Keith E. Johnson, Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism: An Augustinian Assessment (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011), $30.00.
“Trinity” is the current buzzword of theology. That, along with its related words and phrases like “perichoresis,” “mutual-indwelling” and “social-Trinity,” function in de facto manner as the shibboleth of legitimate theological enterprise. Unless one sprinkles in some sort of Trinitarian reference every page or so, the project is not to be taken seriously. So the doctrine of the Trinity is used to bolster or justify theological proposals on a wide range of topics including gender, marriage, the church, social justice, and the environment. This “turn to the Trinity” has not gone unnoticed by Keith Johnson, national director of theological education for Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) and an Augustine scholar. Of particular interest to Johnson are those proposals in the area of theology of religions that seek to justify, by appeal to the Trinity, either pluralism (many paths lead to God) and inclusivism (one is saved by Christ’s work alone, but one does not have to hear and believe the gospel in order to be saved on the basis of that work).
In Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism, Johnson evaluates the work of pluralists and inclusivists who appeal to the Trinity to justify optimism for the hope that more will ultimately be saved beyond those who hear and believe the gospel. Because the doctrine of the Trinity is a non-negotiable of the Christian faith, and because it describes the person of God from whom his works flow, surely one would be on solid ground by building a theology of religions upon Trinitarian foundations. Not so fast, Johnson says. Naked appeal to the Trinity does not an orthodox Christian truth claim make. One must be orthodox in one’s Trinitarian theology in order to do so, and this is exactly where Johnson waves the flag of caution.
Johnson evaluates the work of S. Mark Heim (protestant pluralist who argues for different religious ends because of the complexity of the Trinity), Amos Yong (protestant inclusivist who argues for a distinct economy of the Spirit from the Son in relating to religious others), Jacques Dupuis (Roman Catholic inclusivist who argues that other religions can be direct channels of salvation on the basis of subordination in the immanent Trinity), and Raimundo Panikkar (Roman Catholic pluralist who substitutes emptiness, relationality, and immanence for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Each of these four theologians have put forward proposals for a Christian theology of religions that are justified by an appeal to the Trinity, something in the very person of God, that allows for their conclusions. After summarizing the theological proposal of each and the Trinitarian theology that grounds it, Johnson challenges their Trinitarian theology using the work of Augustine in the process. With careful, yet readable detail, Johnson demonstrates that Augustine’s teaching on the Trinity does not allow for their Trinitarian speculations. In fact, Johnson makes the case, via Augustine, that each theologian’s proposal fails precisely because their understanding of the Trinity, which in each case plays an essential part, is heterodox.
The last chapter brings the project to a close with some very helpful cautions for those who would appeal to the immanent Trinity to justify their theological proposals. Such appeals are almost always speculative, usually sever the doctrine of the Trinity from scriptural moorings, and can only be used to support the most general claims.
Quickly, what I liked:
Keith Johnson defends the biblical presentation of the gospel and the call for conscious faith in Christ to be saved. We need more people writing, speaking, and preaching on this topic, not less. Johnson is to be commended for his faithfulness.
Johnson’s summaries of those with whom he disagrees (Heim, Yong, Dupuis, and Panikkar) are fair, accurate, and remarkably easy to understand. As one who has spent a fair bit of time writing on the topic, I can testify that developing such clear summaries is no mean feat.
Johnson’s summary of Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity is likewise clear and concise, which demonstrates a familiarity with the subject material that is noteworthy. Anyone who has tried to wade through Augustine’s De Trinitate can bear witness that such mastery is difficult.
Johnson’s appeal to church history to make his claim is especially apropos because so many today are seeking to justify their pluralist and inclusivist theologies of religions by claiming the support of church history. Evaluation of competing Trinitarian proposals by comparison to Augustine effectively undercuts such proposals and makes for a gorilla of a critique from an historical theology perspective. But that leads me to . . . .
My only concern:
By critiquing speculative Trinitarian formulations through comparison with Augustine’s presentation of the doctrine, all you have really done is to prove that inclusivist and pluralist theologies of religions fail on Augustinian grounds. But that is not the same thing as proving that they fail on biblical grounds. What if someone were not impressed by Augustine’s theology or refused to grant it pride of place? (Hardly a hypothetical question given that Johnson devotes an appendix to interacting with Colin Gunton’s objections to Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity.)
To be fair, Johnson recognizes this when he writes, “Although theologians like Heim, Dupuis, Yong and Panikkar may agree that the Trinity offers the key to understanding religious diversity, no consensus currently exists among them as to whose doctrine of the Trinity holds the key. Each offers a different account of this doctrine as constitutive ground for a particular understanding of religious diversity. By appealing to the Trinitarian theology of Augustine . . . this study offers a potential answer” (195).
“Whose doctrine?” indeed. What if Augustine’s Trinitarian theology is not correct? I think it is. I dare say that I am convinced it is. But that is a different sort of statement than, “I know the Bible is correct.” For the Bible-believing Christian, a critique based on historical theology is going to be far less compelling than a critique based on biblical exegesis. That does not make it a bad or ineffective critique; just something less than a defeater, something less than devastating or ultimate. Despite that concern, I do think that Johnson’s book is a welcome and valuable contribution to the theology of religions discussion for all the reasons stated above.
Many thanks to IVP for providing us with a review copy of Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism: An Augustinian Assessment.