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
We are at the end of our journey through Keith Johnson’s Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism: An Augustinian Assessment, a very important examination of a new(er) movement within the Church to accommodate modern day polytheism by reimagining the Trinity. Today we want to conclude with Keith’s and my own concluding thoughts.
Johnsons begins his conclusion with the words of Barth, who insists that the doctrine of the Trinity should be “decisive and controlling for the whole dogmatics.” (CD 1/1, 303) Johnson agrees, and so do I. Dogmatic reflections and understandings of the Christian faith only make sense in light of the particular God of the Trinitarian God of the Scriptures, which is why the Trinity must be the decisive and controlling doctrine of the Christian faith. At the end of his concluding chapter, Johnson also helpfully quotes Herman Bavinck, who wrote “The Christian remains unsatisfied until all of existence is referred back to the triune God and until the confession of God’s Trinity functions at the center of our thought and life.” True indeed.
In response to Bavinck Johnson remarks that “Part of the challenge in living out Bavinck’s vision is determining ‘how all of existence is referred back to the triune God.’ It is ironic that some attempts to refer human existence to the Trinity (e.g. theology of religion) may actually have the opposite effect—namely, displacing the triune God as ‘the center of our life and thought.'” (219) And therein lies the problem with contemporary efforts to accommodate modern day polytheism to the Trinity. I’m currently reading through Mirslov Volf’s new book, Allah: A Christian Response, and find Johnson’s lamentations at work, which seems to represent an emerging trajectory in the Church, one I’m glad Johnson is courageously, masterfully responding to.
Johnson wants to remind us, as Augustine did, that “distorted accounts of the divine persons leads to distorted understandings of the gospel. This is because Trinity and gospel are inseparably linked. By reinterpreting the Trinity, Heim, Dupuis, Yong, and Panikkar, in various ways and to varying degrees, undermine the gospel of Jesus Christ.” (218) And this is why responding to the likes of Heim, Dupuis, Yong, Panikkar, Volf, and Tutu are of utmost necessity. This conversation isn’t simply one about the nature of God, but the nature of salvation. And insofar as all six fiddle with the nature of God they are fiddling with salvation itself, and in the end decimating the gospel, because they end up positing an economy of salvation outside of Jesus Christ. In reality such positing is one of numerous economies, as numerous as the variety of spiritualities and religious traditions themselves. As Johnson argues, “Under pressure to accommodate religious pluralism, Heim, Dupuis, Yong and Panikkar reinterpret trinitarian doctrine in order to support their constructive accounts of religious diversity.” (188) In so doing, they have betrayed the Story to which they claim allegiance, God’s Story of Rescue, which insists that the rescue and salvation humanity so desperately needs is found in no other name under heaven than Jesus Christ. (Acts 4)
The author ends his important examination with some Augustinian reflections on the relevance of the Trinity, which I think brings the conversation home to the reason why such contemporary reflections are necessary. Not only does he want us to consider how Augustine might challenge us to think more clearly about the relevance of the Trinity, he also wants us to think clearly about how the doctrine of the Trinity should function. He lists six important purposes for which such a doctrine serves to root and reorient the Christian faith:
1) Theological Purpose—First and foremost, the Trinity is a teaching about God. It summarizes biblical teaching about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the form of ontological claims and provides a regulating grammar that guides our language addressed to God and about God.
2) Doxological Purpose—Second, thinking rightly about the Trinity affords us the ability to rightly honor the triune God in our worship. If Christ is not God, then Christian worship of Christ is nothing short of blasphemous idolatry.
3) Hermeneutical Purpose—Third, the doctrine of the Trinity helps us rightly read Scripture.
4) Anthropological Purpose—Fourth, a reciprocal relationship exists for Augustine between knowledge of self and the knowledge of the Trinity. By reflecting on the Trinity, humans come to know themselves better as those who are made in God’s image. Conversely, through the divine image in the soul humans come to know the triune God and share in God’s life.
5) Formative Purpose—Fifth, the Trinity relates to spiritual formation.
6) Soteriological Purpose—Finally, trinitarian doctrine serves a soteriological purpose in that it provides the key to explicating the gospel message. As Aquinas insists, one of the reasons we need to think rightly about the Trinity is is “we may think rightly concerning salvation of the human race, accomplished by the Incarnation of the Son, and by the gift of the Holy Ghost.” Ultimately, distorted understandings of the divine persons distorts the gospel itself and decimates salvation.
I love what Roger Olson says about Christian theology: “The story of Christian theology is the story of Christian reflection on salvation.” Ultimately, that’s what the conversation this book addresses is all about: this contemporary reflection on one aspect of Christian theology, the Trinity, is a reflection upon the nature of salvation itself. It’s about these basic questions: Is salvation through Jesus Christ alone, or not? Does a person find forgiveness of sins, new life, and resurrection from the dead exclusively in Jesus Christ, or not? Unfortunately, for these and other contemporary thinkers in the Church, the answer to both questions is no. And this is why such a book is needed, right now.
I’m thankful for Johnson’s voice in an increasingly confusing conversation about what is central to the Christian faith—mainly that rescue and re-creation is found in no one other than Jesus Christ—and I trust his book will play an important role in recalibrating the Church’s reflection on the nature of God, not to mention salvation.