One of the most intriguing claims in Travis Ables’s Incarnational Realism is that “Christology and pneumatology do not operate on the same register; one is doctrinal, the other is the performative dimension of that doctrinal speech.”

More fully: “The missions of the trinitarian persons do not necessarily entail distinct redemptive acts in the economy of salvation. Rather, we should look for one act of God in different valences, or modalities: the reception of the act of God is part of that act itself. In other words, Son and Spirit act together in the incarnation and the corresponding pneumatological gift of grace, a gift that is itself the gift of participation in the Son.” We shouldn’t think that “hypostatic particularity entails distinct works in the self-giving act of God.” That self-gift is singular, the begetting of the Son enacted in the mission of the Son, but that singular act “includes our own personal participation as part of that very act.” Fears of Barthian Christomonism are misplaced. Pneumatology is the performative of Christology, our participation in love in the one self-gift of the Father who begets the Son (12-13).

This is drawn from Ables’s reading of Augustine’s de Trinitate. Augustine is often charged with having a weak pneumatology, but Ables thinks this charge arises from the expectation that Christology and pneumatology operate in parallel. For Augustine, though, “pneumatology is not strictly talk about God, nor is talk about the self: it is the discourse that emerges when God makes the self participate in Godself,” an “indirectly, dialectical performative ascesis of speech” that seeks traces of deification in the soul (78).

One effect of this is to join Christology intimately to Augustine’s totus Christus ecclesiology. In what Ables calls “incarnational realism,” Augustine teaches that “the church is really and organically the social existence of Jesus Christ” since the theology of the Spirit “immediately links Augustine’s ecclesiology and Christology” (85). In other words, for Augustine, the “love of God is love of neighbor, and love of neighbor is the love of God.” The ascent of de Trinitate becomes a “pneumatology of charity,” so that the vision of God is also a vision of neighbor: “the goal of the ascent is the face of the neighbor” (86). Or, “The love of God is the sending of the Spirit who is the love in whom we love the neighbor” (87).

There is much to admire in this discussion, but Ables is not finally convincing. Augustine, he argues, “understands the intratrinitarian processions of Son and Spirit strictly in terms of their missions - to the extent that we should think of God as eternally self-speaking in the incarnate Word, an eternal act of self-giving” (88). 

But the life of the Triune God is not a life of reciprocal love. Ables writes that for Augustine “love” must be a substance-term: “if God is love, then God is love identically in each of the three persons, except insofar as the Son is love from love, and the Spirit is love from the Father and Son as one source of love. The Son is not the lover of the Father, but the love of the Father as love from love; and because this procession of love from love takes the form of the mission of the Son, ultimately this means that love as the incarnate Son Jesus of Nazareth, as the form in which that love is bestowed upon the world. In turn, the Holy Spirit is the love of the Father and Son insofar as she is the gift of God by which we love God in the totus christus” (97).

Again, much to admire, but a few questions. What is the force of that “except insofar”? Doesn’t that mean that the “identical” love of the Persons is qualified - love of the Begetter and love of the Begotten? But the bigger question is: What does this imply about God “antecedently in Himself” (Barth’s phrase)? If the Son is love from the Father’s love, but not the lover of the Father nor (apparently) the beloved of the Father), who or what is the object of that love? Allowing for the “performative” pneumatology, still Ables talks about the Spirit: But can He talk about the Spirit other than as the love by which we love God and neighbor?

God is self-diffusing good (Edwards, as well as Augustine) but apparently this is diffusion without terminus, gift without reception or grateful return gift. But then it is difficult to see how this pneumatology, quite contrary to Ables’s intentions, avoids making human beings integral to God’s being. If he exposes some of the difficulties of contemporary Trinitarian thought, his own conclusions (perhaps Augustine’s too?) are not free of difficulties. 

All that said: Ables’s book is Trinitarian theology of a high order, worth grappling and arguing with.

More on: Trinity, Augustine

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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