Christ and the Cosmos

A Reformation of Trinitarian Doctrine

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Keith Ward
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , August
     2015.
     286 pages.
     $31.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781107531819.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The eminent theologian Keith Ward has taught at six universities, serving for thirteen years as Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford. This book results from decades of research and teaching, follows over forty other volumes he has authored, and represents the current overview of his theological thought.

He has long professed that theology perpetually reformulates itself so as to deliver a timeless message to people in the concepts and language of the day. This is a particular challenge for Trinitarian theology, because that was initially cast in the conceptual framework of Greek substance metaphysics with technical terms that now convey different significances. An example of this is person, which originally meant an actor (or mask) and later someone with independent status under the law. In the modern world its prime connotation is a separate center of consciousness.

As a consequence, the paramount theme of this book is Ward’s attempt to show the fatal flaw in a currently popular formulation of the Trinity as a society of persons. He strikes a devastating blow by establishing that with genuine monotheism, God has only one mind; the three centers of consciousness militate against that key tenet. Further, Ward contends that recent proponents of a social Trinity have qualified their postures by employment of perichoresis (interpenetration) among the persons such that their doctrine has virtually converged with Ward’s own perspective of a unitive Trinity with three manners of appearing to us.

Ward’s two other, if subsidiary, themes are first to propose that the Incarnation reveals God’s love for finite persons. Remarkably, he proscribes love among the persons of the Trinity because they are not separable, unequal, or essentially differentiated. His third theme reminds us that we should not expect that the anthropomorphic images earthlings use to speak of God (e.g., Father, Son, Spirit, etc.) would be appropriate for creatures of other galaxies that contemporary cosmology suggests may exist.

Ward alerts us that his history of Trinitarian doctrine (except for required reference to the Patristic and Medieval periods) begins with the 20th century. This standpoint drives his methodology, which is to address the positions taken by many scholars during this period and assess their strengths and weaknesses on the way to making his own case.

Throughout, Ward maintains the stance that the immanent Trinity (God) is incomprehensible for the human intellect. Consequently, he rebuts Rahner’s Rule that the economic Trinity (as God self-reveals) manifests the immanent Trinity such that we may think and speak about the essential nature of God employing the categories we discern in his appearances. Nevertheless, although we should not speculate incautiously, we might extend our imaginative vision to God’s essence based on the three-foldness of God’s revelation to us as creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. Ward is keen to maintain that his exposition is not modalism, that is, God’s appearing via different modes to different people on diverse occasions. Rather it grounds itself on God’s essential three-foldness as origin, expression, and inclusion (252). Ward draws support from the clear, indicative phrases of the Athanasian Creed, now recited only on Trinity Sunday.

This clearly-written book is organized into forty bite-sized chapters covering a variety of subjects and could well serve as a text for an introductory course on contemporary doctrines of the Trinity. Nonetheless, the metaphysics treated in its first five chapters should stimulate the interest of professional philosophical theologians because here Ward argues against portraying God as simple, immutable, and non-temporal.

Ward postulates that God is, indeed, necessary, but God freely creates a contingent universe and is thus “necessarily contingent in some respects” (27) and therefore not simple but internally complex. Further, if God chooses to create a universe from among options, he moves from potency to actuality and this constitutes a change within God. Such change links to Ward’s later contention that God suffers empathetically and is not impassable but “is a passionate being who enters into time and thus includes time in the divine being” (153). Any change, for him, necessarily “entails a form of temporality” (23). This last move is dramatic, especially because Ward does not discuss his definition of the eternal, the locus classicus for divine habitation.

Ward next progresses from the ontological to the axiological by emphasizing love as a value in this way: (1) God’s free creativity is a supreme good; (2) God’s relation to his creatures is gracious and compassionate; (3) therefore, creation engenders an “otherwise unobtainable value or form of love” (16-17).

Theologians may want to inquire into Ward’s conjectures by posing the following questions: Is God’s knowledge not intuitive rather than rationally discursive (such as ours), so that God does not have to choose among options but already comprehends all possibilities immediately? Is God bound to our notion of spatio-temporal causality or is divine causality unique? Does God lose the platform in eternity by acting within the space-time that was freely created? More generally, is it proper to attempt to fit the incomprehensible Deity within a metaphysical system of human devising? Considering only these several matters, parts of this book will provoke serious discussions among scholars.

In constructing his reformulation of Trinitarian doctrine, one wishes Ward had examined Spirit Christology as this is a doctrine gaining adherents in our present age. He might have done this by scrutinizing its internal coherence, cogency, and its prime suitability for employment by Christian missionaries in dialogue with potential Christians in those Asian and African cultures where a more robust sense of spirit obtains than in those with European roots.

Unquestionably, Ward effectively undercuts the grounds for adopting the theory of a social Trinity in that he finds no hint of it in the New Testament, even if elements of his own position deviate from orthodox views. However, as he buoyantly responds to such unorthodoxy in a podcast interview, we’re all heretical in the sense that we cannot state perfectly what the divine nature definitively comprehends, especially when conjoined with human nature in Jesus Christ. Therewith, he affirmatively embraces the fallibility of his own Trinitarian perspective.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles G. Conway is an Indepedent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
September 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Keith Ward is Professorial Research Fellow at Heythrop College, University of London and Fellow of the British Academy. He was formerly Regius Professor of Divinity and a Canon of Christ Church at the University of Oxford. His numerous publications include The Evidence for God: The Case for the Existence of the Spiritual Dimension, Morality, Autonomy, and God and the five-volume Comparative Theology.

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