The Trinity Two Classic Modern Approaches

In 1831 Friedrich Schleiermacher published the second, extensively revised, edition of The Christian Faith, destined to be among the most influential works in modern Protestant theology. He concluded the new version as he had the first, with a brief but penetrating analysis and criticism of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Schleiermacher argues that the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity - the teaching that the one God is eternally three distinct persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - does not in fact belong among the essential elements of Christian teaching. To be sure, the doctrine takes off from a sound intuition about redemption through Christ and its communication by the church. Jesus Christ can be the redeemer, and the church can be the bearer of his redemption to the world, only if God's own being is genuinely present both in Christ himself and in the "common spirit" of the church. The Christian belief in redemption requires, therefore, the "equation of what is divine in each of these unions [of God to Christ and to the church] with that in the other, and also of both with the divine essence in itself." In this two-fold equation (Gleichstellung) consists "what is essential in the doctrine of the Trinity," and for this reason conceptual means must be located to make the equation "as definitely as possible" (Schleiermacher 19 76:all from §170, 1; cf. 172, 1).1

As Schleiermacher sees it, however, the traditional doctrine of the Trinity goes well beyond this salutary intuition. It posits in "the highest being" an eternal distinction of "the Son" and "the Holy Spirit" from one another and from "the Father" whose divinity they bring into the world. This eternal distinction supposedly forms the basis of God's temporal presence in Christ and in the church, but obtains in God independently of these two temporal modes of divine presence. Thus originates, in Schleiermacher's view, "that duality" characteristic of classical Christian trinitarianism: "unity of essence and Trinity of persons" (§170, 2).

The notion of an eternal distinction of persons in God lacks, however, any basis in the religious experience of Christians, from which all genuinely Christian doctrines must finally spring (see §170, 2-3; 172, 3). We know God only as we are experientially related to him in various ways, and these relations give us no basis for speculation about the being of God in himself, independently of the varieties of his presence to us in time (see §172, 1; also 170, postscript). Even if they did it would make no difference to the content of the Christian's redemptive experience of God in Christ; the supposition of an eternal divine Trinity would be irrelevant even if we had some way of knowing that it was true (see §170, 3).

To this Schleiermacher adds a rigorous appraisal of the conceptual coherence of the traditional doctrine (§171). Classical trinitarianism succeeds in making intelligible neither the equality of the three persons with one another (§171, 2) nor the identity of the three with the divine essence (§171, 3) - not for want of trying, but because neither can be thought consistently in the first place. Of course it may be that the New Testament so clearly supports the traditional church teaching that we have no choice but to try formulating what this teaching drives at in new and more coherent ways. But it is at least worth asking - here Schleiermacher does no more - whether the biblical evidence might be better interpreted, and the intelligibility of Christian teaching better preserved, by articulating Christian faith's awareness of God's three-fold presence in the world in a conceptual idiom more like ancient Sabellianism than Athanasian trinitarianism (§172, 3).

A generation later another theologian published a quite different trinitarian theology which, while now virtually unread, was once as influential in its own orbit as Schleiermacher's was in his. Though like Schleiermacher a native German speaker, Johann Baptist Franzelin otherwise inhabited a quite different theological world. An Austrian Catholic, longtime professor of dogmatic theology at the Gregorianum (the Jesuit college in Rome), influential defender of papal infallibility at Vatican I, and later Cardinal, Franzelin issued the first edition of The Triune God in 1869.2 As with all of his dogmatic treatises, he sought in his treatment of the Trinity to combine a textually rigorous attention to the authoritative bases of traditional Christian teaching (Scripture, the councils, and the Church Fathers East and West) with a renewed appreciation of medieval and Renaissance scholasticism, above all the teaching of Thomas Aquinas. While he never cites Schleiermacher, Franzelin vigorously defends all of the trinitarian claims upon which Schleiermacher sought to cast doubt.

As Franzelin sees it, Scripture explicitly teaches the church's traditional doctrine of the Trinity. In particular Matthew 28:19, John 10:30, 1:1, and 16:13-15 establish that Father, Son, and Spirit are three distinct persons and at the same time the one God (Franzelin 1895:15-30; cf. Schleiermacher's dismissal of trinitarian readings of John in §170, 2). Since Matthew 28:19 is a baptismal formula, by which "all who have embraced the faith are initiated and gathered into the church," it also displays the centrality of the doctrine of the Trinity for Christian faith: in it "Christ the Lord has brought together a compendium of the doctrine and faith to be professed concerning God who is one in nature, but three persons" (1895:15).

For Franzelin the Council of Nicaea (325) already makes explicit the uniform teaching of the church that this distinction of persons belongs to God eternally, without prejudice to God's unity of nature (a unity in number, and not simply in kind) (see 1895:110-14). This teaching poses a difficult, but not insoluble, conceptual problem. On the one hand, grasping the coherence of belief in the Trinity requires taking the divine unity - a teaching not only revealed by God but accessible to reason (see 1895:115) - as basic, and thereby requires taking the dogmatic treatise de Deo uno as the "foundation" for reflection on the Trinity (1895:3); on the other hand, it requires just the sort of "speculation" that Schleiermacher rejects - reflection on the eternal relations of the divine persons to one another, apart from any action they may undertake toward us. Here Franzelin develops a version of the Augustinian and Thomistic idea that the persons are distinct in virtue of certain relations to one another, while these relations are in the end identical with the one divine essence, and so with the one God. As such they are "subsistent" relations, and thereby genuinely constitutive of distinct persons who just are the one God (see 1895:307-38).

Franzelin treats in detail the relations of the divine persons to us as well as their relations to one another. Here in particular he makes much of a distinction between what applies to the divine persons "internally" (interne, ad intra, or, occasionally, immanente), and so would be true of them even if they had created no world, and what applies to them "externally" (externe or ad extra), as a result of their actions in the world they have made (see, for example, 1895:190-1, 587-8). He devotes the last section of the treatise to a discussion of the question, long debated in Catholic theology, of whether the action of the Holy Spirit in time (his "mission" from the Son and the Father) creates a relationship with believers which is unique to the Spirit himself (see 1895:571-600). Arguing that this would compromise the divine unity, Franzelin answers in the negative (a response hotly contested by some, and defended by others), though he thinks that we need not have any such unique relation to the Spirit in order to be sure that he is a person eternally distinct from the other two - in order, that is, to know that the one God is the Trinity.

Theologians commonly claim that the century just past, especially in its later stages, has seen a profound renewal of trinitarian theology. This intended renewal aims, in effect, to rescue Christian thought about the Trinity from Schleiermacher and Franzelin alike. Despite their apparent opposition to one another, each is now often assumed to embody a position (whether or not explicitly associated with his name) which distorts the most basic concerns of Christian faith in the Trinity, and ruinously renders the triune God irrelevant to both Christian life and Christian theology. In fact contemporary trinitarian opinion sometimes suggests that a theologian like Franzelin - and the Western scholastic tradition he seeks to represent - arrives by implication at a position quite like the one Schleiermacher explicitly advocates. While Schleiermacher apparently denies outright that the God whom we come to know in Christ and the church can really be a Trinity of persons, Franzelin insists that God really is the Trinity, but starts out and develops his trinitarian theology in a way which effectively denies that we could ever come to know this Trinity in Christ and the church: the God whom we actually encounter in the economy of salvation might as well not be triune.

To characterize an enterprise as a "renewal" suggests two related thoughts: novelty and quality. Renewal (as opposed to invention or discovery) involves, to be sure, only relative novelty. Current trinitarian reflection usually claims novelty in comparison with at least the relatively recent past, but also argues that the present renewal turns on a fresh appreciation of more ancient trinitarian views. Fresh ideas only make for renewal (as opposed to demolition) when they are good ones. So present trinitarian theology naturally also claims that the relatively new ideas it brings are improvements - often radical ones - over the views it intends to replace.

Trinitarian theology at the beginning of the twenty-first century thus tends to involve both historical judgments about its own relationship with Christian thought prior to the onset of the putative renewal, and normative judgments about the merits of the ideas upon which the renewal is based. Identifying some of the leading ideas in recent trinitarian theology will enable a brief assessment, as to both novelty and quality, of the suggestion that there has lately been a trinitarian renewal.

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