This is another excellent entry in the Zondervan Counterpoints series which “provides a forum for comparison and critique of different views on issues important to Christians.” Books in the series fall into two categories: books on Church Life and books on Bible and Theology. This volume falls in the latter group.
The editor, Jason Sexton, wrote an excellent Introduction setting the stage for the discussion and a Conclusion summarizing the views presented and analyzing their agreements and disagreements, and their strengths and weaknesses. I found the Introduction helpful, especially the section titled “Background to the Debate,” in which Sexton gave a quick history of recent Trinitarian thought from Barth to the present, with particular emphasis given to “social” (or “relational,” the book’s preferred term) models of the Trinity and the various reactions against them.
This book sees two broad streams of Trinitarian theology labeled “Classical Trinity” and “Relational Trinity.” Two scholars, with slightly different approaches, were chosen to represent each view, with the result that the book is really a “four views” book:
1a. “Classical Trinity: Evangelical Perspective” (Stephen R. Holmes)
1b. “Classical Trinity: Catholic Perspective” (Paul D. Molnar)
2a. “Relational Trinity: Creedal Perspective” (Thomas H. McCall)
2b. “Relational Trinity: Radical Perspective” (Paul S. Fiddes)
I went into this book thinking that “Classical Trinity” as articulated by Holmes and Molnar would be closest to my own view. I did appreciate their hard-hitting critique of the social trinitarianism of Moltmann et al. But I was strangely turned off by their positive presentation of the Trinity. I was surprised by the extremes to which they took the simplicity of God. Their emphasis on the simplicity of God makes them sound like modalists. For example, Holmes dismissed the texts from the Gospels showing an “I-Thou” relationship between the Father and the Son as referring only to the incarnate Son. This seems to set up a huge discontinuity between the pre-incarnate Son and the man Jesus that I find troubling. To my way of thinking, the one person of Christ is identical with the second person of the Trinity (see my post inspired by Fred Sanders on that point).
Molnar is an odd bird in that his view is called “Catholic,” but he spends most of his time using Thomas F. Torrance (a Barthian) as his primary wellspring of inspiration for his theological formulations. I don’t have a problem with that in principle. I can appreciate some of what Torrance has to say. But where I struggle is in understanding what makes Molnar’s view distinctively “Catholic.”
Fiddes is a panentheist and an open theist, so his essay was the hardest for me to understand, much less sympathize with. I use this term cautiously, but I fear that his view is suborthodox at best and possibly heretical. In a volume for evangelicals seeking to better understand the doctrine of the Trinity, having Fiddes in the room for this discussion does not seem warranted or helpful.
Basically one could read just the presentations, responses and rejoinders of Holmes and McCall and be fully edified by that half of the book alone. In fact, that would be a great thing to witness – a live “debate” or “conversation” between those two. I would love that.
The essay by McCall was great. I didn’t disagree with anything in his presentation. His was by far the most biblical of the four in the sense that he tried to root his presentation in biblical language and theology. It should be noted that McCall backs away from defining “divine persons” as “centers of consciousness,” and instead goes with “existent entities who enjoy ‘I-Thou’ relationships within the triune life” (p. 116). But where McCall shines in contrast with Holmes is in having a Trinity in which each person of the Trinity (both immanently and economically) has certain things that they do and say, just as the Scriptures present it. The Father says, “You are my Son” (Ps 2:7). The Son says to the Father, “I have come to do your will, O God” (Heb 10:7). The Spirit is sent as the Spirit of the Father who is the Father of the Son. That sounds like distinct divine persons to me. Of course, this is highly analogical language. Even the term “person” as applied to the three persons of the Godhead is not univocally the same as an ordinary human “person” in the created realm. The Creator-creature distinction means that all human language and understanding is limited and ectypal. As much as theologians may try to define “person” (hypostasis or prosopon) in Trinitarian theology only God fully knows what a divine “person” is. Still, in spite of the mystery, shouldn’t we try to talk the way the Scriptures talk?
Of course, there is that old bugbear of the simplicity of God. Holmes and Molnar object to McCall’s relational Trinity because it seems to be inconsistent with the simplicity of God. I thought that McCall did a fairly good job – not a perfectly satisfying job, but a satisfactory job – of answering this objection, first, by (rightly) affirming the doctrine of the simplicity of God, as universally held by the church from the fourth century onwards, but second, by showing that there are a variety of ways of formulating the simplicity of God, both in the tradition of the church (especially Gregory of Nyssa) and in contemporary analytical theology. Not all formulations are equally helpful. Some formulations of the simplicity of God erase the distinctions among the three persons of the Godhead and logically lead to the heresy of modalism. I think more thought – exegetically, historically, and philosophically – needs to be given to the simplicity of God. (In my humble opinion, part of the solution lies in the neglected doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son.) But one thing is clear, the doctrine of the simplicity of God, while important, needs to be handled with care. A doctrine like that has great philosophical power. But we have to be careful to keep philosophy within bounds and not let it overpower the clear witness of Scripture to the distinctions of the persons within the Godhead.