Saturday Book Review: Kyle Strobel

This review is by Kyle Strobel, author of Metamorpha: Jesus as a Way of Life, and Kyle reviews a new book on the Trinity: Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism: An Augustinian Assessment (Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology) by Keith E. Johnson.

It wasn’t all that long ago that theologians could bemoan the utter neglect of the Trinity in both theological discourse and Christian practice. What the church is currently experiencing is the opposite reality – a resurgence of the Trinity into nearly every facet of Christian existence. That may, of course, not be a bad thing, but the million dollar question remains: Has the church actually revived the doctrine of the Trinity or not? In other words, as the Trinity is used to develop ecclesiology, personhood, questions of gender, leadership models, therapeutic methods, environmental ethics, human rights, and even religious diversity, we have to ask: Is the actual orthodox understanding of the Trinity being utilized, or have we snuck something else in under the same name? Ultimately, Keith Johnson’s book, Rethinking the Trinity & Religious Pluralism seeks to answer that question.

The main thrust of this volume is to engage the uses of the Trinity in the context of religious pluralism with the trinitarian thought of Augustine. Augustine, it is taken, broadly provides authoritative teaching from the church on this issue. My focus, by contrast, is to address Johnson’s main argument and show why it is meaningful for the broader questions noted above. While his discussion of religious pluralism is both in-depth and fascinating, I think there is a broader appeal that will be more helpful for this blog. Johnson develops this broader scope in the final chapter entitled: “Rethinking the Relevance of the Trinity.” Doing so naturally raises some important questions: Is the Trinity a model or blueprint that can be utilized for societal or ecclesial issues? Historically, have there been methodological restrictions on the doctrine of the Trinity? We could put further questions to our own theologies and ministries: How do we invoke the doctrine of the Trinity? Do we? If so, what are we doing when we do so? If not, why?

Before turning to some key questions Johnson poses, as well as some hermeneutical considerations for the doctrine of the Trinity, let me foreshadow these a bit with Johnson’s overall view. Johnson fits within a growing movement in the academy that argues that the retrieval of the doctrine of the Trinity has often failed to retrieve the doctrine of the Trinity. Rather, the term “Trinity” is invoked in a variety of situations and circumstances as a model to use to make your point. In other words, the Trinity has become something of a trump card in our day and age, even if the actual doctrine of the Trinity continues to be neglected. Furthermore, with his use of Augustine, Johnson is also in league with a broad movement of academics to undermine the claim that there were two distinct models of the Trinity in the early church, the West and the East, or what might be called the Oneness-Threeness paradigm. On this view, Augustine is the paradigmatic figure for the West, who starts with oneness and therefore never adequately outlines threeness in God, whereas the Cappadocian theologians (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus), start with threeness and a robust understanding of personhood and communion. It should be said that schema is now understood to be false.

Johnson offers material to interrogate proposals utilizing the doctrine of the Trinity as a model or a blueprint, that I paraphrase as five questions:

1. Apart from specific scriptural guidance, how do we determine what implications follow from God’s inner architecture? (201) In other words, there is a popular movement to make God’s inner-life a model that we then wield for our own agenda, even if that agenda ultimately undermines Scriptural mandates. One’s account of a specific aspect of the Trinity becomes the trump card.

2. Is there an adequate Christological mediation in place to bridge the Creator-creature distinction, or does this distinction collapse? In other words, because God is wholly other, there is no straight line to draw between his life and our own. (202) Christology is a more adequate starting point to talk about God’s life and relation to his creation than attempting to abstract a model from God’s inner-life.

3. Is the proposal a projection of our own concerns into the doctrine of God that is then used to justify and advance our own presuppositions? In other words, are we using the doctrine of the Trinity as something of a magic 8 ball to answer whatever pressing problem we are concerned with, and reading the doctrine in such a way that our presuppositions are enforced? (203)

4. Do the “trinitarian” blueprints maintain the language of Scripture or are imperatives drawn from this speculative architecture built, most likely, for the very purpose of making the blueprint that goes beyond or in another direction from the biblical text? In other words, are blueprints created to answer a question according to pre-set presuppositions that cannot otherwise be justified? This is an important point for Johnson’s interaction with certain thinkers’ use of the Trinity to establish an account of religious pluralism.

5. In light of number four particularly, we need to ask if appeals to the immanent Trinity support general claims or are made to support specific ideological accounts. In other words, the general claim: “God is one and therefore the church should be one” is true, but it does not help to establish a specific ecclesiology. (206) Likewise, we can say “God is love, and therefore we should love one another,” but it would be a mistake to establish a detailed account of God’s life of love beyond the Scriptural account and use that to create a methodology or model for our life.

While these questions may help us carve out illegitimate uses of the doctrine of the Trinity, they only go so far in helping to detail legitimate uses of the doctrine. Fortunately, Johnson outlines six purposes of trinitarian reflection, all of which are based on Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity:

1. Theological purpose: Rather than focusing on making a blueprint to use, the doctrine of the Trinity is fundamentally about God.
2. Doxological purpose: “Trinitarian teaching shapes the liturgical practices of the church including gospel proclamation, baptism, prayer, worship, preaching and communion.” (210)
3. Hermeneutical purpose: Trinitarian doctrine serves as a “rule of faith” that shapes our reading of Scripture.
4. Anthropological purpose: Knowing God as triune is tied to knowing oneself as made in the image of God.
5. Formative purpose: The doctrine of the Trinity is to set our minds on who God truly is as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The pilgrim sees “through a glass darkly,” but she sees nonetheless. Therefore the sight known in contemplation is a precursor of the sight that will be known in eternity. Seeing, in any form, is tied to becoming.
6. Soteriological purpose: The doctrine of the Trinity outlines not only who God is, but who God is for us, and therefore addresses the core of soteriology.

This book is excellent in many ways. Johnson knows this material incredibly well. He is conversant in the major contemporary debates about the Trinity, Augustine, and religious pluralism, and he does a remarkable job navigating this material for readers who might not be familiar with it. It is an academic work but he continually defines academic jargon for the reader. If you want to dive into the doctrine of the Trinity, this is as good a book as any at doing that. His main purpose, to show that uses of this doctrine have not remained faithful to it, are devastating, as far as I can tell, to the theories he engages. Nevertheless, his engagement is generous at every turn. This is a top notch book, and would be a worthwhile meditation for anyone interested in how the doctrine of the Trinity functions in Christian thought.

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  • Steve Sherwood

    I have not read the book, so this is meant as a question, not a declarative statement pretending to be a question. Why does he view Augustine as the anchor and starting point for his evaluation of all Trinitarian theology? I can see him being integral to the discussion, but why such a primary and defining one? Why not further back to earlier church fathers and why not more from the East?

    I can see concern that, particularly related to religious pluralism, too much can be argued in the name of being Trinitarian. That said, the Trinitarian work of Barth, Torrance, LaCunga, Grentz, and Zizioulas has been the most life giving theology I’ve ever encountered. Am I correct in reading between the lines that Johnson is skeptical of much of that?

  • Robert

    That looks worth getting. I can see whay he’d want to start with Augustine, since he’s had so much influence on the Western Church, but what about Orthodox understandings? I’ve long felt that, in practice, the traditional formulations were close to irrelevant to modern Christians, but I’m not sure what they could be replaced with.

  • Tom F.

    Even if Augustine and the Cappadocians don’t have radically different views, there is still a difference between Augustine’s faculty understanding of the Trinity and the Cappadocian’s more “Social” model, no?

    If not, perhaps someone can point me towards a book that discusses the Trinitarian topic more specifically. (I’m not necessarily interested in the religious pluralism angle, more in the theological anthropological angle.)

  • Scot McKnight

    Tom F,

    The standard recommended textbookish text on Trinity … is Roger Olson, The Trinity.

  • ScottW

    In line with previous comments I can’t comment on this work but the definitive account of trinitarian theology should not be accorded to St. Augustine but to the ones who actually hammered out the Nicene Orthodoxy–the Greek Fathers of the 4th cent. Against the Augustinian analogies the Greek Father’s reflections were grounded in the grammar and logic of the NT revelation.

    Eminent Orthodox patristics scholar, Fr. John Behr some of the tackles some of the issues raised in this post in the following links:

    And especially germaine in understanding the true nature of Nicene Orthodoxy from a biblical/diachronic perspective is his following essay, “The Paschal Foundation of Christian Theology” in which he critiques St. Augustine’s reflection on the Trinity:

  • @Tom F.,

    Lewis Ayres’ book: Nicaea and Its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology is one of THE proposals that has laid to rest what Kyle alludes to in his post (on the divide between East and West on Trinitarian matters). This is the book you should get for that!

  • I think the church really has revived the doctrine of the trinity, great review of a solid book!

  • Hello all, and thank you for the comments on my review. Steve, the reason why Augustine is used as standard is that his thought represents the thinking of the trinitarian tradition leading up to him (broadly speaking). Many modern theologians, like Barth, have sought to go back to this understanding of the Trinity, so do and some don’t. Social trinitarianism is not represented in the early church, either in Augustine or in the Cappadocians as far as I can tell. Many of those who criticize Augustine, in modern theological circles (there is a whole cottage industry in the last generation doing this), have not actually sat down and grasped the depth of his work. If you are interested, I would see Lewis Ayres and Michel Barnes. Bobby’s suggestion is right, in my mind, if you want to grasp trinitarian theology in its historical context, Ayres book, Nicaea and Its Legacy is already a classic. Ayres new book on Augustine and the Trinity would be a good place to start as well.

  • Steven

    I am a ThM student in Historical Theology at Fuller Seminary, and Lewis Ayres is held in high esteem here. Nicaea and its Legacy has been incredibly formative for me in my own thinking about these issues.

  • Steve Sherwood

    I find this quote from Miroslav Volf to be helpful:

    “Though important, the debate between advocates of the two models, the one allegedly Eastern and the other Western, is often unproductive because it tends to disregard a rather obvious fact: Each model is inadequate to the extent to which it falls to accommodate the truth of the other.” He calls for social Trinitarianism in a “weak sense.”

  • Steve, Volf unfortunately continues to work with the idea that there are two models at play here. He just thinks they need to balance each other out. Rather, the growing consensus is that the early church had one coherent approach to the Trinity, wielded differently in different situations. Volf’s social trinitarianism is, in my opinion, a failure to grasp the coherence of trinitarian dogma and postulates a model that is more useful for things like ecclesiology. Johnson’s book, in my mind, is a helpful corrective to Volf’s approach.

  • Steve Sherwood

    I’m not you’re reading into that quote what Volf intends, Kyle, nor the reason I posted it. His use of the phrase “allegedly Eastern,” indicates, I believe (and the larger essay of which this quote is a small part confirms) that he too believes too much has been made of the stark contrast of East/West approaches to the Trinity. He’s more referring to folks doing Trinitarian work NOW, of which there seems to be no doubt at least two separate streams. You’d represent one, wouldn’t you agree over against social Trinitarians?

    The chapter from which this quote is taken argues that social approaches to the Trinity are helpful in some ways and psychological models in others and that neither can fully grasp all that the Trinity is.

    You seem anxious to dismiss all social applications, I’m not. At least not wholesale.

  • Steve, I’m not attempting to push my view at all, but to address what I believe Johnson is doing. My main question has to do with the coherence of trinitarian theology. Social trinitarianism, despite the efforts of modern social trinitarians, is not an option for a patristic heritage. That might not bother you, but what Johnson, and the growing historical theology community attest to, is that there was a decisive way to talk about the Trinity in the early church. Therefore, taking the ecumenical authority seriously here, means, in my opinion and I believe with Johnson, that social trinitarianism simply isn’t trinitarian in a serious sense.

    Likewise, now we are well within my opinion here, I don’t think it is helpful to talk about models of the Trinity primarily. For instance, it would be inaccurate to talk about Augustine having a psychological model of the Trinity. That takes a method he was using in one work and solidifies it rather than asking deeper questions about what he was trying to do. Doing so is one of the reasons why people mistakenly posited two “models” in the early church where there was only one.

    You may be right about my thoughts in Volf, but If he does grasp that there was one unified way to address the Trinity that was given ecumenical authority his response to that authority is curious at best.

  • So Steve, as is evident I was asserting my opinion (as I look back) but I wasn’t trying to! Let me say one more thing to address your questions directly. I don’t think models are the way to go. I think it is imperative that we meditate deeply on what the consensus was in the early church and allow those discussions to provide us with a robust trinitarian grammar. In pastoral work, which is hopefully what these discussions ultimately lead us to, I think models are unhelpful, as are the language of the creeds. We teach the Trinity when we talk about salvation and prayer, and hopefully, we do so in a way that is truly trinitarian.

    My worry about the social folks would be my same worry about the psychological analogy folks. Models seems set on making God’s inner-life into a program that we can use, rather than revealing to us who this God is. Volf, for instance, turns to a social model, in part, to create a mechanism for ecclesiology. The question we have to ask is whether or not this is what trinitarian grammar is for. I hope that makes sense.

  • Elaine

    “Models seems set on making God’s inner-life into a program that we can use, rather than revealing to us who this God is. Volf, for instance, turns to a social model, in part, to create a mechanism for ecclesiology. The question we have to ask is whether or not this is what trinitarian grammar is for.”

    Indeed, we are dabbling with things far beyond our grasp.
    To me, the problem is that it is the height of presumption for finite humans to presume to be able to place ‘order’ in the Trinity (as in sub-ordination of the Son). Why would their ‘doings’ or their ‘role’ necessitate an ordinated hierarchy? Is it because we humans do that amongst ourselves, therefore we think it must be so in the Godhead?

  • Elaine, that is a great point. Rather than turning to the economy, to grasp the “image” of the invisible God, we turn to the inner-life of God and can wield it for whatever purpose we want. That is at the heart of Johnson’s critique. I especially like his satirical “trinitarian government” model with the three main US branches of government! Classic. See p. 201.

  • Elaine

    I would think Jesus words in John 14 alone should detour us making hard and fast rules about the inner life of God. But then what would some theologians do with all that spare time?

  • Steve Sherwood

    Unless they speculated 1600 years ago. 🙂