A Post-Western View of the Trinity

In Robert Arakaki’s “Plucking the Tulip,” while the majority of the piece dealt with “calvinism,” he did make some comments on why the Eastern view of the Trinity is more preferable than the Western view (and with what the Filioque entails).

In this piece I evaluate the shortcomings of Augustinianism and the inadequacy of the Eastern essence/energy distinctions.  I conclude with some suggestions on moving past the impasse.

This is the final part both of Arakaki’s “Plucking the Tulip” and my response to it.  The response was delayed because I actually thought this part of his critique was very good.  I have demonstrated my own reasons why I find his critique of TULIP to be unconvincing.  I had to wrestle and think through these issues much more than on soteriology.   Indeed, when I was looking into Eastern Orthodoxy, it was the Trinitarian issues that had the most “pull.”   Western theologians today, at least in the Evangelical world, have done a terrible job in presenting a Western view of the Trinity that understands the East’s concerns (or presenting any view of the Filioque, period.  It is a mark of deep and deserved shame on American Evangelicalism that Karl Barth has the most thorough, recent defense of the Filioque).   This is one of the areas where new thought is actually possible.

   I must begin by repeating the now-common refrain that there really isn’t as big as gap between East and West on the Trinity as once was thought.   This is undoubtedly true in the earlier Patristic eras with greater differences coming to light as the first millennium ended.  Certainly, there is a marked divide between later figures like Aquinas and Palamas.

Arakaki begins by noting Calvin’s Western roots.  He writes, “Unlike Eastern Orthodoxy which draws on a wide range of Church Fathers,Western Christianity in both its Roman Catholic and Protestant forms depends heavily on Augustine of Hippo” (Arakaki 12).

Mr Arakaki tries to connect predestination with the Western view of the Trinity.  He writes, “This is because theology (the nature of God) and economy (how God relates to creation) are integrally related” (14).   Mr Arakaki is correct to note that double predestination is not unique to Calvin.  As the former Orthodox theologian Joseph P. Farrell has noted, double predestination is an inference from absolute divine simplicity (Farrell, 332 passim.), and almost all medieval Western theologians held to this model of simplicity. Further, Arakaki’s claim that God’s nature is related to God’s economy is absolutely correct.    He notes that his Eastern view is the Cappadocian one, grounding the monarchy of God in the hypostasis of the Father.   Following Metr. Zizioulas he states that such a position emphasizes the person over the nature.  God exists through his mutual love.   To borrow Zizioulas’s famous title, “Being is Communion.”   There is a certainly a truth to this.

Mr Arakaki contrasts this with the Augustinian view.  His summary of Augustine is by and large correct, and I won’t belabor the point with more quotations.  He quotes sources on Augustine to the effect that Augustine emphasized the nature over the person.  Arakaki then notes difficulties with the West’s view:  “the Father is God, the Son is God,the Holy Spirit is God; but the Son is not the Father, and the Son is not the Holy Spirit; but there is not three gods but only one God” (16).  Obviously, such a view is unsatisfying.  It is not surprising that one infers the Filioque from such a construction.  Indeed, if the above is problematic, then it appears that the Filioque is also problematic.

A High-Church Reformed Response

It must be first noted that Western theologians do in fact have a response to Mr. Arakaki.   How can one claim that “The Father is God/The Son is God/The Spirit is God/There is one God”?   Western theologians could make this claim work by positing a “relations of oppositions.”   I am not going to take that route.  I have my own questions about such a model.  I only mention it to say that there are cogent, rational alternatives to his presentation.

Mr Arakaki has certainly placed his finger upon the Western problem.  Indeed, it is a pressure point.   In fact, even more problems could be adduced.   We shan’t mention them here.   In order to respond to Mr Arakaki, I will flesh out the Eastern view a little more, drawing upon perhaps its most forming theologian, Gregory Palamas (as interpreted by Vladimir Lossky).  According to Lossky, “The Father is the sole monarchy of the Godhead,” but this isn’t subordinationist because “terms such as procession and origin are but inappropriate expressions for a reality alien to all becoming, all process, all beginning” (Lossky, A l’image et a la ressemblance de Dieu, 78, quoted in Jenson, 152). This point shouldn’t be passed over.   This is in line with the Eastern emphasis on apophatic theology:   we have knowledge of God by negation.  At its most basic it denies any knowledge of the divine nature.  Rather, we know God by his energies.  (Much more could be mentioned and Orthodox philosopher David Bradshaw’s outstanding work, Aristotle East and West, will fill in any lacunae in my narrative).

Palamas on the Essence/Energies

Not only does Palamas see that God has an ousia (I understand the fine nuances between ousia, substance, and essence; in the following I will use ousia as roughly synonymous with essence), but “God also possesses that which is not substance” (Palamas, Chapters 135, quoted in Sinkewizcs, 241).  Yet Gregory is clear that this is also not an accident, of which one does not admit in God.  Palamas calls this entity which is neither substance nor accident an “energy.”  Elsewhere he calls it the “arche of deity” (Triads 3.1.29).  This is crucial for his view of the spiritual life.

In one of Palamas’ more brilliant moves, he notes the Western view of divine simplicity (God’s essence is absolutely simple, admitting of no distinctions) and how impossible it is for deification:  If God’s essence is absolutely and immutable, how exactly can the saint participate in it?  If the saint participates in the essence, then the saint is absorbed into the essence.   If the saint participates in “created grace,” then he is participating in a created medium and not in God.  Admittedly, it’s a brilliant move.

One should keep in mind that Gregory likely holds to something similar to divine simplicity.  He is careful to note that God is “according to the ousia beyond ousia” (ibid).  What he likely means is something like Plato’s beyond being or hyperousia (Republic 549b).  If this is in fact what Palamas means, and I think it is, then he is not as far removed from the West as one might think.  The only difference, it seems, is that he adds a tertium quid to the equation:  the divine energies.

Lossky’s problem points back to Gregory Palamas. Palamas employs the Cappadocians, but with a subtle difference. The saints, for Palamas, participate in the divine energies, but not in the divine ousia, deity sheerly as such. The problem, though, is that the Cappadocians were a lot more flexible than Palamas in their use of terms. Their use of the term ousia (Basil probably excepted) does not suggest anything other than the divine life. As Catherine Lacugna says, whom Mr Arakaki quotes elsewhere with approval, “God’s ousia exists as Father, Son, Spirit.  The three persons do not have a common ousia; they are the divine ousia…Further, as Rowan Williams points out, the doctrine of the Trinity means the identification of ousia with energeiai” (LaCugna, 192, quoted in Letham 249ff).  Here is the problem for Palamas: “It is one thing to say that abstract deity is itself always the same quality, as the Cappadocians did; it is quite another to say that deity taken as God himself is a static essence. Ironically, Orthodoxy is here driven to a bluntly modalist doctrine: God himself is above the biblical narrative, which applies only to his energies (Jenson 153).  Jenson’s comment needs to be fleshed out:  we can only identify God by his self-identifying in the biblical narrative–the persons arising out of the narrative.  But on Palamas’s gloss what can we even know of the Persons?  He seems to intimate that this “energy(ies)” is above the gospel narrative itself (Triads 3.1.10-13; 3.1.16-19; 3.3.26-27).   Perhaps most disastrously, Orthodoxy has a tendency to “reify the energies, the moments of the divine life, and at least in the case of the Spirit, the energies replace the person in the historical actuality of salvation” (Jenson 157).

Further, it appears that Orthodoxy is in danger of what (ironically) Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart calls the “pleonastic fallacy.”  According to Hart, this fallacy claims “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” (Hart).  While this fallacy was initially pointed out against neo-Platonists and Arians–and I have no intention of saying the Orthodox are the latter!–one cannot help but see certain similarities.  On such a gloss we see an apophatically unknown God who is made knowable–not by the persons, mind you, because Lossky says the terms for hypostatic differentiation are only “inappropriate expressions”–but by some other tertium quid, the energies of God.

Further, we can only have an indirect knowledge of God.  Granted, we aren’t knowing God through a created medium, pace Roman Catholicism, but it is still a medium nonetheless. We do not know God as he is but only through the energies.  If this knowledge is indirect knowledge, then how do we know God’s essence?   As Robert Letham remarks, “If the divine essence is unknowable, how does Gregory know it” (Letham 249)?

Given Orthodoxy’s commitment to a relational ontology, one must ask how this is even possible if we only relate via the energies and not the persons, as it appears Palamas says.  Further, we must note Arakaki’s earlier claim:  “This is because theology (the nature of God) and economy (how God relates to creation) are integrally related” (Arakaki, 14).  I agree, but if all we can know are God’s energies and not his ousia, as Basil says (Letter 234), then one wonders how such a claim is even possible.   If the ousia is hyper-ousia and beyond our knowing, which was Basil’s point against Eunomius, then we may be allowed to hope that that theologia and economia are integrally related, but that is only a guess.  By definition, we can’t know that.  As Robert Letham remarks on Palamas,For all of the problems of the Filioque, it at least attempts to say that what is true in ontology is true in economia: The Son is the giver of the Spirit in history because he is a giver of the spirit in ontology.

Putting the Filioque at the End

Let’s assume that my (and Jenson’s) critique of Palamism holds.  Even so, that does not prove the Filioque is true.  This is not a problem, though.  As of now, one can affirm what the Filioque is trying to get at (God is not dissimilar in ontology and economy; the economy reveals the ontology) while seeking to work past difficulties inherent in the project.

At the risk of horrifying everyone both East and West, I will expand (and correct)  Hegel’s “I-thou/Master-slave” analogy.  This does not mean I agree with all of what Hegel says.  I think he is more insightful than people realize, but he is also wrong on a number of points.  The present use of him is simply an analogy. I am not endorsing his ontology.

If you and I are to be free for one another, each of us must be both subject and object in our discourse. If I am present, I am a subject whom you have as my object. But if I am not an object for you as subject, if I somehow evade that, I enslave you. I am not reciprocally available to you (Jenson 155).

How then, can this mutual availability happen? How is an I-Thou relationship possible without becoming a struggle for power? (Jenson notes with humor that postmodernism carried out this program under a tutelage of horror!) Following Jenson, in perhaps a mildly Augustinian strain, we can note, “there is freely given love…a third party in the meeting of ‘I’ and ‘Thou. Thus, if you and I are to be free for one another, someone must be our liberator (okay, granted this isn’t the best term–JA)…If I am to be your object and you mine, so that we may be subjects for each other, there has to be one for whom we are both objects, and whose intention for us is our love for each other. The theological conclusion is obvious.

Still, it does not fully answer the Filioque debate, at least not here. We can tentatively  toward a Western answer. The debate over the Filioque is misplaced. If God is indeed the God of the future, and we see Cappadocian hints of an ever-forward moving futurity in God, then does it not make more sense to see the better question as “The Spirit is the End and Goal of all God’s ways”? East and West debate over the beginning Archimedean point when they should be discussing the divine goal as the Spirit’s Archimedean point” (157). Quoting Pannenberg again, “The fault of the Filioque is that the true Augustinian insight that the Spirit is the fellowship of the Son and Father ‘was formulated in terms of relations of origin’” (Pannenberg, I: 347, quoted in Jenson, 157 n. 67).  Seen from this light, the East-West debate is simply two sides of the same coin.  Neither side tries to rise above the problematic.

On What Can We Agree?

I certainly agree that Augustinian triadology is simply inadequate.  It solves many problems but at great costs.   While I think the Orthodox concept of the divine energies is problematic–and I’ve only touched on one aspects.  I think there are more damaging criticisms available which I won’t pursue here–to the degree that Orthodoxy talks about the “divine light” I can appreciate.  I realize that Orthodoxy sees the two terms as synonymous.  I do not.  My arguments challenge a concept of the divine energies but not the divine light.  There is no reason why on a post-Augustinian gloss that one cannot appropriate the divine light.   Protestant biographies abound with saints who experience the divine light–glory–of God.  The Covenanter John Walsh was known to be surrounded by light while he was praying.   Even the modern Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, recalls an instance when he was flooded by divine light in language quite similar to that of Eastern Orthodox stories (Pannenberg).

In conclusion I agree with what the Filioque is trying to say.  God is not dissimilar in mission as he is in ontology.  Further, while God is transcendent we must be careful in positing that God’s essence is so radically other that we have no consistent way of saying how we can know God.  But even granting Eastern criticisms, we must confess that the East is not the way we should go.  Their Trinitarianism, while consistent and occasionally beautiful, comes at too great a cost.  If pressed hard enough we are left with a frozen view of God (to borrow Jenson’s phrase) above the biblical narrative–and such a view tends toward agnosticism (since we can’t know God as he really is).     Even worse, and in line with some other Orthodox critiques of Palamism (Moss), it’s hard to see on an Orthodox gloss how we can even have a “personal” relationship with God if the persons, too, are hyperousia and our only manner of communion is through the “energies.”

Which Way the West?

It is often remarked that Protestantism is divorced from the early church, that it can’t look back to church history and find itself.  What does one make of this claim?  Admittedly, it’s hard to find the location of First Presbyterian Church, Jerusalem.  Certainly, Protestants must acknowledge the hard work of the ancient church(es) in working through canonical, Christological, and Trinitarian issues.  We stand upon the shoulders of giants.   However, since Protestantism does not claim an infallible tradition, nothing significant is sacrificed when Protestant theologians began to admit that their tradition erred in formulation et al in years passed.

Further, nothing is lost in admitting that previous models of metaphysics may not have been the best to work with.  This does not mean jettisoning the hard work of the early church(es).  It does require a critical receiving of texts and positions, asking what light can they shed on our current situations, and cautiously moving forward.  Rowan Williams has cogently suggested that we saw such a handling of philosophical issues in the Nicene crisis (Williams 2002).  According to Williams’ reading, Arius conservatively employed a number of respected (if pagan) philosophical traditions which compromised the biblical narrative of the Son’s being with the Father. It was to the Nicene Fathers, Athanasius and Hilary, to “deconstruct” the older metaphysics around a new terminology that was more faithful to the biblical narrative (Farrell 184; cf. Hilary, De Synodis 76).

When one reads the Filiioquist debates, especially between two competent debaters, one has to admit that both sides make good cases.  I think there is a reason for that:  both sides are operating off of the same problematic: the Person(s) as causing the origin of another Person(s).   Either side, as Sergei Bulgakov noted with great clarity, must inevitably result in some dyad:  either Father-Son + Spirit or Father + Son/Spirit.  The triad has been lost.

It is to the credit of some recent theologians like Pannenberg and Jenson that they can find models to speak of the Trinity in a way that does not inevitably reduce to some form of monad + dyad.  Indeed, Panneberg can speak of mutual reciprocity, “the divine consciousness existing in a threefold mode,” and “each of the persons relates to the others as others and distinguishes itself from them” (Pannenberg 1991, 317; contra Robert Letham, Pannenberg is not advocating, at least not here anyway, three centers of consciousness, which would fall prey to some form of social Trinitarianism.  Pannenberg’s language is very clear:  a consciousness existing in a threefold mode is still one consciousness, one subject).

My own essay does differ from traditional Protestant proposals.  I do not hide that fact.  I hope I have demonstrated the truths behind the Filioque and what it means for our knowledge of God, even if I demur from the confessional formulations of it. It must be admitted that Calvinism’s Trinitarianism (to the degree that such an entity exists) stands or falls independent of my own formulations (and vice-versa).  Calvin did not write much on the Trinity for the simple fact that he didn’t have to.   Roman Catholicism did not differ from him on that score, so there wasn’t a point.  Calvin’s later doctrine of autotheos per the Son did raise some concerns, but even Catholics like Robert Bellarmine conceded that Calvin was largely in the “Tradition” on this point (Bellarmine 307-310, quoted in Letham 256).  I depart from Calvin in terms of language but hope that my own conclusions are not too far removed from his.

Works Cited:

Arakaki, Robert. “Plucking the Tulip,” http://orthodoxbridge.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Plucking-the-TULIP4.pdf (accessed 6 January 2014).

Basil the Great.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers vol 8.  Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publ.

Bellarmine, Robert.  “Secunda controversia generalis de Christo,” Disputationum de controversiis Christianae fidei adversus haereticos.  Rome, 1832.

Bradshaw, David.  Aristotle East and West:  Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom.  Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Bulgakov, Sergei.  The Comforter.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2005.

Farrell, Joseph. P.  God, History, and Dialectic:  The Theological Foundations of the Two Europes and their Cultural Consequences.   Seven Council Press, no date.

Hart.  David Bentley.  “The Lively God of Robert Jenson.”  First Things.  October 2005.  [Accessed 10 January 2014].

Hegel.  GWF.  Phenomenology of Spirit.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Jenson, Robert.  Systematic Theology vol 1.  Oxford University Press, 2001.

LaCugna, Catherine.  God for Us: The Trinity and the Christian Life. San Francisco: Harper, 1991.

Letham, Robert.  The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship.  Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 2004.

Lossky, Vladimir. A l’image et a la ressemblance de Dieu.  Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1967.

Moss, Vladimir.  “Romanides on the Holy Trinity.”  http://www.orthodoxchristianbooks.com/articles/410/romanides-holy-trinity/ [accessed 13 January 2014].

Palamas, Gregory.  One Hundred and Fifty Chapters. ed. Sinkewicz, Robert.  Toronto:  Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1988.

——————-.  Triads (Classics of Western Spirituality).  Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1982.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart.  Systematiche Theologie.  Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1988-1993.

—————-.  “God’s Presence in History.”  http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1710.  [accessed 10 January 2014].

—————-.  Systematic Theology.  Trans. G. W. Bromiley.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.

Plato, The Great Dialogues.  trans. W. H. D. Rouse.  New York: Signet Classics, 2008.

Williams, Rowan.  “The Philosophical Structures of Palamism,” Eastern Churches Review 9 (1977): 27-44D.

—————.  Arius: Heresy and Tradition.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.

Zizioulas, John.  Being as Communion. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997.

God as Fugue: The Musical Theology of Robert Jenson (1)

Jenson, Robert W.  Systematic Theology vol 1.  Oxford University Press.

Robert W. Jenson’s systematic theology is refreshingly different from standard models.   Loosely drawing upon older medieval and early Reformational loci, Jenson gives us a succinct yet profound model for presenting theology.  True, Jenson does cover the standard loci (norms of authority, God, Christology, etc), but Jensons’s theology, either unlike others or more explicitly than others, operates from a common theme.  Jensons’s theme is “the identity of God.”  The way Jenson works this theme is similar to a musical fugue.  As he introduces his theme, he allows it to take upon itself different connotations with each repetition, ending in a stunning climax.

Norms of Authority

    Jenson’s approach here is very interesting.  He doesn’t simply say, “The Baahhbul alone is our authority.”  Perhaps we may fault him on that, but neither does he open himself up to immediate counters to that position.  He recognizes the inevitability of tradition in the Church’s identity, but he raises a question from that that few do:  it was tradition itself in the mid-2nd century that necessitated a formal canon.   The implication: tradition, whatever its specific liturgical content may have been, was no longer adequate to the Church’s life by itself.

    Jenson adds yet another key to this piece:  the Spirit’s life in the church (26ff).  Such a move sounds a lot like Eastern Orthodoxy, and it does incorporate a lot of Orthodoxy’s strengths on this point, but Jenson takes it to a different (and utterly more biblical) conclusion:  the Spirit’s presence is the in-breaking of the Kingdom, which opens God’s future to God’s people.  A Spirit-founded church is a future-moving church.

Jensons’s theme, accordingly, is “the identity of God.” The practice of theology, then, is “speaking this identity,” which is speaking the gospel.  Jenson defines the gospel as “Jesus of Nazareth, the one who….is risen from the dead.”

What is God’s identity?  Classical theology will say “3 Persons/1 Essence.” This is of course true, but the twilight of classical ontology and the current earthquakes from nihilism force clarification upon the theologian.  This is the Church’s opportunity.  Jenson identifies God as “The One who brought Israel out of Egypt” (44, quoting Exodus 20:2).  The New Testament expands this identity as “The One who raised Jesus from the dead.”  God is the one who rescued the Israelite from the dead.  It is important to see that God is identified by his events (59).  Jenson that follows with several profound meditations on the nature of idolatry.

The music is not yet finished.  We have easily established the Father’s identity.  We have hinted at (though not fully developed) a connection between the Father’s identity and that of his Son, the Resurrected Israelite.  We must now see how these two “connect” in identity without losing their differences, and the role of the Spirit in that connection.

God’s identity is told by his story.  In identifying God, we have a dramatis dei personae, “characters of the divine drama” (75).  Exegetes have since come to the conclusion that “Son” is often a title for Israel. Yet Israel as a fallen nation cannot live up to that sonship.  Another Israelite, God’s Son in a different sense, is with and by whom God is identified.   “He is God himself as a participant in Israel’s story” (76).  This leads naturally to an extended discussion of the Servant passages.  Jenson, contrary to many evangelicals, does not say that the “Servant” is simply code for “Jesus.”  He allows the Servant narratives to unfold and in the unfolding we see “Suddenly, the Servant is an individual within Israel” (80).  Giving his prophetic speech, rising from the dead, and ushering in eschatological peace, the Church could not help but identify this servant with the Son of David from Nazareth.  The next persona in the drama is the Spirit of the Lord.  Jenson does not at this point explicate the Spirit’s role-identity.

How are they One Being?

Jenson notes that classical pagan ontology identified “god” by metaphysical predicates.  Deity is a quality that can be participated in by degrees.  To bridge any gap, pagan metaphysicians would invoke relatively divine-human figures to mediate that deity.  From this standpoint, Jenson explains the work of the early Christian apologists until Origen and the role of Logos-theology.

Logos had a two-fold meaning:  the sense the world makes and the expression of that sense (96).  This allowed Justin Martyr to say that the Logos enthietos is eternal relative to God’s being (although there was some equivocation as to his timelessness)  but the Logos prophorikos is temporal relative to God’s creating act (97).   Besides obvious problems, Justin’s theology could not explain why there should only be one mediator between the divine realm and the temporal one, and not many like in Gnosticism and Paganism.

Origen sharpened this problematic.  In Jenson’s beautiful description, Origen “conceived of the work of Father, Son, and Spirit as a sort of inverted stepped cone: the Father gives being to all creatures, the Son opens  the knowledge of God to creatures capable of knowledge, and the Spirit performs the purification” (98).  Origen perfected and avoided Justin’s starker problems by exploiting a favorite image of classical antiquity:  the image.  A statue of painting is not its archetype but neither is it not its archetype.  “Being an image of something is a distinct mode of being” (98).  This allowed antiquity (and early Christians) to posit a descending hierarchy of images.

Anticipating Hegel (!), Origen, using this imagic model, can say, “In that God knows himself, there subsists God as the object this knowledge; and in that this knowledge is expressed with divine perfection, God-as-his-own-object in an actual other than God himself” (99).  Despite its beauty and profundity, Origen’s problematic was unstable.  Beginning from the presuppositions of pagan metaphysics, Origen could not avoid the question “How divine was the Logos, on a spectrum of being of sheer divine and sheer temporality?”  Any answer disrupts the inherent subordinationism.  Scripture, however, asks different questions:  Creator or creature?  Origen really couldn’t answer this question, either. Not surprisingly, the Arian crisis soon exploded this problematic.

Discussions of Arianism, Nicea, and Athanasius are well-known, so this section of the essay will be brief.  What is important to note is that key terms are beginning to be sharpened.  Ousia in early Nicea is what a thing is; hypostasis is the differentiation of it.

Despite the Nicene-Constantinople victory, we must note what they did not accomplish.  As Jenson notes, “The Cappadocians acknowledged only relations of origin as constitutive of the divine life.  Thus, the eschatological character was suppressed” (108).

How does God’s reality present itself in history?  Following Pannenberg (Systematiche Theologie, 3:333-347, quoted in Jenson 109n. 132) Jenson gives an interesting musing that “It is exactly in that Jesus or his Father or the Spirit refers absolutely from himself to one of the others as the One God that he is in a specific way a perfect correlate to that other, and so himself God within and of the history plotted by these referrals.”  Jenson will later clinch this argument by sharpening Gregory of Nyssa’s:  the term God for Gregory refers to the mutual action of the divine energies, to the perichoretic divine life” (214).  This being of God is not a something (and thus we avoid Heidegger’s destruction of classical ontology), but a palpable going-on…God is primally hypostatic: to be God the Father, or God the Son or God the Spirit, does not require that there antecedently be something one could call ‘God’” (214, 215; and thus we avoid Tillich’s critique of a quaternity).

Jenson’s discussion of Christology necessarily leads to a rather unique locus in his system:  Patrology.  This seems odd, since Patrology itself is not an ultimate norm for doing theology and authority.  True, but Patrology does function as a grammar of how to do theology, illustrating key moves and problems.   Those who ignore Patrology will find themselves unable to explain key problems in Christian theology.

Before we continue the discussion on Patrology, and in keeping with our musical theme, we should not Jenson’s masterful handling of the Holy Spirit and the Filioque debate.   It must be admitted that conservative American evangelicals have failed miserably on this point.  If I could think of harsher language, I would use it.  Jenson begins by noting the problems in Augustine’s formulation:  exactly how is one of the three specifically “spirit?”  If hypostases are identified by relations of origin (Father-Son), we have a further problem, since no relation appears in the name “Holy Spirit” (147).  Jenson then mentions Lossky’s poewrful argument against the West:  by positing the Father and Son as a single cause of the Spirit, the West has muted the hypostatic characteristics of both Father and Son.

How can we respond?  Before responding, we should briefly note the Eastern position.  The Father is the sole monarchy of the Godhead, but this isn’t subordinationist because “terms such as procession and origine are but inappropriate expressions for a reality alien to all becoming, all process, all beginning” (Lossky, A l’image et a la ressemblance de Dieu, 78, quoted in Jenson, 152).  Jenson remarks: “This is a vision of God as frozen as any we have encountered, and a new evacuation of Trinitarianism.  The trinitarian propositions in their Eastern use fail to describe the Father’s subordinating of the Son and the Spirit, we discover, only because they do not describe any action at all (Jenson, 152).

Lossky’s problem points back to Gregory Palamas.  Palamas employs the Cappadocians, but with a subtle difference.  The Saints participate in the divine energies, which are the divine life, but not in the divine ousia, deity sheerly as such.  The problem, though, is that the Cappadocians were a lot more flexible than Palamas.   Their use of the term ousia (Basil probably excepted) does not suggest anything other than the divine life.   Here is the problem for Palamas:

“It is one thing to say that abstract deity is itself always the same quality, as the Cappadocians did; it is quite another to say that deity taken as God himself is a static essence.  Ironically, Orthodoxy is here driven to a bluntly modalist doctrine:  God himself is above the biblical narrative, which applies only to his energies (153).  Perhaps most disastrously, Orthodoxy has a tendency to “reify the energies, the moments of the divine life, and at least in the case of the Spirit, the energies replace the person in the historical actuality of salvation” (157).

So what is Jenson’s solution?  By way of clarification, he explains Hegel’s famous “I-thou/Master-slave” analogy.  If you and I are to be free for one another, each of us must be both subject and object in our discourse.  If I am present, I am a subject whom you have as my object.  But if I am not an object for you as subject, if I somehow evade that, I enslave you.  I am not reciprocally available to you (155).

How then, can this mutual availability happen?  How is an I-Thou relationship possible without becoming a struggle for power?  (Jenson notes with humor that postmodernism carried out this program under a tutelage of horror!)  Jenson, in perhaps an unacknowledged Augustinian strain,notes, “there is freely given love…a third party in the meeting of ‘I’ and ‘Thou.   Thus, if you and I are to be free for one another, someone must be our liberator (okay, granted this isn’t the best term–JA)…If I am to be your object and you mine, so that we may be subjects for each other, there has to be one for whom we are both objects, and whose intention for us is our love for each other.  The theological conclusion is obvious.

Still, it does not fully answer the Filioque debate, at least not here. Jenson tentatively works toward a Western answer.   The debate over the Filioque is misplaced.  If God is indeed the God of the future, and we see Cappadocian hints of an ever-forward moving futurity in God, then does it not make more sense to see the better question as “The Spirit is the End and Goal of all God’s ways”?  East and West debate over the beginning Archimedean point when they should be discussing the divine goal as the Spirit’s Archimedean point” (157).  Quoting Pannenberg again, “The fault of the Filioque is that the true Augustinian insight that the Spirit is the fellowship of the Son and Father ‘was formulated in terms of relations of origin’” (Pannenberg, I: 347, quoted in Jenson, 157 n. 67).

Jenson has an interesting, yet ultimately unsatisfying chapter on the atonement.   He accepts many of the criticisms of Anselm:  strictly speaking, on Anselm’s view there is no need for the Resurrection.  Upon the death of Christ the transaction is complete.   Theology, unfortunately, remains incomplete.  Even more pointedly, “The New Testament speaks of God’s action to reconcile us to himself, and nowhere of God’s being reconciled to us” (186).  The problem, however, with these subjective critiques of Anselm, and the theories they represent, fail to say how Jesus’s death accomplished anything specific.

After a brief and interesting discussion of the Christus Victor model, Jenson proposes a liturgical understanding of the atonement:  the church’s primal way of understanding the atonement is that we live this narrative (189).  “We rehearse the Word-event in our lives.”  I am not exactly sure how he describes his proposal.  He gives an interesting outline of public liturgies during Passion week and ends with an admittedly interesting suggestion:

“If a theological proposition is one that says, ‘To be saying the gospel, let us say F rather than G,’ and if the gospel is spoken in language and by more embodied sorts of signs, by sacrament and sacrifice, then we must expect theology to take the form of ritual rubrics” (190).

This isn’t wrong, per se, and I can attest to the power of liturgy in my own life, but one suspects that Jenson himself isn’t entirely free from the critique he offered of subjective models:  precisely what happened on the cross?  He answers it was Israel’s denouement of her Scriptures” (183).  Very good and well said, but what does that have to do with me?

We must wait for the Resurrection for the answer to that question.  He asserts that it accomplishes our reconciliation to God.  With this we agree, but we suspect Scripture has said much more.

Jenson concludes his book with summary chapters on Spirit, Jesus, and the Being of the One God, incorporating much critical scholarship and noting the strengths and weaknesses of each approach.


Astute readers will notice some similarities between Jenson’s approach and that of David Bentley Hart. Both theologians write musically. There are some differences, to be sure.   Hart, for the most part, accepts classical ontology;  Jenson does not.   Jenson, further, is sympathetic to those in the Reformed tradition (see his spirited defense of Jonathan Edwards).  Hart’s vitriol towards Calvinism is well-known.  Most importantly, perhaps, is that Jenson can write in a coherent and readable (if sometimes dense) manner.  Hart cannot.

Appendix:  God and the Future

Our God is different from the Pagan gods because he is not afraid of “time.”  God’s acting in salvation for his people is an acting in time, “not defending against the future, but securing it” (67).  Gregory of Nyssa was on the verge of completely dismantling classical metaphysics hold on God-doctrine.  Identifying the divine ousia as infinity, Gregory took it a step forward and identified it as temporal infinity, a future-oriented infinity (infinity qua infinity would dissipate into nothingness, the temptation of absolute models of simplicity).  According to Jenson, “The Arians err defining God as having no beginning, when they should define God as having no end” (216).  In Jenson’s succint pjhrase, “The Father is the whence of the divine life; The Spirit is the whither, and the Son the specious present” (218-219).  The way in which the whence and the whither are one, the way in which the Triune God is eternal, is by the events in Jesus’s death and resurrection” (219).

The Relations Strike back

I used to think that the Western view of the Trinitarian relations was its Achilles’ heel.  I am not so sure anymore.    The Western view is still inadequate in many ways, but Western theologians were usually deeper and “on to something.”   While I don’t like Augustine’s formulation, he at least has a more coherent and thought-out model of the relations between the hypostases than does the East.  When I was against the Filioque, I had what I thought was a good response to the argument that what is true in the Economy is true in the Ontology.  Still, Rahner’s rule wasn’t easily dismissed.  Robert Jenson writes,

For it is the very function of trinitarian propositions to say that the relations that appear in the biblical narrative between Father, Son, and Spirit are the truth about God himself.

The reason I focus on Eastern Orthodoxy

I know I seem myopic on this point, and I don’t want to just “beat up” on Eastern Orthodoxy (though they have no problem with the ubiquitous calling Protestants heretics).  I focus on rebutting Eastern Orthodoxy because so much of it is actually true.  Take their triadology, for instance.  While it dead-ends in many ways, it is still valuable and essential reading.   The Platonic background is beautiful.   I cannot agree with the Platonic metaphysics of Gregory of Nyssa and Company, but who can deny its utter beauty?

The Filioque

I understand when Reformed people first read the Filioque and immediately think that Rome screwed the world over.  It’s hard to avoid that conclusion.  Politically speaking, Byzantium has a case.  I disagree with Eastern Orthodoxy’s reading of ek monou Patrou.  But I understand why they hold to it.  I think the whole debate is flawed and both sides read the terms in the same problematic.

Participation Ontologies

Their Platonic metaphysics is simply beautiful.  When I listen to Matt Johnson lecture on Nyssa, Eurigena, and Logos-theology, I am simply in awe.  However, beautiful though it might be, it simply cannot mesh 100% with Scripture.   Eschatology and Federalism offer a better ontology.

Eschatology is the locus of a federal ontology.  It is an announcement of the good news from afar off (Isaiah 52:7ff).   Participation (realist?) ontologies, by contrast, struggle with the concept of good news. Horton writes, “It is unclear how the gospel as good news would figure into his [John Milbank, but also any Dionysian construction–OA] account of redemption, since ‘news’ implies an extrinsic annoucnement of something new, something that does not simply derive from the nature of things (169).  What he means is that those who who hold to participationist ontologies–chain of being–see a continuum between God and man.  Any saving that happens to man happens within that continuum.   The announcement of good news, by contrast, comes from without.   To borrow Horton’s delightful phrase, a federal ontology is meeting a stranger, whereas a participationist ontology is overcoming estrangement.


Critiques of icons aside, I understand why people would prefer the Eastern view of iconography over the Western statuesque view.  I was never tempted to venerate Roman statues.  They were simply ugly.  Still, I have to wonder:  are we not literally playing with fire?  Indeed, Yahweh is the voice from the fire (Dt 4). Yahweh brought fire and death to Jerusalem and Samaria for syncretistic religion.  I have no problem with iconographic representations of saints, provided people aren’t talking with the dead or kissing the image.

Church Fathers on the Filioque

At the so-called Orthodox Bridge, they are discussing the (de)merits of the Filioque clause.   Where do I stand on it?  I agree with the soteriological truth behind what the filioque is getting at.  I fully admit that Protestant defenses of it have been woefully lacking (and I suspect that not a few Reformed systematics don’t even understand it, as Wayne Grudem nearly concedes).  When I used to be a critic of the Filioque, the one point that troubled me is that it didn’t seem like Augustine and Rome invented it.  In fact, I saw a number of church fathers, even some Eastern ones, espouse the Filioque.

We need to be clear on what we aren’t saying.  For the sake of argument I will grant that phrases “through the Son” do not necessarily teach double-origination.  That said, though, I don’t think anyone at OB truly understood Bulgakov‘s critique. Sure, he was a Hegelian and probably a Gnostic, but that doesn’t change the logical problems he raised (there goes that pesky logic thing again).  So I will be using evidence that looks like double-origination.

Hilary of Poitiers

“Concerning the Holy Spirit . . . it is not necessary to speak of him who must be acknowledged, who is from the Father and the Son, his sources” (The Trinity 2:29 [A.D. 357]).

Didymus the Blind

“As we have understood discussions . . . about the incorporeal natures, so too it is now to be recognized that the Holy Spirit receives from the Son that which he was of his own nature. . . . So too the Son is said to receive from the Father the very things by which he subsists. For neither has the Son anything else except those things given him by the Father, nor has the Holy Spirit any other substance than that given him by the Son” (The Holy Spirit 37 [A.D. 362]).

Epiphanius of Salamis

“The Father always existed and the Son always existed, and the Spirit breathes from the Father and the Son” (The Man Well-Anchored 75 [A.D. 374]).

Ambrose of Milan

“The Holy Spirit, when he proceeds from the Father and the Son, does not separate himself from the Father and does not separate himself from the Son” (The Holy Spirit 1:2:120 [A.D. 381]).

Cyril of Alexandria

“Since the Holy Spirit when he is in us effects our being conformed to God, and he actually proceeds from the Father and Son, it is abundantly clear that he is of the divine essence, in it in essence and proceeding from it” (Treasury of the Holy Trinity, thesis 34 [A.D. 424]).

Athanasius (and this is the most damaging piece of evidence.  Athanasius specifically identifies the Son as the Source of the Holy Spirit.  One cannot simply gloss it as “the Son’s temporal sending of the Spirit.” Besides begging the question, Athanasius gives no indication of speaking temporally and he precisely uses the language of origination).

PG 26:1000A]: “David sings in the psalm [35:10], saying: ‘For with You is the font of Life;’because jointly with the Father the Son is indeed the source of the Holy Spirit.”

Addendum on Cyril

I had used a quote by Cyril at OB.   The initial response from OB was anger.  One priest then pointed out that the Schaff translation has Cyril speaking of mission.  That could be so, but it’s hard to gloss all of these quotes as missional.

East: Patriarch St. Cyril I of Alexandria (Doctor of the Incarnation) 6/27
34. St. Gregory Palamas (Second Sunday of Great Lent) says that the energies of the Holy Spirit, not the hypostasis of the Holy Spirit, proceed from the Father through the Son; this is how he explains the teaching of St. Cyril of Alexandria.{1} But in many places, the great St. Cyril of Alexandria, who distinguished between the divine essence and the divine energy,{2} affirms the distinctively Catholic (Western–BH) teaching on the procession of the Holy Spirit, rather than just an energetic procession, meaning that the Palamite interpretation is inadequate. He accurately restricts εκπορευσθαι to the relation of origin of the Holy Spirit to the Father, the sole αἰτία, i.e., ἀρχὴ-ἄναρχος.

35. In 427 the holy Doctor of the Incarnation says in Commentary on the Prophet Joel 35 [PG 71:377D],

For, in that the Son is God, and from God according to nature (for He has had His birth from God the Father), the Spirit is both proper to Him and in Him and from Him, just as, to be sure, the same thing is understood to hold true in the case of God the Father Himself.

In 429 St. Cyril says in Thesaurus 34 [PG 75:576B], “Thus, Paul knows no difference of nature between the Son and the Holy Spirit, but because the Spirit exists from Him and in Him by nature, He calls Him by the name of Lordship.”

36. In the same part of the same work [PG 75:600D], St. Cyril says, “Therefore, when Christ lays down the law, He lays it down that His Spirit naturally exists in Him and from Him.”

37. Lest anyone think that, from the Son’s sending of the Spirit in the economy, we cannot infer the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit from the Son, the holy patriarch says in On the Incarnation of the Only-Begotten [PG 75:1241A], “Freeing from sin the one who adheres to Him, He anoints him, again, with His own Spirit, infusing Him Himself (is this the language of origination or sending? Indeed), since He is the Word from God the Father, and from His own nature He causes Him to fountain upon us.” Since the Son sends the Holy Spirit [Jn 15:26], He must have some authority over the Holy Spirit. But it cannot be authority of dominion (e.g., King St. Vladimir I the Great rules Russia), superiority (e.g., John is holier than Jack), or seniority (e.g., a general is ranked higher than a colonel). Therefore the authority must be one of origin, so that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. This is how St. Thomas Aquinas argues in Summa Contra Gentiles.

38. He also expresses the complementarity and equivalence of the Latin and Greek formulae when he says [On Worship and Adoration in Spirit and Truth 1 in PG 68:148A],

The Spirit is assuredly in no way changeable; or even if some think Him to be so infirm as to change, the disgrace will be traced back to the divine nature itself, if in fact the Spirit is from God the Father and, for that matter, from the Son, being poured forth substantially from both, that is to say, from the Father through the Son.

Notes on Bulgakov’s “The Comforter”

I have an off-again, on-again fascination with the outlaw Russian Orthodox theologian, Sergius Bulgakov.  I understand why the Russian Orthodox church condemned him, though I am fairly certain no one knew exactly what Bulgakov said, nor could they answer him sufficiently (which is why a different Russian Orthodox council venerated him.  By the way, we have here two opposing church councils making diametrically contradictory statements.  Which one represents the True Church?).

I picked this volume up because I was interested in his take on the Filioque–and here is where I think he is most successful.  I cannot in good conscience endorse his Sophia project.   Too much sounds like it was taken from gnostic magic texts, and the other is just old-fashioned Platonism (and they might be the same thing!).   That being said, Sophia or not, I think he was on the right track.  I didn’t read the whole book because I didn’t have to.   Much of his Sophiology can be found in other books and I was just interested in his historical discussions.  If you have read Lamb of God then you got the gist of it.

Bulgakov begins with a survey of how the early fathers understood the Holy Spirit.  He goes a step beyond the typical statements that no one called the Spirit “God,” not even Basil.  Bulgakov’s point is that no father had an in-depth pneumatology of any sort, and this would be a huge problem for Orthodoxy in the Filioque debates. He chides Roman Catholic thinkers for reading Filioquist doctrines into early Fathers, for example when the Fathers say the Spirit is ek tou hiou or dia (from and through).  With two possible exceptions concerning a quotation from Athanasius and Epiphanius, none of these fathers can be read as saying that the Son is the hypostatic cause of the Spirit, which is what the Filioquist must prove.  It’s a highly strained reading to think they are advocating what was taught at Florence and Lyons.  And again, this underscores the problem:  what did the Fathers mean by these statements?  We really don’t know, since they don’t say.

Monarchia of the Father: Dangerous and Undefined

Bulgakov is insistent we maintain the doctrine of monarchia, the Father as the principle of the Godhead.  He notes, though, that when guys like John of Damascus refer to the monarchia, it’s not clear what they mean.  How does John use the term cause?  He oscillates between two positions:  cause of the other two persons of the Godhead, but this moves close to Arianism, which John rejects.   He maintains the equi-eternity of the persons.  One cannot get past the idea, though, that John is using cause in terms of origination.

An Inadequate Tradition

A few years ago Jay Dyer critiqued Anchoretic Christianity on the grounds of an inevitable doctrinal development (this is more problematic for Orthodoxy than it is for Rome).   This is particularly evident in the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.  Someone could respond, via Basil, that Basil said the unwritten tradition always said the Holy Spirit was “God.”  Besides begging the question, that’s not really what Bulgakov is getting at.  The early Fathers did not develop a thorough doctrine of the Holy Spirit, leaving a lot of prepositions unqualified which later Latin writers would exploit.  For example, when Photius argued that the spirit proceeded ek patre monou, and claimed that such was the tradition of the Fathers, Latin writers quickly made short work of that:  numerous Fathers said at the very least that the Spirit proceeded through the Son.  I don’t think that’s a Filioquist reading, but neither does it line up with what Photius said.

Basil’s problem runs deeper.   While Basil is to be commended for clarifying person and nature to a degree, it was an uneasy clarification.   Basil’s Aristotelian use of ousia was a problem.  It seemed to Basil’s opponents that Basil was saying that if a hypostasis concretizes an ousia, then we have three concretized ousias (again we see that the Greeks could never get away from seeing ousia/essence in material terms).

A Shared Problematic

Bulgakov points out that both sides had the same presupposition:  whatever one may discuss about the Holy Spirit and his relation to the other persons of the Godhead, it will be primarily in terms of his origination from either one or both persons.  In either case, one is left with a dyad and never a triad:   if the Father alone generates both Son and Spirit, then we have Father and Son/Spirit; or if we take the Filioquist route, we will have Father/Son and Spirit.   Bulgakov notes that no side really got to the intratrinitarian relations.

Ousia as Spirit-Love

By contrast, Bulgakov sees the essence of God in a new way, free from Hellenistic constraints.  God is Spirit (John 4).  God is Love (1 John), and Bulgakov suggests that God’s being is love.  This definition points to three-ness and here Augustine was on the right track: Love implies more than one (and stop the analogy right there!).  Therefore, God’s essence is Spirit-Love (Bulgakov, 61).

Christianizing Hegel

The Hegelian overtones are heavy in the next few pages, and is my favorite part of the book.  Bulgakov writes, “The Son then is the hypostatic self-revelation of the nature of tthe Father (Hebrews 1:3)…the self-consciousness or hypostatization of the divine ousia of the Father; the Son is present before the Father as his Truth and Word” (63).  Bulgakov notes that these hypostases are mutually defined through their relation in the divine ousia.  The Father is not only revealed in his ousia through the Son, but he lives in said ousia by the Holy Spirit.

I know that sounds weighty, but it’s really not.  In biblical revelation we understand God the father to be the first person of the to-be-yet-revealed-Trinity.  In the New Testament we see Jesus saying, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father” (Jesus seems to be making positive affirmations about knowing God, contra the later tradition). We know that when Jesus ascends, the divine life lives in the church through the Holy Spirit.  At this point this is simple Sunday School stuff and Bulgakov has nicely tied it together.  Doesn’t this make a lot more sense than simply speaking about “ousias” and “essences” in an abstract, Greek way?  Yeah, I spoke of ousia, but I defined it the way the Bible defines it, as Spirit and Love:  Spirit-Love.

Opening critique of Van Til

Smith, Ralph. Paradox and Truth: Rethinking Van Til on the Trinity.

NOTE: In the first few paragraphs I accidentally typed “divine essay” instead of “divine essence.” It should read “divine essence.”

The beginning of this essay will review Ralph Smith’s work on Cornelius Van Til as it relates to the Trinity.  As the essay progresses, more attention will be paid to Van Til’s Trinitarianism.  My critique seeks to be different for several reasons.  Most people who criticize Van Til focus on his apologetic method.  I really have nothing new to add in that department.

Smith’s goal is to compare and contrast the recent arguments of “social Trinitarian” Cornelius Plantinga with the unique approach of Cornelius Van Til. Supposedly, traditional Trinitarianism is stagnant and the insights of these two can revive it.

The introduction is somewhat humorous because Smith (rightly) bemoans the fact that Evangelicals have ignored the Trinity for essentially of their history, and if you take away the doctrine of the Trinity for Evangelicals, nothing will change in their day-to-day lives. At this point Smith begins reviewing Plantinga’s now-famous essay “The Threeness/Oneness Problem of the Trinity” along with a very brief survey of recent Evangelical developments of Trinitarianism. Smith wonders why none of these writers (Plantinga, Stanley Grenz, James Sire) discuss the work of Cornelius Van Til or even John Calvin. What Smith does not realize is nobody outside a microscopic subset of the Reformed world (which itself is already microscopic) has even heard of Van Til or let alone even cares. As for Calvin, contrary to what people might think, Calvin really didn’t say all that much on the Trinity. He simply repeated some conclusions while thinking he meant what the Fathers have always meant (a dubious proposition). Smith does rightly note that Van Til “stands in utter contrast to this tendency” (Smith, 2002, 18). We shall see. One suspects the irony is that Van Til will offer a solid critique of this failure but inevitably commit the same mistakes.

Before we begin we will quote a section from the falsely-named “Athanasian Creed,” which is referred to in this book:

“The Father is the Divine Essence; the Son is the Divine Essence, and the Holy Spirit is the Divine Essence, yet there are not three divine essences—but only one.”

Smith’s first chapter deals with Plantinga’s essay on the Trinity. Plantinga, following many recent moves in theology, suggests the West is fundamentally “modalist,” or something similar. Smith then reviews Plantinga’s charge by examining Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Karl Barth. In short: Augustine, due to his strong neo-Platonism and view of divine simplicity, said each person is synonymous with the divine essay. The conclusion is not hard to draw: if each person is identical with the divine essay, and the divine essay is absolutely simple and admitting of no distinctions, then each person is identical with the other. Ergo, modalism (24-26). Thomas Aquinas essentially hardens Augustine’s position. Each person is identical with the whole divine essence, yet we distinguish them by “relations of opposition,” with each person identical with his “relation.” Plantinga remarks, “If the Father, Son, and Spirit are taken as mere names for the divine essence…then this is modalism. If the statement means the Father, Son, and Spirit are taken as names of Persons, then the statement reduces persons to essences, which are abstract. Each person would be a set of properties and the three sets of properties are identical. The persons themselves would disappear” (27).

In some ways chapter two is the heart of the book: what did Van Til really mean about the trinity? Many of his critics, and not a few of his followers, have charged him with being innovative about the Trinity, with some saying he denies Nicea. As is always the case in intra-Reformed polemics, there is more heat than light and nobody knows what anyone is talking about. In some ways the discussion of this chapter will go beyond the scope of the book, since it is Smith’s most important chapter (his other chapters seek to avoid the absurdity of identifying all of God’s attributes with one another and the book ends with a call to a practical Reformed worldview. More on that later.).

I will go ahead and say that Van Til was not innovative on the Trinity, but rather restated the exact same thing Augustine said in close to the same language.i Remember, Augustine said that each of the persons was identical to the essence: the essence is identical to the attribute, and the attribute is identical to the person; ergo, the person is identical to the essence (Plantinga, quoted by Smith, 25). Van Til draws the Augustinian conclusion: the Trinity is one Person. Of course, Van Til realizes that the Trinity is also three persons, so he says that, too. Did Van Til contradict himself?  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that he didn’t.

I am quoting Introduction to Systematic Theology from memory for this next part, but I think it is fairly accurate.   Van Til goes on to say that the persons of the Trinity mutually exhaust one another.  Normally, Christian theologians would have said that the persons mutually exhaust the essence (e.g., fully posses the essence).  Van Til takes it to mean that they take on the characteristics of the other persons.  This is fundamentally wrong.  The Father does not take on the hypostatic characteristics of the Son, for the Father is not begotten!  Interestingly, this is precisely the critique Eastern Orthodox theologians make of the Filioque, and this is what critics of Van Til, who were correct to point out the error of his theology, failed to note (for they, too, held to the Filioque).

The reason that Van Til says the Trinity is one Person on one level is because he cannot fathom that the divine nature exists in “brute factuality,” and so posits the divine persons as what/who conditions the divine essence. In short, he wants to say that the “essence” is “personal.” More on that later.

The Covenant as the Missing Link

Smith suggests that covenant theology provides the missing link in Reformed Trinitarianism (73). He rightly suspects that Augustinian Triadology is at an impasse, and while he appreciates Van Til’s reworking of the Trinity, he notes it is still inadequate. He takes his definition of covenant from Jim Jordan (!!!!!!) as a “personal structural bond which joins the three persons of God in a life-giving community” (73). In one sense Reformed theology has always followed this principle in its doctrine of the Pactum Salutis, but Smith, following Abraham Kuyper, takes it even further.

Smith notes that traditional Reformed theology “proposes something Van Til objects to” (84), the idea that the essence of God is an impersonal substratum (it’s hard to follow the discussion at this point, since Van Til fully subscribes to the Augustinian view of divine simplicity). Without fully acknowledging the problem his definition of divine simplicity entails, Smith, in order to speak meaningfully about the attributes of God in a way that doesn’t simply reduce each to the other (and thereby make any talk of the attributes irrelevant, which is apparently the case), suggests that the “covenant” allows these words to really come into their expressive nature (85).

Following this framework, Smith goes on suggest that attributes like “love,” even the idea of “love,” make sense only in the context of “covenant,” a suggestion, which if flawed in the sense of placing an analogical limit on the Trinity, is fundamentally correct: love’s definition must come from the Bible, not from cheap, American culture.

Criticism and Conclusion

This book is both useful and frustrating. Smith has done an able job surveying and simply (no pun intended) explaining many difficulties in modern Trinitarianism. His discussion of Augustine’s unique revision of divine simplicity is remarkably helpful and succinct (even if Smith is unaware of his own presupposition). The book’s section on covenant has many helpful insights that detach “justification” from its forensic setting within Reformed theology (or better, to show that the forensic category is itself relational and covenantal). Smith utilizes humor where appropriate (the footnote response to Norman Geisler’s (and evangelicalism in general) neutered view of God and Politics is almost worth the price of the book!).

The book is frustrating because Smith (1) fully realizes the difficulty Augustine’s take on simplicity entails, but (2) never challenges it and assumes—without argumentation—that this is always what the Church has believed. With these two points he tries to resuscitate Van Til’s Trinitarianism: in other words, he/Van Til identifies Augustine’s problem, yet posit an equally problematic response and call the whole thing “a paradox.”

So, can one call the divine essence “personal?” St John of Damascus said that every heresy deconstructed on the same point: they all identify person and nature. What would a personal essence look like? Would it be ascribing personal attributes to the essence? Or rather, would it simply be tha that the essence has some abstract notion of “personality?” If the former then Van Til has added another person to the Trinity. If the latter, then he is back at the very thing he set out to reject: abstract notions of the Trinity.

While one should be very careful in reading modern notions of “personality/personalism” back into ancient expressions (a mistake Van Til appears to be making), there is a point of similarity, though: personality implies a person doing the acting/self-expressing/whatever, which leads us back to the main problem: it adds another person to the Trinity.

The next part of the criticism is the hardest to write: The Van Tillian project, if the above few paragraps are true, has failed and failed at the most fundamental level. If you err on the Trinity, while you may be personally holy person, your theology necessarily will be flawed in every point. Indeed, is not Smith’s claim that the Trinity should not only affect, but effect every other aspect of our theology? Indeed it should. I say this having spent seven years trying to orient my entire mental outlook around Van Tillian epistemology.
Smith seems to miss this point. He notes Van Til was innovative in saying that the persons of the Trinity “mutually exhaust one another” (whatever that means), but that’s not the point his critics charged him on: they thought Van Til was innovative in identifying the Trinity as one person—but that is precisely what Western Triadology has been tempted to, and sometimes explicitly says that!

J. B. Aitken