Review: Trinity Without Hierarchy

Trinity without Hierarchy

Trinity Without HierarchyMichael F. Bird and Scott Harrower, eds. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2019.

Summary: Engaging the American theologians who argue for eternal and functional relationships of authority and subordination in the Trinity, the contributors uphold a traditional, Nicean orthodoxy of recognizing the oneness of God, who is three equal and distinct Persons without hierarchy or subordination.

In recent years, a group of American evangelical theologians have burst on the scene contending for what some term “eternal functional subordination” (EFS) of the Son to the Father, or “eternal relationships of authority and submission” (ERAS) within the Trinity. The theologians making this contention are what is known as “complementarians,” rooting their understanding of authority and submission in male and female relationships in what they see are similar relationships within the Trinity.

This proposal has been challenged as problematic in terms of Trinitarian orthodoxy, and while not intending any of these things, opens the door to tritheism or forms of Arianism and semi-Arianism. [As one who has worked in multi-faith contexts, I believe this perspective also offers ample fodder for Muslim apologists.] While it is true that in the economic out-working of the Triune God in our salvation, the Incarnate Son obeys the Father, it is another move altogether to assert that this reflects the essence of the relationships within the immanent Trinity. There is also the problem of analogs between human relationships and the intra-trinitarian relationships.

The contributors of this book argue for what they understand is the orthodox articulation of the nature and relationships of the Triune God, as formulated in the Nicean-Constantinopolitan councils. Editor Michael Bird writes:

   The central thesis of this book is that the evangelical consensus, in keeping with its catholic and orthodox heritage, affirms that the Trinity consists of one God who is three distinct and equal persons, and the distinctions do not entail subordination or hierarchy. As such, this volume tries to do two things. First it constitutes a robust restatement of Trinitarian orthodoxy with special attention paid to a non-subordinationist and non-hierarchical account of the relationships within the Godhead. Second, it attempts to wrestle the doctrine of the Trinity away from the trenches of American evangelical debates about gender and authority.

One fact that is important to note in this work is that contributors differ on gender and authority roles, with some being egalitarians and some complementarians. Both argue for a Trinity without hierarchy.

The sixteen chapters in this work divide into three parts. The first part of the work considers biblical perspectives on the Trinity, particularly in engaging in close exegesis of contended passages in John, 1 Corinthians 11, Hebrews, and Revelation. Beginning with chapter 5, contributors write on the insights to be gained from historical theology for the present discussion with Peter Leithart considering Athanasius, Amy Brown Hughes focusing on Gregory of Nyssa, Tyler Wittman considering Aquinas and the subsequent Reformer: Turretin, Polanus, and Owen, and what their work delineated as to what could and could not be said about the inner life of the Trinity. Other writers focus more deeply on John Owen, the work of Protestant “scholastics,” and Wolfhart Pannenberg. Chapters 12 to 16 then engage the current debate more directly, including a lengthy critique of Bruce Ware’s methodology by co-editor Scott Harrower.

The final chapter, also by Harrower, was a succinct summary of why all this matters. He notes that semi-Arian tendencies in the 18th century church led to anti-Trinitarian and unitarian formulations over the next two centuries. His contention is that theological cultures have intergenerational impacts that the framers of subordinationist theologies must also consider.

I was impressed with the consistent careful scholarship, the fine-grained discussion pressing against the limits of human grasp of the nature of the Triune God. Nearly every chapter concluded with two to three pages of bibliography, evidence of a resurgence of trinitarian theology. The discussion also both gave me a deep appreciation of the importance of the Nicean-Constantinopolitan formulations regarding the Trinity and yet raised the question of whether this must, or will always be the church’s reference point. At very least, any new formulations must avoid the errors these formulations address. And here it seems, according to these authors, subordinationist theologies of the Trinity are not a step forward, building on the councils, but a step back.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Review: God and the Faithfulness of Paul

god and faithfulness of paul

God and the Faithfulness of PaulChristoph Heilig, J. Thomas Hewitt, and Michael F. Bird, eds. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.

Summary: A collection of papers assessing N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God by scholars from a number of fields of theological study, with a concluding response from N. T. Wright.

In 2013, N. T. Wright published his 1700 page masterwork on Pauline theology, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (hereafter PFG). Since this time, the work has spawned numerous reviews, other scholarly works, and an extended response from N. T. Wright, Paul and His Recent Interpreters, (reviewed here). What distinguishes this work, which comes to half the length of Wright’s, is that it represents assessments of scholars who are specialists in a number of the fields upon which Wright draws in his work, from Jewish studies, to exegesis, to biblical and systematic theology. Furthermore, noting that gap between English and German scholarship on Paul, this work brings together scholars from both.

The work is broken into five parts with a concluding epilogue in which Wright responds (in a mere 57 pages!) to the contributors. An online version of the Table of Contents may be found here. I will not try to discuss all thirty essays as well as Wright’s response but rather what were for me some of the most salient essays, realizing this does not do justice to the high quality of others.

Part One consists of a single chapter by Benjamin Schliesser that situates PFG in the scholarly landscape, noting it as a negative reaction to the work of Rudolf Bultmann, and setting it alongside the works of Dunn, Schreiner, Wolter, and Schnelle. Part Two consider a number of methodological issues from hermeneutics to history in six chapters. I found the discussion of Wright’s “critical realism” and its particular association with Ian Barbour of interest, as well as the critique in a couple of the essays of Wright’s exclusive focus on Pauline material on Paul to the exclusion of Lukan material.

Part Three focuses on contextual issues ranging from the Jewish context which plays such an important part in Wright’s work, particularly in a somewhat biting essay by James Charlesworth to a more irenic discussion of Wright’s lack of engagement with middle Platonism by Gregory Sterling. Wright conceded this latter critique in his response. Two other essays concern the cultic context and a significant essay by Seyoon Kim on Paul and the Roman empire.

Part Four is the longest section of the book, comprising twelve essays, on exegetical issues. I thought Gregory Tatum got Wright wrong in his chapter on law and covenant, attributing a forensic perspective to Wright more characteristic of his opponents. James D. G. Dunn takes Wright to task for how little he addresses the New Perspective.  Peter Stuhlmacher’s chapter on Wright’s understanding of justification and redemption is particularly outstanding for its discussion and critique of the ideas of exile and the role of Abraham in PFG.  There is also an essay on apocalyptic by Jorg Frey, highly critical of Wright’s account of apocalyptic in Paul, the one essay to which Wright responds at length in the epilogue.

Part Five concerns implications. Sven Ensminger’s work on Barth and Wright seemed to be mostly about his hero, Barth, with little engagement with Wright or Paul. More positively, Frank Macchia’s essay (and several others in this volume including Levison’s in Part Four) drew attention to Paul’s Pneumatology in Wright. Edith Humphrey extends Wright’s ideas about sacramentality and the sacraments. The final essay by Schnabel concerns both mission and the discussion of whether Paul’s experience on the Damascus road was one of conversion or call.

The concluding epilogue (Part Six) is devoted to Wright’s responses to the various essays in twelve sections. For the most part, the responses are gracious, acknowledging where the writer has challenged his thought helpfully, and sometimes, where the writer has misunderstood him, notably Frey, who gets ten pages of response. Often Wright’s response is to cite the length of his work and to go into matters further as some would have him would have resulted in a much longer, and perhaps more tedious work.

There are several strengths to this work, particularly the assessments from specialists of a number of claims Wright makes in his broad sweeping work. Also, one who has been around academics in scholarly conference will recognize the cut and thrust of serious scholarly work, where the function of critique is to refine and sharpen thinking.

The work demands close reading and one benefits greatly by having a copy of PFG at hand and having read it. I have to confess that I have only read summaries and reviews and so I honestly felt I was, for the most part, listening to one side of a nuanced conversation. What this collection underscored for me was what a singular work PFG is to evoke so much rigorous discussion from so many perspectives. Now to figure out when I can give a few months of careful attention to this work!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: An Anomalous Jew

An Anomalous Jew

An Anomalous JewMichael F. Bird. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016.

Summary: A collection of studies on the life and ministry of Paul that explores this unusual Jew who is comfortable moving among Greeks and Romans as he proclaims the Christ he encountered on the way to Damascus.

About the only thing scholars can agree upon concerning the Apostle Paul is that he was born a Jew. In an introductory chapter, Michael F. Bird surveys the options most commonly chosen to explain this apostle who claims on one hand that everything from his former life as a Jew is “crap” compared to the surpassing worth of Christ, and yet “becomes a Jew, in order to win the Jews.” Is he really a former Jew who has abandoned Judaism? A transformed Jew, an Israelite in Christ? A faithful Jew? Or a radical Jew? There is something to be said for each of these views and significant scholars associated with each one. Bird proposes an alternative–Paul is an anomalous Jew because he tries “to create a social space for a unified body of Jewish and Gentile Christ-believers worshiping God” (p. 28).

In succeeding chapters, Bird presents five “studies” (most individually published elsewhere) that underscore the anomalous character of Paul’s Jewishness, shaped by his mission to Gentiles and Jews. He begins by exploring Paul’s ideas of salvation, which both comes from the Jews and is for the Jews, but is also for the Gentiles and found in Christ, and not Torah. Chapter 2 shows how Paul is indeed apostle both to Gentiles and to Jews and how much the latter occupied his attention. Chapter 3 addresses the debate between apocalypticism and salvation history in Paul through a study of Galatians showing both elements reaching their height in the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. Chapter 4 focuses in on the incident at Antioch described in Galatians 2:11-14 as the beginning of Paulinism “understood as the antithesis between Christ and Torah when the salvation and equal status of Gentiles is on the line” (p. 203). It also marks a parting in the ways between Paul and the Jerusalem church, not absolute as evident in Paul’s efforts for the relief of that church. Finally, chapter 5 explores the “anti-imperial” undertones of Paul’s letter to the Romans. On its face it presents no civil or military challenge to Roman order. Yet its assertions of the kingdom of the Messiah and the new sociopolitical entity of the church in fact was a profound challenge to Rome which would ultimately supplant empire.

Bird writes:

    “In sum, Paul was a religious anomaly. He appeared on the scene of the Greco-Roman world like a sudden yet small ripple moving upon the waters of a still river. He goes mostly unnoticed in his own time, and yet by the time the ripple reaches the shore of the modern age, it has become a tsunami. Paul’s anomaly, offensive as it was to the Jews and odd as it was to Greeks, became the Gentile Christianity that eventually swallowed up the Roman Empire and that, even to this day, two millenia later, casts its shadow upon the religious landscape of the world. Not bad for a Jewish tentmaker from Tarsus!” (p. 30)

Of the writing of books on Paul, there seems no end! What makes this one distinctive is that it provides a reading of Paul’s life and mission that reconciles seemingly disparate threads of scripture and explains them by Paul’s vision of the new people, Jew and Gentile together, formed by Messiah Jesus. It explains both the consonant and dissonant elements in his Jewishness, his reaction at Antioch, and the content of his letter to the Roman church.

Michael Bird represents a younger generation of theological scholars from “down under” who are beginning to make their mark in biblical and theological studies. I look forward to hearing more from him and others like him!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.