Paul and the Trinity image

Paul and the Trinity

If you're interested at all in Pauline or Trinitarian theology - and let's face it, who isn't? - then you should really consider getting hold of Wesley Hill's excellent Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations and the Pauline Letters. It's a superb example of how to do exegesis informed by theology, it's remarkably well and clearly written, and the central idea is both compelling and provocative. So there.

At the heart of it is a fairly simple idea. Interpreters of Paul have often been so eager not to read later Trinitarian theology into Paul’s letters (because nobody wants to be the guy who says that Paul could have written the Nicene creed) that they have missed the ways in which Trinitarian theology, especially the concept of divine relations, can help us understand how Paul saw God. Most discussions of Paul’s God-language, whether deliberately or not, have assumed something like a vertical axis model: God is at the top, subservient created beings are at the bottom, and the question is how far up this axis Jesus is. Wesley sketches how this model, or something like it, is assumed both by those who think Paul had a “low” Christology (James Dunn, Maurice Casey, James McGrath), and by those who think he had a “high” Christology (Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham, Simon Gathercole), and he does so briefly but clearly. Not only so, but Pauline interpreters rarely talk about Trinitarianism these days; they talk about monotheism and Christology, “as something discussable, in principle, in relative isolation.” As Ulrich Mauser describes it, somewhat critically: “The historically trained New Testament scholar will today proceed with the task of interpretation without wasting a minute on the suspicion that the Trinitarian confessions of later centuries might be rooted in the New Testament itself, and that the Trinitarian creeds might continue to function as valuable hermeneutical signposts for a modern understanding.”

Wesley, in contrast, thinks that Trinitarian categories can be hugely illuminating when it comes to Paul’s thought about God. In particular, the concept of relations between the divine persons needs to be brought into the discussion, building on the work of Nils Dahl, Kavin Rowe and Francis Watson. There is a way, he argues:

... of discussing Paul’s theology and Christology that does not begin with the “vertical” question - has Jesus been elevated all the way up the axis to God’s level? - but rather with the question of relations. The conceptuality of a “low” or “high” Christology threatens to obscure the way in which, for Paul, the identities of God, Jesus and the Spirit are constituted by their relations with one another ... fruitful study of Paul’s Christology is better represented with the image of a horizontal axis, with points of connection to one another, as in a two-way street - or, better still, with the metaphor of a web of multiply [sic] intersecting vectors.

Don’t worry: this is not another rehash of the kind of twentieth century social Trinitarianism critiqued by Steve Holmes and others. Wesley does bring Rahner, Zizoulas, Gunton, Pannenberg, Moltmann and Jenson into the discussion, as you would expect, but chiefly to show that the category of relations has an important function in their theology, rather than to agree with their conclusions about it (which are, in any case, very different). His main focus is the interpretation of Paul: a reading of Paul that is historically and exegetically grounded, and yet which uses Trinitarian theology as hermeneutical resources for the task, where they are helpful. Which they often are.

After a lengthy introduction in which all these ideas are explained and defended, the bulk of the book comprises exegetical studies of a number of key Pauline texts, each of which culminate in the claim that Trinitarian theology, classically understood, helps us makes sense of them. In chapter 2, Wesley shows how a number of texts (Rom 4:24; 8:11; Gal 1:1) do much more than defining who Jesus is in relation to God; they define who God is in relation to Jesus. Romans 4:24, for example, “specifies who God is, even prior to the resurrection of Jesus, by reference to Jesus ... God was for Abraham the God who would raise Jesus.” Thus,

Paul means for God’s raising of Jesus not only to become the occasion of identifying God but also to enable a grasp of God’s identity - what makes God the unique “person” he is vis-à-vis Jesus Christ ... The person “God” - traditionally referred to as “the Father” in Trinitarian discourse - is who he is by virtue of this relation with Jesus (“the Son”, in traditional terms); by his act of giving up and raising Jesus (and the soteriological effects of that act) God defines himself as a distinct person, in such a way that the relation is internal to the self-definition.

The next two chapters tackle three crucial texts (Phil 2:6-11; 1 Cor 8:4-6; 15:24-28) of which it is frequently argued that, as well as sharing divine identity, Jesus is somehow subordinated to God, such that the unique status of God is not compromised. In response, Wesley argues (a) that this way of putting things assumes that the identity of God is something Paul conceived of independently of Jesus, which is not the case; (b) that the exalted language used of Jesus indicates that he is not just God-like, but “shown to belong within what makes YHWH unique”; (c) that differentiation and even subordination also appear in some texts; (d) that, taken together, Paul thinks in terms of an “asymmetrical mutuality” between the divine persons; and that (e) only the Trinitarian strategy of redoublement can make sense of this:

As we have seen, classic (both “Eastern” and “Western”) Trinitarian formulations regularly emphasised the need to speak of God “twice over”, describing the three “persons” or hypostases as irreducibly distinct and at the same time describing the three as one in essence or will or power ... such a “redoubled” discourse makes possibly an understanding of what might be called asymmetrical mutuality between God and Jesus, whereby God is not who God is as “father” without Jesus and Jesus is not who he is as the raised and exalted one without God.

As one who has spent five years studying 1 Corinthians in detail, I found Wesley’s account of 15:25 both very convincing and extremely helpful.

Finally he turns to the Spirit, looking at 1 Corinthians 12:3, Galatians 4:4-7 and 2 Corinthians 3:17. His theological exegesis of the latter, in dialogue with the two major ways of reading one of Paul’s most difficult texts (particularly the question of whether “the Lord” is Yahweh or the risen Jesus) is one of the highlights of the book, and he concludes the chapter with a section entitled “Against Binitarianism”:

The “binitarian” descriptor implies (or overtly asserts) that the Spirit is not essential to the story of God and Jesus’ identities. It suggests that Paul’s theology is better limned by keeping the Spirit’s identity and action in a secondary, derivative place from those of God and Jesus. But that, as we have seen, is a perspective exegesis will not support.

All in all, this is a fascinating, lucid and creative book. There are some exegetical gems, especially on Romans 4, 1 Corinthians 15 and 2 Corinthians 3, and some serious theological insights. But the greatest strength of Paul and the Trinity is simply that it unites biblical studies and theology, exegesis and systematics, in a way that sheds light on both. As I said above, if you’re interested in either biblical studies or theology, you should probably read it. And if you aren’t, then you should probably stop reading our blog posts. We must be really annoying you.

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