Review of Thomas McCall, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?

Review of Thomas McCall, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? May 20, 2011

I am grateful to Eerdmans for having sent me a free review copy of Thomas H. McCall’s book Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).

McCall’s book examines key voices in contemporary Trinitarian theology through the lens of analytic philosophy. The introduction explains the rationale for McCall’s effort to build a bridge between analytic philosophy and systematic theology, emphasizing that, on the one hand, he is not trying to be something other than a theologian, while on the other hand, “theologians need – sometimes <i>desperately</i> need – the kind of assistance that might be found in the analytic toolkit” (p.4).

The first chapter surveys several major trends in contemporary Trinitarian theology, as well as their critics. Social Trinitarianism, Relative Trinitarianism, and “Latin” Trinitarianism. For the person who shares my interest not only in theology and religion but also in science fiction, the discussion of the last of these will perhaps be the most interesting, since  it includes Brian Leftow’s use of an analogy involving time travel, with one person being in three places at once as a result – one person, simultaneously in three distinct occurrences, with three distinguishable identities and experiences. Whether the analogy is helpful and persuasive or not, the line of thought is interesting. Through a consideration of the aforementioned topics, the major concern of most classic Trinitarian theology – to avoid modalism on the one hand and tritheism on the other – is not only explained but illustrated.

The second chapter turns attention to the New Testament and monotheism. As a New Testament scholar myself with great interest in this particular subject (see my book The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Contextfor my own views on this topic), I felt that this chapter missed a wonderful opportunity to apply the concern for logic and clarity that typifies analytic philosophy to the depiction of early Christian monotheism and Christology that is found in Richard Bauckham’s work. One of Bauckham’s contributions is the introduction of the category of “divine identity” into the discussion. However, as I have said before on my old blog, this terminology is not self explanatory. Judaism in the period around New Testament times depicted God as sharing his name (a key indicator of identity) with a principal angelic or human agent. Is being an emissary a case of shared identity? Or is the model of a family relevant (with distinct first names, perhaps, but a common surname)? Bauckham has yet to clarify what this terminology means when he applies it to the New Testament and ancient Judaism, and until he does so, or until others do, then it will continue to be unhelpful to adopt “divine identity” as a conceptual framework.

McCall says in the conclusion of the book that Christian theology must “dig in their heels” at the New Testament view of Christology and monotheism (p.242). He also says claims which are “demonstrably logically incoherent” are “necessarily false and thus cannot possibly be the deliverance of revelation” (p.232). I would love to see him examine Bauckham’s understanding of the New Testament’s Christological statements to see whether Bauckham’s view is logically coherent and meaningful or not, and can only hope that he or someone else will take up this particular task.

Chapter 3 returns attention to the three approaches introduced and given an initial treatment in the first chapter. Section two then focuses even more detailed attention on specific theologians. Chapter 4 is about Robert Jenson’s definition of God as “whoever raised Jesus from the dead.” Jenson in fact understands God to be not only identified with this activity but identical to it, and McCall finds the latter stance to be problematic. The fact that McCall here recognizes that particular ways of understanding and defining divine identity can be problematic reinforces the need for a similarly critical analysis of Bauckham’s own “identity thesis.” Chapter 5 focuses on Jürgen Moltmann’s panentheistic social Trinitarianism and its emphasis on perichoresis. Chapter 6 looks at recent Evangelical proponents of “Eternal Functional Subordinationism” and evaluates them as most likely guilty of Arianism. Chapter 7 looks at the Trinitarian theology of John Zizioulas, and the relationship between his claims about God as essentially “Being as communion” and his claims about divine aseity.

In chapter 8, the book concludes with some suggestions for guiding principles for contemporary Trinitarian theology. As was already mentioned, McCall treats the  monotheism and Christology of the New Testament as the non-negotiable centerpiece of such theology, but his tendency to quote Bauckham’s recent work uncritically obscures the fact that there are other possible ways of understanding that core data, even among those who accept the same principle McCall does regarding the necessity that Christian theology do justice to those texts. Beyond that, McCall encourages Christian theologians to offer as strong an account of divine oneness as possible. While it may, in his view, be impossible to be faithful to the norms of the Christian tradition while at the same time offering an account of the Christian view of God that meets the standards of monotheism set by Judaism and Islam, to the extent possible Christians should seek to offer an account of God’s oneness that will be acceptable and persuasive to others.

If anyone is looking for a careful analysis of some of the major ideas and individual contributions to contemporary Trinitarian theology, McCall’s book offers it, and I can recommend it as providing an interesting and engaging perspective. Those interested in how contemporary theology relates to the beliefs of the earliest Christians and the texts of the New Testament, however, should definitely supplement their reading of McCall with some other perspectives beside Bauckham’s on that subject. And hopefully it will not be long until someone, perhaps utilizing the tools of analytic philosophy, subjects Bauckham’s statements about “divine identity” to critical examination.

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