In his stimulating study of Augustine, Barth, and contemporary Trinitarian theology, Incarnational Realism, Travis Ables summarizes two tendencies of recent Trinitarian thought: Hegelian idealism and personalism. He sees both “as salutary in their intentions” but in danger of service “as an increasingly formalistic conceptual paradigm to serve idealist or personalistic ends” (11).
What might a “formalist” Trinitarian theology be? Ables points to critics of Augustine, who complain that he “posits a formal resemblance between the memoria-intelligentia-voluntas triad . . . and the persons of the Trinity.” Ables wants to test whether “Augustine’s intellectual triad is an analogy, in the sense of a metaphor or a set of formal resemblances” (37-38). He concludes that it is not, since the image of God is “a performative movement of participation, rather than formal mimetic or analogical correspondence” (72). For Ables, the incarnation becomes “purely formal” in some theologies, insofar as it is merely a generic divine-human union without specific content, a mold that is filled out by imitation (93; Ables is speaking of Milbank).
A formalistic approach would be something along these lines: The three faculties of the human psyche resemble the three persons because there are three of each; the “shape” of the human psyche resembles the “geometry” of the three persons. A “formal” resemblance doesn’t depend on any connection or sharing of one thing in another. It is resemblance “at a distance.” It would be a “formalist” use of Trinitarian theology to suggest that, for instance, the church should manifest unity and diversity because the Trinity manifests unity and diversity.
Objections to “formalism” in Trinitarian theology become rather wide-ranging, since this charge is lodged against much recent Trinitarianism in both “idealist” and “personalist” modes.
To this, I have several responses. First, Jesus Himself seems to be something of a “formalist.” He is in the Father, and the Father is in Him; and He prays to His Father that the disciples would be unified in just the same way (John 17). There’s an analogy, it seems, between the way the Father and Son are one and the way disciples of Jesus are to be one. It’s not just formal. It’s a prepositional analogy: in/in at both level.
Now, second, it will be immediately pointed out that Jesus prays for more than formal resemblance. He prays not only that the disciples would be one as Father and Son are one, but that the disciples would be one because they are brought into the in/in relationship of the Father and Son: The disciples are one because Jesus is in them, and the Father is in Jesus, and Jesus is in the Father (17:22-23).
Absolutely true: But the “participation” grounds the “analogical” or “formal” resemblance. It doesn’t eliminate the metaphorical.
More generally, fourth, there is the question of whether a “purely formal” analogy is even conceivable. John Frame objected some years ago to the anti-abstractionist rhetoric in theology, arguing that abstraction was inevitable and that abstraction existed on a sliding scale: At the ends, we might talk of “pure abstraction” or “pure concreteness,” but we don’t live at the poles but in the middle, in a mix of abstraction and concreteness. The same goes for “formalism.” There is no purely formal concept, paradigm, theory, or analogy. Even the comparison of two geometric shapes involves assessment of content. Each of the triangles has three sides, each side has a certain length, etc. We might focus on the sheer triangleness of the two triangles, but even when we do that, we have assumed a contentful judgment that they are triangles.
The answer to anti-formalism is, I suspect, simply this: Form and content are in fact inseparable. Consider typology. We have an exodus in Genesis 12, forshadowing the exodus. What makes Genesis 12 an exodus? “Formal” similarities like departure, threat, plague, enrichment, return? Well, yes, but they are hardly merely formal. Departure can be from here or there, as can return; but it always involves movement from one place to another. Besides, of course, Abram goes to Egypt in Genesis 12, there are plagues, there is a plundering, etc. The analogy is not only in a Proppian morphology; it is also in the specifics of the story, and without the specifics we would be unlikely to notice the morphic resemblance.
In any case, I suspect we cannot think or speak of form without content or vice versa, any more than we can use words that are merely sensible and not intellectual. If that is the case, then the charge of “formalism” is an empty one; or it is rhetorical, since one man’s formalism is another’s content. One might still object to trends of recent Trinitarian discussion, but one will have to find other grounds to do so.