The Holy Trinity, Chapters 1-6

This is the first part of what I expect to be at least a two-part review of the book The Holy Trinity by Carl L. Beckwith. It is the third volume of the Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics series published by The Luther Academy of Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

When I ordered this book I was hoping it would give me a definitive knowledge of the doctrine of the Trinity and how it developed. I was looking for something that would give me a better understanding than I had thus far of the complicated theological terms and historical details of the church councils of the first four centuries—the terms used by each defined in their historical context, the decisions and creeds produced by each, why each was significant, which heresies (Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, etc.) each addressed, and how the end result was an accurate reflection of what the New Testament teaches.

I was somewhat disappointed when I received the book and saw it started with five or six chapters on what seemed to me to be mainly philosophical questions about God or about Christian doctrine outside of the doctrine of the Trinity. It didn’t really even mention the church councils until the final part of the three major parts of the book, and didn’t seem to have too many details about them even there. However, after finishing these first chapters (all five chapters in Part One and the first of Part Two) I was thoroughly convinced that this was absolutely the right way to present the Trinity.

In the first chapter Beckwith explains that using the technical theological vocabulary of the 4th and 5th centuries is not adequate to teach the Trinity in today’s world, true as that vocabulary was in the context of its day against the various heresies it addressed. We’ve all been affected by profound changes in fundamental philosophic world views since the early centuries of the church, not the least of which is a modernism which has thoroughly devalued the place of faith in God, and of faith in the Scriptures as the Word of God, in our thought and in our lives. On top of this, the propositions concerning the Trinity found in the 4th and 5th century creeds and council decisions were the endpoint of the early church’s discussion of the nature of God. The Church Fathers who came to those conclusions used Scriptural exposition and exegesis to get there, and it is that exposition and exegesis that should be the focus of our own discussion concerning the nature of God. That is the focus Beckwith proposes to use in looking at the Trinity.

“Another problem of approaching the Trinity by recourse to the technical vocabulary of the patristic debates and their concluding formulae is that we begin with tradition and theological conclusions, whereas the Fathers began with Scripture and exegesis. In other words, we begin where they ended. Their propositions sought to make sense of Scripture’s narrative about the tri-unity of God, a trinitarian logic confessed throughout Scripture but lacking precise dogmatic language. The task that fell to the church’s earliest theologians was to provide a level of coherence and intelligibility to the Bible’s trinitarianism in response to antiquity’s philosophical presuppositions on what it meant to be divine. Our task is not one of simple repristination, of repeating authoritative names and conclusions, thinking that this secures for us a right confession of the Trinity; our task is to relearn their exegesis in order to grasp the intelligibility of their conclusions, as seen for example in the technical grammar used to express their scriptural convictions and in the creedal summaries of those convictions.”
(p. 10)

Next Beckwith sets forth three important questions that are behind any kind of theological or doctrinal endeavor and he explains the different answers given to them by various teachers in the history of the church down to our own day. The questions are:

1) How do we know God?

2) How do we speak about God?

3) How do we read the Scriptures?

Beckwith gives a detailed account of the history and significance of the different approaches taken in answering each question. He explains especially the approach Luther took and why that approach is the best, but the different approaches don’t correspond simply to Protestant ways versus Roman Catholic ways of answering the questions. In a few cases, they fit the modern distinction between conservative ways and liberal ways, but this doesn’t nearly account for all the differences. A careful study of these first chapters (where other issues are raised and discussed in addition to the ones I discuss here) will reward the reader with a greatly expanded understanding of the currents in church history that have brought us to the present day. What follows is only the briefest outline of Beckwith’s discussion of these three questions in this book.

How Do We Know God?

The issue here is the part played by the natural knowledge of God (truths about God discovered by unaided human reason) in coming to know God truly and fully. The Bible says such knowledge does exist (particularly in Romans 1:18 - 3:20), but Christian teachers have differed on how useful this kind of knowledge really is in coming to know God as He is fully revealed in the Word of God. There have been two distinctly different answers given to this question:

1) Some (Beckwith gives the examples of Justin and Tertullian, as well as Thomas Aquinas) say the natural knowledge of God is our starting point. God’s Word then complements what reason has discovered through nature and through ideas about God from the world’s philosophers that are shared with the Scriptures. In this camp, confidence in human reason as our guide is high. It is thought by some in this camp that the human mind can discover first principles of reality by which truth claims can be judged, and that by reasoning from these and from what God has caused to exist in His creation, we can ascend to a full, true knowledge of God.

2) Others (Beckwith gives the examples of Athansasius and Gregory of Nazianus) say the natural knowledge of God has a very small role, if any, to play in truly knowing God. As discussed by Paul in Romans 1-3, it amounts to little more than a conscience and a vague awareness that God exists. True knowledge of God comes only by the Word of God. The natural knowledge of God discussed in Romans 1-3 always get turned into one idol or another by man because of the sin inherent in him. There is no confidence in human reason as a guide in this camp—its propositions can’t show us who God must be. Reason’s proper place is as a servant to faith.

Beckwith shows that Luther is in this latter camp. He writes,

“Luther…nowhere posits a natural knowledge of God that constructively anticipates our revealed knowledge of God…Assigning a positive value to a knowledge of God apart from Christ and His cross belongs to scholasticism, not Lutheranism.”
(p. 64)

How Do We Speak About God?

The question here is about the kind of language we use to speak about God and how that can help us or limit us, and here we get into the philosophical terms univocal, equivocal, and analogical. These terms refer to the different ways words are used or understood when we relate the existence of something else (in this case, God) to our own existence. I’m sure I can’t do a better job of briefly describing the meaning of these terms than Beckwith does, so I quote from him:

“Univocal predication means that when the same term is used of God and man that term is used in a common way.”
(p. 92) It puts God and man in the same category of being and therefore “always threatens God's transcendance and immanence” (p. 93)

“Equivocal predication asserts inequality and dissimilarity between God and His creation. God ‘is,’ but in a manner totally unlike man; God ‘loves,’ but in a manner totally unlike man...Equivocal predication retreats to a self-constructed radical apophaticism...by undermining and neglecting the fact that God has revealed himself to us through the certain words of Scripture...Equivocal predication...accuses God of deception by rendering His scriptural revelation insufficient and therefore meaningless.”
(p. 93

“The final option, analogical predication, seeks an alternative way of speaking that neither collapses the meaning of terms (univocity) nor renders them meaningless (equivocity). Moreover, analogical predication neither reduces God to the level of creation (univocity) nor removes Him altogether from it (equivocity). The way we understand and use language in reference to God has important theological consequences. During the medieval period Thomas Aquinas set forth a clear argument for analogical predication, and John Duns Scotus for univocal predication.”
(pp. 93-94)

Univocal predication is the practically unanimous choice of the modern secular world in speaking about God. Beckwith argues that this has resulted in it being completely divorced from God:

“Scotus’s flattening of the category of ‘being’ to include both God and man meant that man’s being no longer required God for its definition. the insistence upon univocity effectively rends the dependence of the created order from God. It becomes possible to say that the created order exists in its own right, as much as God exists. This sort of thinking leads to the rupture between God and nature and the emergence of the natural sciences as an independent field of inquiry. The result is an autonomous, secular order divorced from God and His creative agency.”
(p. 104)

Luther in this case is on the same page as Thomas Aquinas, whose philosophical orientation (scholasticism) is otherwise anathema to him, in saying analogical predication is the only proper, Biblical way of speaking about God. That is, in this particular argument Luther is definitely on the side of using analogical predication to speak about God, but only if applied properly. The problem here is that it is often used improperly. Things said of the invisible God by analogy to the visible creation are only metaphors and cannot be used to construct a true picture of who or what God must be in essence. Doing so inevitably leads to an idol, a god made in our own image.

How Do We Read the Scriptures?

This question has to do with the presuppositions we bring to the text of Scripture (both the Old Testament and the New) regarding its authorship, historical context, and intended meaning.

Beckwith here shows how most modern commentators on Scripture, conservative and liberal alike, are guided by the axiom that a text’s meaning is determined either by the intent of the human author or by the way its original readers or hearers would have understood it.

“Many Biblical scholars today associate responsible exegesis with the intended meaning of a text’s original author and audience. Meaning emerges from discerning authorial intention, shaped, so it is assumed, by the immediate historical and social factors of the author’s world, and determined by the audience’s conceptual horizon. Scrutiny of the author’s words, with the proper historical context in view, particularly its limitations, yields a sanitized meaning free of dogmatic prejudice and theological subjectivity.”
(p. 117)

Liberal commentators, who don't believe that the Bible is the very Word of God (except perhaps in some vague or highly qualified way) but is mainly a product of human imagination or reason, emphasize the way the original audience would have understood the text. Conservative commentators, with a higher view of the Bible as the inerrant and inspired Word of God, emphasize the author’s intended meaning, but sometimes err in limiting it to the human author’s meaning, not the meaning intended by God, who can go beyond the immediate understanding of those who wrote under his inspiration.

Luther encountered this latter attitude in the “modern” Hebraists of his day, and had even shared it for a while (being a Hebraist himself), but eventually came to see that it was Biblically deficient:

“One of the more subtle and dangerous challenges faced by Luther dealt with the church’s Christological and trinitarian reading of the Old Testament. The renewed study of Hebrew during the sixteenth century led some, including Luther for a time, to read the Old Testament too strictly, after the manner of the rabbis, undermining the Christian reading of the Old Testament. Luther responded to this trend by showing how the New Testament allows us to look the Old Testament ‘straight into the eye’ (recht unter die Augen) and see Christ and the Trinity. The new Hebraists, as Luther dubbed them, undermined the Christian reading of the Old Testament by setting aside Christ. Luther reminded them that Jesus points us to the Old Testament—to the Law, Prophets, and Writings—for they are about Him (Lk 24:25, 44-45). Moses wrote about Jesus (Jn. 5:46), but the new Hebraists were not so sure. This kind of exegete needs to stay away from the Bible. Luther writes, ‘Whoever does not have or want to have this Man properly and truly who is called Jesus Christ, God’s Son, whom we Christians proclaim, must keep his hands off the Bible—that I advise.”
(pp. xi-xii)

Conclusion

Beckwith closely ties up the three questions above with Luther’s Reformation breakthrough. He characterizes that breakthrough as seeing, first of all, the impossibility of unaided reason being able to say something about God that does not fall inevitably into idolatry.

Second, the breakthrough involves seeing that the “righteous God” (a “God who is righteous in such a way that he righteously punishes according to our deeds”) is not the God of the Bible but a construct of human reason—“Since we are all sinners, this sort of God devours us” (p. 69).

Third, it also involves seeing that the real God is the God who imputes his own righteousness to us in Christ, justifying us (making us righteous) through faith in Christ. Seeing, in other words, the close relationship between the doctrine of God and the Gospel.

“Luther’s Reformation breakthrough freed God from our best ideas about Him. It allowed God to be God. Further, it freed us from ourselves, allowing us to repose by faith in the certain promises of God, in the completed salvation of Jesus Christ, and to live joyfully and freely in loving and serving our neighbor. At the heart of Luther’s breakthrough was freedom—freedom for God from the constraints of human reason and freedom for us from self-constructed pieties.”
(p. 68)

“At the risk of oversimplification, the chief thing Luther rejected was the attempt to think and talk about God apart from the cross. When we think of God in terms of the cross, we can do so only with regard to ourselves and the reason the creator of the heavens and earth would be upon that cross. For Luther, this means any discussion of God involves creation and redemption, sin and grace, man and justification. Luther’s Reformation breakthrough was never merely about justification by faith. His breakthrough necessitated a decisive break with the way theology was done, the way Scripture was read, and the way the Christian life was lived. Justification by faith stands at the center and belongs both to Luther’s understanding of God and our salvation.”
(p. 70)

With these three questions answered as Luther would answer them, that is, as answers firmly grounded in the Word of God, we are ready to proceed to the book’s presentation of the doctrine of the Trinity as the truly Biblical doctrine of God. This will be covered in the subsequent parts of this review.

Notes and References:

Book Reviewed:
The Holy Trinity by Carl L. Beckwith, Volume III of the Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics series (Gifford A. Grobein, editor), published in 2016 by The Luther Academy, Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

Carl Beckwith is an ordained Lutheran minister in the LCMS and a Professor of Divinity at the Beeson Divinity School of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. His other books are Hilary of Poitiers on the Trinity (Oxford University), Johann Gerhard’s Handbook of Consolations (Wipf & Stock), Ezekiel and Daniel in the Reformation Commentary on Scripture series (IVP), and Martin Luther’s Basic Exegetical Writings (Concordia Publishing House).