Does Scripture Allow Us To Have Our Classical Trinity and (Some) Analogies, Too?

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Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

In my paper for this year’s annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, I argue that a Protestant principle of sola Scriptura can provide a methodological guardrail against tendencies toward what I’m calling either cataphatic “indulgence” or apophatic “indigence” in constructive theological labor. Here I draw from Kevin Vanhoozer’s essay on sola Scriptura in Biblical Authority After Babel, which defines Scripture as clear, self-sufficient, and self-interpreting, yielding a canonical “practice of using Scripture to interpret Scripture” which nevertheless avoids a narrow biblicism (solo or nuda Scriptura) and engages robustly with the catholic tradition. I argue that this tradition functions like rumble strips on the highly of theological labor, warning the theologian to take care and pay attention to potential danger. If such secondary authority bounds the theologian by way of warning, Scripture defines the non-negotiable guardrail on that highway. Here I envision Scripture in two methodological modes: a negative mode of “guarding” the theologian from catastrophic and a positive mode of “guiding” the theologian toward truth. Scripture is the wayfinder for theological investigation. The guarding mode says “not that way” and the guiding mode says “this way instead.”

I use a case study from trinitarian theology and John 17:21 for this thesis.

May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me (John 17:21).

I contrast two trinitarian ontologies and ways of relating divine relations to human ones. From a revisionist, relational trinitarian perspective, I engage with Miroslav Volf’s ecclesial trinitarian vision in After Our Likeness. From a retrievalist, classical trinitarian perspective, I engage with Keith Johnson’s work. On the one hand, Volf argues for a trinitarian ontology of perichoresis (the divine persons mutually indwelling one another) that in my view revises the classical doctrine fairly substantially. He then argues that the indwelling of the Spirit allows the local church to mirror the perichoretic relations in God. On the other hand, Johnson argues for a more classical, Augustinian trinitarianism, but argues that we can’t posit any meaningful analogical correspondence between the ad intra life of God and the human or ecclesial relations.

I argue that my previous definition of sola Scriptura allows us to pave a path between both Volf and Johnson. On the one hand, I reject Volf’s relational trinitarianism. Despite a text such John 17:21 being superficially compatible with a perichoretic ontology, the canon more broadly as rightly interpreted by the catholic tradition grounds triunity and perichoresis in the eternal relations of origin in the immanent life of God. Here I argue that perichoresis cannot bear the weight of trinitarian ontology, because (a) a relational trinitarianism cannot ground a single divine will and thus compromises divine freedom; (b) relational trinitarianism misconstrues the role of divine simplicity; (c) relational trinitarianism overplays the conception of “persons” in God; and (d) that Volf falls prey to what Karen Kilby has called “projectionism,” letting a preferred ecclesiological conclusion shape trinitarian ontology. On the other hand, Johnson argues that John 17 does not provide specific divine ontological content for the church to imitate and thereby excludes drawing an ecclesial analogy between the ad intra life of God and human or ecclesial relations. While I affirm Johnson’s retreivalist trintarianism, I want to say that John 17 allows us and in fact may require us to draw an analogy between the immanent Trinity and the local church. I propose that this may be mirrored in what Matthew Levering has called the “pattern of gifting/receptivity.”

The upshot is that we do not need to revise trinitarian ontology toward a social, perichoretic model in order to propose a way that the church might imitate the immanent Trinity. Neither do we have to reject any potential call for that imitation. Instead, we can take a canonical and classical trinitarian theology and still read John 17 in a way that takes the plain sense of the text seriously.

I close the paper with three potential implications about the need for clear exegetical grounding for theological conclusions, a deep reverence for catholic tradition and the rule of faith, and a call to do fresh, creative, faithful theological labor.

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Walking with Jesus, @LauraSlavich, our kids, and the @CrossUnitedSFL fam in the warm breezes of sunny SoFla

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