Rethinking the Trinity, Religious Pluralism, and Augustine 3—Mark Heim (By Keith Johnson)

Rethinking the Trinity, Religious Pluralism, and Augustine 3—Mark Heim (By Keith Johnson)

Post Series 
0—Preface
 
1—Introduction
 
2—Augustine’s Trinitarianism
 
3—Mark Heim’s Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends

4—Amos Yong’s Pneumatological Theology of Religions
5—Jaquees Dupuis’s Christian Theology of Religious Ends
6—Raimundo Panikkar’s Theandric Spirituality
7—Conclusions and Reflections

Last week we started looking at what I think to be one of the most significant books to come out this year. The book is Keith Johnson’s Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism: An Augustinian Assessment, and it’s both an examination of four dominant attempts to use the doctrine of the Trunity to accommodate religious pluralism and a critical assessment of those accommodating theological positions using Augustine as a theological dialogue partner.

Today we look at the first theologian who is accommodating the doctrine of the Trinity to religious pluralism (or as I like to say modern polytheism), Mark Heim. This is quite the chapter, one Johnson ably outlines and ably critically analyzes with the help of Augustine.

Johnson begins the chapter by orienting the reader to two terms: Immanent and Economic Trinities. The Immanent Trinity is what we call God in Himself; it is the life of the Father-Son-Spirit among themselves. The Economic Trinity is what we call God in the world; it is God’s relationship in the world through his self-revelation in creation, providence, and redemption. These are two important concepts to nail at the beginning as we begin to understand and interact with Mark Heim’s reinterpretation of the Trinity.

The basic argument of Heim is this: “the debate over the theology of religions proceeds on ‘the largely undefended assumption that there is and can be only one religious end, on actual religious fulfillment.’ A more fruitful approach to religious diversity involves recognizing the possibility of multiple ‘religious ends.’ Christian salvation constitutes only one possible end. Other ends exist, and while they are distinct from ‘salvation,’ they are quite real.” (67) In other words while Christian salvation is true, it is only to the extent that it is one of many possible religious outcomes. As Johnson points outs, this assertion of multiple religious ends is rooted in Heim’s understanding of the Trinity, which rest on three key terms: dimensions, relations, and ends.

First, Heim assumes the triune God is characterized by three dimensions: impersonal, personal, and communion. He likens the Trinity to a transmitter, which can send and receive signals on several frequencies. “By tuning into one of these frequencies, humans encounter differing aspects of God, which in turn, lead to differing ends.” Johnson continues to explain that “Christians have mistakenly assumed that the triune God merely broadcasts and receives signals on one frequency. This is not true. God’s complex nature allows him to send and receive one a variety of wavelengths.” (69) This seems to smack of a type of modalism, in which differing aspects of God are tuned into by differing people groups in order to pursue different religious ends. Heim appeals to the complexity of God in making this claims.

Secondly, Heim argues just as humans can have different relations with other people, so too can there be different relations between humans and God. The first involves interaction with the impersonal dimensions of God’s life; the second is an encounter of God as a distance “character,” either as a “law, an order or structure” (like the Buddhist dharma) or a personal being (as with Christianity); and a their relation is “personal communion,” which is “derived from the mutual communion of the three divine persons” in the idea of the trinity itself.

Finally, Heim argues “when a relation with God is pursued through one of the three dimensions, the result is a distinctive religious end.” (72) This leads Heim to argue “divine plentitude,” which “is a qualitative description of the divine life as triune. Economically, this fulness is expressed in everything God has created. Multiple religious ends can be viewed as an expression of divine plentitude within creation.” (73) Johnson quotes Heim, saying: “A plentitude of religious ends is a reflection of the goodness and the saving will of God, applied in relation to free persons who seek something other than communion with the triune God. Every relation with God that is sought is fulfilled. Everything is offered. Nothing is denied.” (73)

At this point, before we get to Johnson’s critique through Augustine, what do you make of this? How helpful or damaging is Heim’s arguments to the Christian faith?

In responding to Heim, Johnson says “the problems in Heim’s proposal center on the relationship of the immanent Trinity to the economic Trinity.” And this problem lies in a failure to distinguish between God in Himself and God with us in the world, which plays an important role in Augustine’s trinitarian theology. And the specific role these two distinctions play is a distinction between the eternal relations of the Son and Spirit (God in Himself; Immanent Trinity) and their mission (God with us in the world; Economic Trinity).

Augustine makes this distinction in De Trinitate by summarizing and holding to the pro-Nicene teachings on the divine person in their unity and distinction apart from creation and the same in regards to salvation. For instance, “the eternal generation of the Son (relation of Son in the Trinity) is expressed in the language ‘was begotten’ while the mission of the Son is expressed in the phrase ‘being sent.’” (75) So Immanent and Economic trinities are distinct.

And important to this discussion is the reality that the Sons generation/procession from the Father is the foundation for the sending. As Johnson argues, “The Son does not become the Son by being sent into the world. To the contrary, the Son is constituted as Son by virtue of his relation to the Father.” (76) The same is true of the Holy Spirit:”the Holy Spirit does become Spirit by being sent; rather, the Holy Spirit is constituted by proceeding from the Father and the Son.” (76) Furthermore, Augustine makes the point that both the Economic and Immanent Trinities are inextricably links in such a way that the missions of the Son and Spirit represent a kind of expression in our world of their eternal relations; their missions reveal their trinitarian relations, which assumes a high degree of continuity between God in himself and God for us in our world. (77)

What this means is that “Just as the Father and Son are inseparable (immanent Trinity), so the Father and Son act inseparably (economic Trinity) in creation, providence, and redemption.” (78) And this is where Heim runs into trouble.

Johnson rightly notes that Heim “outlines a conception of the economic Trinity that includes ‘economies’ of divine activity that bypass the temporal mission of the Son and the Spirit as revealed in Scripture. Heim’s plurality of end necessitates a plurality of economies.” (80) This is only one of Johnson’s arguments, a good, important one that will give you a good example of the manner in which Johnson responds.

While Johnson affirms Heims acceptance that “The inherent relationality of the salvation reflects the relationality of the divine life of the triune God,” (81) Heim’s insistence of a plentitude of religious ends runs counter to this reality. A close correspondence must exist between the activity of God in the world for us and the relational life God with Himself. As we stated above: As Father-Son-Spirit are inseparable, so they act inseparably. Johnson rightly asks, however:

does the Hindu end (moksha), which involves release from the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth closely correspond and reflect the immanent life of the triune God? Heim faces a dilemma. One the one hand, he insists that the economic activity of the triune God closely corresponds to and reflects God’s true nature. On the other hand, he affirms the existence of multiple religious ends, which involves great economic diversity. How can this be reconciled? (82)

Johnsons is right. And in order to get around this problem, Heim asserts the immanent life of the triune God is “complex.” This allows Heim to argue that God’s activity among us is diverse, because it reflects the incredible diversity of the triune God itself as a communion of three divine persons. (82) But this is problematic because 1) it neglects the unity of God’s activity in the world in one essence; 2) assume the three-ness of God necessitates an active willing of alternative religious ends and modes/means of salvation; and 3) “no biblical warrant exists r positing additional economies of divine activity that bypass (or constitute an alternative) to this one economy of salvation in Christ.” (89)

This is but one argument that Johnson uses to respond to Heim’s theologically harmful and salvifically devastating proposal. What I appreciate about the way Johnson is addressing this important, pressing issue in the Church—the accommodation of the Trinity to modern polytheism—is that he does so calmly, rationally, and evenhandedly. He establishes the positions from the standpoint of both the theological innovator and Augustine, and then responds with careful, precise rebuttals. Unfortunately, I can only examine one of Johnson’s responses—which is a good thing, because then I don’t give it all away and rob you of the joy of working through the book yourself! Hopefully it gives you a taste of what Johnson is doing and helps you on your own way toward responding to this newest innovation in the Church.

The next post will address as innovative of a reformulation of the doctrine of the Trinity: Amos Yong’s Pneumatological Theology of Religions