Travis Ables’s Incarnational Realism is a very fine book, a monograph to learn from, to grapple and battle and argue with. I didn’t find it utterly convincing; but what is? Even when not persuasive, it’s the kind of incisive study that leaves marks and scars and stigmata. What more could one want in a theological treatise?
Ables focuses mainly on a close reading of Augustine’s de Trinitate and Barth (mainly Book 4 of the Church Dogmatics). These readings are set against current trends in Trinitarian theology that Ables labels “idealist” (Hegelian, historicist, God developing Trinitarianly in history) and “personalist” (God as Persons in communion).
The historical and constructive aspects of the book are inseparable. One of the questions he addresses in his study of Augustine is the charge that Augustine implies an impersonal “fourth” thing in the Trinity, an un-hypostatized substance that underlies the three persons and is the ultimate referent of the word “God.” Ables things this is a “complete historical falsity” (181). Augustine instead claims repeatedly, and Ables thinks consistently, that there is no God other than the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit.
But that historical defense is deployed in a sharp criticism of Augustine’s critics: “In a rich irony, both idealist and personalist doctrines of the Trinity actually employ a ‘fourth’ in order to articulate the intelligibility of the divine act. In fact, this implicit dependence upon a ‘fourth’ in the Trinity is a trait that is common to both detractors of Augustine like Gunton or Jenson, and to his defenders, such as Williams or Milbank, who incorporate personalistic emphases. In both cases, the communion of persons, or the mutual bestowal of love by Father and Son, is handled as something that is itself understood as agential and the term of human participation. To say that God’s being is one constituted in relationality – that God’s unity is that of the communion of persons – is to say, correlatively, that to be a divine hypostasis is to participate in something, or to communicate something, which is more primordial than the hypostases itself. It is extraordinarily difficult to claim that ‘God is a loving communion of persons’ without hypostatizing that ‘communion’ as the real reference of the term ‘God,’ of which the persons are mere instances or participants. But if that is the case, we are back with a deus absconditus behind the ‘persons’” (181).
That charge is more directly lodged against Jenson, who speak of the referent of God as the very life of the three Persons, the “what happens” among the Persons. Or, in a more “idealist” vein, “God” is what happens between the Father and the Son in the Spirit.
But it also applies, Ables argues, to Williams and Milbank, who claim to be explicating Augustine. Ables, on the contrary, say that Williams and Milbank follow a “different logic than Augustine” (95). That difference comes out as a “double relation” of the Father and Son: According to personalistic account, in addition to the relation of origin, there is a reciprocal “relationship of love between Father and Son.” If, as Williams and Milbank suggest, “the Spirit as the vinculum caritatis is the mediating agency of that reciprocity, the agent who receives and bestows the mutual charity of Father and Son, then the relation of the Father and Son is something other than the relation of origin of Son from Father, which is the Augustinian way of thinking about their unity” (95).One problem here is that, as Ables admits, Augustine sometimes speaks of the Father loving the Son, which suggests that Augustine too is thinking of some sort of “double” relationship. Ables minimizes these statements by saying that “Even the idea of Father and Son loving one another in the Spirit is expressed hesitantly, and in non-technical terms” (100). More importantly, Scripture itself speaks of the Father’s love for the Son (John 3:35; 5:20; cf. Matthew 3:17; Luke 20:13; Colossians 1:13), and the Son’s act of obedience is reasonably construed as an act of love for the Father. We can’t limit these to the Father’s love for the incarnate Son without creating other problems. If Ables is correct that the Augustinian logic casts doubt on direct statements about the love of Father and Son (and that’s a genuine “if”), then something seems to be amiss with the Augustinian logic. But the fact that Augustine himself violates what Ables labels the “Augustinian logic” leaves me suspicious that the logic is not precisely what Ables claims.
Clever as it is, I’m not convinced by Ables’s claim that personalist theologies necessarily imply a “fourth.” “Communion” can be reified and treated as an independent agent, of course, and Ables is right to issue the warning. But I don’t see that as a necessity, any more than “substance” need be reified as a “fourth.” For starters, it certainly not necessary to say that we share in some communion that is distinct from the three persons. Rather: We share in the fellowship of the Persons because we are united to the Father’s Son by the Spirit.
And the communion of the Persons themselves need not be conceived of as “more primordial than the hypostases themselves” (181). That hypostatization might be “extraordinarily difficult” to avoid, but not impossible – again, no more impossible, it seems, than Augustine’s avoidance of a “fourth.” Saying “God is a loving communion of persons” is shorthand for saying “Father and Son are united in love by the Spirit” or “the Father indwells the Son by the Spirit and the Son the Father by the same Spirit.” I fail to see how either of those more explicitly Trinitarian formulations hypostatizes the communion of the Persons or makes it more primordial than the Persons themselves. Augustine can use shorthand phrases like “the single substance of God,” when, unpacked, that means “the divine essence subsists as the Father’s begetting of the Son and spirating of the Spirit filioque” (182).
A book to argue with.