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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