Tonight i thought that i would wrap up my analysis of William Placher’s article in First things on Trinitarian Analogies (Part 1, Part 2). To sum up his view succintly, he believes that the two dominant western analogies (the psychological & the social) used to understand the Trinity are both inadequate. However, when held in tension together they keep us on the straight and narrow, helping us avoid falling into the ditches of tritheism and modalism. What follows are what i see as the weaknesses and strengths of his position.
The main strength i see in Placher’s approach is in His sincere effort to have a balanced approach to thinking through the Trinitarian nature of God. Placher’s analysis of the issues in both the dominant conceptions of the Trinity is well-noted, and to a large degree i sympathize with the concerns he raises for both conceptions.
Similarly, i appreciate the almost dialectical approach he takes in seeking to explicate the doctrine. I agree that no analogy is perfect, and holding both models in tension with each other seems to protect one from error. In dealing with the nature of God, it is often good to avoid being too “cavalier,” and i think that Placher works hard to avoid this danger in his approach.
However, what concerns me isn’t necessarily his concern for balance, or caution when speaking of God, but how Placher doesn’t really wrestle with the deeper issues regarding formulating a biblically faithful and relevant understanding of the Triune God.
To begin, while Placher does a fine job of explaining the dominant models in the discussion today, he doesn’t see the need to define crucial terms. For example, in Placher’s article there is no exploration of how we should understand the term “person.” Obviously, any meaningful speech about God will either explicitly use this term or will have an a priori understanding of what a “person” is standing behind their doctrine of God. There are some clear ramifications for one’s understanding of God depending on which understanding of person we use today.
Going deeper, as Ted Peters has argued in God as Trinity (1993), this key issue over the ever changing meaning of personhood only follows from the larger scholarly war between classical substantialist metaphysics and more recent relational and process understandings of reality (pgs 35-36). This is a key issue, if not the main issue, in how we understand Trinitarian doctrine today. I wish that Placher had addressed it. The fact that He views the social analogy as leading to tritheism if unchecked seems to reveal his hand that relationality isn’t a major component of his understanding of personhood.
As with most Reformed thinkers (as i understand Placher to be), this reluctance to allow the self-revelation of God as Father-Son-Spirit to be constitutive of the Ontological Trinity seems to stem more from holding to a more substantialist metaphysical understanding of God than a more holistic and relational understanding of God. It seems to me that the reason for Placher’s reticence to equate the divine action and being lies in his fear of equating the action with the “more real” being behind such appearances. This can be read between the lines of Placher’s article throughout, where there is a strong separation between who God is in Himself (in which the verbage of the mystery of God is almost always employed), and who he shows Himself to be in the economy of salvation.
Thus, while Placher wants to avoid speaking to freely of God, He ends up in inconsistencies. He wants to affirm that Jesus shows us who God is like, that there is no “unknown God behind the back of Jesus,” while simultaneously stating that the function of the dominant analogies isn’t to help us understand God (know who He really is), but to rather “preserve the mystery of a God we cannot understand (pg 30).” I cannot see how Placher reconciles these two statements.
As i close, let me point out that i do realize that Placher is writing a short article, and probably doesn’t delve more deeply into these issues due to space constraints imposed on him. In addition, while i do not mean to denigrate First Things, it does have to be pointed out that it isn’t necessarily a forum for such extended developments like i’m asking Placher for here. I’m sure that he hasn’t revealed his full hand yet. So clearly i can’t pull this one article out and say that i have debunked his ideas, nor will I. Nonetheless, i think a mention of the myriad of issues would have been helpful, and until i see him address these concerns in some format, i cannot in good conscience accept his mutual corrective proposal.