Friday, September 5, 2014

Basis of Union Conference, 2014: Part 2

Is the Basis of Union trinitarian? For some within the UCA a negative answer to this question is cause for concern whereas for others it is cause for deep appreciation.

The question was raised at the recent Basis of Union conference by one of the visiting Chinese theologians from NanjingTheological Seminary. For him it was a matter of concern that the Basis was not sufficiently trinitarian. The issue was not, however, a matter of testing the doctrinal orthodoxy of the Basis. Rather, it was a concern that, as they stand, the particular Christological commitments of the Basis did not give much scope for developing an idea of the Cosmic Christ. For the Chinese colleague, a more explicitly Trinitarian account of Jesus Christ could challenge the church more readily to look for and see Christ beyond its own walls. My own view is that the Basis does do this anyway, specifically through its eschatology. Nevertheless, it was good to be reminded by a different set of questions too look again at the specific terms in which the Basis speaks of Christ.  (It turns out that at least some of the Chinese discussion about the Cosmic Christ has been shaped by the influence of the late Bishop K.H. Ting's appropriation of the ideas of Teilhard de Chardin.)

Putting this specific issue to one side, my sense has always been that, for the document that it is, the Basis gets the church's confession of the Triune God just about right. There are only two explicit references to the threefold name of God. The first is a classic Christian specification of 'God': in its second sentence the Basis invites the three uniting churches to pray that their union may be to the "glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit". The second explicit reference is in Paragraph 12 with its recognition that membership of the Uniting Church is open "to all who are baptized into the Holy Catholic Church in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit". Alongside these two explicit references to the threefold name is a single reference to the "Holy Trinity". This occurs in in the exhortation in Paragraph 10 to use the creeds liturgically "as acts of allegiance to the Holy Trinity". These are hardly insignificant locations for the reference to the trinitarian confession of God: the identity of God; initiation into the Christian community; the corporate worship of God. Still, there is no stand-alone articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, and there is certainly no reference to or endorsement of any specific trinitarian formula. Does this matter?  And, does it any way qualify the UCA's commitment to the church's classic confession of God's triune identity? In my view, no – on both counts.

So, in what sense does the Basis get the confession of the Triune God just about right? Of course, it is not the function of the Basis to expound every doctrine, so we shouldn't expect a full exposition of the doctrine of the Trinity in any case. What the Basis does provide, in Paragraph 3, is an extended confession of the foundation of the Church, namely Jesus Christ the risen, crucified one who is the pivot of the drama of God's saving action in and for the world. This paragraph tells us why there is a church; it tells us what must be true of Jesus for there ever to have been a church in the first place, and why there should still be a church called to mission in his name.

I would add that it also reminds us, at least indirectly, why something like a doctrine of the Trinity ever emerged at all. It does this in two ways. The first relates to how strikingly close it stays to the language of the New Testament. At first sight, this might seem to distance it from the doctrine of the Trinity. But its adherence to the language of the New Testament is not an end in itself. What is at stake here is a deeper theological adherence: an adherence to the story that is told across the various strata of the New Testament. Paragraph 3 speaks about Jesus in a discourse of hope and fulfilment, of historical particularity and cosmic renewal, of God giving a Son and sending the Spirit, of forgiveness and reconciliation. This is the discourse of Jewish messianic hope interpreted in novel ways by the early Christian community on the basis of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. It seems reasonable to conclude that the radical novelty of the early Christians' disruptive claims about messiahship and salvation would at some point lead to novel and disruptive claims about the identity of God. In other words, if Jesus' life, death and resurrection forced a radical reworking of messiahship and salvation, then it would be unlikely that understandings of God could escape a similar reworking. 

That these claims might be the foundation of a new discourse about God is one thing. Are they also the foundation of a specifically Trinitarian understanding of God? This question leads to the second way Paragraph 3 reminds us why something like the doctrine of the Trinity emerged.  My suggestion here relates to the origins of the threefoldness of the Christian confession (which, of course, long predates both the language of persons and the concepts of the Creed) in early Christian proclamation. Paragraph 3 reminds us of this threefoldness, once again precisely because of its adherence to the faith proclaimed in the New Testament. There, in the New Testament, God is presented unambiguously as the agent of the drama of creation and redemption, but the capacity to speak of this agency univocally is under great strain. Just as in the New Testament, so in Paragraph 3, the agent of this drama is spoken of variously and even imprecisely as Father, Son and Spirit. This reminds us that the New Testament produces its own tension in its discourse about divine agency. On the hand is a conviction about a single agent who creates and redeems. On the other hand this agency differentiates in a threefold way. It is this tension which contains the seeds of Christianity's threefold manner of speaking of the one God. 

Doctrines of the Trinity emerge in attempts to articulate that tension without dissolving it. In particular times and places, different concepts will be used as the church lives, worships and thinks in that tension. But the criterion of such concepts is not their continuity with patristic or credal concepts, and not even with biblical terms and concepts. Rather, it will be their capacity to tell the same story that the New Testament variously tells about the one God who creates and redeems the world in a drama at the centre of which is Jesus Christ sent by the Father in power of the Spirit. And if a trinitarian formula or a set of trinitarian concepts is developed in such a way that it either obscures or detaches itself from that drama, it is not really a confession of the triune God.

This is why I think the Basis gets it right. Its few and unsystematic, but deliberate and specific, references to the Triune God are far from unimportant. They remind us, in general terms, that the Christian community means something specific when it says the word 'God'. Specifically, they also remind us that the Christian community has learnt the discipline of naming God as Father, Son and Spirit whilst maintaining with varied arguments that God is One. Nevertheless, these references never take over the Basis. They are framed by and can take their meaning only from the identity of God manifest in the drama of creation’s renewal which is confessed in Paragraph 3. 

Exactly how the three-in-oneness of God is articulated is always a matter of negotiation. The juxtaposition of the various relevant theological commitments in the Basis does provide us with some reference points for any such negotiation. Perhaps the Basis places us somewhere similar to the space identified by Karl Barth in his brief discussion of God's triunity. Barth links fidelity to the biblical witness to linguistic flexibility and a continual quest to move in and around a conceptual space generated by the biblical witness, but which properly remains open. 

We see on the one side how for those who hear and see revelation in the Bible the Father, Son and Spirit, or however we name the three elements in the biblical revelation, come together in the knowledge and concept of the one God. And we see on the other side how for them the source and goal of this knowledge and concept are never a sterile one but are rather the three, whatever we call them. In practice, the concept of triunity is the movement of these two thoughts (Church Dogmatics, I/1, p. 369). 

So, is the Basis of Union trinitarian? In my view, for the kind of document it is, and for the purposes it serves, it is trinitarian in just the right way.

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