A Third-Wave of Trinitarian Theology? Sarah Coakley’s Recent Typology

Abstract_Trinity_by_wh1tel1teIn her recent article, “Afterword: Relational Ontology, Trinity, and Science,” in the volume The Trinity and an Entangled World ed. by John Polkinghorn, Sarah Coakley enumerates what she calls three general “waves” of Trinitarian theology in the twentieth century.  Now obviously these are loose categories, but nonetheless I think they have value in helping distinguish the contours of what can often be an overwhelming amount of information.  As we shall see, it also helps name certain tensions and possible transitions currently underway in academic theology.

First Wave


Though they make somewhat odd bedfellows, Coakley helpfully illustrates what she terms the first wave by comparing the Trinitarian projects of Karl Barth and Vladimir Lossky (along with Karl Rahner, who gets the smaller treatment of the three).  These theologians are brought together because (albeit in pretty divergent ways) the Trinity is explicated under the idea that it helps elaborate the authentic character of theology itself: Lossky saw a return to the Greek fathers’ apophaticism as both correcting certain Western deficiencies (for which he conscripts the now infamous “De Regnón Paradigm” which supposedly enumerates the differences between Eastern and Western Trinitarian method) and specifically serving as a corrective to the rationalist sterility of certain forms of neo-Thomism.  Barth, on the other hand quite famously placed the Trinity as the chief theologoumenon of his Dogmatics, thereby critiquing the anthropocentric starting points of “Liberal” theology and overcoming the strictures of post-Kantian epistemology.  Of course by stating it this way, Coakley takes a stand on the particularly vexed question of interpreting Barth as a primarily modern theologian working within post-Kantian epistemological problems.  Whether or not the specific nature of this claim holds against alternative contexts to understand Barth (as D. Stephen Long has argued in his most recent book, rehabilitating in part what he argues was Von Balthasar’s misunderstood interpretation of Barth’s corpus), the ultimate point is that, for Coakley, both Lossky’s apophaticism and Barth’s theology of the Trinity as Coakley sees it, are united in that “there was a shared, but implicit, concern to loose Trinitarian thinking from any vulnerability to critique from secular philosophy or science, and thereby to evade the metaphysical roadblock that had seemingly been constructed impassibly by Kant against all doctrinal speculation about God-in-Godself.” (187)

Added to this duo would of course be the other famous Karl, Karl Rahner, of whom Coakley notes is likewise part of this first wave, even though obviously Rahner had less antipathy toward philosophy or human “experience” than either Barth or Lossky.  She notes as well that Rahner shared with Barth a typical feature of this first wave–namely a major hesitation regarding the utility of the concept of “person” as applied to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  She notes they stand in slight contrast to Lossky here, who was quite adamant about the irreducibility of “persons” in the Trinity.  Here I demur a bit from Coakley’s interpretation of Lossky–certainly he is distinct, but his emphasis on the concept of “antithesis” puts him starkly at odds with later theologians like Zizioulas (who can in part be interpreted as specifically attempting to countermand Lossky’s work) or others like Leonardo Boff, Miroslav Volf, Jurgen Moltmann, and Colin Gunton who have relatively robust interpretations of person and communion in the Godhead.  Hence Lossky fits into Coakley’s (admittedly loose) heuristic of “First Wave” trinitarianism neater even than she thinks, in that the very nature of “person” in the Godhead for Lossky admits of no straightforward translation into finite, “scientific” reality.

Second Wave


Coakley notes that the waves both overlap with one another, and that they are often dialectically related.  As such one of the peculiar aspects of the second wave is that it perceives the weakness of the first wave precisely where the first wave saw its strength: the denial–or at least, hesitance–to admit the use of robust concepts of personhood:

The very anxiety voiced by Barth and Rahner was actually what was to animate the second phase of Trinitarian renewal, indeed to become its watchword–a move against modern ‘individualism.’ … Whereas the unspoken enemy of the first wave had been Enlightenment resistance to theological metaphysics in general, and to ramified doctrinal speculation in particular, the new, and explicit, bogeyman in the second wave was now modernity’s ‘turn to the subject’ and in particular its anthropological emphasis on individualism and atomism. (188-189)

Quite a diverse and wide range of theologians with altogether different visions can be placed in this second wave.  Of course, the aforementioned Zizioulas, Gunton, Boff, Moltmann, and Volf, but many others as well.  In particular–given that Coakley’s essay is occurring in a volume on science and trinity–she notes that the major proclivity of the “Second Wave” is not just anti-individualist anti- “substance” ontology (of which I am not convinced that amounts to a viable category, but that is for another post) but that the various interpretations of “relationality” and its permutations have “paradigmatic” import (both theoretical and practical) for other areas.  “It is in the context of this second ‘wave’ of twentieth century Trinitarian revival then, that the central themes of this current book, and the editorial framing, must be read.”  She continues “It is this [second] wave that has distinctively and importantly informed John Polkinghorn’s work for some time [for example], and it has thereby also inspired the vision of the connection between divine ‘relationality’ and the relationality of the physical universe that lies at the heart of this volume.” (191)

Indeed Coakley seems spot on here.  The real “explosion” of the Trinitarian renaissance that occurred in the 1980’s and 1990’s (up to our own time) seems to evince the characteristics of what Coakley has termed the “Second Wave,” regarding the explicit avowal of the theoretical fecundity of Trinitarianism for all aspects of thought and life.  One is reminded of Keith Johnson’s words from his 2011 book, Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism: “Contemporary theologians are driven by a quest to relate Trinitarian doctrine to a wide variety of concerns.  Books and articles abound on Trinity and personhood, Trinity and societal relations, Trinity and gender, Trinity and marriage, Trinity and church, Trinity and politics, Trinity and ecology, and so forth.” (17)
The Third Wave


The highly specific and robust nature of the work the Trinity was expected to be able to do, however, is not the only characteristic of the second wave.  Also characteristic is what we might call “historiographical tropes” (Lewis Ayres’ term) regarding the nature and shape of the history of Trinitarian doctrine.  These tropes provide more than mere museum curiosity of past Trinitarian exhibits, but are diagnostic tools, which allow one to discern “what went wrong, where, and by whom,” and this in turn serves as a pivot for making constructive moves in contemporary theological projects.  The West started with the oneness of God and ultimately made the Trinity an appendix?  We Westerners must “in our self-flagellating moments” (Coakley’s phrase) turn to a (now particularly understood) Eastern legacy for our robust Trinitarianism.  Augustine and Aquinas (et. al.) relied on a “substance ontology” of some sort?  We must turn to more personalist and relational categories understood as the antithesis of said substance ontology. “Mere” theistic monotheism or hierarchical interpretations of the Trinity catered to patriarchy, tyranny, and oppressive political systems?  We must affirm an entirely egalitarian society, Etc…  Obviously these are simplifications, but the basic thrust and structure of the logic is there.
A major characteristic of the Third Wave (with whom Coakley self-identifies) regards their concern with these historical tropes and their very tenuous validity.  She notes that though the specific nature of the historical questioning “has by no means been univocal” nonetheless she wants to highlight several features:

1.) This third-wave reaction has been concerned to question the East-West division in fourth- and fifth-century Trinitarianism, and instead stresses the remarkable ways in which “Pro-Nicene” theologians (including Athanasius, Augustine, and the Cappadocians) concurred on basic Trinitarian principles.

2.) A return to the texts of the Fathers themselves, their contemporaries, and immediate forebears, to read them afresh without the East-West hermeneutical constriction.

3.) Re-visit the question regarding how “relationality” features in these texts

4.) Particularly important, in regards to these renewed historical investigations, how the relation between the relationality in God and the relationality in the physical world themselves are correlated must be re-opened to investigation.

Coakley only mentions a few names of who she would consider members of this “Third Wave,” including Lewis Ayres, Michel Rene Barnes, Kallistos Ware, and Rowan Williams.  But many other names could be added to this list, including David Bentley Hart, Paul Gavrilyuk, Jean-Luc Marion (to an extent) Khaled Anatolios, Lucian Turcescu, Michael Hanby, Kathryn Tanner, and (in regards to doing much the same revisionary work with Thomas Aquinas) Karen Kilby, Thomas Weinandy, Matthew Levering, Fergus Kerr, Gilles Emery, and Rudi Te Velde.  As a particularly interesting and recent case, we might cite the work of Stephen Holmes’ The Quest for the Trinity (for which I wrote a recent review).  As a student of Colin Gunton at King’s College London, Holmes’ early work initially leaned strongly to something resembling Gunton’s “Second Wave” ism.  In the past half decade or so Holmes has seemed to repent of his past ways and embed himself quite solidly into the Third Wave camp.  Indeed, The Quest for the Trinity can really be considered the first introductory textbook to the Trinity embodying the gamut of Third-Wave concerns.

Beyond the Third Wave?


Up until recently the Third Wave’s tendencies in Systematic Theology have been largely negative, which is to say, devoted to the task of deconstructing the historiographical tropes often embedded in what Ayres calls the current “culture of systematic theology” by very detailed readings of the Fathers in their original contexts.  Indeed Coakley’s essay itself ends merely by asking questions (albeit germane ones) regarding the current environment of analytic theology, and Stephen Holmes absolves himself from constructive work in The Quest for the Trinity because it is meant to be a brief summary volume of Trinitarian history.

In some sense David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite can be read as a systematic theology (of sorts) working within a Third-Wave mentality, along with Weinandy’s Does God Suffer?  But apart from that, the literature concerning what we do now in terms of Systematic Theology’s response to this “Third Wave” has been sparse.  This is beginning to change, however.  Sarah Coakley came out last year with her fascinating God, Sexuality, and the Self, the first volume to her projected three volume Systematic Theology.  And, though he is not specifically associated with the Third Wave, the drastically underrated work of R. Kendall Soulen, The Divine Names (which can favorably be compared with some of Coakley’s own conclusions) is an absolutely fantastic attempt to incorporate some Third Wave concerns, which still embodies some Second Wave suspicions (to speak broadly) regarding the Western legacy of Trinitarianism.  I hope to go over both Coakley and Soulen’s works soon, in my renewed attempt to begin blogging again.

Though I can only at this point remain cryptic (to save for future posts) I think the real (and indeed real troubling) question is, if the Third Wavers turn out to be right in regards both to the incredibly poor historical work within contemporary Trinitarianism and its importance as a constructive pivot for these projects (and it seems almost indisputable)–just what were we doing?  Stephen Holmes I think summarizes it well when he ends his book with the fairly downtrodden remark: “We called what we were doing a Trinitarian renaissance–future historians might want to ask us why.”

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