Six Characteristic Theses of Recent Trinitarian Theology

On the Protestant side the proposed trinitarian renewal may be traced especially to Karl Barth.3 On the Catholic side Karl Rahner has been especially influential (Rahner 1997). Barth and Rahner can therefore serve as useful points of orientation for a characterization of recent trinitarian theology. To be sure, trinitarian theology has become an increasingly ecumenical enterprise, engaged with a largely common set of problems and assumptions, and very much including Eastern Orthodox theology. The following six theses are thus offered as a brief typology of claims widely made in the current trinitarian debate. Despite their differences in substance and style, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jürgen Moltmann, Walter Kasper, Robert Jenson, and Catherine LaCugna - to name only some of the more prominent figures in recent trinitarian theology - all advocate versions of most of the following claims. Naturally these theses have been developed in a variety of different ways, and they represent the view of no one theologian in particular.

(1) The Trinity is the most essential, basic, or (at times) distinctive Christian doctrine. Christian identity, both communal and individual, thus depends upon the doctrine of the Trinity. Barth makes this point by saying that the distinctive character of the revelation attested in Scripture directs us first of all to the doctrine of the Trinity (see I/1:296), Rahner by saying that the Trinity is "the primordial mystery of Christianity," and as such, a mystery which bears on the total reality of our salvation (1997:21).

(a) As a corollary to (1), trinitarian theologies now regularly argue that the doctrine has to have deep connections with ordinary Christian life as a whole. Since the Trinity is the most basic Christian teaching, its essential contents must be accessible to every believer. Should profession of faith in the triune God fail to make traceable differences in the way the Christian community and its members preach, pray, teach, and console, then the profession itself is faulty; it somehow lacks the content proper to trinitarian teaching. Conversely, notions about the Trinity which lack a discernible connection with ordinary Christian life (including much of the technical mate rial of traditional trinitarian theology) have no relevance to the doctrine of the Trinity, though they may perhaps be of interest to theologians. So for Rahner theologians have an obligation "to understand and present the doctrine of the Trinity in such a way that it becomes a reality in the concrete religious life of the Christian" (199 7:10; on the insignificance of various technical debates see 1997:47-8, 80-1).4

(2) The doctrine of the Trinity is the Christian way of identifying God. In order adequately to pick out or locate the one true God, and to distinguish him from other candidates for divinity and divine worship, we have to be able to locate the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and to distinguish them both from each other and from everything else. The presence and action of Father, Son, and Spirit in human history and (for some theologians) in the depths of human subjectivity enable us to identify them. The doctrine of the Trinity thus serves not to label a perhaps insoluble conceptual puzzle, but to specify what Christians are talking about when they speak of "God." Barth puts the point programmatically: "The doctrine of the Trinity aims to answer the question: who is God?" and so "fundamentally distinguishes the Christian doctrine of God as Christian" (I/1:301).5

To this thesis two corollaries are typically joined.

(a) We can only identify the Father, the Son, and the Spirit once Jesus has appeared on the scene. What he does and suffers enables us to pick him out as the Father's Son, who receives and gives the Spirit. Some apprehension of God may be available prior to or apart from acquaintance with Jesus's life, death, and resurrection, though about the extent and nature of such apprehension dispute arises. In any case we lack access to actions or characteristics sufficient to distinguish any of the three from each other and from ourselves until these identifying features are displayed by Jesus's interrelations with the other two.

(b) Father, Son, and Spirit must be identified together if we are to identify them at all. Though we cannot pick out any of the three without reference to Jesus, we cannot grasp any one of the three in his personal uniqueness or individuality without also being able to locate the other two; identification of any one, we could say, implies identification of the others. Rahner's remark suggests both (2a) and (2b): "We know about the Trinity because the Word of the Father has entered our history and has given us his Spirit" (1997:48).

(3) The "economic" Trinity and the "immanent" Trinity are the same. This claim can be put in various ways: God in his saving action "for us" is the same as (or identical with) God "in himself," the Trinity ad extra is the same as the Trinity ad intra, and so forth. By various conceptual means, advocates of this thesis want to make at least the claim that in God, the Trinity we encounter in time goes all the way down. Just as God is the Father, the Son, and the Spirit in the creative and saving arrangement (or "economy") he has actually brought about, so also he is the Father, the Son, and the Spirit "immanently" or "antecedently in himself" (as Barth sometimes puts the point; see I/1:428, 466, 479-80).

Rahner regards (3) as the "basic assumption" (Grundaxiom) which must be followed by any trinitarian theology hoping to uphold (1) and (2). In his well-known formulation, "The 'economic' Trinity is the 'immanent' Trinity, and conversely" (1997:22). But Barth is equally firm: "The reality of God which meets us in revelation is precisely his reality in all the depths of eternity," so that "everything we say about the so-called immanent Trinity" is simply "the indispensable presupposition of the economic Trinity" (I/1:479).

(a) Although the immanent Trinity is the same as the economic (since, as Rahner stresses, the axiom which identifies the two is reversible), we know the immanent Trinity only from what happens in the economy of salvation - above all from the passion and resurrection of Jesus and the pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit. That the one God is to be identified as Father, Son, and Spirit (cf. 2) is not primarily a revealed doctrine about God, but belongs to our encounter with God through the presence and action of the Father, Jesus, and the Spirit. Did our access to the triune God at any point depend solely on holding true some authoritative statements about the Trinity (such as the scriptural passages analyzed by Franzelin), then the doctrine of the Trinity would cease to mark out the basic mystery of salvation which affects our whole life (cf. [1a]). It would mean that "we ourselves really have nothing to do with the mystery of the Trinity, except that we know something 'about' it through revelation" (Rahner 1997:14). The immanent Trinity has to be, and can only be, "read off" the economic (see Barth, I/1:480).

(4) Father, Son, and Spirit are genuine persons, agents who address and interact with one another in love and mutual knowledge. So we meet with them in the economy of salvation: the Father commands the Son Jesus, and the Son implores, but also obeys, the Father (see Mark 14:32-41 and parallels); Jesus the Son breathes the Spirit upon the apostles in the upper room (John 20:22-3); the same Spirit "drives" (Mark 1:12) or "leads" (Matthew 4:1, Luke 4:1) the Son into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Since the three are personal agents in the economy, they must (as [3] requires) be interacting persons all the way down, in their "immanent" life together.

Here much recent trinitarian theology parts company with Barth and Rahner. Fearing tritheism, these two reject the idea that there are three "individuals," "personalities," "egos" (Barth, I/1:350-1), "consciousnesses" or "centers of action" (Rahner 1997:43) in God, and so hesitate to characterize as "persons" the three who are the one God (see Barth, I/1:355-61; Rahner 1997:42-5, 103-15). Though neither rejects trinitarian application of the concept "person" outright, each thinks the matter - especially the unity of God - better served by an alternative (Barth's "mode of being," Rahner's "distinct mode of subsistence"). For this both have been widely criticized for failing to appreciate the implications of their own commitment to theses (1) to (3), by holding on to modalist leftovers which keep them from a sufficiently bold affirmation of the differences and interactions among the three, "immanent" as well as "economic."

(a) Father, Son, and Spirit are irreducibly distinct personal agents in their interaction not only with one another, but with us. The divine actions of creation and salvation therefore establish a relationship with creatures unique to each of the divine persons. Neither creation nor salvation is the work simply of the one God, but both are the work of the three persons in their uniqueness and distinction from one another. On this Rahner vigorously insists, especially regarding unique relations of Christ and the Holy Spirit with believers in grace (see 1997:26-7, 34-8). Barth does as well, at least in his later theology.6 Hence the charge that both are inconsistent in their misgivings about (4).

(b) Both (4) and (4a) suggest that trinitarian theology ought to exhibit a robustly "personalist" character, in contrast to "essentialist" approaches which take knowledge of the one divine essence (however attained) as the basis for assertions about the distinctions and relations among the persons and with us. Here trinitarian theology across the board has felt the influence of recent Eastern Orthodox views.7

(c) The unity of the three should be conceived primarily as intimate interpersonal "communion," rather than supposing that what makes the three one God is chiefly their common possession of (numerically) the same essence. This goes together with a preference for thinking about the unity of the triune God "socially" rather than "psychologically" (for Rahner's own doubts about the "psychological analogy," despite his reservations regarding [4], see 1997:115-20).

(5) The doctrine of the Trinity should suffuse the whole of Christian theology. Every topic should bear a distinctively trinitarian stamp - not only the theology of the incarnation and of Jesus's passion and resurrection, but of creation, grace, the sacraments, the last things, and so forth. Unless we can show what difference it makes to the treatment of an issue that God is triune, the Trinity becomes a theologically isolated and perhaps non-functional doctrine, even when it is elaborated in great detail. With that (1) and (2) are forgone (see Rahner 1997:12-15).8 (a) In order to uphold (5), trinitarian reflection, and indeed the whole enterprise of Christian theology, needs to "start" in the right place: with the three persons whose interactions and differences from one another are displayed for us by the economy of salvation. If theology "starts" from the one God, the divine essence, or the attributes of God, the doctrine of the Trinity will inevitably cease to function properly in the larger system of theological topics, and it may become impossible coherently to maintain that the one God is the Trinity in the first place.

So Rahner faults Thomas Aquinas, and subsequent scholasticism even more, for "separating" theological discussion of "the one God" from discussion of "the triune God," and then treating them in that sequence. This procedure "must give rise to the impression" of "a Trinity which is absolutely closed in on itself" and "from which we are excluded" - starting with "the one God" must, in other words, entail the denial of most of theses (1) to (4) (1997:18; see 1997:15-21, 45-6, 82-3). Similarly, Barth worries that failing to present the Trinity at the outset "really contradicts the highly important statements which must be made about . . . the comprehensive significance of the doctrine of the Trinity" (I/1:301). These remarks suggest that a faulty order of presentation logically prevents theology from making needful assertions about the Trinity. Both writers sometimes indicate, however, that the problem may be more pedagogical than substantive (see Rahner 199 7:20; Barth, I/1:303). (6) All of the foregoing points are best made, or perhaps only makeable at all, by recourse to "the" Eastern or Greek approach to (or "model of") the Trinity, rather than to "the" Western or Latin one. Eastern trinitarian theology has the merit of "starting" with the economic Trinity of persons (or, as Rahner argues, with the person of the Father in particular), rather than with "an a-trinitarian treatise on 'the one God' " (1997:18) or with the divine essence and attributes. It treats the Trinity from the outset as a mystery of salvation, refuses to separate the immanent from the economic Trinity, and advances to a grasp of the divine unity on the basis of the economically enacted distinctions among the persons. In all this, Eastern theology rightly follows Scripture. Western trinitarian theology lacks all of these virtues, and usually fails to avoid precisely those trinitarian demerits which the Eastern tradition correctly rejects. A contemporary renewal of trinitarian theology should therefore repair to the formative figures of Eastern theology, especially the Cappadocians. Rahner promotes this historical thesis, with occasional reservations (see 1997:15-21, 58-61, 83-4). Barth does not, and especially in his treatment of the Filioque prefers Western antecedents to Eastern ones (see 1/1:473-89). In this, however, most subsequent trinitarian theology has not followed him.

The thesis itself has a definite historical location. A century ago the French Jesuit Théodore de Régnon first gave wide currency to the idea that two clearly identifiable traditions of trinitarian theology largely oppose one another.9 The Greek tradition stems primarily from the Cappadocians, the Latin or "scholastic" from Augustine. The difference between the two lies above all in the decision of the Latin scholastics to start, following Augustine, with the one divine essence, while the Cappadocians begin with the Trinity of persons; this difference colors the two traditions down to the present day.10 Though trinitarian theologians now rarely take this historical thesis directly from de Régnon, the commonplace assumption embodied in (6) apparently stems from him, and not from more recent Eastern Orthodox theology.11 The notion of opposed "Eastern" and "Western" trinitarian traditions seems to be itself originally a Western idea.

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