Rethinking The Trinity & Religious Pluralism

June 20, 2013 — Leave a comment

9780830839025_p0_v1_s260x420Keith E. Johnson is national director of theological education for Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru). He also serves as guest professor of systematic theology for Reformed Theological Seminary, which is more or less right across the street from me. The book at hand, Rethinking The Trinity & Religious Pluralism: An Augustinian Assessment is a revised and expanded version of his doctoral dissertation completed at Duke University. This continues a trend that I’ve noticed in the Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology series from IVP Academic. That is, several of the titles are revised dissertations (this one, as well as The God of The Gospel) and they have connections with Duke (this one and Addiction and Virtue). Just some trivia for you.


Johnson’s book is an exercise in resourcement, looking back to Augustine’s Trinitarian thought as a way to evaluate contemporary models of religious pluralism. Chapter 1 explains the modern fascination with using the doctrine of the Trinity as a way of theologically explaining religious pluralism. These models are formally known as a Christian theologies of religions. Having briefly surveyed the contemporary scene, chapter 2 gives an overview of Augustine’s Trinitarian theology. Johnson focuses primarily on De Trinitate in his exposition, though he is not limited to that work in the scope of his study.

The bulk of the book is chapters 3-5, which each focus on a particular author’s work (or in 4’s case, two). In chapter 3, Johnson evaluates S. Mark Heim’s Trinitarian theology of religious ends. In his understanding, there may be multiple “religious ends,” of which Christianity represents one. Heim sees the other competing religious ends as somehow insufficiently Trinitarian, in that they only focus on one aspect of the Trinitarian divine life. Johnson responds with an Augustinian assessment, that long story short, shows that Heim’s proposal ends up severing the connection between the economic and immanent Trinity.

In chapter 4, Johnson evaluates Amos Yong’s Discerning the Spirit(s) and Jacques Dupuis’ Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism. Yong is seeking to see the work of the spirit in other religions, while Dupuis is arguing that non-Christian religions can somehow mediate God’s saving grace. For both, they only gain steam by “employing deficient accounts of the relations among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (102). The quandary that Yong in particular finds is explained by Johnson:

Inasmuch as Yong emphasizes a distinct economy of the Spirit in order to legitimize a non-Christological approach to other religions, he implicitly severs the two hands of the Father. However, inasmuch as he acknowledges the intrinsic relatedness of the two hands under pressure of classical Christian concerns regarding the doctrine of the Trinity, he undermines his quest for non-Christological criteria (126).

Dupuis doesn’t fare much better, as he inadvertently introduces subordinationism into the Father-Son relationship and like Heim, severs the economic and immanent Trinity.

In chapter 5, Johnson turns to Raimundo Panikkar’s attempt to find vestiges of the Trinity in other religions. He sees three forms of spirituality: iconolatry, personalism, and mysticism. In his analysis, iconolatry is the spirituality of the Father, personalism, of the son, and mysticisim, of the Spirit. In this sense, religions that emphasize one of these is drawing on a vestige of the Trinity. However, as Johnson uses Augustine to assess Panikkar, it turns out he is making a flawed appeal to the vestige tradition and has the methodological problem of reinterpreting the doctrine of the Trinity in light of world religions instead of vice versa.

Chapter 6 is kind of reassessment of the whole project of evaluating world religions in light the Trinity. As Johnson explains, pretty much of all the attempts end up “revising trinitarian doctrine in order to affirm (in varying ways) the validity of non-Christian religions” (189). In a similar vein, Johnson sees problems like this in other attempts to put Trinitarian doctrine to use in contemporary theology. Many of these stem from using the immanent Trinity as a kind of “blueprint.” Johnson lists several problems with this, such as: it can fail to take into account the Creator-creature distinction, it projects ideas back into the divine life, it tends to bypass Scripture in moving from God to societal structures, and only the most general claims can be supported by the immanent Trinity (201-208).

In contrast, Johnson lists 6 appropriate uses of Trinitarian doctrine (210-215):

  • Theological (teaches about God)
  • Doxological (guides worship)
  • Hermeneutical (helps us read Scripture)
  • Anthropological (helps us understand ourselves)
  • Formative (in the spiritual sense)
  • Soteriological (explains the gospel message)

In the end, the doctrine of the Trinity is important and has many uses, but that does not mean it can be the explanatory principle for any field of study. Johnson explains this graciously by resourcing Augustine.


On the whole, Johnson’s book is a very valuable resource, both for studies in Trinitarian doctrine, and confronting religious pluralism. While it can be attractive to try to find some measure of divine truth in world religions by using the doctrine of the Trinity, Johnson shows very convincingly that this is a misguided quest. Like all the books I’ve read in the Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology, it is a work in academic theology that draws on a key thinker in Christian theology. In that way, it serves both as an introduction to that thinker’s ideas (in this case Augustine) as well as a thorough assessment of some kind of contemporary trend. I’ve been very pleased with the volumes I’ve encountered in this series and if you like to think deeply, you will as well.

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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