In writing both of his Catechisms of 1529, Martin Luther attempted to highlight the trinitarian structure of Christianity by reducing the Roman twelve-article catechesis to a more explicit three-article one. It simply stated belief in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, with assent to the “holy Christian Church, the community of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and an everlasting life” treated collectively under the working of the Holy Spirit. However, as Samuel Powell shows in The Trinity in German Thought, Protestant theology on the Trinity since Luther’s time has hardly been as clear.
Trinitarian thought has traditionally been built upon three main pillars: Christian revelation of how God is in Himself, an attendant theology of each divine person’s unique interaction with creation, and the notion of personhood itself. Powell accordingly and astutely focuses his history of trinitarian theology im deutschen Sprachraum on the ideas of Word, history, and self. As he writes, “It was in Germany that an alternative to the medieval Roman Catholic view of revelation was born, in Germany that modern historical consciousness arose, and in Germany that the contemporary understanding of the self finds its roots.” Beginning with Luther and Melanchthon, therefore, Powell proceeds chronologically to trace how Protestant theologians used these three concepts to elucidate their various understandings of the Trinity.
Once Reformers had limited revelation to Scripture alone, they struggled to find a clear trinitarian theology within the Bible. Since Scripture never speaks explicitly of the Trinity, the thinking went, Christians should not presume to be able to say too much about it. Consider Martin Luther’s claim that it is “iniquitous, not to say godless, for those who, trusting in their own powers, speculate concerning the supreme mystery of the Trinity,” or Melanch thon’s suggestion that “we would do better to worship the mysteries of the Divinity than to investigate them.” In confining God’s revelation to the written word, sola scriptura theology not only cut itself off from much of the rich trinitarian thinking since Nicaea, but limited revelation to the exigencies of human salvation.
Because Scripture depicts Christ coming not to deliver learned treatises on the hidden life of God but to open the gates of heaven to those who believe, catechetical utility quickly replaced dogmatic speculation. According to Powell, this position is best represented by Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760), who, “in good Protestant fashion, swore abstinence from all forms of metaphysics, natural theology, and the contamination of theology by philosophy.” In stressing one’s own experience of redemption, Zinzendorf instrumentalized the faith by disconnecting God as He is in Himself, a concern too esoteric to be of practical consequence, from Christ the Savior upon whom our redemption rests. This search for the assurance of personal salvation could not help but result in an anti-intellectualism, dismissive of the more abstract matters of Christian doctrine. One thinks here of Goethe’s lament: “[I was told that] I must believe that three are one and one is three. But this was repugnant to my mind’s sense of truth and I did not see how it was going to help me in the least.” Or consider Immanuel Kant’s cavalier declaration in The Conflict of Faculties that “whether we are to worship three or ten persons in the Deity makes no difference.”
To the pietistic theology of Zinzendorf and the numerous liberal theo logians he influenced—Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889), Wilhelm Hermann (1846-1922), Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930)—what ultimately mattered was the salvation offered through the Christ of the Gospels. Further, this Christomonism led to the abandonment of dogma altogether. It came to be thought that Christian truths, like Christ himself, do not exist apart from the vicissitudes and effects of the Zeitgeist but belong to and are thus necessarily conditioned by certain historical changes. This new historical consciousness, with its emphasis on Christ’s saving actions over against his nature and person, as well as the related “myths” of abstract dogma, was kept alive in the twentieth century by Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976). Bultmann called into question not only what could be said about the Trinity, but developed an entire system in which history’s effects on doctrine must be overcome so that the Christian message might be meaningful for the concrete individual of the historical present.
This question of God’s relationship to history, already evident in the writings of such thinkers as Hermann Reimarus (1694-1768) and Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), is most highly developed in the thought of G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831). For Hegel, the Trinity is nothing other than God’s self-explication in history. Unlike many contemporary thinkers who have rebelled against the Hegelian legacy, Hegel himself stressed God’s dependence on the created order as the divine “developed” according to the concepts of universality (God as eternal idea), particularity (God’s sensible appearance in creation, culminating in the person of Christ), and individuality (the Holy Spirit’s reconciling creation with God).
Viewing God as reliant upon creation certainly marked a departure from traditional trinitarian thinking. It was nonetheless the logical conclusion of stressing time and experience over eternal creed, which Powell calls “the setting of the stage” for twentieth century thought. In fact, Powell suggests, most contemporary thinkers have dethroned Luther’s distinction between the Deus absconditus and the Deus revelatus (God hidden and revealed) by stressing how God’s redemptive acts in history reveal nothing new about God’s intra-divine life, but act to confirm what is eternally true. Take, for example, Jürgen Moltmann’s (b. 1926) view of creation as the expression of “God’s self-communicative love” or Wolfhart Pannenberg’s (b. 1928) rich treatment of the Paschal events confirming for us the eternal truth that Jesus is the obedient Son, the Father is the Ruler of all, and the Spirit is active always and everywhere, including in death. Moreover, there is Karl Barth’s (1886-1968) emphasis on how God’s “historical dealings with humanity,” far from showing how God needs creation, actually reveal the perfect, self-reliant life of the Trinity itself.
This understanding—that creation can disclose the trinitarian relations of God—is how most of the medieval tradition, reaching back to St. Augustine’s De Trinitate, proceeded. That is, the human mind’s knowledge and love was thought to mirror the “Word” and “Love” of the Father. Although Powell quite accurately notes that “Protestants were distinctively cool to this method of expounding the doctrine of the Trinity,” such philosophers as G. W. Leibniz (1646-1716) (with his description of the Trinity as force, intellect, and will) and Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) (who defined the Trinity as an eternal act of self-knowledge) did go this route. Thanks to Hegel’s emphasis on relation, however, this personalist approach to the Trinity enjoyed a brief twentieth-century revival in the idealism of Paul Tillich (1886-1965) as well as in Barth’s very different notion of reflective selfhood. Powell accordingly takes his reader through varying accounts of the Trinity in Barth’s Church Dogmatics, where Barth finally settles on a view that stresses God’s inherent otherness: “God exists as the in-between of the Father and the Son; here God enters into and becomes that which is radically opposite God. Here otherness and difference are eternal aspects of the divine being, yet without disrupting God’s identity.”
While Powell’s study is an extremely helpful one, it unfortunately suffers from some important gaps. How, for example, can one hope to understand the history of German theology without some discussion of the challenges posed by the likes of Ludwig Feuerbach, Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, or Friedrich Nietzsche? Similarly, how can Protestant thought be discussed in almost complete isolation from Catholic ideas? Although he never justifies this move, it is obvious from the start that Powell simply dismisses any German Catholic approaches to the Trinity, leaving the reader wondering how his work might have been improved by including the recent contributions of, say, Schmaus, Rahner, von Balthasar, or Greshake. Finally, the absence of doxology—the Church’s liturgical praise and worship of the Father, Son, and Spirit—has always plagued Reform theology, especially in its more liberal currents. Yet Powell nowhere mentions it. One volume can only do so much, of course, and Powell’s summaries of complicated theological doctrines are for the most part clear and accurate. Despite these significant omissions, then, Powell’s work proves to be a reliable guide to Protestant theology’s various approaches to comprehending the Triune God.
David Vincent Meconi, S.J., is a Jesuit scholastic in the Department of Church History at the University of Innsbruck, Austria.