‘A step closer’: Progress to what end?

This post follows on from my reflections regarding progress in philosophy and theology. Again I am taking Hasker’s Metaphysics and the Tri-Personal God as the starting point. The question I want to raise here regards the goal of philosophical theology. What is the aim of progress? This is how Hasker sees things:

‘My intent…is to theorize about the divine three-in-oneness in a way that brings us a step closer to comprehending that mysterious reality.’ (167)

What does Hasker mean here? Just before this quote he distinguishes the doctrine of the Trinity from the Trinity itself. He says that, ‘It is our hope that our laboriously constructed interpretations capture something (but never everything) of the realities with which we are concerned.’ Hasker is therefore not arguing that the goal of trinitarian theorizing is the complete comprehension of the divine nature. The Trinity remains ‘that mysterious reality.’

So what does it mean to move a step closer to comprehending that which is incomprehensible? How can this be our goal if the finite cannot contain the infinite? And how does theorizing about the doctrine of the Trinity help us on the way? Is Hasker’s aim intelligible?

At this point some theologians argue that analytic theology as a constructive task necessarily fails. The aim of theology, it is said, is not propositional knowledge of God. The aim of theology is personal, participatory knowledge of God—friendship with God that results in moral transformation. When it comes to the Trinity, theology is intellectually at its most paradoxical, trying to speak of that which cannot be put into words. Theorizing cannot help us here and runs the risk of idolatry—forming God by means of propositions in the shape of our own philosophical understanding.

The objection is misconceived. Firstly, the dichotomy inherent in this position is a false one. Knowledge of God in the biblical sense unites intellectual and ethical aspects. To truly know God, it must be the true God that we know. Experiential and intellectual knowledge are not at odds. The construction and defence of sound doctrine has always mattered in the history of the church. It matters still.

Secondly, as Francis Turretin (Institutes 1.9.8) puts it, ‘There is a difference between knowing the meaning of a proposition and knowing its truth. In the former manner, the gospel is regarded simply as the word, but in the latter as the divine and infallible word.’ Philosophy, Turretin argues, serves theology by helping us to properly understand the meaning of propositional revelation. Referring to the Trinity, he argues that, ‘An incomprehensible thing (which cannot be grasped) is different from an incompossible thing (which cannot be conceived).’ Much modern theology collapses this distinction, raising questions about the meaning of its theological formulations. Analytic theology doesn’t necessarily undermine the incomprehensibility of God as he exists in himself, it merely operates on the premise that the kind of distinctions that Turretin makes are good ones.

Let’s get back to the aim of philosophical theology. I want to suggest a different course, revising Hasker’s formulation on the basis of what is said about mystery and knowledge in Colossians. Here, the mystery of God ‘hidden for ages and generations but now revealed’ (1:26) is ‘Christ in you the hope of glory’ (1:27). So Paul’s goal for the Colossian and Laodicean Christians is ‘that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (2:2-3).

We cannot comprehend God in himself. Attempting such would leave us open to the charge of hubris. However, that does not mean we cannot know God truly. God has made himself known, accommodating to reveal himself in our human frame of reference. We can comprehend the mystery of God—the mystery of his essential being and divine will—as it is made known to us in Christ.

So here’s my proposed adjustment to Hasker:

‘My intent…is to theorize about the divine three-in-oneness in a way that brings us a step closer to comprehending the mystery of God as it is revealed to us—to know Jesus Christ and the fullness of eschatological life in him.’

On this understanding, theoretical knowledge of the doctrine of the Trinity is important insofar as it helps us to know—and grow in knowledge of—God as he reveals himself to us in Jesus Christ. The extra-biblical doctrine of the Trinity (and trinitarian theorizing more generally) is not extraneous to this. The doctrine enables knowledge of the Triune God since it protects and clarifies the meaning of the revelation of the Trinity in Jesus Christ. This connection is evidenced historically in the fourth century—developments in the doctrine of the Trinity were catalysed by Christological concerns. The knowledge of Jesus Christ that I am proposing as the ultimate aim of analytic theology is likewise served by our theorizing. Of course, this does not make it a merely theoretical kind of knowledge. It is simultaneously personal and propositional. The one demands, and depends on, the other.


5 thoughts on “‘A step closer’: Progress to what end?

  1. One question, relevant to the interpretation of the whole piece- do you believe that the ethical aspect of knowledge of God in the Biblical sense can be truly described as friendship which results in moral transformation? May have a response piece depending on the answer…


  2. Hi Ed. I do, but not in a way that leaves behind the intellect. I don’t think personal knowledge of God displaces propositional knowledge but depends on it. Interested to hear your thoughts.


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