Jenson on the Origin of Trinity as Doctrine

Reading Jenson, I came across this bit and thought it a particularly helpful glimpse of the development of Trinitarian teaching. I’d tried to gesture toward something of this sort in comments on an earlier post.

“Typical of the titles is ‘Lord.’ Initially the disciples’ unproblematic form of address for their rabbi, it was naturally resumed after the Resurrection. But now their Lord was enthroned at the Father’s right hand and was the giver of the Spirit. In these circumstances, the address could not but resonate with the Bible’s use of ‘Lord’ for God himself—to whom is one speaking when one says ‘Lord’ to the heavens? This resonance is itself the doctrine. Only when Greek theology appears as interlocutor will or need it be asked what kind of ‘being’—divine, human, or mediating—the risen Jesus must have to be truly addressed as Lord.”

Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology: The Triune God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 92.

That’s the craziest f#$%@# thing I’ve ever heard!

Among the many unsung benefits of entering the discipline of theology is the opportunity to ponder brilliant thoughts from some of the most erudite minds and sensitive spirits of history. Another unsung benefit is getting to read the bizarre nonsense that some of the same erudite minds slough off  along the way.

Along the lines of Stephen Colbert’s occasional segments by the same title, I thought I’d offer two quotes (with commentary) that made me say, “That’s the craziest f#$%@# thing I’ve ever heard!”

Paul Tillich:

“The concreteness of man’s ultimate concern drives him toward polytheistic structures; the reaction of the absolute element against these drives him toward monotheistic structures; and the need for a balance between the concrete and the absolute drives him toward trinitarian structures.” [1]

A Tillich-inspired Recipe:

  1. Take your ultimate concern.
  2. Average the concreteness of your ultimate concern with the absolute element also found therein.
  3. Remove the polytheistic and monotheistic by-products.
  4. Voila! A Trinitarian drive!
  5. Drop the trinitarian drive in your Volvo, and not only will your gas milage dramatically improve, but the circumincessio occuring in your engine is now totally self-lubricating!

Friedrich Schleiermacher:

“Thus, in fact, people become all the more indifferent to the church the more they increase in religion, and the most pious sever themselves from it proudly and coldly. Nothing can in fact be clearer than that seekers of religion are in this association [i.e. the church] only because they have no religion; they persevere in it only so long as they have none.” [2]

Indeed, one excellent measure for just how much true religion a person might have would be the degree of coldness and pride with which that person passes by any religious establishment. People with a wholehearted dedication to the church are clearly (nay, most clearly) the most muddleheaded irreligious shams you could ever encounter!


[1] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 221.

[2] Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, trans. Richard Crouter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 172.

on gender and God :: Gregory of Nyssa

“No one can adequately grasp the terms pertaining to God. For example, mother is mentioned in place of ‘father’ (Song 3:11). Both terms mean the same, because the divine is neither male nor female (for how could such a thing be contemplated in the divinity, when it does not remain intact permanently for us human beings either? But we all shall become one in Christ, we will be divested of the signs of this distinction together with the whole of the old man). Therefore, every name found [in Scripture] is equally able to indicate the ineffable nature, since the meaning of the undefiled nature is contaminated by neither female nor male….Hence the Song says that a crown is placed upon the bridegroom by his mother. Since the nuptials and bride are one, one mother places the crown upon the bridegroom’s head.”

Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Song of Songs, Homily 7.

Ward :: Love as Economy or Ontology

“The economy of [Christian] desire is not locked into love as not-having [in distinction from some postmodern accounts]. Rather, love is continually extended beyond itself and, in and through that extension, receives itself back from the other as a non-identical repetition. Love construed as having or not-having is a commodified product. It is something one possesses or doesn’t possess. It is part of an exchange between object and subject positions. But love in the Christian economy is an action not an object. It cannot be lost or found., absent or present. It constitutes  the very space within which all operations in heaven and upon earth take place. The positions of persons are both constituted and dissolved. The linearity and syntax of Indo-European languages barely allows access to the mystery of trinitarian persons and processions: where one ends and another begins. As such suffering and sacrifice are not distinct moments, kenoo [emptying] is also and simultaneously pleroo [filling up]. The wounds of love are the openings of grace.”

Graham Ward, “Suffering and Incarnation,” in The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 205.

The Suffering God Cannot Save :: Addendum

It seems that a few other folks are poking around with the same question as my recent series of posts on David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite and the question of divine impassibility. Their thoughts are more concise and poignantly articulated than my own stumbling efforts, so if thinking through God’s compassionate suffering is a live question for you, you might do well to visit:

Halden’s post—“Divine Suffering is Divine Impassibility”
Kent Ellers and James Merrick’s—“David Bentley Hart on the Trinity”

‘The Suffering God Cannot Save’ :: David Bentley Hart, Right and Wrong on Impassibility (Part 4 of 4)

(Back to Part 3)

It is precisely because divine apatheia is not a possession subject to loss or diminution that God does not penuriously guard his life, but opens himself to creation and suffers with it. No one can change God or force God to act, no one can conjure or coerce God’s presence or action-God is never passive. But where God is open in love, he does not stand passively aloof, impervious to the plight of his beloved. God’s unchangeable infinitude is not at risk where God aches with longing and is pained by the dissolute state of creation-this too is an expression of the boundless variation within the unchanging generosity of God’s triune life. Thinking in this way helps us to express both God’s suffering and God’s apatheia in properly analogical terms. Hart correctly insists that “God is incapable of experiencing shifting emotions within himself” (as if manipulative ploys had any foothold), but to this similitudo, we must insist upon a maior dissimilitudo and say that God is not devoid of emotional intensity or insensitive with regard to his beloved creation (355). Likewise, if we are to speak of God’s aching solidarity with those who suffer, a solidarity that transgresses every boundary we can imagine (Hades itself), we must also insist that according to a maior dissimilitudo, God’s suffering does not incapacitate and diminish him (as suffering does to us). God never says, “It would have been better if…” with regard to God’s own boundless life; God’s life always is better in the mutual exchange and enrichment of the divine economy. 

Hart’s positive understanding of divine infinitude is sufficiently capacious to incorporate theological attentiveness to the whole of Scripture’s narrative with regard to God’s immutability and impassibility, including a nuanced account of the emotional intensity and pain ascribed to God’s experience therein. Unfortunately, Hart allows his metaphysical predilection for a more univocal understanding of divine apatheia to eclipse this conceptual openness and thereby falsely constrains his understanding of God and in docetic fashion meticulously evacuates the cross of the divinity hung thereupon. Despite himself, Hart helps us understand how Bonhoeffer is, in my estimation, finally correct: “Only the suffering God can help.” 



‘The Suffering God Cannot Save’ :: David Bentley Hart, Right and Wrong on Impassibility (Part 3 of 4)

(Back to Part 2)

Yet, despite insisting that divine apatheia does not override God’s scriptural self-revelation or make the divine pathos out to be an illusion, Hart insists that even the cross holds no suffering for God (355).  Through the Son, God attends and possesses the human suffering of the cross (and does so “inseparably” according to Chalcedon), but, he insists, God (qua God) does not suffer pain there. Hart rightly upholds patristic paradoxes like that of Melito of Sardis, “in Christ the impassible suffers,” but mistakenly goes further to assert that Jesus’ cry of dereliction (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) is only his “human voice,” words uttered in the place of all humanity, rather than as a expression of God torn from God.  He argues, somewhat strangely, that if this cry fits into the divine economy at all, it ought to be heard as a darker expression of the same interval whereby the eternally begotten Son is differentiated from the unbegotten Father (360). Hart insists that only the God who is beyond all suffering is capable of saving us. By restricting the suffering of the cross to the Son’s human nature, Hart (like Cyril before him) draws the blinds on the view that his own thinking about God’s infinity has opened up for him. In so doing, he foregoes an opportunity for greater theological fidelity to Scripture by a manifest preference for restrictive metaphysical preconceptions of divinity. Yet, we must be clear, Hart (again like Cyril) is not wrong in his affirmation of divine impassibility; it is just that impassibility is not a univocal description of God capable of expressing God’s character without the qualification of analogical difference. 

(On to Part 4)