Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Tommy A. and the Western Split

In our recent post on Augustine and Neo-Platonism (see "The Wedding Cake Cosmos"), we saw how the doctrine of the Trinity began to be conceived apart from God's self-revelation in the incarnate Son and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. You remember don't you? Failing to understand the Cappadocian emphasis on the diversity of Persons in the Triune Godhead, Auggie turned inward to look for "vestiges" of the Trinity (vestigias trinitatis) inside his own head and developed an innovative approach to the doctrine of God that emphasizes the unitary essence or "substance" (ousia) of God largely considered apart from God's triune self-revelation in salvation history.

Centuries after the time of Augustine, the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 marked a milestone in trinitarian dogma in the Latin West due to its detailed, precise articulation of the nature of God (Olson & Hall, 2002:62). The council defined faith in God as belief in "only one true God, eternal, infinite (immensus) and unchangeable, incomprehensible, almighty and ineffable, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: three persons indeed but one essence, substance, or nature entirely simple" (O'Collins, 1999:148). The council stood in the Augustinian tradition of trinitarian reflection by describing God as one divine substance, absolutely simple in every way, and unchanging, that is, unaffected by history (i.e., impassible). The council described the Triune Persons as "nothing more than distinct relations within the divine substance distinguished only by their differing relations of origin with regard to one another" (Olson & Hall, 2002:62, 63).

Latin theologians of the High Middle Ages, concerned with the "logical intricacies" of the immanent Trinity (i.e., God in God's eternal transcendent nature), sought to round out Augustine's trinitarianism by addressing intellectual questions that had been left unanswered (Grenz, 2004:10). The philosophy and logic of Plato and Aristotle were given equal place alongside Scripture in medieval speculation about the transcendent of God (cf. Olson & Hall, 2002:51, 52). Stop! You may want to read that line again! Apparently, God's triune self-revelation as attested in the history of Israel, the incarnation of the Son, and the gift of the Spirit (oikonomia) was little more informative than non-biblical Greek metaphysics in the Western doctrine of God.

Since Lateran IV, especially in the Latin West, there has been a tendency to begin with and emphasize the unity of the divine substance while neglecting the divine persons as a Triune community of reciprocal love. Some critics have argued that by placing a strong priority on the unity of God to the detriment of God's triunity, Lateran IV effectively dogmatized the division of the doctrine of God that would become standard procedure in the Latin West, beginning with one of the major players in the development of Western thought regarding the doctrine of God: the Dominican friar, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

In order to understand where Tommy A. was coming from, we must realize that the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, had been newly rediscovered in the Latin West. Aristotle was all the rage in the High Middle Ages in Europe. Everyone was wearing T-shirts with his picture on them. At every cocktail party, theologians and philosophers, well-oiled with good Single Malt Scotch (pardon the redundancy), huddled near the fire, puffed their pipes and debated the fine points of Aristotelian metaphysics. In those days, if you didn't know the difference in "efficient" and "material" causality, you just weren't with it, Dude! This is the philosophical milieu in which Tommy Aquinas went to work. We're not here to put the brother down; we just want to note the kind of water he was swimming in.

In his Summa Theologiæ (1266-1273), a classic work of Western theology, Thomas split the doctrine of God into two parts: a thorough exposition of the one God (De Deo Uno) followed by a treatise on the Trinity (De Deo Trino). Methodologically, Thomas followed Augustine by examining first the unity of the divine "substance" (ousia: essence, nature, being), only afterwards to articulate the "deployment" of the divine substance in the Trinity of persons (LaCugna, 1991:146). Aquinas attempts to understand God, not by beginning with God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ (revealed theology), but by beginning with the unity of the divine substance considered in terms of the philosophy of Aristotle (cf. Allen & Springsted, 2007:103-110). Since Aristotle was everyone's hero at the time, I guess it just made sense to frame a "Christian" doctrine of God in terms of pagan metaphysics! Am I missing something?

Aquinas sought to "prove" the existence of God, as well as describe the general characteristics of the divine nature (ousia), via the "five ways," a series of rational (not revealed) cosmological proofs for the existence and nature of God initially derived from Aristotle (Aquinas, 1989:12ff; Moltmann, 1993:10ff; Allen & Springsted, 2007, 103ff). Thomas reasoned that 1) objects in motion ultimately require a Prime Mover to initiate the first move; 2) the existence of cause and effect requires a First Cause; 3) the existence of contingent beings requires a Necessary Being; 4) degrees of perfection require that which is ultimately Perfect, and 5) the design in nature can be explained only by a Designer (McGrath, 2001:245-247). The principle behind this method is that a cause can be known by its effects (Aquinas, 1989:11, 12). In other words, knowledge of God (cause) can be derived from observation of the created order or cosmos (effects) (Allen & Springsted, 2007:104). Aquinas' five ways of cosmological proof start from the general phenomena of the world and inquire about their ultimate foundation; that is, the cosmological proofs start from the finitude of the world and contrast this with infinite Being (Moltmann, 1993:12). After each proof, Thomas asserts "et hoc dicimus Deum" ("and this we call God") (cf. Aquinas, 1989:12-14; McGrath, 2001:245-247). Note that for Aquinas, it is the divine essence or substance (ousia), deduced from the five ways of cosmological "proofs," that is to be called God, not the Triune Persons.

Based upon the "five ways" derived from Aristotle, here is the description of God that Thomas ends up with: "The divine nature is the moving, causing, necessary, pure and intelligent Being for being that is moved, caused, possible, intermingled and ordered" (Moltmann, 1993:12). Wow! Now there's a God you can relate to. Not! As my homey theologian Baxter Kruger often says, who wants to hang with a God like that? By the way, did you notice anything missing in that description of God?

We may rightly question if Aquinas is correct to assert "and this we call God." Aquinas bases his conclusions about the nature of God on rational (not biblical) presuppositions of what it is "proper" for God to be like (dignum Deo) (Sanders, 2007:295, n29). According to Greek metaphysics, any deity worthy of the name must be immutable, impassible, omnipotent, etc. (We'll get more of this in the next post.) Unfortunately, conclusions about God based on pagan philosophical presuppositions are more descriptive of Aristotle's "Unmoved Mover" (the aloof, alone, arelational deity of Greek thought) than the scriptural portrayal of the dynamic, passionate, self-emptying God who engages and is affected by creation (cf. Pinnock, 2001:70, 71).

Moreover, the epistemology (How do we know?) and methodology (Where do we start?) of Aquinas' approach is subject to question. Thomas develops his ideas of what God must be like rationally, quite independently of God's threefold self-revelation in salvation history (oikonomia). In short, Thomas derives his description of God from reason rather than revelation (Pinnock, 2001:70). Thomas' cosmological approach is far different from the approach of our boys Athanasius and the Cappadocians, who started with God's threefold self-revelation in salvation history (oikonomia).

O.K. Hang on to your hats! We're coming to the part where Thomas does something entirely new in the Western doctrine of God: Drawing upon his starting point with the cosmological proofs of the existence and nature of God, Aquinas divides his doctrine of God into two parts: De Deo Uno (On the One God) and De Deo Trino (On the Triune God). He then writes first a lengthy treatise on the One God (De Deo Uno) wherein he articulates the essence of God (De Deo Uno) in terms of natural theology, that is, investigation into the divine nature solely in terms of human reason and empirical observation. When he finally gets around to his subsequent treatise on the Trinity (De Deo Trino), the description of the Triune Godhead is philosophical and abstract with little relation to God's self-revelation in salvation history (Rahner, 1997:16, 17; cf. LaCugna, 1991:145).Thomas is the first theologian to divide the doctrine of God in such a manner (Rahner, 1997:16, 17). Notice what's happening already: Thomas does not begin his articulation of the doctrine of God with the Triune Persons as revealed in redemptive history; instead, he begins with a rational explication of the unitary essence (ousia) common to all three persons (Aquinas, 1989:14ff).

In dividing the doctrine of God into two parts, wherein the unity of God is considered first, with the triunity of God explicated in preconceived terms of the divine substance, Thomas dubiously achieved what is frequently described as "the paradigm instance" of the separation of theologia (God in God's eternal transcendent nature) and oikonomia (God as revealed in salvation history in the incarnate Son and Spirit), thus hardening into dogma what had begun in Augustine (LaCugna, 1991:145, 147, 148). Get that point! Aquinas has split apart the doctrine of God; he has separated consideration of God's eternal transcendent nature from God's triune self-revelation in time and space! His method of beginning with the divine essence or substance is a clear departure from Scripture, early creeds, liturgy and Greek patristic theology (LaCugna, 1991:147). Aquinas' doctrine of God is neither historical nor Christological. It has the transcendent "essence" or "substance" of God as its subject, so that God's self-revelation in salvation history is not an essential dimension or the explicit foundation for knowledge of the Trinity. Hence, the entire structure of the Summa emphasizes the priority of theologia over oikonomia. Given Thomas' starting point in God himself (in se), the economy of redemption in salvation history is not the primary basis for his doctrine of God (LaCugna, 1991:147-150).

Let's sum up: Thomas begins with speculation on the abstract substance (ousia) of God, considered in terms of Greek metaphysics, not in terms of the biblical revelation of God as Father, Son and Spirit. He then writes first a major treatise on the One God (De Deo Uno), that is, the essence or substance of God wherein the divine nature is described rationally, that is, in terms of what humans may think is "proper" for God to be. (As if we would know!). Only after that does he get around to his treatise on the Trinity (De Deo Trino). Even then, his trinitarianism is abstract and philosophical and bears little connection to God's triune self-revelation in salvation history.

To continue: For both Augustine and Aquinas, the one, common divine substance or essence of God was considered the foundation of the trinitarian persons and was, hence, logically primary in comparison (Moltmann, 1993:16). Augustine begins with the divine substance and only secondarily considers the triunity of God. For Aquinas, the divine substance, which could be abstracted from the triune persons, is what is to be called "God," not the three persons or any one of them (Moltmann, 1993:16). Thus, both Augustine and Thomas divide the doctrine of God by beginning with the unitary substance and only secondarily considering the doctrine of the Trinity in light of the preconceptions of substance ontology (i.e., "substantialist metaphysics). This methodological bifurcation of the doctrine of God has prevailed since in Western theology (Rahner, 1997:16).

The Augustinian-Thomist bifurcation of the doctrine of God has had considerable consequences for the doctrine of the Trinity in Western theology. In the textbooks of both Roman Catholic and Protestant theology, the doctrine of God has been divided into a treatise on the one God followed by a treatise on the Trinity (Moltmann, 1993:17). Only after the doctrine of the one God is fully explicated is attention given to God's triune self-revelation in salvation history. This methodological bifurcation makes it appear that everything that really matters in the doctrine of God is said in the first treatise on the one God while the treatment of the Trinity is locked away in "splendid isolation" and "devoid of interest" (Rahner, 1997:17). Don't make the mistake of thinking all this only happened in medieval Roman Catholicism: In Protestant circles, the systematic theologians Charles Hodge and Louis Berkhof both devote hundreds of pages to the explication of the existence and attributes of God before even considering the Trinity (Letham, 2004:4). Believe it or not, Charles Hodge, one of the great representatives of Calvinism, devotes only four pages to the doctrine of the Trinity in a work of systematic theology that comprises three volumes and nearly 2,300 pages (Grenz, 2004:229 n 55). Unreal!

As the bifurcation of the Western doctrine of God became rigid in medieval scholasticism, the treatise on the unitary substance of God (De Deo Uno) evolved into "natural theology," that is, philosophical speculation on the divine nature and attributes, based on pure reason, and developed rationally apart from revelation. As the Western doctrine of God was disconnected from God's self-revelation in salvation history, Christology and Pneumatology became irrelevant to the doctrine of God when the medieval philosophical speculation of natural theology was at its height (LaCugna, 1991:10, 11). Moreover, the treatise on the Trinity was relegated to secondary status and regarded merely as a formal treatment of intradivine processions, persons, and relations, so that, finally, in the seminaries of post-baroque Catholicism, the doctrine of the Trinity was hardly studied at all and regarded as not essential to Christian faith (LaCugna, 1991:167, 168). Moreover, the marginalization of the doctrine of the Trinity impacted not only theology but doxology as well. The complexities of medieval Latin theology helped to precipitate the demise of the doctrine of the Trinity in the West because the doctrine could no longer be related to the concerns of popular piety and religious experience (Grenz, 2004:13). Thus, one of the consequences of the medieval scholastic emphasis on the unity of God understood from natural theology was the marginalization of the doctrine of the Trinity in the Latin West (LaCugna, 1991:167).

Do you see what has happened? With the Augustinian-Thomist-Western emphasis on the unitary "substance" of God ("substantialist metaphysics") considered rationally in terms of human ideas of what is "proper" for God to be (immutable, impassible and generally unavailable), the doctrine of the Trinity fell along the wayside. God's Triune self-revelation in redemptive history was marginalized and no longer considered particularly relevant in the Western doctrine of God. By the time you get to more recent Protestant theologians like Berkhof and Hodge, the doctrine of the Trinity is still marginalized. The result of all this for most Christians is a fear and dread of the "hidden God" that lies "behind" God's self-revelation in salvation history. This is the God we are not sure of, the God we fear may not be like Jesus. The existential angst in the hearts of many Christians is the inevitable result of the Western bifurcation of the doctrine of God, wherein G-O-D (Baxter Kruger) has been considered apart from God's self-revelation in the incarnate Son and the Spirit. In short, the Western tradition has failed to allow Jesus to reveal the Father (cf. John 1:18).

Thomas Aquinas' bifurcation of the doctrine of God contributed to the relegation of the doctrine of the Trinity to the status of nothing more than an uninteresting, rather puzzling appendix to the doctrine that has little to do with theology or Christian piety. The situation remained thus until the early 20th century when Karl Barth roared, "Nein!" Things are getting better, but we have a long way to go in restoring the doctrine of the Trinity to its proper place as the foundational doctrine from which all Christian dogmatics must be explicated.

P.S. Look for next major post April 30. I hope you can join me then!


Allen, D. & Springsted, E.O. 2007. Philosophy for Understanding Theology. Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox. 267 pp.

Aquinas, T. 1989. Summa Theologiae: A Concise Translation (edited by T.S. McDermott). Allen, TX: Christian Classics. 652pp.

LaCugna, C.M. 1991. God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco. 434pp.

McGrath, A.E. 2001. Christian Theology: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. 616pp.

Moltmann, J. 1993. The Trinity and the Kingdom (trans by M. Kohl). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. 256pp.

Pinnock, C.H. 2001. Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God's Openness. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 204pp.

Rahner, K. 1997. The Trinity: Introduction, Index, and Glossary by Catherine Mowery LaCugna. New York, NY: Crossroads. 122pp.

Sanders, J. 2007. The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence. Downers Grove, IL: IVP. 384pp.


  1. Thanks, again, Martin! You know, you must really be a fun guy to be around to be able to take what could be sooooo tedious and make it truly interesting! I appreciate that.

  2. Martin,
    Your post explains why so many denominations and churches can have the Trinity at the top of their Statement of Beliefs, but the Trinity has virtually no impact on the rest of the doctrines that follow.

    Looking through the self-revelation of God through the incarnate Jesus impacts all of our doctrines and beliefs.

    Thanks for making history and theology so readable!

  3. Thank you brother for your time and allowing the Lord Jesus Christ to work through you for our benefit! Blessings to you! I also don't mind waiting in between posts like someone said one time because it is well worth the wait!

  4. What if the problem is more starting point than the endeavor itself? Perhaps elements of Greek metaphysics threw the whole thing off by assuming from the outset that Trinitarian knowledge of God was not available to humanity through creation. Perhaps the real criticism needs to be not necessarily directed toward natural theology but toward a non-scientific approach to it.

    Here is Peter Leithart, describing what he purports to be Athanasius' thought on what the Trinity has made known through Creation: “The perichoretic relation of Father and Son is evident in the creation. … If there is harmony in the universe, that points to a Harmonizer, a Logos; but the Logos must be the Logos of someone, the speech of the speaker who speaks forth the Word” (Athanasius [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011], 100).

    If this is the case, that true knowledge (of some sort) of the Triune God has been made available by God for humanity (from the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit (Gen. 1:1-3, Jn. 1:1-3, etc.), then the problem becomes not the enterprise of natural theology but the methodology of it.

    In thinking this, I have evangelistic implications in mind.



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