"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, December 9, 2011

Gilles Emery and Matthew Levering on the Trinity

Earlier I drew attention to a fantastic new book on the Trinity: Gilles Emery and Matthew Levering, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity (Oxford UP, 2011), 704pp.

I asked both editors for an interview to discuss this book and some of the issues raised by and treated in it. Here are their thoughts:

AD: Tell us about your backgrounds, and also how you came to know and work with each other.
We are both Catholic theologians, and both of us are interested in Trinitarian theology. Gilles has been working on Trinitarian theology for twenty years, from the time of his S.Th.D (on “The Creative Trinity”). Gilles’s publications are mostly focused on St. Thomas Aquinas, and on Trinitarian theology (have a look here). We got to know each other when in 1999 Matthew translated Gilles's article on divine essence and divine persons. Since that time, we've worked together on two acclaimed collections of Gilles's essays, and most recently Matthew translated Gilles's The Trinity: an Introduction to Catholic Doctrine on the Triune God (Catholic University of America Press, 2011). We also met at several conferences in the US. We both have a strong interest in the theology of Aquinas. Matthew has published books in a variety of areas including, among others, soteriology, the theology of God, the Eucharist, the priesthood, natural law, and predestination (have a look here).
AD: What about your own backgrounds led you to work on a collection about the Trinity?
This particular project got started through a suggestion made by our friend Francesca Murphy, now at the University of Notre Dame. Francesca had translated a book of Gilles's for Oxford, The Trinitarian Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas and Matthew had known Francesca since 2003. She suggested to us that we might be interested in co-editing The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity. Tom Perridge, the superb Oxford commissioning editor, had asked her for names, and she'd mentioned ours to him. We got together at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington DC on 15-17 September 2007 to sketch a plan for the volume. At that time, our friend Fr. Thomas Joseph White was instrumental in helping us think about the outline for the volume as well as possible contributors. Bruce Marshall, Reinhard Hütter, Fr. Emmanuel Perrier, and others helped as well.

AD: There seems to have been quite a recent upsurge in interest in Trinitarian theology if the large number of very recent books is anything to go by. Why do you think that is? How does yours stand out?
One source of the renewed emphasis on Trinitarian theology is the retrieval of the Fathers, which has roots in the Oxford Movement, the Tübingen School, and in the Orthodox and Catholic patristic ressourcement of the early twentieth century, including the Thomistic renewal. In retrieving the theology of the Fathers, theologians had to pay attention to the rich doctrinal debates of the patristic period and especially of the fourth and fifth centuries. Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Augustine and other Fathers naturally inspire great interest in the doctrine of the Trinity. Another impetus was clearly the reaction against classical liberal Protestant and Enlightenment theology. Friedrich Schleiermacher's rejection of the doctrine as insignificant led to a surge of interest in defending the doctrine and in showing its relevance (think of Karl Barth). Lastly, as our Handbook shows, Trinitarian theology is a perennial Christian theme and so there has always been, in every era, a large number of works on Trinitarian doctrine. The Handbook shows that, rather than a “rediscovery” of Trinitarian faith in the twentieth century, there has been a real continuity of Christian thinking on the Trinity, notably in the Middle Ages, and during modern times as well. Our Handbook's greatest strength is clearly the comprehensiveness of its historical scholarship. In this regard, it stands out significantly from other books on the Trinity. Our contributors made possible a survey of the history of the doctrine that is uniquely comprehensive. The other areas of the Handbook -- for example its biblical and dogmatic sections -- are also superb.
AD: I can affirm that this is not just promotional propaganda, either: among many reasons I adopted this text for my classes, the overriding reason was precisely the comprehensiveness, which is very significant and truly outstanding vis-à-vis other comparable texts.
So did you have a particular audience in mind for this Handbook? What did you and Oxford have in mind by treating this as a "Handbook"?
The title "Handbook" is simply Oxford's way of signaling that the volume aims to be a comprehensive resource for scholars and students who seek an introduction to the basic areas of study that one might undertake regarding the Trinity. One thinks of Cambridge's highly successful series of Companions. Whereas a Cambridge Companion might have 16 essays, the Oxford Handbooks tend to have over 40. Blackwell and Cambridge both are publishing Handbook-like volumes lately. The audience for our Handbook of the Trinity is primarily Christian students and scholars (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant). We hope that the Handbook will be useful for classes, and once the paperback is published, which shouldn't be too long, it will become much more accessible for individual purchasers.
AD: Were there any surprises either in your writing parts for, or overall editing of, this book?
Other than the Introduction and Conclusion, we didn't do any writing for the Handbook, but instead we focused on discussing precisely the content of each essay with the contributors, and on editing. It was a joy to read the essays as they came in, because they were so informative and one was always learning something. Gilles in particular proved to be a master editor: he outdid even the Oxford copy-editors! We were also blessed to find excellent, timely replacements for a few scheduled contributors who were unable to write their essays due to unforeseen events. We were extraordinarily blessed in this Handbook by the talent of our contributors.
AD: Historically, of course, questions of Trinitarian theology have been thought to divide Christians, especially the vexed issue of the filioque. But over the last fifteen years, enormous strides have been made, and many Orthodox (e.g., John Zizioulas, Kallistos Ware) no longer see it as Church-dividing (a position given detailed exposition in the 2003 statement on the filioque by the North American Orthodox-Catholic Dialogue). What are your thoughts on the filioque and the ecumenical issues that attend it?
Gilles has written carefully and extensively on the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and Son, and on the Filioque (the Catholic doctrine must not be reduced to the insertion of the word “Filioque” into the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed). We are pleased indeed to see that the issue is no longer thought of as Church-dividing, at least by many scholars, and we would certainly agree with that assessment.
AD: Anglophone Roman Catholics have just begun to experience a new translation of the Roman Missal, including a new translation of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. Do you think the translators missed an opportunity to translate the creed anew into English from the Greek original rather than the interpolated Latin version?
Assuming that you mean the addition of the Filioque, that is an interesting question. Perhaps what is needed is a footnote to the Filioque passage in the Latin version! Indeed, the larger question may well consist in the relationship of the Church today to the first seven Councils. It may be more an ecclesiological question than a Trinitarian one. As Gilles wrote, just eliminating the Filioque from the Catholic version of the creed cannot be the proper means to achieve ecumenical unity. Rather, if agreement could be reached and the mutual respect of each doctrinal tradition ensured (this should be the first step, a prerequisite), then opportunity could also present itself to drop the mention of the Filioque in the Latin version of the Constantinopolitan Creed.
AD: There seemed to be a moment in Trinitarian theology in the last three decades of the twentieth century where some theologians were trying to figure out the "social implications" of the Trinity--e.g., various liberation theology projects. Is that movement over?
Perhaps one could say that this movement has been given the opportunity to begin anew, but this time on a better footing. Rather than seeking the social relevance of Trinitarian doctrine by beginning with what society seems to need, it may be better to begin with what Trinitarian doctrine implies and then try to live in accordance with the exigencies of Trinitarian faith. In the Oxford Handbook of the Trinity Fritz Bauerschmidt has a splendid essay along these lines.
AD: Théodore de Régnon's infamous treatment of the Trinity (Études de théologie positive sur la Sainte Trinité [Paris: Victor Retaux, 1892/1898]) has often led people to assume that the "Latin" Triadology (especially Augustinian) is always focused on the unity of divine substance while the "Greeks" (especially the Cappadocians) are concerned about the plurality of Persons. Has 21st-century Trinitarian theology finally moved past these stereotypes?

Yes, we think it has, largely as a result of the work of patristic scholars such as André de Halleux, Lewis Ayres, and Michel Barnes. However, even if the Greek versus Latin polarity is no longer so strong, the basic impulse to set in opposition unity/substance and Trinity/Persons will be hard to overcome. Such opposition is obviously a wrong and misleading approach to the problem, both historically and from a systematic standpoint. Even today, authors frequently can be found who consider monotheism to be violent, on the grounds that monotheism seeks unity rather than permitting a diversity of gods and of religious paths; and some theologians are tempted to consider faith in the Trinity as a “looser” form of monotheism, a claim that cannot be accepted. Similarly, one fears that the need to articulate the particular strengths of Eastern and Western Christianity will lead theologians to continue to resort to negative stereotypes. Interestingly, these stereotypes frequently appear in the writings of Catholics who use them to criticize the Catholic Church. The superficiality of the stereotypes is thereby underscored.

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