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Turn to the Social

Rebekah Earnshaw
Wednesday 8 March 2017

The Theology Research Seminar recently heard from Dr Justin Stratis of Trinity College Bristol. Dr Stratis presented ‘Modern English Trinitarianism and the Turn to the Social – Exploring the Welch Thesis’. This is part of the development of Dr Stratis upcoming volume on trinitarian theology.

Stratis contextualised his presentation by identifying the broad movement of social trinitarian thought as a catch-all term for theologies which feel that classical discussion of trinitarian processions do not say enough. However, the diversity within such a grouping means that justice must be done to many serious thinkers. Stratis briefly considered Moltmann, Boff, Zizioulas, Volf, and, within analytic theology, Plantinga and Swinburne. Social trinitarian thought is far from monolithic but commonalities may be identified such as a priority for the economy, scriptural presentations of God, persons, and perichoresis. Stratis wishes to learn from earlier developments in English trinitarian thought in order to better engage with present discussions.

Stratis draws especially from the 1952 work of Claude WelchIn This Name: The Doctrine of the Trinity in Contemporary Theology‘. Welch addresses his own context but identifies several earlier thinkers and the Hegelian soil of idealism which gives birth the the social analogy and a conception of divine society of “I”s within the trinity. Personality is the key idea trinitarianly applied by Richmond, Moberly, and Illingworth at the turn of the twentieth century.

In 1900 Richmond published on personality and the philosophy of experience. Personality is the experience of experiences so that personality enables fellowship. The conscious self-reflecting brings the self and others to reality. The self is relational. All persons are emerging personality and need affirmation of others. God is posited as the ideal and eternal prototype of social existence. Divine fellowship of loving persons guarantees and enables a transcendental ideal account of the human self.

Moberly is influenced by Richmond’s work and applies personality to atonement. Moberly begins with divine unity but rejects “hypostasis” as insufficiently personal to describe divine relations. He prefers the term “person” for its fullness and totality of meaning. Moberly draws an analogy from human experience but divine personality is complete and absolute. Experience grounds Moberly’s transcendental move and “insertion” of personality and subject-object mutuality into an older model of the trinity.

A few years later, 1907, Illingworth develops the trinity with apologetic concerns and exalts the Christian view of personality. A man of his times, Illingworth embraced Christianity as more “highly evolved” due to its developed idea of personality. Illingworth suggested that humanity knows God as it knows itself. Illingworth also suggested the family as an imperfect social analogy of the trinity with father, mother, and child. The incomplete human ideal by reason arrives at the personal triune God which is actualised in itself as a fully internal social reality. Like his predecessors Illingworth looked first to human experience and found Christianity affirmed by human experience which was “personal”. In this thinking, the church attained trinitarian ideas through moral and philosophical development.

Stratis concluded by reflecting together on early social trinitarian thinkers and contemporary approaches. This was not a claim for theological geneaology but a task of comparison. Stratis identified two points of contact.

Stratis identified that thinkers now are not driven by transcendental or apologetic moves, but rather more scriptural concerns the significance of trinitarian thought for the political and ecclesial spheres. Despite these differences Stratis argued for a formal similarity in the priority of experience and the place of history and narrative within the two forms of social trinitarianism. Both exhibit an antipathy to speculation in this regards. In contrast to these approaches Stratis suggested that the early church understood trinitarian thought as elevation rather than speculation. The trinity is a reality to be contemplated and a form to which to ascend. In Stratis’ view trinitarian theology is a move beyond what is naturally available and exceeds economic explanation.

The second formal similarity Stratis more briefly identified was the way these thinkers lean on the possibility of human analogy. In the older thought it was personality and in the new thought it is love and relationality. Stratis felt the weight of engaging individually with thinkers on these issues but also suggested that these formal similarities illustrate how trinitarian thought expresses the philosophy of its context. Therefore, assessing the presuppositions and methodologies of social trinitarian thought is a useful way forward.

The discussion ranged broadly across the prior 1900 years of church history and we eagerly anticipate the further development of Stratis’ constructive work from this analysis.

Rebekah Earnshaw

(Views expressed in this post are my own and not those of St Mary’s College.)

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