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Key characteristics of evangelical trinitarian theology

One of the papers that I attended at ETS today offered a helpful summary of Evangelical Trinitarian theology as it stands today. The last several decades have seen a significant resurgence of interest in Trinitarian theology among evangelicals. And, according to Jason Sexton, this resurgence is marked by a number of important characteristics.

  1. Patristic Attunement: Evangelicals have taken more interest in understanding the patristic sources. And, Sexton argues that this is somewhat unique in evangelical theology, since we are not currently demonstrating as much interest in other aspects of patristic thought.
  2. Residual Social Trinitarianism: Sexton notes that many prominent evangelical theologians have argued for a social model of the Trinity. But, he also points out that many have been sharply critical of this approach, and at least one, Stanley Grenz, began to move toward different models later in his life. So, he concludes that evangelical trinitarianism is still marked by social trinitarianism, but not to the same extent that it once was.
  3. Subordination Moratorium?: This was the part of his paper that seemed the least clear. I couldn’t tell if he was saying that there should be a moratorium on arguments regarding whether there is an eternal subordination of the Son to the Father, or whether he thought that things had actually begun to move in that direction. Either way, he clearly argued that this would be a good development.
  4. Philosophical Interdisciplinarity: There has been more interest recently in philosophy, particularly analytic philosophy, as providing useful resources for developing and understanding the Trinity.
  5. Trinitarian biblical theology: Although evangelicals remain divided on whether the whole Bible should be read trinitarianly, there is growing support for the importance of developing a doctrine of the Trinity through biblical theology, and allowing our biblical theology to be guided by our understanding of the Trinity.
  6. Trinitarian theological interpretation of Scripture: I’m not entirely clear on how he was differentiating this one from the previous (partly because most people use the label “theological interpretation” ambiguously).
  7. Ecclesial Trinitarianism: Unfortunately he had to skip this part, but here is where he wanted to point out the importance of the Trinity for worship (including the sacraments), pastoral theology, and the mission of the church.
  8. Christ-centeredness: Evangelicals generally affirm that our understanding of the Trinity should be Christocentric, as long as this is not understood to be Christomonistic (i.e. everything reduced to Christology), and as long as our christocentrism is seen as serving rather than detracting from a robust appreciation of the Father and the Spirit as well.

Sexton concluded the paper by offering a couple of ways forward for evangelical theology:

  1. We must do a better job recognizing that understanding the doctrine of the Trinity is not an end in itself, but should serve the life and mission of the Church.
  2. Correspondingly, Trinitarian theology needs to be connected more clearly to pastoral theology. Sexton expressed concern in several places that we stop trying to move directly from the doctrine of the Trinity to specific issues in the human realm (e.g., women in ministry), but he does think that the Trinity can and must be intelligently and intentionally connected to such pastoral issues. “In short, the church needs a Trinitarian theology that moves toward being a public theology.”
  3. We need to be much more careful with the “heresy” label.

Eccentric Existence 12 (the Spirit)

[We’re continuing our series on David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology.]

With chapter 12, Kelsey is ready to move on the second part of his 3-part approach to theological anthropology. As we discussed a while back, Kelsey takes an intentionally Trinitarian approach to theological anthropology: “It is the Father who creates through the Son in the power of the Spirit; it is the Spirit, sent by the Father with the Son, who draws creatures to eschatological consummation; it is the Son, sent by the Father in the power of the Spirit, who reconciles creatures” (122). Having completed his reflections on God relating to create as Father, he is now ready to move into his discussion of God relating to draw his creatures to eschatological consummation as Spirit.

And, since Kelsey sees each of these three perspectives as different narratives with their own narrative logic, each also serves as a legitimate starting point for a theological anthropology. They are all “equi-primordial” (449). In other words, for Kelsey, you basically have to start the anthropological enterprise over again every time you move from one narrative to another. Having recounted the basic shape of a theological anthropology told from the perspective of creation, Kelsey now wants to narrate a theological anthropology from the perspective of eschatology. Thus, “part 2 promotes an analogous set of anthropological proposals that are held accountable to canonical Christian Holy Scripture’s narrative of God relating to all that is not God to draw it to eschatological consummation.” And, for Kelsey, this means that particular attention must be paid to the role of the Holy Spirit in theological anthropology.

Kelsey argues that a primary function of the Spirit in the NT is to draw humans to eschatological consummation and that this “is an aspect of creatures’ most embracing and most necessary context” (443). As part of humanity’s ultimate context, human persons simply cannot be understood adequately apart form an understanding of the Spirit in his relation to human beings and their destiny. This in itself is notable in Kelsey’s theological anthropology.  Many anthropological projects make no effort to reflect on the importance of pneumatology for anthropology. And, Kelsey does more than any other recent theological anthropology that I am aware of to probe what this might actually mean for the shape and content of a truly Christian theological anthropology. Thus, although Kelsey was clear at the very beginning that theological anthropology must be christocentric, it is also quite evident that he thinks this christocentric shape requires a strongly pneumatological emphasis as well. (Indeed, Kelsey’s work serves as a great example of the fact that a truly christocentric theology will always also be both trinitarian and pneumatological. Done well, there is no real tension between these.)

As we’ve noted several times in our discussion of this book, Kelsey is fond of complexity. At least, he’s very comfortable with it, and he feels no need to reduce the complexity by offering systematic ways of organizing complex data. And, this is no exception. So, surveying the NT data, Kelsey concludes that there is no simple way of categorizing the diverse ways in which the Spirit relates to human beings.

New Testament texts, both by the structure of their narratives and by the metaphors they employ, characterize the Spirit’s way of relating to human persons in a wide and not entirely consistent variety of ways. However, a certain bipolar pattern is consistent. The Spirit is regularly characterized both as persons’ environing context always already there and enveloping them, and as intimately interior to them. (444)

This bipolar pattern will guide much of Kesley’s reflections. He reflects on the many ways in which the Spirit serves as one who is always-already shaping our proximate contexts while at the same time shaping us as human persons in the most intimate ways. Thus, unlike other anthropologians who take the time to reflect on the significance of pneumatology for anthropology, Kelsey does not do so by reflecting exclusively on how the Spirit affects the “inner” person. Indeed, Kelsey rejects any such simple dichotomy between inner and outer.

Unsurprisingly, Kelsey argues throughout that this pneumatological approach requires us to see both the “already” and the “not yet” of human being. Although the Spirit is already with us as both proximate and ultimate context, the fact that the Spirit is the one drawing us toward eschatological consummation means that there must always be some element of futurity in the Spirit’s relation to us.

Finally, the fact that the Spirit comes as both gift and promise means that we can rule out any idea that the human person alone has the responsibility to bring about the eschatological consummation through his or her own efforts.

The adventus character of eschatological blessing rules out use of metaphors of human creaturely action to build or co-create the eschatological kingdom of God. It also rules out use of metaphors of a cosmic physical or spiritual evolution into the eschatological kingdom. (453)

We certainly have a role to play in our own development, but the gift-character of the Spirit and the already/not yet nature of eschatological consummation means that we must anticipate the future as gift and promise. Grace is not an addendum to nature, but has been there from the very beginning.

Eccentric Existence 4 (a trinitarian framework)

We are looking at David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence.  In the last post, we saw that Kelsey argues that what makes an anthropology distinctively Christian and theological is the fact that it begins with the claim that the triune God as revealed primarily in and through Jesus Christ relates to human beings in creation, redemption, and consummation. Thus, Christian theological anthropology is Trinitarian, christocentric, and oriented around these three relations. Before we move from the introductory material into the main argument of the book, it will be helpful to understand the four main ways in which this Trinitarian framework shapes the content of a theological anthropology.

Relations and Community

Kelsey spends a fair amount of time discussing the shift that takes place after Nicea from an emphasis on the economic Trinity to the immanent Trinity. In the process, theologians began to spend much more time reflecting on the perichoretic nature of the triune relations. And, this has implications for the way that we develop a theological anthropology guided by these Trinitarian reflections.

The character of God’s eternal life privileges a distinct set of images for the type of existential ‘how’ that constitutes human flourishing. The communion in self-giving love that constitutes God’s life presupposes and requires that the beloved is an irreducibly other reality than the lover. Indeed, such communion nurtures the flourishing of the beloved precisely as other. (72)

So, even without predetermining the actual content of a theological anthropology, this Trinitarian framework indicates that its basic shape will privilege relationship and community in its vision of human flourishing.

Mystery

Kelsey is actually rather cautious about introducing the idea of mystery into his discussion of theological anthropology. He warns,

 Although Karl Barth grumped that ‘transcendence’ is the most tedious concept in theology, ‘mystery’ is surely a close runner-up, so loosely is it commonly used. (72)

Tightening up the definition significantly, he argues that properly used “mystery” refers exclusively to God himself. He alone is the true mystery. But, insofar as a Christian theology begins its understanding of the human person by looking to this essentially mysterious God, there will always be an element of “openness” and “transcendence” in theological anthropology. Since he’s written over 1,000 pages on the subject, this obviously doesn’t mean that Kelsey doesn’t think we can say anything constructive about the human person. But, as we will see, he does think that there is a lot about our understanding of human beings that must remain “open.” Indeed, we will see that he thinks we can say a lot about the shape of human flourishing in the world, but he is quite reticent to offer much in the way of particular content. And, much of that is driven by the fact that God himself is ultimately mysterious.

Human Flourishing

And, that segues nicely into the third feature of his Trinitarian anthropology. For Kelsey, the Trinitarian relations provide the key for understanding human flourishing.

Therein lay its anthropological implications, for it defines human flourishing. By such engagement humans are called to analogous life which is their flourishing. Their flourishing lay in a community in communion analogous to that of the triune God, marked by mystery – that is, by analogous glory, incomprehensibility, and holiness, analogous to that of the triune God. (77-78)

As we’ll see throughout the discussion, Kelsey does not think that everything we need to say about the human person can be derived directly from Christology or the doctrine of the Trinity. He indicates at the very beginning of the work that he has a high view of what non-theological anthropologies can provide to our understanding of human beings. But, he does think that the Trinity offers the only legitimate starting point for a Christian understanding of human flourishing.

The Three Relations that Constitute Theological Anthropology

As I’ve mentioned several times, the entire shape of Kelsey’s theological anthropology is driven by the three ways in which God relates himself to humanity—creation, redemption, and consummation. A proper understanding of the Trinity, though, nuances these relations in two important ways.

First, each of these three relations involves all three persons of the Trinity, but with their own distinct pattern.

Formulated abstractly, these differences of pattern are the following: It is the Father who creates through the Son in the power of the Spirit; it is the Spirit, sent by the Father with the Son, who draws creatures to eschatological consummation; it is the Son, sent by the Father in the power of the Spirit, who reconciles creatures. (122)

So, as Kelsey unpacks the significance of each relation for understanding anthropology, he will need to pay close attention to these distinctive Trinitarian patterns.

Second, he also argues that although all three of these relations are fundamentally important, we do need to notice several important “asymmetries” in these relations.

  • God’s relating to create is ontologically prior to and logically independent from the other two relations. The idea that God creates human beings does not necessarily entail that he will need to redeem them or consummate his creation in any way. But, for there to be anything for him to redeem or consummate, he must already have created. So, stories of creation will have a certain primacy in developing a theological anthropology. Though never in a way that undermines the significance of the other two.
  • God’s relating to consummate and God’s relating to reconcile as “complexly interrelated” (122). In other words, there is a sense in which stories about the redemption of humanity and the consummation of God’s redemptive plans for humanity are intertwined and inseparable. This means that the two will be mutually informing in the context of a theological anthropology.
  • Nonetheless, stories of redemption and consummation remain distinct stories, and neither should be subsumed under the other. There is a sense in which the idea consummation is logically independent of redemption. That is, it is conceptually to tell a story about bringing creation to its proper consummation without implying that it has fallen and is in need of redemption. On the other hand, stories of redemption seem necessarily depending on stories of consummation. That is, a story about redemption would seem to imply some story about the completion of that redemptive process.
  • So, although each of these stories needs to remain independent of the other and should be told with its own narrative logic, there is a complex pattern of relationships among the three stories that influences the way each will function in developing a theological anthropology.

Eccentric Existence 3 (a theological and Christian anthropology)

We are looking at David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence. According to Kelsey, anthropology is a discipline that seeks to answer three basic kinds of questions.

  • What are we?
  • How ought we to be?
  • Who am I and who are we?

These questions can be approached from a variety of non-theological perspectives (e.g. biology, cultural anthropology, etc.), as well as other non-Christian theological perspectives. And, that raises the question of whether Christian theology actually has anything unique to offer in this discussion.

What makes an anthropology distinctively Christian?

Kelsey argues that understanding what is distinctively theological and Christian about anthropology begins with the claim that God actively relates to humans in three key ways: “(a) God actively relates to human beings to create them, (b) to draw them to eschatological consummation, and (c) to reconcile them when they are alienated” (8). Thus, the basic task of a Christian theological anthropology is to find out what is implied about human beings by these three claims.

Even these basic claims, though, are not enough to ground a truly Christian theological anthropology. That is because the God who relates to humanity in these three ways is not just any God, but is the triune God of the Bible. Kelsey spends a good portion of one chapter discussing the history of Trinitarian thought in the early church. Although he thinks that much of this history had the unfortunate tendency to focus almost exclusively on only the redemptive relationship, to the neglect of the creative and consummative relationships, he still sees the Trinitarian framework of Nicene theology to be constitutive of an adequately Christian anthropology. He does argue, though, that this does constitute an overly constrictive framework because “there may be an indefinitely large number of possible ways in which to explicate, coherently interrelate, and elaborate on the affirmations made by the creed” (61).

What are the implications of the Trinitarian approach?

Affirming the Trinitarian structure of anthropology as provided in the ecumenical creeds of the early church has at least three important implications. First, reciting the creeds is “existentially self-involving” in that this practice is a key way in which Christians “have shaped, as well as expressed, their personal identities” (62). Second, this creedal approach has rhetorical implications in that it shapes our language of God in particular ways, especially those privileging the dynamic relations of the triune persons. And third, this Trinitarian framework offers two subsequent methodological implications.

The first of these methodological implications is that we cannot allow the redemptive relationship to undercut the other two relations, particular the idea that God relates to creation as Creator. We’ll talk more in the next post about the importance of affirming all three of these relations, but the very fact that the creeds themselves emphasize the logical priority of the creative relationship over the redemptive relationships suggests that the former should not be undermined.

And, the second methodological implication of this Trinitarian framework is that all anthropology is at least indirectly christocentric. Since the way that we understand the Trinity is shaped by what we believe about Jesus, “That is ultimately what qualifies theological answers proposed to anthropological questions as authentically Christian theological anthropology” (9). But, he goes on to argue:

That most emphatically does not mean that everything we may say theologically about human persons must be derived from an analysis of the metaphysics of the incarnation. The argument of this chapter does not warrant an ontological christocentrism, as though the very being of human persons is constituted by and revealed in the being of the Son of God incarnate. (66)

Instead of deriving everything directly from Christology, Kelsey argues that theological anthropology is indirectly christocentric. Insofar as our understanding of Jesus informs our understanding of the Trinity, and insofar as anthropology has a fundamentally trinitarian framework, then anthropology is indirectly christocentric.

For Kelsey, what makes an anthropology distinctively theological and Christian is that it begins with the fact that the triune God as revealed in and through the incarnate Christ has chosen to be related to human beings in creation, redemption, and consummation. The task of theological anthropology is to understand what exactly is implied about human beings in making these claims.