The Trinity: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Trinity

By Stephen T. Davis; Daniel Kendall et al. | Go to book overview

8 Substance and the Trinity

William P. Alston


I The Programme

My aim in this paper is to examine a certain criticism of classical formulations of the doctrine of the Trinity, viz., that they are defective by reason of being formulated in terms of a 'substance metaphysics'. I will argue that once we appreciate the character of that metaphysics and disentangle it from views with which it is associated by many contemporary theologians, the charge will be seen to be without substance (if you will pardon the expression). Substance metaphysics does not enable us to resolve all the difficulties inherent in the doctrine, but neither does that metaphysics hamper us in our attempts to deal with those difficulties.

Thus I will be sallying forth in defence of a very traditional way of thinking of the Trinity. But I am anxious to avoid being typecast as the worst kind of pre-modern thinker. Though I find the metaphysics utilized in ancient formulations to be innocent of various charges brought against it, I am far from supposing that there is no useful, valuable, and even essential work to be done on the Trinity by contemporary thinkers. I do not suggest that we simply repeat one or another patristic formulation and let it go at that. The Trinity, no less than other articles of the Christian faith, needs re-examination and reformulation for each age, as has happened throughout Christian history. The doctrine provides inexhaustible riches for exploration, a task to which each period brings distinctive skills and perspectives. For example, recent discussions have illustrated ways in which twentieth-century logic can be employed to render threefoldness in unity less mysterious. Again, twentieth-century theologians have made important contributions to the bearing of the Trinity on worship, prayer, and

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