Triune Personhood

In the current climate of Trinitarian discussion concerning personhood, it’s good to reach back to David Bentley Hart’s treatment of the subject in his wonderful Beauty of the Infinite.

Hart addresses the dangers of misreading Rahner’s rule, namely, the danger of dissolving the ontological Trinity into the economic. In this section, he discusses the opposite danger of forsaking “the economic for the immanent Trinity, by allowing some far too thoroughly developed speculative account of the Trinity to determine what in the story of Christ’s relation to the Father and the Spirit is or is not genuinely revelation, genuinely trinitarian” (p. 168). Rahner’s rule means that “nothing can be assumed to be merely economic,” and this implies that there can be no final closure in our doctrine of God that would encompass and simplify the story of Jesus.

To develop this point, Hart appeals to the icon of the baptism of Jesus. This icon not only manifests the economic relations of the Triune persons, but also summarizes the whole drama of salvation and the immanent relations of the Trinity. Jesus’ descent and ascent into the waters is a sign of his future death and resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit is a foretaste of Pentecost. But in summarizing the economy of redemption, this iconographic depiction also shows that within the eternal life of God, “in declaring himself, even in uttering himself eternally, God both addresses and responds” (p. 168). Christ both speaks with the authority of the Father and also responds to him. In short, “If the economic Trinity is God in himself, graciously extending the everlasting ‘dance’ of his love to embrace creation in its motion, then one dare not exclude from one’s understanding of the Trinity the idea, however mysterious, of a reciprocal Thou” (p. 169).

Rahner himself does not, on Hart’s view (and on mine, FWIW), accept this, reducing the persons to “a set of merely formal relations within the divine essence” (p. 169). Hart distances this from “a purely social trinitarianism” as well as the notion that the Son’s response is somehow “alongside the Father’s expression of his essence in the simplicity of the eternal Logos”; yet, “one must still acknowledge this distance of address and response, this openness of shared regard” (p. 169).

From this point, Hart launches into a critique of the idea, popular since the late 19th-century work of Theodore de Regnon, that Eastern and Western Trinitarian theology are opposed in their relative emphasis on the one and the many, that we “must choose between ‘Greek’ personalism and ‘Latin’ essentialism” (p. 170). Modern movements in Western theology, especially Barth’s refusal of “person,” seem to make the choice more stark than ever. Hart suggests that instead of rejecting “person” because of its associations of autonomy and independence, the exhaustive relationality of the Trinity should rather “be made the starting point for a theological assault on the modern notion of the person” (p. 170). No more than God do human beings possess “identity apart from relation,” but rather “even our ‘purest’ interiority” is “reflexive, knowing and loving itself as expression and recognition, engaged with the world of others through memorial and desire, inward discourse and outward intention” (pp. 170-171).

Because “person” applied to God “is governed entirely by the language of relations” (p. 171), and divine “egoism” entirely “consist in his relatedness, his self-giving” (p. 171). The personhood of the Triune Persons works in a language of “self-oblation, according to which each ‘I’ in God is also ‘not I’ but rather Thou,” in which each Person makes place for the others (pp. 171-172).

More daringly, Hart suggests that “in God, divine ‘substantiality’ is the ‘effect’ of this distance of address and response, this event of love that is personal by being prior to every self, this gift of self-offering that has already been made before any self can stand apart, individual, isolate; God is the different modalities of replete love . . . whose relatedness is his substance” (p. 172). All the alternatives to “person,” in short, fail to communicate “the immediacy, the livingness, and concreteness of the scriptural portrayal of God” (p.171), and thus person, for all its problems is “an indispensable word” (p. 171).

Of course, there is an analogical gap between the personhood of Father, Son and Spirit and human personhood. Human beings cannot manifest the complete and perfect perichoresis that binds together the divine persons. Our relationality is “multiple,” synthetic and bounded, and can only be described from multiple perspectives – now social, now psychological, now ontological. Hart nicely captures the difference between divine and human “circumincession” by referring to the “dynamic inseparability but incommensurability in us of essence and existence” as well as “the constant pendulation between inner and outer that constitutes our identities,” the latter being “an ineffably distant analogy of that boundless bright diaphaneity of coinherence in which the exteriority of relations and interiority of identity in God are one” (p. 173).

That distinction of “pendulation” and “identity” is crucial. Our relations are always relations “over-against,” given our finitude and the composite character of human life; but for God relations between Persons are simultaneously inward and exterior to each other: “In God, the ‘inwardness’ of the other is the inwardness of each person, the ‘outwardness’ of the other is each person’s outwardness and manifestation” (p. 173). Thus, God is simple: “the divine simplicity is the result of the self-giving transparency and openness of infinite persons.” At the same time, the “distinction of the persons within the one God is the result of the infinite simplicity of the divine essence” (p. 173). Each person is “a ‘face,’ a ‘capture,’ of the divine essence” (p. 174). Each Person is both “community and unity at once,” with each “fully gathered and reflected in the mode of the other” (p. 174). The Father’s being is paternal, but it is also already filial and Spiritual; mutatis mutandis for the others.

One of Hart’s key insights here is that when we forget analogy, we either lapse (anthropologically) into collectivism or solipsism, and (theologically) into tritheism or Unitarianism. He also wishes to stress that God is capable of relations with the world outside Himself because within His triune life He is eternally “othered” and “othering” (p. 175).

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis. This essay was first published on his blog.