John Franke and Social Trinitarianism

John Franke, professor of theology at Biblical Theological Seminary, preached at our church on Sunday. His sermon was on God's mission and our mission. It was essentially a simplified lecture on trinitarian theology and the imago Dei. His sermon progressed through the following theses:
  1. God is love. Love is God's primary or essential attribute, since it is true of God in pre-temporal eternity, whereas attributes of judgment and wrath are only in relation to the creation and are not part of God's inner life from all eternity.
  2. God is triune. God is not solitary but social.
  3. God has a mission to reconcile the world to Godself. In the eschaton, God will bring that which is not-God into participation with God's own life, so that creation will share in the giving and receiving of love that has always been true of God.
  4. God made humankind in God's image. This means that humanity is intended to live with others in a community of giving, sharing, and receiving love.
  5. The church is the paradigmatic community that images the Trinity in the world by participating in God's mission to reconcile the world to Godself. The church is thus the embodiment of the divine mission of reconciliation which will only be complete when "God will be all in all" (1 Cor. 15:28).
I should be clear up front that I do not disagree with these theses at face value. However, the issues which Franke brings up in this sermon are ones that cannot be done justice in such a simple form. I will thus go through each thesis and explain where I think Franke needs to be more careful and critical in his theology:
  1. God is love. I surely agree with Franke that God's primary attribute is love. As Barth says, God is the "one who loves in freedom." This statement by Barth emphasizes that God is both over us (Deus a se) and for us (Deus pro nobis). However, Franke gave the impression that God's love is something separate and opposite from God's wrath. Barth is much better on this subject in that Barth recognizes that God's love is wrathful against sin but always also gracious and merciful. In other words, God's love is a "consuming fire" that is not the opposite of judgment but rather accomplishes God's purposes of love in the judgment of sin and in the gracious pardoning of humankind in the person of Jesus Christ. Judgment and grace, wrath and forgiveness, are both parts of God's holy love.
  2. God is triune. Franke follows a lot of contemporary theology in stressing God's "sociality." To be sure, there is much to agree with, insofar as these theologians stress the triunity of God as a "community of mutual otherness" (Jüngel). However, these theologians, Franke included, end up leaning toward the extreme of tritheism. They criticize people like Augustine (wrongly, for the most part) and Thomas Aquinas for beginning with the one God and then moving to God's triunity. Contemporary theology primarily begins with the three persons and then speaks about how they are one. Franke made this very move, trying to argue that God's being-in-love was what brought the three persons into such intimate unity that they are truly one being. Franke has made some serious errors in that he has followed Jürgen Moltmann by (1) trying to explain how the three becomes one, and (2) connecting God's sociality to human sociality. The latter is the reason for the former, because these theologians think that improper doctrines of God result in improper human social models (e.g., singular God leads to dictatorship, hierarchical God leads to female subjugation). Consequently, these theologians emphasize God's sociality in order to protect against abuses in human relations. The only problem is that oneness and hierarchical relations are part of the biblical witness. Furthermore, the protection against such theological abuses is the one move which all theologians need to make: to deny any natural relation between God's being and our being. God's oneness and triunity are not mirrored in any way in our human individualism or relationality. God's internal equality and submission among the triune persons is not connected in any way to egalitarianism or hierarchicalism. What theology must do is unabashedly proclaim God's triunity as a unity-in-difference and a difference-in-unity, as a perichoretic "community of mutual otherness" which is a mystery of the faith that has no ontological relation to human relations. God's sociality is not analogous to human sociality. We can never derive egalitarianism or hierarchicalism from the Trinity; an argument for human equality has many other resources for support. We can emphasize God's triunity only as a unity, and God's unity only as triunity. Speaking of a "social" Trinity is misleading insofar as it seems to predicate sociality to God as we do to humans, or vice versa. We must rather speak of God's being out of God's being-in-act in the economy of salvation, and we must speak of our being out of the revelation of what it means to be human in Jesus Christ. (On this point, see my discussion of thesis 4.)
  3. God has a mission to reconcile the world to Godself. I am more comfortable with this thesis, as long as we are careful not to uncritically accept language of divinization, which seems potentially implicit in such a statement. The thesis on its own is incomplete in that it is eschatological but not Christological. Indeed, God will one day become "all in all," but reconciliation is not a future event but a past one. God has a mission to perfect and transform creation by making all things new. Reconciliation, however, does not await some future event of God. Reconciliation has already occurred in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God already reconciled the world to Godself. As Paul says in 2 Cor. 5:19, "in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us." Reconciliation, in an ontological sense, was actualized in the person of Jesus; but reconciliation, in an eschatological sense, continues to await God's perfection and recreation of the cosmos. The message of reconciliation, entrusted to us as the agents of reconciliation, proclaims both the reconciliation accomplished in Jesus Christ and the consummation of this reconciliation in the eschaton.
  4. God made humankind in God's image. I think this is where Franke primarily goes astray. I have already discussed the imago Dei at length elsewhere, but for now I wish to return to how this doctrine relates to the dangers of social trinitarianism. A social trinitarian, like a hierarchicalist, assumes that our being reflects God's being. The social egalitarian uses her doctrine of the Trinity to argue against the hierarchicalist, who uses her doctrine of the Trinity to argue against egalitarianism. The problem with these two positions is that both have Scriptural warrant. (I am referring to their doctrines of the Trinity; I do not believe Scripture gives warrant to hierarchicalism for other reasons.) Both sides believe that the doctrine of the "image of God" from Genesis 1 secures their argument. The problem is (1) that neither side takes the radical consequences of the fall into consideration (Franke mentioned the Fall but did not state any serious consequences as a result), and (2) that our being in the image of God is only available in and through the person of Jesus Christ, who is the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4, Col. 1:15). Now to be fair to Franke, he said that it is the purpose of God for all human creatures to be in the image of God, by which he may mean, that we are designed to become the people of God who are conformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ. With this I agree, except for one caveat: We do not image the Trinity but rather the person of Christ. Our being in the imago Dei must be seen in light of the incarnation of the Son of God. This does not, in any way, diminish the relationality of the imago Dei; it only stresses the ontological divide between God and humanity in concert with the incarnation of God in Christ who alone brings humanity into ontological correspondence to God. A doctrine of the imago Dei must accomplish the following things: (1) take the fall into full account; (2) read the doctrine christologically in light of the person of Christ; (3) refuse to allow the doctrine to make anthropological arguments that derive their material from the doctrine of the Trinity; and (4), in light of the fall, insist that the imago Dei is a soteriological category, not a creational one that is natural to all human creatures.
  5. The church is the paradigmatic community that images the Trinity in the world by participating in God's mission to reconcile the world to Godself. The language of participation is acceptable when used rightly, and Franke often played fast and loose with the word. While I agree that the church is the paradigmatic community and that we participate, in some form, in the mission of God to reconcile the world to God, I also must insist that we refuse to derive our ecclesiology from the doctrine of God just as we must not derive our anthropology from the doctrine of God. Both of them find their orientation in Christology and soteriology. The church is the community of the saints, those who have been conformed to Christ, and as this community, the church functions as the witness to God's infinite love by proclaiming the message of reconciliation. The church is not God-on-earth, as some theologians try to argue, usually via a warped interpretation of the term "body of Christ." The church becomes the "body of Christ" when the Holy Spirit empowers and sanctifies the concrete community of the Word to be the suffering community of the cross. The communal love that Franke declared to be ideally characteristic of the church is not simply derived from a doctrine of God applied to the human community; rather, communal love is necessary because in the life of Jesus Christ—in his table-fellowship with humanity—we understand that only a community of love can truly bear witness to the triune God "who loves in freedom." The church community participates in God's life 'here and now' by the actualizing power of the Holy Spirit only because it first participates in the person of Christ 'there and then.' Participation is thus a Christological category, though it also includes the existential reality in which the present-day community becomes the communio sanctorum by the sanctifying power of the Spirit. The church is the fellowship of the covenant—those who are brought into the covenant of grace—and as this fellowship, the church witnesses to the reality of God as agents of reconciliation in the world. In this way, the church participates in God's mission of reconciliation. The church does not reflect God's being, nor does the church replace Christ, but rather the church bears witness to who God is and what God has done (and is still doing). The church is indeed the paradigmatic human community, but it is a human community sanctified and guided by the Spirit. In the same way that Holy Scripture is not divinized in its actualization as the Word of God, so too the church is not divinized but remains the creaturely witness to God's being and mission. The church finds its being-in-becoming only in and through the person of Jesus Christ and is carried forward toward the future only by the Holy Spirit who, by the will of God, makes this particular community the sanctified witness to the being of God.
In all of what I have said, I am merely thinking critically through John Franke's sermon so that we do not fall into simplistic theology and, thus, potentially misguided theology. Franke rightly made it clear that humankind is created for the ecclesial community of love, which implies that the fall makes this a goal only realized in light of Christ's reconciling work. The problem with Franke's sermon, however, is that he rarely spoke of Jesus Christ, and instead fell into the trap of speaking almost exclusively about God's triune being, as if he could move from the immanent Trinity to the church only by way of the imago Dei. Franke thus unintentionally minimized the effect of sin and the reconciliation accomplished in Christ. Consequently, he moved too simplistically from the Trinity to human community, which then led him to speak too simplistically of the church's participation in God's triune life.

I heartily commend him for affirming the church's mission as one that takes place in light of and as part of God's overarching mission to reconcile the world to Godself. However, God's mission was realized in Jesus, and our mission only exists as a participation in Christ's being. In other words, I think Franke would benefit greatly from setting aside his interest on "postmodernity" and contemporary theologians and focusing on dogmatic topics of creation, sin, reconciliation, and (primarily) Christology, out of which will then flow more robust doctrines of the Trinity, the imago Dei, and theological anthropology.


Blair said…
You know, I stopped reading at God is triune. God is not solitary but social.
Why? because I was struck completely dumb... though unbelievably obvious, I had never ever considered this.
I promise to come back and read the rest, but this feel like a little precious jewel or incredible piece of chocolate that I need to savor and think about and ponder because it gives me joy and I am not sure why.
I love being speechless like this... thank you!
a q
Blair said…
Oh and I should have added that I did read your discussion on the premise and think you are right or at least on the right path as this really is beyond my scope, but that is not what lifted my heart about that point... I don't now what it is and I will explore it... but thinking about the trinity and having been schooled by a follower of Aquinas in college philosophy courses.. well, I still don't quite understand... but it is so nice when some words across a page or screen invites theistic thoughts.
byron smith said…
Thanks DWC for this great summary of both the strengths and weaknesses of much recent trinitarian thought. After a brief flush of initial enthusiasm, I've always been a little concerned about how easily some writers move from the immanent trinity to us, without reference to the economy of salvation.
J said…

I really enjoy reading your thoughts on the Imago Dei. It is a refreshing change from the usual definition (human rationality/reason).

I hear all too often that God came down as Jesus to become a man so that He could relate to us better; that He wanted to show us that it is possible to not sin when faced with temptation. But I think that scripture makes it clear that God did not send His Son in the image of fallen men to teach us a lesson, but in His own image, the Imago Dei, in order to reconcile humanity to Himself in a divine act of love.
Halden said…

While I agree with most of your caveats with Franke (and I don't find him to be a particularly stimulating thinker in general), I think you give away too much as you try to make your distinctions.

First, on sociality and the trinity. I agree that Moltmann, et al end up turning the trinity into a social theory that reflects their particular social-political agenda. However, I'm wondering, are you arguing against the contention "improper doctrines of God result in improper human social models"? To me that seems so historically self evident that it is beyond contention. To be sure we don't want to import our social agenda into how we formulate our doctrine of God, but I don't see how the fact that our concept of God informs or concept of sociality can be denied.

Secondly, on God's triunity not being naturally mirrored in our sociality or individuality. I think you go way to far to say that God's being is in no way related to our being. The very fact of our being is contingent on our relation to God who sustains and upholds all creation. I don't see how we can deny that this is an ontological connection of some kind. This is not to say that we are somehow part of God (which is what I think you want to deny), but that God's relation to us involves an ontological relationship. Without God's gracious sustaining presence through the Word and Spirit we would cease to exist.

Moreover, to sever any ontological connection or analogy between God and humanity falls into the error of classical theism which proceeds by way of negation. God simply is not what humanity is. This is precisely what Jungel rejects as I understand him. When he seeks to "think God's unity with perishability" he is contesting the traditional way in which God's being is thought to be the opposite of human being.

Third, on the imago dei perhaps we just disagree about how to take the image Christologically. I guess I'd like to see more from you on the actual content of the image. Obviously Christ is the image of God, but what would you say it means for us to "bear the image of the man of heaven" as we are conformed to the image of Christ? To my mind that does not negate the idea of the church corresponding to the Trinity as it is recreated in the image of Christ who has his being in and through the Trinitarian relations. In other words, can the image of Christ be understood without reference to the reality of Christ as the Son of the Father through the Spirit? If we are in the image of Christ does that not mean that in some way we have to speak of how being constituted in that image involves our communion with all the persons of the Trinity? I think make a dichotomy between being "in the image of Christ" and "in the image of the Trinity" is a false one. Christ IS the life of the Trinity translated into the life of the world (which, again Barth, and I think, Jungel would affirm). To bear his image is to in some way share in his trinitarian relations and be shaped by them. At least that's how I see it.

I would also like to talk more about the "body of Christ" metaphor because I don't think you really do justice to it with your actualism that I think comes close to occasionalism (as with Webster, et al). But that probably deserves a post of its own. Maybe I'll get around to it later.

Thanks for the stimulating post!

Anonymous said…
A simple and simple-minded line of questions:

The day before the incarnation a rabbi had a doctrine of the image of god which took account of the fall and didn't refer to Christ, no? Was he just crazy and wrong to apply it to all of humanity and look for what feature or features it applied to or where analogies might exist? Why must Christology totally trump (negate?) reasoning from creation? That Christ is the ultimate example of the image of God does not explain the entire meaning of the idea, right?


Thanks for your perceptive questions, as always. I value your insights, even if we disagree on some points. I think a lot of this can be traced back to the fact that, for the most part, I agree with John Webster's ecclesiology, and you do not. But I would rather like to see myself as a via media between Webster's critical ecclesiology and the ecclesiology of, say, Jenson and others who find deification a doctrine suitable for the Christian believer and the church. I will answer your points briefly:

(1) I agree with you here entirely. Bad doctrine has often, and still does, result in bad practice, bad politics, bad whatever. However, our concept of God is just that — a concept of God. We must prevent ever deriving social theory from theology proper. On that point ...

(2) I never wish to deny that there is an ontological connection between God's being and our being, but everything hinges on what that connection actually is. For starters, stating that God's being upholds our being (with which I agree) does not entail the assumption that our being is somehow essentially related to God's being, in that our ontological structures are reflective of God's ontological structures. Theology is properly one of distinctions, such as the distinction between humanity and God, between Holy Scripture and the Word of God, between humanity and new humanity, between creation and new creation, etc. However, we preserve such distinctions even while we insist that God's being upholds and ontologically sustains our life and being.

(3) The issue, as always, returns to the subject of analogy. Is there an analogical relation between God and humanity? The answer to that, following Barth, must be no. At least, not naturally, not apart from the covenant of grace. Here I follow Jüngel, who is comfortable speaking of an ontological analogy between God and humanity, but only within the covenant of grace established by God in justification by faith. And this analogy is only between the justified human person and the person of Jesus Christ, who brings people into correspondence (analogy) to God. But we must remember that, for Jüngel, this correspondence is upheld and maintained by God alone. We are dependent upon God's gracious activity for our correspondence.

In other words, as much as we can still speak of an ontological analogy, this is not something we "possess." The analogy is rooted in our participation, and that participation is established 'there and then' in the history of Jesus Christ. Ontologically, we participate in God because we are ontologically located in the person of Christ. Ontically (in the here and now), we are on the other side of the ontological divide between God and humanity. This divide is only reconciled in the person of Christ. We have not now in our persons bridged that divide. Our analogical correspondence to God, according to Jüngel, is only in the "inner person," that is, the person who is taken extra nos to be with God. This inner-outer distinction is an eschatological one, in that we await the consummation of our conformity to the person of Jesus. For a fuller discussion of all this, see my paper, "Humanity in Correspondence to God."

In saying all this, I am not working with a negative theology that simply assumes God is not-human. However, let me offer this suggestion. We can say that humanity is not-God, but we cannot say that God is not-human, because God is self-determining and self-determined to be incarnate as the human person Jesus. Humanity, however, cannot simply be defined as not-God, but such a definition is at least acceptable. God is self-determining and is the source of God's own being; humanity must always receive its being from God. God is Lord; we are human, and thus dependent on God for all things. We cannot annul this distinction, even as we affirm our participation in the person of Christ. The church is the eschatological community of those who are analogically conformed to the person of Jesus Christ, and this is not an established reality but rather a contingent one that awaits its consummation in the eschaton.

(4) Perhaps we can talk more about the "image of God" and "body of Christ" concepts another time. For now, I suggest we remember that the reason humanity is not in the image of the Trinity is because of the strict distinction between the immanent and economic Trinity. Jesus Christ truly reveals who God is ad intra, but this does not mean that because we are conformed to Christ's image we are also conformed to the image of the immanent Trinity. The triune God is ontologically distinct from humanity, but in Jesus, God assumes human nature. Out of the locus of the incarnation alone can we understand our true being. The ontological unity between the immanent and economic Trinity does not annul the ontological distinction between assumed humanity (including us in the present) and the triune God.
a. steward said…
David -

This and the other post you referred me to were helpful and rightfully chastening. Thanks. I definitely agree with you that it doesn't work to begin with a notion of human relationality at what we assume to be its best, and then move backward to what an infinitely greater communion a god must have been to have come up with this. You say,

"The protection against such theological abuses is the one move which all theologians need to make: to deny any natural relation between God's being and our being. God's oneness and triunity are not mirrored in any way in our human individualism or relationality"

I completely agree. However, isn't it legitimate to make a distinction between human relationality in general and the specific relationality with which we are gifted through actual, ontological participation in the body of Christ? This communion specifically, and not the self-assertive bantering of individual egos that is our natural way of being, is what I'm talking about in regards to the trinity having an analogy in human relations.
Also, by fundamentally relational, I mean that human beings have a fundamental need for relationality, which is not to say that our sinful self-interest doesn't pervert every approximation of communion, and certainly not to say that what we actually manifest with each other must therefore be the starting point for understanding the Trinity. And of course it does also pervert the church, and in this regard, I think it is helpful to use an eschatological, simul iustice et peccattor sort of language to say that yes, in the church we actually share being with each other, but that is not to say that this reality is fully present. It still remains the command over us.

I take it for granted that social trinitarians like Franke understand the analogy to be between the Trinity and the ecclesial communion -- i.e., our ideal form of human relationality. But I think my critique still holds. Our being ontologically corresponds to Christ, but that does not mean we are presently taken up into the life of the triune God -- that's just wishful thinking.

I think the most one can say is that the Trinity is a community of mutual otherness, and humanity also exists in relations of mutual otherness with other creatures. Now this, of course, is a statement about general humanity. It's not an analogy, in that I am not making material connections between how the triune persons relate to how human persons relate. For these more positive statements about human relationality, I think we need to turn elsewhere. The moment that we start to talk about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relating to each other like three humans relate to each other, we've gone much too far. We need to remember that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit constitute one God. There is no such form of inter-personal communion in human relationships.

I think employing the simul iustus et peccator with regard to the church is very profitable. As Luther said, the church is the greatest of sinners. And he was right.
Halden said…
"Our being ontologically corresponds to Christ, but that does not mean we are presently taken up into the life of the triune God -- that's just wishful thinking. "

...or Eucharistic thinking. ;-)