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date: 06 April 2020

Conclusion: Prospects for Trinitarian Theology

Abstract and Keywords

This article offers some thoughts about the future prospects of Trinitarian theology. It argues that the vocation of Trinitarian theology is “to think” the mystery of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit not in a rationalist fashion but to provide an account of it with the resources of human intelligence guided by faith, as much for the sake of believers. It lists eight important tasks that present themselves today to Trinitarian reflection. These include the need for Christian faith to show its monotheistic nature in a manner adapted to its object (God the Trinity himself) as well as to the cultures in which the Christian faith is expressed and the renewal of Trinitarian theology's reflection on the incomprehensibility of God.

Keywords: Trinitarian theology, faith, Christian faith, cultures, incomprehensibility of God, monotheistic nature

The vocation of Trinitarian theology is ‘to think’ the mystery of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, not in a rationalist fashion, but in order to confess the mystery, to live it, to proclaim it, and to give an account of it with the resources of human intelligence guided by faith, as much for the sake of believers (intellectus fidei) as for the sake of dialogue with religious or secular cultures. The affirmation of one God in three persons or hypostases has no other foundation than the revelation and gift of God in history, in the person of Jesus Christ and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The relation of Christians to their God passes through the concrete and singular history of Jesus, and through the experience of the coming of the Spirit. For this reason, Trinitarian faith cannot be the object of a rational reconstruction undertaken a priori beyond (or apart from) the history in which God has freely taken the initiative of revealing himself. The confession of the Trinitarian unity of God expresses this fundamental experience of Christians: God reveals himself and gives himself as he is. This means that, on the one hand, the confession of the Trinity is a regulative authority of Christian experience; on the other hand, it is equally and indissociably the expression of an experience of salvation, salvation given in the Spirit of the crucified and risen Jesus who leads us to the Father. Twentieth-century theology developed this fundamental point around the concepts of self-revelation (Karl Barth) and self-communication (Karl Rahner), but expressions of this truth can be found throughout the history of Christian doctrine; this is, for example, what the ‘soteriological’ argument of many Fathers of the Church expresses: if the Son and the Holy Spirit communicate the divine life, it is because they are God with the Father. God reveals himself and gives himself as he is: this is the conviction which neither unitarian Arianism, nor Sabellian monarchianism, can uphold.

Among the tasks that present themselves today to Trinitarian reflection, one can call attention to the following eight, without pretending to be exhaustive (our conclusion takes up several elements of Durand 2008 and Emery 2001). (p. 601)

  1. (1) Christian faith ought to show its monotheistic nature, in a manner adapted to its object (God the Trinity himself) as well as to the cultures in which the Christian faith is expressed. The western cultural context today no longer recognizes the primacy of unity, but instead valorizes complexity, diversity, and communion in differences. The conceptual and symbolic instrument that enables one to give an account of Trinitarian unity (‘Trinitarian monotheism’) constitutes one of the major problems in contemporary reflection. The modern (idealist) conception of the absolute Subject has shown its limits. Contemporary theology often attempts to think about the divine unity either by means of the eastern theme of the ‘monarchy of the Father’, or by means of notions of union or communion, conceived on the mode of an interpersonal, open, hospitable, and integrative exchange (a social and communitarian approach). It has been pointed out, however, that the hierarchical connotation (‘primacy’) of the theme of ‘monarchy’ has few affinities with the conceptual and symbolic resources of contemporary western culture; its use in our cultural situation is not without paradox. As regards the communitarian model, it is unable to convey the unity that the notions of ‘substance’ (‘essence’) and ‘subject’ sought to express, and it does not always avoid sliding toward tritheism. Can recourse to the notion of ‘perichoresis’, which today receives an important place in Christian reflection on God the Trinity, furnish an alternative to the notion of unity of essence? This seems unlikely, because the theme of Trinitarian perichoresis was developed from its beginnings (St John Damascene) and in its systematization (Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas) in direct relationship with unity of essence (ousia, essentia, substantia): the concept of perichoresis includes unity of essence, and it is unlikely that it could be detached from it. Faced with these difficulties, an important theological current orients discourse on God principally toward metaphors and the description of experiences (see, for instance, Moltmann 2001). But metaphors and experiences, like concepts, must be submitted to a critical evaluation: what criteria can we rely on in order to evaluate the value of metaphors and experiences? And, if theology wants to keep in close relation to its patristic and medieval sources (a living relation to the tradition), does it not also need a synthetic or systematic discourse that requires organizing speculative principles so as to be able to articulate truth about God the Trinity? Whereas classical theologies were often confronted with the difficulty of conceiving the Trinitarian plurality, it seems that contemporary reflection more often encounters the difficulty of accounting for the Trinitarian unity. If Christian ‘Trinitarian monotheism’ wishes to preserve its intelligibility, a clear notion of the divine unity is necessary. In this respect, the old concepts of ‘essence’ and ‘substance’ seem hard to replace, especially if one wishes to affirm the coherence of Trinitarian dogma with the Christological dogma of Chalcedon (Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son, is ‘one person’ subsisting in ‘two natures’): the concepts of essence, substance, nature, and hypostasis cannot be just put aside or ignored (Emery 2009). Rather, these words can still be used today, and their meaning must be explained with the resources proper to each culture.

  2. (p. 602) (2) In affirming that God the Trinity reveals himself and gives himself as he is, Trinitarian theology should renew its reflection on the incomprehensibility of God. Faith in the Trinitarian unity of God comprises simultaneously the recognition of a transcendence that does not deny the proximity of God to humans (Christology, pneumatology), and the recognition of a proximity that does not negate God's transcendence. Divine incomprehensibility—a fundamental feature of theological discourse about the Trinity—has in Christianity a proper status and specific value. Indeed, it is precisely at the moment of the first maturity of the elaboration of Trinitarian dogma, in the second half of the fourth century, that the incomprehensibility of God receives a determinative status in Christian thought and preaching. Among many writings from this period, see, for instance, St John Chrysostom's homilies on God's incomprehensibility (John Chrysostom 1984). The recognition of the incomprehensibility of God, as a response to radical Arianism (‘Anomoeanism’, which claimed that the essence of God can be defined), implies that Trinitarian unity is beyond any image (see, for instance, the Theological Oration 31.31–3 by St Gregory of Nazianzus (Gregory of Nazianzus 1978: 338–43; Gregory of Nazianzus 2002: 141–3)). God's incomprehensibility is an aspect of the ‘conversion of concepts’ that is demanded by the newness of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. It is not only a philosophical truth about God, but also—and in a deeper sense—a Trinitarian affirmation. In this light, the various ‘similitudes’ developed in Christian tradition for accounting for the Triune God (psychological and communitarian, social, or ecclesial ‘similitudes’) are relativized: none of them can pretend to be the exact representation of the unity of God the Trinity (see, in this volume, the contributions of Risto Saarinen and Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt). This reserve likewise concerns the Trinitarian model that ‘ecclesiologies of communion’ often develop today. The unity of the ecclesial communion is certainly founded on the Trinitarian unity (Forte 2001), but in a way that is not univocal—unless it surrenders to a tritheist myth—because it cannot represent perfectly the divine unity that is above all representation. God's incomprehensibility requires therefore a reflection guided by analogy. The necessity of analogy asserts itself beyond confessional differences, as Karl Barth bears witness: analogy, which offers a true knowledge of God by rejecting equivocity and by equally avoiding univocity, is the sole option left for speaking properly of God the Trinity (Barth 1975: §27, 224–5). And, as one can easily ascertain, reflection on analogy is far from finished among theologians.

  3. (3) Critical biblical exegesis has offered much to the contemporary articulation of Trinitarian theology (notably, a renewed consideration of the historical life and preaching of Jesus, and of the expressions of faith by the early Church), but it has also rendered the classic syntheses more fragile, by underscoring the plurality of biblical approaches as well as the differences of perspective between holy Scripture and dogmatic formulations. Systematic approaches must always be compared with the results of scientific biblical exegesis; at the same time, biblical exegesis, when it operates in faith, cannot be abstracted from the reception of Scripture by the ecclesial tradition. (p. 603) An important task here is to show the continuity between holy Scripture and the dogma of the Church (creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople), without minimizing however the differences of perspectives, concepts, symbols, and vocabulary between the New Testament and the creeds. This task has already been undertaken (see especially Levering 2004), and it needs to be continued. At stake here is the permanent requirement of verifying the biblical foundation of the doctrine of the Trinity. Trinitarian theology has need of constant biblical ressourcement.

  4. (4) The recent development of Trinitarian theology has benefited greatly from the progress of historical studies. These historical studies, as evidenced by sections II, III, and IV of this Handbook, show not only the evolution of thought but also the variety of approaches to the same faith by authors from the same epoch. There is not a patristic doctrine, but a plurality of patristic approaches in the unity of the same faith. Likewise, the reception of the patristic inheritances by the medieval tradition manifests an extraordinary diversity (for the syntheses of the golden age of the Latin scholasticism, see especially Friedman 2010), often less well known than that of the Fathers of the Church and whose richness has only begun to be discovered (see, in this volume, the contributions of Lauge Nielsen, Dominique Poirel, Joseph Wawrykow, Russell Friedman, and Karl Christian Felmy). This contribution of patristic and medieval thought cannot be simply ranged among the optional accessories of the past. Reflection on God the Trinity must continue to seek a fruitful relationship between our contemporary thought and the riches of the patristic and medieval theological tradition. This theological claim is rooted in the fact that today's Church, despite the significant cultural changes, shares one faith with the Fathers and medievals. This unity is perhaps more difficult to express today than is the diversity, but it is the unity that enables us to apprehend the value of the diversity.

  5. (5) Among the urgent tasks today, one of the most important is showing the unity of Christian theology in light of faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is necessary to make manifest the ‘connexio mysteriorum’, that is to say the intrinsic connection of Trinitarian faith with all the domains of theology: Christology, the doctrine of creation, anthropology, ethics, ecclesiology, sacramental theology, liturgy, ecumenism, theology of the religions, eschatology. This connection is not a one-way street (the ‘diffusion’ of the mystery of the Trinity in all the other domains of theology) but it is reciprocal (the consequences of other domains of theology for Trinitarian doctrine). The enquiry should be one of mutual enrichment.

  6. (6) Another fundamental task is that of a mutual enrichment between spiritual life and Trinitarian doctrine (see, in this volume, the contributions of Daniel Keating, Romanus Cessario, Amy Laura Hall, and Francesca Aran Murphy). Such was the initial goal of Karl Rahner: (re-)shaping the religious life of Christians in Trinitarian fashion. In order to realize this objective, it is undoubtedly helpful to observe the example of the pro-Nicene Fathers (St Augustine for example) who understood Trinitarian theology as an ‘exercise’ (exercitatio) of spiritual purification—an exercise in which the effort to understand the faith is practised within (p. 604) the movement of conversion and the quest for union with God the Trinity (Ayres 2004: 325–35; Studer 1998: 16–19; Studer 1999: 291–310; Studer 2005: 59–84). The understanding and practice of Trinitarian theology as a ‘spiritual exercise’ is also found among medieval theologians (Emery 2007: 49–72).

  7. (7) The importance of philosophy remains equally central. The task here is to identify and discern the philosophical tools appropriate for giving an account of the faith (Morerod 2006). Trinitarian theology cannot renounce its speculative dimension. Karl Barth bears witness to this by his effort to re-enliven the theology of the immanent Trinity, in order to show the lordship and liberty of God in his revelation. If Trinitarian doctrine wishes to retain an audience as universal as possible, it cannot give up a firm commitment to rationality. The manifestation of the faith requires a twofold coherence: an internal coherence, which manifests the intelligibility of the mystery of the Trinity to believers; and an external coherence, which is addressed to a broader audience. In addition, Trinitarian theology cannot be content with a mere opportunism with respect to the available philosophies. It must discern the conceptual tools adapted to its object.

  8. (8) Lastly, as the extension of the preceding reflections, it is necessary to point out that today the metaphysical explication of the Trinitarian mystery is little developed, for reasons that are as philosophical as they are theological. The necessity of an economic approach to the Trinity is unanimously recognized, but the same does not hold for the immanent Trinity (or, if one prefers, the mystery of the Trinity in its inner life). As Jeffrey Hensley rightly observes:

    Despite the renaissance of trinitarian reflection during the last half-century of Christian theology, the doctrine of the immanent Trinity—God's triune being in se as distinct from God's acts or operations ad extra—has suffered significant neglect. Following Karl Rahner's now famous axiom that the ‘economic’ Trinity is the ‘immanent’ Trinity and the ‘immanent’ Trinity is the ‘economic’ Trinity, contemporary theologians have focused primarily on the economy of salvation as the means by which God's triune being is known. (Hensley 2008: 83)

Speculative accounts of the inner life of God (‘speculative’ in the sense of ‘contemplative’) have often been eschewed. If contemporary reflection wishes to preserve the riches of the dogmatic tradition and render account of the faith in all its depth, a serious consideration of the immanent Trinity and of the contribution of metaphysical thought will prove indispensable. The divine persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, cannot be conceived solely in function of their relationship with the created world. This was already one of the fundamental stakes of the first Council of Nicaea—which has lost none of its contemporaneity: a reflection and a discourse on the Trinity in its inner life is necessary for safeguarding faith in the action of the divine persons for us.

Readers will profitably consult this Handbook for authoritative treatments of diverse topics. But it is our particular hope that this Handbook, through its various biblical, historical, and systematic approaches, prepares the reader to undertake the above eight (p. 605) tasks that—certainly among others—stand at the centre of Trinitarian theology today. In this way our Handbook, in all its diversity, contributes distinctly to the vocation of Trinitarian theology, that is, to the contemplation of the mystery of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in order to better proclaim and live the mystery of faith today.

References mentioned in the Conclusion

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Barth, Karl (1975), Church Dogmatics, vol. II/1: The Doctrine of God: The Knowledge of God, The Reality of God, eds. Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark).Find this resource:

Durand, Emmanuel (2008), ‘Prospective: Cinq tâches fondamentales pour confirmer le renouveau trinitaire’, in Emmanuel Durand and Vincent Holzer (eds.) Les sources du renouveau de la théologie trinitaire au XXe siècle (Paris: Cerf), 301–5.Find this resource:

Emery, Gilles (2001), ‘Bilan et propositions pour un monothéisme trinitaire: Réflexions dogmatiques’, in Pierre Gisel and Gilles Emery (eds.) Le christianisme est-il un monothéisme? (Geneva: Labor et Fides), 345–53.Find this resource:

—— (2007), Trinity, Church, and the Human Person: Thomistic Essays (Naples, FA).Find this resource:

—— (2009), ‘La Trinité, le Christ et l’homme: Théologie et métaphysique de la personne’, in François-Xavier Putallaz and Bernard N. Schumacher (eds.) L’humain et la personne (Paris: Cerf), 175–93.Find this resource:

Forte, Bruno (2001), The Church: Icon of the Trinity. A Brief Study, trans. Robert Paolucci (Boston: St Paul Books and Media).Find this resource:

Friedman, Russell (2010), Medieval Trinitarian Thought from Aquinas to Ockham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).Find this resource:

Gregory of Nazianzus, Saint (1978), Discours 27–31 (Discours théologiques), ed. Paul Gallay, Sources Chrétiennes 250 (Paris: Cerf).Find this resource:

—— (2002), On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius, trans. Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press).Find this resource:

Hensley, Jeffrey (2008), ‘Trinity and freedom: A response to Molnar’, Scottish Journal of Theology, 61/1: 83–95.Find this resource:

John Chrysostom, Saint (1984), On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, trans. Paul W. Harkins (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press).Find this resource:

Levering, Matthew (2004), Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology (Malden, MA: Blackwell).Find this resource:

Moltmann, Jürgen (2001), The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press).Find this resource:

Morerod, Charles (2006), Ecumenism and Philosophy: Philosophical Questions for a Renewal of Dialogue (Ann Arbor, MI: Sapientia Press).Find this resource:

Studer, Basil (1998), Schola Christiana: Die Theologie zwischen Nizäa (325) und Chalzedon (451) (Paderborn: Schöningh).Find this resource:

—— (1999), Mysterium caritatis: Studien zur Exegese und zur Trinitätslehre in der Alten Kirche (Rome: Pontificio Ateneo S. Anselmo).Find this resource:

—— (2005), Augustins De Trinitate: Eine Einführung (Paderborn: Schöhningh). (p. 606) Find this resource: