These Three Are One: The Practice of Trinitarian Theology

By Papanikolaou, Aristotle | Anglican Theological Review, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

These Three Are One: The Practice of Trinitarian Theology


Papanikolaou, Aristotle, Anglican Theological Review


These Three are One: The Practice of Trinitarian Theology. By David S. Cunningham. Challenges in Contemporary Theology. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1998. xvi + 368 pp. $64.95 (cloth); $29.95 (paper).

In the recent renaissance of trinitarian theology; few theologians have reflected on the practical implications of belief in God as Trinity. Jrgen Moltmann (The Trinity and the Kingdom, New York, 1981; History and the Triune God: Contributions to Trinitarian Theology, New York, 1982) and Catherine Mowry LaCugna (God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life, San Francisco, 1991) are notable exceptions, attempting to relate the doctrine of the Trinity to matters of politics, gender, family and worship. David Cunningham, now Associate Professor of Theology at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, is the first, however, to devote an entire book to the relation between Trinity and "practice."

Cunningham's attempt to link Trinity to practice is both similar and dissimilar to that of Moltmann and LaCugna. He continues their reflection on the ethical ramifications of the doctrine of the Trinity, but extends it to include social issues absent in their work such as homosexuality and capital punishment. For Cunningham, however, "The Practice of Trinitarian Theology" does not simply flow one way from theory to practice. Taking his cue from Wittgenstein that "practice gives the words their sense." Cunningham argues that it is the absence of specifically trinitarian practices, together with the failure to understand the trinitarian dimension of Christian practices, that has ultimately rendered this uniquely Christian understanding of God meaningless to contemporary Christian communities and culture.

The book is divided into three parts-"Source: Trinitarian Beliefs," "Wellspring: Trinitarian Virtues," and "Living Water: Trinitarian Practices"each corresponding to "The Three" (Cunningham's formulation; more on this later) and each addressing what Cunningham terms the three "levels or aspects of theological discourse": the speculative, the grammatical (i.e., the trinitarian description of creation) and the ethical. Permeating the entire work are thoughtful and imaginative ideas for those in a position to teach the doctrine to unsuspecting newcomers. The most suggestive of all the metaphors that Cunningham presents to make sense of a trinitarian God appears in chapter four, "Polyphony," where he uses music to demonstrate that the simultaneity of oneness and difference is not as counterintuitive to experience as one might initially think. Those familiar with The Brothers Karamazov will also enjoy in this chapter Cunningham's trinitarian reading.

Only a theology in conversation with the rhetorical tradition, according to Cunningham, can solve the present crisis in meaning of the doctrine of the Trinity. The author has already explored the relation between theology and rhetoric in a previous book, Faithful Persuasion: In Aid of a Rhetoric of Christian Theology, which Cunningham himself describes as "a detailed methodological justification for the theological appropriation of rhetoric" (p. 11). The present work actually engages in "rhetorical theology;" as it seeks to "persuade" its readers of the relevance of believing in a trinitarian God. Cunningham does not ignore the speculative aspect of trinitarian theology; but develops alternative formulations in order to illustrate to the theologian and non-theologian alike the intelligibility of a God who is three and one. Crucial to this endeavor is the process of "rhetorical invention," or "Parallelling," the title of the book's third chapter. "Parallelling" is related to Cunningham's unique interpretation of Vestigia Trinitatis, which is reflective of his creative approach to traditional trinitarian categories. He argues that rather than understanding the Vestigia Trinitatis as being "'embedded' in creation," God's self-revelation as Trinity allows for construction of "triune marks" which are "developed by human beings as interpretations of the world . …

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