Guest Contribution, Derrick Peterson: A Panic of Joy: Union With Christ as the Skopos of Trinitarian Discourse

Here is our next guest contribution provided by a great brother and young emerging theologian and Christian scholar, Derrick Peterson. Derrick is finishing up his studies at Multnomah Biblical Seminary (my own alma mater), and is just a genuine dude who loves Jesus! I have only briefly met Derrick, a few years ago now, as he delivered a paper at the regional Evangelical Theological Societies’ theological conference held that year at Multnomah; I hope he and I get to hook up again soon for a more substantial time of meeting and fellowship. His short essay as you will read below engages with a very important piece that serves formative for Evangelical Calvinism; that is the doctrine of the Trinity (ironically, I just wrote on the same issue for a short paper I wrote for my theology class at Princeton, which I will post in the days to come). Pay attention to what Derrick has to say, he has some important insights on the recent developments in Trinitarian theology. Beyond that, as you read what he writes, you will notice that Derrick provides something of a survey, indeed an index of important authors and Trinitarian thinkers that you should be paying attention to if you are at all interested in Trinitarian theology for today. Be blessed. And thank you Derrick for providing this wonderful piece of writing on the Trinity. If you are interested in writing a guest post or article (and you can do more than one!), then please contact me at:

Bio: Derrick is a graduate student at Multnomah Seminary who recently completed his M.Div in theological studies, and is finishing his Th.M. in historical theology. His research interests include Patristic and Medieval theology, Philosophy of Science, and how the history of theology has shaped our contemporary world.

A Panic of Joy: Union With Christ as the Skopos of Trinitarian Discourse

If the Trinity is the “Ground and Grammar” of Christian thought and life, then the only true point of departure for theorizing on that front is through our union with Christ Jesus in the power of the Spirit.  It is here that the unity of Evangelical Calvinism’s first (Trinity as ground and grammar) and tenth theses (union with Christ as central) are shown in essence to be two sides of a single vision.  My claim is that though I personally may not bean Evangelical Calvinist (though I am sympathetic enough to their claims that I would not begrudge being deputized) precisely to the extent that contemporary Trinitarian theology has forgotten these vital points, it begins to treat the trinity in 3rd rather than 1st person perspective (terms I am blatantly stealing from Michael Hanby’s Augustine and Modernity); to perhaps put it a bit unfairly, such 3rd person perspectives use the trinity descriptively as an “object” or “blueprint” that can be held in some sort of ratio with miscellaneous finite media (be it the church, society, politics, etc…) in order to allow the Trinity to “adjust” the finite via analysis engendered by the comparison.  This not only in one sense “idealizes” the Trinity abstracting from its “onto-relational” context (to wax Torrancian, as this is Bobby’s blog!).  It also, if my own research is to be believed, in its own ironic way through the univocal (non-dialectical, non-analogous) theological conceptualization of God that appears implicit in such accounts repeats the particular circumstances that led to the marginalization of the Trinity in the 17th century (I realize that may seem an idiosyncratic date; for the curious, here I am reliant on research I am doing for my M.Div./Th.M. thesis, particularly the convergence of the detailed historical narratives in Philip Dixon, Nice and Hot Disputes: The Doctrine of the Trinity in the 17th Century; Jason Vickers Invocation and Assent: The Making and Remaking of Trinitarian Doctrine; and William Placher, The Domestication of Transcendence: How Modern Thinking About God Went Wrong).

A Panic of Joy

In the mid-1990’s the theological world awoke, and was startled to find itself Trinitarian.  Such was, of course, not always the case (or so the standard accounts of the story tell us).  Once upon a time, it is said, a dark veil hung over the church’s opinion of the doctrine because of men like Schleiermacher (whose name, in a felicitous coincidence for Trinitarian pundits everywhere, means veil-maker) who relegated the doctrine to the shadowy back bits of his appendices (whatever other problems one might have with Schleiermacher’s Trinitarianism, this is not true: Schleiermacher was quite careful regarding the construction of The Christian Faith.  The Trinity occurs not in the appendix, but his conclusion, it is the “coping-stone” of the Christian faith, its absolute summary statement).  Of course the Trinity was living a moderately successful double-life by pulling shifts in philosophy departments influenced by Schelling and Hegel (the Thrice-Holy trying to avoid a stint in the unemployment line, no doubt, after physicists like Laplace averred they had no need of “that hypothesis”).  But despite some profound insights, these were, to put it politely, slightly outside the bounds of what was traditionally considered orthodox.

Against the pitch of this darkling plain came the sudden bright light—one would imagine both bomb-like and Taboric—of the two Karl’s (Barth and Rahner), exploding and transfiguring the theological scene at large.  Then, in the last two or three decades of the twentieth-century, Trinitarian theology turned from famine to feast, and then by the end of the century, waddled into a sort of bloated critical mass.  This transition can be traced within editions of key works, and often to humorous effect.  In the introduction to the 1990 edition of Colin Gunton’s The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, for example, Gunton still notes the paucity of works dealing explicitly with the Trinity, but sings the praises of the rise in its systematic interest at large by remarking, however vaguely, that they are “a hopeful sign.”  Just six years later, in the introduction to the 2nd edition, Gunton’s tone has changed and become quite sardonic: “suddenly, we are all Trinitarian, or so it would seem.”  Indeed, such was the onslaught of Trinitarian works that David Cunningham writes in his 1998 book These Three Are One, that the movement looks less a renaissance, “than a bandwagon,” and that “once threatened by its relative scarcity…the doctrine now seems more likely to be obscured by an overabundance of theologians clustered around it.”

Not burdened by the relatively slow turn-over rate of the physical paper-and-ink publishing world (or troublesome bothers like peer review, facts, and knowing what one was talking about), the online world of blogging fared much worse.  Such was the abuse (and perhaps worse, banality) of “Trinitarian this” and “Trinitarian that” (indeed, even the dusty backwaters of my own blog at the time were guilty on several occasions) that Dr. Ben Meyers, owner of the wonderful blog Faith and Theology, called for a “five-year moratorium” on the word Trinitarian.  Since such an embargo apparently lifted last year, I can only hope I am safe.  Though I truly hope Ben keeps a permanent ban on the word “trinitarianly” which is and ever shall be an abomination to English one can, unfortunately, neither unhear, nor unsee.

A Useful Almighty

Part and parcel in this upsurge of Trinity projects is the concerted attempt to counter the claim of Kant in his Conflict of the Faculties, for example, that the Trinity, even if true, would have no practical import for the life of the believer.  To cite one particularly influential writer: “The Trinity is the most practical of doctrines,” says Catherine LaCugna.  Matthew Levering calls this nearly rabid concern to prove the Trinity’s practicality the “Jamesian impasse” of Trinitarian theology, after a similar charge made by William James in his The Varieties of Religious Experience; and Neil MacDonald refers to it as theology’s “meta-theological” dilemma, after yet another similar, but more all-encompassing charge by Church-Historian-turned-atheist Franz Overbeck: that all of theology was reducible to non-theology (history, philosophy, sociology, etc…) so that if theologians were honest they must do non-theology, or nothing (echoing, of course, today’s Ultra-Darwinists like Daniel Dennet in his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea who notes Darwinism is a universal acid that can “reduce everything,” i.e. Darwinism is the Rosetta Stone that can translate and explain all life purely within the scope of its own idiom).  “Kant would be hard pressed to make this criticism stick today” writes Keith Johnson in a remarkable recent work Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism: “Contemporary theologians are driven by a quest to relate Trinitarian doctrine to a wide variety of concerns.  Books and articles abound on Trinity and personhood, Trinity and societal relations, Trinity and gender, Trinity and marriage, Trinity and church, Trinity and politics, Trinity and ecology, and so forth.”

One Does Not Use God as One Does a Pocketknife[1]

 Yet, I’m not so sure Kant would be impressed.  Or, put differently (since I’m not particularly worried what Kant would think): are these projects truly proving the “practicality” of the Trinity?  To employ a Barthian use of italics, there are two issues here: that the Trinity has practical consequence, and that the Trinity has practical consequence.  Regarding the first: what counts as practical?  As Kathryn Tanner puts it in a fairly damning essay simply entitled “Trinity” in the Blackwell Companion to Political Theology, (repeated recently and at greater length in her Christ the Key) these projects are guilty of “ideological pandering,” so that often “what the Trinity tells one about politics is no more than what one already believes about politics.”  Karen Kilby likewise argues that “social trinitarianism” by and large merely idealizes a particular social schema and then projects this onto God.  This is particularly relevant for my own evangelical background.  The irony is thick when scholars like Fred Sanders, Robert Letham, and even the great Carl Henry, have noted that by and large Evangelicals were quite slow to respond and even contribute to the Trinitarian renaissance, and yet the first thing that seemed to have happened when we did start to participate in the on-going conversation, is that the Trinity was passed around like a shiny new weapon for both sides of the already ossified battle-lines of our complementarian/egalitarian hullaballoo (I’ve never had the pleasure of using hullaballoo in a sentence before; if you are wondering, it feels pretty great).

On the other side of the italics: how is this showing that the Trinity is the “most practical of doctrines”?  As Keith Johnson notes against what he critiques in general as the “Trinity-as-blueprint” paradigm, that with such methods of abstraction “some attempts to refer human existence to the Trinity…may actually have the opposite effect—namely, displacing the triune God as ‘the center of our life and thought’” precisely because what is substituted is some cipher or other.  Indeed, Tanner again: “The danger of such [Trinitarian] strategy” she says, “is that the Trinity fails to do any work.  We do not need the Trinity to tell us that human beings condition one another by way of their relationships.  We do not even need the Trinity to tell us that persons are catholic in their conditioning by others; there is nothing especially Trinitarian about the idea that individuals are a microcosm of the whole world’s influences.  These ideas are platitudes of the philosophical literature and recourse to the Trinity does not seem to be doing anything here to move us beyond them.”

Moreover, these practical employments seem to warp the limits of the doctrine under the strain of use.  Stephen Holmes quite damnably writes in his recent book, The Quest for the Trinity: “in each case the acceptable ethical outcomes cannot flow from the Patristic doctrine of the Trinity: the dogma needs massaging, relativizing, or simply reversing before it generates ‘acceptable’ political content for today…[P]olitical utility is only achieved [in these contemporary projects when] the received form of the doctrine of the trinity is radically adjusted.”  The irony here is that precisely in the celebrations of a renewed Trinitarian vigor in theology (what I have called its “panic of joy”) we repeat what historical sleuthing reveals were the very causes of its 17th century decline: attempts at clear, “univocal” pictures of God as trinity that ironically did not work precisely because of the feigned attempt at artificial clarity, and fragmented into dozens of different views even among proponents.  The significant addition to our time, itself still in the mode of the 17th century decline, is that we are expecting the Trinity to do some seriously heavy conceptual and practical labor for us, and yet as Tanner stated, the Trinity does not seem even in this way to be adding much.


This perhaps seems a bit bleak.  But here, while I must be brief as I have already strayed far and away from my word limit, we must notice that in the history of theology all of the fecund Trinitarian insights—its transitions from certain Aristotelian and Platonic views of the eternity of the world, for example, the significance of the category of person and relation, the contingent yet knowable quality of the universe, etc…–all of these were born out of a Trinitarian theology that did not resort to the schematized “3rd person” perspective, but were insights that flowed profoundly and in some sense naturally from a “1st person” account of our union with Christ in the holy spirit.  Henri de Lubac once commented that “it must be admitted that often the force and depth of a doctrine are diminished rather than increased by over-enthusiasm.”  It seems this holds true to the ironic character of contemporary trinitarianism: precisely in our zeal to “trinitarianize” everything explicitly, the doctrine became a sort of parody of itself and its very mode of elaborating our new creation in Christ, and who Christ and the Spirit must be if this is true, became strangely hazy and ideal precisely as they were thought to be concrete and at the forefront and center of our theology.  The true way forward for Trinitarian thought is through renewed attention to its original skopos, union in Christ, who as Augustine remarks frequently in de Trinitate, is not merely our goal, but also our path.  This is why Evangelical Calvinism presents an opportunity to move forward.

[1] A play on a phrase once spoken by Martin Heidegger: “One does not lose God as one does a pocketknife.”