Thursday, June 18, 2009

Blogging Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology: Volume 1, Part II: "The Triune Identity," Chs. 7-9

This is part of a series blogging through Robert Jenson's two-volume Systematic Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). For more information, see the introduction to the series.

Chapter 7: "The Patrological Problem"

I. The Questions Posed by God the Father

How can the Father be both the God of Israel and one of the three identities of the Trinity? The tradition has affirmed both statements. In answer the East has emphasized the "monarchy" of the Father, the "sole arche" (or "originating source") of the Father with regard to the Son and the Spirit, but this seems perilously close to subordinationism all over again. In contrast, the West has emphasized the simplicity of the divine ousia, wherein "the Trinity is the one God" (p. 116). Yet this too entails problems, particularly the blurring of distinctions between God's identities. Finally, is "the Trinity" God, such that "God" would equal "Trinity" and the three persons would somehow be expression or manifestations of "Trinity" -- thus reverting to a kind of modalism? Finally, then, is the Trinity personal or impersonal, an "it" or a "he"?

II. The Personhood of the Divine Identities

Personhood is not "an individual entity endowed with intellect" (p. 117), as the West has generally supposed, but rather is constituted by mutual address, by communication and conversation. Father, Son, and Spirit are thus clearly persons by this definition; more specifically, personhood may be seen in "role differentiation in narrative" (p. 118), which is exactly how God's identities function in Scripture. The three are persons of one divine substance, and so the three subsistent relations make up the very life of the one God, the address and response of Father, Son, and Spirit to and between one another.

III. The Personality of the Trinity in the Father

The Trinity as such is not an identity; the identities of Father, Son, and Spirit together are the triune God. For if the Trinity were another identity, there would be four, rather than three, with "the Trinity" added to the three. But does this entail the non-personality of the Trinity? The answer is no, precisely because there are multiple ways of being personal, and here the tradition is aided by postmodernity's deconstruction of the West's traditional understanding of selfhood. For just as Father, Son, and Spirit are "personal" because each may be addressed, and may respond to that address, the Trinity as a community may also participate in such address and response. And the Trinity may do so precisely in the person of the Father, for the Father as sole arche of the Son (as begetter) and of the Spirit (as breather) is in himself the source of deity and the object of our speech to God -- we pray to the Father as Trinity with the Son and in the Spirit. This is done, all-importantly, without sacrificing the Father's personhood, lest God collapse into a mere transcendent monad.

IV. Separating Identity and Personality

What cannot be forgotten is that the Trinity may be understood as a person only because "Father, Son, and Spirit [are] the poles of the inner life that makes him personal" (p. 123). And this understanding refuses the Western notion of selfhood in the "free 'I,'" the self contained in a consciousness, and instead posits God as ultimately and decisively self-opening, self-revealing, self-giving. "God is not personal in that he is triunely self-sufficient; he is personal in that he triunely opens himself" (p. 124).

V. Answer by Way of the Problem

The problem that began the chapter ended up being the solution, "by adjusting not the narrative but the connections" (p. 124).


"Is there a way, without unfaithfully abstracting ourselves from this envelopment, that we may so back away that we speak to the Father as the one triune God who envelops us?

"Surely there is: in pure doxology, we may and do address the Father as the begetter and breather of the Son with whom and the Spirit in whom we appear; we may glorify him simply in his triune role as arche of the deity into which we are taken up. We may praise the Father 'with' the Son, as it is the Father who is with the Son, so that the Son is with us. We may praise the Father 'in' the Spirit, as it is the Father is in the Spirit, so that we are in the Spirit. Thus we may praise the Father precisely as the unity of equal Father, Son, and Spirit, within which we stand." (p. 122)

Further Thoughts & Questions...

Two things I love in this chapter: First, that even in a liturgy-less church like mine, I know exactly what Jenson means when he speaks of addressing the Father both as one of three persons in the Trinity and as the triune God himself. The reason this is true is because liturgy comes from Scripture, and churches of Christ quite faithfully replicate the rhythms, logic, language, and patterns of Scripture. It is implicit that the way we speak "God" may be interchangeable with "Father," yet when we say "Jesus" or "Holy Spirit" we are not thereby speaking of lesser beings or "parts" of God, but rather only again of God himself.

Second, the notion of personhood both as individual and as communal is incredibly rich; it opens up the doctrine of the Trinity even more, such that God is in his own life a model and mirror (only from our point of view, of course) of human life: solitary, yet corporate. And the entire metaphor is built around conversation. This is a chapter I would love to use in a class discussion; it's so open to further exploration and interpretation.

Chapter 8: "The Christological Problem"

I. The Word Incarnate: One or Two?

Nicea dogmatically declared Jesus to be the Son -- the second person of the Trinity, and thus God -- incarnate. Whatever this meant for God's supposed impassibility, there was no turning back. The Alexandrian school stuck with the assertion, whatever it could mean: God the Son lived, suffered, died, and rose again. The Antiochene school could not accept the bare assertion and thus felt compelled to find in Jesus two separate identities: the human flesh, which did suffer and die; and the divine Word, which could not and therefore did not suffer and die. How to work this out?

II. Nestorius, Cyril, and Chalcedon

Members of the Antiochene school taught that in the incarnation there are in fact two subjects -- the divine Logos and the man, somehow conjoined -- and that because of the inseparable closeness of flesh and Logos both were to be worshiped together. This reached a head in Nestorius' preaching, as bishop of Constantinople, when he taught that Mary is not theotokos -- bearer/mother of God -- because what she gave birth to was human, not divine. Alexandria's premier theologian, Cyril, responded in sharp disagreement: whatever else one may say, the story of the incarnate Logos in the life of Jesus is the story of one subject, not two: it is God's own story that we read. To the extent that Jesus the incarnate Word satisfies every requirement of being both fully human and fully God, we may say he has two natures. The Council of Ephesus in 431, while not solving the issue, settled the Nestorian claim. However, Pope Leo and his Tome seemingly merely restated in different language the Antiochene position, and at Chalcedon in 451 the creed put forth ultimately only furthered the muddle by saying "one and the same Christ" subsists "in two natures," rather than "from" two natures. This satisfied few, and the church remained bitterly divided between Chalcedonians, Cyril's followers, and Nestorius' followers. In this sense, Chalcedon -- though properly interpreted and clarified by the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 -- failed in its purpose.

III. Maximus the Confessor: "One and the Same"

Maximus the Confessor helped the church see what was at stake in Christological arguments: the very identity of Jesus as the Son of God as told in the narrative of the Gospels. Thus, caught up in the controversies of his time over whether Christ had "one will" or two, Maximus' emphatic insistence on Christ's two wills -- the one a participation in the triune divine will, the other one fully human in perfect obedience to the divine will -- "the Lord's historical human life is fully acknowledged in its soteriological role for the first time in technical Christology" (p. 135). The hypostasis of the human-divine Son is not a product of two natures, but rather "is each and both of the natures, and yet neither alternately or merely simultaneously, for the Cyrillean 'from which' stands" (p. 136). Thus we may without equivocation say that the human person of the Gospels is the Logos incarnate, who suffered and died and was raised again. This is important from the reverse perspective, that the risen Son encountered in word and sacrament is in fact human -- belonging at once to the communal life that is human history and to the communal life that is the divine story.

IV. The Pre- and Postexistence of Jesus Christ

We arrive at the "preexistence" of Christ, the Word "in the beginning." Yet this cannot simplistically be construed as a divine entity "before" becoming human, for it is the human Jesus who says, "Before Abraham was, I am." With Barth, we must say that because God himself is his eternal decision, therefore God's eternal decision to become incarnate in Jesus belongs to the life of God's eternity. The happening in time is grounded in the eternal happening of God's own eternal act of decision. This is possible because the triune life that is God is not a line, or one original point from which a descending line of other points come. "The triune God's eternity is precisely the infinity of the life that the Son, who is Jesus the Christ, lives with his Father in their Spirit. It is in that infinity that Christ precedes himself" (p. 141). The antecedence of the Logos in time, before the birth of the man Jesus, is then in the "narrative pattern" of the people Israel before the actual Israelite is to be born, that of "being going to be born to Mary." Similarly -- and clearly more importantly for the New Testament writers -- Christ's "post" existence must come into view: the future into which the risen Jesus is raised, from which he receives his eternal Sonship, is none other than the Holy Spirit. And the essential vision of this future-glimpsing in the present is the Transfiguration.

V. The Way of God's Triumph Over Suffering

No biblical writer could have imagined the God of Israel being subjected to time's contingencies. Yet how is God transcendent over them? The suffering of human life is taken up into the life of the Triune God: God the Son suffers and dies at the hands of imperial powers; God the Father raises him up (and this is not "dispassionately done" [p. 144]); God the Spirit is "the sphere of the triumph." God takes this event and makes it part of his own life, wringing good from it for creation, not remaining impassibly distant -- and only in this way does the one God transcend the suffering of creation in time. And conversely, in exactly this same way is Jesus the human being the bearer of the power of God among us, and the one we meet in worship and sacrament.


"What is surely required is to recognize that 'humanity' and, in a way we will later make more precise, 'deity' must be communal concepts. That Christ has the divine nature means that he is one of the three whose mutuality is the divine life, who live the history that God is. That Christ has human nature means that he is one of the many whose mutuality is human life, who live the history that humanity is. There is a difference between these propositions in that the three who live God's life make only one God, whereas the many who live humanity make many human beings; but that point we have considered before.

"It is 'one and the same' who lives both of these communal stories. This one, the one that Christ is, is dogmatically specified to be the Logos: Christ's identification as one of the Trinity and his identification as one of us are not ontologically symmetrical. Christ's human history happens because his divine history happens, and not vice versa. This means that Christ as a participant in human history is definitive for all other participants..." (p. 138)

Further Thoughts & Questions...

It was uniformly helpful for my reading of this and other chapters that I had church history with Lewis Ayres this spring, and thus was able to appreciate the way Jenson doesn't merely summarize or catalog the church's theological history, but rather reads and interprets and thus tells the story in a certain way -- which is, of course, the only way to tell a story at all. I appreciated his willingness to address Chalcedon honestly without backing away from its dogmatic authority, and for his clarity regarding what is at stake in Christ's one-or-two-natures.

What felt the most new, and thus profound and even startling, is the way Jenson not only reaches "back" into Christ's preexistence (although his reading of Christ "as" or "in" Israel leading up to his birth demands time to ponder) but forward into Christ's resurrected future as equally determinative for the life of God the Son. In a wonderful answer to my questions of how Jenson might suggest we teach this to and for the theologically uninformed or uneducated in the church, this week I picked up and read his Conversations with Poppi about God, which is made up of numerous recorded and transcribed conversations between Jenson and his eight-year old granddaughter about theological questions. It is a fascinating and helpful read, and probably should be required as a compliment to reading this!

Chapter 9: "The Pneumatological Problem"

I. Problematic Questions for the Spirit

The Western tradition notoriously has always had significant problems with the third person of the Trinity, and the East has pressed the issue constantly and rightly. The questions are numerous: If God is spirit, how is God's Spirit in any way separate from God? Does the Spirit proceed from the Father and from the Son? If the Spirit is primarily the gift of God, how did the Spirit exist "prior" to creation and thus someone or something to be given to? How does the Spirit proceed from the Father if not by being begotten like the Son? And how, if the Holy Spirit is in himself God's love -- the love between Father and Son -- is this gift given without thereby becoming, or overtaking, or becoming merely the possession of, the receiver of the gift?

II. The Filioque

One of the central and ongoing disputes between East (Orthodox) and West (Catholic) is the filioque, the addition the Latin West made to the creed, that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The West adopted the addition not to state something about the Spirit but about the Son; and while the addition was unfortunate because of the ensuing division, its meaning cannot be abandoned to the extent that the claim belongs to the biblical narrative. Most explicitly, in the Gospel of John, Jesus claims the authority to give, and enacts the giving of, the Spirit. However, the West must likewise listen to Orthodox criticisms. Thomas Aquinas described the triune identities as necessarily "opposing relations" of origin, and thus the Spirit cannot merely proceed from the Father but also from the Son as their mutual love. In severe disagreement, the modern theologian Vladimir Lossky describes this construal as making the Father and Son together an impersonal divine nature rather than separate identities -- not one arche in the Father, but two in Father and Son. This leads Lossky into "disaster," however, because he then explains that all terms for procession and origin are "inappropriate expressions for a reality alien" to what they are attempting to name (p. 152). This is grounded in Gregory Palamas' similarly disastrous project of distancing the divine ousia from external human participation, therein creating a "real" God behind the triune identities and once again securing God against contingent interference.

III. The Problem With Barth's "I-Thou" Trinitarianism

The issue with the Western tradition is that the Spirit simply falls off the map when describing the triune action. This is ably demonstrated in Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics, in which at two different places where one would rightly expect to see explication of the work of the Spirit -- the objectivity of the gospel proclamation before subjective hearers and the role of "the Spirit's ecclesial reality" (p. 154) -- the Spirit seems strangely to collapse into the action or capacity of the Son. The Trinity is then seemingly a "two-sided" relationship, and "the Spirit is the fellowship itself and so not a partner thereof" (p. 155). This "I-Thou" Trinitarianism fails to see the central lesson to be learned from Hegel's insight on relationship: that as subject I must have you as my object while reciprocally being object to your subject, yet that this can only descend into mere power struggle unless there is a third party who is our liberator, who frees each of us for the other, "one for whom we are both objects, and whose intention for us is our love for each other" (p. 156). In marriage this is the child; in God, the Spirit. He is the love between Father and Son only to the extent that he is "antecedently himself," always revealing and presenting Father to Son and Son to Father as not only source or begotten but as object of love, as lovable.

IV. The Eschatological, Liberating Love of the Spirit

We know how Father and Son "stand over against" the others as separate: the Father is monarch, sole arche of the deity, and the Son "is not only God but as God also a creature, and so an other than God" (p. 157). What of the Spirit? The Holy Spirit is God's future, "the End of all God's ways (p. 157). In the biblical narrative he is synonymous with the coming of the Kingdom; he is the down payment for the future glory. He moves history and speaks promise into reality, and just so he is God's liveliness and power for the future. Thus Trinity is not merely protology, in that God is always and forever his own enduring source (in the Father's arche), but also eschatology, always and forever moving toward, forward to, fulfillment and unendingly non-static life. As the love between Father and Son, the Spirit is indeed a separate identity in that he frees the Father to be who he is, to be the Father of the Son and to love him, and just so proceeds from the Father "otherwise" than the Son. And again using the language from John 17 with regard to the Son, "the Spirit 'glorifies' the Son because he 'takes what belongs' to the Son and 'declares' it" (p. 158). Finally, then, what of the filioque? The Spirit indeed derives his being, his procession, only from the Father; but his energies, "his participation and agency in the triune life," is from the Father yet through the Son, for "the Spirit receives his existence from the Father, but lives eternally with and in the Son" (p. 159).

V. The Narrative Futurity of the Spirit

The gospel's God is not mere perdurance, for while the triune God is certainly constituted by origin -- there is no thing without origin -- we are not then finished in describing God. Narrative is determined by outcome, and the Holy Spirit is finally the Outcome of God's life. The missing link in much of the tradition is the eschatological aspect of God's identity, and as Father is arche of both himself and creation, the Spirit is Goal for God and for us. "The great occurrence of dramatic causality in God is the resurrection" (p. 160).

VI. The Personality and Relation of the Spirit

The Spirit is a person just because we address him, even if we often refrain from doing so. How is he personal? In that he is always the Spirit of someone, the ruach of YHWH, the one who finds his "I" in the Son just as the Father does, and so "the Spirit himself is nothing other than the Freedom that occurs in these relations" (pp. 160-61). Thus the relation of the Spirit is as the one breathed by the Father and, in the Father's eternal begetting of the Son, the one who liberates the Father for the Son and likewise the Son for and from the Father, "so reconcil[ing] the Father with the future his Spirit is" (p. 161).


"It is in that the Spirit is God as the Power of God's own and our future and, that is to say, the Power of a future that also for God is not bound by the predictabilities, that the Spirit is a distinct identity of and in God. The Spirit is God as his and our future rushing upon him and us; he is the eschatological reality of God, the Power as which God is the active Goal of all things, as which God is for himself and for those 'things not seen' that with us call for faith and with him are his infinity.

"When creedal articles for the Spirit end with resurrection and life everlasting, they merely specify what the Spirit in himself as person is. In himself, God confronts his own future; he confronts that Spirit who is the Spirit 'of' the Father, the novelty of a genuine narrative. The great occurrence of dramatic causality in God is the Resurrection. That the Son once slain would rise is, after the fact, an eternal certainty, but it was not beforehand, and also not for God." (p. 160)

Further Thoughts & Questions...

Jenson is open about the fact that much of his explication of the role and person of the Spirit has been missing in the tradition thus far, so it makes sense why so much of it feels new and difficult to comprehend. As I mentioned above, his Conversations with Poppi have been a happy compliment to the Systematic reading, and a favorite moment in one of their conversations was discussion of the Spirit -- as belonging to an individual or a group, as the liveliness of a person, as the forward-ness of life.

In the same way, it is a powerful recovery to teach eschatology, and not only protology, in the very life of God. It rescues the circular way of construing time and salvation, so that Eden is only our starting point and not our ending point, and similarly clarifies what it means for God to be his own End as much as the End of and for all creation -- and that this is a good end, not an arbitrarily selfish "and it's all for me." This in particular is amplified by God's Spirit being himself God's liberating love, the gift who in giving himself gives the gift of love. What a powerful notion.

[Images courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art.]

1 comment:

  1. Erm, Jenson consistently refers to God, following Barth, as 'one subject' and is clear there are not three centres of consciousness in the immanent trinity. Mutual address?