Church Dogmatics Paraphrase §9, “The Triunity of God”

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August 25, 2013 by mattwilcoxen

karl_barth_briefmarkeKarl Barth, Church Dogmatics §9, “THE TRIUNITY OF GOD” (pp. 348-383)

Unity in Trinity (pp. 348-353)

The doctrine of the Trinity is an explanatory confirmation of the one divine name. It is therefore first and foremost a statement about God’s unity. There is one God–the Lord. Whereas the church has traditionally spoken its doctrine of the Trinity in terms of the unity of God’s “being” or “essence”, Barth says that we should denote the same thing but under the heading of God’s “lordship”. There are not three Lords (being), but rather a threefold repetition of the one Lord (being)–God. This means that there are not three “persons” in the sense of three personalities, subjects, or wills, but rather one Lord, one being, one divine subject. When the church has spoken of three “persons” it has clearly never meant three centers of consciousness. The Bible does not speak of the Trinity in terms of threeness first and then move to unity or vice versa. If we insist on starting with one of the concepts or the other, we will end up in heresy, where heresy is essentially making revelation impossible.

Trinity in Unity (pp. 353-368)

When we speak of God’s unity, we must speak of it as it is revealed in the scripture. This means we do not speak of a concept of unity that we derive from notions of singularity or isolation; this is not a numerical oneness. However, we are also not speaking of God’s unity in the sense of a sum (Father + Son + Spirit =divine unity). If we stick to the “revealed unity” of the Biblical testimony, then we must acknowledge that God’s own essence includes distinctions within it.

The distinctions have classically been called “persons”. From Augustine to Anselm to Aquinas and even to Calvin, theologians have recognized that the term “person” was actually used in an improper sense, or (in the case of Thomas) the term was so formalized that it meant only something like “principle of individuation”. However, in the 19th century it began to be used by theologians to mean “center of consciousness”. In light of this latter meaning, Barth proposes we find a term with less content, one that can do the old work of being a placeholder for the notion of an irreducible and eternal repetition of God’s being. Barth will henceforth use the term “mode of being” to refer to what has classically been called a “person”.

(Some have thought that this was the expression of modalism, the ancient Trinitarian heresy. However, Barth is very clear to say that these three modes of being are in God eternally and cannot be removed or reduced into some essence behind or beyond the three modes of being. Therefore, it is flatly wrong to charge Barth with the heresy of modalism.)

It is important to affirm the famous principle that, while certain actions in relation to creation are said to be done by one of the modes of being, that we must affirm that they are actually works of the indivisible Trinity (Opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa). Otherwise, we are implying the notion of three centers of consciousness! It is also important to have some bare way of describing the differences in the modes of being, and we do this by speaking of their “dissimilar relations”. In Godself these are Begetter, Begotten, and mutual bringing forth. In revelation these are Revealer, Revealed, Revealedness.

What we are doing in coming up with these concepts is trying to mold our creaturely concepts into shape around the object of revelation we encounter through the biblical text. As we do this, our concepts remain creaturely and so never come to contain the meaning of the divine mystery within them. Theology has to keep up its “rational wrestling with the mystery of the Trinity”, continually affirming it afresh.

Triunity (pp. 368-375)

When we speak of “triunity” we are really conflating two inadequate formulations. This fact refers us to God’s incomprehensibility. The attempt to explain how the two statements unity and trinity come together as one in God’s being has classically been explained by the development of a concept of “perichoresis”. What we should say is that God’s inner unity must correspond to the unity of the work God does outwardly in making God comprehensible. Yet if God is to remain free over our knowledge of God, we cannot collapse God into our concepts. We therefore must make a distinction–or a caveat–between God’s essence as such and God’s essence as it is revealed to us. We only know the former as we know the latter, but we must always add this caveat that what we know of God is only known analogously. As Augustine would say here, quoting Paul, “we see in a glass darkly”.

When we think about the three modes of being, we should not let the fact that we do not know God as such keep us from affirming wholeheartedly the distinctions we find in the economy, in revelation. Rather, we should develop the distinctions but do so under a few rules of “appropriation”. The first is that we must not appropriate things to one or another mode of being arbitrarily. Second, we must not appropriate a work or an attribute in such a way that it is though to only pertain to that one mode of being. Finally, we must take the appropriations from scripture.

The Meaning of the Doctrine of the Trinity (pp. 375-383)

The doctrine of the Trinity arises from the biblical concept of revelation. We cannot and should not assume that the church developed this on philosophical or political bases. Rather, we should see that–for all our philosophical and political interests–we stand in the same space of the early church–needing to respond to revelation. Since we should assume that this is what they were doing, we can take the dogmas of the councils as correct until proven faulty. In addition to giving credit to the dogmas of the councils of the church, we should remember their anathemas as well: both subordinationism and modalism model God on creaturely objects. This strong provisional acceptance of the church’s dogmas on the Trinity will not amount to slavish repetition, rather these will be guides as we seek to respond to revelation afresh.

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