Towards a Western Trinity

This isn’t new.  I’m moving some old essays to this site.

In Robert Arakaki’s “Plucking the Tulip,” while the majority of the piece dealt with “calvinism,” he did make some comments on why the Eastern view of the Trinity is more preferable than the Western view (and with what the Filioque entails).

In this piece I evaluate the shortcomings of Augustinianism and the inadequacy of the Eastern essence/energy distinctions.  I conclude with some suggestions on moving past the impasse.

This is the final part both of Arakaki’s “Plucking the Tulip” and my response to it.  The response was delayed because I actually thought this part of his critique was very good.  I have demonstrated my own reasons why I find his critique of TULIP to be unconvincing.  I had to wrestle and think through these issues much more than on soteriology.   Indeed, when I was looking into Eastern Orthodoxy, it was the Trinitarian issues that had the most “pull.”   Western theologians today, at least in the Evangelical world, have done a terrible job in presenting a Western view of the Trinity that understands the East’s concerns (or presenting any view of the Filioque, period.  It is a mark of deep and deserved shame on American Evangelicalism that Karl Barth has the most thorough, recent defense of the Filioque).   This is one of the areas where new thought is actually possible.

I must begin by repeating the now-common refrain that there really isn’t as big as gap between East and West on the Trinity as once was thought.   This is undoubtedly true in the earlier Patristic eras with greater differences coming to light as the first millennium ended.  Certainly, there is a marked divide between later figures like Aquinas and Palamas.

Arakaki begins by noting Calvin’s Western roots.  He writes, “Unlike Eastern Orthodoxy which draws on a wide range of Church Fathers,Western Christianity in both its Roman Catholic and Protestant forms depends heavily on Augustine of Hippo” (Arakaki 12).

Mr Arakaki tries to connect predestination with the Western view of the Trinity.  He writes, “This is because theology (the nature of God) and economy (how God relates to creation) are integrally related” (14).   Mr Arakaki is correct to note that double predestination is not unique to Calvin.  As the former Orthodox theologian Joseph P. Farrell has noted, double predestination is an inference from absolute divine simplicity (Farrell, 332 passim.), and almost all medieval Western theologians held to this model of simplicity. Further, Arakaki’s claim that God’s nature is related to God’s economy is absolutely correct.    He notes that his Eastern view is the Cappadocian one, grounding the monarchy of God in the hypostasis of the Father.   Following Metr. Zizioulas he states that such a position emphasizes the person over the nature.  God exists through his mutual love.   To borrow Zizioulas’s famous title, “Being is Communion.”   There is a certainly a truth to this.

Mr Arakaki contrasts this with the Augustinian view.  His summary of Augustine is by and large correct, and I won’t belabor the point with more quotations.  He quotes sources on Augustine to the effect that Augustine emphasized the nature over the person.  Arakaki then notes difficulties with the West’s view:  “the Father is God, the Son is God,the Holy Spirit is God; but the Son is not the Father, and the Son is not the Holy Spirit; but there is not three gods but only one God” (16).  Obviously, such a view is unsatisfying.  It is not surprising that one infers the Filioque from such a construction.  Indeed, if the above is problematic, then it appears that the Filioque is also problematic.

A High-Church Reformed Response

It must be first noted that Western theologians do in fact have a response to Mr. Arakaki.   How can one claim that “The Father is God/The Son is God/The Spirit is God/There is one God”?   Western theologians could make this claim work by positing a “relations of oppositions.”   I am not going to take that route.  I have my own questions about such a model.  I only mention it to say that there are cogent, rational alternatives to his presentation.

Mr Arakaki has certainly placed his finger upon the Western problem.  Indeed, it is a pressure point.   In fact, even more problems could be adduced.   We shan’t mention them here.   In order to respond to Mr Arakaki, I will flesh out the Eastern view a little more, drawing upon perhaps its most forming theologian, Gregory Palamas (as interpreted by Vladimir Lossky).  According to Lossky, “The Father is the sole monarchy of the Godhead,” but this isn’t subordinationist because “terms such as procession and origin are but inappropriate expressions for a reality alien to all becoming, all process, all beginning” (Lossky, A l’image et a la ressemblance de Dieu, 78, quoted in Jenson, 152). This point shouldn’t be passed over.   This is in line with the Eastern emphasis on apophatic theology:   we have knowledge of God by negation.  At its most basic it denies any knowledge of the divine nature.  Rather, we know God by his energies.  (Much more could be mentioned and Orthodox philosopher David Bradshaw’s outstanding work, Aristotle East and West, will fill in any lacunae in my narrative).

Palamas on the Essence/Energies

Not only does Palamas see that God has an ousia (I understand the fine nuances between ousia, substance, and essence; in the following I will use ousia as roughly synonymous with essence), but “God also possesses that which is not substance” (Palamas, Chapters 135, quoted in Sinkewizcs, 241).  Yet Gregory is clear that this is also not an accident, of which one does not admit in God.  Palamas calls this entity which is neither substance nor accident an “energy.”  Elsewhere he calls it the “arche of deity” (Triads 3.1.29).  This is crucial for his view of the spiritual life.

In one of Palamas’ more brilliant moves, he notes the Western view of divine simplicity (God’s essence is absolutely simple, admitting of no distinctions) and how impossible it is for deification:  If God’s essence is absolutely and immutable, how exactly can the saint participate in it?  If the saint participates in the essence, then the saint is absorbed into the essence.   If the saint participates in “created grace,” then he is participating in a created medium and not in God.  Admittedly, it’s a brilliant move.

One should keep in mind that Gregory likely holds to something similar to divine simplicity.  He is careful to note that God is “according to the ousia beyond ousia” (ibid).  What he likely means is something like Plato’s beyond being or hyperousia (Republic 549b).  If this is in fact what Palamas means, and I think it is, then he is not as far removed from the West as one might think.  The only difference, it seems, is that he adds a tertium quid to the equation:  the divine energies.

Lossky’s problem points back to Gregory Palamas. Palamas employs the Cappadocians, but with a subtle difference. The saints, for Palamas, participate in the divine energies, but not in the divine ousia, deity sheerly as such. The problem, though, is that the Cappadocians were a lot more flexible than Palamas in their use of terms. Their use of the term ousia (Basil probably excepted) does not suggest anything other than the divine life. As Catherine Lacugna says, whom Mr Arakaki quotes elsewhere with approval, “God’s ousia exists as Father, Son, Spirit.  The three persons do not have a common ousia; they are the divine ousia…Further, as Rowan Williams points out, the doctrine of the Trinity means the identification of ousia with energeiai” (LaCugna, 192, quoted in Letham 249ff).  Here is the problem for Palamas: “It is one thing to say that abstract deity is itself always the same quality, as the Cappadocians did; it is quite another to say that deity taken as God himself is a static essence. Ironically, Orthodoxy is here driven to a bluntly modalist doctrine: God himself is above the biblical narrative, which applies only to his energies (Jenson 153).  Jenson’s comment needs to be fleshed out:  we can only identify God by his self-identifying in the biblical narrative–the persons arising out of the narrative.  But on Palamas’s gloss what can we even know of the Persons?  He seems to intimate that this “energy(ies)” is above the gospel narrative itself (Triads 3.1.10-13; 3.1.16-19; 3.3.26-27).   Perhaps most disastrously, Orthodoxy has a tendency to “reify the energies, the moments of the divine life, and at least in the case of the Spirit, the energies replace the person in the historical actuality of salvation” (Jenson 157).

Further, it appears that Orthodoxy is in danger of what (ironically) Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart calls the “pleonastic fallacy.”  According to Hart, this fallacy claims “the fallacy that says that—since there is an infinite qualitative distance between the ultimate principle of all reality and the world of “unlikeness” here below—it is necessary to posit a certain number of intermediate principles or “hypostases” in the interval between the two in order to bridge that distance” (Hart).  While this fallacy was initially pointed out against neo-Platonists and Arians–and I have no intention of saying the Orthodox are the latter!–one cannot help but see certain similarities.  On such a gloss we see an apophatically unknown God who is made knowable–not by the persons, mind you, because Lossky says the terms for hypostatic differentiation are only “inappropriate expressions”–but by some other tertium quid, the energies of God.

Further, we can only have an indirect knowledge of God.  Granted, we aren’t knowing God through a created medium, pace Roman Catholicism, but it is still a medium nonetheless. We do not know God as he is but only through the energies.  If this knowledge is indirect knowledge, then how do we know God’s essence?   As Robert Letham remarks, “If the divine essence is unknowable, how does Gregory know it” (Letham 249)?

Given Orthodoxy’s commitment to a relational ontology, one must ask how this is even possible if we only relate via the energies and not the persons, as it appears Palamas says.  Further, we must note Arakaki’s earlier claim:  “This is because theology (the nature of God) and economy (how God relates to creation) are integrally related” (Arakaki, 14).  I agree, but if all we can know are God’s energies and not his ousia, as Basil says (Letter 234), then one wonders how such a claim is even possible.   If the ousia is hyper-ousia and beyond our knowing, which was Basil’s point against Eunomius, then we may be allowed to hope that that theologia and economia are integrally related, but that is only a guess.  By definition, we can’t know that.  As Robert Letham remarks on Palamas,For all of the problems of the Filioque, it at least attempts to say that what is true in ontology is true in economia: The Son is the giver of the Spirit in history because he is a giver of the spirit in ontology.

Putting the Filioque at the End

Let’s assume that my (and Jenson’s) critique of Palamism holds.  Even so, that does not prove the Filioque is true.  This is not a problem, though.  As of now, one can affirm what the Filioque is trying to get at (God is not dissimilar in ontology and economy; the economy reveals the ontology) while seeking to work past difficulties inherent in the project.

At the risk of horrifying everyone both East and West, I will expand (and correct)  Hegel’s “I-thou/Master-slave” analogy.  This does not mean I agree with all of what Hegel says.  I think he is more insightful than people realize, but he is also wrong on a number of points.  The present use of him is simply an analogy. I am not endorsing his ontology.

If you and I are to be free for one another, each of us must be both subject and object in our discourse. If I am present, I am a subject whom you have as my object. But if I am not an object for you as subject, if I somehow evade that, I enslave you. I am not reciprocally available to you (Jenson 155).

How then, can this mutual availability happen? How is an I-Thou relationship possible without becoming a struggle for power? (Jenson notes with humor that postmodernism carried out this program under a tutelage of horror!) Following Jenson, in perhaps a mildly Augustinian strain, we can note, “there is freely given love…a third party in the meeting of ‘I’ and ‘Thou. Thus, if you and I are to be free for one another, someone must be our liberator (okay, granted this isn’t the best term–JA)…If I am to be your object and you mine, so that we may be subjects for each other, there has to be one for whom we are both objects, and whose intention for us is our love for each other. The theological conclusion is obvious.

Still, it does not fully answer the Filioque debate, at least not here. We can tentatively  toward a Western answer. The debate over the Filioque is misplaced. If God is indeed the God of the future, and we see Cappadocian hints of an ever-forward moving futurity in God, then does it not make more sense to see the better question as “The Spirit is the End and Goal of all God’s ways”? East and West debate over the beginning Archimedean point when they should be discussing the divine goal as the Spirit’s Archimedean point” (157). Quoting Pannenberg again, “The fault of the Filioque is that the true Augustinian insight that the Spirit is the fellowship of the Son and Father ‘was formulated in terms of relations of origin’” (Pannenberg, I: 347, quoted in Jenson, 157 n. 67).  Seen from this light, the East-West debate is simply two sides of the same coin.  Neither side tries to rise above the problematic.

On What Can We Agree?

I certainly agree that Augustinian triadology is simply inadequate.  It solves many problems but at great costs.   While I think the Orthodox concept of the divine energies is problematic–and I’ve only touched on one aspects.  I think there are more damaging criticisms available which I won’t pursue here–to the degree that Orthodoxy talks about the “divine light” I can appreciate.  I realize that Orthodoxy sees the two terms as synonymous.  I do not.  My arguments challenge a concept of the divine energies but not the divine light.  There is no reason why on a post-Augustinian gloss that one cannot appropriate the divine light.   Protestant biographies abound with saints who experience the divine light–glory–of God.  The Covenanter John Walsh was known to be surrounded by light while he was praying.   Even the modern Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, recalls an instance when he was flooded by divine light in language quite similar to that of Eastern Orthodox stories (Pannenberg).

In conclusion I agree with what the Filioque is trying to say.  God is not dissimilar in mission as he is in ontology.  Further, while God is transcendent we must be careful in positing that God’s essence is so radically other that we have no consistent way of saying how we can know God.  But even granting Eastern criticisms, we must confess that the East is not the way we should go.  Their Trinitarianism, while consistent and occasionally beautiful, comes at too great a cost.  If pressed hard enough we are left with a frozen view of God (to borrow Jenson’s phrase) above the biblical narrative–and such a view tends toward agnosticism (since we can’t know God as he really is).     Even worse, and in line with some other Orthodox critiques of Palamism (Moss), it’s hard to see on an Orthodox gloss how we can even have a “personal” relationship with God if the persons, too, are hyperousia and our only manner of communion is through the “energies.”

Which Way the West?

It is often remarked that Protestantism is divorced from the early church, that it can’t look back to church history and find itself.  What does one make of this claim?  Admittedly, it’s hard to find the location of First Presbyterian Church, Jerusalem.  Certainly, Protestants must acknowledge the hard work of the ancient church(es) in working through canonical, Christological, and Trinitarian issues.  We stand upon the shoulders of giants.   However, since Protestantism does not claim an infallible tradition, nothing significant is sacrificed when Protestant theologians began to admit that their tradition erred in formulation et al in years passed.

Further, nothing is lost in admitting that previous models of metaphysics may not have been the best to work with.  This does not mean jettisoning the hard work of the early church(es).  It does require a critical receiving of texts and positions, asking what light can they shed on our current situations, and cautiously moving forward.  Rowan Williams has cogently suggested that we saw such a handling of philosophical issues in the Nicene crisis (Williams 2002).  According to Williams’ reading, Arius conservatively employed a number of respected (if pagan) philosophical traditions which compromised the biblical narrative of the Son’s being with the Father. It was to the Nicene Fathers, Athanasius and Hilary, to “deconstruct” the older metaphysics around a new terminology that was more faithful to the biblical narrative (Farrell 184; cf. Hilary, De Synodis 76).

When one reads the Filiioquist debates, especially between two competent debaters, one has to admit that both sides make good cases.  I think there is a reason for that:  both sides are operating off of the same problematic: the Person(s) as causing the origin of another Person(s).   Either side, as Sergei Bulgakov noted with great clarity, must inevitably result in some dyad:  either Father-Son + Spirit or Father + Son/Spirit.  The triad has been lost.

It is to the credit of some recent theologians like Pannenberg and Jenson that they can find models to speak of the Trinity in a way that does not inevitably reduce to some form of monad + dyad.  Indeed, Panneberg can speak of mutual reciprocity, “the divine consciousness existing in a threefold mode,” and “each of the persons relates to the others as others and distinguishes itself from them” (Pannenberg 1991, 317; contra Robert Letham, Pannenberg is not advocating, at least not here anyway, three centers of consciousness, which would fall prey to some form of social Trinitarianism.  Pannenberg’s language is very clear:  a consciousness existing in a threefold mode is still one consciousness, one subject).

My own essay does differ from traditional Protestant proposals.  I do not hide that fact.  I hope I have demonstrated the truths behind the Filioque and what it means for our knowledge of God, even if I demur from the confessional formulations of it. It must be admitted that Calvinism’s Trinitarianism (to the degree that such an entity exists) stands or falls independent of my own formulations (and vice-versa).  Calvin did not write much on the Trinity for the simple fact that he didn’t have to.   Roman Catholicism did not differ from him on that score, so there wasn’t a point.  Calvin’s later doctrine of autotheos per the Son did raise some concerns, but even Catholics like Robert Bellarmine conceded that Calvin was largely in the “Tradition” on this point (Bellarmine 307-310, quoted in Letham 256).  I depart from Calvin in terms of language but hope that my own conclusions are not too far removed from his.

Works Cited:

Arakaki, Robert. “Plucking the Tulip,” http://orthodoxbridge.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Plucking-the-TULIP4.pdf (accessed 6 January 2014).

Basil the Great.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers vol 8.  Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publ.

Bellarmine, Robert.  “Secunda controversia generalis de Christo,” Disputationum de controversiis Christianae fidei adversus haereticos.  Rome, 1832.

Bradshaw, David.  Aristotle East and West:  Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom.  Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Bulgakov, Sergei.  The Comforter.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2005.

Farrell, Joseph. P.  God, History, and Dialectic:  The Theological Foundations of the Two Europes and their Cultural Consequences.   Seven Council Press, no date.

Hart.  David Bentley.  “The Lively God of Robert Jenson.”  First Things.  October 2005.  [Accessed 10 January 2014].

Hegel.  GWF.  Phenomenology of Spirit.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Jenson, Robert.  Systematic Theology vol 1.  Oxford University Press, 2001.

LaCugna, Catherine.  God for Us: The Trinity and the Christian Life. San Francisco: Harper, 1991.

Letham, Robert.  The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship.  Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 2004.

Lossky, Vladimir. A l’image et a la ressemblance de Dieu.  Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1967.

Moss, Vladimir.  “Romanides on the Holy Trinity.”  http://www.orthodoxchristianbooks.com/articles/410/romanides-holy-trinity/ [accessed 13 January 2014].

Palamas, Gregory.  One Hundred and Fifty Chapters. ed. Sinkewicz, Robert.  Toronto:  Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1988.

——————-.  Triads (Classics of Western Spirituality).  Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1982.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart.  Systematiche Theologie.  Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1988-1993.

—————-.  “God’s Presence in History.”  http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1710.  [accessed 10 January 2014].

—————-.  Systematic Theology.  Trans. G. W. Bromiley.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.

Plato, The Great Dialogues.  trans. W. H. D. Rouse.  New York: Signet Classics, 2008.

Williams, Rowan.  “The Philosophical Structures of Palamism,” Eastern Churches Review 9 (1977): 27-44D.

—————.  Arius: Heresy and Tradition.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.

Zizioulas, John.  Being as Communion. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997.

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