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[Common Places] The Promise and Prospects of Retrieval: Recent Developments in Trinitarian Theology

Categories Common Places

About twenty years ago when I applied from seminary to graduate school, I sent along as my writing sample a seminar paper on current trends in trinitarian theology. Specifically, I submitted a paper critiquing Augustine’s De Trinitate in light of these more recent insights, and I have to tell you candidly that I was pretty rough on old Augustine. In my judgment, he was insufficiently trinitarian: fixated on divine oneness, captive to platonizing presuppositions, inattentive to the real distinctions among the three persons, unable to do straightforward exegesis, artfully dodging the implications of the economy of salvation, and incapable of showing how the doctrine of God’s triunity had any bearing on Christian life and experience, except by indulging in that disastrous quest for analogies that was his chief legacy.

Reader, I harried him.

I’m glad the paper was never published, and I would not defend it today, but there was something more afoot in that writing sample than just the cocky dudgeon of a student eager to impress by showing himself radical and novel. The arguments, after all, were not my own, but were condensed out of the theological atmosphere of the time. In retrospect, what is striking is the way that so many of the most stimulating thinkers working on the doctrine of the Trinity twenty to twenty-five years ago positioned themselves in opposition to a major historical figure, or even to the central tradition of Christian theology itself. In some ways, the task of trinitarian theology in the past quarter of a century has been to disentangle the remarkable sense of the trinitarian project on the one hand from its counter-traditional articulations on the other.

Two influential examples may suffice. Colin Gunton’s The Promise of Trinitarian Theology was published in 1991, opening with the programmatic essay “Trinitarian Theology Today” wherein he declared, “the unfortunate fact is… that the shape of the Western tradition has not always enabled believers to rejoice in the triune being of God.” Before the paragraph is over, he has blamed Augustine for the ills that beset the spiritual history of the West. At this distance, it is not hard to refute Gunton’s historical arguments: Michel Rene Barnes had already begun dismantling them historiographically in 1995 [1], and Brad Green has more recently explored Gunton’s wider interests in Colin Gunton and the Failure of Augustine: The Theology of Colin Gunton in Light of Augustine. But even so, it is hard to take up that essay without catching a palpable sense of the sheer excitement that a master of constructive theology like Gunton brought to the task. Line after line of the book jumps out with the energy of a manifesto: “Because God is triune, we must respond to him in a particular way, or set of ways, corresponding to the richness of his being… In turn that means that everything looks –and, indeed, is—different in the light of the Trinity” (p. 4).

In Roman Catholic theology, Catherine Mowry LaCugna’s 1993 God For Us: The Trinity and the Christian Life cut a very similar profile. The sense of energy and project was there: “The doctrine of the Trinity is ultimately a practical doctrine with radical consequences for the Christian life.  That is the thesis of this book” (p. 1). But so was the insistence that something had gone awry at the core of the traditional doctrine, and the present generation had to set it right. Whereas Gunton characteristically saw the West as the region of error and the East as the reservoir of the needed resources for trinitarianism, LaCugna found the problem more ecumenical (the Cappadocian legacy was equally fraught) and longer standing (Aquinas did not untie these knotty problems). And the ultimate problem was that the doctrine of the Trinity had become a “nonsoteriological doctrine of God,” a mere cognitive puzzle about deity. LaCugna countered that “the doctrine of the Trinity is not ultimately a teaching about 'God' but a teaching about God's life with us and our life with each other” (p. 228). Even though she struck an utterly non-traditional posture in her lamentable polemic against the idea of God-in-himself, of the immanent Trinity, LaCugna’s work gave many younger theologians a vision of the difference a “joined-up” trinitarianism might make for theology, worship, and church.

I hope these two examples show why the last two decades have been marked by progress in teasing apart the Harnackian ring and the theological vivacity that emerged together at about the time that Gunton and LaCugna were making their marks. It is especially poignant that both authors passed away at unexpectedly young ages, so that we can only guess how they would have responded to the shift in tone since the works mentioned here.

Because such a shift of tone is undeniable. Augustine, Nicaea, and Aquinas have found able defenders who have done remarkable work in putting these ancient figures into dynamic dialogue with contemporary systematic theology. As the disciplinary wall between historical and systematic theology has been lowered, the voices of the older authors have been heard more and more clearly. Perhaps sensing that new dialogue is becoming possible, practitioners from biblical studies and philosophical theology have also found a greater welcome in the doctrine of the Trinity, which was once the sole province of systematicians.

Twenty years ago there was a lot of noise and hype about the doctrine of the Trinity, along with a lot of confused and indefensible generalizations. As the historical errors were corrected and the misplaced enthusiasms were inevitably stamped out, there was ample reason to fear that the excitement, the theological elaboration of trinitarian insights, and the vision of a more organically connected doctrinal core might also suffer loss. That has not been the case. The renewal of interest has eventuated in a steady refocusing of attention onto the doctrine, and important work continues. Gunton signaled the need for his project by lamenting that “there is a suspicion that the whole thing is a bore, a matter of mathematical conundrums and illogical attempts to square the circle.” The suspicion of boredom is dispelled, and has now been replaced by the conviction that we are joining the apostolic, patristic, and Reformation church in one of the most worthwhile conversations in all dogmatics.


Fred Sanders (PhD, Graduate Theological Union) is professor of theology in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University in La Mirada, California. He is author of several books including The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything, Dr. Doctrines’ Christian Comix, and The Triune God in Zondervan Academic’s New Studies in Dogmatics (forthcoming). Fred is a core participant in the Theological Engagement with California’s Culture Project and a popular blogger at Scriptorium Daily.


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 here.

Our first series, The Promise and Prospects of Retrieval, explores positive developments in theology over the past twenty-five or so years, considering some of the ways in which the recovery of theological tradition has proven to be a stimulating resource for constructive systematic theology.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors of Common Places


1: “Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology,” Theological Studies 56 (1995), 237-250

Common Places: A New Forum for Old Conversations
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