A kinder, gentler supralasparianism

The lapsarian debate has produced what Kant calls “an antimony:”  two seemingly true positions which cancel out each other.   The supralapsarian is correct in that what is first in intention is last in execution. I don’t know if this is a universal maxim, but I suspect it is. There is no getting around that.  The infralapsarian is correct that when God’s decree seems to follow his creating the “one for dishonor, the other for honor, from the same lump” (Romans 9, so Hodge and Turretin).

I think supralapsarianism has the edge, but not in the way the discussion usually goes.  On anyone’s doctrine of God, God is simple and his eternal knowledge is immediate and non-discursive.  God doesn’t decide to do this and then do that.  While the infra is correct that Paul has God using a lump of clay prior to the decree to save/damn, I wonder if Paul is merely using that as an illustration and nothing more.

I have not seen most Reformed people synthesize their correct understanding of God’s knowledge with election and incarnation.   The result, when done, is something like this:  If God’s knowledge is immediate and non-discursive, which all but Eastern Orthodox and Jesuits will acknowledge, then we may not say that God first decides to create and then decides to elect, or vice-versa.  Reformed people know this, but they are not as aware that this failure creates a metaphysical “gap” in the being of God.  As McCormack notes,

So the event in which God constitutes himself as triune is identical with the event in which he chooses to be God for the human race. Thus the ‘gap’ between ‘the eternal Son’ and ‘Jesus Christ’ is overcome, the distinction between them eliminated…. There is no ‘eternal Son’ if by that is meant a mode of being in God which is not identical with Jesus Christ” (pp. 218-19)

If God has always decided to be God-in-Christ, then he must have always been God-in-Christ-for-his-people.  This is the heart of supralapsarianism.

Of course, there are some problems due to the anthropomorphizing in any language, but I think it holds up.  However, I am not saying that the incarnation is eternal nor am I saying that Christ would have come regardless of Adam’s fall (I believe the opposite, actually). Theologians make a distinction between God’s decree and the historical outworking of God’s decree, without an imputing temporality into the eternal Godhead, and so that is how I would say that I don’t believe in an eternal incarnation.


Epistemology, Trinitarian Distinctions, and the Divine Decree

(The Reformed structure this discussion) “Around the epistemological problem of the finitum no capax infiniti and its resolution in the explication of the eternal decree and its execution of the sovereign will of God in and for the temporal economy. Here we see both a statement of the non capax and an approach to the divine relatedness: the mind cannot conceive of the way in which the attributes belong to the utter simplicity of the divine essence; nonetheless, the distinct attributes are correctly distinguished by reason in the effects and operations of God in the world—and these effects and operations rightly and genuinely reveal the identity of God, indeed, the invisible essence of the utterly simple Godhead. The effect of this distinction, like the effect of the distinction between the decree and the execution, is to direct attention away from the divine essence toward the divine economy” (298).

Again, I am amazed at how the Reformed orthodox interweave epistemology, (Christology), trinitarian distinctions, and predestination in one fell move.  If we begin with the Creator-creature distinction, then we necessarily have the archetypal-ectypal distinction.  If we have the ectypal distinction, then we realize that we can never give adequate and full accounts of how their can be distinctions in the divine essence.  Yet God has not left us in the dark.   We can see distinctions in God’s operations toward us in the world.   These are the outworking of God’s decree.  Yet, if there is an outworking of the decree, it logically follows that there is a divine decree.

Christological issues of the Supper aside, this is the second most reason I am Reformed:  ectypal theology.  People will ask, “Yeah, but how do you know you are elect?”  If we begin with the understanding of ectypal theology, then we can begin to answer this question (though I doubt any answer I give will satisfy the interlocutor)..  I can not “know” in the sense of having ultimate, archetypal knowledge (and to seek such is sinful).  I can know, however, based on the understanding of God’s providence and execution of the decree (and issues of Christ, the Supper, Church discipline).  The problem is that the interlocutor has presuppositionally denied any predestination by God, so dialogue is fruitless.

This is also another reason why I read Orthodoxy so sympathetically, yet ultimately rejected it.  I liked the way they rejected the Romanist reading of absolute divine simplicity and seeking the knowledge of God in his operations and energies.  Yet problems remained. I couldn’t find a satisfactory account of foreknowledge and predestination that did not lead to open theism.  And even the energies was problematic:  while it is true we know God by his outworkings to us (emininter and virtualiter) in the ad extra, this is not exactly the same thing that the Eastern Orthodox were claiming.  They were claiming that we know God by the peri ton theon and the logoi around God.  It’s hard to see how this isn’t any less speculative than Thomas’s beatific vision.

Reading notes on Muller’s PRRD, volume 3

I usually don’t take copious notes when I read books.  This book, though, is of importance.  Further, it is out of print (I will forgo the usual slams against Baker Academic at the moment) and I acquired it temporarily via ILL.  So anything I learn from the book has to last permanently. Hence, the notes.


Notes on Muller, PRRD 3

Simplicity in pre-Reformation

The scholastic understanding of “identity” assumes various levels of identity (essential and formal), so the term “identity” does not indicate radical equation in every sense posssible (40 n. 63).

The goal is “to argue a certain manner of distinction (for the sake of manifesting the three) while at the very same time denying other kinds of distinction (for the sake of confessing the one)” (41).

Normally speaking essence and existence are not identified. The essence “humanity” is not synonymous with any one human (52).

Simplicity and Predication

Many critique absolute divine simplicity as eliminating the possibility of any real predication (on our part) of the divine essence. But when medievals used this term, all they meant was that God is not composite (54-55)

Plurality in God is secundum rationem, not secundum re (55).

Development and Decline of late orthodoxy

Interestingly, the medievals viewed “space” and time,” not as things but as relations (148).

Existence and knowledge of God

The orthodox followed three ways of approach to the problem of the knowledge of God (166):

  1. via causationes (a cause can be known in some manner from its effects)
  2. via emimentiae(we attribute to God all the perfections known to creataures)
  3. via negationis (we remove from God the imperfections known to creatures)

Rules of predication

“Predication is the logical act of attribution by which a subject is united with a predicate” (197).

Disproportionality between finite and infinite.

Essence/Energy distinction rebutted

An alternative reading of the so-called Western doctrine of God is the essence/energies distinction made famous by Gregory Palamas.  It posits that we cannot know God in his simple essence, but we can know him by his energies (or operations).  Hints of this doctrine are found in the Cappadocians and Maximos (though I deny they are saying exactly the same thing as Gregory).  The doctrine has an initial appeal.   Admittedly in our prayer lives, we do not pray to “essence itself,” but to the persons of the Trinity.   It also appears that we do know God by his actions towards us, and not by transcending to the essence.  So this means the distinction is correct, right?  If this is the only alternative to the Thomistic doctrine of absolute divine simplicity (e.g., person = relation =essence; person = essence!), then how can we avoid not assenting to it?

Some form of the doctrine might in fact be correct, but even when I was gung-ho for anchoretism, a number of questions kept coming up.

  1. Is it true that the Thomistic model of divine simplicity is the only choice for Western doctrines of God?  I simply deny this to be the case.  I think it is disputed that even Augustine held to a form of this.
  2. While it’s true that we know God by his actions toward us, can the “energies” model really account for all biblical data?   Even Orthodox theologians note this difficulty.   Vladimir Moss, in rebuttal to Fr John Romanides writes, “Do the Scriptures speak of our having an energetic relationship with God or a personal relationship with God?”
  3. It is true that God relates to us by our actions, but as Gunton notes (Act & Being), when Scripture uses these concepts it does so around terms like providence, Incarnation, and covenant.  When the fathers use these terms they usually mean the peri ton theon (things around the godhead) or the divine logoi (think eternal forms).

Technical critiques of the doctrine:

Orthodox philosopher David Bradshaw writes, ““Somehow by energeia Gregory and Basil would appear to understand both that which God is, and that which God performs. … Basil and Gregory in their turn revise Plotinus by rejecting the distinction of hypostasis between Intellect and the One.  For them the relevant distinction is rather that between God as he exists within himself and is known only to himself, and God as he manifests himself to others.  The former is the divine ousia, the latter the divine energies.  It is important to note that both are God, but differently conceived:  God as unknowable and as knowable, as wholly beyond us and as within our reach.”

In other words, God’s energies are ad extra, outside the Godhead.  They relate to creation.   This raises a troubling point, as Olivianus has noted, “if there were no creation would God’s nature be the same? On the Eastern view, no. On said view, in order for God to have the nature he does he must create. Thus creation is a necessity of nature.”  Remember, in some sense the “energies” are part of who God is.  All Christian traditions believe that God’s essence is stable and unchanging.  God would be God regardless of creation.  However, God’s energies only relate to creation (God’s manifesting himself to others).  So here we have a disjunction between God ad intra and God ad extra.  The only way out of his is to posit a necessary creation, which few traditional theologians are willing to do.

Addendum: Vladimir Moss’s extended critique:

Moss is one of the outlaw theologians of the Orthodox Church.  He is a Western convert to a catacomb branch of the Russian Orthodox Church.  (When the Moscow Patriarchate surrendered to the Bolsheviks, a number of Orthodox believers rightly resisted and went underground, forming denominations–I know they hate that word–like ROCOR and ROCA.  Most of these denominations have since rejoined the MP.  Moss’s has not).   Moss’s theological project is odd, but in many ways it is quite helpful.   He does not have rose-colored Tsarist-Holy Serbia glasses.  He honestly points out problems in current Orthodox theology, historiography, and practice.  His comments on topics like substitutionary atonement, theosis, and original sin are very helpful, surprisingly.

Fr John Romanides in some ways resurrected the theological project of Gregory Palamas. In his works one will note a strong antipathy towards anything Western:  substitution, original sin, AUGUSTINE, etc.  While Romanides has a clear manner of writing, it appears that he often overshoots his target.  While he makes many good points, his method precludes a number of valuable insights in Christian theology.  Moss realizes this and responds accordingly.  In its starkest form, the essence-energies distinction, most starkly represented by Romanides, adopts the Dionysian hyper-ousia (God is beyond being) of which we cannot know, but he reveals himself in his energies, which we can know.  The following are Moss’s glosses:

Romanides:  “ The relationship between God and man is not a personal relationship and it is also not a subject-object relationship. So when we speak about a personal relationship between God and man, we are making a mistake. That kind of relationship between God and human beings does not exist…The relations between God and man are not like the relations between fellow human beings. Why? Because we are not on the same level or in the same business with God.”

Moss: But God came down to our level in the Incarnation (this is precisely the same point Gunton makes against Dionysius).  What reason could Romanides have for denying that God is a Person(s) and that our relationship with Him is personal? The present writer can only speculate here, but the answer may lie in Romanides’ obsession with the distinction between the Essence and the Energies of God, according to which God is unknowable in His Essence, but knowable in His Essence. Now this is a valid and very important distinction, but Romanides abuses it as often as he uses it correctly. It would be an abuse, for example, to say that since God can only be known through His Energies, our relationship with Him can only be “energetic”, not personal. For Who is known through His Energies? Is it not the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – that is, the Persons of the Holy Trinity? So our relationship with God is both “energetic” and personal: we know the Persons of God through His Energies. For, as St. Paul says, God has “shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God [His Energies] in the face of Jesus Christ [His Person]” (II Corinthians 4.6).

Romanides:  “No similarity whatsoever exists between the uncreated and the created, or between God and creation. This also means that no analogy, correlation, or comparison can be made between them. This implies that we cannot use created things as a means for knowing the uncreated God or His energy.”

Moss: But this immediately raises the objection: if there is no similarity whatsoever between God and His creation, why, when He created man, did He create Him in His “image and likeness”? And again: is not this likeness between God and man precisely the basis which makes possible the union between God and man, and man’s deification?

Bayou Huguenot:  This touches on the analogia entis, which most Protestants reject in its Romanist form.  I had never realized Moss’s point before. I offer a hearty amen.

God’s Knowledge of Future Contingencies

Taken from Turretin in rough outline form:

A thing may be contingent in two ways:

  • by depending on God as first cause (as all of creation is thus contingent, since God didn’t have to create)
  • by depending on prior second causes (which produce or not produce their effects).  Turretin is speaking these contingents.

A future contingent implies both certainty of event and mode of production.  As future it is certain, but as contingent in its mode of production.   It has the former from the decree of the First Cause, the latter from the constitution of the second cause.

The mode of production is clarified by the Westminster Confession of Faith V.2:  It identifies God as the First Cause, corresponding with the first point made by Turretin, but notes that the First Cause orders the events to happen in three modes:  freely, necessarily, or contingently.

See also:  necessity of the consequence (contingent) and necessity of the consequent thing (absolute)

An event can be both infallibly certain yet contingent.  Thus, all things take place by the necessity of consequence, not the necessity of the consequent.  Turretin notes that man’s actions can be free because they are spontaneous and follow rational judgment, but necessary because of God’s decree (I: 211).

Responding to Drake’s Response to P.R. (on my behalf)

This post is a long time coming.   I was simply too tired and too busy to deal with it until now.    I am grateful for Drake’s response to the hard-line Anchorites.  I hope to clarify some of my more ambiguous comments:

DRAKE: In a blog at the Orthodox-Reformed Bridge, Crossing The Bosphorus Perry Robinson has accused Bayou Huguenot  (AKA Outlaw Covenanter),

“But for some strange reason you’ve seemingly had sufficient time to post these and other arguments both here and elsewhere cobbled together from Drake for the better part of a year… I have no doubt that you’ll happily post them on your blog so others who are banned from this and just about every other forum of any theological stripe [He is talking about me.-DS] can misconstrue them and heep all kinds of foul words upon them. Th [a]t says nothing about me though or what I’ve written.”

>>>OC said,


~c. Simplicity applies to the essence.


d. God’s energies is his essence!…

To put it in layman’s terms: If God is beyond being–including essence, persons, and energies–then how can you know him?”

I have never made this argument. Ever. I am not sure where he got this idea.

I had a conversation with D. Jones and he pointed me to a passage in Palamas.  Here it is:

και ούκ εστίν εκεί διάφορα ζωής και σοφίας και αγαθότητος και τών τοιούτων. πάντα γάρ η αγαθότης εκείνη συνειλήμμενως και ενιαίως και απλουστάτως συμπεριβάλλει.

And there is no distinction between life and wisdom and goodness and such kind. For the goodness embraces all things collectively and unitively and in utter simplicity.

Gregory Palamas, Physical Chapters, c.34

It appears that Palamas is placing what we would call God’s energies under the category of God’s essence (assuming simplicity is predicated of essence).

OC said,

“I didn’t ask whether God had creative energies. I asked whether, given what we all believe about Chalcedonian Christology, how we can speak of a plurality of “energies” in the Godhead since the divine nature, strictly speaking, has one energy.”

DRAKE: Now this is a very good argument and one that I didn’t think of. He thought this one up all on his own.

Perry replied,

“If the energies in Basil and company are not substantially the same as what palamas has in mind, then we are owed an explanation of what the Cappadocians meant.”

>>>I don’t affirm that they are different. I admit it is the same construction. Jacob did you say that they were different?

JACOB:  Andrew Radde-Galwitz said it.    Now, I grant that Basil was closer to Palamas than to Thomas.  Still, it is by no means accepted that Basil and Palamas are teaching the same thing.  Back to Gallwitz.  On page 223 he disputes Bradshaw’s claims that the operations pace Nyssa are analogous to Palamas’s energies.

Perry says,

“There is no “strictly speaking” with respect to the one energy of God. And that is because the authors who speak of there being one energy speak of it in a non-strict sense, namely that there is only one power and one united activity.”

>>>Even if he makes this argument he would have to back off of his criticism of Calvinism because those criticisms assume that there is only one active will in Christ with reference to cardinal numbers (genus of being) in the supposed heretical Calvinist view. If the Calvinist could respond that there is only one in the sense of an inseparable union (genus of relation) of the wills-one active one passive, the Anti-Monergism accusation falls.

JACOB:  I have no idea what is the difference between “strictly speaking” and non-strictly speaking pace energies of God.

Perry says,

“The ones relative to creation then would be the only ones that would have a begining. This would only imply a change in God if we took the energies to be substantial constituents, but Palamas explicitly denies that they are such, that is, they are neither accidents nor substances.”

>>>This is very troubling and very unconvincing. God’s nature now is not a substantial constituent? Wow.

JACOB:   So I am gathering that that the energies are neither a substance nor an accident, but rather some unidentifiable tertium quid?  I don’t necessarily agree with all of the Western criticisms of the E/e distinction, but I do understand why many Western scholars aren’t convinced.

Perry says,

“Nature is generally a cover all term for essence and energy”

>>>Yet in an email he sent me Perry said,

“To say that the uncreated energies or light is outside God is only true with respect to the essence and then it is not strictly speaking true since “outside” is a spatial designator and they aren’t spatially outside God. It only means that they are not the essence. It doesn’t mean they are not God. We just gloss nature as wider than essence.”

>>>>Here we have Perry contradicting himself. Above nature can mean essence AND energy, but in his email energies are the nature broader than the essence.  Either essence and nature are distinct or there is no essence and energies distinction.

Perry says again,

“There is one energy in the sense that they are united.”

>>>This is a conflation between the genus of being and the genus of relation. It is a conflation of a cardinal singularity with a union between two cardinal singularities. One pertains to being, the other to relation.

Perry says,

“Why think that all of the energies are related to the economia? Who says that?”

>>>This is another HUGE disappointment. This is elementary. In EO Theology the energies pertain to how God relates ad extra. Bradshaw states,

 “Somehow by energeia Gregory and Basil would appear to understand both that which God is, and that which God performs. … Basil and Gregory in their turn revise Plotinus by rejecting the distinction of hypostasis between Intellect and the One.  For them the relevant distinction is rather that between God as he exists within himself and is known only to himself, and God as he manifests himself to others.  The former is the divine ousia, the latter the divine energies.  It is important to note that both are God, but differently conceived:  God as unknowable and as knowable, as wholly beyond us and as within our reach.”

The Concept of the Divine Energies, 10

Perry says,

“How could there be an energetic procesison of the Spirit through the Son if all the energies were economical?”

>>> That is for him to prove not me or Jacob. If the energies pertain, not to how God relates to himself (and in Perry’s Sabellian Neo-platonic structure God means three persons [And its anyone’s best guess what a person is on his view]), but to others in the economia, his question assumes a fundamental misunderstanding of his own system.

Perry says again,

“And just for amusement, sine you agree with some form of the doctrine of the energies, which Reformed confession per chance teaches it and the attending doctrine of simplicity to go with it I wonder?”

>>>I never influenced him to believe anything of the sort.

JACOB:  I don’t hold to the Palamite view so I am not sure which Confession I have to show to prove it.   I acknowledge some difficulties with how post-Reformation confessions formulate the doctrine of God, but since Reformed people do not believe their tradition is infallible, if there is a problem it isn’t a devastating one.

Thus OC was absolutely correct when he said,

“You’ve hit the nail on the head. The energies though pertain to the economia on this view (E/e) and so one wonders, if there were no creation would God’s nature be the same? On the Eastern view, no. On said view, in order for God to have the nature he does he must create. Thus creation is a necessity of nature. This is the exact Neoplatonism that the East claims to reject with Filiqoue.”

Perry is terribly confused and his obstinate assertion that he has answered OC in ten minutes is a laugher…

I am grateful to Drake for responding to Perry on this point.  I simply do not have the time at this moment in my life to go into a point-by-point debate.  I get up at 4:15 every morning to do what studying I can.  I really can’t access the computer in length until later at night, at which I am too tired.

The Lively God of Robert Jenson, by D. Hart: Repost

I am reposting this.  I originally accessed it at First Things (http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/01/the-lively-god-of-robert-jenson-4 , accessed 23 March 2013).  I do not trust them to keep it up indefinitely.  I surprised it’s still up.  By David Bentley Hart.

A year ago, I was interviewed by a small theological journal concerning a book of mine that had appeared a few months earlier. Near the end of the conversation, my interlocutor (a young and obviously intelligent divinity student) asked me if there was any modern American theologian whose thinking I thought especially fascinating, to which I answered Robert Jenson; he then asked if there was any American theologian with whose thought I myself found it especially profitable to struggle, to which I again answered, without a moment’s hesitation, Robert Jenson. At this, my interviewer smiled abashedly and admitted that he had never read any of Jenson’s work. I doubt the severest critic could have found fault with my extravagant show of alarm: How very extraordinary it was, I told him, that an American graduate student of systematic theology should be unacquainted with “our” systematic theologian, and what dereliction it suggested on the part of his teachers, and what a very great pity it all seemed . . . (and so on and so on, with many a rueful shake of the head).

This, of course, is a thoroughly boring anecdote; I relate it, however, because this small incident soon caused me to begin reflecting upon the curious neglect America’s perhaps most creative systematic theologian has suffered not only among reasonably theologically literate American Christians, but in the academic world. I do not mean to suggest that Jenson is what one would call an obscure figure: Among those who do genuinely care about systematic theology in this country, his work is known and esteemed (indeed, by many, revered), and the appearance a few years ago of his Systematic Theology confirmed his stature not only as an exciting thinker—more theoretically audacious than almost all of his contemporaries—but one whose achievement is indisputably enormous. Still, as of yet (and he is over seventy years old), his thought is too little taught and too little studied; too few dissertations engage his ideas; not nearly enough attention is paid to his contributions to modern dogmatics; and too little pride is taken in the dignity his work lends to American theology. Why, I wonder, should this be so?

One reason, I suspect, is precisely that Jenson is an American (to be exact, a Minnesota Lutheran of Norwegian extraction, and of the “high church” variety). It is a prejudice widely held—but by no people more fervently than by Americans themselves—that it is not our calling as a nation to indulge in “primary discourse.” It is all well and good for an American theologian to write at length about (for instance) what German theologians might have to say about the Trinity, but it is something altogether different for him to write too boldly about the Trinity as such. We would not usually—as a rule—presume. Another reason, perhaps, is Jenson’s inveterate and perverse refusal to be dull. His books are not buttressed (as we know such things should be) by long, ponderous, Teutonic prolegomena on method or on critical history or on the status quaestionis; his scholarly apparatus rarely exceed what is necessary to support his assertions and are almost ascetically devoid of needless displays of exhaustive erudition; his method and peculiar concerns are typically disclosed in the act of theology itself, on the wing, and he tends to say what he wishes to say once only, and as concisely as he can.

Of course, this last characteristic can occasionally prove daunting. At its most idiosyncratic, Jenson’s prose has about it at once a spare tautness and a condensed energy that are almost palpable; one sometimes has the premonition that if certain of his sentences are handled too casually they might detonate. Whether his style is the result of a conscious method, or merely of the legendarily laconic reserve of the Scandinavian upper Midwest translated through a rigorous speculative intelligence, it occasionally produces formulations of a positively oracular terseness. At times, one is conscious of the aphoristic precision of one of his assertions, but not necessarily of its meaning. To take a moderately opaque example of his style, more or less at random:

In Trinitarian theology “the Word” stands for God’s identifying communication of himself, and is at once the content of God’s self-conception that “I am the one who . . .” and the act of sharing that conception. If we may formulate a content of the unitary “Word of the Lord” that “came” to Israel by her prophets and moved her history, it can only be, “I am JHWH your God, who. . . . Therefore you shall . . .” This word, as actually spoken, is precisely the Trinitarian Logos.

This is not by any means unintelligible, nor (whatever one thinks of it) especially resistant to paraphrase; but neither is it making any great effort to do at least as much work as it demands of the reader. And sometimes Jenson is clearly more concerned for the force of a phrase than for its felicity—“God is a great fugue,” for instance (the poetry lies here in the idea, I think it safe to say, rather than in the words). At such junctures, his prose does not exactly “sing.” Still, for the most part, Jenson is a compelling writer, altogether more precise than one has a right to expect in regard to matters as subtle and intricate as those he chooses to address, with something of the dramatist’s flair for keeping the action moving. And, as a result, it is difficult to resist the power of the theological story he tells.

Perhaps the simplest thing one might say about Jenson’s theology is that it is a theology of the living God. To put the matter thus, however, scarcely conveys any inkling of the vibrancy of Jenson’s sense of God’s liveliness, or of the force with which that sense has impressed itself upon—and occupies every page of— Jenson’s theology: There is nothing in the triune God, one might better say, that is not an infinite act of life— and that life an act of boundless love. God is the movement of the Father’s love for the Son, and the Son’s love for the Father, and their inexhaustible life together in the endless love of the Spirit; and within that movement is contained all beauty, glory, splendor, joy, and future. As Jenson insists upon saying, God is an event—the event, to be precise, of Christ in its eternal fullness—and this event has a real and concrete history. To understand what this means, however, one must understand how Jenson’s thought stands in relation to the Christian dogmatic tradition as a whole.

Most Christians, no matter how orthodox or devout they may be, have (through no fault of their own) little notion of how the doctrine of the Trinity took shape, or why it assumed the form it did. Few, certainly, take an interest in the doctrinal disputes of the Church’s early centuries, and many harbor at best some vague conception of the Christian doctrine of God that, if more closely examined, turns out to be either some version of one of the heresies rejected by the councils of the ancient Church—“tritheism,” “adoptionism,” “modalism,” even “Arianism”—or a bland ethical Unitarianism bound only tenuously to the historical career of Jesus of Nazareth. Many, I suspect, think of the doctrine of the Trinity (when they have occasion to think of it at all) either as a mere revealed “fact” susceptible of no rational investigation or as something rather arbitrary and historically fortuitous, to be embraced ex convenientia but accorded little serious reflection. In fact, however, the orthodox articulation of Trinitarian theology came at the end not only of many decades of extremely complicated theological dispute, but also of centuries of meditation upon the meaning of the scriptural account of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and continued presence to the Church in the Holy Spirit.

At the beginning of the fourth century, there were many models by which Christian theologians attempted to grasp the nature of the interrelations of Father, Son, and Spirit, and to determine to which of the three Persons—and in what manner—it was correct to apply the name “God.” Scripture made it impossible, of course, to deny Christ at least some ascription of divinity, and equally difficult to reject the divinity of the Spirit. But it was by no means clear to all that the three divine Persons should be understood as co-equally, co-eternally, or “co-essentially” one and the same God. Hence, the most appealing, intellectually sophisticated, and plausible fourth-century alternative to what would become Nicene orthodoxy was some variant of “subordinationism.” This was the school of thought (especially well established in the great city of Alexandria) that saw the Son and Spirit as derivative and lesser emanations of the Godhead of the Father—“economically” reduced versions of God mediating between the transcendence of the Father, who dwelt in light inaccessible, and the darkness of the material world.

This was a version of what is sometimes called the “pleonastic fallacy,” which pervaded almost every school of Alexandrian thought: the fallacy that says that—since there is an infinite qualitative distance between the ultimate principle of all reality and the world of “unlikeness” here below—it is necessary to posit a certain number of intermediate principles or “hypostases” in the interval between the two in order to bridge that distance. The most speculatively accomplished forms of this fallacy were to be found among the Neoplatonists, and the most barbarous, fabulous, and risible among the various Gnostics. But among Christian thinkers the most consistent and austere form of this fallacy was found among the Arians, who were so anxious to preserve a proper sense of the Father’s transcendence that they were moved to assert that the Son was a creature: the highest and most god-like of creatures, of course—worthy even of being called “God” honorifically, the Great High Priest of heaven who leads all intellectual creation in its worship of the unknowable Father—but a creature for all that.
There would be no purpose in rehearsing here the long history of the Arian controversy and its sequelae. What is important in this context is that the dogmatic discords of the fourth century forced theologians to examine perhaps more deeply than ever before (or, at least, more explicitly) the governing logic of the Church’s immemorial Trinitarian diction. The greatest achievements of this period, in defense of Nicene orthodoxy, were those of the so-called Cappadocian fathers: Basil of Caesarea, Basil’s younger brother Gregory of Nyssa, and Basil’s friend Gregory of Nazianzus. These three, in the course of their disputes with the “Eunomians,” the intellectual heirs of the Arians, grasped with a special urgency that a proper attention to biblical language regarding Father, Son, and Spirit—and, most particularly, regarding the story of our salvation in Christ—makes a subordinationist construal of that language impossible. I am simplifying their arguments rather brutally in phrasing the matter thus, but the essence of their position was that if the Son and Spirit are not God in the same sense as the Father, we cannot be saved.

It must be appreciated, I hasten to add, that “salvation” was not understood by the Cappadocian fathers in that rather feeble and formal way many Christians have habitually thought of it at various periods in the Church’s history: as some sort of forensic exoneration accompanied by a ticket of entry into an Elysian aftermath of sun-soaked meadows and old friends and consummate natural beatitude. Rather, salvation meant nothing less than being joined to the living God by the mediation of the God-man Himself, brought into living contact with the transfiguring glory of the divine nature, made indeed partakers of the divine nature itself (2 Peter 1:4) and co-heirs of the Kingdom of God. In short, to be saved was—is—to be “divinized” in Christ by the Spirit. In the great formula of St. Irenaeus (and others), “God became man that man might become god.”

It is precisely here, therefore, in the economy of salvation, that the true nature of the eternal Trinity must declare itself—for, simply said, no creature could ever join us to God. The calculus of the infinite is absolute: The finite can never reach the infinite, the created can never aspire to its transcendent source, and nothing— no economically reduced manifestation of the God-head, no “ontological pleonasm” of mediating principles, no conceptual Tower of Babel erected upon the foundations of the human spirit—can unite us with God save that God in His mercy condescend to unite us to Himself, by becoming one of us. If the Son saves us by joining us to the Father, then the Son must necessarily be, in every sense, God of God, essentially and infinitely. But, then again, how are we joined to the Son? By the Holy Spirit—in the sacraments and corporate life of the Church and in His sanctifying work within the soul—and so the Spirit too, it follows, must be God of God, no less than the Son. Only God can join us to God, and so we must affirm that in the incarnation of the Son and actions of the Spirit God Himself is in our midst. Or rather, more wonderfully, we are in the midst of God, and the movement of relation among the three divine Persons, as it is unfolded through salvation history, is nothing less than the triune God drawing us into the infinite splendor of His life.
Trinitarian doctrine, then, is not merely an abstract metaphysics forcibly imposed from above upon the more spontaneous and vital experiences of the Church (though it most certainly requires and gives shape to a number of profound metaphysical conclusions); it is first and foremost a “phenomenology of salvation,” a theoretical articulation of the Church’s experience of being made one in Christ with God Himself. It would not be too much to say, in fact, that this is the central and guiding maxim of all Christian dogmatics, which in the twentieth century was enunciated with admirable clarity by Karl Rahner: The “economic” Trinity (that is, God in the history of salvation) is the “immanent” Trinity (that is, God in Himself) and the “immanent” Trinity is the “economic” Trinity. In witnessing the drama of redemption, we are seeing nothing less than the triune God’s revelation of His eternal life within time; and so in that drama we may discern (within the limits of our created intellects) who God is.

This, at last, brings me back to Jenson, for it is Jenson’s special distinction to have pursued the logic of this equation—at least, along a very particular path— more relentlessly than almost any other American theologian, in a way at once faithful to and defiant of classical Christian language. Traditionally, even in implicitly acknowledging the necessary identity of the economic Trinity and immanent Trinity, Christian theology has striven to preserve a strict and inviolable “analogical interval” between the two—that is, it has always asserted that what happens in the story of salvation is a perfect expression (or dramatic revelation) of how it is with God in His timeless eternity and how it would be even were there no creatures at all, but also that between this temporal expression and its eternal source there is a relation only of grace. God is not affected by time, His eternal identity knows neither before nor after, and the incarnation of the Logos is in no sense necessary to or determinative of that identity. Jenson, however, falls within a school of modern, predominantly Protestant thought that chooses to collapse this analogical interval, and to assert that the event of our salvation in Christ and the event of God’s life as Trinity are simply one and the same; what occurs in Jesus of Nazareth is in some sense the story of God becoming the God He is, within which story we are also included—for love’s sake.
The first and most enormous consequence of the course of reflection Jenson takes—a consequence he exuberantly embraces—is that he must reject many of the classical perfections ascribed to God, at least as they have traditionally been understood. For instance, the venerable teaching that God is, in His nature, impassible—that is, immune to suffering and change—Jenson all but absolutely abjures. More to the point, the very definition of God’s eternity as “timeless” Jenson regards as unbiblical and incompatible with the story of creation and redemption. God’s eternity, he claims, is intrinsically temporal, however much that temporality may transcend the fragmentary successiveness by which the days of creatures are measured. God possesses a past, present, and future, though in His infinity He possesses all of these in perfect fullness. The Father, for Jenson, is the whence of the divine life, the Spirit the whither, and the Son the present in which the divine past and divine future hold together in one life and identity.

Moreover, God’s “present” is not something that can be abstracted from the particular historical identity of Jesus of Nazareth. Here is where Jenson’s thought is perhaps most radical, and most in accord with one very pronounced extreme within modern Protestant dogmatics; for in his theology it is as the man Jesus—and in no other fashion—that Christ is the eternal Son and Word of the Father. There is no Logos asarkos for Jenson—that is, no timeless and “fleshless” Word of God; rather, God the Father has decided from all eternity to determine Himself in this man as His Son, to make Jesus the object of His perfect attention and complete preoccupation, and thereby to determine Himself as the Father of this Son. As the unique object of the Father’s absolute concern, the man Jesus “stays” the consciousness of the Father and gives it the shape that it has. The eternity of the Son, therefore, begins as the eternal presupposition of the election of Jesus in the infinity of God’s choice; the preexistence of the Son is not a preincarnate state, but rather a pattern of movement within salvation history toward the arrival of this “incarnation.”

Who God is, therefore, subsists in the Father’s loving concern for the Son and the Son’s loving obedience to the Father, and in the freedom of the Spirit who—as unending divine futurity—makes this relation eternal. In Jenson’s rather daring formulation, the Spirit “frees” the Father and the Son for the adventure of this love and for the infinite possibility that is this love’s perfection. As for us, our place in this drama is that of the companions of the Son; we are included in the story of God’s freedom because Christ is the man who is for all men, and so for the Father to have Christ as His Son He must have us as well; for there is no Son apart from Him who said “Father, forgive them.” And thus we are taken up into the one story of God’s infinite love, in which all our particular and shared stories—insofar as they are true stories—live, and move, and have their being.
Another implication of this line of thought, from which Jenson does not shrink, is that not only does God overcome death for us in the death and resurrection of Christ, by virtue of His transcendence; He in fact overcomes death for Himself, indeed constitutes Himself as transcendent of death by way of His confrontation with death upon the cross and His triumph over death at Easter. Which is also to say that—inasmuch as God has eternally decided to determine His identity in this man—God has eternally elected the world of sin, death, and the devil “alongside” His election of the Son as the context in which the drama of triune love must be played out. Thus, even the fallenness of our world falls within the story of God’s life as Trinity, but only insofar as that fallenness is overcome by God in Christ. There is sin only that we might be saved, for it is as the God who saves that the Father determines Himself in His Son, and raises the Son by the Spirit, and draws us into that mystery. The triune “event” that God is, then, involves the cross of Christ not as something incidental or subsidiary, but as (so to speak) its axis: the moment in which the Father’s love for the Son and the Son’s obedience to the Father arrive at their crisis, and in which the Spirit lifts up that love and obedience into an eternal living future.

One might justly wonder, though, how such thinking accords with traditional understandings not only of God’s transcendence but of the Person and nature of Christ. After all, if indeed Irenaeus’ formula is correct (and it most certainly is), how can the man Jesus—as a man—be the unique instance of a perfect union between divine and human natures in a single Person, through whom we are admitted to a share in divinity? And how can the consent of Jesus’ human will to the divine will within Him serve to reconcile humanity with God? How can the divine and human wills be said to subsist together in His one Person if it is only as the man Jesus that He is the Son of the Father? But, again, Jenson’s central claim is that God is the event of what happens between the Father and Jesus, as enabled by and lifted up in the Spirit. And so it is the human Jesus who is the second Person of the Trinity, and the human will within Jesus that is the divine will of the Son. Hence, the perfect human love of Christ for the Father, and His perfect assent to the Father’s will, is also the salvific divine decision that sets all of us free, and the one great High-Priestly act whereby the Son hands all of us over—in our corporate nature—to the Father’s love.
Summary is usually invidious. It is not possible to provide any great sense of the subtleties of Jenson’s arguments here, nor to sketch in many of the more beguiling details of his exposition, nor certainly to convey any sense of the great biblical sweep of his narrative. And I should myself be candid and admit (in case I am—or will be—guilty of any inadvertent misrepresentations) that there is scarcely any aspect of the theological story I have just told with which I am not in profound disagreement—for reasons I believe to be at once biblical, doctrinal, philosophical, and historical. I write neither as a disciple of Jenson’s, nor as a “Jensonian,” but only as an admirer. But, for just this reason, I think I give myself license to declare something like perfect disinterest in the high claims I wish to make on Jenson’s behalf.

There are, one should note, many extremely good reasons, thought out over many centuries, why theologians have for the most part found it impossible to do without the “analogical interval” between God’s immanent life and His economic revelation of Himself, and have wanted to deny the identity of divine and human wills in Christ, and have found it necessary to affirm the Logos asarkos. Moreover, many of Jenson’s interpretations of several of the Church fathers—the Cappadocians, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, Maximus the Confessor—are (to say the least) controversial and perhaps somewhat eccentric. There are also compelling arguments as to why it seems logically impossible to attribute actual temporality of any kind to God’s eternity, and some would even argue that it was Christian philosophy (not pagan Greek thought) that first enucleated a perfectly coherent account of God’s transcendence of temporal succession. And, of course, a great number of very reflective theologians continue to believe that the classical perfections traditionally ascribed to God—simplicity, timelessness, and above all impassibility—are vital not only to a rationally coherent description of the Christian faith, but to a consistent interpretation of Scripture, and indeed to the very essence of the gospel.

All that said, even the most traditionalist of theologians—even those most implacably averse to the sort of approach to Trinitarian theology that Jenson’s thought represents—should be prepared not only to praise Jenson, but to submit their convictions to his interrogations. He is simply one of the most provocative, ingenious, and formidable proponents of a certain kind of Trinitarianism writing today, and he possesses a singular power to call any number of comfortable traditional certitudes into question. More to the point, theologians of every stripe should praise him for enunciating a Trinitarian theology with whose biblical shape—that is to say, specifically, his reading of scripture as Trinitarian throughout—it is impossible to take issue. Indeed, if one contemplates that shape in all its contours, one must almost certainly acknowledge that, were it not for the absence of the aforementioned “analogical interval,” Jenson’s theology might well appear to be the purest orthodoxy. And yet that interval remains absent: It is a small difference; it is an immense difference; and it is a difference that cannot be negotiated away, mediated in some third term, or reconciled.

At the same time, however, no one familiar with the development of modern theology could really deny that there is something of an historical fatedness in this irreconcilability; and this is a sobering and chastening thought. Jenson most definitely comes from that Protestant tradition that has long deplored (without doubting the historical necessity of) the alliance struck between the theology of the early Church and “Hellenism”—or, to be more precise, “Platonism.”

But there is another venerable school of thought that still regards this alliance as definitive and indissoluble, and is therefore predisposed to view that part of Protestant tradition that Jenson represents as misguided and destructive. After all, it is arguable that “Hellenism” is already an intrinsic dimension of the New Testament itself and that some kind of “Platonism” is inseparable from the Christian faith. In short, many theologians view the development of Christian metaphysics over the millennium and a half leading to the Reformation as perfectly in keeping with the testimony of Scripture, and “Hellenized” Christianity as the special work of the Holy Spirit—with which no baptized Christian may safely break. To such theologians, the alliance struck in much modern dogmatics between theology and German idealism is a far greater source of concern than any imagined “Greek captivity” of the Church.
Here, however, one must tread cautiously. There was among theologians a great revival of interest in Trinitarian theology during the latter half of the twentieth century, but it tended to fall into two distinct camps: those who sought to rearticulate the doctrine of the Trinity by way of a full return to the patristic and medieval sources of the tradition, and those who did so directly in response to—and so largely in the terms of—the “Trinitarian” metaphysics of Hegel and others. It is with this latter camp that one tends to associate the collapse of the analogical interval that Jenson seems to advocate; at first glance (and at several glances thereafter), it is extremely easy to read Jenson merely as a representative of the German idealist tendency in modern dogmatics, and specifically as a disciple of the greatest of the German idealists, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, in his early phase. But Jenson actually, it seems, takes his arguments from his own reading of Scripture; I have it on good authority (Jenson himself, to be exact) that Schelling’s thought has had no appreciable direct influence on Jenson’s at all.

Nevertheless, it is hard not to place Jenson in that company, if for no other reason than that he is willing to speak of God becoming the God He is, determining Himself in time, choosing to be this God—the Father of Jesus of Nazareth—and doing so in an irreducibly temporal fashion. If nothing else, in reading Jenson a theologian committed to traditional Catholic metaphysics will almost inevitably find himself suffering from the same apprehensions inspired in him by other, more indisputably “Teutonized” theologians, and thus he will find himself raising certain very classical objections to what he is reading: Does it make sense, ultimately, to speak of God both as the source of all being and yet as becoming the God He is? Can temporality be intelligibly ascribed to God without one’s theology lapsing into contradiction or myth? What of the moral nature of God, if He must elect sin, death, and evil as the context of His self-determination in time? If it is true that, in order for God to transcend death, He must triumph over it in time, is death then an independent reality over against God?

Perhaps most crucially, what could it mean to speak of God determining Himself, of God choosing to be the God He is? Could He choose otherwise? Is there—as classical Christian thought has always denied—“possibility” in God, potential that must be realized? How then could He be the infinite source of all actuality, from which everything draws its being? There really are many very sound reasons why the Church has long maintained that this sort of deliberative choice—this sort of arbitrary power of decision— would be an imperfection in the divine nature, a mark of finitude, in fact a limitation upon the divine freedom. God is God, and the infinite eternal actuality of this “is”—unbounded by any outward necessity, never needing to become what it is, undimmed by possibility, undivided by succession—is absolute freedom. And so it must surely be degrading to the divine majesty, many are inclined to think, to speak of God choosing to be the God He is.

And yet precisely here one encounters perhaps the best example of Jenson’s power to shake even the firmest traditionalist certitudes. No one else’s theology that I know of has the biblical depth to make theologians of my persuasion so poignantly conscious of the metaphoric limitations that encumber all the words we attempt to use of God, and of how quickly our terms can disintegrate into incoherence when we attempt to press them past a very rudimentary level of signification. When Jenson speaks of divine temporality, he surely does not mean to suggest that God experiences time as we do: as loss, as the possibility of things that may never come, as always fragmentary and haunted by disappointments and vain longings, as a future never yet possessed and only dimly imagined, as a present forever slipping away into oblivion, as a past mourned or regretted. Nor certainly, I am sure, does he speak of God’s decision to be this God intending us to understand that decision in a human way. For us, after all, decision is always preceded by some kind of indecision, and no decision can be reached that is not in some sense the arbitrary selection of possibilities confronting us from outside ourselves. One may find the language of “choice” unsatisfactory, but no one who reads Jenson should be unwilling to acknowledge that the mere denial of “choice” within God is no less inadequate to the truth theology wants to describe. For in saying that God’s nature suffers no constraints, one should want also to urge that God is not passively or indifferently the God He is, and that His will abides in perfect freedom. And to speak of this mystery, no language really suffices.

My principal reason, however, for thinking Jenson’s work so enormously important for serious theologians, or even just for reflective Christians who have had the good sense not to become theologians, has to do with the single great Christian mystery from which all theology arises: the mystery of the Person of Christ. For numerous reasons (which cannot be enumerated here, alas), it is an absolutely essential theological principle that there is nothing arbitrary or accidental in the relation of the identity of Jesus of Nazareth to that of the eternal Logos. Jesus is not an avatar of the Logos, a mask the Son assumes in a transient or extrinsic fashion, or a part he plays in some grand cosmic charade. When God becomes man, this is the man He becomes—and there can be no other. That is why it is silly to ask the questions that bad theologians, or casual catechists, or well-meaning Sunday school teachers have sometimes felt moved to ask: whether the Son might have been incarnate as someone else—as a Viking, or a Nigerian, or a woman, or simply another first century Jew. The Logos, when He divests Himself of His divine glory, is this man; between this finite historical individual and the eternal and infinite Son of God, there is no caesura. Jesus is not just one manifestation of the Son, but the Son in His only true human form.
It is an understanding of just this truth that lies at the very heart of Jenson’s theology, and that constitutes its secret motive power in every part. Jenson’s thought represents, to my mind, the most ambitious and unflagging attempt any American theologian has yet made fully to grasp the uniqueness of Christ—the one incommutable human identity of the incarnate God— which is no simple thing. When any theologian is daring enough to risk reflection upon this mystery, he is immediately immersed in all the other mysteries that must attend it: time and eternity, necessity and freedom, divine sovereignty and divine abasement—above all the mystery of where Christ’s “cry of dereliction” on the cross (“My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”) falls within the life of the Trinity. Jenson has never failed to struggle with any of these questions.

This is not to say that the theologian whose convictions in this matter run counter to Jenson’s cannot plausibly argue precisely the contrary case: that only by affirming God’s timelessness and the reality of the Logos asarkos can we truly say that the identity of Jesus of Nazareth is in no sense arbitrary and that God has not somehow chosen this one man out of an infinity of other possibilities. But this in no way diminishes the power of Jenson’s meditations upon the mystery of the identity of the divine Son or the appeal his thinking should exercise upon any theologian concerned to approach that same mystery in an attitude of reverent inquiry. In the end, as I have already more or less argued, it is the entire shape of Jenson’s narrative that proves so compelling, as that narrative unfolds around the Person of Christ. Here one need only direct the reader to Jenson’s work: there (especially in his Systematic Theology) one will find an account of the triune God drawing near to us—and of us drawing near to Him—of extraordinary richness, one that is (depending on one’s temperament or intellectual affiliations) either seductive or scandalous, but one that is also impossible to dismiss or forget.

Again, I feel free to plead my own disinterest where Jenson is concerned. As it happens—to return to the anecdote with which I began—whatever elf or imp it is that arranges the little ironies of our lives had contrived that, on returning home from the interview with the young divinity school student that I mentioned above, I should find an e-mail waiting for me from a fairly authoritative interpreter of Jenson’s work, complaining that my critique of Jenson’s theology, in the very book concerning which I had just been interviewed, had been written in such a way as to appear merely as an exemplary episode within my own narrative of modern philosophy, and thus had all but entirely failed to provide a balanced account of Jenson’s theological intentions, or of the greater scope of his thought, or of the biblical concerns animating it. And after some hours of indignation, I came to the conclusion that this was quite probably true. Hence this article (though I cannot be sure I have not merely compounded my earlier malfeasance with an inadequate synopsis).
So, speaking for myself, I wish to say only that I find it impossible to have done with Jenson’s work, or to cease returning to it as a challenge to refine and clarify my own understanding of the gospel. And whenever I make that return, I cannot help but feel that, in a small way, the experience is rather like that of Jacob wrestling with God in His angel at the ford of Jabbok. No one of my theological persuasion, I think, who engages Jenson’s thought in earnest can doubt that it is indeed the living God with whom he has come to grips: not some fabulous metaphysical phantom conjured out of Jenson’s fixations or fantasies, but a genuine attempt to describe the God of Scripture in the fullness of His historical presence and eternal identity. Nor, I think, can such a theologian hope to retreat from that contest without a wound; but neither, for that matter, will he depart without a blessing.