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[Common Places] Pro-Nicene Theology: Entryways and Ineffability (Part 1)

Categories Theology Common Places

CPThe doctrine of the Trinity serves as the fundamental lodestar of all Christian belief, the shining center of all Christian truth and the focal point of every instance of our trust and hope. God is. More particularly, God—the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit—is, and in, through, and to this one are all things. What light is shed upon life and being, then, flows forth from this fiery being. It must be admitted, however, that the Trinity has overwhelmed due to the power of its beam. Its very brilliance is the source of its difficulty. Theologians from Anselm to Sonderegger have reminded us that the divine mystery is not owing to a lack of revelation but a preponderance of it. This the hymn-writer attested so beautifully of the immortal God, of whom we sing, “In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.”

Recent months have seen an uptick in talk of the triune God. Controversy has rocked certain portions of the evangelical subculture, regarding the propriety and salience of certain claims made by significant figures regarding the doctrine of God’s triunity. We have no desire to engage in polemics directly; in fact, the most significant entry into this debate has been that of noting its more fundamental roots in matters of basic theological methodology. Very different postures of study apparently have birthed distinct approaches to attesting the character and name of God. Such postures betoken commitments regarding the shape of biblical exegesis, the nature of theological language, the fundamental attributes of the divine life, and the way in which God’s own being relates to the economy of God’s acts in our midst (both creation and redemption). One of the great ironies of modern evangelicalism is that some of the greatest detractors of the open theism movement have succumbed to a similar posture over against the classical Christian approach to the doctrine of God, at least in many of its fundamental entailments.

We are launching a five-months-long series, then, entitled Pro-Nicene Theology. Recent years have witnessed the deepening of our understanding of the fourth-century Trinitarian debates, moving us well beyond rather thin versions (dominant even in the mid twentieth-century textbooks) that portray this as a protracted but rather simple fight between two parties (the Arians and the Athanasians [read: the orthodox]). So-called “new canon” research by figures ranging from Rowan Williams and Lewis Ayres to Michel René Barnes and Khaled Anatolios has helped sketch the terrain of this period and the myriad elements bundled together in these epochal debates.[1] Each month we will consider a fundamental issue, taking up the topics of divine ineffability, divine simplicity, inseparable operations, the eternal generation of the Son, and the distinction of theology and economy in turn. These foci are not only doctrinal topics, much less merely philosophical forays, but are exegetically necessary. Each month, therefore, we will post an entry offering dogmatic exposition of a key topic to be followed later in the month by an exegetical sketch of that topic. While a number of contributors will pen our doctrinal entries, Fred Sanders will provide all of the interpretive pairings (a foretaste of his exegetically-focused book The Triune God forthcoming this fall in the New Studies in Dogmatics series).

The common criticism of systematic theology suggests that it is an effort (whether intended or not) to put God in a box. Control. Manipulation. Sanitizing. These are the watchwords against such an agenda or effect. That there is a version of Christian doctrine which does so cannot be gainsaid, and we might note that suspicions are high in this regard regarding Trinitarian dogma as perhaps nowhere else. Persons, essences, notions, processions—if boxes are found anywhere in which we might cover up the fire of divine self-revelation, are they not cluttering our vision here? Yet it is worth beginning our reflections on pro-Nicene theology by noting that something has gone terribly awry and missed the promptings of the fourth- and fifth-century fathers in suggesting such a schema.

Far from keeping complexity at bay, doctrine serves to keep our attention upon the breadth of biblical teaching and, in so doing, to call us—by faith—up the mountain where God’s light shines. In professing its goodness, we may well be tempted to talk down its truth; in affirming his singularity, he may well find ourselves insecure about how strong may be our praise of his triunity. But doctrine guides those being purified, those learning to trust amidst the cloud, those who have been given a hymn but not found their desires fulfilled. Contrary to the common story told of the creeds as the result of little more than political machinations, heretics sleep well at night; their veering from the path invariably flows from mystery unto a foreshortened confession of God that shoehorns him into the commonsense reasoning of their culture or the thinly biblicistic logic of the seemingly obvious.[2] Creeds and doctrinal distinctions are meant to keep us up at night, startled and stunned by the excessive glory of the self-revealing God. We do not lay awake seeking out the inchoate answer of an absent god, but we are floored by the brilliance of an overwhelming Majesty who has deigned to but radically exceeds our midst. The glory of the gospel, and of the goodness of that gospel’s God, may be attested by the illumination of the ineffable God. Tomorrow we will turn, then, to consider the way in which Gregory of Nazianzus helps us appreciate the necessity and goodness of divine ineffability.


[1] For brief introduction, see especially Michel René Barnes, “The Fourth Century as Trinitarian Canon,” in Christian Origins: Theology, Rhetoric, and Community (ed. Lewis Ayres and Gareth Jones; London: Routledge, 1998), 47-67.

[2] The genius of Rowan Williams’s sketch of Arius in this regard was to bring out the fundamentally conservative pressures which prompted the development of Arian thought.


Michael Allen (PhD, Wheaton College) is Associate Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. Michael is a Presbyterian teaching elder and is the author or editor of several books, including Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation and Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic (both with Scott Swain), as well as many articles on Christian doctrine and historical theology.


Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read the column introduction.

Our current series, Pro-Nicene Theology, offers doctrinal and exegetical entries to the key tenets of basic Trinitarian orthodoxy as developed in the early centuries of the church.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors

9780310491491_imageLearn more about The Triune God forthcoming this fall in the New Studies in Dogmatics series.

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