ChristologyPolitics and Current Events

Troublesome Trinitarianism

Note: Any time one writes about Trinity-related issues, they’re treading into dangerous theological territory. Accordingly, where I’ve overlooked important distinctions or overstepped my bounds, I welcome correction from those more rigorously trained than me.

The recent film adaptation of The Shack put debates about the doctrine of the Trinity back on the public radar. Longtime critics of author William Paul Young drew fresh ammunition from his new volume Lies We Believe About God, a nonfiction book arguing for the correctness of the theological ideas in The Shack. For opponents of The Shack, the publication of Lies was a decisive rebuke to the claim that “Young’s just telling a good story.”

I’ve been sharply critical of The Shack since the book first came out: Young consistently obscures what Søren Kierkegaard called the “infinite qualitative distinction” between God and man; affirming that distinction is what keeps us from constructing comfortable deities made in our own image. Since Young appears to have doubled down on his views, I’m not surprised this dispute has flared up again.

But while the warring over The Shack was certainly the most public Trinitarian controversy, his wasn’t the first recent brouhaha over the topic. Indeed, Trinity-themed debates seem to be breaking out rather more frequently than usual.

Last summer, a major controversy emerged within the Reformed theological world about the relationship of Jesus to God the Father, in which several major theologians put forward the idea that God the Son is eternally subordinated to God the Father—that is, Jesus and the Father, understood apart from their work in creation, may have two distinct “wills,” and Jesus eternally submits His will to His Father’s will. Critics charged (among other things) that this was not only a deviation from historic orthodoxy, but also a fig leaf used to push toxic ideas about the submission of women to men. (If nothing else, this particular debate should’ve put to rest the notion that Trinity-related arguments are simply dusty academic nonsense: these ideas have implications extending even into the realm of evangelical sexual ethics.)

Consider also the negative responses to Fr. Richard Rohr’s recent book The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation, which urges readers to conceive of the Trinity as “flow”—an ongoing current of transformative Divinity. At various points, Rohr suggests that the “dance” of the Trinity opens to receive a fourth participant (humans), and that the spaces between the members of the Trinity reflect a “divine feminine.” I realize what Rohr is trying to do—he’s seeking to avoid overwrought attempts to “masculinize” ideas of God—but it’s unclear why he doesn’t simply argue the classical position that God is beyond human categories.

Rohr’s book deserves a special aside, because it’s a particularly clever attempt to sidestep preexisting theological fences. There’s an old saying that, all too often, legal research can become “like looking out over a crowd and picking out all your friends”—a project in which inconvenient evidence is hand-waved away. The Divine Dance suffers badly from this problem, drawing indiscriminately on Western and Eastern writers alike without contextualizing them within their respective metaphysical heritages. This is a very risky approach: at one point, Rohr approvingly cites a passage by Meister Johann Eckhart, but fails to note that the Church actually censured Eckhart for presenting heretical ideas. Obviously everyone who does academic work must, to some extent, yank prior authors out of their own philosophical traditions. But what’s questionable in The Divine Dance is that Rohr presents his historical extracts as reflective of a unified consensus about Trinitarian metaphysics—a consensus that conveniently conforms to Rohr’s own model—while eliding critical differences in how key theological terms have been understood.

Despite my own disagreement with each of their respective positions, I have no doubt that all three of the Trinitarian innovators here—Young, the eternal subordinationists, and Rohr—have largely benign intentions (and in the course of making their arguments, all three highlight important truths). What’s dubious, however, is whether all three have chosen the proper theological domain for advancing their views.

Early on in his book, Rohr bemoans the fact that so little attention has been devoted to Trinitarian theology since the early days of the church—up until, that is, The Shack. I fail to see why this is problematic, and Rohr doesn’t really answer his own question. Trinitarian theology has remained largely static because no new information about it is entering our epistemic frame. With the Scriptural canon closed, and the Church’s traditional witness on the subject largely unchanged since the Athanasian Creed (well, maybe since the filioque controversy), it makes perfect sense that certain core ideas haven’t been dug up for reevaluation. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, one ought not tear down a fence until they understand the reason it was put up.

At bottom, Young, Rohr, and the eternal subordinationists seem to be approaching Trinitarian theology interrogatively rather than investigatively. Young is interested in why a good God would let terrible things happen; Rohr cares about inclusion and restoration; the eternal subordinationists are concerned with the legitimacy of hierarchies, including those between men and women. All of these questions are important and culturally salient, but none require shifting the essential groundwork upon which historic Christianity rests.

By contrast, classical Trinitarian theology has focused on the question “who is God in Himself?” This helps guard against the temptation to reverse-engineer a doctrine of God based on one’s prior philosophical—or, dare I say it, ideological—commitments. By definition, the Trinity is a mystery—and mysteries can’t be turned upside down and ransacked for answers to one’s questions. The Marquess of Bute’s English translation of the Athanasian Creed even describes the Trinity as consisting of “[t]he Father Incomprehensible, the Son Incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost Incomprehensible.”

Living in that truth, in an era where we have grown accustomed to demanding and receiving testable answers within seconds, poses its own set of challenges. The proper response to challenge and mystery, however, is not to define it downward to one’s preferences. Today’s Trinitarian innovators should perhaps reconsider their approaches.

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John Ehrett

John Ehrett

A native of Dallas, Texas, John currently lives in Los Angeles, California. He holds a J.D. degree from Yale Law School and a certificate in Theology and Ministry from Princeton Seminary.

  • TJ Humphrey

    We should be concerned whenever we attempt to say too much about the Trinity (attempting to turn mystagogy into mere Practical Theology), but we should also be concerned whenever we have said too little. One of the major problems, I think, is that many people no longer think Trinitarianly about salvation. This, perhaps, is where a large part of Christianity has said too little (in our era, at least). What role does the Holy Spirit have in salvation, and how are we to understand his work alongside Christ’s? What does the Father do? Can we distinguish his action from the Son’s and the Spirit’s, or do we simply conflate the roles of all three together under the heading of a united will? Does God’s Triune-ness impact the way we view what it means to be made in the image of God? How we understand these types of questions impacts how we view salvation and what it means to relate to God as finite beings.

    I am not disagreeing with your article at all, though. I have found Rohr’s and the Reformed Complementarians’ arguments to be very confusing, especially. I would have added the Process Theology camp in a critique as well, given that so many are moving more in that direction. Relational ontology is great and all, until you try to apply it to God. Once we try to say that God changes because of his relationship to the created world, I am not sure we still understand what it means for him to be uncreated.

  • Timon Cline

    I assume, given your comments in the same paragraph, that when “Rohr bemoans the fact that so little attention has been devoted to Trinitarian theology since the early days of the church” he is bemoaning a lack of development or progress, correct? If that’s the case then I agree with you that the static nature of Trinitarian doctrine is a good and necessary thing. But if Rohr is referring simply to the lackluster attention given to Trinitarian theology in general then I would have to concur with him. The root (in my opinion) of the overarching issue you are touching on here is the absence of explicit Trinitarian doctrine (and theology proper) in our pulpits and sunday schools (at least true in the evangelical Protestant camp). This brittle foundation leads to the excessive inquiry and innovation you’re warning about. Trinitarian dogma deserves the utmost attention so as to be maintained, not developed or changed (i.e. GK Chesterton’s fence). Good post!

  • Matthew Bryan

    I didn’t know Young had written non-fiction. His treatment of theodicy in “The Shack” was powerful, and I had given him a pass on other theological implications of the book, because I assumed those things to be unintended consequences of story-driven metaphors. Thanks for the article, John.

    • Timon Cline

      Matthew, I would like to hear any thoughts you have on John’s point that the Shack attempted to blur the lines between God and man, thus providing opportunity to create God in our own image, and specifically within Trinitarian doctrine, allowing us to create extra-biblical representations, attributes, etc. of each member of the Trinity. I happen to agree with John’s analysis. Also, with Calvin, I think we should be silent where scripture does not speak (letting paradox and mystery rest), unless conclusions are to be drawn by good and necessary consequence (WCF)/either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture (LBC), of course.

      This was also my biggest problem with the Shack (and, full disclosure, I just didn’t think it was a good book, lol). So, thoughts, if any?

      • Matthew Bryan

        Hi, Timon. I doubt you’ll find my answer satisfying, but I appreciate the question. It’s been many years since I read “The Shack.” I did actually enjoy the book, despite my distaste at the time for some of his attributions to God in it. I haven’t watched the movie though. His treatment of theodicy (the so-called problem of evil) in the book was unflinching and powerful in my opinion because it wore the shoes of the victimized father so well. Theodicies in philosophical form can seem heartless even in their accuracy, because real people struggle with theodicy on an emotional level that logic can rarely minister to.

        Since I haven’t read the author’s nonfiction work, I can’t weigh in on his attempt at Trinitarian doctrine. I do allow a lot of room for inappropriate metaphors in fiction, as long as the author appears to have the right intentions. Fiction by its nature seems to me doomed to fall short in theology, because no fiction can compete with truth. If Lewis and Tolkien were writing their books in this decade, they would likely be vilified by many. (They probably are vilified by some today anyway)

        I’m not sure I could use Scripture to back up the claim that we should be silent where Scripture is silent, therefore it sounds self-contradicting. I have always applied that phrase as a warning against taking a hard doctrinal stance where Scripture is silent. I hope we can think about things over which Scripture is silent.
        Your thoughts?

        • Timon Cline

          Matthew, Thanks for your answer (I think it was a good one). I agree (in general) about affording some latitude to works of fiction. I think fiction writers (especially Tolkien and Lewis) provide a tremendous service to the church by invigorating our imaginations (or as TIm Keller says, “baptizing them”), which is much needed in our therapeutic, rationalistic, over-psychologized day. I also agree with your reading of the “be silent” principle (i.e. don’t create a law where no law exists, and don’t attribute to God things he does not say about himself; once we get into more practical issues of theology I think more leeway is acceptable). But I would push back on the Shack in comparison to the works of Lewis and Tolkien. Both certainly contain spiritual themes, etc. in their writing (Lewis more explicitly, of course since Tolkien was adamant that his works were not allegorical, but merely were examples of his strong Catholicism bleeding over into every area of his thought). But the implicit claims they make in their works don’t attempt or suggest the kinds of things about the character, attributes, etc. of the Trinity that the Shack does. I think this is probably because both Lewis and Tolkein were more orthodox and circumspect (especially Tolkien who would only attend Latin mass for fear of reckless innovation). If I were too describe the Shack with one word it would be just that, reckless. So in sum, I think what Lewis and Tolkien did was different, though they undoubtedly would’ve received adverse reactions from some camps today.

          • Matthew Bryan

            Understood. Thank you, Timon.