Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Course syllabus: Doctrine of the Trinity

Starting next week, I'll be teaching an undergraduate course on the doctrine of the Trinity. I've pasted below the outline/syllabus for the course. If anyone in the Sydney area would like to sit in on the class, auditors are always welcome!


Welcome! In this subject, you are invited to explore the central teaching of the Christian faith: the doctrine of the Trinity. This doctrine is the belief – shared by all the main historic Christian traditions – that within God there is a living threefold movement from the Father to the Son in the Holy Spirit. This movement of divine life supplies the grammar for the way Christians speak about the world’s creation, redemption, and final restoration.

It was the experience of salvation in Christ that led early Christian thinkers towards a doctrine of the Trinity. From the earliest days, Christians were convinced that in Christ they had experienced God’s saving self-revelation. And if Christ reveals God – if, looking at Jesus, you find yourself looking at God – then Christ must somehow be said to share in God’s divinity. Otherwise, you wouldn’t really have met God in Christ, and God would remain hidden and unknown. The doctrine of the Trinity was formulated as a way of safeguarding these basic convictions about salvation and revelation.

In its briefest form, the doctrine of the Trinity can be summarised with the statement that God is “one being, three persons.” In the more elaborate language of the Nicene Creed, the doctrine of the Trinity affirms that “Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, [is] eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made.”

How exactly does this language about the Trinity relate to the ordinary Christian experience of salvation? How does it relate to the spiritual life? How does it relate to the way Christians read the Bible? Is language really an adequate means of expressing truth about God? How can we be sure that we really know anything about God at all?

These are some of the key questions that we’ll be exploring throughout the semester. You'll get to sample some of the richest spiritual and theological writing in the Christian tradition. And you'll see that those two aspects – the theological and the spiritual; knowing and loving; dogma and mysticism – are very closely connected in our tradition.

In the weekly tutorials we will be reading and studying three major Christian thinkers: two Greek-speaking theologians from fourth-century Cappadocia, Basil the Great (330-379 CE) and Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389 CE); as well as the modern Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). Basil and Gregory were key figures in the formation of Christian orthodoxy. Gregory presided over the Council of Constantinople (381 CE), which produced the version of the Nicene Creed that is still used in churches today. In the twentieth century, Karl Barth provoked a "trinitarian revival," leading to widespread interest in the doctrine of the Trinity. Under Barth's influence, the doctrine of the Trinity remains one of the major themes of contemporary theology.

By the time we have worked through our lectures and tutorials, you will have an understanding of the major issues in contemporary trinitarian theology, and you will have the tools to make your own informed contribution to the contemporary discussion. Your final essay will give you the opportunity to put those tools to work.

But the real fruit of studying the doctrine of the Trinity isn't just the ability to write a good essay. The fruit is seen in the way Christians love, pray, preach, sing, contemplate, read scripture, form community, make moral decisions, create art – and so on. The doctrine of the Trinity is the grammar of the Christian life.

Weekly schedule

Each week's lecture focuses on one or two main historical figures, and works towards clarifying some aspect of contemporary theology. So for example, the week 10 lecture will focus on Julian of Norwich, but will eventually arrive at the contemporary discussion surrounding Moltmann.
  1. Naming God in the Hebrew Bible 
  2. The Identity of God: The Pauline Letters 
    • tutorial: Basil, On the Holy Spirit, pp. 52-75
  3. Dwelling in God: The Gospel of John 
    • tutorial: Basil, On the Holy Spirit, pp. 76-95
  4. Trinitarian Monotheism (Tertullian and Irenaeus) 
    • tutorial: Basil, On the Holy Spirit, pp. 96-122
  5. Trinitarian Spirituality (Origen) 
    • tutorial: Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 27
  6. Trinitarian Exegesis (Athanasius and Arius) 
    • tutorial: Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 28
  7. Trinitarian Piety and Liturgy (the Cappadocians) 
    • tutorial: Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 29
  8. The Image of the Trinity (Augustine) 
    • tutorial: Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 31
  9. The Transcendent Trinity: Christianity and Islam (8th-century Arabic theology) 
  10. The Cross and the Trinity (Julian of Norwich) 
    • tutorial: Barth, CD IV/1, pp. 169-86
  11. Synthesis I: Heresy and Orthodoxy; Language and Limits; Doctrine and Exegesis 
    • tutorial: Barth, CD IV/1, pp. 186-98 
  12. Synthesis II: Persons and Community; Knowing and Loving; Dogma and Mysticism 
    • tutorial: Barth, CD IV/1, pp. 198-204
  1. Short Cappadocian research paper (on Basil, Macrina, or Gregory of Nazianzus)
  2. Theological essay


Terry Wright said...

I'm interested to see you're including a session on Arabic theology. You may already know this: Najib Awad from Hartford Seminary is just about to publish a monograph on Theodore Abu Qurrah and his trinitarian-Christological dialogues with his Muslim peers. It's called Orthodoxy in Arabic Terms and will be published by De Gruyter in the next month or so. I've had a read of it, and found it very interesting.

Anne said...

Looks very interesting - when are the lectures Ben?

paul said...

Thank you, Ben. How do you explain to your students the "persons" (hypostases) in the Trinity when the modern sense of "person" is so different? -- I'd be interested to know your approach.

Ben Myers said...

Terry, thanks, I'll order that book right away - that'll be a great help. Anne, the classes are Thursday mornings, 9.40-12.30. Paul, that's definitely a problem with vocabulary. But I don't think it's an extreme problem for students. By the time they've read Basil, it's pretty clear that all the words we use for God are being used in a special way.

John Hartley said...

Ben, I don't actively disagree, but I'm puzzled by the word "movement" in your opening definition of the doctrine of the Trinity. If God is eternal, that is to say outside the framework of space-time which is a feature of the universe we inhabit but he doesn't, then what does "movement" mean in a place without time?

In your second paragraph, I'd have appreciated something more along the lines of the brief outline of the doctrine of the Trinity as set out in the appendix to Maurice Burrell's and J Stafford Wright's book about cults and -isms (I think it might be called "Some Modern Faiths"?) where they discuss how the teachings of the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Christian Scientists, Unitarians and so on differ from the historic Christian understanding of the Trinity. Essentially, they say that the doctrine of the Trinity is an attempt to hold those verses of the scriptures which say that Jesus is the Father together with those that say that the Father is greater than Jesus (and correspondingly with the other two relationships). I'm also very taken with the illustration in Sheldon Vanauken's book (again I forget the title), about the doctrine of the Trinity being a way of saying that God is both the author of the story and also the main character in it, as well as being influential on all the other characters.

I think the problem with the word "experience" in your phrase "experience of salvation in Christ" in that paragraph is that we naturally read it as a feelings word. Actually it is a logic word - it's about how to hold together the fact that Christ is God with the fact that God is still "up there" running the universe and the Christ "down here" is only a part of Him.

I'd be interested to hear your reactions, and also how the course goes. Every blessing - JOHN HARTLEY.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks John. I think I'd have to agree with all those criticisms. Let's hope the classes will be better than the introductory blurb!

Plessey Mathews said...

Any chance of recording just your part of the class and sharing? Please and thank you.

Thad said...

Hi Ben,
Will there be any notes, for those, who can't attend the classes?



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