Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The One Who is Three, and the Three Who is One

In an effort to make headway on my Barth studies and to find a way to navigate Barth while pastoring a church and studying towards my MA in Theology and Culture, I have decided to tag along with another blog that is heading through the Church Dogmatics in a little over a year.  I will undoubtedly miss some readings (in fact I already have), but having a ready made reading schedule provided for me that appears doable and that provides a little camaraderie will, I hope, help me achieve my goals of interfacing Barth with Pentecostalism.

Having said all of that...

Last week's readings were from the end of CD I/1 and covered Barth's doctrine of the Trinity.  This aspect of Barth is actually quite controversial.  The reasons for this are Barth's insistence on the absolute unity of God and also on his decision to use the term "modes of being" rather than "persons" when discussing the three, ummm...., well, persons of the Trinity - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  (There are more recently other controversial readings of Barth that also argue that in some sense Barth believed the Son was at some point, so to speak, "created."  I both disagree with this and also do not believe it touches on what I am looking at here - it usually is based on Barth's later writings than volume 1).

Barth's trinitarianism is, however, from my reading profoundly orthodox.  He interacts extensively with both the church fathers and the biblical text.  His central concern is the biblical doctrine that there is only one God and that the God whom we meet in Christ is not another.  In detailed manner he dismantles Arianism and tri-theism (saying that either approach, which he looks at together, would make whoever worships the Son an idolater).  He also speaks extensively against modalism (which he is accused of teaching) as really being a theology of One in Four rather than One in Three (because in modalism the "true" God is not Father, Son, or Spirit, but another person altogether who merely appears as these persons at various times).

For Barth, one way of looking at the Trinity (and the main way for the purposes of volume 1, on the doctrine of revelation) is to see God's three "ways of being" as Revealer, Revelation, and Revealedness.  In revelation, the One True God reveals himself in his eternal Son and is "seen" when his Spirit creates faith in the believer.  This God which we meet in revelation is the eternal God, and thus we can deduce that the God who comes to us as the Father through the Son by the Spirit must therefore eternally also be Father, Son and Spirit.  We only know God as he reveals himself, but we can trust that whom God reveals himself to be, he truly is.  Thus God exists eternally in three ways, related to one another in love - the Father begetting the Son and the Father and Son together spirating the Spirit between them.  But, despite this eternal three-ness, there is only One God.  And more importantly, the Bible never says that God has three personalities.  There is only One God and this God is One Person.

Here is where Barth's theology gets tricky.  We are accustomed to think in our day and age, if we thin of the Trinity at all, as three individual persons not unlike three human beings sitting at a table.  From Barth's perspective, today's popular trinitarianism would border dangerously close to tritheism.  But it is important to note that Barth is expressly not a modalist, nor is he denying God's eternal "three-ness."  In fact, after adding signficant qualifiers and reservations to the term "relationship" to describe how the three "modes of being" in God are connected, he then goes on to use the term himself.  What Barth is careful to do is to maintain the mystery of the Trinity.  God is not three "persons" relating to one another in a tritheistic sense.  He is One God existing eternally as Father, Son and Spirit, and the only way we know that is because God meets us in his revelation as Father, Son, and Spirit.

If anything, I see Barth's trinitarianism as walking in step with ancient trinitarian thought precisely because he is so careful to avoid making the Trinity easy.  Barth keeps the One and the Three so closely connected that the doctrine remains mysterious and overwhelming, as it should be.  Barth does not, as his critics claim, sacrifice the Three for the sake of the One.  Nor does he, like many modern preachers and writers (including myself at times) sacrifice the One for the sake of the Three.  And how do I see this as helpful for us as Pentecostals?  Precisely in this: without slipping into a Oneness error, Barth's doctrine of the Trinity in divine revelation helps us to avoid pitting Jesus the Savior against God the Judge.  It also helps us to realize that the Spirit who dwells within us is not a force but the Eternal God himself - and not less of a God than the Father or the Son.  The Spirit in our midst is causing us to see Jesus, whom to see is to see the Father.

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