Pushback on the pushback
August 28, 2014
Over at First Things Peter Leithart recently posted some comments on Gijsbert van den Brink's article in the July issue of the International Journal of Systematic Theology. Therein, van den Brink addresses recent lack of enthusiasm in academic theology for "social trinitarianism," i.e., the belief that "Father, Son and Holy Spirit might best be conceived of as three distinct and fully equal centers of consciousness who together constitute one God" (p. 336). He also provides a few lines of argument in its defense. This is not the place to summarize van den Brink's article or to offer a full response. I do want to say a brief word, though, about one of the items he mentions as a particular strength of social trinitarianism.
According to van den Brink, "A person who reads the New Testament would naturally develop a social account of the economic Trinity" (p. 349). The claim is simple: any reader who surveys how Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John portray Jesus' relation to his Father in the Spirit will naturally conclude that they are three different "persons," with unique thoughts, desires, plans, and purposes, who relate to each other in a manner similar to the way the average person might relate to God or to other human beings. On this reading, Jesus moves through ancient near eastern environs having awesome quiet times, telling people about his Father's kingdom, and performing miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit. It takes a team, it seems, to accomplish Jesus' messianic mission. The claim that this is the most natural reading of the New Testament is significant because, if that is indeed the case, then our proper inclination toward taking the New Testament at face value should lead us to adopt a "social" model of the Trinity.
The problem with this claim is that, until the twentieth century, hardly any Christians read the New Testament this way and hardly any Christians proposed a social doctrine of the Trinity. What to us may be a "natural" reading has not been natural to the church throughout its history. Why not? A couple of reasons come to mind.
First, the church historically has read the New Testament in light of the Old Testament, seeing the New Testament story of Jesus' relationship to the Father in the Spirit as the fulfillment of Israel's relationship with her creator and covenant Lord. Where contemporary readers see themselves and their interpersonal relationships in Jesus' story, ancient readers saw Israel's story in Jesus' story.
Second, and following from the previous point, throughout most of church history, readers of the New Testament have been committed to monotheism, i.e., the belief that there is only one true God, that this God has one divine purpose for creation, and that this God exercises one divine power in bringing that purpose to realization. When confronted by the New Testament's rather audacious claim that Jesus, along with the Father and the Spirit, is the one true God, these monotheistic readers were faced with many puzzles and conundrums that often led to strange and heretical conclusions about God's triune identity. Some readers concluded that the one true God appears in three different forms to realize his saving purpose, but that these three different forms do not reflect anything deep and meaningful about God's identity. (This view bears the label of "modalism.") Other readers concluded that only one of the three identified in the New Testament as Father, Son, and Spirit could be the one true God and that the other two had to be creatures, creatures perhaps worthy of a title to deity out of respect but not in reflection of reality. (This view bears the label of "subordinationism.") Still other readers ended up confessing one God in three persons. And these readers devoted lots and lots of time and prayerful energy to thinking (or un-thinking) what it could mean to say that three distinct "persons" are nevertheless the one true and living God.
The point worth emphasizing is that, historically, social trinitarianism never occurred to monotheistic readers of the New Testament as a live option. And this is all the more surprising since the ancient world had a panoply of conceptual categories for thinking about a plurality of divine beings. They had their divinized emperors, their pantheons of gods, and their quantitative scales of deity (i.e., one could be more or less "divine"), and any and all of these categories would have provided suitable models for thinking about the Father, the Son, and the Spirit as three distinct centers of divine consciousness, etc.
So I think we need to qualify van den Brink's claim that a "natural" reading of the New Testament leads to a social account of the Trinity. We must admit that some persons would--and indeed do--read the New Testament that way. But historically most Christian monotheists (and, for that matter, most heretical monotheists) have not. Social trinitarianism simply hasn't been considered a plausible interpretive option.
As van den Brink notes, while social trinitarianism is on the decline in academic theology, it is alive and well in the world of popular evangelical Christianity. I think he is right, but I also think that is a bad sign for popular evangelical Christianity. Van den Brink also suggests that the only alternative to social trinitarianism is an irrelevant trinitarianism: a formulaic but practically meaningless confession of faith in one God in three persons. To that I say: Balderdash! And for "Exhibit A" I would direct readers to Fred Sanders's wonderfully practical book on the Trinity, The Deep Things of God.