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Archive Nota Bene Sacred Doctrine Steven Wedgeworth

Where All Of This “Trinitarian” Stuff Came From

Derrick Peterson continues to steal TCI’s heart in this five-point installment of what appears to have been a thesis paper but surely ought to become a book:

How Neo-Thomism Affected 20th Century Trinitarianism

Part 1- Thesis

Part 2- Thesis Continued

Part 3- First Case Study– The Construction of Eastern and Western Trinitarianism

Part 4- Case Study Two– Rahner’s Rule

Part 5- Case Study Three– Substance Metaphysics and Analytical Theism 

I’ll give a few of the money quotes, and then you go read the whole thing.

We must be clear on what we mean here: we are not making the common-sense point that theological sensibilities have changed, and with it the theology expressing those sensibilities.  Rather more importantly, we are arguing that changes in the theological imagination (for lack of a better term) have also had a retroactive effect upon how traditional sources are interpreted, accepted, or rejected—in particular we are looking at how the construct “classical theism” has been generated. (from Part 2)

And, wowzers:

The point of all this for our purposes, is to note that Lossky’s often polemical turning of Eastern and Western theologies against one-another is in part indebted to certain Western trends of scholarship with which Lossky was interacting.  And more importantly, that what Lossky took to be the essential features of the West he opposed (and of Aquinas and Augustine in particular) was taking the post-Aeterni Patris neo-Thomist interpretations of the tradition (which, as De Regnón felicitously put it, “jostle all other theologians to fit them to [their version of] Thomas’ thought,”) at face value.  Thus the irony doubles: not only is Lossky’s repudiation of the Western tradition (in particular its philosophical “rationalism” and foundationalism when it comes to the treatise “on the One God”) itself part of a Western self-critique, Lossky’s own representation of the distinctive features of Eastern tradition in part gain their sharpness precisely by taking certain features of neo-Thomist interpretation of de Regnón’s schema of what characterizes the Western tradition at face value.

Or put otherwise, the “distinctiveness” of an Eastern position is here gained in the neo-Patristic synthesis by juxtaposing itself to a fictional Western “Other” which it needs to define itself.  A second sense of covert Western influence, may be seen in the rejection of the so-called “Sophiological” movement by Florovsky and Lossky (and the corresponding juxtaposition of their own ideas), because of its over-reliance upon German Idealism. This pedigree of Idealism is not an entirely alternate strand within Western theology, however, but itself constitutes an “answer” to voluntarism that itself hinges upon the terms and spectrum of thought voluntarism itself set in contradistinction to much of the Christian tradition that came before. (from Part 3)

And then I think the next appropriate descriptor is “ka-bow”:

Thus a triple irony: the Greeks utilized a paradigm formulated by a French Jesuit, misunderstood through neo-Thomism, and now reinforced by a narrative of Western metaphysics framed by a German philosopher (himself heavily influenced both by Duns Scotus, and Heidegger’s own rejection of the neo-Thomism he was schooled in), in order to bolster a sense of Eastern identity. (from Part 3)

Seriously, somebody give Mr. Peterson a trophy or, better yet, a teaching fellowship.

We’ll wrap it up with a few of Mr. Peterson’s paragraphs on modern social Trinitarianism. The concepts here are a bit more complex, but the deconstruction remains precise:

The particular problems with his “Rule” as a historiographical criterion arise not so much in attempting to explicitly conceptualize the relationship between immanent and economic “Trinities,” as it lay within the evaluative histories implicitly attached to the affirmation of Rahner’s Rule.  For the Rule itself is invoked generally in the context of “Trinitarian revival,” in which one of the key moments of thought—as we have seen—is the perpetuation of narratives of decline elaborating where and when—and by whom—the Trinity became a problem.  When this couples (as it does in Rahner, Ziziouas, Gunton, LaCugna, Jenson, T.F. Torrance, and others) to a Western (or Augustinian-Thomistic) axis citing a historical trajectory toward trinitarian marginalization, the “Rule’s” prescriptive capacity is imbalanced precisely by being juxtaposed against theologians who in actuality share much of its concern.  To affirm the rule is now to deny Augustine, or Thomas, or the “West” as a historical construct.  This tacit coupling of Rahner’s Rule and such a historiographical diagnosis explains why so many who affirm the Rule also shift from a supposed Western modalism into a more robust “social” Trinitarianism. Or in the case of LaCugna Eberhard Jüngel, and Jürgen Moltmann in particular, it is to become suspicious of any talk that creates a robust conceptual difference between God in eternity and God as revealed in the economy.  Yet, following Tanner’s analysis, such a juxtaposition of immanence and transcendence—even in a supposed solution uniting them—is an indication that something has gone wrong in interpreting the tradition.

Take for example Jürgen Moltmann’s peculiar doctrine of tsimsum, taken from Jewish Kabbalah and meant as a particularly aggressive reposte to much of classical theism’s picture of God’s absoluteness: here space for creation is allowed by God’s “contraction” into himself. Yet curiously if God must “contract” to allow “room” for creation “apart” from the theistic God’s “immensity” (the scare quotes promulgate quickly at this point), then already the critique has misconstrued God’s immensity along finitized, univocal lines (even where God is spoken of as infinite), and consequently inscribes this feature within the solution it posits as a counterpositional exegesis of scripture.  Even if we put aside the bodily connotations of the idea (Moltmann does not, unlike Clark Pinnock, want to predicate a body of God qua God), and assume this is a metaphysical contraction (however that might be construed), in order to view this as overcoming classical “impassibility” or “transcendence” one has to envision that classical doctrine along the lines of competitive transcendence, which as we saw with Tanner’s analysis is the outcome of a modern transmutation in how the tradition is interpreted.

As such, this is to misconstrue Augustine and Aquinas and really the Patristic and Medieval tradition at large, and so attempt to provide not only a solution to a false problem, but one that remains within the bounds of post-nominalist and univocalist changes by merely shifting within a spectrum defined by it: God is too big? He must become smaller to allow room.  One gets the picture of a fat God sucking in his belly (tsimsum in Kabbalah was the “deep breath” God takes before exhaling the creative Word of Creation).  Similar criticisms could be extended to other paradigms that finds it necessary to speak of God’s “self-limitation,” where He in some sense must be absolved of transcendence to allow created freedom, or in kenotic Christologies that feel a profoundly literal “emptying” must occur in order for the divine Logos to “fit” (to put it crudely) into Jesus, or more generally to allow space for created freedom.

Or again, the Social Trinitarian reaction against Augustine and the West’s supposed “modalism”—itself not unrelated to kenosis, but as two proponents have argued strong kenotic models must presuppose social trinitarianism—itself rejoins Augustine’s “substance” language as if it were offering a rationalistic definition of God, and then oscillates into, if not quite its opposite (which would presumably be tri-theism) something quite close to it. (from Part 4)

Now, exposing the exegetical underwear1 of the modern Trinitarian revival does not itself invalidate that revival or refute the various claims advanced by its proponents. What it does show, however, is that none of this is a matter of “Biblical Theology,” as such, nor is it actually “patristic” or “catholic.” It is totally and inescapably modern, and that does mean that it is not what it is so-often advertised to be.

Ad fontes but caveat emptor.

  1. I originally heard the expression “exegetical underwear” from my Hebrew professor, Miles Van Pelt, at Reformed Theological Seminary. He used it to refer to the background work of Biblical translation which, he argued, was very important but should rarely if ever come out in a preacher’s sermons. “It’s got to be there,” he said, “but no one needs to see it.” I thought the phrase too good not to use for a wider scope of topics, and so I apply it hear to various semi-hidden ideologies. Dr. Van Pelt deserves all of the credit for the witticism, but none of the blame for my positions in this essay.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.