Person v. Mode of Being

Person v. Mode of Being June 14, 2018

Barth and Rahner both rejected using “person” to describe the Father, Son, and Spirit, opting instead of a translation of the Cappadocian phrase tropoi hyparxeos, three “modes of being” or “manners of subsistence.”

William Hasker (Metaphysics and the Tri-Personal God, 93-94)wonders what payoff they hope to gain, “over and above avoiding the suspicion of tritheism.”

Answering that question, Hasker points out that Rahner and Barth use the phrase in a sense quite different from that of the Cappadocians. For the Cappadocians, “the ‘manner of being’ is an attribute of each Person, an attribute which distinguishes that Person from the other two. For instance, the Son’s manner of being is that of being begotten, and the Spirit’s manner of being is that of proceeding. For these theologians, the tropos hyparxeos is not a designation of what each of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is, but is rather the distinguishing attribute in virtue of which each is distinct from the other two.”

By contrast, with Barth and Rahner, “it is God who is the subject of all three tropoi hyparxeos; accordingly, for them the expression has to carry a burden—that of explaining the sense in which each is a hypostasis—that it was never designed by the Cappadocians to bear. Accordingly, the use of the expression by Barth and Rahner gains no authority or sanction from the ancients from whom the terminology is derived.”

Rahner doesn’t really explain the benefits of the change: “Although he is insistent on grounding the doctrine of the Trinity in salvation history, he actually has rather little to say about specific biblical texts. He concludes the book with the assertion that ‘the real doctrine of the Trinity is presented in Christology and in pneumatology’ . . . , inviting us to look at treatises on those topics for further enlightenment.”

When Barth addresses the question, he doesn’t stick with his earlier strict delimination of Triune personhood: “the grounds on which the doctrine of the Trinity is based seem to have shifted. No longer are we dealing with a general pattern of Revelation, Revealer, and Revealedness; instead, the whole discussion revolves around the one man, Jesus Christ, in his relationship with the heavenly Father.”

Attending to the economy, further, Barth notes that the Father is the One “whom Jesus obeyed, to whom he prayed, and whom he declared to us as our Father” (Hasker’s summary). Barth writes that Jesus, “as him who reveals the Father and reconciles us with the Father, is the Son of God” and “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God Himself, as God his Father is God Himself.”

Hasker observes, “It is hard to avoid the impression that in saying these things Barth has violated his earlier insistence that the trinitarian distinctions are not directly present in the distinctions in revelation, but are only analogically indicated by them. The argument presented in these chapters hinges on the assumption that the trinitarian Fatherhood and Sonship are directly present in the relationship between Jesus and his Father in heaven.”

Once that concession is made, it’s even harder to see what Barth gains by substituting “mode of being” for “person.” If the Father-Son relation is “directly present” in the relation between Jesus and His Father, “then the personal relationship between Jesus and the Father is a relationship between God the Father and God the Son. And this, of course, is the key exegetical point on which a Social (or pro­Social) doctrine of the Trinity is based.”

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  • So Barth and Rahner both reject the orthodox Trinitarianism of the ecumenical councils? They both embrace the heresy of modalism? I hadn’t realized that! I wonder how Rahner got away with that in the Catholic church and how we can refer to Barth as neo-“orthodox.” This needs to be more widely known. Thanks for this discussion.

  • They didn’t reject Orthodox Trinitarianism. They referred to the Triune Persons as “modes of being” implying that the Persons are not merely masks worn by the real God (as in modalism) but are actually integral to the being of God. The reason why they didn’t like the term “Person” is because they wanted to avoid the appearance of social Trinitarianism, not because they were modalists.

  • Rod Bristol

    It seems to me that the satisfaction one may feel in any flavor of Trinitarianism is ill founded. The exercises of analysis and synthesis of a structure, texture, nature, interrelationships, and so forth may be intellectually and philosophically appealing, but they must always fall far short of the divine reality. I think we all would do better to respect the mystery instead of trying to explain it.

    Scripture consistently identifies God by his actions, with little description. The Son is the Son _of_ God and God _with_ us; the Spirit is the Spirit _of_ God (interchangeably Father and Son) and God _in_ us; and the Father is the Father of the Son and of all who identify as human brothers and sisters of the Son. These things collide in our minds uncomfortably, but that discomfort can remind us of the grace of God who pursues us by revealing himself in his actions and especially in the Incarnation. God who revealed himself in the Incarnation invites us to participate in that Incarnation as the Body of Christ.

    Too much conflict has resulted from setting up various orthodoxies against various heresies. Instead of building walls, and even shedding blood, we should be encouraging one another in faith.

  • Demosthenes

    So then how does one distinguish the true God from false gods? Is there such a thing as heresy? Are you saying that the Councils were wrong?

  • Rod Bristol

    The distinction between the true God and false gods does not rest on our terminology or our explanations. The distinction rests in his actions, as performed in the flesh, by the Son, as testified by the scriptures.

    Heresy is merely departure from orthodoxy; both are human constructs. The Councils were merely human; they were not so much “wrong” as inadequate. Their noble efforts to draw lines between truth and falsehood should be respected, but not taken for more than flawed approximations. The best understanding of God by any person or group will always fall short of the transcendent reality of God.