Thursday, December 31, 2009

Life in the Son

In light of my recent exchange with Perry Robinson, I’ve been asked to expatiate on my view of the Trinity in relation to some features of Eastern and Latin triadology. I’ll use some statements by Andreas Köstenberger’s monograph on Johannine triadology as my foil.

Köstenberger is a fine Johannine scholar, and his monograph contains many fine insights. However, I think he’s a better scholar than logician. This is probably owing to modern specialization. It requires a combination of exegetical sophistication as well as philosophical sophistication to do justice to the issues. In my opinion, Köstenberger’s treatment, in the portions I quote, oscillates between truths, half-truths, equivocations, and other fallacies.

“According to the Augustinian tradition of exegesis, the triune missions reveal not only three distinct persons, but also how those three distinct persons eternally relate to one another. This view results from an interpretation of the following line of evidence. In John’s Gospel, the Father is sent by no one, but instead sends the Son (e.g. 3:17; 17:3 etc.) and the Spirit (14:26). The Son is sent by the Father and sends the Spirit (15:26; 16:7). The Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son but himself sends no one,” A. Köstenberger, Father Son and Spirit: The Trinity and John’s Gospel (IVP 2008), 179-80.

An accurate summary of the Biblical data, as far as it goes.

“To this evidence Augustine then applies the following theological principle, a principle he believes is exegetically justifiable. According to the Bishop of Hippo, the missions of the Son and the Spirit in history reveal something about the eternal, unchanging life of the Trinity” (180).

The economic Trinity undoubtedly reveals “something” about the immanent Trinity.

“Specifically, one can be sent in time only by someone from whom one eternally proceeds. Temporal missions reveal and are rooted in eternal processions “(180).

How does that follow?

i) If God sends a prophet, like Amos, does this mean that Amos eternally proceeds from God? If not, then the inference is fallacious. If so, then the inference is equivocal inasmuch as Amos hardly proceeds from God in the same sense as God’s Son–even on Köstenberger’s definition.

Likewise, is the temporal mission of Amos rooted in eternal procession?

Clearly this doesn’t work as a general principle. Therefore, it’s invalid to draw a specific conclusion from this general principle.

ii) Maybe Köstenberger was speaking in shorthand. Perhaps what he really meant is that temporal Trinitarian missions reveal and entail eternal processions. But, in that event, he can’t infer the conclusion from a general principle. At best, it’s a postulated analogy between a specific origin and a specific outcome.

And that amounts to an assertion rather than an argument. It doesn’t begin with a broad principle that all Christians accept, and then derives a specific conclusion.

“The fact that the Spirit is sent, ‘breathed,’ by the Father and the Son (Gen 2:7; Jn 20:22) reveals that he proceeds from the Father and the Son as from one originating principle (180).”

How does that follow?

i) To begin with, both “breathing” and “proceeding” are metaphors. One is a respiratory metaphor while the other is a locomotive metaphor. How can you infer one metaphor from another?

ii) Moreover, a metaphor is figurative rather than literal. As such, you can’t go straight from a metaphor to a literal truth (much less a logical deduction). Rather, you first need to unpack the metaphor in order to isolate and identify the literally true component(s) of the intended analogy.

iii) Why assume that Gen 2:7 refers to the Holy Spirit? This verse conjures up the image of a potter who animates a clay doll by breathing into it. Because the potter is a living, breathing agent, he can breathe life into the lifeless clay doll. To identify his breath with the Holy Spirit gets carried away with the picturesque illustration.

iv) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this has reference to the Holy Spirit, it’s describing a temporal process, not a timeless state of being. And the same is true in reference to Jn 20:22.

Perhaps Köstenberger would interject at this point that temporal relations mirror eternal relations. But that’s the very issue in dispute.

“The triune God, in other words, acts characteristically in the triune mission. And he does so because revealing his true character is internal to that mission” (181).

Well, yes and no.

i) The economic Trinity always acts in a manner consistent with the immanent Trinity. There’s no contradiction between the two.

ii) However, this doesn’t mean the two are identical. For one thing, there’s an element of contingency to the economic Trinity. It’s not as if God never had the freedom to do anything the least bit differently, had he so chosen. The immanent Trinity goes to the essential nature of God, whereas the economic Trinity reflects the will of God. God willed to work in that fashion in the economy of redemption. But that division of labor is not a metaphysical necessity.

iii) At the same time, the NT also treats the Incarnation and humiliation of the Son as something which is, in some respects, uncharacteristic or out-of-character. For the Creator to assume the role of a creature, submit himself to his law for man, and be punished as if he were a heinous sinner is, in some fairly obvious ways, the antithesis of his moral and metaphysical transcendence. It’s meant to be surprising–even incongruous.

“The main point affirmed in describing the Second Person of the Trinity as the ‘only-begotten Son’ is that the Son is God by nature, and not by adoption, and that the Son personally possesses what he possesses in the way of a son, i.e. from his Father” (181n75).

This bundles several issues into one:

i) Keep in mind that divine “sonship” is a metaphor, just like divine “fatherhood” is a metaphor. In scriptural usage, sonship is a polyvalent metaphor. That one rich metaphor triggers a number of significant connotations. And these, in turn, have literal analogues. Both exegetical and systematic theology need to unpack these metaphors to identify the literal attributes and/or prerogatives which are signified by the metaphor.

ii) It’s true that Christ’s sonship (i.e. “Son of God”) is frequently a divine title in NT usage. So that’s a status he has by nature.

iii) Is sonship also meant to signify his mode of origin? I don’t think so. Rather, a filial mode of origin is a figurative synonym for figurative sonship–and all that represents.

“Begetting” is a process. And it’s a different, but related way of expressing the same metaphor. It simply lays emphasis on the cause rather than the effect.

But even Christians who subscribe to the eternal generation of the Son don’t think a literal process is in view.

And, of course, we’re dealing with a sexual metaphor. As such, I don’t think the sexual metaphor, per se, has any literal analogue.

Rather, it’s a figurative synonym for sonship. Sonship is also a metaphor, but one with some literal analogues.

iv) Although Scripture repudiates an adoptionist Christology, we also need to distinguish between the status of the Son qua God and the status of the Son qua God incarnate. As God qua God, nothing can augment or diminish his status. But as God qua incarnate, the Son can, indeed, acquire a status. For example, Jesus really is the heir of the Davidic covenant. That isn’t metaphorical. That is something which happens in time.

“His filial mode of being belongs to his distinctive personal way of being God” (182).

True, but tautological.

“In other words, the economic Trinity is not other than the immanent Trinity: the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity personally engaged in the gracious act of becoming our Father, through the Son, by the Spirit…When Father, Son and Holy Spirit engage in the missio Dei, then do not stand above or behind that mission. When Father, Son and Holy Spirit engage in the missio Dei, they engage personally in that mission as they eternally are, that is, according to their characteristic interpersonal relationships” (182).

Here we have a fuller statement of the faulty Augustinian inference (one that Köstenberger endorses) which underwrites this entire chain of thought. The basic problem is that it represents a major overstatement.

i) On the one hand, it’s true that the economic Trinity is revelatory of the immanent Trinity. And it’s also true that the economic Trinity is grounded (as it were) in the immanent Trinity.

ii) On the other hand, this unqualified inference makes no allowance for the principle of divine accommodation in God’s self-disclosure. For example, God uses metaphors, idioms, and anthropomorphisms as a medium of self-disclosure. So we can’t treat these as literal descriptors of what God is like in himself.

Rather, we have to raise them to the appropriate level of abstraction. What does paternity stand for? What does sonship stand for? What’s the intended point of correspondence?

A metaphor is a figurative analogy. The analogy is literal, but the metaphor is figurative. You have to extract the literal metaphor from the figurative metaphor by eliminating the incidental aspects of the metaphor.

“Indeed, if the missions are truly missions of the triune God, then we may expect that the relational pattern which unfolds in the Spirit’s mission belongs not merely to his saving mission but to his very identity…After all, the point of the triune missions is that we might know ‘the only true God’ (17:3)” (183).

True, but misleading. Whatever God reveals about himself is true to what God is really like–in himself. But that doesn’t authorize us to prejudge the question of what God intends to reveal about himself.

“In Trinitarian theology, the means of revelation and the content of revelation ultimately cannot be divorced, because how God gives and reveals is tied to what God gives and reveals: himself” (183).

That has a grain of truth, but it’s hyperbolic. Köstenberger is forcing a false dichotomy on the reader. But the relationship between the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity is not a choice between absolute identity and absolute alterity. Rather, there’s an analogy between the two. And every analogy has its share of disanalogies. For example, some things are true of God incarnate that are not true of God discarnate.

“The Father is the fons divinitas. All that the Son and the Spirit have, they receive personally from him. The consubstantial deity of the Son and the Spirit with the Father is in no way diminished by the receptive status of the Son and the Spirit, for the Father shares with them all things (5:26; 16:13-15; 17:7), except for the personal trait of being ‘Father’” (184).

i) His prooftexts have reference to the economic Trinity, not the immanent Trinity.

ii) Whether or not their “receptive” status diminishes their consubstantial deity is something that needs to be argued for, and not merely posited, as a given.

“The whole point of the dispute in John 5 concerns Jesus’ equality with God as God’s Son. In other words, it is his personal identity as the Son of God, the one who has the right to receive all things from God and to do as God does, that constitutes the basis for his messianic investiture and activity” (184n91).

i) But that raises the question of whether coequality is compatible with derivation.

ii) There is a dialectical relationship in Johannine Christology: only a human being can receive divine prerogatives, but only divine being can receive divine prerogatives. It’s the Incarnation which harmonizes the dialectic.

“It should be added (also contra Reymond) that Calvin’s rigorous defence of the Son’s self-existence did not lead him to deny the Son’s eternal generation from the Father” (184n91).”

i) True. However, Warfield, for one, took it a step further.

ii) We also need to distinguish between eternal Sonship and eternal generation. Both are metaphors. However, “generation,” as a sexual metaphor, is purely figurative. Its only value is to serve as a synonym for sonship.

But since the metaphor of sonship has literal analogues, you can affirm eternal Sonship even though you disaffirm eternal generation.

iii) There is also a debate about the meaning of monogenes. Modern scholars generally reject the rendering of “only-begotten” in favor of “one-and-only,” based on Greek etymology.

I actually think this is questionable. For Scripture frequently employs “folk etymologies” based on homonymic similarities between one word and another. So a Greek speaker might well associate “monogenes” with “only-begotten.”

Since, however, we’re still dealing with a metaphor, I don’t think that settles the underlying issue. The question isn’t simply how to construe the Greek, but how to construe the metaphor.

“The point is not that the Father, as fons divinitatis, generates the divinity of the Son and the Spirit. Divinity, by definition (Exod 3:14!), cannot be generated” (184).

I agree. However, I don’t think you can infer divine aseity from Hebrew syntax (not to mention the syntactical ambiguities of this enigmatic phrase). I seriously doubt the divine name was meant to heave all that metaphysical freight.

“Nor do we claim that the unity of God is found only in the person of the Father. What sense, then, does it make to speak of the Father as fons divinitatis? Understanding this assertion requires a firm grasp of the dogmatic distinction between essence and person” (184).

I agree with this distinction. However, Köstenberger needs to exegete this distinction from his prooftexts.

“This distinction, we should add, is rooted in John’s twofold use of ‘God’ in 1:1. There John uses ‘God’ to refer to the person of the Father and to refer to the common nature shared by the Father and the Son” (184n92).

I think it would be more accurate to distinguish between the use of “God” as a common noun and a proper noun.

“The son and the Spirit, as concrete persons, are ‘from the Father.” The Father, in other words, is the ‘font’ of persons who are divine. However, those persons, with the Father, fully possess the identical, self-existent (underived, ungenerated) divine essence of the Father. In Johannine terms, Jesus has ‘life in himself’ (5:26) (He is the self-existent, ungenerated God) and is this God as the Son, who personally shares self-existence with the Father because he is the Son of the Father (5:26)” (184).

Several problems:

i) His Johannine prooftexts don’t distinguish between the ingenerate nature of the Son and the generate person of the Son. (Ditto: the Spirit.) Köstenberger is superimposing that distinction on his prooftexts.

ii) Apropos (i), this is where the figurative paternal/filial analogy breaks down. Literal sons are not ingenerate in any sense. And that, in turn, invalidates the facile, Augustinian inference from the economic Trinity to the immanent Trinity–as if whatever is true of the former is true of the latter.

iii) To refer 5:26 to the immanent Trinity is pantheistic. For the “life” in question is a communicable attribute (v21; 6:57). If the life which Jesus imparts to others is the same kind of life that the Father imparts to Jesus, then we have a pantheistic chain-of-being.

iv) I think 5:26 is making a different point. You can only give what you have. Because God is the living God, he can give life to others (6:57). That’s how he can be the Creator. And it also makes him the recreator of the dead–with a view to the resurrection of Jesus as well as the resurrection of the just.

In context, the type of life which God imparts to Jesus, and Jesus imparts to others, is resurrection life (5:21).

“The Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father as ‘the gift’ who rests upon and indwells God’s beloved Son (1:32-34), the one whom the Father shares all things (3:34-35)” (185).

i) His prooftexts refer to the economic Trinity, not the immanent Trinity.

ii) To define the Spirit as a “gift,” in reference to the immanent Trinity, reduces the Spirit to a contingent effect of Father’s will rather than his nature. On that view, the Spirit has no essential, intrinsic identity.

“But this must mean that the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Son as well (7:37-39; 15:26; 16:7; 20:22), just because the Father shares ‘all things’ with the Son except for the personal trait of being the Father of the Son (cf. 16:15)” (185).

His prooftexts don’t say that.

“ As the Spirit of the Son (cf. Gal 4:6), the Spirit eternally springs forth (cf. 7:38) in the fullness of the Son’s joy, the joy of being the beloved Son of the Father (15:11; 17:13; cf. Lk 10:21)” (185).

i) Jn 7:38 has reference to the economic Trinity, not the immanent Trinity.

ii) It also denotes a communicable property (7:37-38). If we equate this with the essential being of God, then we’re back to pantheism (see above).

iii) This reduces the Spirit to the side-effect of a divine attribute. And one of God’s emotive attributes, at that. Does Köstenberger think that every divine attribute produces a corresponding hypostasis? That would result in far more than a Trinity of persons.

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