The End of White Christian America

The End of White Christian America

I originally wrote this review in October 2019 for publication at another site, but forgot to post it here.

Robert P. Jones wrote The End of White Christian America in 2016. He’s the founder of the Public Religion Research Institute, and holds a PhD in religion from Emory and an MDiv from Southwestern. He’s a clever and engaging writer, and opens with an obituary for “White Christian America” (“WCA”). In this “eulogy,” he explained that WCA had been ill for some time, but the disease became terminal after the 2004 presidential election:1

The cause of death was determined to be a combination of environmental and internal factors—complications stemming from major demographic changes in the country, along with religious disaffiliation as many of its younger members began to doubt WCA’s continued relevance in a shifting cultural environment.

Jones writes from a progressive Christian perspective, and he sheds few tears at the death of WCA. His thesis is that a particular cultural era has ended in America; an era largely shaped and defined by WCA.2

What is WCA?

This is the million-dollar question, but (for me, at least) the biggest initial stumbling-block is that Jones decided to use a framework that generalizes Christians of various theological stripes by the color of their skin.3 It’s these white Protestants, Jones argues, who have lost their grip on the culture and are fast fading into obscurity.

After about two months of reflection, I’ve decided that Jones wasn’t trying to broad-brush Christianity by skin color. Instead, he uses WCA as an update on the old “WASP” label; it’s a shorthand for a particular expression of cultural Christianity.4

In its heyday, a set of linked institutions reinforced White Christian America’s worldview across generations: the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), the Boy Scouts, the Masonic Lodge, and the local country club with limits or even outright bans on membership for Catholics, Jews, and ethnic minorities. White Christian America had its golden age in the 1950s, after the hardships and victories of World War II and before the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. June Cleaver was its mother, Andy Griffith was its sheriff, Norman Rockwell was its artist, and Billy Graham and Norman Vincent Peale were its ministers.

America has long been dominated by complementary religious visions, and although these visions had different theological content, they shared a belief in American exceptionalism. It’s white Protestants who had the cultural cachet to shape and influence American society in their respective ecclesiastical orbits. But, Jones argued, that time has now passed. He observed,5

There are, to be sure, pockets of the country where the spirit of White Christian America still seems alive and well—like midwestern and southern exurbs, where lively megachurches have followed the outmigration of whites from cities, and rural communities, where churches and pastors continue to have vital social roles. But even within these reassuringly insular settings, it’s no longer possible to believe that White Christian America sets the tone for the country’s culture as a whole. And that realization—both for those inside and outside WCA’s domain—marks something genuinely new in American life.

Jones builds his introductory chapter around three grand buildings that act as foils to tell his story:

  • The United Methodist Building in Washington D.C., which opened in 1923 (white, mainline optimism)
  • The Interchurch Center in New York City, which opened in 1960 (white, mainline ecumenicism)
  • The Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, CA, which opened in 1980 (white evangelical protestant resurgence).

Jones explained:6

At each building’s opening ceremony, white Protestant leaders spoke in prophetic tones about the indispensable place of Christianity in upholding America’s moral and political health. Today, though, all of these buildings have a different purpose from their founders’ ambitions. Each edifice has adapted—or even been transformed—to reflect the realities of a swiftly changing country. Indeed, through the life of these buildings, we can see the decline of white Protestant dominance amid the steady diversification of the American religious landscape.

An era has ended forever. America’s religious landscape will never again be dominated by white Protestants. It isn’t so much that the color of American Christianity has changed (though it has). Rather, it’s that an America-centric civil religion has passed from the scene and it will never return.

So what?

Jones has few solutions to offer a confessional evangelical. But, his description of the problem is invaluable. America is not what it once was, and Christians cannot operate as they once did – as if Ronald Reagan were still in the White House. Jones frames the spectrum of responses to this reality by drawing parallels to one psychiatrist’s description of the five stages of grief at impending death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Jones argues (and I agree) that while mainline Protestants have long since adapted to the changed operating environment, white evangelicals have not.7

We see the spectrum of responses in our churches. Denial and anger are common, especially among the older demographic who remember a different America; one characterized by Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority. It was, to paraphrase George Marsden, a dime-store civil religion – but it was real.

Throughout their history, white evangelicals have developed a rich lexicon of apocalyptic anger. Evangelical sermons and hymns are infused with martial imagery, and nostalgic “re-” words like “reclaim,” “restore,” “renew,” “repent,” and “revive” are staple fare. This vocabulary originates in the evangelical theological emphasis on human sin and divine judgment, but it’s bolstered socially by evangelicals’ self-perception as an outgunned minority struggling valiantly against outside powers.8

We see this in our churches in intense suspicion about Muslims, immigrants, and the sexual revolution. Pastors thunder forth with bombast about “America turning its back on God!” In these circles, there is little more than lip-service on bringing Christianity’s substantial theological weapons to bear to win these individuals to Christ. Rather, there is a pervasive fear of “them” and visceral anger that “America is under attack.”  

Bargaining is the stage at which Christians hope to reach an accommodation; an armistice of sorts. In practical terms, it usually manifests itself as a series of desperate moves intended to showcase WCA hegemony in an attempt to force a ceasefire. Jones highlights numerous cases, all in the South, where Republican legislators have attempted to introduce bills to make the Bible the “official state book.”9 He also notes Mississippi’s decision to add “in God we trust” to the State seal.10 Jones observed,11

The need to forcefully elevate their Christian status reflects white Christian lawmakers’ fear that for an increasing number of citizens the Bible and God are no longer a guiding cultural force. These efforts amount to little more than bargaining beside the deathbed of White Christian America.

Jones showcases two theologians who epitomize the depression and acceptance stages in WCA. The first is Stanley Hauerwas, whose 1989 book Resident Aliens was a clarion call to a mainline constituency to forsake civil religion and embrace its status as a colony of outsiders in a hostile world. This is one of the most profound books on ecclesiology I have ever read. Hauerwas wrote:

[W]e believe that things have changed for the church residing in America and that faithfulness to Christ demands that we either change or else go the way of all compromised forms of the Christian faith12 … A tired old world has ended, an exciting new one is awaiting recognition. This book is about a renewed sense of what it means to be Christian, more precisely, of what it means to be pastors who care for Christians, in a distinctly changed world.13

The other book is Onward, published by Russell Moore in 2015, who is at his best when critiquing the civil religion of the American South. “The shaking of American culture is no sign that God has given up on American Christianity. In fact, it may be a sign that God is rescuing American Christianity from itself.”14

It’s in his last chapter where Jones’ analysis mercilessly rips the security blanket off our evangelical consciences and forces us to realize that America has changed. This chapter has some of Jones’ best writing and his most apt illustrations:

Today, White Christian America’s faded cultural map is increasingly inaccurate. Like retirees setting out on a trip with their 1950s AAA road atlas, the graying descendants of WCA find themselves frequently pulling off the road in disbelief and frustration as they encounter new routes and cities that are not on their map. The slow death of WCA has left many with a haunting sense of dislocation.15

What a picture! What pastor has not experienced this whirlwind sense of dislocation, as if he were a latter-day Rip Van Winkle and had awoken in another era? What Christian over age 65 has not felt the same – and said so at prayer meetings?

Today, confronted with a range of shifts—from changing neighborhoods to gay marriage attitudes—the descendants of White Christian America are confronted with a diversity-and-youth-driven country that seems alien to their sense of what it means to be American.16

“Christian America” was a reality for so long, but it isn’t a reality any longer. To be “American” is not to be a Christian – certainly not a Republican.

Confronted with the psychic discomfort that results from a lack of cultural confidence and security, the greatest threat to White Christian America’s descendants is the siren song of nostalgia. Faced with an unfamiliar cultural landscape, today’s white mainline Protestants may find it easier to skip excursions altogether, preferring instead to huddle in their homes and churches around yellowing photo albums of journeys past.17

Who has not sat back, trying to recapture a little of the glory of those days from long ago? But, as the song goes, time slips away and leaves you with nothing but boring stories …

Jones sees a bright future, but a different one. His progressive theology allows him to see hope in LGBTQ inclusion and a particular expression of racial reconciliation. “The death of White Christian America marks the end of an era in the nation’s life. For many, it is a cause for considerable grief; for others, relief or even celebration. But this much is clear: in the soil fertilized by White Christian America’s remains, new life is taking root.”18

For evangelicals, Jones’ book is a sober warning. It forces us to confront a rapidly changing America. Those of us who minister in secular contexts already understand this. What will we do? How should we re-calibrate our perspective, emphasis and expectations to exegete our culture as it is, not as it was during the Carter administration? Jones has few relevant answers to offer, but he sure pinpoints the problem. Along the way, he points us to two men who do have some answers – Hauerwas and Moore. Hauerwas noted:19

A few may still believe that by electing a few “Christian” senators, passing a few new laws, and tinkering with the federal budget we can form a “Christian” culture, or at least one that is a bit more just. But most people know this view to be touchingly anachronistic. All sorts of Christians are waking up and realizing that it is no longer “our world”—if it ever was.

Indeed. What will we do about it?

Notes

1 Jones, White Christian America, 1.

2 Jones spends considerable time discussing politics, family and race in WCA as a means to prove that WCA is, indeed, dead and gone. I chose to not discuss that in this review and restricted myself to his main thesis – WCA is dead and Christians are facing a new world.

3 Ibid, 31. “Throughout the book, I use the term White Christian America to describe the domain of white Protestants in America. In the twentieth century, White Christian America developed along two main branches: a more liberal mainline Protestant America headquartered in New England and the upper Midwest/Great Lakes region and a more conservative evangelical Protestant America anchored in the South and lower Midwest/Ozark Mountains region.”

4 Ibid, 38-39.

5 Ibid, 39-40.

6 Ibid, 7-8.

7 Ibid, 198.

8 Ibid, 203.

9 Ibid, 208-209.

10 Ibid, 209.

11 Ibid, 212.

12 Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens, revised ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2014), 15.

13 Ibid, 14.

14 Russell Moore, Onward (Nashville: B&H, 2015), 7.

15 Jones, White Christian America, 229.

16 Ibid, 229-230.

17 Ibid, 230.

18 Ibid, 240.

19 Resident Aliens, 16-17.

Effective Pastors for a New Century?

Effective Pastors for a New Century?

I was assigned this 27-year old text for a DMin class for two reasons; because it’s a good book, and because it was written long enough ago so that I can appreciate that some challenges are perennial. It was written by James Means, a long-time faculty member at Denver Seminary. Here’s the back cover, which explains what the book is all about:

This is a good book. Means rigorously organizes all his chapters with detailed headings and sub-headings. Indeed, one gets the impression the book began life as a series of bullet-pointed lecture notes tucked into a battered portfolio. The advantage is superior organization. The downside is a relentless series of hammer blows that smite the poor pastor with his own inadequacies. Each sub-heading brings a fresh swing of a nail-studded 2×4 to the head.

At the end, the pastor might be inspired. But, he may be demoralized and staggering from the cumulative blows of Means’ sub-headings. Some pastors would finish the book ready to quit. What sentient being is equal to the principles herein? Has such a man ever existed?

To be clear, Means wrote an excellent book. Its downfall is that the cumulative weight of “an effective pastor MUST DO THIS” over several chapters is crushing. This is a good book that is best considered a reference work. Or, perhaps the pastor should ration his chapter readings.

However, because I am a bi-vocational pastor with insufficient time to do all I must do in ministry, perhaps I am just grumpy. I generally do not like “how to be a better pastor” books.

Rather than cover each chapter, I will highlight some areas which I think are particularly important.

Pastoral competence

In his first chapter, “What’s It Going To Take?” Means tackles leadership competence. This, Means argues, is the key to effective ministry.[1] He organizes his discussion around an effective pastor’s character imperatives, then his requisite skills. Here are his character imperatives:

  1. Personal integrity.
  2. Spiritual vitality. “Few things are more tragic than pastors who hang onto their credentials and pulpits, but who have long since lost spiritual legitimacy. Such burned-out relics have nothing to offer the people …”[2]
  3. Common sense. “Clergy who lack common sense rarely succeed at anything worthwhile.”[3]
  4. Passion for ministry.

Here are the character skills:

  1. Scriptural expertise. “Pastoral ministry consists chiefly in the diagnosis of spiritual disease and the prescription of biblical directives for cure.”[4]
  2. Cultural sensitivity. “We must figure out the cultural characteristics of our ministry locale, draft a strategy for the penetration of the community with the gospel, muster resources, and lead churches toward effective ministry in their communities – whatever cultural traits and peculiarities we encounter.”[5]
  3. Relational aptitude. “The tragic three-years-or-less cycle of pastoral turnover indicates interpersonal bumbling, among other things. Botched relationships about many a promising ministry.”[6]
  4. Communication skills.
  5. Leadership ability. “Pastoral leadership includes organizational skills, critical thinking, analysis of problems, strategic envisioning, galvanizing a constituency, and enabling groups to achieve worthwhile objectives.”[7]

Means’ advice is timeless and relevant. His point about cultural sensitivity, which he later terms “culturally informed exegesis,”[8] is especially prescient. I believe this is the most critical part of pastoral leadership; the ability to adapt to the community where you are. The capacity to discard or re-image models to fit your ministry reality; to best connect with the people to whom you are ministering. “The basic categories assumed in the Christian story are no longer taken for granted,”[9] and pastors must understand the culture so they can lead a congregation to reach it effectively.

Do you have a plan to make a plan?

Perhaps the most practical thing a pastor can do is to make a plan; to figure out (1) what Jesus wants a local church to do, (2) what your congregational resources are,[10] (3) what your community is like, and thus (4) how you plan to do what Jesus wants with what you have.

I never saw a pastor model this for me. I did see pastors preach faithfully and love their people. But, I did not see a deliberate plan to do what Jesus wants. Means’ fifth chapter, “Ministry Minus Method Equals Madness,” lays out a plan to do just that. He presents principles for both (1) pastoral philosophy, (2) church philosophy, then (3) presents some models.

This chapter was particularly interesting because the other pastor and I had just formulated our vision for the congregation before I read this book. Means explains, “Competent pastors and successful churches owe their effectiveness largely to their sense of identity: they know why they are, what they stand for, where they are going, and how to get there.”[11]

Pastoral philosophy

Here are his reflective questions to help pastors figure out the principles, beliefs, and values they bring to the ministry:

  1. Relationships. “Wise pastors decide carefully the degree of transparency and intimacy that should characterize their ministry. Sometimes it becomes necessary to struggle vigorously against the natural inclinations of one’s personality.”[12]
  2. Change. “To what degree should pastors aggressively seek change or preserve the status quo?”[13]
  3. Preaching-teaching. Means suggests pastors figure out rather quickly what kind of preaching they will do; exposition, encouragement and exhortation, verse-by-verse commentary, people’s needs, contemporary topics, or entertainment? “[C]hurches that stumble along in mediocrity usually have pastors with no discernable philosophy of preaching.”[14] This is a simplistic and shallow observation.
  4. Role definition. Play to your strengths, and know your weaknesses. Fail to do that “breeds mediocrity, disappointment, and failure.”[15]
  5. Time Management. “A worthy philosophy of ministry not only clarifies primary and long-range responsibilities, but also dictates how time is managed so that those duties ate fulfilled honorably.”[16]
  6. Leadership style. “To what degree and on what issues should pastors be autocratic, participatory, or laissez-faire?”[17]

These are good, timeless principles. They are a bit abstract and theoretical because context is a significant factor in each of these propositions. I think the “preaching-teaching” comments are off-base. A pastor must use each style in his pulpit ministry and seek to improve where he is deficient. There should be no one, single model of preaching; even the selection of text will largely determine how you frame the message.

Church philosophy

  1. Declaration of mission. Means suggests churches understand their mission as five-fold, encompassing worship, evangelism, edification, fellowship, and social concern. “Some churches may add or subtract from this list and most churches place a greater emphasis on one or two of these than on the others.”[18] Means offers no justification for the social concern category; an issue I shall address later.
  2. Adoption of goals. Once you know your mission, you can produce goals to make these missions happen.“Spiritual leaders must exercise care that these basic goals do not become either so general as to be meaningless or so numerous as to be overwhelming and self-defeating. No church can do everything well.”[19]
  3. Priorities achieved by consensus. “The determination of philosophical priorities flows from decisions about church goals – or ought to.” Means warns, “[a] church sets itself up for disaster when squeaky wheels decide priorities contrary to established church goals.”[20]
  4. Clear governmental structures. “The particular government structure does not seem to matter as much as does its clarity and functional efficiency.”[21]
  5. Unanimity of values. Means suggests this is the most difficult aspect of a church philosophy. “Church values are shared beliefs about what is important, good, useful and rewarding.”[22]
  6. Efficient methodology. This is an awkward umbrella category into which Means stuffs five other criteria, in a manner analogous to the Grinch stuffing the Christmas tree up Little Cindy Lou Who’s chimney.

Interestingly, Means never suggests churches search the scriptures to figure out what a congregation’s mission is. I will discuss that further, below. Rather, he assumes his five-fold mission criteria rather casually. Otherwise, Means lays out an enduring and ageless framework for helping churches implement a mission. The approach is logical and realistic, if again a bit abstract.

Models to consider

Means then briefly presents what this looks like in four different churches. He notes, “Each of these four church philosophies emphasizes one of the missions of the church … an exact balance probably is impossible and perhaps undesirable.”[23]

  1. Evangelism philosophy
  2. Fellowship philosophy
  3. Worship philosophy
  4. Teaching philosophy

This section is less helpful than it might be, and the labels are simplistic. If a church is not doing evangelism, is it really a church at all? If brotherly love is neglected, but a congregation boasts a stellar teaching ministry, is it still a church? Means cannot answer these questions, because he has not examined what a church is, or its mission. His caveats about the difficulties of a perfect balance are helpful, but not good enough. The models he presents are over-corrections to one mission at the expense of others. There is imbalance here, not balance.

One critique

Means understood the state of the church. But, he is disadvantaged because he did not explore the mission of the church from the scriptures at all. The closest he comes is this:

Obviously, the ideological mission (but not the methodological mission) of the church is biblically mandated, though the differing scriptural interpretations of diverse traditions results in significant variations.[24]

The great irony is that, while Means argues against pragmatism, he unwittingly abets it by not presenting a scriptural case for a church’s mission. A pastor with a deficient ecclesiology could fashion his own mission statement (derived from who knows where), then use Means’ principles[25] to design and implement an action plan to confirm him in his flawed mission statement. In short, Means’ book is more an action manual than a theological foundation. It cannot stand on its own without a robust ecclesiology.

John Hammett has observed:

… understanding the doctrine of the church is especially important to contemporary North Americans, because their pragmatic approach to church life, their concern to be relevant to their culture, and their desire to see their churches grow leave them vulnerable to the danger that their churches will be shaped more by those concerns than by the design and of the Lord and of the church. Indeed, how can churches be what God desires them to be if people do not know what he desires them to be?[26]

Means should have devoted a chapter to briefly present a case for a congregation’s core missions, then used that as a springboard to build a philosophy of ministry. This deficit is especially clear by Means’ casual assertion that “social concern” is a mission of the church. He defines this as “action in the community and world to bring about a more equitable and just society.”[27]

Is it a church’s job to accomplish this task? This is not an easy question, which is why a church must first search the scriptures to figure out what its job is. Means adopts a cultural transformation model via-a-vis the church and society, whereas dispensationalism takes what Scott Aniol calls a “sanctificationist” view.

In other words, a traditional dispensationalist philosophy of culture does not understand a church’s role towards culture to be one of cultural redemption the mission Dei, ‘work for the kingdom,’ the ‘cultural mandate,’ or any missiological or eschatological motivation. Rather, dispensationalists view the church’s exclusive mission as one of discipling Christians to live sanctified lives in whatever cultural sphere to which God has called them. This is the extent of the church’s so-called ‘responsibility’ toward culture, and anything more than this threatens to sideline the church’s central mission.[28]

Charles Ryrie agrees.[29] So does Michael Vlach, who notes this issue is really about one’s theology of the kingdom of God.[30] Others are free to adopt the cultural transformation model, of course, but they ought to do so self-consciously. The theological foundation for “mission” is the piece Means misses. And, because he otherwise focuses so much on mission and philosophy of ministry, this is a critical gap.

The great need today is for pastors to consider (1) what their job is, (2) what the church’s mission is, and (3) how to best carry out that mission and make it happen. Means’ book is an excellent guide to that last consideration.

Wrapping up

Means’ book is perceptive and well-nigh prophetic. His advice is sound and his forecasts for the future are correct; particularly his chapters titled “It’s a Small (and Scary) World After All” and “Syncretism, Pluralism, Eclecticism: What a Ride!” In short, he understood what was coming. Or, rather, Means understood the perennial dangers the Church always faces. Martin Luther, in the preface to the Small Catechism, exclaims:[31]

Good God, what wretchedness I beheld! The common people … have no knowledge whatever of Christian teaching, and unfortunately many pastors are quite incompetent and unfitted for teaching. Although the people are supposed to be Christian, are baptized, and receive the holy sacrament, they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments, they live as if they were pigs and irrational beasts, and now that the Gospel has been restored they have mastered the fine art of abusing liberty.

The dates change, but the song remains the same. Means’ foresight about the specific shape the perennial challenges would take in those two chapters was accurate, and are still relevant today.


[1] “The most compelling requisite in pastoral ministry is not new programs, bigger budgets, superior technology, state-of-the-art buildings, more talent, or better marketing, but leadership authenticity and competence,” (James Means, Effective Pastors for a New Century [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993], 18). 

[2] Ibid, p. 23. 

[3] Ibid, p. 24. 

[4] Ibid, p. 27. This is the classical description of a pastor’s job. In a more recent tome, Harold Senkbeil advocated for the same model. “I would contend that the classical approach to the care of souls is not only the best approach for our conflicted and confused era, but it’s the single best way to address the actual needs of real people in whatever location or generation pastors find themselves,” (The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart [Bellingham: Lexham, 2019; Kindle ed.], KL 1213).

However, Means’ contradicts himself in a later chapter on the pastoral role, and provides a frankly intimidating list of performance expectations: “pastors must be spiritual leaders who model discipleship, oversee the spiritual health of the church, guard and communicate scriptural truth, facilitate vision, strategize locally and globally, and develop congregational synergism and joint ventures to advance Christ’s kingdom,” (Effective Pastors, p. 98).   

[5] Means, Effective Pastors, p. 29. 

[6] Ibid, p. 31. 

[7] Ibid, p. 33. 

[8] Ibid, pp. 164-166. 

[9] Josh Chatraw, Telling a Better Story (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020; Kindle ed.), p. 1. 

[10] What Means calls “congregational identity,” (Effective Pastors, pp. 165-166). 

[11] Ibid, 100. 

[12] Ibid, 104. 

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, pp. 104-105. 

[15] Ibid, p. 105. 

[16] Ibid.  

[17] Ibid, p. 106. 

[18] Ibid, p. 108. 

[19] Ibid, p. 109.

[20] Ibid, p. 110. 

[21] Ibid, p. 111. 

[22] Ibid, p. 112. 

[23] Ibid, p. 119. 

[24] Ibid, p. 107. 

[25] From his ch. 5, “Ministry Minus Method Equals Madness,” (Ibid, pp. 100-121). 

[26] John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005), 11. 

[27] Means, Effective Pastors, p. 108. 

[28] Scott Aniol, “Polishing Brass on a Sinking Ship,” in Journal of Ministry & Theology, Spring 2020 (Vol. 24, No. 1), p. 31. 

[29] “People get sidetracked when they attempt to impose kingdom ethics on the world today without the physical presence of the King. The Christian is responsible to practice church ethics, not kingdom ethics. Church ethics focus on the church; kingdom ethics focus on the world,” (Charles Ryrie, The Christian and Social Responsibility [Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1982], 22.

[30] “As those who live between the two comings of Jesus the Messiah, the church should avoid two extremes concerning culture and society. The first is acting as if the church has no relationship to these areas. The second is to see the church’s mission as transforming the world before the return and kingdom of Jesus,” (Michael Vlach, He Will Reign Forever: A Biblical Theology of the Kingdom of God [Silverton: Lampion, 2017], 542). 

[31] Theodore Tappert (ed. and trans.), “The Small Catechism,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), 338.   

Redefining the faith? Leonardo Boff on eternal generation and procession

Redefining the faith? Leonardo Boff on eternal generation and procession

I’ve been reading Leonardo Boff’s work Trinity and Society. Boff is a Roman Catholic liberation theologian who may or may not be a Marxist. This is perhaps the most thought-provoking book on the Trinity I’ve yet read; right up there with Jurgen Moltmann’s Trinity and the Kingdom. Both these gentlemen are social trinitarians. They had a formative influence on Millard Erickson’s own monograph on the Trinity, which is excellent.

One interesting thing Boff does is re-conceptualize eternal generation and procession. Some readers may not know what these doctrines are. They’ve been pillars of Christian orthodoxy for centuries, but the turn towards social trinitarianism in the latter half of the 20th century has muted their impact in many evangelical churches. Some conservative theologians today downplay them.

What are eternal generation and procession?

Well, Christians believe Father, Son and Spirit are the same being. Not that they merely share the same nature (like you and I share a human nature), but they are the exact same being. But, if this be the case, then are we not collapsing all three Persons into one Jello-O mold, without distinction? How is this not modalism?

It’s clear the main conceptual problem is how to distinguish the Persons if they are, in fact, the same Being. The Church has done this by highlighting incommunicable, unique characteristics each Person has that the others do not. John of Damascus explains:

For in these hypostatic or personal properties alone do the three holy subsistences differ from each other, being indivisibly divided not by essence but by the distinguishing mark of their proper and peculiar subsistence.

John of Damascus, “Orthodox Faith,” 2.8.

These distinctions are:

  • Paternity. The Father begat the Son.
  • Sonship. The Son is eternally begotten in an incorporeal, non-physical (“begotten, not made”) and timeless manner (“begotten of the Father before all worlds”) in a way we can’t ever understand. But, this does not imply that the Son is somehow not equal to the Father, that there was ever a time He didn’t exist, or that the Son was created.
  • Procession. The Holy Spirit is sent forth from both the Father and the Son.

How can you distinguish the Persons, then? By these unique characteristics. The Son doesn’t beget; the Father does. The Spirit isn’t begotten; the Son is. The Father doesn’t eternally proceed from the Spirit; the reverse is true. This is how the classical position avoids the charge of modalism. For more on classical trinitarianism and divine Personhood, see my article, “Modalism Redux? The Concept of ‘Person’ in Classical Trinitarianism.” For an excellent, short explanation of eternal generation, see Charles Irons’ article, “The Only Begotten God: Eternal Generation in the Nicene Creed.”

Many contemporary theologians are not satisfied with this. They see it as an abstract idea that’s nearly impossible to understand. This is likely why many conservative Christians have never heard of them; because their pastors probably don’t understand these doctrines, either.

Instead, a more social, relational model of the Trinity has made significant headway in the last few decades. Classical advocates do not appreciate this social, relational model. Carl Beckwith is representative when he writes:

When we apply this modern notion of person to the Trinity, we end up with three distinct subjectivities, three authentic and self-determining persons, who freely and willingly coexist in unity. We end up with sophisticated sounding tritheism.

Carl Beckwith, The Holy Trinity (Fort Wayne: Luther Academy, 2016; Kindle ed.), KL 10098-10100.

See my article “On Divine Personhood and Three-headed Dogs” for a discussion of social trinitarianism and divine Personhood. This perspective often goes hand in hand with a rejection of eternal generation and procession. It is fair to say, then, that Leonardo Boff’s comments along this line would not be welcomed by classical trinitarians.

What Boff does with eternal generation and procession

Boff is a social trinitarian. He does not jettison the doctrines, but re-frames them so completely that he might as well have done. The classical model distinguishes the Persons by causality, but hastens to add this causality is timeless and non-physical (see above). Nonetheless, there is an order in the Trinitarian relationships.

Boff demurs, and suggests this ordering “is rather a descriptive device to indicate the differences and simultaneous reciprocity between the divine co-eternal Persons,” (140). It’s analogical language; terms of word art struggling to express the inexpressible. There is no real order in the Trinity; no real causality at all.

For Boff, ultimate reality begins with the three Persons already together; not “the solitude of One but in the co-existence and communion of Three,” (139). This union, this knot of relationships that define the Persons, is eternal; “it is not something that comes after them, but is simultaneous with them, since they are always with the others and in the others,” (138-139).

So, Boff suggests we dismiss terms that imply causation (like, say, “generation” and “procession”) and “use the biblical terminology of revelation and recognition: the three Persons reveal themselves to themselves and to each other,” (142).

This implies – and this is my basic thesis – that the three divine Persons are simultaneous in origin and co-exist eternally in communion and interpenetration. Each is distinct from the others in personal characteristics and in the communion established by that Person in everlasting relationship with the others, each revealing that Person’s self to itself and the self of the others to them

Boff, Trinity and Society, 142.

This is fairly standard for social trinitarianism, but Boff truly goes his own way by claiming the Church intended language about generation and procession to be analogical, not real:

Talk of ‘processions’ should not be understood as a genesis in God or as a theogonic process, as though God were subject to the principle of causality. the idea of different processions is used to emphasize at once the difference between the Persons and their reciprocal respectiveness or communion.

Boff, Trinity and Society, 144.

The classical model has always been careful to explain that generation and procession do not imply temporality; that Son and Spirit ever “came into being.” Yet, there has always been an insistence that they’re somehow real and causal; just in a way we can’t ever understand.

These explanations have always been more guardrails boxing the problem in rather than explaining them. Boff explodes these categories by making them entirely analogical; entirely words of art to express reciprocity in eternal relationship. Having dropped this artillery shell, he then backpedals a bit by assuring readers he will still use the classical terms, but will “do so with an appreciation of their specifically trinitarian application; they do not indicate any theogony, any result of an intra-divine production process, any causal dependence,” (146).

For, to Boff, this knit-together relationship of Father, Son and Spirit is the starting point. Not for him a solitary Father who, before time began, begat the Son in an incorporeal way, and together the Spirit proceeds from them both. Rather, it’s the eternal relationship that constitutes God as triune.

Their relationship is one of reciprocal participation rather than hypostatic derivation, of correlation and communion rather than production and procession. What is produced and proceeds is intra-trinitarian and interpersonal revelation. One Person is the condition for the revelation of the others, in an infinite dynamism like a series of mirrors endlessly reflecting the image of the Three.

Boff, Trinity and Society, 146.

Some thoughts

Boff is thought-provoking because the social model has a very strong pull in contemporary society, and has many implications for understanding the scriptures. For example, if the imago dei is structural (there’s something about our nature and make-up that reflects God’s nature and make-up), and the social model be true, then the “image of God” may well be substantive in that we are hardwired to long for relationship and community; “that set of qualities that is required for these relationships and this function to take place,” (Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed., 471).

This would have obvious explanatory power for God’s motives regarding salvation, the need for church membership, and the reason why God wants Christians to be holy:

  1. God saves His people because He wants relationship with them; to invite them into His family and be in communion with them. To adopt them.
  2. Church membership is about brotherly love; about a loving commitment to a particular community of brothers and sisters. Father, Son and Spirit are united to one another by love; so Christians must do the same in their faith communities … to image God Himself to the world.
  3. God wants Christians to be holy so these now-restored vertical and horizontal relationships are strengthened and refurbished ever more. We grow closer to one another in the family of God, as we grow closer to Him.

Of course, many theologians do not agree with the social model. They also don’t believe we should extrapolate out from God’s intra-trinitarian relationships to find a model for human relationships:

Boff’s re-conceptualizations of eternal generation and procession are novel and intriguing. I don’t believe they were what Christian have meant by the terms throughout the centuries. That doesn’t necessarily mean Boff is wrong to focus on relationship, instead of an eternal causality. I’m looking forward to finishing the book.

On hating unbelievers

On hating unbelievers

There are a number of popular Christian pastors and teachers, usually on Twitter, who are writing about how evil Justice Ginsburg was. They suggest it’s ridiculous that any Christian express polite appreciation for her legacy. They seem quite happy she is dead. They typically mention her support for abortion as justification.

It’s seems strange that Christians should be pleased when an unbeliever dies. It is strange. These Twitter Christians often accuse those who do express appreciation for Justice Ginsburg of being soft on sin. Being wimps, basically.

I think those Christians are very angry people. Angry at what’s happened to their country. Angry at changes in society. And, their philosophy of ministry is essentially Christian fundamentalism. That movement has a good and noble legacy that’s often tarred by the foolish excesses of its worst people. These angry Twitter pastors would never say they’re fundamentalists, but they are. They often want to fight, fight, fight. They’re the archetypes of a philosophy they often claim to despise.

I was reminded, recently, of the strange dichotomy between Charles Stanley and a certain other well-known, conservative octogenarian preacher. What different philosophies. What different mindsets. What different emphases. What different ministries.

One Christian pastor, popular on Twitter, wrote just today:

Why must we refrain from stating the necessary and obvious reality that Ruth Bader Ginsburg promoted clear, definable, delineable evil? For over fifty years? In a position of great power, and hence responsibility before God? With all her strength, purposefully? With her last breath? And can we step back long enough to realize that if we allow the cultural pressure to “be nice to the dead” to control our speech at this time, that the result is the fundamental denial that true moral evil actually exists, that the secular worldview is truly morally evil, and that the deaths of the born and unborn that will be laid at the feet of Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the judgment were not as important as our cultural comfort?”

These words, and others in his article, ooze hatred. Anger. This is an unhappy man. Ginsburg was not on the Court in 1973, when it decided Roe v. Wade. She came 20 years later. What could force a Christian pastor to hate a dead woman so much? Justice Thurgood Marshall concurred with Roe v. Wade in 1973, but can’t we still laud his achievements for civil rights in the 1940s and 1950s?

I’ve watched this same pastor become increasingly polarized in his politics over the past two years. He believes all Democrats are evil. He slanders evangelicals who think differently than he about every aspect of social justice. Politics infects everything he says, now. He doesn’t see it, of course, but he’s become a very angry man. So have many other Christians. Angry enough that he can write:

What is RBG’s legacy? I am seriously listening to Christian leaders lauding her for her “courage” and “consistency.” There is no questioning her intelligence. She had a formidable mind. And yes, she was consistent. Very much so. But here’s my point: so was Jezebel.

So many Christians are consumed with hate fueled by partisan politics. When you begin to think of all your ideological opponents as not wrong and misguided, but deliberately evil, then you’ve crossed the line. You’ve been radicalized. Ironically, you’re the mirror image of the leftist partisans you hate so much.

He hates Justice Ginsburg. HATES. Why? Should we be surprised when an unbeliever acts like an unbeliever? How can you reach somebody with the gospel if you hate her? Forget Justice Ginsburg; how can you reach a culture that largely agrees with her if you hate them, too? You can’t, of course.

That’s very sad. To hate people so much because they act like … unbelievers. Such were some of us. If God (Father, Son and Spirit) had that mindset, we’d all be toast.

On Being Human

On Being Human

The other pastor and I recently finished teaching through the Book of Judges. We each alternate teaching Sunday School and the morning sermon; switching back and forth each week. It fell to me to teach Judges 19.

I don’t teach narrative verse by verse. Instead, I usually teach the passage by crafting several questions from the text that seem to get to the heart of the matter. I’ll discuss one of those questions here.

What’s gone so wrong in Judges 19?

You could answer this rather simply. The men of Gibeah have consciences seared with a hot iron. Sin can take you farther than you ever thought possible. Yes, and yes.

Yawn.

Is that all there is to say?

I believe the real issue in Judges 19, the root of the problem, is that God is showing us how we can literally cease to be human. We remain human, of course. But, we don’t act or think like humans. I don’t mean our chromosomes change, or anything weird like that. I mean Judges 19 shows us a snapshot of humanity perverting its very nature in the worst way.

We need to take a step back and ask ourselves a series of questions:

  1. What’s it mean to be human?
  2. Which really means, once you translate it into scriptural categories, “what’s it mean to be made in the image of God?”
  3. That prompts the next question; “what’s fundamentally gone wrong with us?”
  4. This leads us to ask, “what, exactly, is God doing when He brings people into His family?”

The “image of God” is the structural makeup that hardwires us for relationships.1 God made us to want and need a relationship with him (vertical), and with one another (horizontal). We’re the only one of God’s creatures that are made this way. Everything we are, and everything God made us to do, can only rightly exist when those relationships are properly set.

This means that to be human means to be in community with each other, and in community with God … because you’re reconciled to Him and to each other. In the new creation, these relationships will finally be fixed, because all God’s children will finally be holy. There will be perfect love and submission to God, and to one another within the covenant community.

This is what the scripture looks forward to; one combined family of God (Jn 10:16; 17:11, 21-22) united to glorify Him (Isa 43:7). This will only happen because of the restoration of these vertical and horizontal relationships.

Why else, do you suppose, does Peter tell us to “love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God,” (1 Peter 1:22-23)? We must love one another in the church because we’ve been born again. That reconciliation and adoption, that togetherness, family and community, is why Christians must love each other. Repair the bonds. Restore the relationships. Make a community that reflects, however dimly, the happy family all true believers will be in eternity.

So, when Paul explains that Christians, as they behold the glory of the Lord, “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18), he means that God is refurbishing us as human beings to reflect His image.

That image is, in the end, a hardwiring for community.

How is God the image for this hardwiring? The Trinity. Father, Son and Spirit share a divine circulation of eternal life and exist in perfect, symmetrical, and internal communion with each other. Therefore we, as though patterning ourselves after a reflection we don’t even see, want and crave that vertical and horizontal togetherness, belonging, and security in community. We want to be like our archetype, the Triune God.

Until you’re a part of the family of God, through Jesus Christ:

  1. You won’t be “fully human,”
  2. because you’re not living the life God intended you to live,
  3. because you’re alienated from Him,
  4. and from everyone else

This means the story of scripture is something like this:

  1. God is making a family to love and serve Him here
  2. to show, tell and draw people to Him through the Christian story
  3. so we can all love and serve Him forever there

In other words; because of His great love, God is making a community of people from out of the mad Antifa mob that is humanity; “the people whom I formed for myself, that they might declare my praise,” (Isa 43:21).

This brings us back to Judges 19-21. It’s perhaps the lowest moral tide in scripture. This is an Israelite community. The Levite pushed his party on past Jerusalem because he didn’t want to risk spending the night among pagans (Judges 19:10-13). He felt it’d be safer among his own people. He was wrong.

What he encounters is the antithesis of humanity; more of an imago satan than an imago dei.2 On the horizontal plane, there is no community with each other and no brotherly love; only gang rape. That horizontal bond is missing because there is no real shared community on the vertical axis; there is no true, shared relationship with God.

So, you have no real covenant family, because there’s no real community, because there’s no shared reconciliation with God binding them together.

But, make no mistake. They do have a community. They have shared values and passions. They’re united together in a common vision; an answer to the multiple choice of them. The glue that binds them together is their rejection of God and His law; a re-direction of ultimate allegiance to themselves. In their rebellion they’ve ceased to be human, in a sense.

The passage is a flashing red light to the world. It tells us we’re hardwired to want community, togetherness, and belonging. So we make up shared dreams to coalesce around. We do it because the real community, the real relationships we crave are closed to us; “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God,” (2 Cor 4:4).

It takes a specific, individual, divine intervention in our lives to rip away that veil. That’s the Spirit, as He draws people to the Father and applies the Son’s finished work to hearts and minds. And then, once He opens our hearts and rescues us, He begins making us human again by re-establishing then refurbishing those broken relationships.

“Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven,” (1 Cor 15:49).

Notes

1 See the discussion by Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013; Kindle ed.), 469-471. 

2 I know “Satan” isn’t in Latin. You’ll have to get past it …  

Pushing back against the madness

Pushing back against the madness

I’m a bi-vocational pastor who works in the real world. In my own small way, I am fighting against the anti-racism madness sweeping our society. If you are tempted to believe I am one of those, “ain’t got no racism in there here country!” evangelicals who worship President Trump and have the GOP party platform sown into my bible between Malachi and Matthew, I direct you to my comments on racism and Jim Crow, and about the dangers of Christian nationalism.

Corporate and government human resources (“HR”) offices are prime movers behind the new religion of so-called anti-racism or critical race theory (“CRT”). This is a movement that’s captured the hearts and minds of the academy and the social science departments of colleges and universities. It may capture you, too. Here’s how it works:

  1. Employer watches news and becomes worried.
  2. Employer decides it must be able to say it “did something” to combat racism.
  3. Employer turns to HR for answers. “Do some training, or something …”
  4. HR departments become desperate, then Google (or, perhaps, Bing) “diversity” and “racism training,” and forward random YouTube videos to employees to watch; sometimes watching is mandatory. Little attempt to vet content to weigh ideology and perspective of the video.
  5. HR also finds huckster trainers, many of whom drank from the same well as the YouTube videos. Huckster trainers have developed cottage industry peddling a bastardized and popular form of critical race theory from “hot” authors like Robin DiAngelo and Ibram Kendi.
  6. Employer can now say it “did something.”
  7. More employees are indoctrinated into a hot new religion many don’t like, don’t accept, and find extraordinarily offensive.
  8. Nobody says anything. The real problem goes unresolved in favor of a new religion that teaches people to hate themselves, their society, and live in perpetual outrage

I speak from experience. I am a government employee; a manager at a State agency. Just last month, our HR forwarded a video to every manager and suggested we watch it and share with our subordinates. The video was everything I expected; an earnest academic telling everyone they’re racists because they aren’t black. Our society is soaked in racism, the trainer assured me. It impacts us all. We’re so racist, we don’t even know we’re racist.

I see.

Well, I replied to the email and sent a response to every single manager and Deputy Commissioner in the entire agency. I did it because I will not be intimidated by this evil worldview. Here is what I wrote:


It’s unclear where the line is between indoctrination and education, here. When employees are encouraged to watch a video whose thesis is that Americans (implicitly, white Americans) are all unconscious racists with associated unconscious bias, then it makes folks raise an eyebrow or two. Add to it, Professor Eberhardt’s faculty profile from Stanford University reveals she has a very particular thesis to push:

Through interdisciplinary collaborations and a wide ranging array of methods—from laboratory studies to novel field experiments—Eberhardt has revealed the startling, and often dispiriting, extent to which racial imagery and judgments suffuse our culture and society, and in particular shape actions and outcomes within the domain of criminal justice.

This thesis plays out in her comments in the video:

  • 1:37: “We are living with such severe racial stratification that even a five-year-old can tell us what’s supposed to happen next, even with no evildoer, even with no explicit hatred. This association between blackness and crime made its way into the mind of my five-year-old. It makes its way into all of our children, into all of us. Our minds are shaped by the racial disparities we see out in the world and the narratives that help us to make sense of the disparities we see …”
  • 13:06: “We know that the brain is wired for bias, and one way to interrupt that bias is to pause and to reflect on the evidence of our assumptions.”

Some people are racists. I’ve met people like that. However, Professor Eberhardt believes the very nature of American society is so “suffuse[d]” with racism that it is in “all of us,” even unconsciously. That’s a rather sweeping statement about a country that has had:

  1. an African-American President who was elected twice, winning the popular vote each time,
  2. an African-American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and later Secretary of State, and
  3. has appointed two African-Americans to the Supreme Court, one of whom was Thurgood Marshall; a key architect and leader of the NAACPs successful strategy to put a stake into the heart of the Jim Crow laws.

I note that Professor Eberhardt, an African-American herself, holds an earned PhD from Harvard, is a former faculty member at Yale, and now teaches at Stanford. She has done well for herself; and good for her.

However, Professor Eberhardt impugns the integrity of every American (and every agency employee) of any ethnicity or creed, because she claims we’re all unconsciously racist. This is beyond the pale.

I look forward to future recommendations on the important issue of race relations. I can only hope they do not follow the same theme of “if you’re white, then you’re an unconscious racist and I can help you change.” This is a critical topic, as the [agency head’s name] recent communications have made clear. Perhaps it would be best to not begin by unwittingly impugning the hearts and minds of co-workers because of … their white skin color.


I got away with this for at least three reasons:

  1. I have a good reputation at my agency as a calm, intelligent, serious person. At least … I think I do!
  2. The email was polite, factual, and acknowledged that racism is an issue in American society.
  3. Every manager and Deputy Commissioner at the agency knows I’m an evangelical Baptist pastor.

Christians must not be turtles, hiding in their shells. We shouldn’t be scared kittens, peeking out from under the couch. We can have a voice. We must have a voice. Don’t be driven from the public square.

NOTE: on 04 September 2020, after I published this article, President Trump directed federal agencies to “cease and desist from using taxpayer dollars to fund these divisive, un-American propaganda training sessions.” This is likely an attempt to curry favor with his base of support. Still, it is a welcome development.

Baxter and his tomahawk

Baxter and his tomahawk

This is my quick take on Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor.

Everybody says it’s great. I’m not sure how many of those people have actually read it. Baxter was a Puritan who died in 1691. He spends most of the book explaining that you’re a failure and a loser if you don’t completely dedicate yourself to pastoral ministry. That’s fine so far as it goes, but Baxter likes to make sure you get his point.

He has this gem I’ll never forget (p. 127):

Consider that it is of your own voluntary undertaking and engagement that all this work is laid upon you. No man forced you to be overseers of the Church.

Thanks, Dick. I needed that.

Guilt trips make up perhaps 80% of the book. They’re helpful for the first 20%. Then, they get annoying. Then, they make you feel worthless. Then, you begin to REALLY dislike Baxter.

The last 15% of the book are detailed instructions about how to catechize a parish of mostly unregenerate people, which is largely inapplicable in a context where you believe the New Covenant is only for actual believers.

So, what do I think about Baxter? I think he’s a depressing guy. Comes across as self-righteous, but earnest. Book was a disappointment, and I’ll never read it again. Some guys know how to encourage. Baxter knew how to take a tomahawk to your skull and tell you he’s there to help.

This is the Cliff-Notes version of the 1,500 word review I’ll be writing for my DMin class. I’m gonna keep that line about Baxter’s tomahawk …

Meeting Jim Crow

Meeting Jim Crow

Like many Americans, I knew very little about the context of the civil rights era. I learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. in elementary school, like everyone else. That’s about it, for me. As a Christian, of course I condemn slavery and racism as evils; a poisonous fruit of the Fall.

However, like so many others, I have recently been assaulted with anti-racism rhetoric that seemingly sprang forth from nowhere. This perspective often comes from Critical Race Theory (“CRT”), a new religion I began writing about a little while ago. I have encountered this anti-racism “training” at work in State government, peddled by unwitting Human Resource personnel so the agency can now say it’s “done something” in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s death and the ensuing riots.

A host of revisionist Christian pastors, all darlings in the woker quarters of the evangellyfish pond, have sallied forth to denounce racism – often employing extra-biblical categories to push a watered-down CRT in the Church. One such well-known black pastor recently called for reparations from white Americans and foolishly cited Exodus 12:33-36 as support.

Well, I want to actually learn something about the civil rights era and its context. I don’t want it from woke Christian pastors, or by radical scholars pushing an agenda. I want it from responsible sources. My studies have only begun, but I wanted to pass along some excellent resources to better understand the context of Jim Crow laws and the civil rights era:

  1. The Strange Career of Jim Crow by C. Vann Woodward. This classic, endorsed by MLK, Jr., was written by the dean of Southern historians in the mid-1950s after Brown v. Board of Education, and revised three times (the last being in 1974). It advanced the so-called Woodward thesis, that Jim Crow laws did not follow immediately on the heels of the Civil War, but were a calculated step backward after Reconstruction that deliberately disenfranchised the entire black population and reversed racial progress. The thesis is much more nuanced than I’m presenting it (racial prejudice certainly still existed during Reconstruction). But, it’s a horrifying look at how a culture deliberately took a step back towards pure evil.
  2. The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow by Richard Wormser. This is a short history of the entire Jim Crow era, with particular focus on eyewitness accounts. It is the most horrifying book I’ve ever read and literally changed my perspective forever. I will never think of my country the same way again. You wonder how the Nazis constructed concentration camps? Then, wonder how a “Christian” people did this to other human beings in America. Sin can warp the mind worse than anything else. Terrible. 
  3. Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King. Pulitzer Prize-winning account of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACPs legal strategy to destroy Jim Crow, using the Groveland Four case (from late 1940s Florida) as a foil. One of the most readable, enjoyable books I’ve ever read.
  4. Grand Expectations by James Patterson. Part of the Oxford History of the United States series, focusing on 1945-1974. Essential for capturing the greater context to understand the civil rights era.

I’m listening to the Oxford History entry on the Reconstruction era right now. I plan on listening to a detailed history of the pre-Civil War era slave issue (likely Impending Crisis, by Potter) after that. 

On Divine Persons and Three-Headed Dogs

On Divine Persons and Three-Headed Dogs

This series of more academic articles are the fruit of my own study about divine Personhood in the Trinity. Eventually, I will make more popular versions for “normal” people. For those who, after reading this article, are on tenterhooks wondering what my own framework is, see this sermon I preached on Trinity Sunday 2020.

It’s not partisan to declare that social trinitarianism abandons Nicene concepts of divine Personhood.[1] It does. It adopts a completely different framework. Many non-confessional evangelicals likely adopt it unwittingly.

With one exception, the most influential social trinitarians are not widely read in evangelical circles; certainly not by the average seminary-trained pastor. They are Jurgen Moltmann,[2] Leonardo Boff,[3] Wolfhart Pannenberg,[4] Robert Jenson[5] and Millard Erickson.[6]Pannenberg’s influence is profound; Erickson, Jenson and William L. Craig each studied under him.

Is revision allowed?

First, we need to decide whether it’s possible to put a new framework on biblical truth. Millard Erickson suggests three ways to contextualize theology:[7]

  1. To transplant. You simply state the message using biblical categories, and do no contextualization at all
  2. To transform. The faith needs to be “updated” for modern times, and truth is not found in outdated doctrines.
  3. To translate. “The translators attempt to say what the Bible would say if it were being written to us in our present situation.”[8]

Erickson is a translator, and his social trinitarianism is an example of him doing just that.[9] If you believe it’s possible to re-frame theology in contemporary terms, if necessary re-working allegedly outmoded frameworks while retaining “timeless truth,”[10] then you’ll be open to accepting a re-framing of divine personhood in the Trinity.

What do these social trinitarians do with “personhood?”

A new framework

The first thing to note is a dissatisfaction with the classical understanding of Person.[11] Robert Jenson, for example, rejects divine simplicity as incoherent.[12] He dismisses Augustine’s thinking on the trinity,[13] claiming he was undone by “the old dissonance between the metaphysical principles of the Greeks and the storytelling of the Gospel.”[14] If the Persons are just active subjects of the same, identical nature, then it does not matter which Person does what. It’s irrelevant. Jenson criticizes Augustine, who admitted as much.[15] The classical doctrine has Father, Son and Spirit as the same Being, so all their actions are the same action. The Persons do not merely work together, they do the same thing. Their actions are indivisible.[16]

How, then, can we know the Persons at all!? Pannenberg observed that the idea of “person” seems to requirean individual subsistence, but this is “not compatible with the unity of divine essence.”[17]

So, social trinitarians argue, we must cast aside the straightjacket of Greek metaphysics and see the Persons as scripture sees them.[18] The answer, Jenson argues, is in the Cappadocian scheme of perichoresis and unity of action.[19] The Persons don’t perform the same action, but the same thing together. If there is no meaningful self-distinction within the Godhead, Jenson insists, then we are really speaking nonsense. We’re inventing formulas without meaning, and that makes dogma useless.[20]

What is a person?

So, we have a quest to define “person” more precisely; to put flesh on what is otherwise an alleged abstraction. Leonardo Boff is one such pilgrim.[21] Pointing to John 14:11 and 17:21, he sees divine Personhood as defined by an “I + Thou” relationship:

… a knot of relationships, an identity formed and completed on the basis of relationships with others … Interiority (consciousness in its ontological aspect) and openness to the other (freedom and ethical dimension) constitute the mode of being proper to a person.”[22]

Pannenberg explains:

If the trinitarian relations among Father, Son, and Spirit have the form of mutual self-distinction, they must be understood not merely as different modes of being of one divine subject but as living realizations of separate centers of action.[23]

The classical position, remember, sees the divine Persons as active subjects of the same nature. Consciousness, will, emotion (etc.) all each proper to a nature, not a person. The Father does not think one thing, while the Son thinks another. The Son does not will one thing, and the Spirit another. There is no individual self-consciousness. Everything is collective, because the Persons are the same Being.  

Social trinitarians say no. Each Person has his own will and self-consciousness. The old, stale view of Personhood is “merely an item of linguistic debris knocked from Hellenistic philosophy by collision with Yahweh.”[24]

“A person,” Boff declares, “is a subject existing as a centre of autonomy, gifted with consciousness and freedom.”[25] But, in the closeness of their union, they are really one:

the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are three intelligent and free subjects; but they possess the same intelligence and the same will, like a triangle with three angles but only one area. All three Persons affirm themselves as an ‘I,’ not in order to close in on themselves, but in order to give themselves to the other two. What emerges is a real psychological perichoresis.[26]

Boff explains he does not reject the classical position; he “develops and completes it.”

since there are not three consciousnesses there, but only one … At most we can say that in the Trinity there is one substantial consciousness (nature) which is really expressed by three divine, conscious beings (Persons). What we can say is that, analogically, each divine Person is a center of interiority and freedom, whose raison d’etre (nature) consists in being always in relation to the other Persons.”[27]

His contribution is that he sees a divine Person as more than a particular active subject of the divine nature; more than even a specific, unique existence of the divine nature. He emphasizes the personal, conscious, relational aspect of each to the other in the same nature through perichoresis. Jenson suggests we drop person and use the term identity; “there are three identities in God …”[28]

Jurgen Moltmann believes it is a strawman to say social trinitarians believe in a “modern” understanding of Personhood. Critics like Karl Rahner, he charges, are actually imputing a caricature of extreme individualism.[29] Instead, real “personhood” can only truly be defined as an individual in relationship with others; “the ‘I’ can only be understood stood in the light of the ‘Thou’ – that is to say, it is a concept of relation. Without the social relation there can be no personality.”[30] Pannenberg warns that, if the only way you can distinguish the Persons is by their manner of origin, then “one cannot do justice to the reciprocity in the relations.”[31]

In this way, social trinitarians have re-framed the doctrine of God. However, to Moltmann, because the classical position understands the Persons as merely active subjects of the same nature, this means God communicates only with Himself in an internal, self-dialogue. There is no “I + Thou” conversation; there is only the one subject speaking to Himself. There is no community. Interpersonal relationships with the Trinity are surrendered. Man looks to God for a communal example and can only become “turned inwards and solitary,”[32] for God speaks only to Himself, about Himself.

So, Moltmann flatly denies that the Persons are the same identical essence.

If we search for a concept of unity corresponding to the biblical testimony of the triune God, the God who unites others with himself, then we must dispense with both the concept of the one substance and the concept of the identical subject.[33]

Moltmann points to the imago dei for support. “A person is only God’s image in fellowship with other people.”[34] Many theologians, independent of this controversy, have agreed.[35] Accordingly, the Persons must relate to one another in a real “I + Thou” relationship. This means the Persons must have individual self-distinction, intelligence, consciousness and will.

Thus Erickson, the one conservative evangelical proponent of social trinitarianism, suggests the Trinity must be understood as a society of persons.[36]

In union with each other

How do social trinitarians avoid tri-theism? Through perichoresis, a doctrine first formulated in the East by the Cappadocian Fathers. The Persons are united without confusion and mutually indwell one another without any blending or mingling, without change or division. Erickson calls perichoresis the “guard against tritheism.”[37]

If God is love (1 Jn 4:8), then He must be more than one person. Love needs an object. “Thus, if there were not multiplicity in the person of the Godhead, God could not really be love prior to this creation of other subjects.”[38] Unlike human persons, however, the Trinity is incorporeal and has no spatial limitations that hinder interpersonal relations. Their union is such that there are no separate experiences and so none of the typical barriers to perfect love. Nor is there any self-centeredness.[39]

Moltmann likens this union to a “circulation of eternal divine life.”[40] He explains that “[b]y virtue of their eternal love they live in one another to such an extent, and dwell in one another to such an extent, that they are one.”[41] There is not one subject; there is only “the living fellowship of the three Persons who are related to one another and exist in one another. Their unity does not lie in the one lordship of God; it is to be found in the unity of their tri-unity.”[42] Erickson, echoing Moltmann, explains the Persons “are so intimately linked and intertwined that they are unable to live apart from one another. Each supplies life to the others. What they do, although it may be primarily the work of one of them, is done together.”[43]

He suggests we stop thinking of God as metaphysically simple and consider Him as an organism; a union.[44] In a similar fashion, Pannenberg describes God’s essence as a “single constellation.”[45] No Person can exist without the other; “[n]one has the power of life within itself alone.”[46] Boff notes, “[t]heir relationship is one of reciprocal participation rather than production and procession.”[47] This abolishes the classical doctrines of eternal generation and procession. Yet, Moltmann avers, without this “perichoretic unity, then Arianism and Sabellianism remain inescapable threats to Christian theology.”[48]

Indeed, Moltmann contends that this perichoresis of three individual centers of self-conscious Persons is the only way to make sense of salvation history.[49] All ideas of subordinationism are now gone; the concept “has no validity within the eternal circulation of the divine life.”[50] Each Person eternally brings glory to the other in this circulation.[51]

Analogies

Following the classical model, we recall that Donald Bloesch proposes the analogy of the Trinity as different dimensions of the same space; height, width and depth.[52] The dimensions, though real, are distinct aspects of the one shape. If the dimensions had independent status, you would have three shapes. But, you do not have three shapes. You have one shape with three facets.

Social trinitarians cry foul and see this as modalism by any other name. William Craig is a social trinitarian. In perhaps the very worst analogy in the history of the Church, he offers up the analogy of Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards Hades, to explain the Trinity.[53] In a more responsible fashion, Erickson suggests the idea of the human organism consisting of heart, brain and lungs. Each is distinct, but not separable. Each depends on the other for existence. They can only exist together as a unit. They share the same life. He also proposes the analogy of Siamese twins who share the same organs. There are two, but also one.[54]

We close by returning to Erickson’s notion of “translating” doctrine. Can it be done? Donald Bloesch, independent of this issue, warns, “We can and must avail ourselves of philosophical concepts, but we must not let these concepts rule our thinking. We must always be prepared to modify them and perhaps set them aside as new light breaks forth from God’s holy word.”[55] If this be true, have social trinitarians done it here?

Barth warns that, if you have three separate objects of worship, you have three gods.[56] In denying the Persons’ numerical identity of essence (homoousia), is this what the social view hath wrought?

It is time for thinking Christians, especially pastors, to decide what “Person” means. Unfortunately, most don’t know it’s an issue. One may be right to stand in opposition to Church doctrine that is nearly 1600 years old. But, you should at least do it consciously!

A special thanks to my friend, Tito Lyro (Pastor, Bible Presbyterian Church, Olympia, WA and President of Western Reformed Seminary, Lakewood, WA) for reviewing this article!


[1] Robert Letham declares, “The idea of social Trinitarianism is alien to the classic doctrine, for which the unity and indivisibility of the Trinity, together with the inseparable works of God, are axiomatic,” (The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, revised ed. [Phillipsburg: P&R, 2019; Kindle ed.], KL 386).

[2] Jurgen Moltmann, Trinity and the Kingdom, trans. Margaret Kohl (reprint; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993; Kindle ed.). 

[3] Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society, trans. Paul Burns (reprint; Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2005).  

[4] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991).

[5] See both The Triune Identity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1982) and Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). 

[6] Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995). Erickson did postdoctoral studies under Pannenberg and dedicated his Christian Theology (in part) to him.

[7] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013; Kindle ed.) KL 1681-1842. 

[8] Erickson, Christian Theology, KL 1771.

[9] In addition to Erickson’s God in Three Persons, see his other two monographs on Theology Proper and Christology in which he goes his own way on a number of issues; (1) God the Father Almighty: A Contemporary Exploration of the Divine Attributes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998; Kindle ed.), and (2) The Word Became Flesh (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991). 

[10] “… the really crucial task of theology will be to identify the timeless truths, the essence of the doctrines, and to separate them from the temporal form in which they were expressed, so that a new form may be created,” (Erickson, Christian Theology, KL 1842).

[11] Robert Jenson believes that, had the gospel been birthed in a culture other than one steeped in Greek thought, then the Church would have used a different framework for understanding God. “The fathers did not, as is still often supposed, hellenize the evangel; they labored to evangelize their own antecedent Hellenism, and succeeded remarkably if not fully,” (Systematic, 90). 

[12] Jenson, Systematic, 110-114. 

[13] “Augustine imported Eastern doctrine, interpreted it according to his lights, and passed on the result … he was mostly blind to Athanasius’ and the Cappadocians’ specific achievement, and where he saw it he rejected it,” (Jenson, Systematic, 110-111). 

[14] Jenson, Systematic, 112. 

[15] Jenson, Systematic, 111.

[16] Augustine, “On the Trinity,” 15.5, in NPNF1, 14 vols. (Buffalo: Christian Literature Company, 1887), vol. 1.3. “He who is sent is not therefore less than He who sends because the one sent, the other was sent; since the Trinity, which is in all things equal, being also equally in its own nature unchangeable, and invisible, and everywhere present, works indivisibly.” Emphasis added.

[17] Pannenberg, Systematic, 1:286. 

[18] “To find a basis for the doctrine of the Trinity we must begin with the way in which Father, Son, and Spirit come on the scene and relate to one another in the event of relevation,” (Pannenberg, Systematic, 1:299). 

[19] Robert Letham has a good initial definition but, as a classical trinitarian, he shows his cards in his description: “The mutual indwelling of the three persons of the Trinity in the one being of God. In social Trinitarianism, the word is used in a quite different way, to claim that the three hypostases are like three human persons engaged in a dance around one another, a development hinting at tritheism,” (Holy Trinity, KL 11553). It is not an accident that theologians allow no wiggle-room on the issue of divine Personhood; it goes to the heart of who God is.

[20] Jenson, Systematic, 113. 

[21] Boff, Trinity and Society, 118ff. 

[22] Boff, Trinity and Society, 89. 

[23] Pannenberg, Systematic, 1:319. 

[24] Jenson, Triune Identity, 108. 

[25] Boff, Trinity and Society, 115.

[26] Boff, Trinity and Society, 116. 

[27] Boff, Trinity and Society, 89. 

[28] Jenson, Triune Identity, 111. 

[29] “What Rahner calls `our secular use of the word person’ has nothing in common with modern thinking about the concept of persons. What he describes is actually extreme individualism: everyone is a self-possessing, self-disposing centre of action which sets itself apart from other persons,” (Jurgen Moltmann, Trinity and the Kingdom KL 2133-2134).

[30] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2135-2136.

[31] Pannenberg, Systematic, 1:319.

[32] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2290.        

[33] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2199-2200. 

[34] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2277.

[35] Robert Reymond quotes Charles Hodge approvingly, who believed the imago dei consisted in both knowledge of God and moral rectitude toward one’s neighbor. The fall ruined both our vertical relationship with God and our horizontal relationship with our neighbors (A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, revised ed. [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998], 429). To be in the image of God includes the concept of relationship.

Erickson takes a structural view and explains that God made us a certain way in order to fulfill the relationships He meant us to have. “Humanity qua humanity has a nature encompassing all that constitutes personality or selfhood: intelligence, will, emotions. This is the image in which humans were created, enabling them to have the divinely intended relationship to God and to fellow humans, and to exercise dominion,” (Christian Theology, KL 10321).

[36] Erickson, God in Three Persons, 221ff. 

[37] Erickson, God in Three Persons, 228-238. 

[38] Erickson, God in Three Persons, 221. 

[39] Erickson, God in Three Persons, 223-225. 

[40] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2548. 

[41] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2547-2548. 

[42] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2558-2560. 

[43] Erickson, God in Three Persons, 234-235. 

[44] Erickson, God in Three Persons, 231, 264. 

[45] Pannenberg, Systematic, 1:359. 

[46] Erickson, God in Three Persons, 264. 

[47] Boff, Trinity and Society, 145; see 145-147. 

[48] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2208-2211. 

[49] “For this trinitarian history is nothing other than the eternal perichoresis of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in their dispensation of salvation, which is to say in their opening of themselves for the reception and unification of the whole creation. The history of salvation is the history of the eternally living, triune God who draws us into and includes us in his eternal triune life with all the fullness of its relationships. It is the love story of the God whose very life is the eternal process of engendering, responding and blissful love. God loves the world with the very same love which he is in himself,” (Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2300-2303).

[50] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2562. 

[51] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2567-2568. “The Persons of the Trinity make one another shine through that glory, mutually and together. They glow into perfect form through one another and awake to perfected beauty in one another.”

[52] Donald Bloesch, God the Almighty (Downers Grove: IVP, 1995), 186. 

[53] William L. Craig and J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), 593. 

[54] Erickson, God in Three Persons, 233-234. 

[55] Bloesch, God the Almighty, 35. 

[56] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 1.1, trans. G. W. Bromiley, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975), 349.

I Love Me …

I Love Me …

Carl Trueman’s forthcoming book will be required reading for any pastor (or, anybody, really) who is interested in a Christian explanation for the cult of self-worship in the West. He summarizes the issue in an article published today titled “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self … And How the Church Can Respond.”

Even if you aren’t a Christian, do you want to know what’s happened to the world? To people? Where did this “you do you!” ethos of self-worship come from? Why do people see their psychologized self-conception (which, tellingly today, almost always centers on sex) as the thing that defines them?

Trueman sums up the problem in the article:

… the idea that happiness is personal psychological satisfaction—“self-fulfillment”—is the staple of sitcoms, soap operas, movies, and even commercials. And this narrative, this illusion, has powerful implications. When the goal of human existence is personal psychological satisfaction, then all moral codes are merely instrumental, and therefore continually revisable, to this subjective, psychological end.

I’ve preached both a sermon that touched on this a BIT:

and one that touched on this a LOT:

and hopefully have an article forthcoming in a Christian magazine that lays some of this out. My latest article about the Bostock decision also noted that this lens of narcissism is behind SCOTUS’ redefinition of “sex” to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

Trueman closes his article with this:

We have been here before—despised, considered immoral, standing on the margins. And we can learn lessons that will fortify us as we move into an uncertain future.

I’m looking forward to the book.