2007 Warfield Lectures - Lecture III: “Trinitarian Life”

Lecture III Summary
In the third of her 2007 Warfield Lectures on the life of the Trinity, Dr. Tanner set out on the ambitious task of describing how Christ is also the key to the Trinity, both in terms of the inner life of the Trinity and in terms of how human life takes on a specifically trinitarian shape. As always, the Word is the center as the one who exists in relation to Father and Spirit and in whom our lives take a trinitarian shape as those joined to the Word made flesh. The second person of the Trinity is our “point of access” to the divine life; in the incarnation, our life becomes the life of the Son who joins us to himself.

Tanner’s thesis is that a trinitarian narration of Jesus’ life and death allows us to uncover the basic shape of the relations among the persons of the Trinity. In other words, while Tanner does not use the terms, her lecture intends to describe the trinitarian movement of the economic Trinity in order to explicate the general pattern of internal relations in the immanent Trinity. Moreover, she suggests that a trinitarian narration of the biblical witness has the potential to resolve the controversies between the East and West regarding the ordering of the persons of the Trinity (e.g., the filioque). Finally, this general pattern of trinitarian relations is also a template for how we, as humans joined to the Word incarnate, relate to the Trinity. It is important to notice here, in light of the fourth lecture, that Tanner does not mean human social life takes on the shape of the Trinity, but that the trinitarian life is descriptive of how human persons relate to the Trinity, though not to each other.

Tanner begins by describing the relations between the three persons of the Trinity narrated in Jesus’ life and death. According to Tanner, “the general pattern begins and ends with the one Jesus calls Father,” who sends the Son on a mission for our good, which culminates in the Son sending the Spirit to us in his return to the Father. The Father initiates the movement, while the Son and Spirit accomplish it. The work of Christ is finished in us as we are brought into the Son’s relation to the Father by the Spirit. There is clearly a circular movement of descent—in the triune mission toward us—and ascent—in the return to the Father in which we are brought along through the Son. The “fulcrum” is found in the gifts of Son and Spirit, in which the Son brings the Spirit and the Spirit conforms us to the shape of the Son. Son and Spirit together accomplish the mission from the Father back to the Father.

This trinitarian movement may seem to be binitarian in character—Father-Son, Son-Spirit—but Tanner argues that a closer attention to the biblical material demonstrates the involvement of the Spirit in the first movement (Father-Son). Here, the conflict between East and West becomes evident. In what follows, Tanner seeks to show that the Spirit is sent from the Father by Christ; Christ can send the Spirit only because the Spirit is involved in the begetting of the Son. There is a clear distinction between the Father sending the Spirit and Christ sending the Spirit—complicating the Western model—but the Spirit is also the bond of unity between Father and Son—complicating the Eastern model.

In order to clarify the East-West conflict, Tanner turns to the biblical narrative of Jesus’ life and death to see how the Spirit’s involvement in Christ’s mission may shed light on the internal life of the Trinity. Again, her thesis is that the life of the Trinity ad extra in history reveals the life of the Trinity ad intra in eternity. Here I must necessarily be brief. Tanner begins with the incarnation of Jesus through the Spirit before looking at the life of Jesus, during which the Father gives the Spirit to Jesus without restriction. Corresponding to the downward movement from the Father, there is throughout Jesus’ life an upward “Godward orientation.” Here again Jesus is sustained and empowered by the Spirit in the self-offering of his life back to the Father. The Holy Spirit, in order words, is what unites Father and Son. Moreover, the Son and Holy Spirit always accompany one another. The Son manifests the Spirit, while the Spirit always takes the form of the Son. Similarly, Son and Holy Spirit appear together in our lives (e.g., “body of Christ,” “temple of the Holy Spirit”). The Holy Spirit establishes both Christ’s Sonship and our identity as adopted children of God.

The point is that the Son and the Holy Spirit are intertwined in the mission upon which they are sent by the Father. The economic movements of the Trinity in the descent take the forms Father-Spirit-Son and Father-Son-Spirit—the former focusing on the gift of the Son as a mediator, and the latter focusing on the gift of the Spirit to us through the Son. In the ascent back to the Father, the trinitarian movements take the forms Spirit-Son-Father and Son-Spirit-Father—the former emphasizing how the Spirit makes us “sons” in orientation to the Father, and the latter emphasizing how the Son gives us the Spirit to sanctify us for the Father’s mission. There are thus “clear, irreversible relations and roles” so that while the three work together, they do so in different ways.

At this point, Tanner launches into an exquisitely detailed narration of the trinitarian relations ad extra. I will summarize as best I can. To begin, the Father commands the incarnation, the Spirit enacts it, and the Word is the one who actually becomes incarnate. The Father sends the Son by the power of the Spirit. The Spirit is sent for the sake of the Son’s mission, while the Son is sent for the sake of giving the Spirit to us. There is a distinction-in-unity between Son and Spirit, so that the Spirit rests upon and empowers the Son, but the Son does not similarly rest upon or empower the Spirit. The Son sends out the Spirit, but not as the Father does: the Father sends out the Spirit as a precondition for the Son, and the Son can only send the Spirit upon his resurrection from the dead by Father and Spirit.

Because of the Trinity’s involvement in the world, we have insight into the trinitarian life ad intra. Here Tanner moves from the economic to the immanent Trinity. The Son is begotten by the Father internally just as he is sent out externally in his life of mission in the flesh. The Son is the perfect image of the Father, not only in his historical mission but also in himself. Similarly, the Spirit is eternally the power behind the Father’s begetting of the Son and the Son’s “perfect exhibition of the Father.” The Spirit thus conforms to both Father and Son in the distinct relations to each other, thereby establishing true unity within the Trinity. Finally, the return movement to the Father—the ascending economic movement—has its eternal parallel in the Son giving the Spirit of the Father back to the Father. Thus, the dynamic trinitarian life is complete in eternity in the same way we see it completed in history.

At this point, according to Tanner, we are able to reconcile the differences between East and West in a more biblically based account of the trinitarian relations. On one hand, Father and Son are more distinct than the West is usually able to affirm. In the descending movement, both Son and Spirit proceed from the Father together, so that the Son is not the source of the Spirit like the Father is. The Son cannot be the cause of the Spirit’s procession, because “the Son has no efficacy of action apart from the empowerment of the Spirit.” However, in the ascending movement, the Son does indeed send the Spirit back to the Father (as the West contends), but this sending does not constitute the Spirit. The Son sends back the Spirit only because the Spirit has already been sent forth from the Father. In this view, the Son and Spirit are both equal in relation to the Father, and all three are the equal of one another, since the Father never acts alone in bringing forth either of the other persons. Therefore, the West’s emphasis on the Son and the East’s emphasis on the Spirit are both equally affirmed: both Son and Spirit come out from the Father and return to the Father, and either person of the Trinity can be seen as the hinge of the whole movement. There are thus two versions of the descent-ascent movement of the Trinity (ad intra and ad extra): Father-Spirit-Son-Spirit-Father and Father-Son-Spirit-Son-Father. These two versions are not in competition; they are two different ways of speaking about the very same dynamic.

In conclusion, Dr. Tanner turns our attention from the life of the Trinity to the life of those who are brought into the trinitarian life through incorporation in the body of Christ. Again, we see the movement away from and back to the Father replicated in our own life. But since humanity is joined to the Word in the ascending movement of the triune persons back to the Father, our movement is first ascent to the Father and then descent with the Father’s gifts of Son and Spirit as our own. Concretely, the ascending movement begins with baptism, where we are joined with Christ in his return to the Father. The ascent reaches its apex in justification, in which we approach God in boldness in spite of our manifest sinfulness. Because we are joined to Christ, the relationship with the Father is one of reconciliation and peace, not condemnation. The descending movement relates to sanctification, in which the Father’s gifts empower us with new life. The sacramental parallel here is found in the Eucharist, in which God’s gifts become “energizing food for new lives” through the nourishment of the Spirit. There are thus properly two movements in worship services: the ascent in confession, prayer, and praise, and the descent in the benediction in which we are sent out into the world in faithful service to God’s call.

Comments on Lecture III
Dr. Tanner’s third lecture on the Trinity was a highlight of the week. The lecture is not only steeped in Eastern theology and full of profound insights regarding the internal dynamics of the Trinity, but it is also the most doxological of the lectures. Here Tanner came closest to bridging the distinction between instruction and liturgy, teaching and worship. Furthermore, her ambitious attempt (which I find to be persuasive) to reconcile the differences between East and West results in the most creative exposition of the Trinity that I have perhaps ever encountered.

If there is anything I might add, it would be a discussion of the doctrines of perichoresis and appropriation. These have been in vogue throughout the twentieth century, particularly among social trinitarians. And while Tanner enters quite fully into the debate over social trinitarianism in the fourth lecture, it would have been helpful here if she had discussed these notions and demonstrated how the trinitarian life is more fully understood with these concepts in mind.

Her lecture is notable for the way she carefully and thoroughly reasons from the economic to the immanent Trinity. She does a superb job of describing these relations in depth. Most impressively, her lecture not only addresses major theological controversies between East and West, but it also incorporates Christian worship and service. Thus, her lecture single-handedly demonstrates how the doctrine of the Trinity is not merely an abstract theological dogma—as many throughout the modern period have thought (and thereby dismissed it as irrelevant)—but it has great practical import. What makes the lecture so commendable is that Tanner is able to address both the abstract theology and the practical implications at once. Tanner brought together both the didactic and the doxological ramifications of a proper doctrine of the Trinity, and for that reason, I have gained immensely from this lecture.


Halden said…
I find the notion problematic that our first movement into the life of God in baptism is ascent. Isn't baptism by definition taken into the decent of Christ into the world? We're baptized into his death, and only subsequently do we participate in his ascent into resurrection life.

Interestingly, Tanner's account sounds all too white and affluent a vision of discipleship when translated into practice. We are baptized into new resurrection life, and subsequently are free to descend into the world, from the stable perspective of the fullness of life. This construction eschews the necessity of vulnerability on our parts and seems to crowd out Good Friday and Holy Saturday with the always-already of the Easter. I think it is much more in keeping with the Trinitarian movement in the economy of salvation to say that we must always enter into the life of God in vulnerability through death to self, period. Only through the grave do we get to resurrection.
I see your point, Halden. Tanner wants to say that the descent occurs in eternity (prior to the point of incarnation) and that Christ's incarnation inaugurates the movement of ascent back to the Father. Now this is probably reflective of her emphasis upon the incarnation as the hinge, whereas you place that hinge on the cross. I can say for sure that the resurrection is by no means the point of ascent for Tanner. That is, ascent is shifted from its traditional point -- in the resurrection and ascension -- to the whole life of Jesus.

Now whether this is a white, affluent position is an interesting one. I think here you probably misunderstand Tanner's emphasis on the incarnation (not on the resurrection). Ascent, again, is the movement of Christ's life. Certainly, we descend with Christ into the depths of Holy Saturday, but in terms of our existential participation in the movement of ascent and descent, we first ascend to the Father in the offering of ourselves before the Father then sends us into the world equipped for service.

In other words, for Christ, descent is the movement of preparation and ascent the movement of action, whereas for us, ascent is the movement of preparation and descent the movement of action. In order to understand Tanner's thought on this point, you have to dislocate the notions of ascent and descent from their usual location. The cross and grave are not the locus of Christ's descent. Tanner's account does not address the narrative within the narrative, so to speak. She is focused on the much larger trinitarian movements that begin in God ad intra and take shape in the movement of God ad extra. I hope this is helpful.
Halden said…
That's interesting. It does seem here theology is much more focused on the incarnation than on the cross. Her lecture on death and sacrifice really brings that out. I think that is a bit of a problem for her.