The Gospel Coalition

 

Maarten Wisse. Trinitarian Theology beyond Participation: Augustine’s De Trinitate and Contemporary Theology. T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology 11. London: T&T Clark, 2011. xiv + 329 pp. £65.00/$120.00.



It is almost a truism now that the twentieth century witnessed the "return" of Trinitarian theology, beginning with Barth and continued by those who work in his shadow. This renaissance is so thoroughgoing that the doctrine of the Trinity is commonly understood as the determining factor of systematic theology, affecting everything from theologies of religions to relational anthropologies construed as mirror structures of the Trinity. Yet Maarten Wisse joins a growing chorus suggesting something has gone wrong and proposes that the only way forward is to properly find our way backward. His concern is not only to present an attentive, fresh exposition of Augustine's De Trinitate, but also to offer a sophisticated critique of modern Trinitarian theology, which he argues is overly indebted to an ontology of participation. Those on trial include Pannenberg, Radical Orthodoxy, the current Pope, and even Barth, who seems to lurk underneath the surface at every turn.

Wisse raises the alarm against all forms of theology that functionally make God determined by history. Augustine's critique of Plotinus in De Trinitate's opening paragraphs becomes a window through which Wisse evaluates theologies indebted to Hegel and panentheistic metaphysics. Here Wisse critiques a "negative theology" that starts with an invisible, transcendent "Absolute" that makes itself visible through a mediating structure that in turn resolves in a third moment of self-consciousness. Wisse contends that under such a construction, the second moment of self-realization/visibility ends up determining the first supposedly unknowable and transcendent moment of negativity. This path to historicizing God via a participatory metaphysics is seen as nothing more than a form of projection that compromises rather than protects God's transcendence. Thus begins Wisse's dense and bracing attempt to read along with and beyond Augustine, with a keen eye on modern theology.

Before it was commonplace, Augustine distinguished between the economic and immanent Trinity, which enabled a "dysfunctionalization" of the doctrine. This is radically opposed to modern relational and Hegelian models of the Trinity, which map the Trinity onto a foreign metaphysical structure such that the doctrine is reduced to little more than an ontological or descriptive framework. Augustine heads off such functionalization because he maintains the Trinity is radically other and thus "irrational," problematizing all speech about the divine essence. The irrationality of the Trinity precludes theology's ability to overcome mystery without rendering the entire theological enterprise hopeless. The immanent Trinity is fittingly "irrational" and not comprehended by the economy, much less determined by it.

The irrationality and otherness of God's immanent life is carried over into Augustine's Christology. Here Wisse primarily combats the notion that the incarnation is a manifestation of the participatory nature of reality or the God-world relationship. Such a view misses the soteriological and moral import of Christology by focusing too much on ontology. Instead the incarnation is an entirely contingent event, not definitive of God's life, and thus historically particular and unique. Christ's human life and death on the cross reveal God's eternal character as love, compatible with justice and mercy all at once. Revelation thus occurs in God's contingent acts in history, not as superfluous manifestations of the way things are by nature.

The last half of the book seamlessly ties together anthropology, epistemology, and soteriology within the context of a doctrine of creation that posits a total difference between God and the world. Augustine's "fundamental Trinitarian anthropology" in books 8-10 is based on the absence of any resemblance between humans and the Trinity. The relationships to oneself, others, and God-hence the "Trinitarian" aspect-are unique, thus retaining their integrity. This is contrasted with relational anthropologies that identify the Trinitarian structure of human being with our relations to other creatures, which in effect render the relationship to God immanent and common. Our primary relationship to God determines our secondary relationships to others and self, thus rendering the relationship between oneself and others non-competitive. Prioritizing the relationship to God leads to a theological epistemology that emphasizes the moral over the noetic because knowledge is dependent on the will's orientation towards God. Augustine thus locates the basis of our knowledge of God in the will, whereas participationist epistemologies find this basis inherent in objects given creation's participation in God. On this account, goodness is prioritized over truth and beauty, none of which are identical, though they are mutually interdependent. This raises interesting questions for old debates about intellectualism and voluntarism, Scripture and tradition, and soteriology.

A further question is whether our access to God is completely lost or whether we still have sufficient access to God by nature. Augustine avoids both of these extremes in his anthropology, retaining an original state of perfection and a severe injury of that state through sin. For Augustine, salvation is thus a restoration to a properly human state, rather than something beyond it. This leads to a critique of participationist-oriented accounts of deification. These soteriologies consist of a transformation of one's ontology or a mere noetic recognition of one's participation in God by nature, either denigrating human integrity or relativizing the significance of Christ. Since for Augustine only the pure in heart see God, the believer undergoes a transformation of character through growth in Christ. Hand in hand with this anthropology and soteriology comes the brief suggestion that theologies admitting of a historical fall make sin a contingent, rather than necessary, feature of human nature and afford the theologian more options for a balanced anthropology and soteriology.

It is impossible to summarize the complexities and riches of a book with this scope in the space of a small review. Wisse's argument is important not only for his reading of Augustine but because he offers an antidote to participationist/sacramental ontologies while also illuminating the issues at stake. For example, Wisse explicitly welcomes the disenchantment of the world to a degree and in effect argues that access to a great change of heart rather than a great chain of being is a better measure against the continuing exploitation of the natural world. This note is especially welcome since an uncomfortable amount of literature labeled "ecotheology" leans in a panentheistic or process direction. Indeed, identifying the world more closely with God will no more protect the world than identifying with our flesh prevented us from crucifying Christ. Augustine's wisdom to us today would be that unless we love justice more than power, which requires a reorientation of our love, our ecological crisis will continue.

Inevitably with a work such as this, the details will be disputed. One reservation is with Wisse's concluding thoughts about the inconvertibility of the transcendentals and the prioritization of goodness over truth, which might be disproportionate to Augustine's own emphasis on the interdependence of the two with beauty (pp. 313-14). Christianity's persuasive potential lies in word and deed together, rather than one over the other. Further, Wisse's interpretation of Augustine critiques swathes of secondary literature and his arguments against targets like Benedict XVI and Pannenberg are so devastating that one wonders if the defendant has been given due process. Then again, perhaps their appropriation of the Western metaphysical tradition Wisse critiques makes them guilty as charged. Regardless, the sum and substance of Wisse's theological argument against participatory metaphysics is forcefully articulated and deserves a careful hearing of its own-especially among evangelicals looking to weave a sacramental tapestry or advocate an incarnational humanism.


Tyler R. Wittman
King’s College, University of Aberdeen
Aberdeen, Scotland, UK



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