June 28, 2016

Trinity and Authority (Part Four of Five)

The Relational Analogy

It should be evident we do not approach the Trinity according to eternal relations of authority. However, it should also be evident we believe the ERA theologians have wielded some persuasive arguments for their position. In the final installment of our series on Trinity and Authority, we propose a way forward that may help diverse conservative evangelical theologians unite in their desire to affirm both orthodox Trinitarianism and gender complementarianism. However, we first examine the context and issue a warning about the limits of the relational analogy.

The Context of the Relational Analogy

Among the difficulties we have in utilizing the relations of authority approach is the strong connection sometimes made between anthropology and Trinity. Following Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we do believe there is an analogia relationis between the Creator God as Trinity and created humanity as male and female. And following Bonhoeffer, we believe this analogy of relations is derived from the creation account conveyed in Genesis 1-2.

Bonhoeffer's interpretation is attractive for many reasons, but perhaps mostly because it is grounded in divine grace and intended for divine glory. The analogy begins with God and ends with God, with humanity as the recipient of the grace and the conduit for God's glory. The woman is given to the man as a grace so she might help him "live before God—and we can live before God only in community with our helper" (Creation and Fall, 99).

But before one employs Bonhoeffer's currently popular analogy of relation hastily, his circumscription of grace must also be recalled. The grace of sexuality and marriage is not for an end in humanity, but in God. Moreover, the relation is never located in humanity, but is a relatio from God to God. The relation is "not a human potential or possibility or a structure of human existence" (ibid., 65). Rather, the relation is a gifting that is "justitia passiva!" (Bonhoeffer's exclamation point). Those conversant with Lutheran theology will recognize that statement is highly grace-oriented.

For Bonhoeffer, the analogia relationis "must not be understood as though humankind somehow had this likeness in its possession or at its disposal." The analogy operative in the human being "derives its likeness only from the prototype, so that it always points us to the prototype itself and is 'like' it only in pointing to it in this way" (Bonhoeffer's italics; ibid.). With Bonhoeffer, we agree the analogy of relation is never located in humanity, but ever moves from God through humanity to God.

The Limits of the Relational Analogy

If Bonhoeffer is correct, then attempting to illustrate the divine Trinity from even the most harmonious and loving human marriage disrupts the paradigm of grace. This does not mean one may never move conceptually from the imago dei back toward Deum, but in doing so, the theologian must cringe at himself and his tradition and constantly remember to resist hurried conclusions.

This is why transcendence-oriented theologians refer so often to the concepts of analogy, apophaticism, and eschatological reserve, as well as the doctrines of grace, revelation, and progressive sanctification. We do not have space here to unpack these concepts and doctrines, but to note they demand humility in the theological task. (See Keith Whitfield's forthcoming Trinitarian Theology for more).

This is not intended to discourage those following the ERA theologians, but to highlight those same theologians when they warn against injudicious correlations between creation and Creator. As Grudem states, "It is best to conclude that no analogy adequately teaches about the Trinity, and all are misleading in significant ways" (Bible Doctrine, 111). Grudem is on solid ground both in using analogies and in warning against analogies.

An analogy consists of both a conjunction and a disjunction between the object and its comparison. The key is determining where the conjunction ends and the disjunction begins. This is not easy to do, but it is necessary.

The Relations in 1 Corinthians 11:3

For instance, in 1 Corinthians 11:3, analogies are drawn between three headships: Christ and man, man and wife, and God and Christ. The difficulty is in determining how the three headships correlate. Do they correlate? Absolutely! But disagreements may occur among well-meaning exegetes over their exact conjunction and disjunction. Exegetical disagreements may be manifested in at least three places.

First, the ordering of the headships are significant, but in what way? If a primarily hierarchical or "chain-of-being" approach was intended, why did Paul (and the Holy Spirit) not place the third pair first, the first second, and the second third? Against those who would stress a tight conjunction, it must be stated that the headships are analogous rather than univocal. But against those who would stress a loose disjunction, it must be stated that the headships are analogous rather than equivocal.

Second, with regard to the question of gender relations, which analogy is to receive primary attention when comparing man and wife: Christ and man? Or God and Christ? And what does the comparison intend? In the longer comparison drawn in Ephesians 5, the emphasis is not on Christ and the man, or on God and Christ, but on Christ and the church, a comparison not made in 1 Corinthians 11:3. This suggests further canonical exegesis is required when correlating the Trinity and human marriage. (Moreover, 1 Cor 11:3 should be read in the context of 1 Cor 11:2-16.)

Third, the relations themselves are not identical. While there is a headship in each relation, each is characterized by its own properties. The relation between man and wife is copulative, while that between God and Christ is generative, and that between Christ and man is creative. To misconstrue the relations among the headships would create not only theological but ethical chaos.

This example suggests there are significant exegetical qualifications required before drawing anthropological conclusions from analogies. The relations of authority analogy is helpful and necessary, since it is divinely revealed. But it must be utilized within its appropriate limits.

Malcolm and Karen Yarnell
Fort Worth, Texas
June 2016

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