Pro-Nicene Theology: Entryways and Ineffability (Part 1)

The doctrine of the Trinity serves as the fundamental lodestar of all Christian belief

The common criticism of systematic theology suggests that it is an effort (whether intended or not) to put God in a box. Control. Manipulation. Sanitizing. These are the watchwords against such an agenda or effect. That there is a version of Christian doctrine which does so cannot be gainsaid, and we might note that suspicions are high in this regard regarding Trinitarian dogma as perhaps nowhere else. Persons, essences, notions, processions—if boxes are found anywhere in which we might cover up the fire of divine self-revelation, are they not cluttering our vision here? Yet it is worth beginning our reflections on pro-Nicene theology by noting that something has gone terribly awry and missed the promptings of the fourth- and fifth-century fathers in suggesting such a schema.

 

The doctrine of the Trinity serves as the fundamental lodestar of all Christian belief, the shining center of all Christian truth and the focal point of every instance of our trust and hope. God is. More particularly, God—the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit—is, and in, through, and to this one are all things. What light is shed upon life and being, then, flows forth from this fiery being. It must be admitted, however, that the Trinity has overwhelmed due to the power of its beam. Its very brilliance is the source of its difficulty. Theologians from Anselm to Sonderegger have reminded us that the divine mystery is not owing to a lack of revelation but a preponderance of it. This the hymn-writer attested so beautifully of the immortal God, of whom we sing, “In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.”

Recent months have seen an uptick in talk of the triune God. Controversy has rocked certain portions of the evangelical subculture, regarding the propriety and salience of certain claims made by significant figures regarding the doctrine of God’s triunity. We have no desire to engage in polemics directly; in fact, the most significant entry into this debate has been that of noting its more fundamental roots in matters of basic theological methodology. Very different postures of study apparently have birthed distinct approaches to attesting the character and name of God. Such postures betoken commitments regarding the shape of biblical exegesis, the nature of theological language, the fundamental attributes of the divine life, and the way in which God’s own being relates to the economy of God’s acts in our midst (both creation and redemption). One of the great ironies of modern evangelicalism is that some of the greatest detractors of the open theism movement have succumbed to a similar posture over against the classical Christian approach to the doctrine of God, at least in many of its fundamental entailments.

We are launching a five-months-long series, then, entitled Pro-Nicene Theology. Recent years have witnessed the deepening of our understanding of the fourth-century Trinitarian debates, moving us well beyond rather thin versions (dominant even in the mid twentieth-century textbooks) that portray this as a protracted but rather simple fight between two parties (the Arians and the Athanasians [read: the orthodox]). So-called “new canon” research by figures ranging from Rowan Williams and Lewis Ayres to Michel René Barnes and Khaled Anatolios has helped sketch the terrain of this period and the myriad elements bundled together in these epochal debates.[1] Each month we will consider a fundamental issue, taking up the topics of divine ineffability, divine simplicity, inseparable operations, the eternal generation of the Son, and the distinction of theology and economy in turn. These foci are not only doctrinal topics, much less merely philosophical forays, but are exegetically necessary. Each month, therefore, we will post an entry offering dogmatic exposition of a key topic to be followed later in the month by an exegetical sketch of that topic. While a number of contributors will pen our doctrinal entries, Fred Sanders will provide all of the interpretive pairings (a foretaste of his exegetically-focused book The Triune God forthcoming this fall in the New Studies in Dogmatics series).

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