For fifteen years now I have taught courses at Moore College on the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. I have developed and taught courses on Modern Trinitarian Thought and Patristic Trinitarian Thought. This year I have bequeathed the Modern Trinitarian Thought course to my highly skilled colleague David Höhne, while I continue to teach Patristic Trinitarian Thought.
This new stage in my involvement with these courses has prompted me to ponder the differences between patristic trinitarianism and modern trinitarian thought. Books have been written on this subject, but perhaps it might be helpful to record some summary observations. These are, of course, both summary and generalised. I realise there are exceptions to each of the observations I make below. However, as an overall impression of the differences, I think what follows still has some validity.
Patristic trinitarian thinking and writing appears more overtly biblical, and specifically more exegetical, than much modern writing. Sometimes that exegetical work is tortuous and repetitive, as in some of Athanasius’ orations against the Arians. Sometimes it is crisp and leaves important questions unanswered. Yet the Bible is in the foreground rather than in the background in many of the patristic treatments of the doctrine. In contrast, much of the modern discussion glances off the Bible and shies away from sustained exegetical comment.
At the same time, patristic trinitarian thinking seems more obviously influenced by classical philosophy than some modern writing in the area. This is neither all good or all bad. Scholarly reflection on the practice of the fathers has emphasised the way they transformed concepts from classical philosophy even as they appropriated them for service in their theological work. And, naturally enough, modern trinitarian theology has not so much less of a philosophical engagement as a different philosophical engagement. Modern and Post-Modern philosophy can also have both an enlightening and distorting effect, in different degrees with different contemporary voices. This difference between, say, fourth-century trinitarianism and twenty-first-century trinitarianism is both obvious and inevitable. Yet it is worth putting out in the open.
Patristic trinitarian thinking is preoccupied with Christ and salvation. The trinitarian reflection of the early centuries bears the character of deeper reflection on the uniqueness of Christ and the efficacy of his death and resurrection. In an important sense this is what generates trinitarian discussion in the first place. Almost all the church fathers who wrote on this topic demonstrate this preoccupation, perhaps once again Athanasius is the most conspicuous example. However, even a cursory reading of modern trinitarian thought shows it is not nearly so focused on the person and work of Christ. Indeed, a shift of focus from Christ and soteriology to a focus on trinitarian formulation, can be — need not be, but can be — a way of avoiding the theological claims that are no longer fashionable or palatable to some moderns. Yet it is not always — and perhaps we should be as generous as to say not often — deliberate avoidance. Rather, reflection of the wide range of connections between the doctrine of the Trinity and other theological loci has proven remarkably productive, even if, as a byproduct, Christ and salvation are moved from centre stage.
Patristic trinitarian thinking had a more overtly doxological element than much modern writing in this area. Writers such as Athanasius and Augustine, not to mention the Cappadocians and later Eastern writers, were very aware that they did their theologising in the presence of God and in service of the church. It was not, and could never be, a simply abstract and intellectual endeavour. To speak of the Father as he has made himself known in Christ through the Spirit was to enter genuinely sacred space. The third person will not suffice as a mode of address in such an environment. God is addressed, invoked and adored rather than simply spoken about. The demands of the modern academy make such an approach less likely today. Confessional approaches are suspect (our devotional and ecclesiastical commitments are seen as distorting factors rather than enabling factors in theological work by some) while academic objectivity and detachment, coming to reasoned conclusions which at least give the appearance of eschewing self-interest, are rewarded with respect. The result is a very different vibe from that given by the fathers.
Much modern trinitarian thought has a strangely instrumental feel about it. We think and talk about the Trinity in order to understand something else better. This despite Colin Gunton’s prescient warning, back in 1995, against encouraging instrumental conceptions of the doctrine (a warning, arguably, he could have heeded a bit more himself). A lurking danger is the way talk of the Trinity can become merely the background against which we talk about more interesting things — us and what we are doing. This stands in stark contrast to the patristic treatises on the subject which see a contemplation of God in his glory and majesty as the goal as well as the launching pad for all theology.
Modern trinitarian thinking continues the conversation of the church fathers. Very often the modern conversation is explicitly a conversation with the work left by these early writers. For this reason alone the two eras of trinitarian thinking and writing should not be placed in too sharp a contrast with each other. However, from time to time patristic scholars have needed to remind dogmaticians that the fathers are best read in entirety and on their own terms rather than simply seconded to a modern or postmodern agenda.
Obviously this is just a start, and perhaps far too superficial even for that. I am not suggesting for a moment that modern trinitarian thinking is all chaff and real value can only be found in the writing of the church fathers. Far from it! It is hard not to stand in awe of the insight into God and his work in the world and for our salvation displayed by the likes of Barth, Torrance and Gunton, just to name a few. And the church fathers had their problems too, some of which are hinted at above. However, as the trendiness of trinitarian treatments of this or that wears off in the theological academy, perhaps there is room for a more sober assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of both ancient and modern attempts to confess the wonder of God.