04 June 2017

Convivium 2017: The Strong Name of the Trinity Part 1

Yes, another Convivium Irenicum has come and gone. (Concluding posts from previous events can be found here (2014), here (2015), and here (2016).) This year's theme was "The Doctrine of God in the Life of the Church." Convivium sponsor, the Davenant Trust, called keynote speaker Fred Sanders of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University to lead our discussion because of the evident decline among evangelical churches (and Evangelicals generally) in remembering and understanding what the Christian tradition has taught about who God is

Why would anyone come to the conclusion that Evangelicals have forgotten important truths about the God they worship? Well, just last year there was a significant dust-up over the nature of Trinity and the relationship among its persons.

Social trinitarianism, as it came to be known, was invoked by partisans on both sides of the "gender wars" to justify their positions. Some argued that the Son was eternally subordinate to the Father, which meant that God intended in some way that women experienced an "authority deficit" with respect to men who occupied certain roles (husband, church elder, and perhaps one or two others).

Egalitarians among gender warriors were aghast and said, no! The essential equality of the persons of the Trinity entailed an essential equality between women and men in all respects including authority relations. In both cases, the "social" Trinity functioned as little more than a convenient trope to score points in a battle with respect to which the classical understanding of Trinity had no connection.

Fred Sanders had much good to say but I'll focus in this Part 1 on one of his arguments: What characterizes growth in understanding the Triune God? Growth in trinitarian understanding took (and takes) place in four stages:

  1. Progressive revelation;
  2. Ecclesiastical doctrinal development;
  3. Catechetical transmission; and
  4. Personal appropriation
With a bit more elaboration, we see that it requires an examination of the whole of scriptural revelation to recognize that God is characterized by both an essential unity and an essential threeness. In other words, the Hebrew Scriptures emphasize God's essential unity and only hint at God's plural essence.

As can easily be observed, notwithstanding the additional revelation of the New Testament, how we can accurately describe God's unity and diversity was worked out through ecclesiastical history in polemical contexts. With regard to Trinity, this process extended through the first four centuries of the history of the church after which there was a remarkable consensus that extended until modern times.

Catechetical transmission was the means by which this consensus was maintained. Only by intentional teaching and regular confession of the truth(s) of Trinity that the Church had hammered out were the results of four hundred years of hard work preserved and extended as the Church grew in size and geographic scope. And--spoiler alert--it is the lack of catechetical transmission that has contributed greatly to a phenomenon like social trinitarianism.

Finally, the roots and fruits of trinitarian revelation and explanation are (or at least should be) appropriated personally. Contemplation of the triune God can lead to new insights; it need not, however, lead to new knowledge. The depths of biblical revelation and the developments of in the Church's understanding of the implications and interrelationships of that revelation are resources for adoration. Trinitarian doctrine should be appropriated; as new questions arise, it can be extrapolated; but it need not be reinvented. Indeed, even with regard to new questions, regular recursion to earlier stages can usually provide the answer

So much for Part 1. In Part 2 I'll review Sanders's diagnosis of current disorders in trinitarian thought.

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