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The end of historical theology

April 7, 2011 7 comments

To what end?  This is a question not heard often enough.  The ultimate aim of theology, I take it, must have something to do with the end as such, with the eschaton, with the reign of God.  Not that theology has the power to bring this about.  But theology, nevertheless, despite its somewhat astounding ineffectiveness, has to be oriented by this end, moved by it and toward it, if it is really going to live up to the name “theology.”  “Knowledge for its own sake” therefore does not suffice as a maxim.  Theology is not, in the end, about establishing a kingdom of knowledge but rather about seeking, through knowledge, to enter into, prepare for, remember, increase, participate in, or in some other way affirm the final victory of divine justice and love.  Have I, have you, forgotten this?–perhaps not, but I raise this question as a prompt for self-examination.   

However, the particular issue which I want to discuss at the moment is this: What difference should this end make to the labors of historical theology?  I should clarify that I believe that all theology is historical, at least insofar as it presupposes a careful analysis of texts–and, through them, events–that have come before.  But I am thinking in particular here of those areas of theology that are more self-consciously content with the study of (biblical or ecclesial) history–even though I by no means want to exclude, for instance, that field of more recent historical theology which often understands itself as “systematics.”  A few points come to mind:

1.) In addition to demonstrating knowledge of something in history (e.g., a document, a theologian, a movement, etc.), it seems necessary, at some point, to make the case that this work is relevant to the end of theology, the coming of the reign of God. 

2.) To make such a case, the blanket claim that scripture and tradition are normative, though certainly valid, does not suffice: more specific reflection is needed regarding the substance of the research in question and how it pertains to the end.  It has to be clear, in other words, why this particular matter warrants thorough retrieval. 

3.) A successful case will not be able to abstract itself from the present context of theology, whether this is understood as modernity, postmodernity, the underside of modernity, or some other contemporary situation.  The more adequately one makes sense of the difficulties, complexities, and possibilities of the present moment, the stronger the case will be that theology, and not merely history, is at work.

4.) To be sure, something like a division of labor seems inevitable; there will always be an unsynthesizable plurality of voices in the theological conversation; and every small contribution is to be welcomed.  At the same time, however, it seems important to assess the limits and the scope of  any such contribution–and perhaps consider, at times, whether more attention is needed elsewhere, for the sake of the end of theology.       

In sum: a study which interprets faithfully something of the past is a good thing.  But its significance as a work of theology, defined by the end of theology, will depend a great deal on the extent to which one is also able to clarify its value for the task of affirming the reign of God in the midst of the contemporary situation.  Theology is defined by history only while at the same time being defined by the end of history.  I, therefore, declare a moratorium on all so-called “theology” which operates (whether explicitly or not) under the assumption that history suffices as theology. 

Too bold?  Perhaps not.

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Notes on the Trinity

April 4, 2011 7 comments

Over the last few years I have made a few “mental notes” on the topic of the Trinity.  I share them here in case they are helpful or stimulating to others.  Eventually, perhaps, I will be able to develop these inchoate thoughts into a more compelling project or argument.  But for now, here they are: 

1.) The inappropriateness of appropriations.  Supreme knowledge and love are proper to the divine  nature.   But there is a long tradition in the West (from Augustine, to Aquinas, to Rahner, and beyond) according to which knowledge is “appropriated” to the Son/Word and love is “appropriated” to the Holy Spirit.  My question is this: what is the point of these appropriations?  Do they, in fact, clarify or illuminate anything?  I am inclined to be rather sceptical.  For where is compassion more clearly shown than in Jesus?  Where is wisdom to be found if not in the Holy Spirit?  I simply fail to see the point of suggesting that the knowledge/love distinction maps onto the relation between these two divine hypostases.  The only reason to insist on it seems to be that it could shore up the idea that the human mind (composed, in a unified way, of memory, intellect, and will) is constituted as an image of the Trinity.  But this brings me to my next point.

2.) The banality of the 3-in-1 structure.  It is not especially difficult to come up with examples of three things that are really one thing, at least if one is willing to let the rules of counting be somewhat flexible.  Memory, intellect, will; lover, beloved, love; wife, husband, and child; three leaves of a shamrock; etc.  If an image of the Trinity is going to be compelling, awe-inspiring, thought-provoking, it would seem to require more than a 3-in-1 structure.  One needs a sense of how each one of the three is like a particular divine person, along with a sense of how the one in which they are united is like the unity of God.  But then the question of an imago Trinitatis has to be fundamentally concerned with the determinate characteristics, relations, or manners-of-being of the triune God and, therefore, not primarily with the 3-in-1 puzzle.  Perhaps a case could be made that the Son/Word is more like knowledge and the Holy Spirit is more like love, but I don’t see how this can be done without implicitly deemphasizing the love which Jesus embodies or the knowledge which the Spirit grants.   

3.) The ambivalence of the economic/immanent distinction. The significance of this distinction differs depending on whether the question on the table is one of access or of positive doctrine.  Let me explain.  Any insight into the Trinity to which we have access in this finite, created, historical, and fallen world belongs to what is called the “economy,” that is, God’s action for us, the divine life ad extra.  Within the economy, God’s innermost nature remains unknown, incomprehensible, ineffable.  This is the constant theme of mystical theology, of the doctrine of analogy, of genuine Christian apophasis.   But this means that there is no access to the immanent Trinity as such but rather only to the Trinity as mediated by worldly conditions of knowing or thinking.  Hence, our access is wholly economic.  However, there is no implication here that the Trinity itself is only economic.  On the contrary!  As a question of positive doctrine, it is necessary to affirm that God is not absorbed by the world, realized only within it, or finally subjected to its laws.  In short, the distinction between economic and immanent is important to maintain as a teaching, even though we cannot abstract ourselves from the economy–which is to say, even though our only knowledge of the Trinity is mediated, worldly, dependent on God’s free external self-communication.  The recognition that the economy is the inescapable condition of our Trinitarian reflection is important.  It keeps one from thinking, falsely, that apart from a more narrow understanding of economy (limited to the images and stories in scripture) there would be some sort of access to the immanent Trinity (provided by conceptual notions of relation, etc.).  The latter are (epistemologically) no less economic than the former, and in fact become more and more questionable to the extent that they depart from or no longer interpret faithfully what is disclosed in scripture.

4.) Abstract and concrete sociality. That God is revealed as three persons in loving and self-giving relation provides the highest level of support to the idea of sociality (mutuality, reciprocity, intimacy-in-distinction, difference-as-communion, etc.).  However, it does not follow from this (admittedly important) point that any sort of specific understanding of proper relations among human persons should be derivable from reflections regarding the relations between Father, Son, and Spirit.  There will, in any case, be more difference than similarity in any analogy which might be drawn here.  But no less important is the fact that the relations among human beings are extraordinarily more diverse, if only because much more numerous, and this excess of complexity warrants careful attention.  The Trinitarian validation of the abstract ideal of sociality is not something to be taken for granted.  But the significance which the Trinity has for our concrete relationships depends, it seems to me, much more on the particular ways in which the triune God is encountered in the midst of these relationships  than it does on the mere fact that God is a unity of persons.

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