Trinity


I (Ben) noted last week about Justin Martyr’s very clear affirmation that Jesus eternally existed and became incarnate in time in his Dialogue with Trypho Chapter 48. In the conclusion I noted the issue of distinguishing between economy (what God does) and ontology (how God is). The economy is clear in that statement, but what about ontology. Trypho has the same question!

Chapter 50: “You seem,” said Trypho, “to have debated with many persons on every possible topic, and consequently are ready to answer any of my questions. Tell me then, first of all, how can you prove that there is another God besides the Creator of the world, and then show that He condescended to be born of a virgin.”

Justin continues a previous argument (about the two advents of Christ) before coming back to this question in chapter 55ff. In chapter 56, Justin provides a lengthy set of quotations and descriptions of the Abraham’s interchange with three men and Lot’s later interchange. His argument is basically that God is present in two places at the same time. Summing up at key points, he writes:

Chapter 56:[11] “Then,” I said, “let us return to the Scriptures and I will try to convince you that He who is said to have appeared to Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, and is called God, is distinct from God, the Creator; distinct, that is, in number, but not in mind. For I state that He never did or said anything else than what the Creator — above whom there is no other God — desired that He do or say.”  …

[22] At this point I asked, “Do you not see, my friends, that one of the three, who is both God and Lord, and ministers to Him who is in Heaven, is Lord of the two angels? When they went on to Sodom, He stayed behind and talked with Abraham, as Moses testified. Then He went His way after His conversation, and Abraham returned to his place. [23] And when He came to Sodom, it was no longer the two angels, but He Himself, who talked with Lot, as is evident from the Scriptures. He, indeed, is the Lord who was commissioned by the Lord in Heaven, that is, the Creator of all things, to inflict those dreadful punishments upon Sodom and Gomorrah, which are described in the Scriptures in this fashion: ‘The Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of Heaven’ [Gen 19.24].”

He goes on to include discussion of the burning bush and gives this description:

Chapter 61 “So, my friends,” I said, “I will now show from the Scriptures that God has begotten of Himself a certain rational Power as a Beginning before all other creatures. The Holy Spirit indicates this Power by various titles, sometimes the Glory of the Lord, at other times Son, or Wisdom, or Angel, or God, or Lord, or Word. He even called Himself Commander-in-chief when He appeared in human guise to Jesus, the son of Nave. Indeed, He can justly lay claim to all these titles from the fact both that He performs the Father’s will and that He was begotten by an act of the Father’s will. [2] But, does not something similar happen also with us humans? When we utter a word, it can be said that we beget the word, but not by cutting it off, in the sense that our power of uttering words would thereby be diminished. We can observe a similar example in nature when one fire kindles another, without losing anything, but remaining the same; yet the enkindled fire seems to exist of itself and to shine without lessening the brilliancy of the first fire. [3]My statements will now be confirmed by none other than the Word of Wisdom, who is this God begotten from the Universal Father, and who is the Word and Wisdom and Power and Glory of Him who begot Him.

This doesn’t sort all the questions about ontology by any means, but it shows that Justin was indeed aware of the issues. Though later argumentation is framed differently, the ideas of God meeting Abraham in Genesis 19 which is so central for Justin is at the heart of Rublev’s Trinity:

800px-angelsatmamre-trinity-rublev-1410

As Brevard Childs and Kavin Rowe argued so well: the OT is not an impediment to the Trinity, it is the necessary foundation on which the Trinity is grounded.

(Public Domain)

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Sometimes it is popularly asserted that the Emperor and/or the bishops at Nicaea invented the idea that Jesus is God incarnate. Of course, that has been clearly refuted in scholarship, but conspiracy stories are so much fun and more interesting to pass along. I (Ben) am heading to give a lecture at Huntington University in a couple of weeks on Justin Martyr, Paul and the issue of circumcision, so I have been rereading the Dialogue with Trypho and was reminded of this gem on Christology:

Chapter 48 [1]“We have now heard your opinion on these matters,” interrupted Trypho. “Resume your discourse where you left off, and bring it to an end, for it seems to be entirely absurd and utterly impossible of proof. Your statement that this Christ existed as God before all ages, and then that He consented to be born and become man, yet that He is not of human origin, appears to be not only paradoxical, but preposterous.” [2] “I am aware,” I replied, “that my assertion must seem paradoxical, especially to you Jews, who were never in the least interested in knowing or doing the things of God, but only the things of your teachers, as God Himself testifies [cf. Isa 29.3]. However, Trypho, the fact that this Man is the Christ of God, is not to be denied, even if I were unable to prove that He, being God, pre-existed as the Son of the Creator of the universe and became Man through a virgin.

No nuanced reading or sophisticated hermeneutic to get the main idea here. Of course, the ontology of Nicaea is still wanting, but this is about as clear as an economic description of theology as you can get, and this is about 175 years before Nicaea. Irenaeus has equally clear statements about Jesus as God, dating to just a few years after Justin’s work.

Hi, I’m Ben and I’m an anachronist. In two recent posts, I’ve called out a couple of forms of anachronism with regard to Trinitarian theology and the Bible–in historical critical work and in one progressive revelation model, but I’m just as bad. While I critique them for an uncritical, or an seemingly unaware, use of anachronism,  I would argue that we cannot escape forms of anachronism so we should own up to the issue. The big concern is that we don’t lose the particularity of each author as we read, but our practice of reading is not uninformed or uninfluenced by conceptualities that post-date the text in focus. (Again, see my discussion of Gadamer in my Christosis chapter 1 for a discussion of how we know and read texts through/by means of tradition, so escaping it is impossible.) It’s not that we need a solution to anachronism, then, but we also shouldn’t let ideas run wild as if the author is dead either.

Two essays that my class explored on the topic of the Trinity and the Bible is that of Kavin Rowe’s “Biblical Pressure and Trinitarian Hermeneutics” and  Brevard Childs’ “The Identity of God”. Both work with a hermeneutical model of progressive revelation. This model is similar to a historical critical model in which the reader is encouraged to progress chronologically–prospectively–rather than  reading backwards–retrospectively. While both encourage seeing continuity between the OT and NT, they both end their respective essays with a potential caution about reading retrospectively, reading with a creedal form of Trinitarianism as one approaches the OT and NT. One distinction, though,  is the emphasis that Rowe places on the model of NT writers reading the OT retrospectively. Indeed, Rowe’s emphasis is on how the NT writers utilize OT/LXX kyrios language to identify the Son and Spirit. Child’s notes the retrospective model of the NT writers but explicitly denies our ability to read in that fashion since they were inspired (p. 381).

It seems to me that we all read prospectively and retrospectively, and that attending to the bi-directional focus is necessary. (For explicitly Christian readings, I would say this bi-directional mode attends to the dual nature of Scripture with its dual authorship–both divine and human.) Many interpreters speak of doing both, with u-turn. The question is do you start at the past and work forward (prospectively) and then read backwards (retrospectively), or do you start with Christ and read backwards (retrospectively) first, and then turn to read forwards (prospectively). In our recent volume on apocalyptic (Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination), we found this bi-directional reading was common to many, but the difference in their approaches related to the starting point. In particular, N.T. Wright pursues a prospective-to-retrospective model, whereas Richard Hays pursues a retrospective-to-prospective model. Both approaches have their pro’s and con’s, but it’s the appreciation for bi-directional reading that is important to recognize when we are working with issues of anachronism.

I (Ben) am teaching a Trinitarianism class for the second time here at HBU, and I’m experiencing one of the great benefits of being a professor–having a great excuse to read great texts more than once rather than always pressing on to something new. I start the semester by going through the patristic debates and then we go back to the biblical material, and then I pick a more focused reading. (Last time it was Moltmann’s Trinity and the Kingdom, and this time we’ll read Macchia’s Justified in the Spirit: Creation, Redemption, and the Triune God.) I begin with patristic theology because most that make assessments about the Trinity and biblical texts are working with the patristic categories, either explicitly or implicitly. As my last post indicated, this raises questions of anachronism that many (if not most) would want to avoid. Of course, I’m the pot calling the kettle black by using an anachronistic model and then decrying others for doing the same. I’ll own it; however, I agree with my epistemological assessment in Christosis, by means of Gadamer, that we know things through tradition rather than in spite of it.

In the previous post, I noted how historical critics can sometimes implicitly make an anachronistic claim that the Trinity is not in the NT because it does not exist in its fully immanent and Nicene form, and therefore they can exclude or underestimate the economic Trinitarian focus of the biblical texts. However, some affirming a more traditional reading at times fall into a different kind of anachronism when reading biblical texts. In particular, as we were reading Brevard Childs’ “The Identity of God” in his Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, his method betrays a type of anachronism.

Childs is definitely concerned not to read backwards because only the apostles were inspired to do that, so he is guarding against anachronism in that fashion without the inspiration of the Spirit. His anachronism appears to show up in the form of finding too much continuity in the biblical transition from the OT to the NT. I’m a fan of recognizing more continuity between the OT and NT than is often noted, but it’s not that we can simply read the text forwards from OT to NT and arrive at the Christology of the NT writers. Jason (Maston) my colleague and boss was sitting in on my lecture and helped me articulate this (via his work with Francis Watson). The Jewish texts have meanings that can shoot off in a number of directions, and it is only through Christ that we can come back and read them as in direct continuity with them.

Thus, even though Childs is concerned with anachronism of reading dogmatic theology back into biblical theology and with the anachronism of reading OT texts in too limited of a fashion because of the NT (e.g., his comments on Is 53, pg. 382), he also betrays a form of anachronism: to find such continuity between the  OT and NT presumes that he is reading backwards through the Christological lens of the NT. It’s not that the continuity in the story is not there, if you read it through that lens, but the details of the story don’t just naturally line up that way when reading forwards. There has to be a backwards reading implicit in his method even though his whole discussion of p 375-83 makes it seem that he’s wanting to avoid it.

Statements that the Bible/NT do not have a fully orbed Trinitarianism abound. Of course, those with a “low, slow” christology make that affirmation, but even those with an “early, high” christology regularly make such claims. Behind this is a strong concern to avoid the anachronism of later (creedal) theology back into texts. It is this problem of anachronism that I think undergirds those that would both deny and affirm Nicene theology. In other words, both groups are actually committing an anachronistic reading by making the comment that a fully orbed Trinitarianism is not found int the NT.

Historical Criticism: The concern of anachronism is almost self-evident in historical critical studies. There is a one-way flow of time, and every text/author must be interpreted in light of what is contemporaneous or previous to them. In no way should later conceptualities be introduced that would taint the historical evidence. Therefore, introducing later Nicene theology into a text would be out of order and would produce anachronistic results. Accordingly, one can easily say that the NT does not have a fully formed Trinitarianism, by which they mean a fully formed Nicene Trinitarianism. However, by using this later standard by which to measure Trinitarianism, historical critics have implicitly imported an anachronistic conceptuality into their their argument. Can’t the NT have a fully formed Trinitarianism on its own terms? Or might we say, in light of the historical critical concern to bracket out the ontology of Nicaea in terms of the immanent Trinity, they can fall into the trap of missing the event and action of God in terms of the economic Trinity. For example, Dunn in his Christology in the Making argues that Christ is the revelation of God in Paul’s letters, just that Christ is not ontologically identified with God (through pre-existence) in Paul’s letters: “God had himself acted in and through Christ” (255). This seems to be a strong indication of an economic view of Trinity, which is set in opposition to an immanent view. Yet if the immanent view was not at play in the discussion as an alternative, then the economic would be allowed more space.

Thus, it seems that this anachronistic standard is shaping historical critical affirmations and denials. This doesn’t mean that ontological issues are irrelevant to assessments of these texts, but we need to be careful of importing a standard from a latter time in order to make those assessments. This isn’t only a problem for those critiquing or questioning traditional readings, and I’ll mention how more traditional readers deal in anachronism  while trying to support their readings in a follow-up post.

Now that I’ve described the rationale for my in-progress book, Participating in the Righteousness of God: Justification in Pauline Theology, I’m laying out below the goals and scope of my study:

Part 1: Historical Framework
To set the stage for a reevaluation of Paul’s theology of justification, I demonstrate how historical frameworks influence contemporary biblical interpretive models. In particular, I establish how Protestant readings of justification are reactionary against Catholic theology and therefore explicitly frame justification in light of Christology and faith to the exclusion of the Holy Spirit and love. Rather than being overly influenced by post-Enlightenment anthropological conceptions, I also show the need to incorporate more a more robust pre-modern understanding of the porous self, making explicit use of Charles Taylor’s work on the buffered and the porous self.

Part II: Reading Paul
In distinction to post-Reformation readings of justification which place Christ over the Spirit and faith over love, my exegetical analyses demonstrate that Paul intertwines the Spirit and Christ in his employment of justification language in key texts—namely, Galatians 2–4; 2 Corinthians 3–5; Romans 1–8. Thus, my reading of Paul shows the coherence of this doctrine with the transformative participation of believers in the triune God. After establishing the relationship of participation and justification through close readings of specific passages, I then treat a variety of participatory topics that relate to justification—namely, suffering/cruciformity, the community (adoption, covenant), and sanctification/ethics.

Part III: Theological Framework
To conclude the monograph, I explore a participatory reading of justification through the lens of the fifth century patristic theologian Cyril of Alexandria, showing that readers not limited by the later Protestant-Catholic categories offer a similar reading as my own. With this model in mind, I then provide an essay that explores justification in light of theosis, an important and growing topic of study arising from wider ecumenical discussions.

This monograph does not attempt to answer all the opposing positions regarding the topic of justification. Rather, it provides a focused and sustained reading of Paul that demonstrates how justification serves as one primary way that he develops his doctrine of a transformative participation in the triune God.

I (Ben) am starting work on a book on justification in Paul: Participating in the Righteousness of God: Justification in Pauline Theology (with Eerdmans). Of course, the first question is: why do we need another book on justification in Paul? In response, my larger thesis is that other theological loci, such as the Spirit and resurrection/life, play a much larger role in Paul’s theology of justification than is acknowledged, and the book will largely be an exegetical exploration of key passages to document those connections.

One aspect to my argument is that the Protestant church has specifically shifted to a solely Christological view of justification rather than a more Trinitarian one. Note, for instance, how the Holy Spirit serves as the subject of the three first statements on justification and grace in the Catholic Catechism. (In the Joint Declaration with the Lutherans, the Spirit is hardly even mentioned.) While solus Christus isn’t as directly related to justification, it fits well with the traditional Protestant view of justification, as well. Even the very helpful Reformed doctrine of “union with Christ” belies a Christological focus in distinction to a more Trinitarian participation. Thus, a substantial part of my argument is to show how resurrection is more central to justification, and thus how the Lord, the Giver of Life (i.e., the Holy Spirit), is more important to the doctrine than our tradition has allowed.

In a paper for SBL’s session on Christian Theology and the Bible, I’ll show from Luther’s Galatians commentary how he connected justification with life/resurrection much more closely than Pauline scholars do today. Though I won’t be detailing the nuanced shifts in Protestant theology for the book, the work I’ve done for the essay appears to show that the shift was more of a second and third generation evolution than with the magisterial reformers–more with Lutheranism than Luther himself.

S21-210
Christian Theology and the Bible
11/21/2016
1:00 PM to 3:30 PM

Theme: Martin Luther as Interpreter of Scripture
This is the first of a four-year series on Christian theologians and their interpretation of the Bible. This session examines Martin Luther and his theological interpretation of a specific text or set of texts in the Old and New Testaments. The session is interested not only in Luther as a historical theologian but also for his role in constructive Christian theology today.

Arthur Sutherland, Loyola University Maryland, Presiding (5 min)

Claire Mathews McGinnis, Loyola University Maryland
Martin Luther on Exodus 7–11 (and Romans 9:6-13): the Hardening of the Heart (30 min)
Tyler Atkinson, Bethany College (Lindsborg, KS)
Solomon’s Political Body: Luther’s Lectures on Song of Songs and Contemporary Political Theology (30 min)
Ben C. Blackwell, Houston Baptist University
Luther and Galatians: Justification as Participation in the Life of God (30 min)
Gordon Campbell, Union Theological College (Northern Ireland)
“Christ is neither taught nor known in it”: some christological fallout of Martin Luther’s Prefaces to the Revelation of St. John (1522 & 1546). (30 min)
Discussion (25 min)

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