Few things are as potentially as dodgy as deep Trinitarian theology in a postmodern age. Now Trinitarian theology really is deep, and no one should contest that. Only the Spirit can search out the deep things of God (1 Cor. 2:10). But in a postmodern age, the cat sat on the mat is also deep, but for different reasons. We don’t want to affirm the consequent, right? God is deep, but so is the bottomless pit. Not the same thing at all.
You may take my word for it — much Trinitarian theology theseadays is simply laying down cover fire for those who have another agenda entirely, one that has nothing whatever to do with historic Trinitarian theology. Kierkegaard once said that Christians use commentaries the same way a little boy stuffs his britches with padding to ameliorate the effects of a spanking. Trinitarian theology can serve the same noble function — confronted with the fact that the whole world is laid up guilty before God (Rom. 3:19) . . . I mean, Perichoresis magazine is at least eighty pages thick. Whhummff!
Let us take the phrase the Trinity is the gospel — which is wonderful on the face of it — and see if there could possibly be any problems with it. One of the best books I ever read was John Piper’s book God is the Gospel. When I finished it, I just started right over again at the beginning. So there is a way to say this kind of thing that is perfectly orthodox, and which is a blessing to every hungry heart. What is the gospel? God is the gospel. But there is also a way of saying it that is highly problematic.
I would like to reapply a phrase that Samuel Johnson once used when he said a particular activity was like “rowing without a port.” This is human relativism in a nutshell; this is postmodernism, squeaking oars and all. In many sectors of the theological world, Bartley’s “retreat to commitment” is almost complete, and when people talk about the social Trinity, they are actually talking about their society, not His.
A litmus test for whether this is happening or not is found in the laws of thought. If predication is possible about the Trinity as the Trinity is, was, and ever shall be, and if the truth of such predication is what Schaeffer used to call “true truth,” and if the timeless nature of this expressed truth is rooted and grounded in the nature and character of the triune God Himself, then we are good. The laws of thought are descriptive attributes of God. The law of identity means the Father is the Father. The law of non-contradiction means the Father is not not the Father. The law of the excluded middle means that the Father is the Father or He is not, and no alternatives. Because all of this is true truth, living truth, it comes to pass that down here in the world that God created we are blessed to be able to say that the orange is the orange, the orange is not not the orange, and the orange is or the orange is not, and no third options.
Without these glorious limitations (on human vanity and pride), Trinitarian theology collapses in on itself and becomes nothing more than the customs of discourse in this particular faith community or that one. At the end of this sordid tale of logic denial, what we will get is a handful of Trinitarian academics rowing away on an endless sea of nothingness.
What was the triune God before there was a world? What was He before there were any creatures? Theologians rightly distinguish between the ontological Trinity and the economical Trinity, and by this they are not maintaining that there are two Trinities. Rather they are pointing to an understanding that is essential for all of us to preserve in our hearts and minds, at least if we don’t want to drown in that vat of postmodern etiolated treacle, which is sitting over there so invitingly.
If we may speak in shorthand, the ontological Trinity refers to what God is, and the economical Trinity refers to what He does. But a difficulty arises almost immediately when discussing this issue of God as He was before the cosmos was created, because there are intra-Trinitarian aspects of the economical Trinity that are independent of the creation. In short, God was not doing “nothing” before He made the world. Therefore, when it comes to intra-Trinitarian actions, the economical Trinity in this sense has to be understood together with the ontological Trinity.
But things that God does in the world (which presupposes that the world is actually there) are not necessary to His being. This would include His Incarnation and the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost. If there never had been a Bethlehem, Jesus wouldn’t have been born there, and if there never had been a Jersualem, the Spirit would not have been poured out there. In this sense, such descriptions of the economical Trinity presuppose a created world over which God is the everlasting God, and in which God does things.
The ontological Trinity refers to God as He is, God as He exists, God as He subsists, without reference to anything that He does “for us men for our salvation.” What God was like when the world had not yet been created refers to I AM THAT I AM.
Now we know what this God is like because He has been fully revealed to us in Christ. But we must not make the mistake of thinking that what is necessary to have God revealed to us in our sinful condition was necessary for God. The gospel is necessary if sinners are to know the Trinity. But the gospel was not necessary for God to know Himself. Our limitations are not His.
In His eternity, God is what He is, and that eternality is what relates to a particular state of creational affairs, once those creational affairs have been spoken into being. But it was never necessary for them to be so spoken. It was necessary because God decreed it, but not because there was any lack in His being that made Him incomplete without a creation. Put another way, the cosmos was optional. It came into being as a result of the good counsel of His will.
Now since the cosmos was optional, not essential, this means that no essential attribute of God can be linked necessarily to an optional world.
So what does this do to the characteristics of mercy and justice? Lest we be thought to be outrunning our own theolgical headlights, Paul discusses these divine traits — traits thrown into high relief in a world full of sinners and sin — in Romans 9.
“Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory” (Rom. 9:21–23).
Why did God create this world, when He knew perfectly well how screwed up it was going to get? The answer Paul gives here is that the historical manifestation of two of God’s characteristics was not possible without a screwed up world. Without a world of sin, we would never have seen God’s mercy toward sinners. In a world without sin, we would never have seen God’s terrifying wrath toward sinners. Since this is obviously intolerable, God created a world in which those characteristics could be showcased.
This means that what we see and experience as mercy is manifested because some characteristic of God, that is part of His eternal character, interacts with a world like ours in such a way that mercy occurs. This does not make mercy an essential attribute of God because the same thing is true, equally true, of damnation. The God of the Bible is a God who damns. But it would be perverse to postulate a damning God independent of a world in which damnation would be necessary. The end of that line of thought leaves us with God needing to create because He needs to damn somebody.
So God is eternally holy, just, loving, and infinitely wise. When His holiness, justice, love, and wisdom interact with a world like ours, He elects some to eternal salvation and He rejects others, and all for His glory.
All of this is staggering and glorious. But it cannot be dragged down here and made to fit within our own faith traditions and faith commitments. The point of such traditions and commitments is always to make ourselves cozy, and these are truths that are not cozy at all.