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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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Another Analogy for the Trinity

March 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Many analogies to the Trinity are to be found throughout the Christian tradition. Whether or not St. Patrick used a shamrock as an illustration of God’s triunity, it seems like a good day to call attention to a novel analogy from Balthasar. Balthasar develops a theatrical analogy for the Trinity within the economy of salvation as Author, Actor, and Director (see Theo-Drama, 1.268-305 for Balthasar’s primary exposition of this triad). The author has primacy in the drama as the one who brings unity to the drama: “[The author] stands at the point where the drama (which is to unfold between the individuals and their freedoms) comes into being as a unity” (268-269). As the origin and unifier of the drama, the author has “ontological primacy” over against the actor and director.

Yet, this primacy does not mean that the actor is the puppet of the author. The author and actor are mutually dependent upon one another: “There are not two things, the script (the idea) and the performance; the two are profoundly one” (284). The author’s work is potentially drama and needs the actor in order to become reality. Far from being a passive servant of the author, the actor’s job can be characterized as one of creative obedience. In consonance with the author’s unifying vision, the actor’s enactment of the drama is a creative task for which the author explicitly leaves room in his work.

The director has the essential and difficult role of bringing together the author, with his original, creative contribution, and the various actors and their differing abilities. The director has the task of maintaining the creative vision of the author and supporting the use of the actors’ own imagination and creativity in bringing about this vision. Thus, within this analogy, the Father is the playwright, the Son is the protagonist who carries out the heart of the drama, and the Holy Spirit is the one who guides the Son and brings other actors in the drama. While the Son is always receptive to the Spirit and is always fully one with his role on the stage, the Spirit must lead others through grace to becoming more closely identified with the role God gives them in the drama.

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Kathryn Tanner’s Christ the Key, Trinity and Politics

March 13, 2010 3 comments

My earlier posts on Tanner’s new book can be found here. This final post looks at the relationship between Trinity and Politics. What got me thinking about this was a statement by a friend. This person was asked how he is able to balance his commitment to the poor and his position as a professor (not at Notre Dame). He gave an example: he was asked to teach a course on the Trinity but said no since this did not fit with his focus on shaping his students towards serving the poor and their liberation. This answer raised two basic questions in my mind: 1) for someone who is principally focused on the liberation of the poor, is it contrary to this focus to take time and teach topics like the Trinity (if one is competent to do so)? 2) Is the Trinity really so apolitical?

The first question is particularly complex and personal. Clearly the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be sealed off from a concern for liberation without creating a schizophrenia in our faith as we confess that God is triune and makes an option for the poor (or that we relate to God as triune and to humanity with our option for the poor). As Tanner argues in the introduction to Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity, it is a task of systematic theology to show how different elements fit together coherently within a conception of the whole of the Christian life and faith. This leads directly to the second question. A common contemporary way of bringing together the Trinity and politics is to appeal to the Trinity as a model for communitarian life. I summarized Tanner’s critique of this in my second synopsis post (ch.5). Tanner insists that we image the 2nd person of the Trinity primarily and the whole Trinity only in that we image the Word’s relation to the other persons of the Trinity (Christ the Key, 141). Through the humanity of Jesus, our lives are remade into the image of the Trinity in that we are united to the Word by the presence of the Holy Spirit (235).

But what does this have to do with politics? Tanner’s primary answer is that our trinitarian form of life toward others is shown in the way Jesus treated others (in his trinitarian form of life as hypostatically united to the Word) (236-237). I find Tanner’s analysis compelling.  We enter the Trinity and image the Trinity through the second person of the Trinity and, properly understood, this cannot be cut off from political and concrete action. Yet I would push Tanner on two further points. First, she emphasizes that the Son and Spirit are sent and interdependently work to unite us to God. A different but equally valid image is that they are sent to bring about God’s Kingdom.  Thus I think we could connect our trinitarian form of life more explicitly to this Kingdom than Tanner tends to do. Second, certain formal principles can be gathered from the divine life and applied to human communion even if one rejects the overall appeal to the Trinity as a model for communitarian life. For example, the Trinity shows the positivity of otherness. Creaturely otherness (vis-a-vis each other and God) is grounded in the eternal otherness within God. The good of otherness, of course, needs to be complemented by more concrete principles (such as Tanner’s focus on the concrete life of Jesus) but it contributes something nonetheless.

Kathryn Tanner’s Christ the Key, The Obedience of Jesus

March 1, 2010 1 comment

In an earlier post I outlined the provocative position of Barth and Balthasar that the obedience of Jesus vis-à-vis the Father is revelatory of the very life of God.  This was grounded on the same fundamental position with which Tanner begins her Trinitarian theology: the life of Jesus reveals the trinitarian relations within God. In her earlier book, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity, she says it exactly as Barth or Balthasar do: “Jesus relates to the Father, the first Person of the Trinity, in the mode of existence of the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, made human” (32-33).

Nevertheless, she rejects the further move of Barth and Balthasar to see this as revelatory of God in a strong sense (although in Christ the Key she only names Balthasar).  All three theologians note that we do not have in Jesus the simple unveiling of the divine nature (for Tanner, see 180, 244).  We see the trinitarian relations of God “translated” through the human nature of Jesus.  According to Tanner, the obedience of Jesus is one of the aspects that must be attributed to the “translation” of trinitarian relations within a world of sin and death.  With most of the tradition, Jesus obeys the Father only as human. But Jesus’ obedience still does reveal something about God: “Corresponding to the apparently subservient relationshp that come about because the Son is sent on the Father’s mission is the fact that the Son is of and from the Father, the fact that the Son arises out of the Father’s own substance to be the perfect divine exhibition of him” (183).  Furthermore, passages which indicate obedience (“I do as the Father has commanded me”) are primarily intended to affirm Jesus’ “exception character among men” (184). She also argues that, united to the Word, Jesus’ human nature is not obedient as to an external legislator (as it may be for a will impacted by sinful inclinations); the will of the Father is “the teaching of his own heart” (185).

This disagreement raises a fundamental question. On what grounds do we posit some aspect of Jesus’ existence as merely economic? For Tanner, obedience means subservience and thus inequality (244).  Barth, in contrast, argues that the Son reveals himself as the Son of God precisely in his (divine/human) obedience (CD IV/1, 208-209).  Some aspects of Jesus’ life seem to be more economic (“translated”) in character (i.e. his prayer to the Father); but the Son’s obedience to the Father in his mission from the assumption of human flesh to his ascension into heaven would seem to point to something more immanent in God.

Kathryn Tanner’s Christ the Key, Synopsis – Part 2

February 25, 2010 9 comments

Chapter 4: Trinitarian life

In her longest chapter, Tanner reflects upon the Trinity using the following principle:  “Because he is the Word, Jesus Christ displays in his human life the relationships that the Word has to the other members of the Trinity” (140). She argues for a general two-fold movement in the economy: 1) The Word and Spirit are sent out by the Father for our benefit; they descend into the world of sin and death.  2) having accomplished their mission, they ascend to the Father with us.    Within this movement, the Son and Spirit are interdependent.  The Son sends the Spirit to us.  Yet, the Spirit prepares the way for the incarnation, dwells in and guides Jesus, and is the transformative power at the Eucharist.  This interdependence is seen with us as well:  “The Son brings the Spirit to us as a power of new life; the Spirit conforms us to the shape or pattern of the Son” (161).  Tanner then moves from this analysis to the inner life of God: the Son and Spirit are interdependent in their emergence from the Father.  “The Son is responsible simply for giving shape to the Spirit as it emerges from the Father…the Spirit is the love or power of the Father by which the Son is drawn out of the Father to be the perfect manifestation of all that the Father is” (192-193).  Other arguments in the chapter are important (i.e. her reading of Jesus’ obedience; our entrance into the Trinitarian relations through the Son; sacraments; our mission in Christ) but the economic and imminent interdependence of Word and Spirit is most central.

Chapter 5: Politics

Tanner argues strongly against various political readings of the Trinity.  First, monotheism does not necessarily lead to authoritarian politics (see her The Politics of God). Second, trinitarian thinking does not necessarily lead to egalitarian politics.  Finally, appeals to the Trinity for structuring human communities (Zizioulas, Boff, LaCugna) do not take the radical difference between God and us seriously enough (see Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity, p.82f for this argument in brief).  They also often appeal to images (perfect reciprocity) which are not exhibited in the economy (where two are sent and one is not) and can emphasize the communion of persons to an extent that verges on tri-theism.  What we have here is the project of one’s politics onto the Trinity.  Tanner counters that we are to be incorporated into the Trinity rather than model it.  We enter into the divine life in the place of the Son.  United to the Son, we are to relate to the Father and Spirit as Jesus did.  In terms of politics, we are to relate to others as Jesus related to others: “Jesus’ way of life toward other people as we share in it is the trinitarian form of human social life” (237). At various points in the chapter she also engages questions of Trinity and gender.

 Chapter 6: Death and Sacrifice

This chapter is Tanner’s theology of the cross.  Here she develops her critique of atonement theologies of satisfaction, sacrifice, and substitution made very briefly in Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity p. 29.  In the earlier work her appeal to feminist and womanist theologies is quite jarring.  Here she gives this appeal greater context and defends it more thoroughly.  The center of ch. 6 is an argument for an incarnational model of the atonement. Salvation comes primarily through the very assumption of our humanity by the Word of God.  In virtue of the Word’s union with the humanity of Jesus, humanity is renewed.  Thus, she argues that the primary meaning of “atonement” is “at-one-ment,” undercutting various legal or contractual models for the cross (256).  The meaning of the cross is found within the overall meaning of incarnation.  The Word assumes fallen humanity and “if the powers of the Word are to reach humanity suffering under the forces of sin and death,” the incarnation will include at-one-ment on the cross (257).  We are saved by the union of the Word with the humanity of Jesus which reworks humanity over the process of his life, including his death on the cross.

Chapter 7: The Working of the Spirit

In the final chapter Tanner contrasts two understandings of the working of the Spirit in modern Christianity: 1) the Spirit works immediately, directly, and exceptionally, often in the interior depths of the human person, and ensuring infallible certainty of religious insight; 2) the Spirit works gradually, through fallible human beings, without final resolution, and within the messy processes of ordinary life.  Although she does highlight certain benefits of the first view (it can be subversive to entrenched, oppressive authorities), she argues strongly for the second.  She builds upon her view of a “non-constrastive” divine/human relation in God and Creation : “there is no reason to think that God is working more the less we are” (280; 296). God works within our finitude and within contextual, fallible truths; divine agency does not remove the finite character of our acts.  This also has a progressive political potential: it would “loosen up” religious authority by bringing greater flexibility and openness to change (291 – the first view may be prophetic but is entirely inflexible). Consistent with the entire book, the Spirit works within us to reshape, reform, and empower our whole existence, not to override it in moments of miraculous revelation.