Of all the books and articles I’ve read on the Trinity, Trinitarian Dogmatics: Exploring the Grammar of the Christian Doctrine of God has helped my understanding the most. It covers a great deal of ground and fills many gaps that I’ve had when thinking critically about the triunity of the Godhead. I’m grateful to Dr. Butner for writing it. He carefully defines terms1 and meticulously unpacks topics — many of which are foundational to understanding the Trinity — that either have been assumed or altogether ignored by other writers. It is historically informed, exegetically sound, philosophically rigorous, and fully engaged with scholarly voices past and present.
In an effort to pique interest and encourage a wide readership, my remarks are not critical. I merely highlight key points by chunking out content from each chapter. Although this post is lengthy (even in the weeds at times), readers will (hopefully) find the the contents here worthy of the time spent reading.
The first three chapters cover a great deal of ground in addressing “Consubstantiality”, “Procession and Personal Properties”, and “Simplicity” (chapter titles). Being, essence, substance, and nature are among important terms that are defined and deployed in building a robust foundation for understanding the metaphysics of the Trinity. I especially appreciate Butner’s clear writing throughout the book in articulating crucial details that many other authors take for granted. His summary from the first chapter depicts this well:
To say that Father, Son, and Spirit are consubstantial is to affirm that each has what is necessary to count as fully and equally divine. They are not identicals, nor are they an absolute numerical unity, for at the level of person, hypostasis, and relation, they are distinct. Plurality must always norm consubstantiality in this way. Nevertheless, the persons are not divided into distinct, individual instantiations of the same secondary substance or of a common genus. (p 43)
In chapter two Butner claims procession is the means of eternally begetting (communicating) the divine nature and the basis for distinction between the hypostases. The Father begets the Son and the Spirit proceeds from the Father (and the Son?; see chapter four). His summation brilliantly pulls together all that Butner argues for in the pages that lead to the chapter’s closing statement. He writes:
The Father communicates the divine essence to the Son by generation but does not communicate the personal property of being generated to the Son, for that is eternally the Son’s incommunicable property. Similarly, the Father communicates the divine nature to the Spirit by spiration but does not communicate the property of being spirated, for that is eternally the Spirit’s incommunicable property. Because a hypostasis is a substance of a nature and is nothing without that nature, we can still say that the substances of the Son and Spirit are derived from the communication of the nature by the Father, even if the personal property and mode of those substances are incommunicable and unique. (p 72)
In other words, and as I understand, the persons of the Trinity do not share all the same properties but do share the same essence and nature. Since the persons of the Triune God do not possess all the same properties, it follows that each person has at least one property, unique to them, that is not shared by the other. It is that unique property that identifies them as Father, Son, or Spirit respectively. The chapter’s title is apt, “Procession and Personal Properties”.
Chapter three addresses divine simplicity, meaning (simply), that “God is not composed of parts” (p 75). Endorsing Anselm’s take on simplicity and building on the previous chapter, Butner captures the gist when he writes:
Whatever we say of the essence of God is said of the Father, Son, and Spirit together, except where there is relational opposition. In the relation of the Father and Son, the pair of terms “Father” and “Son” are set in opposition to one another in such a manner that the Father and Son are what they are in relation to one another but also in such a manner that the Father and Son must be distinct from one another. Without this distinction and opposition, there is no relation and hence no Father and Son. Simplicity requires the identity of all aspects of the Godhead, except for those relations whose formal character is an opposition of one to another. (pp 97-98, emphasis mine)
Butner notes that while “the relations are ‘subsistent relations’ … there is no essence apart from the three hypostases, and the hypostases simply are relations … the Godhead is one perfect, simple, threefold relationality. Relations require real distinctions, but simplicity denies only a particular kind of distinction: composition” (p 98). Simplicity, therefore, has epistemic limitations and applies to essence and only to all three persons in relation to one another. It does not apply to the instantiation of one of the persons (Father or Son or Spirit). With these things in mind, this familiar diagram is fitting.
The controversy over the filioque addition to the Nicene Creed takes center stage in chapter four titled “Persons and Relations”. Butner lays out a detailed analysis of the origin of the debate. Both sides are carefully and fairly portrayed. He documents why embracing one position over the other may involve theological risk, but notes that theological compromise does not necessarily follow. He wisely concludes that “the filioque dispute will likely never be resolved and that acceptance or rejection of the filioque may be confessionally binding but not dogmatically so” (p 130).
I have to admit, chapter five is the first chapter I read when getting the book. Since consuming Charles Twombly’s Perichoresis and Personhood (see my review), I’ve been intrigued by the doctrine of “Perichoresis” (chapter title), and Butner does not disappoint. I was especially heartened to see him favorably reference Twombly’s work. There is much I could say here, but as with the other chapters, I will merely highlight summary statements. My brevity does not diminish the value and import of this doctrine, however. To my mind, perichoresisfills many gaps and connects many dots on the theological landscape, not only regarding trinitarian studies, but christological and soteriological ones (among others).2
After canvassing metaphorical uses of perichoresis and correcting a common etymological mistake on the term (of which I am guilty), Butner offers four points of dogmatic significance for the doctrine.
Perichoresis, at its simplest level, is a way of affirming distinction without separation. The doctrine is meant to qualify divine unity to preserve distinction, while qualifying divine plurality to preserve unity. In the Trinity, perichoresis clarifies consubstantiality by implying a special coinherence and mutual indwelling. Consubstantiality can thus speak of one substance in three modes of existence because these three modes are within the substance and within one another. Perichoresis also clarifies the divine processions by showing that spiration and generation occur within the Father, such that the Son and Spirit mutually indwell one another … The mutual indwelling and interpenetration of the divine persons also sets up one metaphysical precondition for the inseparability of the actions of the Father, Son, and Spirit in creation … Finally, the doctrine of perichoresis serves to clarify the idea of divine personhood. Though there is one mind, will, and love proper to the single divine nature, the coinherence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit allows us to speak of three persons who perfectly share the singular mind, will, and love. (p 145, bold marks mine)
Remaining pages outline the practical significance of perichoresis to the doctrines of salvation and union with Christ (with four limitations), ecclesiology, and eschatology.
At the outset of chapter 6 Butner notes that previous chapters dealt with the Trinity ad intra (or “immanent Trinity”, viz., the inner life of God), whereas the remaining 3 chapters deal with the economic Trinity (God’s activity in the world). He begins this chapter, titled “Missions”, by curating the biblical content for God’s activity in sending the Son and Spirit into the world.
He states that the Son’s mission should be interpreted as a theophany (manifestation of God) or God’s self-revelation, but insists the incarnation does not separate the Son from the Father (or the Spirit), since “the unity of the Godhead norms the plurality of the missions” (p 161). Moreover, separation based on mission might (and sadly still does) lead to a form of functional subordination among the persons of the immanent Trinity, which Butner clearly (and rightly) rejects (see further below).
Facing head on “the most controversial axiom in modern trinitarian theology,” namely, Rahner’s Rule, Butner offers a substantive critique (164-168). He admonishes that “the economy truly reveals the triune God, but not exhaustively.” In fact, conflating the economic Trinity with the immanent Trinity results in theological error. While “it is certainly the case that the imminent Trinity grounds the revelation of God in the missions of the Son and Spirit, but arguing the inverse, that the Son’s and Spirit’s missions ground the life of the imminent Trinity…, eliminates divine aseity and immutability, undermining the gratuitousness of salvation” (167, emphasis mine).
Most importantly, Butner warns that confusing the economic Trinity with the immanent Trinity runs the risk of ontological subordination (or eternal hierarchy) within the economic Trinity based on the processions of the Son and Spirit from the Father. Observe carefully:
Since the missions do not exhaustively disclose the Trinity, we should not read everything from the missions into the processions. For example, the Son submits to the Father in the divine economy (John 6:38), yet the processions themselves do not admit of any form of subordination. Aquinas helpfully notes that sending may occur by a command, “as a master sends a servant”; by counsel, “as an advisor may be said to send the king to battle”; or by origin, “as a tree sends forth its flowers.” Sending by command and council implies the one sent is subordinate in authority or wisdom, respectively. But sending by origin “is according to equality.” Only this form of sending applies to the Trinity. (p 171, emphasis mine)
Chapter seven is titled “Inseparable Operations” and sets out to argue that God’s ad extra works are undivided, not singularly parsed out based on who is doing what.3 Butner is unequivocal here: “there is a single power and act with a threefold distinction within it, not a collaboration between three persons with their own similar yet numerically distinct powers” (p 181). The goal of the doctrine is to uphold unity of the divine essence and power while respecting distinction of persons.
Where certain activities may be more exemplified in one person than another (e.g., incarnation), all persons share in (or “appropriate”) the same power such that what one person wills all persons will. Put differently, there are no autonomous, unilateral activities of one person (p 186). The doctrine of inseparable operations does not mean “the collective action of three distinct agents but rather a single threefold action” (p 180). In other words, the works of God are performed inseparably by all three persons, though the “terminus” of an action may manifest in a single person (p 184).
Butner claims this chapter is the most important and much is at stake. The chapter not only offers a solid biblical defense, but emphatically insists and ably documents that inseparable operations is tied to essential features of the doctrine of God. These words deserve careful attention:
The doctrine of inseparable operations is connected to perichoresis, consubstantiality, simplicity, and the eternal processions. If we deny the processions, the biblical emphasis on personal distinction likely requires weakening the doctrine of inseparable operations. The persons are then distinguished by role, act, or function. If we overemphasize perichoresis, a single inseparable operation of the Trinity becomes an act jointly caused by three coordinated actors. If we reject the simplicity of the divine nature, or if we understand consubstantiality in terms of secondary substance, as a Father, Son, and Spirit are members of a genius, then we again wind up with a weak notion of inseparable operations where three distinct agents work jointly to produce an act. The historical and, more importantly, the biblically warranted notion of inseparable operations states that Father, Son, and Spirit share one power and through this power perform all acts inseparably, performing the acts as single, indivisible actions (p 189).
The remainder of this chapter unpacks the metaphysics of the doctrine of inseparable operations. A key aspect of this involves the notion of “appropriation.” Butner explains:
Appropriations is rooted in the idea that any essential attributes or acts belong to the persons in a manner fitting their unique mode of subsistence and their personal properties. If a particular act or attribute more closely resembles the unique hypostatic mode of a divine person, then we can appropriate that act or attribute to that person. For example, the Father is the source of the Son and Spirit, so the shared divine act of creating most clearly reveals the hypostatic mode of the Father, as does the shared attribute of power. Both the act of creating and the attribute of power can be appropriated to the Father for this reason (p 194).
With the framework of “appropriation” in place, application to the incarnate Son or Holy Spirit becomes explicable and Butner lays this out nicely. I was delighted to see him reference Adonis Vidu’s excellent work, The Same God Who Works All Things: Inseparable Operations in Trinitarian Theology.
The final chapter weaves together all the doctrines defined and discussed under the title “Communion” and illustrates how these doctrines bear squarely on our communion with God as Trinity. This is about Christian spirituality and our experience of God as Father, Son, and Spirit. In other words, this chapter is about worship.
After offering insights on how the word “communion” (koinõnia) is used, he proceeds to “analyze three possible models for understanding the trinitarian structure of Christian experience and worship” (p 200). Those models are the co-ordinate model, the linear model, and the incorporative model. Showing strengths and weaknesses of each, Butner seemingly prefers the latter noting that the incorporative model
focuses on how the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence draws the church and individual Christians into participation, by grace, in that communion that is constitutive of the divine life. The disciples are required to wait in Jerusalem until the coming of the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4), but after Pentecost and the Spirit’s indwelling, they can truly proclaim the good news: the Edenic fellowship with God that had been lost after the fall was now restored through the atoning work of the Son and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. This incorporative model of communion is particularly evident in our Eucharistic anticipation of that day when the Lord himself will drink of the cup again in the coming kingdom (Matt. 26:29), a kingdom where God will be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). (p 218).
Not only do these final pages show the relevance of doctrines previously discussed to trinitarian dogmatics, but they provide concrete application for why understanding the doctrine of the Trinity enhances and deepens our worship of God. The practical nature of this chapter is invaluable and makes evident that wrestling with deep doctrine only draws us closer to Father, Son, and Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Just three words come to mind when thinking about or discussing Butner’s work: Buy. The. Book.
1 There’s a helpful glossary on terms and expressions (marked in bold in the text) along with a brief annotated bibliography at the end of each chapter.
2 While perichoresis can suffer over-use, there is substantial warrant for overlap with other doctrines beyond the Trinity. Twombly is measured in his application of it to christological and soteriological categories. While endorsing a wider application, Butner suggests caution by highlighting specific limitations of applying perichoresis to other doctrines. He is clear, however, that trinitarian perichoresis (mutual indwelling of Father, Son, and Spirit) grounds any application of it and, therefore, is of greater importance than perichoretic arrangements between God and believers, church, et al.
3 Butner prefers “inseparable” over “undivided” (see p 183). Works that are ad extra pertain to activities of God in the world such as creation, redemption, incarnation, et al. Therefore, the doctrine of inseparable operations does not apply to the the immanent Trinity per se.