Archive for May, 2014


In this next section, Barth’s focus is primarily on how to speak of God as both one and three.

Unity in Trinity

God’s unity is emphasised throughout Scripture. So, for example, the baptismal formula at the end of Matthew does not say in the names of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but the name. God is in his essence, substance, nature, etc, one. Nor is his unity collective but numerical. If he was three then we would worship three gods. However, “God’s triunity does not imply any threat to but is rather the basis of the Christian concept of the unity of God” (348).

Trinity in unity

Monotheism is much broader than Judaism and Islam so many religious and philosophical worldviews can be classified as in some sense being monotheistic. Trinitarianism is Christian monotheism. Although God is numerically one, this does not denote singularity or isolation. Rather one is a metaphor, even apophatic, so “the number 1 implies the negation of all plurality of or in God. All further deductions from the use of the concept of number are to be rejected as irrelevant” (354).

Barth goes on to enter into a lengthy discussion of one of the most disputed aspects of his doctrine of the Trinity, the rejection of the word person to differentiate between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He has mainly been criticised for depersonalising God and I think in English for the translation that suggests modalism, the heresy that God is not truly three but only appears to be so. In sum, his main contentions are that it was never clarified satisfactorily. Secondly, with the rise of the modern concept of a personality, i.e. a human subject, those who use person to refer to the Trinity cannot avoid its connotations. Three persons would entails three substances, and thus endorse tritheism. Barth instead opts for the German Seinsweisen, translated into English as “mode (or way) of being.” On the whole Barth does not appear to be a fan of Roman Catholic theology, haha. He is dismissive of the Church’s continued use of person, “as though the modern concept of personality did not exist, as though the definition of Boethius still continued to be relevant and intelligible, and above all as though the meaning of the definition had been so elucidated in the Middle Ages that it is possible with its help to speak profitably of the trinitarian three” (358).

The modes of being are distinct and non-exchangeable. In what I found a very difficult paragraph, Barth appears to make the argument that God does not just subsist in individual modes but if he subsists in one mode then he subsists essentially, that is, in his triunity as one and three. In his interaction with creation, God’s individual modes appear to be distinguished yet opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa [the external works of the Trinity are unidivided]; where one mode is at work, all three are, because God is one. All that is ultimately distinctive of the modes of being is their “relations of origin” within the Godhead, which nonetheless informs the distinctive works of these modes in relation to creation. Otherwise we would be worshipping three gods. The Father’s relation to the Son is that of begetting, while the Son’s relation to the Father is that of being begotten, and the Spirit is related to both in spiration, or proceeding from them. The modes are not entities but more properly relations. After all this, the Trinity remains a mystery and must be restated as such so “When we have said what that is: Father, Son and Spirit, we must then go on to say that we have said nothing” (367). And “Theology means rational wrestling with the mystery. But all rational wrestling with this mystery, the more serious it is, can lead only to its fresh and authentic interpretation and manifestation as a mystery” (368).


Whether we say God is unity in Trinity or Trinity in unity, either puts an emphasis on his oneness or threeness. Triunity is to be preferred over Trinity as it better represents God as both three and one. Barth favourably discusses the concept of perichoresis, that is, each mode of being eternally participates in the other two modes of being. To say perichoresis is to say that the modes can only be known in their distinction from each other yet they cannot be known individually but only in unity. Barth now enters into a fuller discussion of the concept of appropriation, that although all of God’s attributes and external works properly belong to all modes, in revelation we may speak of particular attributes and works as appropriate to particular modes, so regeneration is properly the work of the Spirit. But this is only because God has revealed himself according to our “creaturely comprehensibility,” our epistemological limitations. In this sense, even Father, Son, and Holy Spirit do not ultimately belong exclusively to any of the modes of being. Throughout, Barth has attempted to walk the fine line of God actually revealing himself in revelation and revelation not so totally encompassing God that humanity can control him epistemologically.

The meaning of the doctrine of the Trinity

Barth compares contemporary dismissal of the doctrine of the Trinity with its place in the Church of an earlier age. It is easy to judge them as heretical or misguided without understanding their interest in the doctrine:

For all the gloating with which it was done, it was a good thing that the work of Pietism and the Enlightenment in Church History established so incontrovertibly the fact that even in such periods of supreme decision as that in which the dogma of the Trinity arose the history of the Church was anything but a history of heroes and saints. Yet in this case we should be just and perceptive and allow that not only the Church of Byzantium but also that of Wittenberg and Geneva, and finally the purest Church of any of the quiet in the land, have always and everywhere been, when examined at close range, centres of frailties and scandals of every kind, and that on the basis of the Reformation doctrine of justification at all events it is neither fitting nor worth while to play off the worldliness of the Church against the seriousness of the insights it has perhaps gained in spite of and in this worldliness.


The doctrine of the Trinity arose firstly out of theological meditation on the person of Jesus and as a response to the problem which Scripture leaves unanswered. The doctrine of the Trinity is an attempt to answer the question, “Who is it that reveals Himself?” It is a centrally important dogma, though its measure is always Scripture.

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I’ve spent some time yesterday and today getting into Barth’s majestic Church Dogmatics (edited and translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975). It’s quite intimidating at first but I didn’t find it anywhere near as difficult as I thought it might be, probably because I spent all the time in the secondary literature first. I’ve just finished §8, which I’ll do a little summary of in the first part of my dissertation so here’s an opportunity for me to practice and you, if, whoever you are, are interested, to be interested in what I’m reading.

§8 is divided into three parts, “The place of the doctrine of the Trinity in dogmatics,” “The root of the doctrine of the Trinity,” and “Vestigium Trinitatis”.

The place of the doctrine of the Trinity in dogmatics

Barth begins this section with the threefold nature of God’s revelation to humanity: “God reveals Himself. He reveals Himself through Himself. He reveals Himself” (296). The structure of God’s self-unveiling to humanity is Trinitarian so the Father acts, the Son is the act and the Holy Spirit is the apprehension of this act in the human subject. So throughout, God is subject, predicate, object; Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost; Revealer, Revealed, Revealedness.

Barth’s structure of revelation allows him to find something like the Trinity in the Old Testament, which, despite emphasising God’s oneness also went beyond this in God interacting with his creation so “The angel of Yahweh in the Old Testament is obviously both identical and not identical with Yahweh Himself” (299).

Whereas the old Protestant dogmatics started with the doctrine of Scripture, Catholic dogmatics with the authority of the Church, and modern liberal Protestant dogmatics (at least those contemporary with Barth) with the truth of “religion,” Barth argues for the need to start dogmatics with the doctrine of the Trinity as a well-developed doctrine of God is first necessary to understand all else (300). Interestingly, Barth’s later interpreters have either critiqued or developed Barth on this same point in reverse, revising his doctrine of the Trinity in light of his later volumes.

Indeed, so Barth famously says, “The doctrine of the Trinity is what basically distinguishes the Christian doctrine of God as Christian” (301). I love this. He follows it up with a collection of quotes from theologians throughout the centuries who have said similar things. I am increasingly swayed by Barth’s argument that the Trinity is distinctive of Christianity. We do not come to theology with a general concept of God and then find the Trinity to fit somehow there. Conversely, I am wary of the triumphalism that can come from this and in relation to other ideologies such as colonialism, imperialism, racism, etc. In agreeing that the Trinity is distinctly Christian and that I love it to be so, I do not thereby want to cut myself off from the insights and challenges of those on the fringes and outside of the Christian tradition.

The root of the doctrine of the Trinity

In this subsection Barth goes on to discuss his theology of revelation as the root not of the Trinity itself, as if the Trinity only existed in our apprehension of God, but the doctrine of the Trinity. I am here a little perplexed at his earlier ambition to start a dogmatics with the doctrine of the Trinity before something like the doctrine of Scripture. Obviously such clear distinctions are neither possible nor desirable.

God is by nature unknowable, yet his freedom entails that he is free to overcome this unknowability and make himself known to humanity. Thus in revelation God “distinguish[es] Himself from Himself, i.e., to be God in Himself and in concealment, and yet at the same time to be God a second time in a very different way, namely, in manifestation, i.e., in the form of something He Himself is not” (316). So even anthropomorphic descriptions of God in the Old Testament “are not just descriptions and representations of the reality of Yahweh; they are themselves the reality of Yahweh” (316).

Humanity cannot know God apart from revelation. Even in revelation, such as the ministry of Jesus, people cannot know this God unless he meets them in this revelation, so the confession of Peter is exemplary of this: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven” (Matt 16:17). “The neutral observer who understood the events recorded in it as revelation would cease thereby to be a neutral observer” (325). Followed by a beautiful smackdown reminiscent of Kierkegaard: “the philosophy of religion of the Enlightenment from Lessing by way of Kant and Herder to Fichte and Hegel, with its intolerable distinction between the eternal content and the historical ‘vehicle,’ can only be described as the nadir of the modern misunderstanding of the Bible” (329).

Vestigium Trinitatis

The edition I’m using translates the Latin as “trace of the Trinity,” that is the traces of the Trinity in things outside of biblical revelation such as nature (a spring, stream, and lake) or humanity (body, soul, spirit), going back to Augustine. When you investigate something, you look for the traces. Barth is ultimately dismissive of this, but notes that theologians throughout history were sincere in their presentations of vestigia, trying to communicate complex theological concepts in everyday language. Although theological language is itself a vestigium, the only true vestigium is God’s revelation. Theology is to interpret this, but it must not illustrate it (so e.g. spring, stream, lake) as it thus produces another source for knowledge of the Trinity, competing with revelation it attempts to interpret. Additionally, the illustrations themselves have many flaws (often leaning to either modalism or tritheism).

Pointing out the appeal to the Holy Spirit above Scripture of the radical reformers (an appeal that I open to in some sense still being valid), Barth writes “one might almost say [the Holy Spirit] became the specifically non-Church or anti-Church God” (337). Haha, I just thought that was poetic and interesting.

Finally, despite our limitations we cannot not speak of God: “theological language [is that], which even though it can only be the language of the world, must still believe at root, cost what it will, that contrary to the natural capabilities of this language it can and should speak of God’s revelation in this language as theological language” (341).

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