Kilby isn’t content to say that some social theories of the Trinity may project human ideals onto God. She says it’s inherent in the whole effort to tease out a social model of the Trinity. Her argument moves in several stages:
First, we don’t have much of any information about what makes the three Persons one. There are “a few proof texts in the Gospel of John,” and that’s it (441).
Second, that sort of unity is beyond our experience, since in our experience three Persons are always three individuals.
Third, we give this unknown something a label - perichoresis.
Fourth: What do we mean by “perichoresis”? Since God’s life is outside our ken, we fill in that term with “those things which do to some degree bind human persons together . . . interrelatedness, love, empathy, mutual accord, mutual giving, and so on” (441).
So, fifth, God’s inner life must be like that “only of course, unimaginably more so” (441).
Kilby admits that some of this is virtually inescapable:
“it is arguable that in talk about God is it always a matter of saying that God is just like such-and-such that we know, only unimaginably more so” (441). What makes the social theorist different is that in addition to saying that divine perichoresis is “akin to our best relationships, only better” she says “should we not model our relationships on this wonderful thing, the divine perichoresis?” (442).
The weakness in Kilby’s argument is in her swift brush-off of the Gospel of John. She recognizes that there are “proof texts” there, but doesn’t quote or examine any.
If we take Scripture as God’s word written, God’s self-revelation in human language, John’s gospel has a strongly directive role. It’s not projection to examine Jesus’ testimony about His relation to His Father and to see what it might teach us both about the life of God and our lives in God.
Taking only John 17, we discover: a) that the Father is “in” the Son and the Son “in” the Father; b) that this is the sort of unity that Father and Son have; c) that Jesus prays that the disciples might be “one” in the same way; d) that the disciples become dwelling places for the Son who is indwelt by the Father; e) that the disciples dwell in the Father-and-Son (“us”); f) that this has something to do with the gift of glory; g) that this mutual indwelling of the disciples in one another and the dwelling of the Father and Son in them.
That takes only a few verses of a single chapter, without examining the way this chapter captures resonating echoes from the rest of the gospel, much less from other books of the New Testament. None of this, of course, makes the life of God, or God’s dwelling with men, or the unity of the new humanity transparent. But working out the implications of these claims of Jesus is not projection. It’s reception of a word from the incarnate Son.
I suppose that behind Kilby’s brush-off is a view of the role of Scripture in theology, and a view of Scripture, and I suspect that it’s a view I would differ with. And her argument points to one crucial dimension of current debates about the Trinity: The adequacy of human language, including biblical language, to speak about God.
Two quick observations on that question: If human language is inadequate to speak about God, we’re quite far up a creek without a steering device. And, second, Bavinck is the guide here: Creation can be used to speak of God because it was created to communicate about Him; anthro- and cosmomorphism is legitimate because the creation and humanity are theomorphic. I doubt we’ll untangle debates about the Trinity until we become clear on that point.
Kilby, Perichoresis and Projection: Problems with Social Doctrines of the Trinity, New Blackfriars 81 (2007) 432-45.