The Trinity (B)

February 24, 2011 — 3 Comments

[This post is part of The Christian Faith series]

Getting back to Horton’s chapter on the Trinity in The Christian Faith, I thought his guidelines offered under the third heading were interesting. I think I would tend to agree with the first one (all we say about persons in relation to the persons of the Godhead are analogies), and I thought he makes an interesting point in relation to knowing God as He is in himself versus how he has revealed himself to us.

In a certain sense, we can posit a dimension of God-in-himself of which we do not know (the ontological Trinity) and a dimension which we do know of God-in-relation to us (the economic Trinity). However, almost by definition we could never know anything about God-in-himself. As soon as it is revealed to us, it is no longer God-in-himself but God-in-relation to us. I don’t know if I would go so far as to affirm Rahner’s Rule (the ontological Trinity is the economic Trinity and vice versa), but I would say we can’t know anything about God-in-himself apart from his revelation of himself, which once it is revealed it is no longer God-in-himself.

If there is an actual distinction, we could never know about it, and could never posit a difference without crossing over into the supposed area of which we know not (i.e. any difference at all between God-in-himself and God-in-relation to us). Horton concludes his brief discussion by saying, “We are on safer ground in saying that the revelation of the Trinity in the economy truly reveals the immanent Trinity (contra equivocity) but is always analogical rather than univocal” (pg. 301). This it seems is his way of both denying Rahner’s rule and disagreeing with anyone who posits there is no similarity between God-in-himself and God-in-relation to us (which would be the equivocity he refers to). He seems to basically be saying that the economic Trinity (God-in-relation to us) is analogical of the ontological Trinity (God-in-himself).

I think I need to reflect on this a bit more, and I’m not really sure how I feel about positing analogy between God-in-relation to us and God-in-himself mainly because we can’t know anything about the latter and so on this analysis we would be left with only an analogy to relate to, which I don’t think Horton really wants to affirm since it de-personalizes God.

It is worth mentioning in the remaining space that I found two irresponsible uses of material in footnotes. One is in the very first footnote, as the book referenced by Douglas Kelly would be hard to find by the title listed. I’ve seen the book, but the title on the front is actually Systematic Theology: Volume 1, Grounded in Holy Scripture and Understood In Light of the Church. On the inside cover it has a subtitle of God Who Is: Trinity; however, searching for a book by that name will yield no results, either on Amazon, or on the publisher’s website (or the DTS library website for that matter). Kind of a minor issue, but it is becoming part of a larger picture of sloppy editing and lack of care in footnoted material.

The other issue is with footnote 40 on pg 285. I think in this case Horton misrepresents (rather than simply misinterprets) both Van Til and Frame. Van Til does say in his Introduction to Systematic Theology (which is unreferenced, but is part of larger discussion on pgs 362-68 of that work) that the Trinity is one person, but he never says is so baldly as God is one in person and three in person the way Horton attributes it. It is perhaps misleading of Horton to refer to what Van Til said as a “formulation” but then phrase it in a way that Van Til never did.

Van Til doesn’t always do the best job of clarifying things himself, but he was making the point that in one sense God is a single person, but in another different sense he is three persons. From the perspective of simplicity God is one being, from the perspective of Tri-unity God is three persons. Van Til just replaced “Being” with “person” in the first part of that formuation. From a philosophical perspective, “person” can be defined as “a self-conscious, rational being.” Given that definition, affirming a singularity of being within the Godhead is also affirming a certain singularity of “person,” but clearly not in the same sense as the persons of the Trinity are “persons.” Presented in the unqualified way that Horton does makes it seem nonsensical and he gives no supporting reference with which to verify what Van Til actually said on the matter.

Somewhat further complicating things is Horton’s contention that Frame supports the idea in his Doctrine of God on pg 228. In that particular discussion of Frame’s, no reference is made to Van Til, and is actually part of discussion involving Aquinas, in turn part of a larger discussion of divine simplicity. Here is the full quote to which Horton alludes:

Thomists argue that their view of simplicity is consistent with the Trinity, because simplicity pertains not to the three persons, but to the divine nature that they all share. However, I do not believe that we can make such a neat separation between nature and persons. Certainly the persons are just as essential to God’s being as any attribute. It is not evident to me why triunity should not be considered an attribute of God along with the others. Certainly it is true to say that God’s being is triune.

Now what seems problematic about this is that it is not evident where Frame is supporting a formulation of God being one in person and being three in person in this quotation, yet this is the only discussion on the page Horton cites that even approaches the issue. One may not agree with what Frame says above, but he certainly isn’t saying what Horton “frames” him as saying. If nothing else it is irresponsible to take part of a sentence (Horton cuts from off in the footnote after the word “God” before “along with the others.”), ignore the larger context of the discussion it is found in, and then say that is denies the very attribute that Frame in that particular section of the book is affirming.

What is worse is that Frame actually addresses this very issue elsewhere in the book. On pg 703 and following he talks explicitly about Van Til’s formulation in his larger discussion of the Trinity. Frame also talks extensively about Van Til’s view of the Trinity in his Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought on pgs 65-71. The best light I can put on this is that Horton’s graduate assistants (that he mentions in the Acknowledgements but will remain nameless here) are more or less incompetent when it comes to this sort of thing. I feel more comfortable criticizing them since I’m a step ahead of them speaking in terms of education. However, Michael Horton’s name is on the book, so in a real sense he is responsible for the contents, regardless of whether he was the one who can’t competently index surf Frame and Van Til’s books.

Back to what was actually said though. In a way Frame is almost saying exactly the opposite of what Horton affirms, or at least is making a comment on the being of God, not the persons of God. Frame seems to be saying that God’s essence has the attributes of both unity and triunity, which is essentially to assert that in the Triune being of God, unity and diversity are equally ultimate. That however, is very different from what Van Til said, and is different from what Horton attributes either of them as saying. Again, I think some of these errors if taken on their own wouldn’t be all that problematic, but because they are starting to pile up, a larger picture of poor editing and hasty formulations is starting to emerge, even for those of us who may be more or less sympathetic to Horton’s overall project.

In a way, this is the kind of sad conclusion I find myself coming to. I really want to like Horton’s work. But this first edition of it just leaves a lot to be desired. Even when (and hopefully it is a “when”) the editorial issues are cleared up, there is still the general lack of precision in the philosophical formulations that will keep this work from being the next great Reformed systematic theology. In a way, it is probably impossible for a single volume to replace Bavinck.

Some may come close and have their strengths in one way or another. But if I were a pastor, I would never recommend this book to a person who was choosing to read a systematic theology for the first time. What’s more, this book would never make the list of the systematic theology everyone should read. If a person could only read one systematic theology, this is not the one to fill that role. It is helpful for people like me to work through it and interact with it. But for the average Christian who wants to grow in their understanding of theology and what Scripture teaches organized systematically, this is not the book for that.


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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!

3 responses to The Trinity (B)

  1. I have had the same sense of frustration with Horton’s book as you have. It says many things that are true and interesting, but it is rambling and disorganized. It often feels idiosyncratic and quirky instead of definitive. There is a lack of a consistent format, and historical reflections are thrown in with biblical material, and conclusions are scattered throughout and hard to find. There is a lack of outlines, bold print, and italics that make other systematic theologies easy to read. Horton is obviously well-read, but it doesn’t seem like he has fully digested everything he has read, so the book often reads like an eclectic collection of other people’s thoughts. For example, when Millard Erickson refutes Karl Barth’s rejection of natural theology, he challenges Barth’s exegesis of Romans 1 and Psalm 19. When Horton tries to refute Barth on the same issue, he just keeps quoting Emil Brunner instead of engaging with the biblical text. In some ways, Horton seems to be a very busy man (he has a magazine and a radio show, teaches seminary, is on staff at a church, and writes many other books), and he may have written this work too quickly. I think that this work also reflects how hard it is to write a systematic theology in our age of increasing specialization. It is rare to find somebody who has mastered all the disciples necessary. For example, Wayne Grudem seems much more familiar with the biblical material than Horton (Grudem’s Ph.D. was actually in New Testament), but Grudem doesn’t know much historical theology.

  2. There are “trinities,” of sorts, in various faiths. My ebook on comparative mysticism, “the greatest achievement in life,” summarizes five of them.

    Mahayana and Vajrayana vehicles of Buddhism speak of Trikaya, or three bodies: Nirmanakaya is the Buddha in human form, Sambhogakaya is celestial Buddha and Dharmakaya is the formless essence, or Buddha-nature. The Theravada primarily addresses the historic Buddha. The “Three Jewels” are the Buddha, the dharma (his teachings) and the sangha (the community of monks and nuns).

    Christianity has its Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit referring to God, Jesus Christ and their spiritual bond of unity (unlike the Nicene Creed). Interpretation of the essential nature of each, and their relationship, differed among the churches. In Christian mysticism, the three ways of the spiritual life are the purgative in being purified from sin, the illuminative in true understanding of created things, and the unitive in which the soul unites with God by love.

    Hinduism’s trimurti are the threefold activities of Brahman: in Brahma as creator, in Vishnu as sustainer and in Shiva as destroyer. Saccidananda are the triune attributes or essence of Brahman: sat, being, cit, consciousness and ananda, bliss. The three major schools of yoga are bhakti, devotion, and jnana, knowledge and karma, the way of selfless action. Raja yoga can apply to, and integrate, all three in mental and spiritual concentration.

    In Islam, nafs is the ego-soul, qalb is heart and ruh is spirit. Heart is the inner self [soul], hardened when it is turned toward ego and softened when it is polished by dhikr, remembrance of the spirit of Allah. This is a three-part foundation for Sufi psychology. Initiation guides them from shari`a, religious law, along tariqa, the spiritual path, to haqiqa, interior reality. It is a gradual unveiling of the Real.

    In the Kabbalah of Judaism, sefirot – sparks from the divine – have three fulcrums to balance the horizontal levels of the Tree of Life: Da`at (a pseudo-sefirot) is knowledge combining understanding and wisdom; Tiferet is beauty, the midpoint of judgment and loving kindness; Yesod is the foundation for empathy and endurance. They also vertically connect, through the supreme crown, the infinite and transcendent Ein Sof with its kingdom in the immanent Shekhinah.

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