Riding the Waves of Trinitarian Theology

Riding the Waves of Trinitarian Theology January 18, 2019

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By Paul Louis Metzger and Derrick Peterson


In surfing, you hear talk of riding the wave. The same thing happens in politics, though figuratively. Whether in surfing or politics, those who time their ascent just right can build a great deal of momentum. Something similar happens in theology, including Trinitarian theology. This blog post entry, which is co-authored with my colleague Derrick Peterson, addresses three waves of Trinitarian theology as well as the ensuing descent bound up with particular critiques.[1]

Typology: Three Waves

Given the wealth of material that exists on Trinitarian theology in the 20th century, it can often feel hopeless to organize the myriad of responses and opinions even if one were to limit oneself to “major” theologians (that identifier itself is often a matter of judgment). One such noble attempt was made recently by Sarah Coakley. Though imperfect, her attempt is a useful tool.[1] She speaks of “three waves” of Trinitarian theology in the 20th century, organizing these waves based on what she takes to be a few identifying characteristics or shared concerns and sensibilities.

These three waves also work out chronologically. Figures that ride or create the first wave of Trinitarian theology include Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, and Vladimir Lossky. Each of these thinkers is very concerned with human efforts to domesticate God and transcendence, and so expose God to secular critique from philosophy and science. To these thinkers, that God appeared vulnerable to science and philosophy revealed the deep and abiding category mistakes that had infiltrated theology. Therefore, each of these thinkers has a tendency to emphasize in their own way God’s mystery and transcendence.

In the second wave, this concern about vulnerability to secular critique is still present, but gives way to a new concern to deal primarily with Western individualism and consumerism, and to construct a more robust and Trinitarian theological anthropology of human individuality and community. These thinkers on the “second wave,” as Coakley classifies them, include John Zizioulas, Juergen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Leonardo Boff, Catherine LaCugna, and many others. All of them attempted to renew “person” language for the Trinity. It is worth noting here that the first wave was often very suspicious of “person” language based on their “apophatic” sensibilities. The second-wavers wanted to demonstrate that the Trinity was the only proper diagnostic and salve for the malaise affecting Western culture.

The so-called Third Wave is united by several characteristics, but for our purposes they are primarily negative in nature. Instead of sharing a common project, thinkers in this latest wave can perhaps be referenced as sharing a common suspicion. In the second wave (and somewhat in the first wave), historical opinions and narratives about the shape and structure of the evolution (or devolution) of Trinitarian theology over the centuries started to do some heavy lifting for the constructive projects on offer. These historical narratives either justified or gave context to interpretive decisions many of the second wave thinkers were making in their constructive projects. Third wave Trinitarians tend to be quite suspicious of many of these historical or historiographical narratives,[2] noting that they are often too simplistic, misleading, and sometimes downright false. These include such tropes as large-scale divisions between “Eastern” and “Western” trinitarianism, “personalism” vs. “substance metaphysics,” or large-scale narratives such as Augustine or Aquinas providing the root for Western atheism because one or another of their decisions and methods about theology began to sequester the Trinity from the whole scope of theology.

Genealogy: Two Fallacies

One of the critiques among third wavers centers on Colin Gunton’s dismissal of Augustine given how he and others may have been used. The other is the dismissal of Gunton based on his mis-critique of Augustine. There is a lot of truth to these genealogical critiques. Often thinkers make some of their most distinctive moves by presuming a background of history that simply isn’t accurate. But when this or that history is dropped as false, the waves resulting from particular historiographical moves made in systematic theology often slow down, if not come crashing down. Yet these types of critiques can themselves be taken too far. Thinkers who perhaps have made false steps or inaccuracies in history can these days often be belittled or just ignored because of such mistakes. Colin Gunton is one of the better examples of a seminal figure who is often overlooked by the next generation precisely because he made overstatements and misjudgments about Augustine, Aquinas, and “the West.” Bradley Green, for example, notes that Gunton’s critiques of Augustine (and by extension, a “West” that follows him) are not incidental to his constructive theological project but form an essential intuition or core.[3] Green makes this observation in order to demonstrate that many of Gunton’s best instincts should have actually made Augustine an ally, not a foe. But others have taken something like Green’s observation of the centrality of these critiques, and used it as license to pass over Gunton altogether whereby the wave he’s riding comes crashing down.

Dissenting Theology: One-of-a-Kind[4]

So far, we have discussed three waves of Trinitarian theology and two genetic fallacies. One of those fallacies is Gunton’s unfortunate critique of Augustine based in part on misapplications or inappropriate extensions of Augustinian thought elsewhere. Another is the genetic fallacy that because Gunton’s historical critique may have been distorted, his constructive theology is itself a distortion. Gunton’s best work is found in his dissenting posture and catalytic nature of his theology. T. F. Torrance maintained that Gunton was responsible for the re-emergence of systematic theology in England. No doubt, such recognition was bound up with Gunton’s dissenting posture in refusing to allow analytic and epistemological considerations to overshadow theological and metaphysical explorations in dialogue with the broader Western and Eastern theological tradition. Like Barth before him, Gunton’s most substantial critique was not of fellow Trinitarian theologians, but those who found the Trinity of limited or no merit for theological, philosophical, and cultural explorations. Gunton took seriously Michael Buckley’s claim that in the early modern period the Christian apologists surrendered ground in warfare with the originators of modern atheism because they did not make use of the Trinitarian arsenal that would best safeguard meaning and human flourishing.[5]

Given the limits of space, let’s account for one example of Gunton’s efforts to reintroduce Trinitarian thought to contend against the crisis of belief, meaning, and significance. At the outset of his volume The Christian Faith, Gunton reflects upon what he perceives to be the ultimate crisis of contemporary culture. This crisis “is essentially a crisis of belief in the reality of creation.”[6] From the vantage point of his most highly favored theological predecessor, Irenaeus, Gunton argued that God enters history and reintroduces his sovereign care in the creaturely order through what Irenaeus calls God’s two hands, the Son and Spirit. Through the Spirit’s constituting work, the Son clothes himself in this world’s “tired and soiled matter”[7] to recapitulate the entire creation. In other words, the triune God does not stand aloof  and indifferent to the world’s plight. Rather, to play out Irenaeus’ imagery, Gunton is basically saying that God rolls up the divine sleeves and gets his hands dirty to cleanse the creation and make it whole. Although Gunton did not engage in traditional apologetic inquiry, he provided more than many theologians in our day a rationale for why Trinitarian theology old and new offers such promise for engaging the Christian faith’s “cultured despisers.” Let’s not throw out the Guntonian wave in theology with the dirty historiographical bathwater.


[1] For more on these waves and some trends in contemporary Trinitarianism in general, see: Derrick Peterson, “A Sacred Monster: On The Secret Fears of Some Recent Trinitarianism,” in Cultural Encounters: A Journal for the Theology of Culture Vol. 12 No. 1 (Winter 2016): 3-36.

[2] Sarah Coakley, “Afterword: ‘Relational Ontology,’ Trinity, and Science,” in The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology ed. John Polkinghorn (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2010).

[3] Bradley G. Green, Colin Gunton and the Failure of Augustine: The Theology of Colin Gunton in Light of Augustine (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2011), 9.

[4] Colin Gunton once remarked in a conversation with Robert and Blanche Jenson that “I am a dissenter!” See: Robert W. Jenson, “Afterword,” in Paul Louis Metzger, ed., Trinitarian Soundings in Systematic Theology (New York: T&T Clark, 2005), 217-218.

[5] Michael J. Buckley, S.J., At the Origins of Modern Atheism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 33. Based on what is sometimes claimed among second wave Trinitarians, it is worth noting that Buckley argues that St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, is not responsible for the rise of modern atheism. See his work Denying and Disclosing God: The Ambiguous Progress of Modern Atheism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).

[6] Colin E. Gunton, The Christian Faith: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002), x.

[7] Ibid., 32.


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