A Tale of Convergence: Eschatology, Anthropology, Ethics and Trinity

[1] Upon learning of my plans to offer a course this coming year at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg entitled, “The Holy Trinity: Theology and Ethics,” JLE editor Victor Thasiah kindly thought an article describing its development and content might be of interest. I have accepted his invitation to write this with the hope that he might be right, at least to some degree.

[2] To speak of this course’s development is to tell a tale of convergence. I begin — if the reader would indulge me — with a micro-memoir or a thin slice of my intellectual history, if that is not too grand a notion to apply to oneself.
A Tale of Convergence: Eschatology, Anthropology, Ethics and Trinity by James M. Childs, Jr.

[3] As a 1965 graduate of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis I came away with a strong grounding in the Lutheran Confessions but with an overlay of Lutheran Orthodoxy, so-called, courtesy of Francis Pieper’s three-volume Dogmatics. This tradition was in some tension with the critical scholarship of the biblical faculty and the hint of broader theological horizons from the young Robert Bertram.

[4] While the basics of the Lutheran Confessions were embedded after a year’s work with the Tappert edition and Die Bekenntniss Schriften der Evangelisch Lutherischen Kirche, the variety in other offerings did not congeal. An STM that followed at Union in New York with John Macquarrie (Heidegger and religious language), Daniel Day Williams (Process Theology) and Tom Driver (narrative theology) further cluttered my theological landscape.

[5] Following my Union experience, I served for a few years as a parish pastor in an urban African American context. That stint posed its own unanswered questions for the inexperienced and fairly ignorant youth that I was.

[6] Having accepted a call to the faculty of the late Concordia Senior College in Ft. Wayne, I began my doctoral work. I became immersed in the theologies of Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jürgen Moltmann as mediated by my doctoral advisor, Carl Braaten. Their critical engagement with the multiple theological expressions that had crowded my formation to that point and the extraordinary fecundity of the eschatological perspective they brought to bear on the fundamental themes of the Bible and tradition proved a liberating and integrative power.

[7] This eschatological perspective has shaped my subsequent work in Christian ethics from my earliest writings to the present. It has led me to think of Christian ethics as a witness in anticipation of God’s coming reign.
The vision of the good that we have in the promise of God’s future is both a goal and a gift. We affirm it as our goal because it is God’s promised gift. The values we have identified as a summary of that good — life, wholeness, peace, equality among all (justice), community and unity (reconciliation), joy, and freedom from all bondage to sin and evil (personal, social, and political) — are values we pursue in this life because we have hope that God’s promise is true. Indeed, our hope goes forward in the certainty of Christ’s resurrection through which the dominion of God is revealed and understood.1

[8] The gracious and creative power of God’s coming future revealed in Christ has provided a vision of the world’s future that includes “all things” (Col. 1:15–20) — the promise of life and wholeness are for the entire creation. The Christian community, which has seen the prolepsis of that future dominion, is called as a people of anticipation to run ahead to meet it in faith active in love seeking justice. At the same time, we live in the “not yet,” ourselves and our world living in the tension of the simul, assured of God`s salavation in Christ while yet struggling with the lingering brokenness of the world. Thus, the spirituality of the theology of the cross, which counsels humility in our theological endeavors and daily repentance and renewal in our baptismal life, is very much a part of the life of hope.

[9] The serendipitous opportunity to teach a course in the theology of the Trinity at my home seminary, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, has of late been a further source of enrichment that has provided an opportunity to multiply theological connections among the key themes of the Christian faith and life.

[10] Since the prominence given to the doctrine of the Trinity in the work of Karl Barth and Karl Rahner there has been a blossoming of Trinitarian theology. I want to give particular attention to the eventual theological consequences of “Rahner’s rule” that the economic Trinity and the immanent Trinity are one in the same.2 Rahner’s concern was to emphasize the intimate connection between the theology of the Trinity and soteriology. While his view has been criticized, modified, and expanded upon, he clearly set the table for Trinitarian theologies that provide a deeper sense of “God with us” and, ultimately, reflection on how this intimacy of the Triune God’s relation to the world is reflective of the relationality that constitutes the unity of the Trinity.

[11] A few examples of these developments should suffice to illustrate at least one prominent trajectory in contemporary Trinitarian thought and its implications for theology and ethics.

[12] With regard to relationality as the essence of Trinitarian unity, Catherine Mowry LaCugna wrote the following of Rahner in her Introduction to the 1996 edition of The Trinity: “The unity of the divine persons is found not in a common essence (as with Augustine and Thomas) but in the person of the Father and in the perichoretic interrelatedness of the divine persons.”3

[13] Rahner’s turn to the Greek tradition of the Cappadocians is embraced by LaCugna in her theology of the Trinity and is, for her, a corollary of that deeper sense of God with us embedded in Rahner’s desire to reconnect Trinitarian theology and soteriology. Thus, for her the perichoretic unity of the persons of the Trinity extends to God’s perichoretic unity with the community of humankind.4 The relationality that characterizes the divine life and God’s intimate, loving relationship with the creation that is expressive of it has clear ethical — she would say “political” — implications for LaCugna. These can perhaps be summarized as a challenge to all forms of oppressive subordinationism, whether in the subordination of women to men or in political, social, or ecclesial traditions and institutions.5 That self-centeredness is in Christian perspective the bane of neighbor love. Love’s quest for justice finds additional theological grounding in this account of the Trinity in which loving community is at the essence of who God is as “God for us.”

[14] As LaCugna and others have observed, the gradual separation of the theology of the immanent Trinity from the economic Trinity was not only a concern to protect the independence of God from God’s creation. It was also a way to insure the impassibility of God from any sense of divine suffering in the passion of Christ, who could be said to have suffered according to his human nature only. Jürgen Moltmann stands firmly against this tradition. In the second chapter of his The Trinity and the Kingdom on “The Passion of God” he makes clear his intention to develop a doctrine of theopathy.6 The passion of the Christ is interior to the divine life. This is a corollary of the fact that God’s very being is love itself embodied in the perichoretic unity of the persons of the Trinity. John of Damascus’ doctrine of perichoresis is central to Moltmann’s doctrine of the Trinity:

The Father exists in the Son, the Son in the Father, and both of them in the Spirit, just as the Spirit exists in both the Father and the Son. By virtue of their eternal love they live in one another to such an extent, and dwell in one another to such an extent that they are one. It is a process of most perfect and intense empathy. Precisely through the personal characteristics that distinguish them from one another, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit dwell in one another and communicate eternal life to one another. In the perichoresis the very thing which divides them becomes that which binds them together. The ‘circulation’ of the eternal divine life becomes perfect through the fellowship and unity of the three different persons in eternal love.7

[15] The experience of Christ’s passion in the divine life radicalizes our sense of God with us as revealed in Christ to be in every sense truly God with us. In this regard, Moltmann goes beyond Rahner in his desire to protect this profound panentheistic understanding by downplaying the immanent/economic distinction still present in Rahner. Instead he asserts that we must not only hold to Augustine’s statement that the external works of the Trinity are undivided (opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt) but we must also say that, “On the cross God creates salvation outwardly for his whole creation and at the same time suffers this disaster of the whole world inwardly in himself. From the foundation of the world, the opera Trinitatis ad extra correspond to the passions trinitatis ad intra. God as love would otherwise not be comprehensible.”8

[16] One recalls that Luther in his deepened sense of the communication of attributes in the perichoretic unity of human and divine in the person of the Christ has, as Ted Peters has observed, led Lutherans to affirm theopassianism. Luther is quoted in the Formula of Concord to the effect that, given this unity of human and divine, it is appropriate to say that God died even though the deity cannot truly die. If God did not in a real sense die for us, Luther says, then “we are lost.”9

[17] For Moltmann, the fullness of God’s self-communication as Trinity, the perfection of the creation when God will be “all in all,” is the promise of the eschatological kingdom of glory. It is then that our destiny as created in the image of God comes to fulfillment.10 In my own work the eschatological perspective I gained from Moltmann and Pannenberg has led me to see our fulfillment in the divine image as an eschatological promise for our resurrection revealed in the true humanity of the resurrected Christ. As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the values Christ reveals for the coming kingdom are the good toward which we strive in anticipation of their fullness and in anticipation of our own destiny in the image of God.

[18] Our understanding of the Christlike love that seeks those values, the solidarity with the suffering in the world of the not yet, the ministry of reconciliation seeking community, the assurance of God with us along the way, and the hope that that promise engenders is profoundly enriched by Moltmann’s account of the Trinity. In Trinitarian perspective, we see that the God in whose image we are created is love in the perichoretic unity of the three persons. When we look at our vocation in the imago Dei, then, we see that love and the community it seeks is not just a command; it is our destiny in the fullness of God’s reign. Moreover, it is our destiny in community with God and each other in the bonds of love for imago Dei is imago Trinitatis. If the Christian ethical witness of love is truly a testimony to the hope that is within us, an anticipation of God’s promises, then it will be a witness of a community that is in its very makeup an anticipation of the future when God is all in all.

The perichoretic at-oneness of the triune God corresponds to the experience of the community of Christ, the community which the Spirit unites through respect, affection, and love. The more open-mindedly people live with one another, for one another, and in one another in the fellowship of the Spirit, the more they will become one with the Son and the Father, and one in the Son and the Father. (John 17: 21)11

[19] Leonardo Boff, the Brazilian, Roman Catholic, lay theologian has emphasized, as Moltmann has, the centrality of perichoresis in the theology of the Trinity. Boff’s interpretation of this perichoretic unity of the Trinity is communitarian. An early prominent figure in Latin American liberation theology, he is concerned for the welfare of the poor and how the Trinity as communion speaks to their needs and longings. In general, this communitarian understanding of the divine life as “three lovers in the same love” promises that in God there is “participation, communion, and a more egalitarian coexistence, maintained in respect for differences. The poor find inspiration in the Holy Trinity.”12

[20] More specifically, the perichoresis of the divine persons provides a basis for developing a social and ecclesial critique on human relationship as well as being a source of inspiration for a greater justice. The Holy Trinity as a communion of equal but distinct persons challenges both the individualism of capitalism and socialism’s tendency to value the mass of people at the expense of persons. The trinitarian dynamic invites social structures that value all relations in an egalitarian familial communion. The same holds true over against hierarchical structures in the church. The divine life of the Trinity should be the force that shapes the church as a community of believers in which the different gifts are honored as each in their own way contribute to the mission and ministry of the church. To the extent that this happens, the church itself becomes a sign of the Trinity.13 Finally, Boff asserts, in perichoretic unity with the Father and the Son, the Holy Spirit is the liberating force that delivers all things from that which diminishes them, causing all life to flourish, indeed, the whole creation.14

[21] It is Miroslav Volf’s intention to make a contribution to the trinitarian reshaping of Free Church ecclesiology that will at the same time contribute to ecclesiology in general. In his book, After Our Likeness: The Church as the image of the Trinity, Volf enters into an extensive dialogue with the ecclesiologies of Cardinal Ratzinger and Orthodox theologian, John D. Zizioulas. Ratzinger’s hierarchical view of the church as a whole corresponds it seems to the Augustinian emphases on the unity of the Trinity as one substance. In so far as this perspective has led to a sense of hierarchy in the Trinity it has then supported a hierarchical ecclesiology, however nuanced that understanding of the authority of the hierarchy may be.15

[22] By contrast, Zizioulas is heir to the Cappadocians’ emphasis on the unity of the Trinity in the perichoretic relationality of the persons. His is, accordingly, a communio-ecclesiology. Although the relationality of Zizioulas’ Trinitarian vision for the church appears more congenial to Volf’s ecclesiology, the primacy of the Father in Zizioulas’ Trinitarian theology frustrates the egalitarian ecclesiology Volf is seeking. In a manner consistent with Pannenberg’s understanding, Volf sees the relations of the persons of the Trinity in their perichoretic unity as complementary. Thus, “The symmetrical reciprocity of the relations of the trinitarian persons finds its correspondence in the image of the church in which all members serve one another with their specific gifts of the Spirit in imitation of the Lord and through the power of the Father. Like the divine persons they all stand in a relation of giving and receiving.”16

[23] This has only been a snapshot of one trajectory in contemporary trinitarian theology and only a brief account of its ramifications for theology and ethics. I have not the space here to explore, as I do in class, the important implications for atonement theory that come with this understanding of the divine life and of God’s deeply intimate relationship with us and our world. Moreover, there are certainly other approaches to the theology of the Trinity being voiced in today’s discourse. Not all are representative of what Stanley Grenz has called “the triumph of relationality” as are the examples given here for the most part. However, for me, as I look forward to a new teaching opportunity, the theologies sketched above have excited me — particularly Moltmann’s work — with their capacity to show the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as the point of convergence for the manifold themes and practices of the Christian faith. We cannot claim to know too much for the mystery remains in divine transcendence, but we are called to speak and act as God has given us voice through divine self-disclosure. The pinnacle of God’s revelation remains the Christ event. Jesus the Christ is truly God-with-us, but cast in an enlivened theology of the Trinity the Christ event is even more emphatically about God with us in the fullest sense possible, nothing less.

1. James M. Childs, Jr. Ethics in the Community of Promise (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006) 25.

2. Karl Rahner, The Trinity, trans. Joseph Donceel (New York: Herder and Herder, 2005) 21–22.

3. Catherine Mowry LaCugna, “Introduction” in Rahner, xx.

4. See Catherine Mowry LaCugna, “God in Communion with Us: the Trinity ,” Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective, ed. Catherin Mowry LaCugna (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993) 90–91; Catherin Mowry LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and the Christian Life (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991, 274–75.

5. Freeing Theology, 92–94.

6. Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: the Doctrine of God, trans. Margaret Kohl (New York: Harper and Row, 1981) 25.

7. Ibid., 174–175.

8. Ibid., 160.

9. Ted Peters, God — the World’s Future, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000) 207; Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article 8.

10. The Trinity and the Kingdom, 209–218.

11. Ibid., 157–158

12. Leonardo Boff, “Trinity” in Systematic Theology: Perspectives from Liberation Theology, ed. Jon Sobrino and Ignacio Ellacuria (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1996) 83–84.

13. Ibid., 85–86.

14. Ibid., 87.

15. Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness:The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998) 67–72.

16. Ibid., 219.

James M. Childs is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.

James M. Childs

James M. Childs is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.