Edwards’s Social Trinity?

Edwards’s Social Trinity? May 12, 2014

A few recent scholars have attempted to enlist Jonathan Edwards on the side of social Trinitarianism, most prominently Amy Plantinga Pauw in her Supreme Harmony of All. Steven Studebaker isn’t buying it, and explains why in his Jonathan Edwards’ Social Augustinian Trinitarianism.

Studebaker argues that social Trinitarianism depends on a threeness-oneness paradigm according to which Western Trinitarian theology started with the one substance of God and had trouble accommodating the three Persons, while Eastern theology started from the opposite point of view. Drawing on the recent work of Michel Rene Barnes and others, he argues that this paradigm, while useful for “broad generalizations” and “pedagogical” purposes (3), ultimately “oversimplifies the trinitarian traditions” and cannot be used as a setting for Edwards’s theology in particular. Since social Trinitarianism rests on a threeness-oneness account of the history of Trinitarian theology, if the latter collapses so does the former.

He admits that Edwards uses social analogies, including the language of a divine “society,” to describe the Persons of the Trinity. But these metaphors translate into a social “model” only if one assumes the threeness-oneness paradigm (104). Positively, Studebaker suggests that Edwards remains close to the Augustinian mutual love tradition. Though it stresses the communion in love between Father and Son, the Augustinian tradition is not a form of social Trinitarianism. Studebaker cleverly argues that turning the mutual love paradigm into a nascent social Trinitarianism invalidates the threeness-oneness paradigm because it shows that Augustine already was operating with a “social” model. But the threeness-oneness model is the basis of social Trinitarianism, and so saying that Augustine has a social-Trinitarian trajectory undermines the historical genealogy of social Trinitarianism. As I say, it’s clever.

Theologically, Studebaker argues that a key difference between social Trinitarianism and the mutual-love model is the role of the Spirit. According to the latter, the Spirit is the “bond of love between the Father and the Son,” and also the bond of the saints to the Father and Son (102). Augustine does not say that the Spirit is either a lover of Father and Son, or beloved by them, as social Trinitarianism requires. He writes, in Augustine and Edwards, the “Spirit is neither a recipient nor a giver of love, but is the love that binds the Father and the Son in eternal fellowship. The society of Edwards’ Trinity is two divine persons united in loving communion by the third person who is identical with that mutual love between the Father and the Son. Edwards trinitarian society is clearly Augustinian and not the three-subject trinitarian society of social trinitarianism,” in which “each divine subject gives and receives love” (196-7).

That reference to triple subjectivity introduces some tension into Studebaker’s argument. He argues, rightly, that Barth and Rahner are both single-subject Trinitarians (70-1), and marks that as one of the differences between Augustinian and social Trinitarian theologies. Yet, he suggests that for Edwards “Communication requires at least two giving and receiving subjects. In the Godhead, the subjects must be two infinite subjects giving and receiving love” (216). “Subject” here is not Edwards’s term, and perhaps Studebaker doesn’t mean it to be taken in a strict sense. But the problem arises elsewhere too, as when he explains that Edwards’s notion of the “covenant of redemption” involves the Son’s free acceptance of His role in redemption, a role that is not “unilaterally” imposed by the Father (204). How does the Son consent without being in some sense a distinct subject?

Studebaker’s book contributes significantly to our understanding of Edwards and his historical setting, something that I’ll take up in another post.

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