Monday, 4 August 2008

A five-year ban on the word "trinitarian"

Following David’s post on annoying theological words, here’s my nomination for the Most Annoying Word (MAW) in contemporary theology:

Trinitarian \ˌtri-nə-'ter-ē-ən\
adj. Relating to a devout but vague fondness for the importance of the number three; the need to incorporate all theological statements within a balanced and inclusive schema; the formal bureaucratic procedure of ensuring that the Spirit does not feel marginalised or excluded. Examples: the real problem with his work is that it is not adequately trinitarian; the book’s focus on christology should be supplemented by a broader trinitarian description of the economy of salvation; Barth’s theology is not fully trinitarian, since it remains hampered by an underdeveloped pneumatology.
Now I like the Trinity as much as the next person, and I happen to think the Nicene Creed is the best thing ever written. But I think the use of the word “trinitarian” in much contemporary theology – as a generic slogan, applied willy-nilly on any occasion – has become an obstacle to real theological thinking.

It’s interesting to note that the English term “Trinitarian” was first used, in the 16th and 17th centuries, as a pejorative description of anti-trinitarians; the heretics were dubbed “Trinitarians”! Then, by the early 18th century, anti-trinitarianism had become so pervasive that orthodox writers were now described as “Trinitarians.” The word’s checkered history already reveals its proper functions and limitations: it has some usefulness as a party slogan, but it’s not so useful as an instrument of serious thought.

Although the late Colin Gunton played a tremendous role in the revival of systematic theology, I suspect his own ubiquitous deployment of the term “trinitarian” has had some unfortunate side-effects in contemporary theology. Worst of all, Gunton was also responsible for coining the unsightly and unseemly adverb “trinitarianly,” which has subsequently made inroads into theological discourse. (Admittedly, there were a few earlier uses of this adverb, but these were mercifully forgotten – the earliest I’ve found is by the American Presbyterian theologian W. G. T. Shedd, who used the word in 1863 to disparage Roman Catholic dogma: the Catholic Church, he growled, is “trinitarianly orthodox” even though it “remorselessly mutilates” and “annihilates” the doctrine of atonement.) As a result of Colin Gunton’s work, the word “trinitarianly” has now (like the word “trinitarian” before it) passed over into a positive slogan rather than a pejorative one.

Throughout his works, Gunton speaks – and these are just a few adverbial examples – of “a God conceived trinitarianly,” of “creation trinitarianly conceived,” of “revelation trinitarianly conceived,” of “trinitarianly conceived agency,” of “glory conceived trinitarianly,” of “immutability trinitarianly construed,” and (it gets worse) of the tendency to define God’s essence “pre- and extra-trinitarianly.” Unfortunately, more than a few theologians have now started using the word in the same way, in spite of its ungainliness, its un-Englishness, and its tendency towards triviality.

Now I don’t mean any disrespect to the memory of Colin Gunton; and I certainly wouldn’t want to be accused of thinking “untrinitarianly.” But here’s my proposal: let’s have a five-year ban on the word “trinitarian.” Perhaps if we avoided using the word so easily and so cheaply, we could concentrate more on thinking the Trinity, and on finding fresh, arresting, non-sloganeering language to describe the reality of God.

Oh, and here’s my second proposal: the next time you hear the word “trinitarianly,” you should reach for your revolver. Or if you’re lucky enough to be someone who edits theology manuscripts, you could just reach for your red pen instead.

34 Comments:

andrewE said...

Funnily enough, I went to a school called Trinity, the members of which who displayed school spirit were affectionately known as "Trinitarians". I believe that even now I am a member of the "Old Trinitarians Union"! Sounds like a left-wing reaction to your proposal.

Anonymous said...

That's it, Ben; let your frustration at that nasty word boil over. ;p

Perhaps we could also have a ban on the word 'apocalyptic'. ;p x 2

Terry said...

Sorry - the above post was mine.

Ben Myers said...

Hey Terry: yeah, I wondered how long it would take for someone to mention my own fondness for "apocalyptic" slogans! Next time I mention it, feel free to reach for your revolver...

Ben Myers said...

Oh, and make sure you fire the revolver if you ever hear me describe someone else's theology with a word like "unapocalyptically"!

Anonymous said...

The adjective "radical" also tends to be thrown around too easily.

Anonymous said...

Good grief what did the word do to you to deserve such a rant.

Evan said...

Ah, I must be on the right track if Ben expresses similar sentiments a few days after I do. Readers may be interested in my recent post, "Mere Trinitarians?"

David W. Congdon said...

Sorry, Ben, the ban for me will have to start after my upcoming article is published, "The Trinitarian Shape of Faith." :)

Kyle said...

I'm with you in spirit, but I'm hoping to write my dissertation within the period of the moratorium. As the likely topic of said dissertation is the Trinity in Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Richard of St. Victor, I'm probably going to require an occasional adjective meaning "of or pertaining to the Trinity." As for the adverb, I've used it a few times as a joke. If I ever do that again, I'll include a footnote to make sure the reader knows it's a joke.

But since we're compiling an index verborum prohibitorum, might I suggest "inclusive" (never mind that it's too easy a target)?

Halden said...

Let me throw myself on the grenade here...

I like Gunton, even if I don't agree with him as much as I did eight years ago. And I like the word Trinitarian. Trinitarianly might be stretching it a bit, but I'm not opposed to it.

I think the problem is more the sort of sloganeering that takes place in theology that is the problem, rather than the words that make up the slogans themselves. In other words, perhaps we don't need a moratorium on the word Trinitiarian, but rather a full-fledged theology of adjectives and their proper theological use.

Halden said...

Hmm...I seem to have introduced a needless redundancy into the first sentence of my last paragraph above. Perhaps I'm not qualified to expostulate on the proper use of theological adjectives when I can't even form a proper English sentence!

kim fabricius said...

Mark Twain said, "As to the Adjective: when in doubt, strike it out." (As, for example, in Logos asarkos. ;))

For a "theology of adjectives", I'd get Screwtape to write it.

Andrew Smith said...

I'm all for it. In fact, I'm going to remove the appropriate keys from my keyboard so I can't type it any more. Oh cap. Now 'm up sh ceek.

Anonymous said...

The worlds first nuclear bomb was exploded at TRINITY New Mexico.

It is possible to argue that such an event was the inevitable culmination of the drive to total power and control at the root of the entire western cultural project.

And a "potent" symbol for the almost total dis-integration (smithereening) of Western culture by 1945.

And a signifier of the total world-wide cultural devastation that was to occur over the next 60 years.

Anonymous said...

Further research tells me that the actual code name for the first atomic test was Trinity as well.

A rather heavy piece of cultural baggage and association.

A description by Brigadier General Thomas Farrell of his response to the event.

"The effects could well be called unprecedented, magnificent, beautiful, stupendous, terrifying....The whole country was lighted by a searing light with an intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray, and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse, and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined. It was the beauty that great poets dream about but describe most poorly and inadequately."

Reads and sounds like a beatific vision doesnt it.

Ben Myers said...

Evan: thanks for that brilliant post — great stuff!

Andrew: thanks for your hilarious comment!

David: Oh yeah, I forgot about your article. Since I liked your article, and since it even contains actual exegesis (not just edifying patterns of threeness), we'll make a special exemption in your case. But don't let me catch you using that adverb...

Halden: you're absolutely right, of course, that the problem lies not with the word itself but with the practice of substituting slogans for thought. But words aren't innocent either: once a word has been completely co-opted for sloganeering purposes, it can be wiser to abandon its use altogether. For example, I'd never bother trying to find a positive way to use "emergent" or "incarnational" or (as Kyle says) "inclusive/tolerant". As for "trinitarian", I think it's certainly useful as a descriptive/historical adjective (e.g. the trinitarian formula, the trinitarian dogma of Nicaea, etc) — but any normative/theological use will have to work hard to distance itself from all the sloganeering.

Anon: "Good grief what did the word do to you to deserve such a rant?" Alas, if you knew how much time I've spent reading contemporary theology, you'd know the answer... But anyway, even though the post was just a tongue-in-cheek rant, I was still trying to make a serious point. And I think rants of this kind are justifiable, since the whole history of theology is, after all, a series of disputes over the use and meaning of words.

Terry said...

Personally, Ben, I think Gunton can be excused as it was his bandwagon (sort of) on which everyone else has jumped!

By the way, Andrew: if you removed all the relevant letters, how did you type 'cap' and 'Now'? I'm confused.

John Hartley said...

When I was a student they sent me to a church as part of my introduction to what ministry is really like, and the vicar told me to go and see how the communion table was set out. So I went and watched the lady doing it, who gave me a running commentary.

"We always fold the communion cloths in three," she said. "That's because of the Trinity."

"Really?" I replied. "I never knew that. Please tell me: Which bit of the cloth is for the Father, which bit is for the Son, and which bit is for the Holy Spirit?"

She looked at me as if I were completely daft.

Which I suppose I was.

Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY.

David W. Congdon said...

Terry, I'm not so sure. Gunton was just jumping on Barth's bandwagon, so I might want to counterargue that he's still the major source of the problem and thus cannot be excused.

Terry said...

Well, I did say 'sort of'...

Halden said...

I don't think Gunton is really the problem. First of all, Gunton diagnoses precisely this problem very aptly (cf. the introduction to the second edition of The Promise of Trinitarian Theology. He is also very precise in the distinctions he draws as well as the connections he makes; he is no simplistic social trinitarian, even if the claims he does advance still merit critique.

The simple affixing of epitaphs is no better a mode of theological argumentation than sloganeering, indeed they seem to be two sides of the same coin.

I think the problem with the whole "trinitarian bandwagon" really comes largely from Moltmann who is far more well known and, honestly, far worse of a theologian than Gunton. Moltmann plays far to loose and fast to be of any real theological help most of the time, not withstanding some of his early quality work (Theology of Hope and The Crucified God were clearly his best works).

JKnott said...

Ben,

Take this in the same tongue-in-cheek spirit.

Perhaps what we need is not a ban on this or that theological word or set of words, but a ban on theology itself. Call it "The Overbeck Ban." Only when we realize how much we can say and do as if God does not exist, can we then realize what talk of God might actually mean. And this coming from someone who hopes soon to earn a living doing theology!

Andrew Smith said...

Terry: It's a miracle! I declare this blog post to be a holy site. Make pilgrimage at once!

Jonathan Keith said...

Ben,

Far too many of your respondents are violating the ban on this very thread. I hope you're taking note of who they are. But then it's hard to be critical of overtrinitarianism without talking trinitarianly.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Jonathan: Egad, you're right! There's far too much overtrinitarianism in this discussion. We definitely need a bit more non-overtrinitarianness.

Andrew Smith said...

I'm definitely pro-non-overtrinitarianist to the point of being anti-pro-undertrinitarianist.

In fact, ours should be a trapezoidal model.

Jonathan Keith said...

I don't mean to suggest that we should return to preovertrinitarian ways of thinking. Those days are gone for good. But I've high hopes that this discussion will usher in a new age of postovertrinitarianity.

Terry said...

Andrew: God be praised! Truly we have been blessed through your blog post.

Sorry, Ben, your noble sentiments have been declared null and void by the Almighty Trinitarian God of Christian Confession, who speaketh truly triunely through St Andrew. There is no overtrinitarianism here, just the movement of God.

So rather than talking theology, let's just get back to what the Bible says, and we'll all be okay... Amen?

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I am probably guilty of this kind of vague usage, but I plead context: I go to a church that is so feminist that it is hard to get people to use masculine pronouns for God--even mixed with feminine ones. I am surrounded by modalists who don't know they are such!

John Hartley said...

Dialectical Materialism is, of course, trinitarian. The thesis spawns the antithesis by monogenesis, and holding the two together in perfect unity is the synthesis which proceeds from ... well, depending whether you're an Eastern or a Western Communist, either the thesis or both the thesis and the antithesis.

We mathematicians have always known that there are only 10 sorts of people in the world: those who understand ternary, those who know they don't, and those who think they do but actually don't.

Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY

The Theist said...

It’s interesting to note that the English term “Trinitarian” was first used, in the 16th and 17th centuries, as a pejorative description of anti-trinitarians; the heretics were dubbed “Trinitarians”!

Citations, please! Seriously... I'm curious to know where you got this.

Gracias,
Dale

The Theist said...

It’s interesting to note that the English term “Trinitarian” was first used, in the 16th and 17th centuries, as a pejorative description of anti-trinitarians; the heretics were dubbed “Trinitarians”!

Citations, please! Seriously... I'm curious to know where you got this.

Gracias,Dale

Ben Myers said...

Due to problems with Blogger, some of the comments have been mysteriously disappearing from this thread. But anyway, I'll try to respond to Dale's (now vanished) comment, which asked for info regarding my statement that the English term “Trinitarian” was first used, in the 16th and 17th centuries, as a pejorative description of anti-trinitarians; the heretics were dubbed “Trinitarians”.

I've come across this in my own reading of primary texts. But I also checked it in the OED (you'll need to consult the full version, not the Shorter Oxford) – the OED traces this history as well, with various examples from the 16th to the 18th century.

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