Post Series 
0—Preface
 
1—Introduction
 
2—Augustine’s Trinitarianism
 
3—Mark Heim’s Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends

4—Amos Yong’s Pneumatological Theology of Religions
5—Jaquees Dupuis’s Christian Theology of Religious Ends
6—Raimundo Panikkar’s Theandric Spirituality
7—Conclusions and Reflections

As I mentioned a few days ago, I want to pick up a review I began 3 months ago of Keith Johnson’s Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism: An Augustinian Assessment, one of what I think is the most important books to come out last year. Today we pick up the fascinating examination of an emerging problem within the church: the compromising of the historic doctrine of the Trinity by accommodating it to modern day polytheism. We take this examination further by looking at a highly significant voice within this movement: Amos Yong.

In accommodating the Trinity to polytheism, Yong’s basic premiss is this: the Holy Spirit is present and active in non-Christian religions and even acts in an economy of salvation distinct from that of the Son. (93) In other words, while on the one hand Jesus presents one mode of salvation through working in Christian religion, the Holy Spirit on the other hand the Holy Spirit separately provides a separate salvation through His presence and working in other religions. This is a so-called pneumatological theology of religions.

Yong is a Pentecostal theologian who attempts to develop a Pentecostal-charismatic theology of religion in his book, Discerning the Spirit(s). He seeks to solve what he calls the christological impasse, which is “the almost irreconcilable axiom of God’s universal salvific will and the historical particularity of Jesus of Nazareth as Savior of all persons.” (Discerning the Spirits, 94). In other words, he sees a problem between God’s general will for the salvation of all and the particular salvation of Jesus as particular Savior. Yong’s solution? “The universal presence of the Holy Spirit. Yong believes the Holy Spirit is present and active among non-Christian religions…” (94) His belief is built upon a distinction between the salvific activity (or economy) of  Jesus and the salvific activity of the Holy Spirit. Yong writes, “The entire objective of shifting to a pneumatological framework in order to understand non-Christian faiths is premised upon the recognition that there is a distinction between the economy of the Son and that of the Spirit relative to the redemption of the world.” (DS, 61) He goes on to say, “Recognition of the procession of mission of the Holy Spirit into the world relative to, yet distinct from that of the Son provides the theological space that is greatly needed at the present time for reflection on the place of the religions in the economy of the Spirit.” (DS, 70) Thus, “because the Spirit acts in an economy distinct from that of the Son, we should be able to identify aspects of the Spirit’s work that are not ‘constrained’ by the Son.” (98)

This perspective on the Trinity, not to mention salvation, is recycled Tritheism, the early church heresy that views Father, Son, Spirit as separate and distinct divine beings who act on their own apart from each other. In this view there is far too much “threeness” and not enough “oneness,” which you clearly see on display in Yong’s view of the trinity and salvation. In this view the relationship between Son and Spirit is highly skewed in favor of a separatism in order to arrive at an economy of salvation in other religions separate and distinct from Jesus. Johnson essentially argues this in his own critique, saying he employs a deficient account of the relation among the Son and Spirit. (102) He appeals to Augustine in this critique, explaining that in his De Trinitate, Augustine argues two important points regarding the trinity and salvation: 1) the inseparable equality of the divine persons in one substance; 2) the inseparable action of the divine persons in the economy of salvation. Thus, “we must speak of one God,” and “the divine persons act inseparably.” This oneness and inseparability is roundly ignored by Yong, who holds a view that is strongly three and distinct/separate when it comes to the nature and activity of God regarding the Son and Spirit.

Furthermore, Johnson argues that Augustine’s contribution to our understanding of the Trinity by suggesting the Spirit proceeds jointly from the Father and the Son is a repudiation of Yong’s belief in the distinct, separateness of the Spirit from the Son, in regards to both nature and activity. (110) Yong rejects the historic Christian belief that the Spirit proceeds from the Son. This is how he can argue that the Spirit is active salvifically apart form the Son in other religions. Augustine says differently:

And just for the Holy Spirit his being the gift of God means his proceeding from the Father, so his being sent means his being known to proceed from him. Nor, by the way, can we say that the Holy Spirit does not proceed from the Son as well; it is not without point that the Same Spirit is called the Spirit of the Father and of the Son. (DT, 4.29, 174)

Johnson further argues that, as Augustine himself argues, “the Father is the one who sends, while the Son (who proceeds from the Father) and the Spirit (who proceeds from the Father and the Son) are the ones sent.” Regarding the Son, Augustine links the sending of the Son to the incarnation, and this sending of the Son “represents a unique moment in salvation history, such that we cannot properly speak of the Son being ‘sent’ prior to the incarnation.” Likewise, Johnson argues that the Spirit himself was sent not for his own purpose of on his own accord, but with the ultimate goal of “leading people in every nation to confess Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.” (114) Johnson rightly calls this “two sendings—one goal.”

While there were two separate sendings—Son at incarnation, Spirit at Pentecost—”these sendings have one ultimate goal—bringing men and women into eternal contemplation of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” (115) Augustin uses the Latin term missio to speak of this one mission that both the Son and Spirit share, which is missed and rejected by those like Yong who want to speak of a salvific activity of the Spirit separate and distinct from the salvation of the Son. This leads Johnson to rightly conclude that Yong offers an “inadequate account of the relation of the Holy Spirit to the Son and Father.” (120) While Augustine (and I should add, the Church) emphasized the unity of the divine persons—Father, Son, Spirit—in regards to nature and activity, Yong does not. Johnsons rightly concludes that his view is deficient not because he emphasizes distinct economic roles, but two distinct economic, salvific activities—one associated with the Son in the Christian religion and one associated with the Spirit in all other non-Christian religions—which Johnson points out does indeed lead to an economic trithesism. “By positing two economies, Yong implicitly severs the two hands of the Father and undermines the unity of the economy of salvation.” (123)

What’s more, Yong dismisses the biblical role of the Spirit in bearing witness to and glorifying the risen Christ. Instead, Yong’s Holy Spirit works by his own accord according to his own agenda separate and distinct from the Spirit, bearing witness to a separate and distinct salvation. But as Johnson rightly states, “No grounds exist for positing a distinct salvaiton-historical economy of the Spirit leading to some other end,” apart from the one single end of salvation in and glorification of Christ. (124) In fact, Yong insists that the Church in Her mission “should be able to identify dimensions of the Spirit’s presence and activity that are not contained by that of the Word.” (DS, 136) Not constrained by that of the Word? It appears that Yong believes the historic Church’s understanding of salvation in and through Christ alone is constraining, and that the work of the Spirit is a liberating work. Johnson responds, “If, however, as Augustine rightly insists, the Father, Son, and Spirit are working together in a single economy that exists to draw men and women into the life of the triune God, then any criteria for discerning the Spirit’s redemptive work must include a christological element.” Indeed!

It is disturbing to read that some in the Church want to maintain the legitimacy of non-christological criteria for discerning the Spirit’s presence and activity, which inevitably leads to a non-christocentric salvation. Unfortunately, the elements of Yong’s thesis are not reserved to Yong along; I have seen the elements of his main thesis in the recent writings of Desmund TutuMirslov Volf, and Brian McLaren, who all argue in some way for an economy of salvation apart from the particular salvation of Jesus as guided and promoted by the Holy Spirit. This is false, destructive, and, dare I say, heretical. Which is why I am thankful for Johnson’s thoughtful, engaging critique to help guide the Church’s discourse on not only the nature of God in trinity, but the nature of salvation itself, which has massive consequences for the real lives, of real people, and their real eternal outcomes.