The Trinity (A)

February 23, 2011 — 2 Comments

[This post is part of The Christian Faith series]

This chapter of Horton’s The Christian Faith finally seems to have some clear organization to it and covers the material fairly well. The last section on the filioque seems kind of tacked on at the end, but I’m not sure where it might have been better treated. Other than that though, I thought Horton did an overall good job of starting with the biblical theological development of the doctrine and then moving to historical concerns and issues. The one weakness in his organization may be that he does not really dig very deep into systematizing the doctrine. We get a lot of history (which is helpful in Trinitarian studies) but only a little systematic reflection and almost no real support of the claim that the Trinity is foundational to everything (opening paragraph pg. 273). I agree with him that it is, so hopefully later chapters will show from Horton’s perspective just why this is so.

Both of the charts he presents are helpful. However, there is again an overall issue with defining terms, and in reference to the Trinity, it would have been nice to have a chart that unpacks the Orthodox Trinitarianism category of the initial chart. Perhaps his worst effort at defining a term is in reference to “substance.” At the top of pg 280, Horton defines “substance” as “simply something about which something can be said.” In an extreme turn of irony, the footnote to this statement directs you to Aristotle’s definition in chapter 5 of his Categories, with the follow up that “numerous unnecessary problems in contemporary theology result from erroneous conceptions of substance or essence” (pg. 280n15).

Now the reason  I say this is ironic is because Horton gets Aristotle’s definition wrong and the one he offers, besides being so vague it almost doesn’t say anything, is one of the erroneous conceptions of substance that Horton warns against. A substance is not just “something about which something can be said,” it is a thing about which one can predicate attributes that is not itself an attribute. I can predicate (i.e. say something meaningfully descriptive about it, posit attributes of it) things about the concept of redness, but that does not make redness a substance. The point in defining “substance” is to set it off against “attributes.” Horton fails in this regard although it does not necessarily derail the rest of his exposition of the historical development of the Trinity.

Horton further runs into trouble in positing that there are eternal attributes that each person has which the others do not share. Horton rightfully affirms that causal language is inappropriate in reference to the persons of the Trinity. However, earlier in that same discussion he says “Each person enjoys the aseity proper to the essence, but for the Father alone it is also an attribute of his person” (pg. 292). This is problematic for at least two reasons. First, this verges on making the essence a blank bearer of attributes that is not a person. Horton elsewhere affirms that there is no such fourth member of the Trinity separate from the persons, but statements like this can hardly avoid those implications. Second, it problematic (read: illogical) to posit that persons can have attributes by virtue of their essence, but not by virtue of their personhood (at least in reference to the Godhead). Horton is unnecessarily affirming a scenario where the second and third persons of the Trinity (Son and Spirit) have an attribute by participating in the essence, but don’t have it as part of their person.

All of the essential attributes of deity (or which aseity is one) are attributes to the persons of the Trinity ontologically. Horton’s biggest problem is that he is trying to hard to differentiate between the persons, and he is confusing necessary and contingent attributes, probably because he did not define the concept of “attributes” well enough to begin with. So, the on the one hand, this chapter is closer to a more organized structure and Horton does a good job of dealing with the historical development (minus a few footnoting issues we’ll see tomorrow). However when it comes to philosophical theology and actually getting down to brass tacks talking about the Trinity, Horton is far out of his elements and makes blunders I would get flunked for if I turned them in as a paper for my Trinitarianism class.

That being said, I am a little rusty myself on my understanding so it is possible I missed one of those cases where Horton gets a little too general and squashes some specifics. Some of the issues above about substance and person where things that can up in our collective class discussion. For me though, in that particular section, nothing particularly jumped out at me as being a misrepresentation of someone’s views or the development of the doctrine (except of course for the aforementioned footnote failures). In the next section (titled Reformed Contributions to Trinitarian Reflection: Essential Attributes and Personal Properties) I liked his reliance on Calvin and particularly his observation that “Calvin and later Reformed theology expressed dissatisfaction with Augustine’s psychological analogy, yet they were also eager to point out that the divine persons are not persons in exactly the same sense as human beings” (pg. 293). But, beyond that, it was not the work of a scholar working with a strong command of the material.

I thought the section on the Trinity in modern theology was moderately well done, though I think he could have done more to bring out the different ways either the one or the many are privileged to the detriment of orthodox Trinitarianism. Van Til seemed to think that every heresy involved (and continues to involve) a distortion of the Trinity (Introduction to Systematic Theology, 360). While that may be an overstatement, I think we might be hard pressed to articulate a current heresy (or a historical one) that did not involve a distortion or misrepresentation of the doctrine of the Trinity, either explicitly in the doctrine itself or implicitly by positing something heretical about the person of Christ in the incarnation. I think it may be an example in Horton’s case of starting down the right track but then maybe not taking the road as far as it could go. Or it could just be my perception of the matter.

All in all, I again wanted to like this chapter, and thought it started off on the right foot, but it quickly derailed, and looking back now, this may be one of the weakest chapters so far as far as sloppiness goes. We’ll see how that in tomorrow’s posting though.


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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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