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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.