A Trellis for Trinitarian Theology

Mary was not so green when she mistook Jesus for a gardener (John 20:15). God is a gardener: he sows; he waters; he grows (Gen. 1:11; 2:6; Ps. 104:14; 1 Cor. 3:6). To him belongs horticulture and humanity.

Yet, in another sense, God is a garden in himself. He is our environment, the one in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The Word of the Father, who stood before Mary at the empty tomb, is the life-giving person in whom, to whom, and through whom are all things (1 Cor. 8:6), and that Word is ever spoken in the potent breath of the Holy Spirit. It is in the Trinity—more specifically, God’s verbally manifested and linguistically mediated reality—that we dwell and thrive.

All of this, no doubt, is quotidian for today’s theologian. Especially in Protestant circles in the last twenty years or so, the Trinity has taken a place of prominence. Everywhere one looks, new books and journal articles are finding their way onto the shelves—person and relation; ontology ad intra and ad extra; immanent and economic; vestigia trinitatis; the list goes on. The surge of interest in Trinitarian paradigms and doctrinal minutiae, for some, is little more than a fleeting fancy, the latest love affair for Protestants, and old news to Catholics and Greek Orthodox. Perhaps the latter parties are wondering where Protestants have been for the last few hundred years. The questions we must ask ourselves, on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, are the following. First, why has the Trinity come roaring back into our dogmatic discussions and, second, how can we ensure that this indispensable truth of Christendom remains the main hall in which we gather for global theological discourse rather than serving as a vestibule to other dogmatic concerns?

Perhaps the answer to both questions lies in a metaphor. Trinitarian theology, like ivy, has always wound its way up a trellis. By “trellis,” I mean a historical and theological dilemma of the day that serves as latticework upon which the deep and eternal things of God can stretch out and climb in human history. Knowing what one such trellis is in our own day provides an important clue as to why Trinitarian studies have been so popular of late for Protestants, and how we can ensure that this turns into a tradition rather than a trend.

Before introducing what I believe is a trellis for Trinitarian theology in the twenty-first century, it would help to review some of the church’s history in light of this metaphor. And to find a trellis or two from a bygone era, all one needs to do is pick up a decent volume on Christian history and start turning the pages. Jonathan Hill’s The History of Christian Thought (2003) is a fine place to start.

In the early church, the trellis for Trinitarian theology was the burning question of what it meant to proclaim Jesus as Lord in the context of a rigid monotheism, and, of course, what it meant to say that the Spirit was God as well. Justin Martyr, attempting to wrest the early church from Platonic errors while still drawing on terms familiar to Platonists, brought attention to Christ as the Logos of God, the Father’s thought communicated to men. Irenaeus followed suit with a striking, albeit problematic analogy, of the Son and Spirit as the “hands” of the Father, bringing the third person of the Godhead more into purview. But it was Tertullian who broke new ground by coining the term Trinity and developing the “substance” and “persons” language we still find in today’s creeds and confessions. Athanasius continued this tradition by stomping out the weeds of Arianism, drawing on Origen’s exposition of the eternal generation of the Son.

Then, from the heart of Turkey, came the Cappadocians, led by Gregory of Nyssa, his brother, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Basil the Great. The Cappadocians laid the groundwork for the persons of the Trinity to be differentiated by their mutual relations—a concept carried through the middle ages and well into the twenty-first century.

But we could not in good conscience proceed any further without mentioning Augustine, who rightly rebuffed the residual semi-Arianism of his predecessors, opposing any claim that the Father was the source of divinity. He thus brought out the consubstantiality and distinctness of the persons simultaneously, especially when he emphasized the famous (or, for some, infamous) filioque clause: the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. In doing so, as Hill puts it, he “purged the doctrine of every trace of subordinationism” (87). This was a fitting contribution to the continuing development of what came to be called perichoresis, the teaching that the persons of the Godhead mutually interpenetrate, indwell, or are “in,” to use Augustine’s language, each of the others (De Trinitate 6.10). This is one of the Trintiarian teachings that is so prominent today, and we owe this, in many ways, to the Cappadocians and to Augustine, among others (Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus, who came later).

Cyril of Alexandria followed Augustine by addressing the issue that had led to the building of the trellis centuries earlier: Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity: the Son come into flesh. In all of this, then, Christology was in large part the trellis that gave Trinitarian dogma room to stretch and climb. But that trellis would be exchanged for another in Byzantium and the medieval era.

A fixation on Christology eventually lead to mystical speculation on how one comes close to a three-personed God (a second trellis for Trinitarian theology). How can man have communion with the transcendent, triune Lord? That was a question that burned in the hearts of Psuedo-Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor, and Symeon, to varying degrees. The resulting mysticism and negative theology came to an end with Gregory Palamas, whose discourse on the “energies” of God sought to explain how, exactly, we could experience the Trinity: we do so only by God’s acts upon us—the Father through the Son in the power of the Spirit. This was to have echoes in the twentieth century with Karl Barth and Emil Brunner.

In the medieval and scholastic era, we still find remnants of mysticism, especially with Erigena, which is to be expected—history is a stream, not a string of puddles. But the trellis of experiential communion with God, by and large, traded for the trellis of rational exposition. It can be difficult to see how the latter might be a trellis for Trinitarian theology, which is inherently mysterious. But while it is easy to categorize Anselm’s arguments for the existence of God as “Unitarian” (pointing to Aquinas’ de Deo uno), there were clear Trinitarian threads in his thought, such as his work on the necessity of God’s becoming man in the person of Christ. Peter Abelard’s work, Theologia, is perhaps a better example. Abelard follows the path of rational exposition, but seems to have gone too far in trying to erase all mystery from the Trinity. Thomas Aquinas, though he sought to preserve mystery in Trinitarian dogma, fell into a similar trap with his unbound reliance on Aristotelian philosophy. In attempting to articulate the relation of the persons to the essence, he let mystery become more nominal than normative for Trinitarian theology. Much of Aquinas’ work, along with that of Anselm and Abelard, built Trinitarian theology on the trellis of rational exposition. And though this was countered by later medieval mystics (Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart), it seems to have nevertheless held sway until the early Reformers set their hands to building a third trellis: the trellis of soteriology.

For many of the mainstay Reformers, discussions of Trinitarian dogma were set on the trellis of salvation and sin. Luther, for example, focused much of his theology on personal, faith-wrought union with Christ, who was given by the Father, and whose work of redemption and sanctification, applied internally by the Spirit, always led grace to triumph over law. Calvin, as well, though markedly different from Luther in his thought and mannerism, focused much of his attention on depravity and salvation in Christ. And this was set within its Trinitarian context. Calvin even went so far as to say that if we do not grasp that we serve and are saved by one God in three persons, then “only the bare and empty name of God flits about in our brains, to the exclusion of the true God” (Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.13.2). Salvation, as many in our day have reminded us, is Trinitarian.

The trellis of salvation and sin that was so prominent in the Reformation would wane with the waxing of a new trellis in the modern era: a return to rational exposition, but of a different sort, fueled, in large part, by the Enlightenment. This trellis, admittedly, would keep the ivy of Trinitarian theology all but out of sight. With attacks on the logical coherence of Trinitarian dogma by figures such as Voltaire, Locke, Hume, and Rousseau, and with the unparalleled rise of deism, Christian philosophers and theologians felt compelled to rearticulate Christian dogma in a manner that at least acknowledged the so-called “Age of Reason.” Sadly, oftentimes they sold their heritage of belief for day’s wage in the empirical market. As Lessing and Reimarus excised the miraculous from Scripture, one could see it was only a matter of time before something as complex and mysterious as Trinitarian dogma would become suspect. It was Immanuel Kant who questioned the practicality of belief in the Trinity, and his phenomenal/noumenal distinction may not have helped matters here. By relegating God to the realm of noumena, he could effectively turn Christianity into a kind of pragmatic moralism. Such a context was not conducive to the growth or maturation of Trinitarian thought, which is perhaps why we see so little Trinitarian work emerging from that era. The work of the Puritans—masterpieces from the pen of Francis Cheynell, Thomas Goodwin, John Owen, and the like—would carry the church until the Protestant Trinitarian revival in the twentieth century.

And by that time, the Protestant church was in need of a return to its Trinitarian roots, crippled as it was by rampant moralism, still evident in the thought of Schleiermacher and Ritschl. It needed a new trellis on which Trinitarian truth could bud and blossom, and Karl Barth’s “theology of revelation” seemed to fit the bill (Hill, 269). Thus, the doctrine of revelation became the new trellis: enveloping general revelation, Scripture, and proclamation, according to Barth (Church Dogmatics, 1.4.4). The wholly other God of Barth’s theology was proclaimed to be wholly “for us” in his triune self-revelation, namely in the “event” of Christ, which transcended time. But Barth’s understanding of revelation in the context of the Trinity, while refreshing, was riddled with fissures that would only widen with time. Part of this was due to the debris of existentialism: the shift in thinking of truth as experiential and subjective rather than external and objective. Certainly, Barth opposed all of this, but his focus on an encounter with the “event” of Christ left the door open for those who sympathized with the existentialist movement.

Following the footpath of twentieth century theology at the time, Rudolph Bultmann attempted to “demythologize” the revelation of the New Testament, extracting moralistic kernels from mythological husks. From there, it is not too difficult to see how and why Reinhold Niebuhr would ignite the twentieth century with a call to ethics and morality, nor how Paul Tillich would call on Christians to engage their culture with an apologetic existentialism. In fact, we can even see how Karl Rahner would end up arguing for the concept of “anonymous Christians.” Those who have experientially witnessed the truth of God need not cling to the Christian Bible, or even the name of Christ, for, in Justin Martyr’s terminology, all people have within them the “seed of the Logos” anyway. Such a conclusion cannot be divorced from Rahner’s view of the Trinity. In claiming that the economic Trinity (what God does) is identical with the immanent Trinity (who God is), Rahner was working out one of the implications of an existentialist view of revelation. If the truth of the triune God’s revelation can only be subjectively experienced, then what sense would it make to ponder God as he exists “in himself,” apart from his creation? That logic is directly linked to Barth’s prior claim that God is only ever “for us” in Christ. In other words, there is no Trinity “behind” or “prior to” Christ’s work for us.

This set the stage for Jürgen Moltmann to emphasize the centrality of the cross, claiming that God is a “suffering God.” While this had the benefit of drawing people’s attention to the unfathomable empathy God has for us in our own suffering, it posed a plethora of problems for orthodox Christianity by binding God to his creation and practically effacing the Trinity of independence.

Wolfhart Pannenberg’s contention that all of history is, in fact, revelation in which we choose to believe enabled him, like Barth and Bultmann, to embrace critical scholarship and symbolic interpretations of revelation because what really mattered was the subjective commitment of the individual to the truth of a particular event. The influence of existentialism here is still evident.

In sum, the trellis of revelation, leading from Barth to Pannenberg, did indeed give the dogma of the Trinity room to climb, but it also did no small amount of damage to the orthodox understanding of God’s ontology, not to mention the existential blight it spread to other doctrines.

All of this brings us to the Trinitarian trellis of our day: language. This is not too far afield from the trellis of revelation, since all revelation, in many ways, can be considered profoundly linguistic. As Jonathan Edwards pointed out centuries ago, not only is the truth of Scripture linguistically delivered to humanity, but also the entire cosmos, which was uttered into being and is upheld by the God who speaks. Scripture is God’s word, but the rest of creation is a “word” from God in another sense.

A scad of material has been emerging in the last decade or so on God as a communicative being, and on human language as a derivative and analogical behavior. This, it seems to me, is quite fitting, since the Trinity is the hearth of communion and has eternally communicated with himself in the “speech” of love and glory (Frame 2013, 480–81). Of course, we still have our issues to work out—issues that have long been part and parcel of every theologian’s curiosity: in what sense is the Son the “Word” of the Father? Should we adopt a consciousness model of the Trinity—in which the Father speaks the Son in the power of the Spirit—or an interpersonal model—in which the persons of the Godhead are understood as mutually engaging communicative agents? Or are both models valid? In answer to the former question, there is room for Trinitarian dogma to grow as we work out how the Son is both the thought of the Father, which stretches all the way back to Justin Martyr, and how he is the communication of the Father, which can be traced back to Augustine. And more work needs to be done to explore precisely in what sense the Spirit is involved in this communication. As for the latter question, we seem hard pressed to resolve the age old quandary between the east and west. The stale rumor that the Latin west defaults to a consciousness model while the Greek east upholds an interpersonal model has been dispelled. And thank God it has, for the church is now in an age of unprecedented global awareness and intercontinental communication. That is why linguistics (semantics, pragmatics, discourse analysis, hermeneutics) is such a fitting trellis for Trinitarian theology: global communication is no longer burgeoning; it has blossomed. In such a setting, the nature and function of language is replete with implications not only for our understanding and development of Trinitarian dogma, but for our practical engagement with one another in the gloriously diverse, communicative body of Christ.

We have, no doubt, just rushed through a cornucopia of theological discourse spanning two thousand years, and scarcely done it justice. But the point in considering what the trellis was for Trinitarian dogma in each era is to notice that we are at an opportune place for global discussion in the church, and we would be remiss if we wrote off the current surge of interest in linguistics and the Trinity as a passing trend. In my opinion, we are in the midst of one of the most appropriate Trinitarian discussions in the history of the church: a discussion of the nature and work of a communicative God for, in, and through his communicative creatures.

At the outset, I proposed two questions on which Protestants, in particular, need to meditate, both of which are related to the twenty-first century’s trellis for Trinitarian dogma. Why has the Trinity come roaring back into our theological discussions? In brief, I would say that this can be attributed, in part, to the rise of interest in linguistics, for language and the Trinity are inextricably intertwined: the triune God is a communicative being, and humans are image-bearing communicators. It would be strange indeed to witness a rising interest in linguistics without seeing any corresponding interest in the God of language. The late twentieth and early twenty-first century interest in linguistics has thus built a worthy trellis on which Trinitarian dogma can grow, but we need to continue exploring the relationship between divine and human communication, and use the results of such study to enhance and support the communion of the global church.

The second question, however, is perhaps more critical: how can Protestants ensure that Trinitarian dogma retains a prominent place in theological discourse? The answer here seems tied to what we have already said: language must, as it has, stay in the limelight of our theological discussions. We must vigilantly guard the trellis of language from those who would, with Derrida, derogate language as a labyrinth of différence. We must dwell on the divine roots of human discourse, ever remembering the ancient truth that language is not simply something we do but is a vital part of who we are. We are creatures of communion. And the communion we long for is structured on the Trinity itself, both the consciousness and interpersonal models. We are speakers with thoughts and breath, persons who thrive in a web of relationships.

In light of what has been said, there seems to be no better place for our discussions of the Trinity than in the context of language, for our speech reflects the Speaker, our words the Word, and our breath the Spirit of the speaking God. At this moment in history, we have become deeply aware of ourselves as communing persons bound to the self-communing, tripersonal God. What better time for the global church to unite against a world hell-bent on disrupting and destroying the communion of the body of Christ? Language, I say, is at the roots of the Trinity, the roots of humanity, the roots of the church. Let us tend to this trellis together.

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