Friday, May 20, 2016

Brunner's "Triune God"

Emil Brunner writes:
When we turn to the problem of the doctrine of the Trinity, we are confronted by a peculiarly contradictory situation. On the one hand, the history of Christian theology and of dogma teaches us to regard the dogma of the Trinity as the distinctive element in the Christian Idea of God, that which distinguishes it from the Idea of God in Judaism and in Islam, and indeed, in all forms of rational Theism. Judaism, Islam, and rational Theism are Unitarian. On the other hand, we must honestly admit that the doctrine of the Trinity did not form part of the early Christian—New Testament—message, nor has it ever been a central article of faith in the religious life of the Christian Church as a whole, at any period in its history. Thus we are forced to ask: Is this truth the centre of Christian theology, but not the centre of the Christian Faith? Is such a discrepancy between theology and faith possible? Or, is this due to an erroneous development in the formation of the doctrine of the Church as a whole? (The Christian Doctrine of God, Dogmatics, Vol. 1, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1950, page 205)

Scanning my shelves earlier this week, I saw Brunner’s Christian Doctrine of God and thought about how the great German might describe the Trinity. The previous paragraph opens his chapter on “The Triune God” with a dichotomy between theology and the faith life. In liberation theology, this same dichotomy exists between right-belief (orthodoxy) and right-practice (orthopraxis). Brunner’s comparison does not stand in opposition, as dichotomy might suggest, but touches the challenge of talking about the Trinity in Christian life.

A friend said, “Those are two part of the Christian faith that always trouble me: the prodigal son and the Holy Trinity.” He does not like the prodigal son because of the father’s extravagant grace. For my friend, the son should experience his comeuppance. The Trinity is equally troubling because it is almost impossible to think about it without reverting to a classic Trinitarian heresy.



Brunner asks a good question: Is this truth the centre of Christian theology, but not the centre of the Christian Faith? Yes the discrepancy is possible, but the answer is bit more complicated because the Trinity is about human experience of God’s revelation and describing God’s self in human terms.

At one point, Brunner summarizes: “Only the true personal presence of God, only the Incarnation of the Word, and the coming ‘in the form of a servant’ of Him who was in divine form, can establish the rule of the Holy Lord, and create communion with Him who is love; only God truly present, Himself in Person, can truly reveal God to us, and truly reconcile us to Him [sic]” (p. 219).

Trinitarian thought is about the relationship between God and humanity. The language also tells us something about God-self. Parsing the Trinity into digestible chunks might be the point of Brunner’s contrast between theology and faith. To have faith in God does not require an advanced understanding of Trinitarian controversies or the contradistinction between the economic and the immanent trinity.

Speaking of the economic and the immanent trinity, Karl Rahner’s The Trinity seems to be calling my name…


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