In theology, everything is connected. One doctrine implies another and unless we’re careful, seemingly innocuous modifications in the order of arguments, or the way we proceed methodologically, can lead to surprising conclusions and unfortunate results. In the wake of Barth’s trinitarian revolution in mainstream theology, many 20th century theologians have argued that just such a process happened in classical theology when it comes to the doctrine of God.
Among others, Jurgen Moltmann and Colin Gunton gloomily point to Aquinas’ decision to order his discussion of the doctrine of God in such a way that he treats the divine attributes (simplicity, aseity, omnipotence, etc.) before he comes to the trinitarian persons. Because of this fateful decision, they say his discussion and the classical tradition following him comes up with a concept of God rooted less in the biblical revelation of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and more from generic categories of being drawn from Greek philosophy and human reason. From there, theologians are faced with the difficult task of trying to reconcile revelation and reason resulting in all sorts of theological puzzles plaguing the tradition ever since.
But is that necessarily the case? Does a decision to treat the divine nature or being prior to treating the doctrine of the Trinity necessarily result in a sub-trinitarian doctrine of God? Herman Bavinck actually faced that argument about 30 years before the Barthian revolution, answering the objection in the negative and defending the classical ordering in theology:
In the work of some theologians the locus of the Trinity precedes that of the attributes of God; and Frank even has serious objections to the reverse order. If treating the attributes of God before the doctrine of the Trinity implied a desire to gradually proceed from “natural” to “revealed” theology, from a natural to the Christian concept of God, then this procedure would undoubtedly be objectionable. But this is by no means the case. In the doctrine of the attributes of God the tradition includes the treatment of the divine nature as it is revealed us in Scripture, is confessed by the Christian faith, and exists–as will be evident in the locus of the Trinity–in a threefold manner. In order for us to understand in the locus of the Trinity that Father, Son, and Spirit share in the same divine nature, it is necessary for us to know what the divine nature comprises and in what ways it differs from every created nature.
And this is not merely a matter of logical ordering that classical theologians have come up because of their own prior methodological preferences. In this, they only follow Scripture:
In the matter of order, too, Scripture is our model. In Scripture, the nature of God is shown earlier and more clearly that his trinitarian existence. The Trinity is not clearly revealed until we get to the New Testament. The names of YHWH and Elohim precede those of Father, Son, and Spirit. The first thing Scripture teaches us concerning God is that he has a free, independent existence and life of his own that is distinct from all creatures. He has a being (“nature”, “substance”, “essence”) of his own, not in distinction from his attributes, but coming to the fore and disclosing itself in all his perfections and attributes.
—Reformed Dogmatics Volume 2: God and Creation, pp. 149-150
From there Bavinck goes on to substantiate and develop with extensive biblical argumentation the doctrine of the independence of God at the head of his discussion of the attributes.
Now, I won’t say that critics like Moltmann and Gunton haven’t had some real beefs worth looking at. I almost never want to play the Greek card, but I’ll admit there are times when I read a classical bit of theology and think there’s a bit of the gap between their doctrine of God and their doctrine of the Trinity. Nor will I necessarily fault any modern theologians who’ve chosen to reverse the order and treat the Trinity first. I’m a bit partial to the method myself.
My point here is that Bavinck has given us two solid reasons for thinking that ordering our discussions in the doctrine of God in the classical way is not simply an exercise in “natural” theology, or will necessarily result in a non-trinitarian conception of God’s being. In order to speak about the way that Father, Son, and Spirit all possess the one divine nature, it’s quite logical to want to know what the divine nature is. Beyond that, and more importantly, this order of study mirrors the order of God’s own revelation. Yes, it is true that there are hints of the Trinity in the Old Testament revelation, but the doctrine only comes into its own in the New Testament. It’s hard to fault a theologian for modeling himself explicitly on Scripture this way.
Bavinck himself stands as a counter-example to this whole charge. Read through his explorations of the divine attributes and you’ll see their clear and extensive grounding in Scripture and revelation, including God’s triunity, long before he engages in any sort of theological development or philosophical reasoning that could be accused of being “natural” theology. What’s more, his locus on the Trinity is stunning; I’d be hard-pressed to find any distortions there.
In other words, what I’m is that, it does no good to write off the classical tradition as sub-trinitarian and refuse to read anything before Barth or Rahner. Individual theologians might be, but then again that’s true of modern theologians. What’s more, if you’re looking to do some theology yourself, you may have an option open to you considered closed off before.
It wouldn’t surprise me that there’s probably more than one way to testify rightly to the glory of the Triune God.
Soli Deo Gloria