Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Return to Patristic Trinitarianism

In our last post ("The Problematic God of Western Theology", June, 2009) we examined a number of problems associated with the Western doctrine of God, a version of God that has influenced us all. These problems arose from the "substantialist" metaphysics of Augustine, Aquinas, and medieval Scholasticism. By "substantialist metaphysics," I mean an approach to knowledge of God based on rational reflection on the "unitary substance" of God, considered apart from God's threefold self-revelation in salvation history as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. [That last phrase is what is important!] Substantialist metaphysics, markedly influenced by pagan Greek thought, understands the divine nature to be a simple, undivided "essence." With its emphasis on the 'unitary' being of God, substantialist metaphysics is hard-pressed to understand the 'diversity' of the Godhead as constituted by the three divine persons in relationship. As we have noted in previous posts, the Western emphasis on the unitary substance of God, considered apart from God's triune self-revelation, has contributed to the relegation of the doctrine of the Trinity to little more than a relatively minor "appendix" to the doctrine of the One God of substantialist metaphysics.

In order to circumvent the many problems associated with the Augustinian-Thomist doctrine of God, many contemporary Trinitarian theologians have looked primarily to the Fathers of the early Eastern Church in formulating a doctrine of God (theologia) that is firmly grounded in God's threefold self-revelation in salvation history (oikonomia) as Father, incarnate Son and Holy Spirit (cf. Schwöbel, 1995:5).


Irenaeus serves as a prime example of the pre-Augustinian Fathers' approach to the doctrine of God. He and other theologians of the early Church were faced with the fundamental question of how God's self-revelation in salvation history is related to God's eternal, transcendent being [i.e,. "How do we relate Jesus and the Holy Spirit to the eternal God?"]. They realized that unless there is a "substantial bridge between the visible and the invisible," that is between oikonomia [God's triune self-revelation in salvation history] and theologia [the eternal, transcendent nature of God], there can be no sure foundation for human knowledge about God as God really is in the eternal, intradivine nature. Irenaeus realized that, unless God himself bridged the epistemological gap between his own incomprehensible being and limited human understanding, the Gospel would be torn asunder from any grounding in reality, emptied of all truth and validity, and its account of God's salvific acts for us would be little more than a fanciful projection into the heavens of the contents of our own psyches (cf. Torrance, 1996:77). As Irenaeus pointed out, only God can know himself; therefore, it is only through God that God may be known (Torrance, 1995:54). [That's a really important point; it renders all speculation about the "substance" of God irrelevant for accurate knowledge of God and drives us back to God's triune self-revelation in time and space as the source for true and accurate knowledge of God.] For Irenaeus, no knowledge of God is possible apart from God's revelation of himself. Following Irenaeus, Torrance (1996:77) comments, "A real revelation of God to us must be one which God brings about through himself."


Like Irenaeus, Athanasius approached the internal relations of the Godhead from a Christological, not philosophical, perspective. For Athanasius, the doctrine of the Trinity starts from and is controlled by the self-revelation of God in the incarnate Jesus
who is "of one being with the Father" (homoousios to Patri). Athanasius was little concerned with abstract philosophical speculation about the unknowable substance (ousia) of God. Rather, his thinking about the internal relations of the Triune God began with the self-revelation of God in the incarnate Jesus Christ. For guidance into the inner being of God, Athanasius relied on the truth of Jesus' own words: "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30), and "I am in the Father and the Father in me" (John 14:10, 11) (Torrance, 1995:303-305).

For Athanasius, to know the Father through the Son, who is of one substance with the Father, is to know him in "the godly and the theologically precise way," because this is in strict accordance with what the Father actually is in terms of his own being and nature as Father and Son, and as Holy Spirit (Torrance, 1990:213). Thus, if we wish to gain accurate knowledge of God, we should "take our cue" from Athanasius. Insisting that our approach to God must be through the Son, Athanasius argues that it is "more godly and true to signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate." In other words, to approach God the Father through God the Son is more devout and accurate than to approach God through his works, then tracing them back to him as their Source (Torrance, 1995:49). [Note how different Athanasius' approach is from that of Thomas Aquinas, who, in fact, sought to describe the divine nature by reference to the "works" of creation: God is not this; he is more than that, and he is the first cause of it all. See previous posts: "Tommy A. and the Western Split," 3/09 and "How to Make a Western Omelet God," 4/09].

The difference in epistemology and methodology between Athanasius and the Augustinian-Thomist tradition is striking. Unlike Augustine, who turned away from God's self-revelation in salvation history (oikonomia) to find "vestiges" of the Trinity in the human mind or soul, Athanasius approached the eternal, intradivine being of God through God's self-revelation in the incarnate Son. Unlike Aquinas, who followed Aristotle and approached God through his works by utilizing the principle of natural theology that a cause is known from its effects, Athanasius is content to allow Jesus to reveal the Father, for no one knows the Father but the Son (Mt 11:27). As Athanasius clearly understood, even though the creation proclaims the glory of God, the creation is other than, distinct from, and, therefore, externally related to God. Only Jesus Christ, who is "of one being with the Father," is internally related to God and can, thus, truly reveal the Father as he is (Torrance, 1995:49).

Against Augustine, Aquinas and the Scholastics (both Roman and Protestant), who begin their thinking about God with a syncretic mixture of speculative philosophy [rooted in pagan metaphysics] and biblical revelation, Athanasius begins his thinking about God with reflection on God's incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, the one who is the exact representation of God (Heb 1:3). Athanasius' epistemological and methodological principles rightly assert that access to God the Father is better gained through God the Son than through philosophical speculation or even by reflection on the works of creation.

The Cappadocians

Many contemporary Trinitarian theologians have looked to the Cappadocian Fathers to overcome the "vicissitudes" of Western Trinitarianism (Schwöbel, 1995:5). The Cappadocians rightly asserted that the essence (ousia) of God cannot be grasped through unaided human reason. Despite their own education in rhetoric and philosophy, they abhorred any suggestion that human reason (i.e., philosophy) could comprehend the incomprehensible Godhead (LaCugna, 1991:56). [The Cappadocian rejection of "philosophy" as a means of arriving at knowledge of God is in direct opposition to the approach of Aquinas and medieval Scholasticism.]

The Cappadocians maintained a close connection between theologia and oikonomia by insisting that to speak about the "mystery" of God is possible only because God has revealed himself in the economy of salvation (oikonomia). Because they began their thinking about God with the incarnate Son, they found it necessary to clearly articulate the exact nature of the Father-Son relationship (LaCugna, 1991:60ff). In so doing, they challenged the established view of Greek philosophy, which gave priority to the one over the many, by giving ontological primacy to person over nature (i.e., substance, essence). The Cappadocians developed their Trinitarian ontology based on personhood, that is, "on a unity or openness emerging from relationships, and not one of substance" (Schwöbel, 1995:52, 53). By claiming that the terms "Father" and "Son" refer to relations in the Godhead, the Cappadocians held that person, not substance (ousia), is the highest metaphysical category; thus, they claimed that God is supremely relational. In their insistence on internal relations in the Godhead, the Cappadocians swam against the powerful stream of prevailing Hellenistic thought, wherein the deity was conceived as simple, alone and arelational (Sanders, 2007:147, 148; cf. LaCugna, 1991:63-66).

Unlike the Augustinian-Thomist tradition, the Cappadocians did not regard substance (ousia) as an abstract principle to be considered apart from the concrete particularities of the Triune Persons. Rather, they saw that the divine Persons in relationship among themselves constitute the being (ousia) of God; that is, the Triune Persons exhaust the Godhead without remainder (LaCugna, 1991:69). In short, there is no fourth "something" distinct from, or to be considered apart from, the Triune Persons of the Godhead (cf. Gunton, 2007:86). God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Because God eternally exists as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God is not an "in-itself," alone and isolated from relationships; rather God is "the epitome of love in relation" (Sanders, 2007:148).

In summary, Irenaeus, Athanasius and the Cappadocians assert the essential principle that our knowledge of God must begin with God's self-revelation in the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, the One who is homoousios to Patri ("of one being with the Father"). The pre-Augustinian Patristic insistence that real and accurate knowledge of God arises through his self-revelation in the incarnate Son can be summed up succinctly in a phrase said to the present author by theologian, Dr. Robert Lucas: "Jesus is our hermeneutic."

Why It Matters

Does it really matter whether we think of God in terms of substantialist metaphysics, with its emphasis on the unitary being of God, or in the personal, relational terms of God's triune self-revelation in history as Father, Son, and Spirit? Yes, it does matter; it matters a great deal.

If we begin our thinking about God based on rational reflection on the empirical phenomena of the cosmos (as in Aquinas), we can only arrive at concepts of God based on the "way of causality" (via causalitatis), that is, the assertion that a cause (God) is known by its effects. We develop a description of God that is nothing more than a negation of (via negativa), or an extension of (via eminentiae), the phenomena of the cosmos. For example, we say that God is not finite (infinite) or that God does not change (immutability) or that God does not suffer (impassibility). Or we can say that God transcends the limits of time and space and conclude that God is all-wise (omniscient), all-powerful (omnipotent), and everywhere present (omnipresent).

Yet how do we relate an all-powerful, unchangeable and impassible God to the incarnation and the cross? As Barth, Torrance, Moltmann, Pinnock, Sanders and many others have argued, the "substantialist" view of God simply cannot handle Bethlehem and Calvary. To be sure, the unchanging, all powerful God of substantialist metaphysics is not a deity who can identify with our humanity, particularly our suffering; he has never "been there." The God of substantialist metaphysics is not a God who responds to our prayers or is concerned with our plight.

More importantly, the articulation of a doctrine of God based on substantialist metaphysics minimizes the vital importance of God's triune self-revelation. In simple terms, it leaves Jesus out of the picture, diminishes his humanity, and moves him to a far away celestial realm so that the faithful are left with no one to pray to but Mary and the saints!! And that is the real problem! (And that's exactly what happened!)

Catherine Mowry LaCugna describes the doctrine of the Trinity as "the mystery of salvation." It took me a long time to understand what she meant but I think I get it now. In biblical terms, a "mystery" is something that was hidden but is now revealed. Hence, God's eternal nature as Father, Son, and Spirit is a mystery that God had to reveal to us; we would never have gotten it on our own. Moreover, God's triune self-revelation is a salvific revelation. In other words, the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of human salvation (soteriology) go hand in hand (In fact, the doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation upon which all other doctrines must be built.) In revealing to us the fact that he is eternally Father, Son and Spirit, God is revealing to us the fact that he is, by nature, the God who saves, or as LaCugna asserts in the title of her marvelous book, he is God for us! Get that point: The Father sends the incarnate Son to reconcile all humanity to himself (2Cor 5:19); the Father sends the Spirit to unite us to Jesus. Thus, the three persons of the Godhead are "saving" persons. It is God's nature to save. We cannot know that essential fact about the eternal nature of God unless God reveals it to us! Rational reflection on the cosmos can tell us that God is infinite and all powerful but it cannot tell us that God is love; it cannot tell us that God is for us! Thus, God must reveal to us the fact that he is love by sending his Son (and Spirit) to reconcile the entire cosmos to himself.

If we think of God solely in terms of the unitary essence of substantialist metaphysics, we miss the reality of God's salvific nature. We end up with a distant "omni-God" rather than the God who stoops to save. Apart from the doctrine of the Trinity, we miss the Good News that God is for us, that God is on our side. Yet, he has proven his love for us by his gracious self-revelation as Father, incarnate Saviour, and indwelling Holy Spirit. Amen.

(We will continue with this line of thought in our next post, coming on or about September 1, 2009. Stay tuned. The news is good; really good!


Gunton, C.E. 2007. The Barth Lectures (transcribed and edited by P.H. Brazier). London: T & T Clark. 285pp.

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

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

Schwöbel, C. (ed). 1995. Trinitarian Theology Today. Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 176pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1990. Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical Theologian. Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 256pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1995. The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church. London: T & T Clark. 345pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1996. The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons. London: T & T Clark. 260pp.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Martin. Keep it coming, I am learning so much! I plan on sharing some of your material in sermon soon. In part, I will be planning on responding to an objection a person who left our fellowship over Trinitarian Christocentric theology made after joining a fairly Calvanistic congregation in another city: "We read the Bible, not writings!" The idea was that their theology was untainted by human reasoning! What you have shown in your posts is that Western Christianity is awash in human reasoning that colors it's perception of scripture (Baxter's thick glasses) that people don't even know they are wearing. Know the truth and the truth will set you free!


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