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The Trinity:
On the Nature and Mystery of the One God

by thomas joseph white
catholic university of america, 734 pages, $34.95

Essentially, this is a book about the importance of worshiping the right God: It does not quite argue that—in the immortal words of the Song of Roland—“Christians are right and pagans are wrong,” but it questions what counts as talking truthfully about God. It is an encyclopedic study: seven hundred pages patiently expounding how trinitarian doctrine took shape from the earliest days of the Christian community up to the comprehensive synthesis elaborated by Thomas Aquinas, with consistently illuminating ­excursions into the ­various aberrations generated by Enlightenment and post-­Enlightenment philosophy and some of the popular confusions that surround much recent ­doctrinal discussion.

Thomas Joseph White has a thoroughly well-deserved reputation as the finest expositor of Thomistic theology in the English-speaking world, and this book will undoubtedly consolidate such a judgment still more fully. For all its formidable length, it is written with unfailing clarity and accessibility, and should become an indispensable point of reference for anyone seeking to understand not only trinitarian theology but the entire approach to the classical doctrine of God that received its most sophisticated statement in the work of Thomas Aquinas.

Central to this doctrine is the insistence that God is in no imaginable sense passive: God does not “come to be” the way God is, God’s nature is in no way the product of other agencies, God’s ­knowledge of and action in respect of the universe are not conditioned by anything that happens in the universe. Any other view, White argues, commits us ultimately to the idea that God and the universe occupy a place within some larger ontological framework—in which case, it cannot be God we are ­actually talking about, since such a deity could not, by definition, be the sole cause of there being a ­universe at all. And this conviction about God as sole cause is the ­central and non-­negotiable belief of the ­biblical writers, even if they do not use a directly metaphysical vocabulary.

In the light of this, a good deal of reasonably fashionable contemporary theology—not least trinitarian theology—needs a good talking-to. Contemporary critiques of the classical view of divine impassibility on the grounds that it makes any effective account of divine compassion impossible are shown to be deeply muddled: Only a robust model of divine transcendence allows God to be genuinely and lovingly present in the heart of all the world’s pain. God does not need to “acquire” painful human experience through the Incarnation in order to be effectively engaged with suffering. Modern qualms about the doctrine of divine simplicity are likewise shown to be incoherent: Advancing complexity (I have some reservations about calling it “ornateness” as White does, since the associations of that word are more casual or contingent than the context ­really demands) is a good for created systems, the fulfilling of more and more potentialities, but God does not have potentialities to be realized. And this lack is emphatically not some sort of deficiency in God, but the plain entailment of the belief that God is perfect—that he exercises the excellences of the divine nature without restraint.

Most importantly for the main subject matter of the book, God does not become Father, Son, and Spirit in virtue of divine engagement with the world. Whether this notion appears in the form of ­Hegelian dialectic, the post-­Barthian projection of biblical narrative language onto the heavens (Robert Jenson), a misplaced understanding of the personal freedom of God (John Zizioulas), or the anthropomorphic narratives of “analytic” theologians for whom the divine unity is the result of exemplary cooperation between the divine persons, it is crucial to affirm that the eternal triune reality of God is the necessary condition of the divine action in creating, sustaining, and redeeming. Once we grasp that in order to be talking about God at all we need to be clear about God’s independence of any sort of process, we can see off these misunderstandings in short order.

Out of a wealth of significant and lucidly summarized insight, it is hard to select particular points for comment. But two may be worth singling out. First is the admirably simple account of divine goodness as preeminently the communication of itself: Finite perfection for living beings is bound up, Thomas Aquinas argues, with the capacity to reproduce; infinite perfection, though totally other in kind, is the eternal paradigm of finite perfection, and as such must also be conceived as the capacity to generate itself afresh. That is, if we are most ourselves when we are able to transmit or reproduce our mode of life, there must be something about God from which this trait derives. This is a fundamental insight into how the created order works, as a life-­bestowing system, but it is also the key to thinking about how we can find some purchase in our discourse concerning the Trinity.

How, then, can God generate life without self-­division? This conundrum brings us to the second point. It is here, White argues, that the much-maligned “psychological analogy” comes into play. We are not completely unfamiliar with the notion of a difference without a division, because we know what it is to become an object of knowledge to ourselves and an object of disposition or attitude to ourselves. When I claim to know myself, I “produce” an internal ­picture of what and who I am; when I love myself, I produce an internal model of what I am toward which I take up a stance of approval or disapproval, desire or aversion. Intelligence and love are the examples we have in the finite world of real differentiation that does not involve ontological ­separation.

To say, then, that God is intelligent and loving already answers the question of how the divine goodness entails the triune life: God knows the “content” of the divine life as an everlasting goodness, an everlasting self-sharing, and in so knowing it realizes it as actual and active; in knowing it, God loves it or delights in it, because it is wholly what God is and there is nothing within it inconsistent with its intrinsic goodness. And so it is realized as “that which is loved.” God communicates what God is fully and absolutely in eternity, by generating and “spirating” these eternal agencies or “subsisting relations,” the persons of the Trinity, in which divine life is actual in distinct and interdependent forms.

This is not precisely Augustine’s psychological analogy, which is a less complex construction, and in fact (despite many textbook ­accounts) not really a load-bearing element in his De Trinitate. What Thomas does is to elaborate ­Augustine’s ­account—not by treating the three persons as elements or moments in a single divine consciousness, but by looking at the interrelatedness of the finite psyche as providing a fruitful model of non-material and non-divisive “procession”—a true analogy of sameness in difference, not merely a metaphor—a way of speaking that reflects a true continuity ­between radically different kinds of ­existence.

God, as we have seen, is never involved in process, and it is literally unthinkable that there should be a phase or stage of divine life in which God’s self-knowing is not already the active and self-giving ­reality of that which is known; God does not start off as some sort of individual and end up as some sort of community. The eternal movement of self-differentiation that is God’s life is simultaneously an act of communication and an affirmation of unbreakable oneness, identity in essence.

In short, White uses his percipient account of ­Thomas on divine processions, with its sophisticated reworking of the psychological analogy, to mount a persuasive defense of ­Aquinas’s patristic (and indeed Greek patristic) credentials as a believer in real hypostatic distinctness within the triune life, while steering us away from a “social” trinitarianism that would obscure the essential divine mystery of the real communication of real sameness. (White is, like most Thomists, critical of von Balthasar’s trinitarian pluralism; I suspect there might be a bit more to say in Balthasar’s defense, but there is no denying that the hostages to fortune are numerous.) And White rightly sees this eternal mystery of self-bestowal as not the effect but the condition of God’s creating and saving agency in the world.

Back to our opening point: Why does this matter? White doesn’t put it in quite these terms, but the inference is plain: If we don’t know what counts as talking intelligibly about God, we are liable to be dangerously confused about where divinity is properly to be identified. Divinity is never, ever an item inside the world, and what it is for God to “exist” is therefore something unimaginably unlike what it is for things to exist—not just an exalted instance of the sort of existence we possess, even though the presence of God’s action at the heart of all creation means that there are aspects of our being that manifest something of that transcendent reality.

If we think of God as sharing “being” with us, possessing what we possess in roughly the same way we possess it, but in the highest imaginable degree, we risk reducing God to a colossally inflated picture of what we think we are. We may end up identifying the divine with what seems to exhibit power or liberty as we understand the words in a superior degree, or we may imagine that the destiny (or at least hope) of humankind is to acquire these sorts of power and liberty to such a degree that God becomes redundant.

In practice, this means that we make idols either of whatever promises us maximal power and meaning, or of ourselves. Orthodox trinitarianism as spelled out by White tells us that God alone is God; no Führer, president, guru, therapist, or lover has the absolute claim on our love and obedience that God has—which liberates us to say no in God’s name wherever such ersatz divinities try to own or instrumentalize our unique personal dignity. To be free of idolatry is to be free from slavery and free to challenge oppression in all forms. And it liberates us to accept the humanity we have, and not project our happiness onto a distant fantasy of human autonomy or even omnipotence. What this superb book does is clarify how and why it is our dependence on the eternal and unchanging goodness of God that delivers us into the fullest freedom we can have: the freedom of being a child of the eternal Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Rowan Williams is a former archbishop of Canterbury.