Review of Thomas McCall, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?

I am grateful to Eerdmans for having sent me a free review copy of Thomas H. McCall’s book Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).

McCall’s book examines key voices in contemporary Trinitarian theology through the lens of analytic philosophy. The introduction explains the rationale for McCall’s effort to build a bridge between analytic philosophy and systematic theology, emphasizing that, on the one hand, he is not trying to be something other than a theologian, while on the other hand, “theologians need – sometimes <i>desperately</i> need – the kind of assistance that might be found in the analytic toolkit” (p.4).

The first chapter surveys several major trends in contemporary Trinitarian theology, as well as their critics. Social Trinitarianism, Relative Trinitarianism, and “Latin” Trinitarianism. For the person who shares my interest not only in theology and religion but also in science fiction, the discussion of the last of these will perhaps be the most interesting, since  it includes Brian Leftow’s use of an analogy involving time travel, with one person being in three places at once as a result – one person, simultaneously in three distinct occurrences, with three distinguishable identities and experiences. Whether the analogy is helpful and persuasive or not, the line of thought is interesting. Through a consideration of the aforementioned topics, the major concern of most classic Trinitarian theology – to avoid modalism on the one hand and tritheism on the other – is not only explained but illustrated.

The second chapter turns attention to the New Testament and monotheism. As a New Testament scholar myself with great interest in this particular subject (see my book The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context for my own views on this topic), I felt that this chapter missed a wonderful opportunity to apply the concern for logic and clarity that typifies analytic philosophy to the depiction of early Christian monotheism and Christology that is found in Richard Bauckham’s work. One of Bauckham’s contributions is the introduction of the category of “divine identity” into the discussion. However, as I have said before on my old blog, this terminology is not self explanatory. Judaism in the period around New Testament times depicted God as sharing his name (a key indicator of identity) with a principal angelic or human agent. Is being an emissary a case of shared identity? Or is the model of a family relevant (with distinct first names, perhaps, but a common surname)? Bauckham has yet to clarify what this terminology means when he applies it to the New Testament and ancient Judaism, and until he does so, or until others do, then it will continue to be unhelpful to adopt “divine identity” as a conceptual framework.

McCall says in the conclusion of the book that Christian theology must “dig in their heels” at the New Testament view of Christology and monotheism (p.242). He also says claims which are “demonstrably logically incoherent” are “necessarily false and thus cannot possibly be the deliverance of revelation” (p.232). I would love to see him examine Bauckham’s understanding of the New Testament’s Christological statements to see whether Bauckham’s view is logically coherent and meaningful or not, and can only hope that he or someone else will take up this particular task.

Chapter 3 returns attention to the three approaches introduced and given an initial treatment in the first chapter. Section two then focuses even more detailed attention on specific theologians. Chapter 4 is about Robert Jenson’s definition of God as “whoever raised Jesus from the dead.” Jenson in fact understands God to be not only identified with this activity but identical to it, and McCall finds the latter stance to be problematic. The fact that McCall here recognizes that particular ways of understanding and defining divine identity can be problematic reinforces the need for a similarly critical analysis of Bauckham’s own “identity thesis.” Chapter 5 focuses on Jürgen Moltmann’s panentheistic social Trinitarianism and its emphasis on perichoresis. Chapter 6 looks at recent Evangelical proponents of “Eternal Functional Subordinationism” and evaluates them as most likely guilty of Arianism. Chapter 7 looks at the Trinitarian theology of John Zizioulas, and the relationship between his claims about God as essentially “Being as communion” and his claims about divine aseity.

In chapter 8, the book concludes with some suggestions for guiding principles for contemporary Trinitarian theology. As was already mentioned, McCall treats the  monotheism and Christology of the New Testament as the non-negotiable centerpiece of such theology, but his tendency to quote Bauckham’s recent work uncritically obscures the fact that there are other possible ways of understanding that core data, even among those who accept the same principle McCall does regarding the necessity that Christian theology do justice to those texts. Beyond that, McCall encourages Christian theologians to offer as strong an account of divine oneness as possible. While it may, in his view, be impossible to be faithful to the norms of the Christian tradition while at the same time offering an account of the Christian view of God that meets the standards of monotheism set by Judaism and Islam, to the extent possible Christians should seek to offer an account of God’s oneness that will be acceptable and persuasive to others.

If anyone is looking for a careful analysis of some of the major ideas and individual contributions to contemporary Trinitarian theology, McCall’s book offers it, and I can recommend it as providing an interesting and engaging perspective. Those interested in how contemporary theology relates to the beliefs of the earliest Christians and the texts of the New Testament, however, should definitely supplement their reading of McCall with some other perspectives beside Bauckham’s on that subject. And hopefully it will not be long until someone, perhaps utilizing the tools of analytic philosophy, subjects Bauckham’s statements about “divine identity” to critical examination.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Here’s a thought to try to get some discussion going. McCall makes much of the fact that the Son is depicted as addressing the Father in an “I-Thou” fashion in the New Testament, as the basis for understanding persons in the Trinitarian sense as those who are distinguished through such interpersonal pronoun usage, and thus suggesting that the New Testament evidence requires a Godhead consisting of multiple persons. But I wonder whether this doesn’t face problems in connection with some of the monotheistic passages in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, where God is depicted as saying that I (first person singular) am Yahweh and that no other is God (Isaiah 43:11; 45:5)? It seems that this could be fatal to an attempt to justify distinctions of a personal sort (at least, using person in its modern sense) within the Godhead, by means of an appeal to the Bible.

    What do others think?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Here’s a thought to try to get some discussion going. McCall makes much of the fact that the Son is depicted as addressing the Father in an “I-Thou” fashion in the New Testament, as the basis for understanding persons in the Trinitarian sense as those who are distinguished through such interpersonal pronoun usage, and thus suggesting that the New Testament evidence requires a Godhead consisting of multiple persons. But I wonder whether this doesn’t face problems in connection with some of the monotheistic passages in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, where God is depicted as saying that I (first person singular) am Yahweh and that no other is God (Isaiah 43:11; 45:5)? It seems that this could be fatal to an attempt to justify distinctions of a personal sort (at least, using person in its modern sense) within the Godhead, by means of an appeal to the Bible.

    What do others think?

  • Scott__F

    How about the theory that the Trinity was a flawed attempt to make sense of inconsistencies inadvertently introduced into the gospels for their anonymous authors. While throwing around sayings about God, the son and the spirit (received or newly conceived), the gospel writers did not have the opportunity to think through every last implication of the images and terminology they were employing to impart concepts that were fresh and not necessarily as concisely expressed as later readers might assume.

  • Anonymous

    How about the theory that the Trinity was a flawed attempt to make sense of inconsistencies inadvertently introduced into the gospels for their anonymous authors. While throwing around sayings about God, the son and the spirit (received or newly conceived), the gospel writers did not have the opportunity to think through every last implication of the images and terminology they were employing to impart concepts that were fresh and not necessarily as concisely expressed as later readers might assume.

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  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Scott_F, I definitely think that the Gospel authors – in particular John – wrote some of the things that they did without completely working through the implications. If they had tied up all the loose ends and answered all the questions, there wouldn’t have been so much debate in the centuries that followed, all of which was an attempt to work out the implications and try to make sense of all the different strands of thought that became part of the New Testament.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Scott_F, I definitely think that the Gospel authors – in particular John – wrote some of the things that they did without completely working through the implications. If they had tied up all the loose ends and answered all the questions, there wouldn’t have been so much debate in the centuries that followed, all of which was an attempt to work out the implications and try to make sense of all the different strands of thought that became part of the New Testament.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    I’m not sure we should blame the writers for not thinking through the implications of their terminology. The church went though evolution. I’m not sure that people so much misread John or Paul, as there was a growing Jesus devotional-ism. In the same way, I don’ t think misreading Mary’s acts in text created Marian devotion.

    As the religion became increasingly gentile, the kind of strong taboos that would prevent a Paul from just saying Christ is God, faded away, just as the strong taboo against pork does. Hindu devotional converts in America often have ideas very different from Indian ideals. The original audience likely understood these books, but we don’t have their commentary, later authors, once the canon was solidified were able to give a sort of structure for what was the de facto state of affairs, but were constrained by what ere considered the authentic text (though some groups were more dynamic in creating new text). The later groups ideas were less susceptible to being misunderstood because more of their writing survives. As a larger group they could have more people who wrote about the movement, and they had better networks, so if a group suddenly went belly up in one town, the information they created would be preserved by neighbors. for instance when they were only 3 copies of a gospel circulating, a disaster in a couple of towns, could eliminate that gospel from circulation forever, when they are 100 copies of text, local disasters don’t eliminate text.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    I’m not sure we should blame the writers for not thinking through the implications of their terminology. The church went though evolution. I’m not sure that people so much misread John or Paul, as there was a growing Jesus devotional-ism. In the same way, I don’ t think misreading Mary’s acts in text created Marian devotion.

    As the religion became increasingly gentile, the kind of strong taboos that would prevent a Paul from just saying Christ is God, faded away, just as the strong taboo against pork does. Hindu devotional converts in America often have ideas very different from Indian ideals. The original audience likely understood these books, but we don’t have their commentary, later authors, once the canon was solidified were able to give a sort of structure for what was the de facto state of affairs, but were constrained by what ere considered the authentic text )though some groups were more dynamic in creating new text. This groups ideas were less susceptible to being misunderstood because more of their writing survives.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    On another note, to what degree do you let science inform theological speculation? It would seem to me to debate the trinity, is to debate something fundamental about existence, do you look beyond works of the past thought to be inspired, or the products of classical age logical argumentation?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    On another note, to what degree do you let science inform theological speculation? It would seem to me to debate the trinity, is to debate something fundamental about existence, do you look beyond works of the past thought to be inspired, or the products of classical age logical argumentation?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Mike, I don’t know that “blame” is a word I would use – are any of us “guilty” for not foreseeing questions that those who come after us may ask, on light of cultural, scientific and linguistic changes that we had no way of foreseeing.

    It certainly may be expected that, as Christianity became increasingly Gentile, aspects of its character changed. I think, however, that what we are dealing with in Paul’s own letters nevertheless represents a Jewish perspective, one which he himself understood to be monotheistic, without feeling the need to defend himself against charges to the contrary the way he did with the Law.

    Finally, on the question of how science relates to Trinitarian theology, some have tried to appeal to wave/particle dualism as an analogy for god being both one and three. Even if the analogy is felt by some to be appropriate, it isn’t clear that it clarifies anything; and I fear it may just be an attempt to appeal to science to justify theology when it doesn’t really. But I do think that Trinitarian theologians and theologians in general do need to wrestle with what we know about the universe, and when they use terms like “person,” what science has to say about persons.

    Anyway, those a just a few quick thoughts in response to your questions.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Mike, I don’t know that “blame” is a word I would use – are any of us “guilty” for not foreseeing questions that those who come after us may ask, on light of cultural, scientific and linguistic changes that we had no way of foreseeing.

    It certainly may be expected that, as Christianity became increasingly Gentile, aspects of its character changed. I think, however, that what we are dealing with in Paul’s own letters nevertheless represents a Jewish perspective, one which he himself understood to be monotheistic, without feeling the need to defend himself against charges to the contrary the way he did with the Law.

    Finally, on the question of how science relates to Trinitarian theology, some have tried to appeal to wave/particle dualism as an analogy for god being both one and three. Even if the analogy is felt by some to be appropriate, it isn’t clear that it clarifies anything; and I fear it may just be an attempt to appeal to science to justify theology when it doesn’t really. But I do think that Trinitarian theologians and theologians in general do need to wrestle with what we know about the universe, and when they use terms like “person,” what science has to say about persons.

    Anyway, those a just a few quick thoughts in response to your questions.

  • Gary

    James said “some have tried to appeal to wave/particle dualism as an analogy for god being both one and three”…Schrodinger’s wave equation verses the particle view are just math models to describe the experimental observed data of scientists. Those that use it to describe the Trinity are really reaching, and I think wasting their time. Although I remember looking at a book in our local library, written by a physicist, and the entire book tried to use Schrodinger’s wave equation to predict the probability of God’s existence. Though I studied the wave equation back in my college days a long time ago, I have to admit that the book appeared to me to be a bunch of handwaving junk. I forget the name of the physicist, and the title of the book. But I am sure it is floating around in the ether of the internet.

  • Gary

    James said “some have tried to appeal to wave/particle dualism as an analogy for god being both one and three”…Schrodinger’s wave equation verses the particle view are just math models to describe the experimental observed data of scientists. Those that use it to describe the Trinity are really reaching, and I think wasting their time. Although I remember looking at a book in our local library, written by a physicist, and the entire book tried to use Schrodinger’s wave equation to predict the probability of God’s existence. Though I studied the wave equation back in my college days a long time ago, I have to admit that the book appeared to me to be a bunch of handwaving junk. I forget the name of the physicist, and the title of the book. But I am sure it is floating around in the ether of the internet.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Those interested in New Testament Christology may also find the recent post at Diglotting about whether there is literal pre-existence in view in Colossians 1:15-20 of interest.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Those interested in New Testament Christology may also find the recent post at Diglotting about whether there is literal pre-existence in view in Colossians 1:15-20 of interest.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    James, I agree with you on the issue of blame. One can not predict the future. I also agree that Paul preached what he, and most others in Jewish society took to be monotheism. But I think Greeks and other pagan people would naturally read god, with a little g into the “species” of heavenly beings, or beings assumed to heaven. The kind of person Paul is describing in Jesus, would to pagan ears sound like a description of a god. There were low thresh holds for this, cities had gods, emperors were gods. As easy as we say the, Spirit of ’76, pagans would have the God of 76. I think culturally it would be hard to change this attitude, it took Israel centuries to become exclusively “monotheistic”(with the exception of all the angels, who are seen as attendants like Diana’s nymphs rather than other beings like him such as the offspring of Cronus).

    On the trinity and science, I think efforts to see it in wave/particle dualism, or use that as a way of explaining the Trinity, are like hammering in square pegs. The Trinity was conceived of without modern insights on physics, and really not with as much critical thought as most of there competitors views of God. I think the attempts to find out what is really god, of the philosophical religions the world over, are really deep exploration of what is the nature of existence, what is ultimate? The more profound ones are less obligated to the traditions of their fathers. But the Trinity is an attempt. not to find the nature of god though reason or mystical experience, but trying solve contradictions in text and statements of faith. Christians wanted to both a divine Jesus and only one God like classic Judaism. Throwing the spirit explains something that was misunderstood in the old text, and makes a nice complete number.

    Do you think it has any reality in terms in describing what is ultimate or the nature of reality? Can the Bible contribute much more to the exploration of the nature of God, than it can for the exploration of nature or psychology?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    James, I agree with you on the issue of blame. One can not predict the future. I also agree that Paul preached what he, and most others in Jewish society took to be monotheism. But I think Greeks and other pagan people would naturally read god, with a little g into the “species” of heavenly beings, or beings assumed to heaven. The kind of person Paul is describing in Jesus, would to pagan ears sound like a description of a god. There were low thresh holds for this, cities had gods, emperors were gods. As easy as we say the, Spirit of ’76, pagans would have the God of 76. I think culturally it would be hard to change this attitude, it took Israel centuries to become exclusively “monotheistic”(with the exception of all the angels, who are seen as attendants like Diana’s nymphs rather than other beings like him such as the offspring of Cronus).

    On the trinity and science, I think efforts to see it in wave/particle dualism, or use that as a way of explaining the Trinity, are like hammering in square pegs. The Trinity was conceived of without modern insights on physics, and really not with as much critical thought as most of there competitors views of God. I think the attempts to find out what is really god, of the philosophical religions the world over, are really deep exploration of what is the nature of existence, what is ultimate? The more profound ones are less obligated to the traditions of their fathers. But the Trinity is an attempt. not to find the nature of god though reason or mystical experience, but trying solve contradictions in text and statements of faith. Christians wanted to both a divine Jesus and only one God like classic Judaism. Throwing the spirit explains something that was misunderstood in the old text, and makes a nice complete number.

    Do you think it has any reality in terms in describing what is ultimate or the nature of reality? Can the Bible contribute much more to the exploration of the nature of God, than it can for the exploration of nature or psychology?

  • Anthony F. Buzzard

    Whjy can’t biblical scholars unpack the most important christological truth of Ps 110.1? This verse runs like “a golden thread” throughout the books of the NT and beautifully defines the relative status of God and His Messiah.

    Dunn notes in his book Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? [f.24, p. 103] that “Hurtado pays reltatively little attention to Ps 110.1…only briefly in Lord Jesus Christ [p 105, 179-80, 183-84]…oddly enough Bauckham’s argument in his book Jesus & the God of Israel</i. [p. 224]…Ps 110.1 does not constitute a Christology of divine identity, since it assumes some distinction between YHWH [Ho Kyrios] & the lord Christ”.

    Why is this headline information lost in obscure footnotes? Is it not time to state the obvious fact that the 2nd “lord” of Ps 110.1 is the Hebrew adoni, which in all of its 195 occurences NEVER refers to Deity, but rather distinguishes a human “lord” from the One LORD/YHWH/God/Adonai. Why has there been such a reluctance to explain the devastatingly important significance of adoni, “my lord”, as THE CRUCIAL DEFINITION OF Jesus in relation to the One God, His Father?

  • http://www.facebook.com/bpburnett Brendan Paul Burnett

    Is it possible in Psa. 110:1 that David qua psalmic prophet only intends to refer to the future man Christ Jesus? That might be right. But I don’t see how that would actually conflict with an orthodox understanding of Christology of the two natures inhering together perfectly in a single person. Surely all Trinitarians could hold hands and sing of their Lord “The Man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5) but not in any way, in their understanding, compromise his deity. Perhaps, even if your point on Psa. 110:1 goes through (and it’s disputable that it does), Jesus is this “adoni” according to his human nature. But that, of course, does not negate a divine nature.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bpburnett Brendan Paul Burnett

    One of the biggest things that always irks me when reading theologians is their sloppy terminology. I’m an orthodox Trinitarian, to be sure. But I think I am justified also claim to know a little bit about logical significations and consistency in speech, having studied Philosophy at the University of Sydney for several years now.

    One of my greatest problems reading some (note, “some”) Trinitarian theologians is their use of the word “identical” and/or “is.” Now to all you Christian theologians and lay bloggers and writers within the sound of my blog-voice… HEAR YE, HEAR YE! According to basic, first-order logic (assuming the numerical identification thesis about identity — the most common and basic thesis), to say “X is identical to Y” really is just another way of saying X and Y are precisely the same object. That is to say, there really exists one object with two names: “X” and “Y.” “Brendan Burnett” (X) is identical to “the person writing this post” (Y). X and Y are precisely the very same exact thing. Simple, right?

    Evidently not for a lot of theologians! Richard Bauckham’s little 90 pp. book “God Crucified” (2002) just is a perfect example of this. Bauckham’s concept of the “divine identity” is a very cryptic signification indeed. The Son, Jesus, shares in “the divine identity” with the Father, presumably alongside the Spirit also. But this kind of language just confuses everyone! Is Bauckham claiming that the person of Jesus stands in a numerical identity relation along to “the thing” which is the divine thing, as do the persons of the Father and the Spirit? Well then of COURSE the Father, the Spirit and the Son are the same person according to the logical law of the Transitivity of Identity! Using “=” to mean “is identical to”, the Transitivity of identity, stated briefly, is this:

    If X = Y and Y = Z, then X = Z.

    Or, in plain English, if X is identical to Y, and Y identical to Z, then X must also be identical to Z. Make sense? This is because identity signifies two things’ actually being the same thing after all–just with two different names.

    Apply this to Bauckham’s ambiguous “divine identity” concept. Marking “the divine thing (substance?)” as W, “The Son” as X, “the Father” as Y, and “the Spirit” as Z, what does it APPEAR* that he says to normal readers? (*I say “appear” because I know Bauckham is not TRYING to reach the illegitimate conclusion his language implies.) Using the syllogism we shall call “S”

    The Son has (= is?) the “divine identity” (X = W)
    The Father has (= is?) the “divine identity” (Y = W)
    The Spirit has (= is?) the “divine identity” (Z = W).

    We now have a big problem! For if we take this syllogism S, and apply to it the Transitivity of Identity, then we indeed come out with this disaster:

    Given X = W, Y = W, and Z = W; therefore X = Y and X = Z, Y = X and Y = Z, and Z = X and Z = Y.

    In other words, in plain English, once again the Son (X), the Father (Y) and the Spirit (Z) all become THE SAME THING (W), and therefore the really are no “three” persons after all but one new thing, namely, this W guy/thing! Modalism has succeeded at last; it has won the day.

    Not that any Trinitarian would WANT to say that! I’m not accusing Bauckham of being a closet Modalist. I’m just pointing out that when theologians use sloppy language (which is often), it just confuses everyone. Often, a text which is obviously intended to communicate an orthodox proposition about the godhead simply fails on account of its poor use of terminology, and this is apt to raise doubts in the minds of critical thinkers and investigators into the Trinity who are up to scratch on the issues and terminology of the most basic and even the more complex logics.

    Let me give just one more quick (but common) example of this theological terminological sloppiness. Often you hear (using just two divine persons to press forth the point) that “Jesus is God, and the Father is God, but Jesus is not the Father.” Well, this just sounds like you’ve used silly old “God” as a third object “Z” alongside the Father “Y” and the Son “X.” So now it sounds like you are saying “X = Z, and Y = Z, but X ≠* [* 'is not identical to'] Y” which is, of course, incoherent on its face. In other words, in this situation, (to quote J. F. Kennedy horrendously), “It all depends on what ‘IS’ means.” So many young Christians are simply in danger because they are not taught these basic distinctions by their seminary professors, pastors and teachers about how to distinguish established terminology and concepts in the appropriate way, and therefore many of them grow up to BECOME seminary professors themselves writing books about “the divine identity” and not giving a hint of what they actually mean, thus confusing everyone in a vicious cycle of terminological and conceptual misuse and distraction.

    Dear friends, I have even had young people (note there in the plural!) my age (18-24 yrs) come up to me and defend the Trinity by blindly affirming “Contradiction” and sticking with it proudly as if they were highly religious for believing such nonsense. The fact that even a single Christian layperson could be so profoundly ignorant and flout around such absurdities — “sticking to the faith despite all odds and appearances” as it were — is a complete tragedy for the church today; an embarrassment to be sure. No wonder Muslims and others so often scratch their heads or even laugh at Christianity! Theologians need to up their game!

  • Dale Tuggy

    “only hope that he or someone else will take up this particular task”

    It was the latter: http://trinities.org/dale/OBB-preprint.pdf

    Nice review, James. I too complained about his uncritical reliance on Bauckham, in my review for Faith and Philosophy.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Thanks for sharing that! I am glad to be made aware of your blog, as well as the article. I will need to mention both in a blog post here!


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