Oration 31, ‘The Son is not Father; there is one Father, yet he is whatever the Father is.’ Everything the Father is (i.e., all that he is in that all that he is is God) the Son is, except the Son is such as Son rather than as Father. They are ‘substantially’ identical even while they are ‘relationally’ distinct.

The key point here is to protect the divine simplicity (‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One!’). Relations of origin (that the Father begets the Son and the Spirit proceeds from the Father) are biblically-funded ways of articulating trinitarian differentiation without trading away simplicity. But what if one could pick up clues from within God’s self-revelation in the economy of salvation as set forth in Scripture that point to other forms of intra-trinitarian differentiation while still upholding divine simplicity? Could we, with a slight nod to Pannenberg, speak of relations of destination? Perhaps the Spirit, in economy and eternity, rests on the Son? Perhaps the Son, in economy and eternity, returns to the Father? Does that strike you as legitimate, Fred? And if so, how do we go about setting boundaries to this kind of speech? I’d think we’d want to be pretty sparse in what we assert with confidence. You got any rules for moving from the economic to the immanent Trinity faithfully?

Sanders: Matt, I’ll venture a couple of thoughts about where trinitarian theology could go from here. These are tentative, and I only advance them because you goaded me by citing my own previous work, and because we’ve just finished talking about this Holmes book. I take Quest for the Trinity to be a solid statement of the current cutting edge of trinitarian theology. By “cutting edge,” I suppose I also mean “blunted giddinesss,” but when something’s on fire, it’s great to have somebody responsible throw a wet towel over it. If you read Holmes in combination with the much larger, multi-author reference work, 2012’s Oxford Handbook to the Trinity, you know pretty much where we stand right now.

Reading Holmes, you can’t miss the fact that we’re not done with the task of ressourcement phase of trinitarianism; in fact we’re just coming out of some confusing decades of “revival without retrieval” (Swain’s phrase). And since the crisis in Bible interpretation associated with the early modern period, we still stand in need of yoking the doctrine of the Trinity as directly as possible to Scripture. So we need a better alignment with tradition and with Scripture, at the same time. How could we do that?

One way would be to follow the lead of the classic tradition of trinitarianism, carrying out the lines of investigation suggested by it as if they were a research program generated by a community of inquiry. I’m using some philosophy of science language there, but what I mean is pretty straightforward. Let’s say the church fathers are right about the Son and Spirit being related to the Father by hypostatic relations of origin, and they’re right because it’s the correct interpretation of Scripture. To make further progress along those lines would not mean finding more relations of origin (that would be nonsense in so many ways), but might, as you say, set us up to name other relationships among the three persons. Those relationships would be economic events that image immanent states. And perhaps they would be different aspects or threads of interpersonal relationships that we would recognize as more multi-faceted than relations of origin. In his Systematic Theology, Wolfhart Pannenberg refers to the “richly structured nexus of relationships” (reichbar struktierten Bezeihungsgeflecht) which “constitute the different distinctions of the persons.” I think those could use some closer attention.

These biblically-witnessed relationships include things like resting on, glorifying, shining forth from, giving and receiving, and so on. I do think they may also include something like “relations of destination,” though that would take us into some pretty difficult territory. But even there, it may be possible to move forward without contradicting the great tradition. Near the end of his treatise on the Triune God in the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas explains that if a divine person proceeds from another, his “internal going-forth” has a conceptual starting point and also an end-point, a terminus. The Son, it seems, comes from the Father and terminates in the divine being. The more perfectly he proceeds, in fact, the more perfectly unified he is with the Father. In the economy of salvation, he takes to himself an additional terminus, the human nature. But he does so in an extension of the fact that he has a terminus point in God, as God, already. Might it not be the case that, just as missions reveal processions, returning to the Father may reveal or give an image of the Son’s hypostatic terminus point in the immanent Trinity?

Well, that’s a brief sketch. But the basic idea is that we might be in a position to do more of what the Fathers did, and do it with different exegetical tools than we’ve had before. If we were to do that, I think we should take the patristic consensus as a normative baseline for getting Scripture right, and then take up and read the Bible with a retrieved and revived doctrine of God.

Holmes has cleared the decks for action, I think, and whether that action is along the lines I’ve sketched here is somewhat beside the point. This is a barnstormer of a book, and I hope it succeeds in changing the direction of the conversation.

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