I begin with two observations. First, on any millennial view, the Christian account of history is progressive, moving from the garden to the city. It is eschatological not only in that there is an end, but that the end is a glorified beginning, not merely a return to origins. To say the same in other words, the Christian account of history is comic.
This stands in contrast to many mythologies of history, ancient and modern, many of which are basically tragic. For Hesiod and Ovid, history degenerates through five ages, from gold to silver to bronze to heroes to iron, and similar schemes appear in Sumerian, Babylonian, Zoroastrian and Indian mythologies. Others believed in an equally regressive myth of eternal recurrence. (Roman, and to a lesser extent, Athenian political mythology stand out from these.) For modern science, all things degenerate according to the (Hesiodian) Second Law of Thermodynamics. Modern theories of progress are Western and Christian in origin.
Second, the Christian God is a Triune God. This stands in contrast to all forms of monotheism and polytheism, ancient and modern.
My question: Is there a connection between these two remarkable features of the Christian faith? Is Christianity eschatological because it is Trinitarian? Is history moving toward a comic climax as a revelation of the nature of the Triune God? Is there an “eschatological moment” in the life of the Trinity? Is the life of the Trinity comic? The answer to both questions, I will argue, is Yes.
UNITARIANISM AND THE ORIGINAL SUPPLEMENT
Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction, is responsible for the phrase “supplement at the origin.” He uses this concept as a way of discussing speech and writing, as well as other philosophical questions. This is pretty opaque, and so we’ll leave it to the side and just borrow the term. In my usage, the “supplement at the origin” means that there is no simple, uncomplicated fountain for everything that exists. If Allah were God, there would be a simple, uncomplicated origin. Since God is Triune, there is supplement at the origin, there is an “outgoing” within the very being of God.
A Unitarian theology proper necessarily leads to a tragic view of history. Anything that goes out from a Unitarian god is necessarily less than god, a diminishment of, god. If a Unitarian god can create at all (which is theologically doubtful), that creation could not be a glorification of god. Unitarianism is inherently Gnostic, and Gnosticism is hyper-tragic, since it treats the creation itself as a fall, a tragic departure from an origin, an exile.
THE SECOND IS THE GLORY OF THE FIRST
For Trinitarian theology, by contrast, there is a “supplement” to the Father that does not diminish but glorifies Him. There is supplement at the origin, for the Father was never without His Son and Spirit. But the “supplement,” the Son, perfectly expresses the Father, and is the express image of the Father. The Son, the Second, does not replace or deface or supplant the origin, but is the extension (perichoretically) of the origin. The Father, indeed, is only Father because He has the Son. Christ, the “necessary supplement,” is the glory, not the deletion or the effacement of the Father. Nor is the Father’s begetting of the Son an exile; the Son is begotten from the Father, and “goes out” from Him, but it is not tragic because it is immediately “followed” by a return.
It goes contrary to Trinitarian logic to suggest that the Second, the supplement of the Origin, is inferior to the First. The Son is equal to the Father, the glory of the Father, without whom the Father would not be wholly Himself, wholly glorious Father. And indeed the Third is not inferior to the First and Second, but is the procession of their combined glory, which, returning, glorifies them.
We may even speak, analogically and cautiously, of self-giving (death) and return (resurrection) in the life of God. The Father loves and submits to the Son, and the Son to the Father, and Son to the Spirit, and so on and on. But this self-giving of one Person to the others is always met with a return gift: The Father’s gift of Himself to the Son is met with the Son’s gift of Himself to the Father. Their self-sacrifice is met with renewed fellowship. And death and resurrection, of course, is the comic theme.
There is thus a “comic” structure to the Triune life, a “story” of “emanation and remanation,” of exile and return, and this “comic” or “eschatological” pattern is manifested in history, as the Triune Creator unveils Himself in the creation. We can see this throughout Scripture, in a variety of registers.
-The overall structure of biblical history is the movement from the First to the Last Adam, which is clearly an improvement (Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15).
-Looking at the biblical story in a more corporate/cosmic framework, the same principle holds: The tabernacle is a glorified garden, the temple a glorified tabernacle, and the city-garden at the end is a glorification of the “mere” garden of the beginning.
-This same point is symbolized by Jesus’ first “sign” in John’s gospel (2:1-11). The guests are perfect ancient people, who think that things must get worse as time passes. Reversing common practice, Jesus gives better wine at the end of the feast than He gave at the beginning. The later is better.
-Eve was created second to Adam, and Paul cites this order to argue that women “should not teach or exercise authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:12-15). But the biblical notion of the man’s headship must be linked with Paul’s teaching that the “woman is the glory of the man” (1 Corinthians 11:7), just as the man is the “image and glory of God.”
All this, Basil the Great recognized, is a manifestation of the reality of the Trinity. As he pointed out in his treatise On the Holy Spirit (section 47), the superiority of the Last Adam has implications for Trinitarian theology. Responding to opponents who think that a “Second Person” of the Trinity is necessarily inferior to a “First Person,” Basil writes, “If the second is [always] subordinate to the first, and since what is subordinate is always inferior to that to which it is subordinated, according to you, then, the spiritual is inferior to the physical, and the man from heaven is inferior to the man of dust!”
COMEDY AND ESCHATOLOGY
The essentially comic structure of the life of God, and the essentially comic structure of history, is reflected in Western literature and culture. No non-Trinitarian civilization has been or can be a comic civilization. Greece majored in tragedy. However many comedies Aristophanes produced, the profundity belonged to the tragedians. They told of the way things really were. For the Greeks, any supplement at the origin was necessarily an impurity, a dilution, and therefore any second age was always a tarnished first age.
Christianity is comic because it is Trinitarian. Not only is history a comedy of death and resurrection, but this history reflects the eternal and basic comedy of the Father and Son in the Spirit, the eternal dynamic of mutual glorification within the Triune life.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis. This essay summarizes the thesis of his book, Deep Comedy.