Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The first in an occasional series on the doctrine of the Trinity (and history and feminism, naturally…).

Here’s where my thinking is going on the way in which the doctrine of the Trinity is used in debates about diversity, difference, society and the church. I’ll post more on this in the future, but for now this is a brief summary of the sort of questions I’m looking at. In twentieth century Christian thought, Trinitarian doctrine and language has been radically re-appropriated in the cause of social equality and community cohesion. The obvious example is the thought of Jurgen Moltmann, who arguably founded the modern idea of the social doctrine of the Trinity. He argued that because God is essentially Trinitarian, the church and society should be much less hierarchical and patriarchal, and much more communitarian and modelled on the idea of a society of equals. This idea has become very popular, sparking a whole school of Christian practical theology arguing that because God is trinity, a particular view of everything from social justice, ecclesiology, education, ministry, psychology, pastoral care or even town planning should follow. In the influential article ‘Perichoresis and Projection’, Karen Kilby skewered the over-inflated claims of some of this. However, Kilby and others are far too negative about the possibilities inherent in the doctrine of the Trinity (and indeed about modern Protestant theology in general). It must surely be true that what we believe about God has and should have some relevance to the way we live our lives; debunking bad ways of making that link needn’t retreat into denying that such a link is possible. But the fact that modern trinitarian theology has made such an explicit link between the ‘is’ of the nature of God and the ‘ought to be’ of the nature of government, both of the church and of wider society, raises the question of whether and how the same move has happened in the past. It seems obvious enough that this ‘social trinity’ trend in theology arises from the particular social and historical context of the second half of the twentieth century. So were the traditional hierarchy of the church and society similarly justified and conceptualised in theological terms in past centuries? Is it possible to trace through Christian history interactions between changing currents and fashions in political thought and in the theological conception of the trinity? Can we put what has been happening in twentieth century trinitarian theology into perspective by taking a long historical view? My preliminary research suggests that the answer to all these questions is yes. On the basis of that historical survey, I suggest that much of our current theological conflict arises because we have largely abandoned the hierarchical model of society which was fundamental to historical understandings of how to handle questions of difference, but have not yet reached general agreement on a replacement model. I think that many of the debates about women in the church, and indeed many of the debates about homophilia, are fundamentally debates about how we handle difference theologically. The recent explosion of interest in the Trinity as a theological resource is, I believe, an attempt to provide a coherent theology of difference and diversity that is not based on the old hierarchical model. However, such attempts are not yet fully thought-through: I think I’ve identified a number of areas, notably soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) which will need to adapt if new ways of thinking about difference are to be taken seriously. To be continued…

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