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Thre Versus One- Some Problems of Social Trinitarianism

Thre Versus One- Some Problems of Social Trinitarianism

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76
D. Smit
/
Journal
of
& f o r m ~ d
 
Theology
3
(2009)57-76
The
Key
Place
of
the Doctrine
in
the Reformed Tradition-Coincidental?
So, is the key place of the doctrine
of
the Trinity in the work of so manyReformed theologians
of
the last decades coincidental, or not? Broadly speaking, they are all part
of
the much larger
renaissance-in
which the ReformedKarl Barth however played a pivotal role. Was it coincidental that Barth developed those insights, so early in his career,at a time in which he delved deeplyinto Calvin and the Reformed confessional heritage?
When
one looks more closely, however, it does seem that' the enthusiasmwith which many
of
these Reformed theologians appeal to the trinitarian faith,and particularly the most characteristic ways in which they do this, do seem tocorrelate with basic intuitions in the early Reformers, including Calvin,particularly that trinitarian language offers a way to tell the story
of
the scriptures,to know
God
as the living God, acting as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, graciously loving, saving,and comforting us
and
calling, claiming, and renewingus, in rich and complex
ways-always
in the plural (Noordmans).
._.,,'5
.,
.
.
I
 
-
JO URN AL
..
J.BFoaNBD
v,
.F
'1"-
THBOLOGY
BRill
Journal
o f R i f o r m ~ d
 
Theology
3
(2009)77-89
www.brill.nl/
jn
ThreeVersus One?
Some
Problems
of
SocialTrinitarianism
Stephen
R.
Holmes
Lecturerin Systematic TheologySt Mary's College,Sr Andrewse-mail:sh80@st-andrews.ac.uk 
Abstract
Thispaper examines the question whether we should prefer the so-called'social' doctrine of the Trinity, which figuresso prominently in contemporary trinitarian reflection, to its'Latin'alternative.After a sketch of some evident attractions of social trinitarianism,it is argued that these attractions conceal as many
problems-problems
which may be rather devastating in theend. Firstofall,thepracticalandethicalusefulness
of
thesocialdoctrineturnsoutto
be
highlyquestionable. Second,contemporary social trinitarianismdeviates in crucial aspects from the Cappadocian {and other} Fathers. And third,the claim that socialtrinitarianismis in fact the best way to appropriate the biblical witness is found wanting.The paper concludes with thesuggestionthatsocialtrinitarianstodayusethedoctrineoftheTrinitytoanswerquestions whichthe Fathers answered by means
of
Christology.
Keywords
trinitarianrenaissance,social trinitarianisrn,Latin trinitarianisrn,ecclesiology patristictheology, Christology,Trinity,
Introduction
The 'trinitarian revival'
of
the second half
of
the twentieth century suddenlymoved the doctrine
of
the Trinity from being perceived as either a dead dogmaor (at best) useless orthodoxy,and found instead that it was a doctrine that wasgenerative for almost every other area
of
Christian theology, and particularlyforChristianethics.Attheheart ofthisrevivalwasasense,variouslyexpressed,that the reality
of
divine tri-uniry had been somehow lost. For Karl Rahner itwas the separation between the treatises
"On
the
One
God" and
"On
the Triune God" in Catholic dogmatics that had caused the problem, leading to most
e
Konlnklljke
Brill
NY,
Leiden,2009
001
:
10.1
1631
156973I09X403732
 
S.
R
Holmes
I
Journal
of
Reformed
Theology
3
(2009) 77-89
79
S. R.
Holmes
I
Journal
of
Reformed
1heology
3
(2009) 77-89
78
Christians being almost "mere monotheists",'for John Zizioulas,
and
manyothers following him, it was a loss, particularly in the Latin West,
of
the coreCappadocian insights concerning the Trinity, and their subjection to an effective monotheism by Augustine and his heirs.'The rise
of
narrative theology, and a renewed emphasis on the nature andimportance
of
biblical narrative also had their effect.The fourfold gospel history seemingly told stories
of
interpersonal interactions between the divinepersons,
and
so the influence
of
the divine economy on trinitarian theologybecame decisive.The Trinity was suddenly not something hidden in the eternallife
of
God
,
but
somethingplayed
out
in the pages
of
sacred history, andso in the villages
and
towns
of
the Holy
Land.'
The term that perhaps best captures this shift in trinitarian thought is 'thesocial Trinity.' I have not been able to determine the origin
of
he term,
but
bythe 1980s it was already in common use among
both
theologians and analyticphilosophers
of
religion, who found in it a new
and
potentially promising way
of
solving the logical problems that traditional trinitarian dogma seemed topose.' Karen Kilby has argued, persuasively in my view,that there are threebroad themes which unite social trinitarians: a celebration
of
the true personhood
of
the three divine
hypostasest?
a particular account
of
the history
of
doctrine; and a belief in the ethical usefulness
of
trinitarian
dogma."
I
Karl Rahner,
The
Trinity,
r
,
J.Donceel (New York:Crossroad, 1997). 17-20.
1
John D. Zizioulas,
Being
as
Commun
ion:
Studies
in
Personhood
and the
Church
(London:DLT,1985).
3
For an early and especially rich account along these lines.which is not however fully identifiable with developed'social Trinitarianism'(cf. below, footnote7), see R.W. Jenson,
The
Triune
Iden
tity:Godac
cording
tothe
Go
spel
(Philapdelphia: Fortress, 1982).Cornelius Plantinga is speaking as a philosopher about a "social analogy of the Trinity"in 1986:CorneliusPlantinga"Gregory
of
Nyssaand thesocialanalogy
of
theTrinity,"
The
Thomist,
50(1986),325-352.By1989hehasbegun tospeakdirectly
of
a"SocialTrinity":seehis"Social Trinityand rrltheisrn,"in Ronald J. Feenstra and Cornelius Plantinga (eds.)
Trinity,
Incarnation
and Atonement:
Philosophical
and
Theological
Essays
(Notre Dame:University
of
Notre DamePress, 1989)
,21-47.
Today, the term is repeatedly used,contrastedwith 'Augustinian'or 'Latin' trinitarianism, to denote the
twO
main accounts
of
analytic philosophical approaches to thedoctrine
of
the Trinity. See,
e.g,
DaleTuggy,"The Unfinished BusinessofTrinitarianTheorising"
Relig
ious
Stud
ies
39 (2003), 165-84.
l
As
theword'person'iscontroversialinthisdiscussion,Iwilladopt thepracticeofmerely transliterating the ecumenically-acceptedterm 'hypostasis' when referring singly or collectively
to
Father,Son, and Holy Spirit.
6
Karen Kilby,"Perichoresis and Projection :Problems with Social Doctrines
of
the Trinity,"
New
Blackfriars,
81 (2000) 432-45.
The centrality
of
he first
of
hese may be traced to Barth's famous suspicion
of
the term'person' in a contemporary doctrine
of
the Trinity.Barth arguedthat the term had changed its meaning decisively in the nineteenth century,and so now was no longer useful or helpful as technical theological languagefor the divine hypostases; social trinitarians, by contrast, find the currentmeaning
of
the term an invitation to recover core Christian insights,too longforgotten in the theological tradition. This leads directly,then, to Kilby'ssec
ond
characteristic.This forgetfulness is a result
of
the obscuring
of
the keybreakthroughs achieved by the Cappadocian Fathers in the fourth centurydebates. These insights were lost particularly by the failure
of
Augustine andBoethius to comprehend the crucial issues, and so a failure to translate theminto the Latin tradition? I will have more to say about this in a discussion
of
Zizioulas'scontribution in a moment. Finally, if a more adequate, more'Cappadocian,' doctrine
of
the Trinity can be recovered, it will have ecclesial,political,and social implications which will be
of
great service to the church,simply because human sociality depends on constructing an adequate account
of
good personal relationships, and the social Trinity is held to offer preciselysuch an account,which can be applied relativelystraightforwardly.John D.Zizioulas, the
Orthodox
theologian and Metropolitan Bishop
of
Pergamum, is repeatedly appealed to by social Trinitarians, and also illustrateseach
of
these points.
It
may be that he did not begin the movement (JiirgenMoltmann's
The Trinity
and
the Kingdom
of
God
8
pre-dates Zizioulas's keybook by five years, and can also be regarded as a classic
of
social Trinitarianism),
but
his book
Being as Communion
seems to be regarded as foundationalby most who came afterwards.Zizioulas's book begins with a careful and complex account
of
the achievement
of
the Cappadocian
~ a t h e r s
,
 
here presentedas a breakthrough in ontology. The word
bupostasis,
once essentially synonymous with
ousia,
is distinguished and made synonymous with
prosopon.
Theimplications
of
this shift in technical vocabulary is momentous: for the firsttime in the history
of
Greek metaphysical reflection, personal and relationalterminology is used to describe fundamental ontological realities.replacingsubstantialistic terminology.In a slogan, the Cappadocians found a way
of
articulating the Christian insight that the basic reality
of
the world is not
7
Jensontellsasimilarhistoricalstoryin
1he
TriuneIdentity,
despitesharingBarth'sreservations over the language
of
persons,' hence my comment about his ambiguous status above. (By thetime he writes his
Systemat
ic
1heology
,
Jenson seems to be less cautious about the language of'person,' however:
Systematic
1heology
:
Volume
J:
The
Triune
God
(Oxford: OUP, 1997), 75-89.Jiirgen Moltmann,
The
Trinity
and the K
ingdom
of
God
(rr, Margaret Kohl) (New York:Harper
&
Row,1981). The original German editionwas published in 1980.
 
80
81
.
R.
Holmes
/
Journal
of
Riformtd
Theology
3
(2009)
77
-89
'stuff'
but
love.
As
the title
of
the
book
indicates
being-metaphysics
;ontol
ogy-should
be understood in terms
of
personal relationships.The celebration
of
the genuinely 'personal' nature
of
the three hypostasesis clear here; Zizioulas goes on to claim that Augustine simply missed thisrevolution,
and
so
condemned
the Western church to
continue
to strugglewith the sort
of
substance-metaphysics that the Cappadocians
had
overcome.Finally, in the (much less cited) second
half
of
the book he suggests that thechurch should image the perfect society
of
the Godhead,
and
works
outwhat
this will look like in ecclesiological terms. His vision
of
the church is focusedon the Eucharistic celebration,
and
on the bishop as the celebrant. The bishopgives being to the church.Zizioulas's ecclesiology is presented as the natural outworking
of
his trinitarian theology,
and
so is clearly a species
of
social trinitarianism; the hierarchical
and
authoritarian nature
of
his social vision,however, is distinctly atodds with the mainstream
of
the movement. Moltmann's
Trinity
and the
Kingdom
of
God,
which uses a vision
of
the Trinity as a free
community
of
equals, and so as a resource to critique
human
authority
and
hierarchy, is
much
more normal."This
point
is going to become important in my discussion in a
moment
.
Attractions
of
Social Trinitarianism
Social trinitarianism seems to have several strengths, which have no
doubtcontr
ibuted
to
its growth and appeal.
As
I have noted, it appears to be foundedvery closely on the biblical narrative,taking seriously the relations between thepersons
that
are portrayed in the New Testament.
10
Social trinitarians find thatthe 'interpretative grid' that their doctrine imposes is
one
to which the NewTestament narrative is very amenable, requiring little straining at the text tomake it fit. This is in contrast with their perception
of
inherited traditionaltrinitarian doctrines, which find difficulty in understanding how the gospelnarrative relates to the eternal life
of
God.
(This is the
import
of
'Rahner
's
However,Randall
Otto
has offered a powerful cririque of Molrrnanns proposal here,ongenealogicalgrounds.Hearguesthat MoltrnannassumestheanalysisadvancedbyErikPeterson in 1935, which analysis isnow utterly discredited on sheerly historicalgrounds. See
Otto,
"Moltrnann and the Anti-Monotheist Movement,"
InurnationalJournalofSysttmatic
7htology
3
(2001)
,293-308.
ItI
Colin
Gunton
suggested in conversation to the present author that he
was
intending toentitle the trinitarian sectionof hisproposeddogmatics,"A Doctrineof the Trinity as if Jesus Mattered,"highlightingthis point sharply.
S.
R.
Holmes
/
Journal
of
&formtd
1htology
3
(2009) 77-89
rule,' a much-cited principle within social trinitarianism which states that 'theeconomic Trinity is the
immanent
Trini
ry'
and
uice-uersa
.)
Clearly,
if
this claimis true, it is a major advantage for social trinitarianism; Christian doctrinessimply should cohere with scripture.
Within
the
NT
narrative, it is claimed, we find repeatedly dialogue betweenthe Father
and
the Son; on a social trinitarian account,this is natural andnormal; on an older i\ugustinian' account, it is held
to
be difficult to makesense of: if Father
and
Son are united in will, intellect,
and
essence, how canthe prayer in Gethsemane,for example, be interpreted? In the economy
of
salvation, the Father speaks to
the
Son,
and
the Son speaks back to the Father.This, a social trinitarian would claim,is primarydata, which
must
drive
our
doctrine
of
the Trinity.A second attraction is the claimed coherence with tradition.
As
I have noted,Zizioulas finds a very particular doctrine
of
the Trinity to be central to theecumenical settling
of
the Arian controversy at Constantinople, and to theovercoming
of
the intellectual heritage
of
Greek philosophy. Social trinitarianism, if this telling
of
the history
of
ideas is correct, is at the heart
of
what
itis to be authentically Christian.A trinitarian account which is less focusedon persons
and
interpersonal relations is, on Zizioulas's terms, still captive toancient pagan philosophy,
and
so deficiently Christian..The third attraction I
want
to notice is the usefulness
of
trinitarian doctrine,understood in a social way. Miroslav Volf published a paper
under
the title"The Trinity
is
our
Social Program."
I
Social trinitarianism has been found tobe extraordinarily generative for ecclesial, social,
and
political practice. DavidS.
Cunningham
subtitled his
book
on the Trinity
The
Practice
of
Trinitarian
Theology,
and
Paul Fiddes described his own work
asf<A
Pasto;al Doctrine
of
theTrinity.'"?For these two thinkers, prayer
and
gender politics,
and
churchlife and aesthetics are all illuminated by a social doctrine
of
he Trinity.
Where
Rahner once lamented the lack
of
trinitarian thought in Christian piety, nowit seems that almost every area
of
ethics
and
piety is determined directly by a
commitment
to the social Trinity.13
II
Volf, "The Trinity is our SocialProgram:The Doctrineof the Trinity and the Shape of Social Engagement," in Alan Torrance and Michael Banner (eds),
'Ib«
Doctrine
of
God and
Theoiogica!
Ethics
(London:
T&T
Clark, 2006),105-24.
11
David S.Cunningham,
Tha«
Thre«
art One:
Th«
Pr
actice
of
Trin
itarian
1htology
(Oxford:Blackwell, 1998);PaulS. Fiddes,
Participat
inginGodA
Pastoral
Doctrine
oftht
Trinity
(London:DLT
,2000).
13
For an impressiveexample, see Peter R.Holmes,
Trinity
in Human
Community
:
ExploringCongrtgational
Lift in tb«lmagt
of
tht
Social Trinity
(Milton Keynes:Paternoster, 2006),a book

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